Thoughts, news and updates from members of the Plantlife team.

Should we pick wildflowers?

August 10 2016 - 10:06

Child with daisies © Paul Flynn/Plantlife

Child with daisies © Paul Flynn/Plantlife

“A world so rich in flowers that our children and grandchildren could pick a bunch without causing harm”

This is the legacy that Plantlife wants to leave for future generations, and which you can see set out in our new strategic plan. But is it really a good thing? 

There is more to our work than a few things in a vase. We have a vision for a world in which wild plants are thriving, valued and celebrated. Our work over the coming years will mean rare and threatened plants will be saved from extinction and common ones will remain common. We’ll gather evidence on the benefits that plants provide for people and for wildlife so they are taken into account in decisions made from governments to gardeners. We’ll make sure that people have the chance to experience and enjoy the beauty and fascination of flowers, fungi and lichens. 

And we certainly don’t want plants to be put at risk by indiscriminate gathering, or local floral hot spots to be denuded by the selfish few. I don’t think our colleagues at the RSPB would condone egg collecting or Butterfly Conservation the once widespread hobby of mounting dead moths in frames, would they? And there are well documented examples of plant populations being irrevocably damaged by wholesale commercial gathering of flowering and fruiting bodies. So why on earth are we encouraging people to go about destroying the very thing we have spent over 25 years protecting?

Well, for starters, picking/cutting the flower or seed head does not in itself destroy a plant: they are resilient little things, evolved to withstand being eaten, trampled or chopped. And low level picking will not fundamentally prevent populations reproducing and spreading.

Of far more concern to me is that so many of our children and grandchildren now grow up in, and we adults live in, a world where once familiar flowers are rarely seen, often unrecognised and hardly ever touched. We are told that flowers are precious, protected or even dangerous and picking is wrong. Surely one of the saddest things we can say to a child ( or a grown up) about nature is “don’t touch”, which leaves them thinking this is not for me or this doesn’t matter. We risk destroying simple pleasures such as daisy chains, or the “buttercup test”. We turn our back on traditions like picking a posy of primroses as a gift for Mothering Sunday, gathering Snakeshead Fritillaries on St George’s Day, putting a bunch of holiday heather behind the car number plate or even blackberrying. And we deny our heritage of art, literature and craft, in which getting close up and personal with wild plants and wildflowers is an ever present reference, from the Famous Five to Romeo and Juliet. 

There are of course exceptions, and rules. The law states that you cannot uproot any wild plant. Landowner’s permission is required (or at least implied) to take flowers, or any material from private land. Picking is forbidden for an important list of our rarest and most threatened species, for which collecting in any form is rightly illegal.

Unquestionably for our rarest plants and for tiny populations picking could do serious damage, if is wholesale, repeated year in, year out. But in the bigger scheme of things, picking is a minor irritation for most wildplants.  Sticking to widespread species, where the population is large and robust and removing just a small  proportion - say 5% -  is a pretty good rule of thumb for casual picking.  

Our priority at Plantlife is use our ability as conservationists to create, and help other landowners to create,  the right conditions for plants to survive, regenerate and spread there are enough plants that this rule can be readily applied.  

So will you join us in our mission? Not for wholesale beheading of flowers: but for a world where flowers are so abundant that we won’t cause harm to their continued spread and survival. And where picking a few,  knowing their names and taking their subtle charms into our homes becomes, again, one of the everyday pleasures of life.

If you do agree, take a look at our new strategic plan and get in touch to see how you can support us

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 10

A new Coronation Meadow begins to bloom

August 08 2016 - 14:13

Over the last few months I’ve had the privilege of immersing myself completely in the new meadow. The full throttle of flowers reached a peak in June - a joyous time that I'm not afraid to admit moved me to tears - and the field is now wearing the golden mantle of late summer. We’re about to cut the hay, so it’s a good time to reflect on what has actually been happening.

In order to see how the meadow evolves and changes over the next few years, I’ve been doing a bit of vegetation monitoring. A standard technique is being used on all the Coronation Meadows. This involves placing a 1-metre square quadrat (below) at random points across the meadow. The quadrat - which sounds high-tech but is really just four 1-metre long bamboo canes attached at the corners – is then divided into 9 smaller cells using four more canes. For every species found growing inside the quadrat, the number of cells they occupy is counted. It’s a time consuming job – the 20 quadrats and 180 cells of data takes two days to collect – but the results are detailed and fascinating. I surveyed the meadow in the same way last year so we can pretty accurately see how the restoration has changed the flora.

