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

Living on the Edge (pt 1)

Why "Life on the Edge" is a good thing.

December 16 2015 - 15:27

Hairy Mallow

Hairy Mallow

It's all a bit static, the countryside, isn't it?

That bit over there is a wood, that bit's a meadow, there's a piece of arable.

Everything parcelled up and demarcated, which, after all, is how we like things - neat, easy to manage. Even as wildlife conservationists, we like to treat different habitats as clearly separate entities: it makes them easier to classify, and it's a lot easier to plan and deliver habitat management when you can divide your nature reserve into lots of individual blocks, each with a separate management prescription.

But that's just not how the natural world operates. In a completely wild system, each type of habitat grades into the next, whether in space (from woodland to dense scrub, to open scrub to grassland) or in time (from woodland, via wind-throw of trees, to bare ground to grassland to scrub), and different species take what they need from those parts of the system that suit them best. Many species thrive on this change, this complex spatial and temporal matrix: Ground-pine (Ajuga chamaepitys - below) is adapted to grassy habitats which are turned over periodically.

Likewise, Fly Orchids (Ophrys insectifera - below, image © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife) live in shady scrub and woodland, but rely on a digger wasp to pollinate them.

That wasp nests and feeds in open, sunny habitats. We can't expect to conserve these species if we continue putting habitats into separate boxes marked 'woodland', 'grassland', 'wetland' or whatever. 

This is why we've put together a project for Ranscombe Farm Reserve where we will be blurring the distinctions between our arable fields and the adjacent - mainly wooded - habitats. Called 'Life on the Edges', this new project has been generously funded by WREN’s FCC Biodiversity Action Fund, and is targeted at boosting the wildlife using Ranscombe's arable farmland by treating arable habitats as part of a wider habitat matrix. It's notable that half of all Section 41 species (those species in England considered most in need of direct conservation action) associated with arable habitats also require the presence of other, non-arable habitats nearby (see Natural England Research Report NERR024); these include birds such as Yellowhammer and Turtle Dove, mammals such as Harvest Mouse.

As I write this, we are already underway with a series of project activities, including targeted management for particular wild plants, bringing hundreds of metres of woodland edges into management, and work on hedgerow creation. We've also started a programme of surveying and monitoring the plants, bumblebees, birds and other species which we expect to benefit from the work, with the help of a new team of volunteer surveyors, and we've already had some exciting results ... but you'll have to wait for a future blog to find out more!

Related pages:

A long, hard game

December 03 2015 - 15:32

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to chair a formidable bunch of conservation scientists, species specialists and naturalists tasked by the Government with identifying what was needed to meet the conservation targets that it had set itself.  

We took up the challenge with gusto and, after what I admit felt like an age of pontificating and ruminating in our respective taxonomic corners, we managed to create a route map of how to shift our precious species away from the edge of extinction and reported it back to the Government we were trying to support.  

That was back then... Since when the headlines have reminded us with depressing regularity of the Government funding cuts made to the natural environment that literally drain the life and colour out of our natural world.  

It was against this backdrop that, last year,  a partnership of seven conservation charities with a focus on species, Plantlife included, came together to see if we could create a coalition that would focus on how to re-balance the playing field so that our wildlife has a fighting chance of recovery.   

Above: Can Pheasant's Eye (Adonis annua) be brought "Back from the Brink"?

The Species First partnership (Amphibian & Reptile Conservation, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and The RSPB), with our unique focus on vulnerable plants and animals, met with a palpable sense of ambition and commitment to start dreaming of what could be.  Indebted to the scientific advice provided by the expert group I'd chaired all those years earlier, we worked to splice this together.  It was an exciting and at times fervent period. 

Seven key themes emerged with a focus on rejuvenating the natural processes that would  allow the targeted species to thrive in bigger and better sites. From initial ideas came more detailed plans of how to bring our most threatened species back from the brink - and a project was born! 

Working with Natural England, we've pooled our collective expertise and have built on each others' efforts to establish a truly formidable partnership project focused on 100 of our most threatened plants, fungi and animals. 

Vigorous debate and a common ambition brought us through the darker hours of sweat and toil that is the reality of pulling together a truly collaborative partnership.  Looking back, you can see how the hard work and long days built into a crescendo of activity that translated all that effort and expertise into the inevitable paperwork - a huge funding application submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a modest £5 million to bring over 100 species "Back from the Brink"... 

And then the torturous wait for a decision.  But finally, we have the news we were all hoping for: a thumbs up from the HLF to spend a year developing all the project elements before submitting a final application in 2016. The Back from the Brink project will I hope set a benchmark: seven landscape-scale projects rooted in conservation science that, together, will help transform some of our most important wildlife sites for all their wildlife. 

When in years to come you marvel at a Wormwood Moonshiner in the Brecks, or the beauty of Pheasant's Eye  in Yorkshire, or indeed the sweet smell of Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) in Dorset remember, ours is a sustained long game and we need your support every step of the way. 

Blooming late

Hundreds of wildflower species are still going strong in the unusually mild conditions...

