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

How ponies are helping to restore magnificent meadows

October 10 2014 - 14:10

I’m just back after hauling myself up to the very edge of the pointy shoulder of Scotland – that bit above Aberdeen – to the RSPB’s Loch of Strathbeg, as part of the Save Our Magnificent Meadows project.  The BBC were doing a piece on what is happening there, and it was a fantastic day out.  I’d never been there before, and didn’t really know what they were doing, but it is amazing!

It is a old fen meadow on the shores of the loch, and hadn’t been cut since the 1960s.  It was until recently 90% plus coverage of Soft Rush (Juncus effusus) and the RSPB were wanting to get it down to about 50%.  Cutting was expensive and difficult, so they got in some Konik ponies to graze it, as the local beef cattle can’t survive either on the wet ground, or on the diet of rushes – they’d die.  These are real cuties (see pics below) and they love it there – they are happy eating soft rush. 

They are well adapted to living on a marsh: they have big splayed feet in relation to their size, and a large barrel girth in order to digest lots and lots of nutrient poor rushes.  It’s a wild herd- they stay out all year round and foal on the fen and love splashing around in the Sphagnum.

The Save Our Magnificent Meadows money has allowed for GPS units to be slung round their necks in order to track where they go and what they eat – they can get a whole year’s worth of data from them, so can assess seasonal movements and what plants are preferentially grazed.  The money has also allowed them to cut a couple of areas and take the rushes off.  It had been topped in July and in six weeks new growth had come through and the ponies were grazing the tops off the new rush shoots.  Even more exciting was the amount of angelica, marsh thistle, sorrel, birds-foot trefoil and loads more that was sprouting through the grazed rush tufts. They create deep hoof-prints in the marsh that breaks up the rush monoculture and allows more niches for plants to come through.

They even eat gorse in the winter-  fantastic wee beasts so they are.  Yesterday’s exercise was to corral them and put GPS collars onto a couple of yearlings to track their movements.

It was a fantastic and educational visit, and only one of the Saving Our Magnificent Meadows projects. They were not at all shy and I didn’t have to zoom in for long-distance pics – even had to shoo them off!!  We've been told the piece will be broadcast on BBC Breakfast this Sunday 12 October, with a 4min version On Demand thereafter – well worth checking it out I think.

A Penny(royal) for your thoughts

The return of a vulnerable mint.

September 25 2014 - 15:57

Pennyroyal mint © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

Pennyroyal mint © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

A quick bit of good news from the south-west: Pennyroyal Mint (Mentha pulegium) has made a grand reappearance down at Coverack on the Lizard, where Plantlife has been undertaking conservation work funded by the SITA Trust.

Classed as 'vulnerable' in the Red Data List, Pennyroyal Mint has long been in decline. It was not always so. Once it was widely scattered throughout England and Wales with a sterling reputation amongst herbalists. It was this that led to its name in Old French: Puliol ryal. Puliol was a word used for thyme. Ryal - from which we derive 'royal' - meant special. Puliol ryal was thus the "special thyme" - somewhat mistakenly, since it is not related to the herb. Over the centuries this corrupted into something more easily spoken: Pennyroyal.

Sadly it vanished as its habitat disappeared. The damp heaths and pastures upon which it grows are prime sites for "agricultural improvement". When drained, ploughed and reseeded they provide flat and fertile ground, perfect for grazing livestock. Over the decades the royal mint has been destroyed.

Pennyroyal vanished on Coverack in 2005 but our on-the-ground work has led to its return. Four plants have appeared, two of them flowering profusely, in a short grassy area by the path in the south east corner of a small enclosed field known as ‘Tennis Court’, west of Lowland Point (image of botanists making the discovery, left). And that's not all: with the scrub in the enclosed field almost completely removed, many other plants are re-colonising, most notably another aromatic herb, Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), which is also classed as vulnerable to extinction in the Red Data List.

New Pennyroyal plants were also found on a second site, where work was undertaken by Natural England, and a new colony of 50 plants were discovered in the nearby pony field (just the sort of habitat what it wants).

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, we have news for the twitchers among you: a Lesser Yellowlegs and a Wood Sandpiper have taken to dabbling along the newly scraped margins of Croft Pascoe Pool, another site where we have been working to improve conditions for rare plants. As a keen birder says, the pool “has an attraction to waders”.  It seems to be the first Lesser Yellowlegs for Britain this year – and has the twitchers agog.