This is, of course, the first flowering season since the restoration of the meadow using green hay and brush-harvested seed last September (see here and here). It’s true to say we’ve not had an exuberant riot of colour, but that was to be expected. Meadows can’t be created overnight and the perennial flowers – oxeye daisy, common knapweed, vetches and clovers - will take a few years to get going. Instead, this has been the year of the annuals.

Above: selected results of the monitoring, showing changes in frequency of key species between 2015 and 2016

When the first few Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) seedlings appeared last March, I was incredibly excited but also pretty anxious – would enough of them germinate? I need not have worried. Despite April and May being cold and wet, thousands upon thousands of plants gradually appeared, and they were eventually recorded in 78% of the 180 quadrat cells. To think they all came with the green hay and brush harvested seed is just amazing.

But, even more astonishing was the quantity of Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) that germinated (below). I was hoping that a few of these lovely flowers would germinate, but they appeared in 55% of quadrat cells – a veritable carpet of eyebright. Neither of these flowers were recorded last year, making them the two most abundant new species that have appeared. This is important, as both species are semi-parasitic on grass, helping to reduce its vigour and paving the way for more and more perennial flowers in the future.

Other annuals, such as Lesser Trefoil (Trifolium dubium) and Smooth Hawk's-beard (Crepis capillaris), have boomed in huge numbers, stimulated into growth by the disturbance and bare ground we created last September. They’ve been joined by small numbers of others like Common Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) and Cut-leaved Crane's-bill (Geranium dissectum) whose seeds must have lain dormant in the soil, echoes of a very distant time when these fields were cultivated for crops.

Of the perennial plants, many of the desirable species that are indicative of neutral grassland have increased significantly. Thankfully, what I feared was a thicket of docks germinating across the field turned out to be Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) - thirteen times more of it than last year (below). Bulbous Buttercups (Ranunculus bulbosus), which are early-flowering and rich-yellow in colour (below), have doubled in number and there has also been a nearly four-fold increase in Meadow Buttercups (Ranunculus acris).

Similarly Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) has increased by 136% and Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) by 63%, including a lovely rich deep orange form (below). This particular secies is especially important, as it's a food plant for 160 different species of invertebrates.

Interestingly, many of the species indicative of agriculturally improved grassland have either not increased or declined. White Clover (Trifolium repens) and Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne) remain abundant at the same frequency as last year, while Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense) and Common Nettle (Urtica dioica) are very infrequent and declining.

All this means that the meadow is going “in the right direction”. It’s not yet where we want it to be though; the cold, wet spring in particular encouraged a very vigorous growth of Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) that, along with other abundant grasses, will take time to bring under control. But the journey has now begun. In just one year the average number of species in each square metre has increased from 18 to 25 and the total number of species in the whole meadow has increased from 57 to 87. 

Of particular delight has been the unexpected appearance of Common Restharrow (Ononis repens, below), although quite how a plant of sunny spots on well-drained, lime-rich soil has made its way to the shadiest, dampest part of our neutral meadow is baffling. That’s the joy of our wild flowers though – the plants don’t always read the books!

With the increase in the flowers has come an increase in the wildlife they support. Grasshoppers are now chirping in the meadow and 12 species of butterfly and day-flying moths have been seen compared to just 4 last year. These include Ringlet, Large Skipper (an uncommon species in north-west Wales), Common Blue (below) and Six-spot Burnet moths. I’ve even witnessed Common Blue butterflies laying their eggs on Bird’s-foot Trefoil, a lovely reminder of the link between plants and the wildlife they support.

In a few weeks time, the hay will be cut and our two Highland cows will be brought back down from the top field to graze the grass as it re-grows in the meadow. We'll also bring some more seed here from Moss Hill, our donor Coronation Meadow, to further increase the abundance and diversity of plants in the meadow.

But it pays to be patient. All year I’ve been surprised and concerned that not one plant of Devils’ bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) has appeared, despite it being wildly abundant at Moss Hill. Then last week, I found the first few tiny plants germinating.

It seems that the seeds have lain dormant for 10 months, biding their time until they were stimulated to grow by some combination of temperature, rainfall and time. As is so often the case, nature always plays her own game and all we can do is to provide her with opportunities to work her magic.


The Coronation Meadows project is generously supported by Biffa Award and Natural Resources Wales. Seed for our meadow has come from the National Trust meadow at Moss Hill, Penmachno.

The complete meadow restoration story can be followed here:

It’s not easy being green…

July 27 2016 - 15:27

Frog orchids (Coeloglossum viride) have declined considerably over the last century as the pastures in which they grew were improved for agriculture.