November 19 2015 - 09:32

Hundreds of wildflower species are still going strong in the unusually mild conditions...

Hundreds of wildflower species are still going strong in the unusually mild conditions...

When it comes to the weather, I prefer to avoid sensationalist headlines exclaiming how exceptionally mild/cold/wet/dry/hot the current season is. I tend to take the long view; as my dad always says, “it’ll always come right in the end” – warm will be followed by cold, drought with rain.

But by any standard, this autumn really has proved to be exceptionally mild. In north Wales, where I live, November started off at around 20°C and temperatures since then have rarely dipped into single figures. It’s been very wet and very windy, but plants simply shrug off these extremes. At this time of year, temperature is the Governess of all things floral.

And there are flowers everywhere. In the last week I’ve delighted in seeing oxeye daisies, yarrow, red clover, meadow buttercup, white campion, smooth sow-thistle, dandelions, ragwort, common fumitory and scarlet pimpernel. Social media is alive with reports and sightings. In Kent, Kingfisher (@Barbus59) has seen (amongst others) tufted vetch, field scabious, wild marjoram, herb Robert, common poppy and viper’s-bugloss at our Ranscombe Farm reserve. In Lincolnshire, Grantham Ecologist (@GranthamEcology) found 17 species in flower along the Grantham Canal, while over in Devon, Martin Rand (@martin_rand) clocked an astonishing 97 species in flower on a 2.5 mile walk.

But this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. We must remember that plants are adaptable and opportunistic. If there's a chance for a quick bit of seed-setting they'll take it. The species flowering now are likely to have adopted one of the following strategies:

Summer-repeaters: Plants that tend to flower in late spring and summer - e.g. oxeye daisy, red clover (below), field scabious and meadow buttercup - tend to finish flowering in July/August and set seed between August and October. Normally they'd then go into a state of apparent dormancy, although they’re often actually putting effort into vegetative growth - spreading sideways by rhizomes and stolons to ‘clump up’. But if conditions stay mild some of this vegetative growth turns reproductive and flowering shoots are thrown up in the hope of setting a bit more seed before the winter.

Late hangers-on: Later-flowering plants, like yarrow (below), common toadflax and harebell) are programmed to flower towards the end of the summer – an event usually triggered by decreasing day-length rather than temperature. They will often simply continue going until stopped by the first frosts.  

Continual bloomers: A few plants, notably white deadnettle, seem to have no distinct flowering season and just keep flowering nearly all-year round. Even in the depth of winter you can often find this in flower, especially in a warmer urban areas.

Cornfield opportunists: These annuals are adapted to grow with our crops, germinating in autumn or spring, flowering the following summer and setting seed by July or August when the crops are harvested. But these are genuine opportunists and buried seed will readily germinate in soil disturbed during summer. Such plants often flower in autumn and early winter if it’s mild, and there are reports of field pansy, sun spurge, field woundwort and common poppies still going strong.


Genuine winter bloomers:  A few plants, such as winter heliotrope and common gorse, are actually programmed to flower from autumn to spring and will start early in mild years.

Precocious spring flowers: But the ones that really delight us are the spring flowers that emerge early, months ahead of schedule. Usually, the immature flower buds of these plants form in summer and sit tight over-winter, lying dormant in buds or bulbs ready for warmer spring weather. But a short cool snap followed by warmer weather in autumn can trick them into thinking spring has arrived and several have already been spotted, including scommon dog-violet (such as the ones below spotted by Marc Cruise @FloresHibernia in Co. Kerry, Ireland), cowslips and lesser celandines.

This weekend winter conditions are set to arrive. With hill-snow and just-above-freezing temperatures forecast (probably along with some ridiculous headlines including the words 'blast' and 'arctic'), it’ll be a reminder that we’ve been spoilt rotten by the balmy weather.

Why not show us what’s still in flower where you live? Every Sunday evening, @Fernandfennel run #wildflowerhour on Twitter from 8-9pm, when people share photos of wild flowers they’ve seen during the week. It’s a great way to take the pulse of our flora and share and learn about what our flora is up to.


You might not have heard of it, but you’ll know its effects...

November 18 2015 - 12:17

Cladoptosis in action.

Cladoptosis in action.

With storm Barney bringing wind gusts of 85 mph overnight, the botanical word of today has to be cladoptosis

You might not have heard of this term before, but you’ll be very familiar with its effects. Venture outside this morning and as you step over and around the scattering of fallen twigs and small branches that litter the pavement, maybe cursing as you do, you’re seeing cladoptosis in action. 

The term comes from the Greek clados, meaning a branch, and ptosis, meaning falling (the ‘p’ in cladoptosis is sometimes silent, but sometimes not. I tend to take after our university lecturer who did pronounce it). 