Seven fascinating facts about Blackberries

September 19 2014 - 15:11

Blackberries © Lliam Rooney

Blackberries © Lliam Rooney

Did you know a blackberry is not a single fruit? Or that batologists have nothing to do with bats? All this and more in today's blog from Katie...

  1. A blackberry is not a single fruit - it's actually an aggregate composed of lots of individual berries. Each ‘bobble’ in the blackberry bears one seed and is termed a ‘drupe’.
  2. Bramble is one of the most important food plants for other wildlife in Britain. 150 species of invertebrate use it as a food plant, including sawflies, aphids, scale insects, beetles, butterflies (including Green Hairstreak and Holly Blue) and moths (such as Scarlet tiger moth, Double-striped Pug and Chinese Character).
  3. Blackberries are also important foods for many species of birds and mammals, like field mice. They use the bountiful supply to stock up on reserves before winter.
  4. Folklore has it that blackberries shouldn’t be picked and eaten after 10th October as the devil will have urinated, spat or trodden on them. The weather at this time is often warm, humid and wet - perfect for the Botrytis mould, which render the fruits inedible. Its likely the story ties into such outbreaks.
  5. New canes on the most vigorous brambles can reach a length of five metres in a year. Once the tips of the new, fast growing canes arch over and hit the soil, they bury themselves in the soil, rooting to produce new plants in the spring, a form of layering. In this way, brambles are able to “leap-frog” or “hurdle” around the countryside, forming the familiar dense thickets.
  6. Ever noticed that some blackberries are tastier than others? There are around 350 different ‘microspecies’ of bramble in the UK, they all look (and taste) very slightly different to each other. 
  7. The study and classification of these microspecies is called ‘batology’ and those that do it are ‘batologists’.

Bumper year for blackberries

September 18 2014 - 15:08

Blackberries © Beth Halski/PlantlifeThis year is turning out to be a fantastic year for blackberries (the fruit of the bramble, Rubus fruticosus) with more people going out “blackberrying” than ever before.

It’s great to see so many families resurrecting a very old tradition. There is evidence of blackberries being eaten by Neolithic man, 8000-3300 years ago. Even up to the time of the second World War, whole village communities would turn out to gather the annual hedgerow harvest, which was as important to them as their agricultural crops.

Blackberrying © Tim Wilkins/Plantlife

The bumper year is due to the weather we’ve had over the last two years – an unusual alignment of conditions needed for blackberries. The long, arching canes that blackberries bushes produce the fruit live for only two years and have two phases of growth:

  • Strong, vigorous new canes (known as primocanes) grow during the summer. All their energy is put into it. They grow as high as they can and then when gravity forces them to arch over, they carry on spreading, producing lots of leafy growth along the way. The weather last year (wet and warm) was perfect for primocanes. Brambles across the UK exploded with them.
  • The next year, these primocanes grow lots of much shorter side shoots along their length. Known as these "floricanes",  these produce both the flowers and the fruit. This year has been perfect for this sort of growth, with the long, warm, sunny and not too dry summer encouraging bramble flowers to bloom. Last year’s glut of primocanes are now packed with floricanes and all are now flowering and fruiting like mad. This is why this year is such a good year for blackberries!

But what of other berries? Most other hedgerow plants produce fruits on the current year’s growth. Since this spring was so mild, with an absence of late frosts, and the summer has been warm but with no drought, the amount of fruit produced is exceptional.

As well as blackberries, there are bumper crops of sloes, elderberries, rosehips, haws (hawthorn - below, image © Fern Love/Plantlife), crab apples, sea buckthorn and rowan berries. In mountainous areas bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) have been abundant this year, and even rare cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccos) have been reported as having a record year for fruiting.

Other non-edible plants are fruiting well too. Privet, buckthorn, spindle and black bryony are all fruiting heavily, but are not meant for human consumption. Be careful when foraging and avoid eating any of these!

With such a bumper harvest, the time has never been better to go blackberrying. Remember though, there are a few rules to follow:

  • Never, ever eat ANY berry if you don’t know exactly what it is. Don’t take chances – some common berries are very poisonous.
  • Don’t collect berries from beside busy roads – they’re likely to be dusty and covered in fumes. Best to collect from quiet country lanes or along footpaths.
  • Don’t collect berries growing below knee height – they’re in the ‘dog-pee-zone’!

Happy foraging!

Say GO to the Mow?