Thankfully, although classed as "threatened" there are still places where grows. One such is Plantlife's Augill Pasture reserve in Cumbria where over 100 are in flower at the moment! To prove it, we thought we'd share a photo:

Thanks to our wardens Lois and Nigel Harbron who did the count.

Remember: if you've not already done so, you can keep updated with our work by subscribing to our E-News.

Living on the Edge pt 4: Love bees? Save wildflowers!

July 22 2016 - 10:39

As I write, I have in front of me a box of bees ...

... by which I mean a box of pinned entomological specimens collected at Ranscombe over recent weeks (it's a sad fact of the study of insects that many can only be identified under a microscope, and the collecting of specimens is something which those who study bees always aim to keep to a minimum). Perhaps the most surprising thing is how diverse they are: while some are furry and fairly large and conform to the traditional image of a bee, others are virtually hairless and some are tiny at just 5 or 6mm long. The more furry individuals range from dull brown to a rich, foxy colour, while less hairy specimens are black, or striped with yellow or red, or even have a blue-green metallic sheen.

Above: The Brown Banded Carder Bee (Bombus humilis) is one of the country's most threatened bumblebee species, dependent on large areas of flower-rich grassland. At Ranscombe, it has been found regularly in Brockles Field, which we are restoring as a 60 acre wildflower meadow.

The variety of bees is amazing. There are more than 270 bee species in Britain and Ireland, of which only one - the Honey Bee - makes honey, and only 27 of which are bumblebees. Most bee species are the less-familiar 'solitary' bees, which don't have the structured society of queens, workers and (male) drones, but consist of lone-living females which make and provision nests, and males whose function is just to mate with the females. But, other than that, the variety of solitary bee lifestyles is immense: some dig burrows in the ground, others nest in holes in timber or in hollow plant stems; some live in loose colonies, others are loners; some use mud to create the cells in which the eggs are laid, others use leaves, some use hairs scraped from leaves of plants, still others occupy old snail-shells. Some are even cuckoos, which take over the nest of other bee species.

But all bees have one thing in common - they all need flowers, as all bees collect and store pollen as the food for their larvae. And bees can be very choosy about pollen: for example, the small, black and fairly common Small Scissor Bee Chelostoma campanularum only collects pollen from bellflowers, such as harebell or nettle-leaved bellflower. Some take this to an extreme, collecting pollen only from a single species of flower, as with the Bryony Mining Bee Andrena florea, which, as you might guess, only collects pollen from sea aster.

Above: The Large Scabious Mining Bee (Andrena hattorfiana) is a very scarce species which collects pollen only from Field Scabious and Small Scabious, and which can be found at Ranscombe Farm Reserve.

This means that the diversity of bees in the landscape is directly related to the diversity of wild flowers: the bigger the range of flowers in an area, the bigger the range of bees. But when it comes to our 27 bumblebee species, it's not just the species of flowers that are important, but also the sheer amount. Because bumblebees are social insects, with nests supporting scores or even hundreds of workers, which means there are lots of mouths to feed. As a result, each bumblebee nest needs a big area of flower-rich habitat, and there must be plenty of flowers available through the months between the founding of the nest in spring and the eventually production of new queens and males in mid-to late summer. 

So if we really want to save Britain's bees, first we have to save Britain's wild flowers and restore the huge areas of flower-rich grassland and arable fields which we've lost over the last century. We're fortunate at Ranscombe, as we already know that it's a pretty good place for bees. So far, 64 species have been recorded on the reserve, including some of the rarer species. As part of our Life on the Edges project, we are trying to understand more about the importance of our arable field margins for bees - especially as we don't deliberately sow nectar-rich flowers, but rely on naturally regenerating plant communities. So far this year, a targeted survey has found 37 bee species using the field margins, and we have just started monitoring bumblebee numbers with a team of volunteer surveyors. 

Above: The Bryony Mining Bee (Andrena florea) is a scarce species which only collects pollen from White Bryony. When we found it at Ranscombe two years ago, it was the first record for Kent; now it appears well established around field margins on the reserve.

This information isn't just of academic value, because the one missing ingredient which I haven't yet mentioned is habitat structure. As well as flowers, bees need places to nest. Some bumblebees nest underground, others form nests above ground in tussocks of dense vegetation; many solitary bees nest in patches of bare, sunny ground, while others use holes in dead wood. Through the Life on the Edges project, we plan to improve the structure of our arable field margins - and their interface with adjacent woodland - to maximise opportunities for all sorts of bees to nest. This will include work to reduce shading and produce sunnier, grassier margins, but also targeted action to create the bare ground, sunny banks, and hole-riddled dead wood used by solitary bees. 