The word describes the process of self-pruning in trees as they grow. Just as unwanted leaves are shed in autumn, so are any unwanted small twigs and branches. If this didn’t happen, tree crowns would become hopelessly crowded and congested, with too many leaves to support and too much shade being cast on lower branches. It’s all part of the way that trees grow – opportunistically producing lots of smaller shoots and branches that can fill the spaces around them if need be.  As trees grow over time, their canopies bump into neighbouring trees; in the resulting jostling for space this extra ‘shoot’ capacity is shed when it’s no longer needed. In addition, cladoptosis also allows any damaged and diseased branches to be dropped from the tree.  

The process itself is similar to that of leaves when they’re shed in autumn, with a small disk of tissue – the abscission layer – developing at the base of the leaf stalk or twig. When this tissue dies and gives way, a clean scar is left behind which helps to prevent infections. 

Cladoptosis can occur at any time of year but in Britain it’s most visible in autumn as gales sweep in and help the process along. When you see all those small twigs and branches lying on the ground, don’t think of them as having just ‘fallen off’. Most of them will actually have been shed on purpose, part of a carefully orchestrated pattern of growth being played out by the trees above your head. 

Related pages:


November 18 2015 - 10:33

Wood anemones © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

Wood anemones © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

How's the weather near you? For much of the country Storm Barney has been creating a bit of a bluster.

In such conditions we can't help but be reminded of the Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa) which also goes by the name of the Windflower. Why? Well, the word "anemone" is actually Greek and means "daughter of the wind". 

Ironically, though, windflowers don't need the wind to spread their seed. Instead, they rely on the humble ant. By releasing a special oil, they persuade the insects to take their seeds into their nests, where conditions are perfect to germinate. This is one of the reasons that wood anemones spread so slowly!

For other plants, storms such as Barney can be a good thing and Dr Trevor Dines will be reveal why in a blog later today.

In the meantime, please share any thoughts about windflowers in the comments below...

Related pages:

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 7

Germination, regrowth and grazing

November 05 2015 - 10:55

After all the excitement of the restoration work a sense of quiet descended over the meadow. The brown, scalped field was covered with a fine scattering of seed. But with gulls, pigeons and pheasants flocking to the field, we needed a suitably scary means of scaring them off. A couple of ‘hawkeye’ spinning globes did the job admirably, with flashing faces designed to frighten the living daylights out of anything flappable. 

And then it came warm - unseasonably warm. And then it came wet – predictably wet. I was told that, despite the severe scalping it had received, the grass would grow back, “it always does”. And my word it has. I didn’t expect it to grow quite so rapidly though. In just a few weeks the field has gone from brown (above) to deep green (below), and there’s now little trace of the trauma it suffered.

With temperatures in the teens, and even reaching the 20s at the start of November, germination has been amazingly rapid. There can be few greater pleasures than wandering rather aimlessly around the meadow and finding thousands upon thousands of seedlings appearing in the turf at your feet.

There are small ones and large ones, single ones and clumps of them, some with rounded seed-leaves and some with pointed seed-leaves, some with smooth pairs of true leaves and some with single hairy leaves appearing. I’m not attempting to identify them at this stage – that seems a rather thankless task that would detract from the pure fun of it all – but some future flowers can already be guessed at, like this buttercup.

And could this grow up one day to be a knapweed, or rough hawkbit, or a daisy?

It would be wrong, though, for me to paint a picture of complete pastoral idyll appearing from the earth. As well as the seed we’ve scattered, the soil already has its own natural ‘seed bank’ – a store of seed lying dormant, like raisins scattered through a fruitcake. Once disturbed and brought to the surface, they too germinate. In a few patches of the meadow some less welcome plants are germinating, such as docks (below), thistles and nettles, plants that are echoes of the fields’ more agricultural past.

Thankfully they are the exception rather than the rule, though, and hopefully I’ll be able to control these more boisterous species next year, pulling by hand and preventing them from seeding again.

Along with the flowering plants, the cooler nights have triggered the appearance of a host of wonderful grassland fungi. The turf is now dotted, speckled and ringed with them, the brightly-coloured waxcaps being the most joyous. Butter Waxcap, with its pale yellow cap, is the most common, but there’s also the slimy orange Glutinous Waxcap, and the slightly sinister Blackening Waxcap, which turns from orange to black. Perhaps the most beautiful though, is Golden Waxcap (below).

With all the growth of the grass, we really need to keep on top of things. If it’s allowed to re-grow unhindered it will smother the small seedlings as they emerge. Thankfully, our two Highland cows – Breagha and Cadi - are on hand to munch away, grazing the grass down but leaving the small seedlings unharmed. They very rarely raise their heads from the sward at the moment.

Finally, we had great pleasure putting up our Coronation Meadows roundel on the gate to the meadow. We’re especially delighted with this version in Welsh - Dôl y Coroni – and it provides a lovely little highlight to the restoration work that’s been done this year. All of this has been very generously funded by Biffa Award and Natural Resources Wales and I want to thank them personally for the meadow making adventure they’ve supported.

This whole meadow creation adventure has been a complete eye-opener for me. Although I knew the principles and theory behind meadow restoration, such as why it’s better to use natural seeding techniques with seed coming from a local donor meadow and why you need to open up the sward so much before seeding, until you put it into practise for yourself you can’t imagine what’s really involved. One of the biggest joys has been acquiring our own livestock. I’m a botanist at heart, but I’ve become just as fascinated by the intimate role that grazing animals, like our Highland cows, play in the creation of meadows. Hopefully, they will both grow and flourish together, the way wildflower meadows have done for hundreds of years.