July 30 2014 - 12:10

I’m standing in a meadow in Sussex on the hottest day of the year. The July sun is doing a good job of bleaching the scene but, even this late in the season, the straw-brown field is punctuated with colour; deep purple betony (Stachys officinalis) with its short, fat flower spikes and tall Devils’-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) throwing blue discs above the grasses. At my feet, yellow Lady’s-bedstraw (Galium verum) is sprawled through the sward, reminiscent of its former use to sweeten the scent of straw-stuffed mattresses.

The sound is incredible too, the myriad of crickets, grasshoppers, hoverflies and bees reminiscent of a tropical rainforest. But walking through the meadow creates another sound too. The pods of Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor - image right) are ripe – dry, swollen and fat with seeds that rattle under every footstep. Traditionally, Lammas Day, the 1st August, was the day to start cutting hay cut, the first harvest of the year. But farmers would instead often be guided by Yellow-rattle, the rattling a signal to farmers that the hay was ready to cut.

It can feel like an horrific act of brutality to cut down a meadow in its prime, but in fact it is the single most important point in the annual meadow cycle. It provides valuable fodder and bedding for livestock, it removes nutrients from the field, keeping soil fertility down and allowing more delicate flowers to thrive, and it keeps brambles, bracken, saplings and other thuggish plants in check. If it wasn’t for the hay cut, meadows would quickly revert to scrub and woodland, losing much of their colour and wildlife along the way.

All over the country, meadows are resonating not just with the sounds of wildlife but with tractors, mowers, hay turners and bailers. As well as providing a valuable farm income, this green hay is also being used to literally seed new meadows. The sites for these will have first been cleared and lightly cultivated, just enough to break up the soil surface. Green hay is then taken from a good, ancient, flower-rich meadow nearby and transported to the new fields where it is strewn and then either rolled or grazed by cattle. In this way, all the seed from the plants in the hay drops into the soil, ready to germinate with the first rains. The results can be spectacular, with apparently ancient meadows, full of the flowers characteristic of the local area becoming established in just two or three years. As part of the Coronation Meadows project, 12 such meadows were recreated in 2013, and over 120 hectares of restoration are planned this year.

Volunteers from local communities all over the UK are involved, helping out with both cutting and spreading green hay. Scything courses have become popular, this traditional form of mowing providing a tough work-out. In some cases, seed of special flowers, such as Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum) and Dyer’s Greenweed (Genista tinctoria), are being collected and grown to plant out in local meadows next year. Artists are capturing the action of the hay-cut, as well as the beauty of the meadows themselves, and sound-recorders are capturing that cacophony of meadow music that’s so much part of the meadow experience.

So, from now on it’s essential that we say GO to the mow! Not just in meadows, either:

  • If you’ve left a patch of grass unmown in your lawn, you can give it a good trim. Attack it with a strimmer or pair of shears, remove the growth and then mow the grass hard back. Treat it like a normal lawn until Christmas and then leave the same patch to grow back next year. Managed this way, the number of species and flowers is likely to increase.
  • Our flower-rich roadside verges are meadows too. As part of our Road Verge Campaign, we’re asking Local Councils to start mowing the entire width of their verges now and remove clippings where possible. If you see verges being cut for the first time now, they might have signed up to our Campaign. If not, or if they’ve been cut already, why not lend your signature to our petition?

Kicking my way through the meadow, another sound can be heard. A tractor pulls into the field with mower in tow. The farmer engages the machinery and sets to work, the tall grass reduced to strips of hay in an instant. It looks so destructive as the stunning meadow is turned to an apparently nondescript agricultural field. But this hay will soon be taken from here and put to good use. I pick some up and give it a shake. My palm and fingers are showered with the precious seed, yellow-rattle in particular. I hold a new meadow in my hand.

Commonwealth Flowers Exhibition opens in Glasgow

July 24 2014 - 11:40

Our Commonwealth Flowers Exhibition, featuring patchwork squares celebrating national and culturally important plants from across the Commonwealth, is up and running at the Hidden Gardens in Glasgow just in time for the Games. In fact, we managed to coincide (by accident) with the Queen’s Baton Relay as we were setting up:

Many of the Commonwealth squares on display were created by Madderty Primary School in Perthshire. Others were made by folk of all ages and backgrounds: one is by a six year old school boy, another by a 96 year old man.