This is breaking new ground for us. Ranscombe already has a huge number and diversity of wild flowers - after all, that's our bread and butter as a charity. Now we want to make sure the conditions are right for this flower-filled landscape to be exploited to the full by a group of insects which are totally dependent on wild plants for their survival.

Life on the Edges is supported by WREN’s FCC Biodiversity Action Fund. WREN is a not-for-profit business that awards grants for community, biodiversity and heritage projects from funds donated by FCC Environment through the Landfill Communities Fund.

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My first meadow

July 08 2016 - 10:38

National Meadows Day is a big deal for Plantlife. A chance to celebrate the beautiful, flower-packed grasslands which so typify summer and botanical splendour. Through the Save Our Magnificent Meadows partnership project this annual event has become a busy day in the calendar, with activities happening all across the UK. Very simply though the message of the day is get out into a meadow and enjoy it.

I spent last year’s National Meadows Day crawling around the garden with my one-year-old picking at daisies and chewing the lawn.  It was enjoyable but it wasn’t really getting out there. So having now reached the adventurous age of two it was time to taking my son to an actual wildflower meadow.  With one eye on the dark clouds looming we headed out, our destination being only a few miles from home - Ashton’s Meadow, a traditional hay meadow in North Nottinghamshire. Giggles of excitement came as we bumped the car along the pot-holed track, more still as we snacked in the backseat whilst the rain poured. Soon enough we had blue skies and our exploration began.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I dumped my boy over the gate into head-height wet grasses, with no clear line of sight other than upwards to the sky. It was fair that at first he grumbled, but once I’d scrambled over and scooped him up we headed in deeper in and his interest was caught. The movement and the texture of the grasses gave something to reach out and touch, and he wriggled down to get amongst it all.  It was here that he spotted flower heads and creatures – “look, Mama, pur-pla, yel, but-fly, bee”.  And we were off, making short paths through the grassland jungle, with one of us trying to catch whatever it was buzzing around our head. My son stopped to pull and poke at oxeye daisies, buttercups and knapweed, fascinated that he was right in the middle of all these things to play with.  We stopped for a while as a ladybird crawled all over his hand, then as it flew off he worked out that running wasn’t really an option in this place as he got tangled in the grasses and flopped down. He was straight back up and stomped off after a butterfly this time.

As I watched my son exploring I thought of the many times I’ve enjoyed visiting grassland of all types right across the country. Often it has been with someone full of local or specialist knowledge that has made those trips meaningful. Yet here I was, with my young guide, simply having the very best of times. There were no discussions about management, no questions about agri-environment options, no ID guides. It was just us and nature, hanging out, having fun. A moment of pure pleasure which made for a very happy meadows day. I recommend it highly.

*Ashton’s Meadow is owned and managed by the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.  It is Nottinghamshire’s Coronation Meadow.

10 magnificent ways to enjoy Meadows Day this Saturday

June 27 2016 - 14:40

It's Meadows' Day this Saturday, so why not mark it with a trip to a local meadow or by enjoying one of many events that are on around the country?

And whilst a meadow is a great place to take a stroll, there's other ways you can enjoy them too...


1. Join a horse-drawn safari!

Join the RSPB and Steel Suffolks on National Meadows Day for an exciting horse drawn safari around West Sedgemoor, part of England’s largest remaining wet meadow system.


2. Go barefoot

A freeflow barefoot walk around Osterley’s meadow in London with talks from our gardeners and rangers throughout the afternoon. Why not bring a picnic to enjoy by the Temple of Pan and take a stroll around the long walk?


3. Take a tractor 

Take a guided tour in a tractor and trailer at Vine House Farm in Lincolnshire, followed by a barbecue of local produce. 


4. Get on your bike

Enjoy a cycle ride on quiet roads from Greystoke in Cumbria to discover Eycott Hill’s magnificent meadow. Hear how it was restored to a flower-rich meadow with traditional species, perfect for pollinating insects, mammals, and birds.


5. Unleash your inner Poldark

What better way to enjoy National Meadows Day than trying your hand at scything with competition scyther Andrea Rickard at Knightshayes Meadows in Devon.


6. Go batty

Enjoy an evening at RSPB Conwy, looking and listening for bats using bat detectors. Members of Gwynedd bat group will be on hand to share their knowledge and enthusiasm of these fantastic creatures of the night!


7. By moonlight

Discover meadows at night at the Moonlight Meadow Fair in Kent. Take a walk with the bats, gaze at the stars and discover the fascinating world of moths.