The complete meadow restoration story can be followed here:

Grounds for celebration

November 04 2015 - 12:52

Great news from our Ranscombe Farm Reserve. A recent count in Kitchen Field revealed that the endangered wildflower Ground-pine (Ajuga chamaepitys -below) is doing better than ever!

Since July over a hundred new seedlings have germinated bringing the current total to 157 - our highest count ever. This suggests there's been a substantial amount of summer germination (something notable in and of itself since the books will tell you that Ground-pine germinates in spring and autumn).

Despite the name, this rare wild flower isn't related to the pine tree, although it does bear a remarkable similarity to its seedlings at certain stages of growth. It also releases that distinctive "pine fresh" scent when its leaves are crushed. 

Ground-pine used to be fairly common in the south-east of England but has declined to such an extent that its now only found in less than a hundred sites in Britain. It needs small patches of open ground on chalk soil to grow and, traditionally, arable field margins in chalky areas provided just that. Changes in agricultural practices, however, have taken their toll and coupled with loss of grazing and smothering by coarse plants, Ground-pine now finds itself at very high risk of extinction where it was once abundant.

We're incredibly fortunate to have this diminutive wild flower thriving at Ranscombe Farm Reserve, but this just goes to show how important such havens can be. From just £3 a month you can help Ground-pine continue its recovery and provide a safe home many similar wild plants declining across the England, Scotland and Wales. Become a member today.

Response for Nature Scotland: what’s next?

54% of flowering plants in Scotland are in decline. What can we do about that?

October 15 2015 - 14:44

In 2013, the State of Nature partnership, part of LINK’s Wildlife Forum, published the State of Nature report for Scotland. Here in Scotland, 54% of flowering plants are in decline and 28% of these are in severe decline. Nature is in trouble.  As an conservation community, our response was of course to ask, "what can we do about that?"  Here, I’ll outline what we’ve concluded could and should be done, and how we have reached those conclusions. 

But first... let me outline why this is important.

We believe that we have a duty to look after our world, including its nature, for future generations.  Besides these intrinsic values – making sure that our children’s children can pick  wild flowers and hold snail races - nature has other ‘basic’ values. It is crucial to our quality of life and to the planet’s life support systems.

As a community, naturally, we care about nature. We, and our supporters, want to see it protected and restored. More than that, we and our supporters, want to see the global biodiversity targets for 2020, endorsed and agreed by the Scottish Government, met in full.

So, how do we go about answering the question: “what can we do about it?”

We adopted a scientifically based approach to build consensus amongst experts and identify robust predictions. We were thus able to identify eight core needs for nature: six ecological needs (e.g. special places) and two social needs (e.g. more support, more fans). What we didn’t do was sit in a closed room and generate a random list. Instead we were keen to use an inclusive and structured approach. 

The result is two reports: an online technical report detailing the approach and consultations from all four countries of the UK and four summary reports, launched simultaneously in Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and Belfast on 13 October.

So, what did we conclude?

There are 10 key issues where we’d like to see progress from Government.  You need to read the report for all ten. In summary however, nature needs:

  1. An inspiring vision – in Scotland, we have a route map to 2020, and that is only 5 years away. It’s good next step BUT we need a longer term and more ambitious vision, and one that truly inspires more than just the people in this room, and the people we work with to act now. 
  2. Full implementation and defence of current nature legislation – the Scottish Parliament has, over the last decade passed some excellent legislation – the Nature Conservation, Marine and Water Environment Acts to name a few – but none is implemented or enforced as vigorously as they might be and this is undermining efforts.  What’s more, we, in Scotland, must play our part in defending legislation such as the EU Nature Directives from attacks by those with a de-regulatory agenda.
  3. A network of well-managed special places: In Scotland, we have a network of designated sites. These need to be better understood and appreciated, better managed and more joined-up.  A good start is the acknowledgement of this in the National Planning Framework and the 2020 Route Map, but this acknowledgement must be turned into delivery.
  4. Species safeguarded and restored: Species are not just colourful characters, incidental to some wider ecosystem service. Instead they are the building blocks of our ecosystems. Without them, we have no services – no clean water, no food, no clean air. We need them and we need proper monitoring and targeted action for those that are of conservation concern. We have a list in the Scottish Biodiversity List– we need to act on that list.
  5. Improved access to justice for nature: nature can’t “speak for itself”. We need to enable citizens, communities and representative NGOs to seek reviews of decisions by Government and other state bodies whenever those decisions impact on the environment.  This isn’t just about compliance with Aarhus (although that would also be true), it’s about an empowered public, who are connected with and appreciating nature.
  6. Improved incentives for land managers: Sustainable and High Nature Value farming and forestry systems support biodiversity and people. We could have so much more in Scotland. With the right incentives, these systems could not only be more widespread but provide a genuine underpinning for the marketing of our “green, clean” produce. Without this approach, are we really as green and clean as we think we are? 

