Richard Scott: meet the director of the National Wildflower Centre

The director of the National Wildflower Centre on helping bring nature into the city, the importance of raising people’s aspirations and helping them to engage more with nature. Words Stephanie Mahon, portrait Charlie Hopkinson.

Richard Scott calls what he does creative conservation. “Some people think that’s an oxymoron,” he says. “It’s a mix of deep science and wonderful art, and it’s about what you can do with very low resources.”

Advertisement

His work under the banner of the National Wildflower Centre comprises colourful and awe-inspiring sown wildflower meadows and swathes of cornfield annuals in urban settings. Each summer, they can be seen blooming all over the country, but particularly in the towns and cities of the “Northern Flower House” around Liverpool, where the organisation was formerly based.

Richard grew up in Lincolnshire, where his parents encouraged a love of the natural world. “My mum used to take us to the country lanes and woods where she had picked violets as a child, cowslip meadows where you would never see another person.”

After graduating in Ecology and Geography in the early 1990s, he worked on publications for Natural England, before finding his dream job with Landlife, a pioneering charity founded in 1975 to help bring nature into the city. “It was one of the first urban wildlife organisations in the UK, bringing nature and people together. At that time, you couldn’t buy wild plants, so it was also one the earliest producers of wildflower plants and seeds in the country.”

His new role was exciting, but challenging. “I remember being told we’d done serious damage sowing wildflowers on the fringe of They’d say ‘People don’t want this’, or ‘They’ll trash it’. experience, that’s not true. We’ve delivered wildflowers in places, and they’ve been completely respected.”

If seeing is believing you have to make people see what's possible.

The National Wildflower Centre was created as a Landlife in the run up to the Millennium. “We were aware we needed a centre to bring people to see something,” Richard explains. “I got the idea from my National Trust travel fellowship visiting the National Wildflower Research Center in Texas. It was founded in the 1980s by [former first lady] ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson, with a view to bring wildflowers into public landscapes.” They set up shop in Merseyside at Court Hey Park, Knowsley, with a display garden and new visitor centre. It functioned for more than 15 years as an attraction, educational facility, events venue and community hub in one of the poorest boroughs of the country. “Sometimes people would walk into the centre, and ask what there was to look at. I would walk around with them, and point things out, and then they would become really fascinated, converts. It’s teaching people to look at the world in a different way, at what’s around you in your surroundings, and wildflowers are the perfect catalyst for that.”

Sadly, that incarnation of the centre, and Landlife, closed in 2017. Richard alone has carried on its legacy, and tries to be philosophical – “It was always about people, and not a building” – but it’s obvious the loss was difficult and painful. This is not just a job to Richard, but a true calling or vocation, his life’s work and consuming passion, and it’s clear that it was never an option for him to just walk away.

And so he and the National Wildflower Centre, in a new guise, continue to do wonderful work, including beautiful displays at the Eden Project in Cornwall, where it has found a new home. “We couldn’t have gone on without Eden’s huge generosity, belief and encouragement,” Richard explains. He resists any attempt to define what he does as consultancy, though admits he gives plenty of advice to local authorities. “It’s about raising people’s aspirations, sharing ideas. People are still making really bad mistakes, on road verges especially. They spread topsoil rife with weeds over large stretches, and say they’ll do the most incredible biodiversity net gain projects, and sow a wildflower mix – but five years down the line, it’s solid grass.”

His work is not just about creation, he stresses, but also nature recovery, “highlighting what we’ve got and treating it well. All we seem to be doing now is logging decline, and we need to reverse that scenario,” he says. “We don’t always have to create plantings – we just have to get the management right. The pandemic has also made people aware of the value of parks.”

In our increasingly urbanised world, it’s about what can be done where people live, to get them to engage with nature. “People aren’t connected with the landscape like before. So it’s our duty to show what’s possible – if seeing is believing, you have to make people see.”

To this end on some projects Richard organises meadow-sowing events where people of all ages and backgrounds help broadcast seed by hand in an atmosphere of celebration, with music and performance art. “I love to see people’s delight and surprise about the miracle of seed growing into a meadow, because often they don’t really believe it’s going to work. These things are important conservation and conversation openers,” he says. “It’s all about joy and enrichment – if you haven’t got joy, you’re selling people short.”

Advertisement

Useful Information

Find out more about The National Wildflower Centre at edenproject.com