8. Get arty

Bring along your sketchbook or paints to Chancellor’s Farm meadows in Somerset for an arty afternoon. Not usually open to the public, this is a chance to try to capture the flowers, wildlife and breath-taking views across the meadows.


9. With wild food 

Celebrate the opening of West Sussex's new Coronation Meadow with a forage into Wakehurst’s inaugural Wild Food Festival taking place in the adjoining Paddock.


10. Spot bumblebees

Enjoy the buzz of a bumblebee festival in Wiltshire. Discover their natural history and learn how to spot them - then put your new found knowledge into practice with a picnic on the RSPB Winterbourne Downs nature reserve.

Using wild plants on your skin

June 24 2016 - 15:31

Formula Botanica recently had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Trevor Dines of Plantlife International on our blog, where he shared his advice on how to grow three wild herbs that are frequently used in organic skincare: comfrey, dog rose and chamomile. In return we thought we would like to share with Plantlife’s members and followers how these plants can be beneficial in your skincare products.

1. Comfrey

Also known as ‘knit-bone’, comfrey has traditionally been used as a skin healing herb. Nowadays, the cosmetics industry is mainly focused on one particular chemical compound in comfrey called allantoin. Allantoin is a popular cosmetic ingredient used in all sorts of personal care products, including creams, lotions, toothpastes, mouth washes, baby products and sunscreens. You will find allantoin referenced in over 10,000 patents which shows just how popular it is

Although allantoin is found in comfrey, it is also present in tobacco seed, chamomile and wheat sprouts – as well as mammals’ urine! The cosmetics industry nowadays generally relies on the compound to be synthetically manufactured.

Allantoin works as an antioxidant, encouraging the regeneration of new cells and speeding up the shedding of dead skin cells. It is also thought to protect against UV-induced skin cell damage and it works as an anti-irritant. Fun fact: one of the reasons that maggots have such a beneficial effect on the healing of infected wounds is thought to be because they excrete allantoin.

2. Dog rose

The dog rose (Rosa canina) which grows in Britain’s hedgerows yields its wonderful autumn rosehips. The seeds in rosehips are cold pressed to produce rosehip oil. Much of the rosehip oil used in cosmetics comes from Chile, where it is also called Rosa Mosqueta. The oil is a golden reddish colour which comes from the carotenoids in the hips.

Rosehip oil is high in essential fatty acids which are great for the skin. Rosehip seed oil underwent clinical trials in South America in early the 1980s where the oil was found to have positive effects on reducing scarring, wrinkles and helping the skin to regain its natural colour and tone. 

The oil is often called a ‘dry’ oil because it doesn’t leave the same heavy oily feeling on your skin that you might get from olive oil or coconut oil. Rosehip oil absorbs quickly without leaving a greasy residue. It is deeply moisturising and often used in anti-ageing skincare products. 

3. Chamomile 

The two main varieties of chamomile used in cosmetics are Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) and German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Both species are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and contain a long list of chemical compounds which are useful in skincare. 

One of chamomile’s best known chemical compounds is chamazulene which is created during the distillation process of chamomile essential oil. Chamazulene causes the essential oil of German chamomile in particular to go bright blue in colour. It is the plant’s chamazulene content which is credited with providing chamomile’s anti-inflammatory properties, although the plant contains further great cosmeceutical compounds such as bisabolol and apigenin.

Chamomile is also one of the few herbs that has been included in clinical trials to look into its effectiveness in treating various skin conditions. Most documented studies have been undertaken in Germany and a couple of studies found that chamomile was effective in reducing dermatitis and eczema when compared to conventional eczema treatments such as hydrocortisone.

Please note - don’t use chamomile in skincare if you are allergic to any of the Asteraceae family of plants – these include chamomile, celery, ragwort, daisy, calendula, or chrysanthemum. People who are allergic to this family of plants generally have a reaction to chamomile.

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Driving change…

The latest on Plantlife's Road Verge Campaign

June 22 2016 - 11:13

Last summer I was invited to speak at a national conference to highlight the benefits of better road verge management

I spoke about the campaign work that Plantlife is doing to raise their profile and ensure their importance is recognised. It was clear that the conference was not short of ideas and solutions to the challenges of managing this significant albeit narrow strip of land. It was in part due to this collective enthusiasm that I agreed to help establish a new national group - the Linear Infrastructure Network or LineNET to give it its moniker. 