Finally, while this report focuses on the action we need from Government, we recognise that while Government is crucial as the representative of the state, able pass/enforce legislation and/or allocate taxpayers’ resources, it needs to be supported by civil society. We have included pledges that we – as NGOs – will make our contributions to the joint effort.

We pledge to:

  • Inspire
  • Work with land mangers to make space for nature
  • Work with government
  • Give regular, scientifically robust updates on the State of Nature (there will be another one along soon)
  • Support our citizen scientists
  • Speak up for nature. Nature can’t do it but we can and we will.

We pledge to do all we can to ensure that Scotland’s nature is not forgotten, taken for granted or exploited.

What can you do?

  • Have a look at the report. 
  • Talk to all of us behind it 
  • Work out what you can do
  • Work out what others can do
  • Remember: we are all in this together. Others have used that phrase and not really meant it. We really do mean it. We are all in this together.

Related information:

How to use a hand lens

October 05 2015 - 10:24

Using a hand lens © Beth Halski

Using a hand lens © Beth Halski

For botanical purposes, a hand lens works much better than a magnifying glass. It will not only make it easier to identify plants but you’ll also be able to see the beautiful, small structures on a plant which are not easily visible to the naked eye.

A hand lens is easily obtainable on the internet (try Summerfield Books). Start with one with x10 magnification, and expect to spend £10–£20.

Hand lenses are not used in the same way as a traditional magnifying glass but are held close to the eye. Here’s how to do it:

1. If you are right-handed, hold the lens in your right hand as close as you can to your right eye (and vice versa for left-handers). If you wear glasses, you can take them off or not – whatever is the most comfortable.

2. Hold your specimen between the thumb and forefinger of your other hand and bring it very close to the lens until it comes into sharp focus. Don’t move the lens.

3. Try at all times to have contact between the hand holding the lens and your cheek, and also between your left hand and your right hand. This gives you maximum control and allows you to keep specimen and lens steady. With practice this will become easier and easier and you’ll find you can do it without shutting your other eye.

4. Now wonder at the marvels of wild plants such as shimmering glands on hairs and pollen grains on an anther.

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 6

..and scatter the good seed on the land

October 01 2015 - 14:01

When we started out on the process of restoring a wildflower meadow, I had little idea how many different elements – the hay cut, the grazing and the groundwork – would have to be orchestrated in order to bring off the final flourish. After weeks of preparation, though, a magical day had arrived. It was finally time to seed the meadow.

The trick is to get as much seed as possible from the donor site (the Coronation Meadow) onto the prepared receptor site (our meadow). Do it too early in the year and most of the seed won’t be ripe, but leave it too late and the seed drops back into the donor meadow and is lost. All the different meadow species flower and set seed at different times, so it’s difficult to judge a single ‘best’ time, and then there's the weather. If the season is early or very dry, the work has to be done much earlier. And of course once everything's in place, you need a few days of dry weather to do the collecting. No wonder I was a nervous wreck!

Thankfully, the cool, wet summer we’ve had means that things are flowering late and the seed is hanging on, but was still getting a tad late in the season to be doing the restoration. Finally, with a break in the weather, we hatched a plan. There are three main ways to get seed the meadow and, in order to get as much seed as possible, we decided to do all three!

1. Green hay. With this method, a crop of hay is cut on the donor meadow and taken immediately (while it’s still green) to the receptor meadow, where it’s spread out thinly and allowed to dry. The crop contains lots of seed, some intact in the seed-heads and some that will already have fallen into the sward, so it’s a good way of getting as much seed as possible late in the year. A cut was arranged at the donor meadow and a trailer load of fresh hay arrived.

This was unloaded into a convential muck spreader which did a surprisingly good job of scattering the hay on the prepared field.

2. Brush harvesting. This involves using a special mini harvester towed on the back of a quad-bike that strips the standing seedheads and collects the seed in a hopper. By making repeated passes of the meadow a lot of seed can be collected.

Bags of this seed started arriving from Moss Hill, and I was like a kid at Christmas. Because it's so concentrated, the best way to spread this seed is by hand.

And it's not just seeds that come in these bags. There were numerous grasshoppers and beetles and even a frog!

3. Hand collecting. As the name implies, this involves collecting seed by hand! It's impossible to collect sufficient quantities for a whole meadow, but hand harvesting is very enjoyable and allows you to target particular species you want. I spent a very pleasant few hours collecting seed of things like bush vetch, an unusual rayed from of knapweed (below) and betony from the Coronation Meadow to ensure we had some in ours. These seeds were also scattered by hand in the new meadow.

Once all this seed was in place I must admit it was a tough few days, because the green hay had to be spread around by hand for the next few days as it dried. I never stopped smiling though, and was grateful for the help of friends and family (efforts rewarded with home-made Bara Brith). I also used a pitchfork inherited from my grandad, so I felt he was involved in some way too. By the end of it, an impressive amount of seed was visible in the field. 

