It has achieved fame for being the world's greatest centre for botanical research, a place where the planet's rarest plant and tree species are preserved and studied. But now Kew Gardens, established more than 200 years ago, is set to become the focus of an international battle following an intervention by renowned biologist Jane Goodall, who has denounced a recently inflicted budget cut as "unbelievably stupid".
Goodall, who carried out pioneering work on the behaviour of chimps, has written to the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, urging him to hand out pounds 5m to restore the centre's budget in the wake of financial cuts imposed by the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs. "To read that 125 professional staff members are set to lose their jobs because of cuts in government funding is shocking," Goodall says.
In an interview with the Observer, she revealed that she had made contact with several Kew scientists while researching her book, Seeds of Hope. "There is a tremendous feeling of anger and frustration there and I share it. This an unbelievably stupid thing to do. This is the mother of all other botanical research centres. Britain should be proud of it, not dismantling it. It is like tearing up the union jack. That is why I wrote my letter. I want my protest to go viral. I want thousands and thousands of people to protest as well."
Goodall's anger is shared by other noted figures. Sir David Attenborough, a former Kew Gardens trustee, said the cuts were scandalous. "Kew is one of the world's most important botanical institutes and this country depends on it for all kinds of things - for publishing surveys of our plant life, carrying out botanical research and pinpointing imported plants and other species that customs cannot identify," he said. "To treat it like a playground that can be taxed or not, depending on how you feel, is simply an uncivilised, philistine act."
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, south-west London, became a centre for plant research as a result of work by scientists including Joseph Banks and Joseph Hooker, a friend and collaborator of Charles Darwin. The garden is now a Unesco world heritage site that attracts more than two million people a year to its historic buildings and spectacular plant collection, the world's largest. Kew research is considered vital in understanding climate change, conservation and crop improvement, while its other site - at Wakehurst Place, West Sussex - houses the Millennium Seed Bank, a conservation project that aims to preserve plants worldwide.
Many campaigners now believe these efforts are under threat, a claim denied by Richard Deverell, Kew's director. "Yes, we will probably lose the jobs of around 40 scientists in addition to other staff members because of these current cuts and, yes, further budget cuts are scheduled for next year. But I am confident that by then we will have found new ways to raise money," he said.
"This would include improving our retailing and catering income and also our consultancy work by exploiting and selling our scientific knowledge, our intellectual property and our horticultural skills. I think that has tremendous potential. We have not done all we could have in the past in raising money this way, and I am confident that once we have completed this year's staff restructuring we will be able to make up for future loss of income this way."
But this was denounced by another celebrity Kew campaigner, former newsreader and former Kew trustee Anna Ford. "Defra was always snipping away at Kew and telling us we had to sell our science. But that is simply wrong," she said. "Botanical science is not a product to be sold. It is a reciprocal relationship. Kew gets samples from other countries and in return we provide information about how to conserve and protect such plants in their homeland while we are also learning about their essential properties, including their medicinal uses.
"Money should not enter into this relationship. Kew would not have been able to assemble its collection if it had not freely provided its botanical expertise - in an exchange for samples - to other nations. So it is wrong to try to raise money this way. The real trouble is that this government clearly doesn't give a tinker's cuss about Kew."
Last month a petition demanding the restoration of Kew's budget - signed by more than 100,000 people - was handed to 10 Downing Street, while 34 MPs signed an early-day motion expressing alarm "that vital international conservation work would be threatened should further cuts take place" at Kew.
"It is certainly not too late to act," said Attenborough. "If the government could accept what a dreadful thing it is imposing on the gardens, they could undo that damage with a stroke of the pen."
A garden of exotic plants at Kew Park was originally established by Lord Capel John of Tewkesbury in the mid 18th century and was enlarged and extended by Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales.
One of the first structures was the Chinese pagoda. It was built in 1762, when Chinese artefacts were considered strange and exotic, and still towers over the park.
Sir Joseph Banks, naturalist, botanist and president of the Royal Society for more than 40 years, is credited with turning Kew into a world-leading science centre. He took part in James Cook's first great voyage between 1768 and 1771 and followed this up by sending botanists round the world to collect trees, shrubs and flowers which were then planted at Kew. The strategic importance of Kew was underlined when, in the 19th century, gardeners succeeded in propagating rubber trees for cultivation outside South America, mainly in British colonies.
Hundreds of Kew's trees were destroyed in the great storm of 1987, and in 2003 Unesco put the gardens on its list of world heritage sites.
Visitors admire some of the rare plants at Kew Gardens in west London.
Photograph by Fiona Hanson/PA
Jane Goodall described the budget cut as 'unbelievably stupid'.