I've just come back from the second LineNET conference and as I sat and listened I couldn't help but reflect on the progress we've made in the last twelve months  - as well as the hurdles that still remain...
On the plus side, we've made good progress in collating the evidence of why managing road verges well is important - not only for the wild plants and associated wildlife they support but also for the  wider benefits such as operational efficiencies and improved performance of the road network itself. We're also making good progress working with industry in sharing this best practice and increasing the number of councils signing up to Plantlife's recommended management prescriptions.  Once you get past the intimidating language, there is good political support for the establishment of 'ecological networks' along our transport systems and 'realising the value such green infrastructure offers' in the relevant government strategies and policies. So far so good. 
As I cast my eye across the audience at this year's conference, it's clear we've also made good progress in building an impressive coalition of support. We have representatives from Highways England, an impressive bunch of their commercial 'agents' who are contracted to do the actual work as well as academics, local government, NGOs, developers and industry bodies. Whilst we were undoubtedly the converted we also have a level of insight second to none. You couldn't find a better group to tell you what the remaining obstacles are in translating the policies and strategies for road verges and other green infrastructure into reality on the ground. 
LineNET is helping tackle a number of these obstacles especially around improving the evidence on aspects such as cost-benefit analysis of improved management regimes as well as consolidating the partnership and raising public awareness - all key to changing hearts and minds. But despite this progress it is clear that the remaining obstacles will need our politicians to play a fuller part. Your support in securing their engagement will be key

At Plantlife we're focusing our efforts on what is widely recognised as the key blockages to making better progress.  Firstly, the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges. Referred to as the highway engineer's bible the relevant chapters need updating to reflect the good practice that is demonstrably working in some places so this becomes the norm not the exception. We should no longer be focusing on just those few stretches of road verge that are noticeable for their rareness. Instead we need to improve road verge management across the entire network.

It is this kind of gear change we need if we're to achieve John Lawton's vision of 'Making Space for Nature' and the Natural Capital Committee recommendations that highway authorities should maintain the quality of their land to provide public goods and services. The odd road verge nature reserve simply won't do it. Improving the Design Manual is achievable and would help set the standard by which future management contracts are assessed and help raise the bar across the entire network. My meetings with the key stakeholders show a recognition and willingness so I will be working with them to turn good words into action.
My second target is ensuring the contractual arrangements between our highway authorities and their management agents encourage best practice. It is clear that the way the 'system' works means that, despite good targets (or performance measures in today's parlance) for 'no-net loss of biodiversity' and the like, there are contractual barriers that prevent good practice being implemented. This is seen most acutely on our national trunk road network where the national highway agencies are asset rich but resource poor. So despite impressive capital investment plans (£300M for environmental projects in England alone) we continue to lose biodiversity as the on-going management necessary to maintain these investments simply aren't funded.  

It's easy to see this decline as I drive across the network. Beautifully created species rich habitats quickly reverting to a thicket of bramble. The conference heard this equates to a 40% decline in grasslands despite there being established good practice and cost-effective ways of managing such habitat in the long term. Unless we change the system, hard won investment will continue to be lost to the winds as the juggernauts whistle by. This is crazy by anyone's reckoning and we need your support in changing this perverse system.
The exciting news is that there is no end of positive, innovative examples of what can be achieved but some real barriers to incorporating such solutions in practice. We can ill afford such wasted opportunities. Whilst the issues are complex we need to work through these so the long term benefits that we all want to see from our road verges are achieved. I'll continue working with LineNET and others to keep the wheels turning and hope you'll lend your support to Plantlife's call for improving the value of road verges across the entire network. 

How you can help:

Watching over the wild orchids of Wales

The annual count is here again!

June 02 2016 - 15:02

Heath spotted orchid © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

Heath spotted orchid © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

I remember first learning as a child that the UK had its own native orchids.

I couldn’t quite believe it. The knowledge that these strange, exotic flowers which shot up on spikes could be found in the rainy, cloud strewn fields of Britain was enticing. I have been fascinated by orchids ever since!

Although I have seen a few species over the years, I’m hoping this will be a year to remember. I will be going to my first orchid counts on the two Welsh Plantlife reserves - Caeau Tan-y-Bwlch and Cae Blaen-dyffryn - this summer where I hope to find out more about these amazing plants and their habitats.

Caeau Tan-y-Bwlch, which means ‘the fields below the mountain pass’, is found on the beautiful Llŷn Peninsula in north Wales.

The hillside location provides sweeping views of Snowdonia, Anglesey and Caernarfon Bay.

The reserve has some of the last unimproved fields left on the peninsula with clawdd (earth and stone) walls still in place. The drier, upper fields of the reserve are home to Heath spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata), Common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and Greater butterfly-orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) amongst an abundance of other wild flowers. Having read that the Greater butterfly-orchid smells of vanilla I’m looking forward to testing this for myself!