The stage has now been set. With luck and fair weather we'll get some germination this autumn, and by spring next year a new wildflower meadow will begin to emerge.

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 5

Arrival of the meadow making machines...

September 25 2015 - 07:42

They say that fortune favours the brave. As the machines arrived early one morning, I had to take a very deep breath. “We’re doing the right thing” I told myself.  The big day had arrived. It was time to scalp our meadow.

The sheep and cattle had done a fantastic job grazing the grass down, but much more drastic action was now needed. Experience making meadows elsewhere has shown us that, as long as the soil isn’t too fertile and there aren’t too many ‘weeds’ in the soil seed bank, the harder you hit the pasture at the start of the restoration the better the results in the end. Over the years a thick layer of ‘thatch’ had built up in our field – a deep mat of interwoven dead grass forming a barrier over the soil. We needed to remove as much of this thatch as possible and break open the soil surface so that seed from the Coronation Meadow can find bare soil in which to germinate. So we moved the livestock into the ungrazed upper field, where they tucked into thick grass, and unloaded the machinery.

Boys love their toys, and so do many grown men. Andrew Kehoe of Kehoe Countryside – the contractors doing the work for us - certainly had lots of toys. There were shiny new tractors, a set of Einbock harrows, a mini-digger, a muck-spreader and quite a few trailers. The most important machine, though, was a bit of kit I’d not seen before – a Ryetec flail mower. Mounted on a tractor, this was manoeuvred into position at the top of the meadow. A few seconds later the peace was shattered as it roared into life, and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

The Ryetec is basically a large hedge cutter that sits on the ground. Pulled across the field by the tractor, a cylinder of heavy duty cast iron hammers rotates at high speed, ripping and cutting away the grass down to just above soil level. All the material is collected in a hopper. I was astonished at the job it did. The thick grass sward was replaced by what I can only liken to a heavily warn-out rugby pitch, with grass less than an inch high and lots of bare soil. Needless to say, the hopper was full after one length of the meadow and it tipped out a huge pile of dirty grass. I gulped. Where on Earth it would all this material go? There was no time to worry about that though – the Ryetec was off again!

As the Ryetech worked across one side of the field, the Einbock harrow was manoeuvred into place on the other. This did a slightly different job. Dragged behind a tractor, its sprung metal tines ripped at the ground, pulling out the thick thatch and tearing open the soil. On long grass it collected a huge amount of material, but didn’t quite get the effect we were after.

The harrow really came into its own though when it worked behind the Ryetec. Here, it left deep scratches in the earth, perfect for the seeds to drop into.

By the end of the day, our grassy field had been utterly transformed. “We want lots of brown earth” Andrew had said that morning, and that’s exactly what we had. Importantly though, the grass hadn’t been simply been stripped. The roots are still there, under the soil surface, and will grow back. It’s just that when it does, it won’t be as thick. There will be room for the wildflowers to grow now.

Up the Orme

Why the north Welsh headland is one of Britain's best botanical landscapes

September 22 2015 - 13:45

It’s 6 o’clock in the morning and I’m on a train heading north towards Llandudno. Such an early start is a real joy because this journey is taking me to the Great Ormes Head, one of the 24 Important Plant Areas (IPAs) in Wales. My predecessor, Dr. Trevor Dines, said I would fall in love with the place and he wasn’t wrong. Just ten months ago I made my first ever visit here and wondered at its beauty, the setting and its grasslands and heathlands, although admittedly they were not at their best in November!

The Great Ormes Head is identified as an IPA because it contains some of the largest and potentially best species rich limestone grasslands in the UK. It’s also home to our only native cotoneaster, the Great Orme Berry Cotoneaster cambricus. The range of species found here is amazing from the early flowering and reclusive Hutchinsia, Hornungia petraea, to the magnificent Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine (below, © Chris Channon).

As well as being an IPA it’s also a Special Area for Conservation, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Local Nature Reserve and contains a National Nature Reserve with the marvellous name of Maes y Facrell meaning ‘field of mackerel’!

The reason for my journey today extends back to 2001 and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The grazier of the Great Ormes Head at that time had to restrict the movement of his flock of sheep, gathering them from across the Orme and confining them to the walled enclosure of Parc Farm – a large farm on the top of the Orme. It was the beginning of the end of a shepherded flock grazing the wider grasslands, as the farmer found them to be much more manageable when restricted to the enclosed farmland of the summit. 

Above: Welsh goats grazing on the Orme. © Paul's Imaging Company

Moving forward to 2014 and I started to understand the Orme better through Conwy County Borough Councils’ Warden, Sally Pidcock who has worked there for 16 years. A call from Sally in March this year revealed that Parc Farm was being put up for sale by the current owner. This was a hugely important opportunity. Since the foot and mouth outbreak much of the Orme has become severely undergrazed with threats to some of its botanical interest. This was a chance to try and resolve the shepherding of livestock on the site as Parc Farm owns all the grazing rights to the 292 hectares of unenclosed land on the Great Orme. Within a few weeks, myself and others at Plantlife put a strong case together to convince the National Trust to consider taking it on given its botanical importance – it must surely be one of the top five sites for plants in Britain. 