One is by a Sri Lanka lady who has lived in Glasgow for 35 years. We even have a patch the Magellan brown rush (right), found in the South Georgia Islands stitched by a lady from Stirling!

The exhibition is free to all and open Tuesday to Saturday 10am until 8pm and on Sundays 12pm until 6pm. Thanks to the Hidden Gardens for their support in hosting this exhibition. This project is funded by the Celebrate It fund.

More info:

Coronation Meadows: One year on.

July 23 2014 - 17:45

Over a year has passed since our patron, HRH The Prince of Wales hosted the launch of his ambitious Coronation Meadows project. Much has happened since then and in many ways the real work has now begun. The Prince’s vision to identify a flagship Coronation Meadow in each county and then use green hay from these to literally seed new meadows is gradually taking shape.

Here are some highlights from the last 12 months:

  • Coronation Meadows have now been identified in all but one of the 72 counties of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (just two counties remain).
  • In Scotland, where there are fewer suitable sites, Coronation Meadows have been identified in 22 of the 34 counties.
  • Restoration work in 2013 saw 12 new meadows created in 12 counties, and many of these are showing spectacular results this year with superb germination following the mild winter and the warm, wet spring.
  • Thanks to a generous grant from Biffa Award, £990k of funding has been secured towards the creation and restoration of meadows across England and Wales over the next 3 years.
  • As a result of this funding, work is underway this summer to create and restore 30 meadows in 24 counties.

The creation and restoration of meadows is not an easy task. It requires lots of planning, site preparation, hard work and skill. The funding from Biffa Award will now pave the way for much of this activity. But it’s matched with an equal amount of enthusiasm from meadow owners and farmers who are beginning to appreciate the true value of flower-rich meadows. With their dedication and help, the vision of a new meadow in every county can be achieved, securing a legacy for the next 60 years.

It also goes without saying that Plantlife could not be leading this project without the support we receive from our members. Why not help us do more by becoming a member?

114 million orchids in the slipstreams of our cars

July 09 2014 - 11:33

Road verges near Sherborne, Dorset.

Road verges near Sherborne, Dorset.

I guess I could be voted Britain’s worst driver during the summer months, for when at the wheel my eyes are invariably affixed to our glorious flower-covered road verges, and all-too-rarely on the road ahead.  A recent distraction has been the fabulous displays of pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) across our warmer, more lime-rich parts of the countryside.  Last week I spotted them on every verge and roundabout on the outskirts of Gloucester, but a particular favourite are the pyramidals that adorn the Ilminster bypass, the gateway to the south-west, for those hauling westwards along the A303.

The Ilminster bypass was opened in 1988, and today drivers pass dense displays of the orchids on warm, south facing road cuttings along the few miles of this route, roughly 25 years after the habitat was created.  I ‘guestimated’ roughly 1100 flowering plants along the short few miles earlier this year, but suspect that there are many, many more (the Ilminster bypass is a notorious accident blackspot, so I cast only half an eye on the verges).  The great thing is that they are being managed properly – being allowed to flower and seed, before the grass cutters ‘go in’ to clean up.

Of course, the orchids and other flowers make my car journeys immeasurably more pleasurable, but in a landscape ever more devoid of colourful grassland, these verge refuges become ever more important for myriad flowers, insects, mammals, birds and much more.  Now, here is a heartening thought about Britain’s changing attitude to road verge management: on average, a typical pyramidal orchid produces 65 flowers, of which 80% set viable seed (information so far from the orchid books).  If we make the conservative assumption that each developing seed pod produces 2000 seeds (plump bee orchid pods can contain as many as 26,000!), then the Ilminster colony will produce a staggering 114 million seeds this year, to be carried in your and my slipstreams as we head away on holiday.

I am thrilled to say that the Highways Agency division that manages the Ilminster bypass verges do so very much with wildlife in mind: they do the essential verge cuts, but they do them late in the year (often even in winter).  But how very sad that so many of our verges are cut down in the prime, when plants are in full flower, destroying literally in a single swipe so much potential for bringing colour back to the countryside.

If you like the idea of 114 million orchids on our verges, why not add your voice add your voice to our campaign for better management?

The best of our beautiful wildflower-rich road verges

July 08 2014 - 11:31

We've had a fantastic response to our Road Verge Campaign this year. Four Councils have signed up for Alan's Challenge and many, many more are talking to us, trying to find a way to improve how their roadsides are managed for wildlife. A huge part of this is down to you. We've been overwhelmed by your support. Whether its engaging your council, raising awareness, taking photos or signing the petition every action has helped. So thank you - both from us and our roadside wildlife.