Cae Blaen-dyffryn, located in the Carmarthenshire countryside, is also known for its rich variety of wild plants and orchids including the rare Lesser butterfly-orchid (Platanthera bifolia - below).

This orchid is classified as ‘vulnerable’ and is included as a species “of principal importance for the purpose of conserving biodiversity” under Sections 42 (Wales) of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. Overall it has been lost from 75% of its recorded range in England which makes this reserve in Wales even more precious. Careful management over a number of years means that the population can now exceed 3000 individuals!

As well as taking part in the orchid count, I will also be meeting the volunteers (above) who help survey the reserves. Without them we wouldn’t be able to record the wild flowers year after year which give Plantlife vital information about how the reserves are progressing. By looking at the trends we can see if the management of the reserves is improving conditions for wild flowers and if there are any adjustments that need to be made. 

We are always looking for more volunteers so if you would like to spend a day in a beautiful meadow looking for the most exotic flowers in Wales do join us! 

Find out details of the reserve surveys and orchid counts here

  • Cae Blaen-dyffryn, Carmarthenshire – Saturday 18th June 
  • Caeau Tan-y-Bwlch, Gwynedd – Saturday 25th June

Keeping the wild in wildflower

A balanced approach to conservation seeding

May 26 2016 - 14:41

I was lucky enough to grow up on an arable farm in Hampshire, where the rolling downland hills supported a rich and distinctive flora. Dad worked hard to grow crops on the thin chalky soils; wheat and barley were the bread-and-butter of the farm but, with a hint of botanical flare, he also liked to experiment growing more unusual crops like opium poppy, linseed and even lupins.

As a young lad, I was always amazed at what would pop up in the cultivated soil of the fields. Alongside typical cornfield flowers like common poppy (Papaver rhoeas), sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopa) and field pansy (Viola arvensis), rarer treasures sometimes appeared – plants like rough poppy (Papaver hybridum), dense-flowered fumitory (Fumaria densiflora) and Venus's-looking-glass (Legousia hybrida). One year I even found night-flowering catchfly (Silene noctiflora) on Barrow Hill; I couldn’t believe our fields could be home to a flower that only opens at night, releasing its scent to attract pollinating moths. Over the years, these and other plants became familiar friends, lending a strong sense of identity to the place I called home.

Night-flowering catchfly (Silene noctiflora) © Homer Edward Price on Creative Commons

Later in life I moved to Wales, where very different soils support a very different flora. The arable fields here can be just as rich in flowers, but different characters grace the stage: corn marigold (Glebionis segetum), long-headed poppy (Papaver dubium) and common ramping-fumitory (Fumaria muralis) are joined by much rarer plants like cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), annual knawel (Scleranthus annuus) and, instead of night-flowering catchfly, small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica).

Again that magic is there – you never quite know what you’re going to find in any particular place. The unexpected discovery of a rare poppy, an orchid or even a clump of primroses in a hedgerow brings a particular thrill that epitomises the joy of wild flowers. Perhaps it is in these moments we find what the author Jay Griffiths describes as “...a quality of wildness, which, like art, sex, love and all the other intoxicants, has a rising swing ringing through it...”!

But, as we know, our industrialised countryside is no longer a friendly place for wildlife; around 60% of species - birds, butterflies, bees, flowers and other wildlife - are in decline. Our land might be green, but it’s no longer always pleasant. It’s understandable then, for us to respond to this crisis and repair some of the damage. But in our rush to do so, we sometimes lose sight of the very roots of the problem. 

There is a growing trend to create flower-rich habitats by sowing generic mixes of seed. To support pollinators we sow nectar mixes; to support birds, we sow bird-seed mixes. But this is a sticking plaster approach that does little for the long-term sustainable conservation of our wildlife. And it does even less for the conservation of our wild flora.

Time and again, we now see the margins of our cornfields sown with a particular mixture of flowers. I can absolutely guarantee which species it will contain: common poppy, cornflower, corn marigold, corncockle (Agrostemma githago) and corn chamomile (Anthemis arvensis). I can also absolutely guarantee that this combination never, ever appears naturally in any arable field in Britain – it’s an ‘unnatural five’ that immediately sets alarm bells ringing.  It’s also likely, by the way, that the corn chamomile is actually Austrian chamomile (Anthemis austriaca), now widely introduced through the use of such mixes.