Fortunately their offer was accepted and a whole new chapter for the Great Orme is now opening up with Plantlife Cymru playing a key role in working with the National Trust to improve the condition of the grasslands and heathlands and to address the opportunity of a site visited by 600,000 people each year.

Above: Great Orme. © Ashley Perkins

So today is the first partnership meeting where all those organisations with an interest will meet and try and come up with proposals to be incorporated in a future management plan. It’s going to be a long day, as I won’t get home till 10 pm, but it will be tremendously fulfilling!

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 4

Time to bring in the grazers...

September 18 2015 - 14:01

Grass is amazing stuff. As soon as our meadow was cut for hay it started to grow back - a lot. After just a few days the apparently dead, brown stubble changed into verdant green pasture. There must be something special in this Welsh rain to make it grow so fast.

But all this growth isn’t good for meadow restoration. When the seed arrives, we have to get it down into contact with the soil to germinate. It’ll also need lots of open space to grow and not be crowded out by the grass. We need something to keep the re-growth in check. It’s time to bring in the grazers. 

It has been said that meadows make animals and animals make meadows. It’s an intimate link at the heart of every meadow – if they’re not cut and grazed at the right time each year they quickly lose their diversity of flowers. But different animals graze in different ways. Sheep use their teeth, cutting the grass like scissors. I always think of them as woolly hairdressers, clipping and trimming the grass into neat and tidy short-back-and-sides. Cows are very different. They use their tongues, grabbing and holding tussocks of grass before slicing and pulling off mouthfuls. They’re less fussy about what they’ll eat and they leave a rougher sward. This makes them better suited for wildflower meadows but, for this particular job – a hard graze of the re-growth - we need both sheep and cows. 
So with the grass rising rapidly above our ankles a friendly local farmer delivered 45 yearling ewes:

At this time of year there are lots of lambs around so farmers are very keen to get some extra grazing fields. A hardy and productive cross between Highlanders (a breed from New Zealand) and Welsh Mountain sheep, they’re giving the grass a fantastic short-back-and-sides.

Now for some cows. It started at Eglwysbach show - one of those wonderful local agricultural events where the local farm community come together to celebrate the year and compete with their jams, extraordinary vegetables, and livestock. Looking around the cattle, we saw suddenly saw some Highland cattle. With all that long ginger hair – more teddy bear than bull - it was love at first sight. A few days later I met the manager of the Moss Hill Coronation Meadow and happened to ask whether he knew anyone around that had Highland cattle. “Yes, my colleague Geraint Hughes” came the reply. “He’ll probably be doing the seed harvesting from this meadow for you soon. He’s got a herd of them and I think he has some for sale”. Fate is sometimes sealed with remarkable coincidences.    

So, early one Saturday morning in torrential rain, we made our way into the hills above the Conwy valley with Geraint and his wife Eleri to meet their fold of Highland cows. I didn’t realise they came in various colours - red, yellow, black, white and brindle – all of them magnificent animals. Small and docile, they’re a tough and hardy breed, making them ideal for people new to keeping cows. Then we were introduced to two heifers (females that have not yet had a calf) for sale: Cadi - a red one year old - and Breagha - a yellow two year old. By that afternoon the deal was done. We owned our first cattle!


Of course, you can’t just buy cows and bung them in a field. We’ve been thrown into the deep mire of agricultural paperwork – registering our land as our own holding, registering our herd, registering with animal health, registering on-line so we can record movements of individual animals between farms. All necessary to keep track of our animals in the face of things like foot-and-mouth and TB.  
And all utterly worthwhile when Cadi and Brea arrived a few days later... 

They wasted no time setting to work on the grass. In fact, Cadi didn’t even get all the way through the gateway before tucking in!

Both cows are halter trained (they’ve competed in the show ring in the past) and are very tame, so we’re now getting used to leading a couple of cows for a walk around the meadow each evening.  A very novel experience indeed.   

I love the fact that this meadow restoration adventure has reconnected me with my farming roots. I know two cows don’t make me a farmer, but I’m as excited about our new cattle as I am about the flowers that’ll grow in the meadow. They’re real characters and they’ll play a fundamental role in the story of our meadow for years to come.   

With the grazing in place and the grass under control, we’re now playing a waiting game with the weather. If we can just get a few dry days in a row, we can bring in the meadow making machinery. 

The Oliver Rackham Memorial Walk.

Tim Pankhurst remembers a giant of woodland conservation.

September 10 2015 - 14:02

Last April, one Friday after work, I drove out to Hayley Wood, the Befordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust’s first nature reserve, to join an organised walk.  It was just lovely, the woodland floor scattered with pale yellow oxlip and the creamy white of wood anemone, pinpricks of violet hinting at the bluebells to come and the coppiced hazel dotted with delicate green breaking buds. 

But this wasn’t just a regular spring walk; it was an annual fixture with the Cambridgeshire Conservation Forum (CCF) and was meant to be led by Professor Oliver Rackham, who sadly died in February this year.  

