The Arboretum site extends to about five acres, and forms part of the land that used to belong to Home Farm. (The old farmhouse still exists nearby and has been converted into maisonettes.) The Arboretum features possibly the only surviving example in the city of a medieval ridge-and-furrow field, and also contains two large ponds, complete with a well-constructed boardwalk to provide access for observation and pond-dipping.
The arboretum was opened on 23 April 1997. About 20 local schools had helped with the initial planting phase in March 1996, and over 40 attended the grand opening ceremony, conducted by Sir David Attenborough, after whose family the arboretum is named.
Importantly for schools and other visiting groups, the Arboretum development also includes a purpose-built classroom. If you would like to arrange an educational visit or a guided tour then please contact us on 0116 252 3666 or email us.
For volunteering and other information see Attenborough Arboretum
The planting scheme at the Arboretum is designed to display our native trees in the sequence in which they arrived in this country following the ending of the last ice-age, approximately 10,000 years ago. Thus among the first trees you will meet on going for a walk around the arboretum will be Scots Pine, Juniper, Hazel and Birch; among the last is the Beech, which apparently crossed from France just before the English Channel formed about 7,500 years ago. The timing of the various arrivals is based largely upon the evidence of fossil pollen, but also to some extent on larger remains.
Natives and aliens
Some explanation is needed for what constitutes native status, because the terms 'native' and 'alien' have attracted a certain amount of discussion, especially when applied to the movement of people. In a botanical context in the British Isles, the position is as follows:
- A native species is one that evolved in these islands or which arrived here by one means or another before the beginning of the Neolithic period (about 5,000 years ago), or which arrived here since that time by a method entirely independent of human activity.
- An alien plant, on the other hand, is one which reached the British Isles as a result of the activities of Neolithic or post-Neolithic man or of his domestic animals.
This definition recognises that whilst the agents of dispersal that have been active for millennia (e.g. wind and birds) are still so, human beings have recently become dispersers of plants on a much larger scale. While they were still hunter-gatherers, people probably inadvertently transported seeds from one place to another in much the same way as other animals. But as soon as they adopted agriculture and began to herd flocks and to cultivate the soil, their impact on plant distribution increased enormously, and they were no longer in any ordinary sense a part of nature. In most cases it is this point, the beginning of the Neolithic period, that is used to make the distinction between native and alien plants.
Not all the trees in the Arboretum are natives. The collection is augmented by many mature aliens, in particular by the familiar Horse Chestnut, which is indigenous to the wilds of Albania and northern Greece but was introduced to Britain by the early 17th century.