A generic cornfield flower mixture © Richard Croft on Creative Commons

The same is true of our meadows. This time it’s usually a generic mixture of around a dozen species, dominated by flowers like oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense). All of these are perfectly fine, but when you consider that most meadows are composed of anything from 50-150 different species, a dozen seems a little short of the mark. More to the point, meadows are rich and varied in character; an ancient Norfolk meadow with green-winged orchid (Orchis morio) and pepper-saxifrage (Silaum silaus) is very different to a Carmarthenshire meadow with whorled caraway (Carum verticillatum) and lesser butterfly-orchids (Platanthera bifolia). Again, these unique mixtures of flowers help define our sense of place. Just as our high streets have lost their character and are full of identical fast-food joints, by using the same seed mixtures again and again we run the risk of turning our countryside into a homogeneic patchwork of identikit ‘McMeadows’.

Oxeye daisy can dominate some generic wildflower meadow seed mixes © Trish Steel on Creative Commons

It’s always best to use seed sourced as locally as possible. This not only helps preserve the identity and character of our flora, but new evidence suggests that there can also be biological consequences to sowing seed sourced from afar. Plants grown from seed of local origin (i.e. sourced from within your own county or from neighbouring counties):

  • grow better and flower more profusely than those from further away, therefore producing more nectar, pollen and seed
  • are more likely to grow and flower at the right time when local invertebrates are also active and need to feed
  • can actually cope better with warmer seasons than plants brought in from warmer areas further south, dispelling the myth that we need to grow plants from further south in preparation for climate change.

As if to bring this point home, a colleague recently asked why some bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) he’d brought for his garden on Anglesey always flowered about a fortnight before those growing wild in the hedgerows. It turns out they came from S.E. England (probably Cambridgeshire) and it seems they’re retaining their original genetic clock, flowering earlier than the local Anglesey bluebells. A small difference maybe, but perhaps not if you’re an early-emerging bumblebee.

Rather than reaching automatically for the packet of seed, we’re asking landowners, land managers and conservation organisations to take a more balanced and thoughtful approach. In essence, it’s about respecting our flora as much as our other wildlife and recognising that, if we really want a sustainable and long-term solution to the decline in our wildlife, we need to start from the roots up. We suggest that we need to:

  • Allow plants to appear from the soil seed bank first. The seed of many species lives for years and will grow if given the chance. At Ranscombe Farm in Kent, cornfield flowers such as poppies, fumitories and round-leaved fluellen (Kickxia spuria) have returned to fields after 25 years absence following a change in management.
  • Allow plants to spread naturally from wildflower-rich areas by managing surrounding land appropriately. At Cae Blaen-Dyffryn reserve in Carmarthenshire, lesser butterfly-orchids are spreading naturally into neighbouring fields now that these are being managed sympathetically for wildlife.
  • Encourage the spread of wild plants by moving livestock from field to field. At Joan’s Hill Farm in Herefordshire, the wildflower richness of five meadows has increased significantly simply as a result of moving stock through the fields.
  • Use ‘natural seeding’ techniques - such as green hay and brush harvesters - to bring large quantities of a wide range of seed from local sites to restoration sites. Green hay from Caeau Tan y Bwlch reserve in Gwynedd has been used to seed three new meadows in areas of intensive agriculture nearby. These are now thriving with hundreds of wildflowers like yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), eyebrights (Euphrasia sp) and tormentil (Potentiall erecta) flowering where there were none before.

Collecting seed-rich green hay from Caeau Tan y Bwlch for use in meadow creation nearby © Hilary Kehoe

Of course, there are situations when sowing generic seed mixtures is beneficial, especially where it’s unlikely that wildflowers will appear from the seed bank or recolonise naturally. If there are simply no wildflowers left and no flower-rich sites nearby (such as some very intensively farmed landscapes and in many urban areas) or if there is a desire to create and different habitat type, seeding can provide valuable resources for pollinators and other wildlife. Again, our advice is to use a good seed mix sourced as locally as you possibly can, and preferably from at least within the UK.

Wild flowers are tough and resilient. If we give them a chance, a little bit of time and sometimes a helping hand, they will return, bringing colour back to the countryside and giving our wildlife all they need to thrive.  

After nearly 30 years, I’m delighted to report that night-flowering catchfly has reappeared on Barrow Hill, springing like buried treasure from seed deep in the soil. Sympathetic management of the fields for cornfield flowers means it can once again open at dusk to breathe its scent into the air, and there’s no need to sow the 'unnatural five’.

To download a copy of our approach click Keeping the Wild in Wildflower.

What do you think about this subject? We’d love to hear your views.

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Keeping the Wild in Wildflower

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