Of course, we cannot be complacent. There's still a long way to go. If you haven't already, please sign our petition and if you have a friend who loves wildlife please encourage them to do so too.

With so many beautiful wildflowers being mown down in their prime, its easy to forget how wonderful our road verges can look. Thank goodness then, for all you photographers out there who've snapped some fabulous displays. We've been compiling them on a special Storify page and it never fails to brighten our day. Have a scroll through yourself and if you've any you'd like to submit please tweet them to @Love_plants.

In a couple of weeks the growing season will be over and it'll be time to "Say YES to the Mow". Dr Trevor Dines will be here with a blog explaining how and why, but in the meantime enjoy them while they last...

The Wildflowers of Inchnadamph

July 04 2014 - 11:42

We in the Plantlife Scotland team like to give members something of a interesting challenge occasionally: this year was an exploration to discover the special collection of wildflowers that grow on the limestone rocks on the eastern fringe of Assynt, in the far north-west of Scotland.

15 suitably kitted-out explorers joined myself and Andy and Roz Summers from The Highland Council ranger Service to trek up the path toward The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph.

A lovely speckling of yellow, purple and blue in amongst the green grass and brown heather greeted us on a misty and slightly midgy morning as we slowly worked our way along the trail. As ever with botanical excursion we didn’t progress very fast as cries of “what’s this one?” diverted us into the sward to check some small but beautifully coloured wild plant.

Milkwort (Polygara vulgaris) (right) was an interesting one for me as in Scotland I am used to finding the small, indigo flowers of Heath Milkwort lurking in the heather.  Here however, due to the richness of the minerals in the limestone rocks it turned out to be Common Milkwort for a change, and had us rooting around the base of the stem to see if the leaves were opposite or alternate – one of the more obvious diagnostic features.

Viviparous Fescue (Fetusca vivipara) caused some exclamations on the curiousness of nature – a grass that doesn’t produce flowers and set seed, but the flowerhead composed of small, living plantlets, that drop off and, hopefully, take root.

A detour to a small waterfall brought lunch and a lovely sprinkling of Yellow Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) (left, © Laurie Campbell) over the rocks nearby.  Here it was that we came across the Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) (left) a plant with a flower of 8 white petals and a cluster of bonny yellow stamens in the centre.  This transforms itself in seed to produce the most amazing long silky hairs, that take a twist to themselves, looking mostly like a delicate shaving brush, twirling itself up out of the flower stalk, while nestling in its bed of crinkly dark green leaves.

The specialty of the place was saved until after lunch and a criss-crossing of the boulder-strewn bed of a burn.  What caught our eye first was the bright curving blades of Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis), clear, glossy green, with slightly pointed tips to the leaflets.  Since it grows on calcareous rocks it is something of a rarity to see in Scotland.

But that wasn’t what we were looking for. We were after the Scottish Asphodel (Tofieldia pusilla) (right, © Hedwig Storch under Creative Commons BY-SA licence). This wildflower is tiny, so its hard to find but don't let its size put you off. A hidden treasure, it usually grows up on mountain slopes and is rarely found on the coast. But because of its unique environment, Inchnadamph is one of the few locations this miniature beauty grows.

One sharp-eyed plant hunter said quietly to me “what’s that beside the Holly Fern?” and yes, we had been focused on the bright green fern and hadn’t noticed the small delicate spike of white flowers that was the Scottish Asphodel, nestling in a crack in the rock where some soil had accumulated.

Back to the lochside, the botanising at an end, and we each of us learned something that we had never known before about the wild plants that we share the land with. We didn’t walk too far, but we scrambled off the track, up over rocky knowes, and hopped cautiously over burns. We peered closely at the form and structure of the wild plants we found; from the tiny perforations in the leaf of St John’s Wort, to the shape of the lips of the Twayblade flowerhead.  Pleasantly tired we knew we had had a good day out and certainly left me wanting to roam the hills again.

Its special places like these that the Plantlife Scotland team works to protect. By providing landowners with help and advice, they can manage their land in such a way that helps our threatened wild flora and fungi. And where there are wild plants, you get other wildlife: butterflies, bees, birds and other creatures all creating a healthy habitat. Just recently we produced a free management guide for coastal grasslands like those those found at Assynt. You can find out what we're up to on our webpage or even better why not join us?