It was Oliver of course who made Hayley famous with the publication in 1975 of the seminal work Hayley Wood, its History and Ecology. He is perhaps more widely known for the magnificent The History of the Countryside and other works of consequence, but it really all began at Hayley, which was, in 1964, one of the first of the country’s ancient woods to have coppicing revived specifically for conservation purposes.  Although, by the time it was published, restoration coppicing was gathering credibility as a management approach and being applied elsewhere, Oliver’s book spread the word more widely and, more importantly, provided a foundation stone in the evidence base justifying the work.  It is easy to forget just how deeply unpopular ‘cutting down trees’ was back then and people needed to be persuaded that it was the right thing to do. Restoration coppicing is now a well established and widely applied conservation approach, in great part due to Oliver Rackham’s work at Hayley Wood.

Above: Coppiced woodland at Plantlife's Ranscombe Farm Reserve in Kent.

So the CCF, in essence the community of the conservation bodies based in Cambridge, decided to hold the very well attended walk in honour of Oliver and we had a very pleasant stroll round the wood, renewing old acquaintances, chatting about the management and sharing stories of Oliver.  My memories go back to the nineties when I was Reserves Manager for the Trust and responsible for the wood; Oliver was a stalwart of the management committee, pitching up in his trademark bright orange socks and sandals, and was always ready with helpful guidance, on Hayley and any other aspect of woodland policy.  His passing of course means the loss of a learned source of advice but more significantly the start of a new, post-Rackham, era in conservation woodland management, one of established practice built on experimental evidence and critical observation, most of which he provided himself.

5 native herbs for “More Herbs, Less Salt” Day

One or two may surprise you...

August 28 2015 - 09:44

Any excuse to use native plants in your cooking is a good one in our book, and if it encourages healthy eating all the better. So why not join us in swapping the salt for a few more herbs as part of More Herbs, Less Salt Day tomorrow? By way of encouragement, here are five herbs that are native to these Isles. One or two may surprise you...

1. Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare)

A staple of Mediterranean cooking, this herb often conjures images of more sun-kissed climes. But did you know this wild relative is common on the lime-rich soils of southern Britain? Sadly it is less frequently found in northern areas, where it seems to be declining. According to folklore this herb belongs to Satan, hence why some gardeners curse the ground as they plant it, in order for it to grow properly. Image © pveronk/CC BY-NC.

2. Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Now this one must be a Mediterranean herb, surely? Oregano is, after all the "pizza herb" - so named by American G.I.s who took a liking to it whilst stationed in Italy during Word War II. Actually, this herb is even more common than Basil on these shores. More frequently known as WIld Marjorum, it is widely scattered through Britain but rarer in Scotland. It grows on dry, infertile soils, especially those on chalk and limestone. Image © littlehonda_350/CC BY-NC-ND.

3. Thyme (Thymus polytrichus)

Three species of thyme are native to Britain. Wild thyme is the most widespread but the least scented. Large Thyme - found in south and east England - is more pungent, but strongest of all is Breckland Thyme, a rare plant found in East Anglia. Roman soldiers once bathed in thyme-infused water as they believed the herb gave them courage and strength.  Image © Erutuon/CC BY-SA.

4. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

Used for centuries in relaxing infusions, this spreading perennial herb is found mostly in southern and western England and Wales. Sadly, it’s been lost from many sites and in Britain is considered vulnerable to extinction. Thanks, in part, to our efforts this wildflower was brought back from the brink. It likes light, mildly acidic soil and grows on heaths and commons. Its name derives from the Greek for "ground apple", probably because of its apple-like scent.

5. Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor)

The young leaves of Salad Burnet can be added to salads and are said to have a taste similar to cucumber. More or less confined to soils with chalk or limestone, it grows mainly in parts of England and Wales where these rocks outcrop. It’s rare in Scotland. Soldiers fighting in the American Revolution allegedly drank tea made with this herb, believing that if they were wounded, the ingested burnet would stop them from bleeding to death. Image © Dluogs/CC BY-SA.

Want to know how to grow wild flowers in your garden? Here's how...

Special thanks to Rowan Sutton for herbal fact research.

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 3

A visit to the "donor" meadow.

August 25 2015 - 14:39

Thirteen miles away up the valley from where we live, a small mountain stream – the Afon Machno - enters the River Conwy. On the banks of this tributary lies a remarkable little meadow. It might be small – just 2.9 acres (1.2 ha) in size – but it packs an incredibly impressive botanical punch, with a wealth of wildlife on show even in the middle August. 

This is Moss Hill, the Coronation Meadow for the county of Conwy. Owned and managed by the National Trust, it’s a real gem of a place, thoroughly deserving of its accolade as a flagship meadow for the county.  In a few weeks time, some of the precious seed will be harvested from this “donor” meadow and brought to our own “recipient” meadow. The seed from one good meadow will sow the future of another.  

So, early one morning earlier this week, I paid a visit to Moss Hill. What I love most about the Coronation Meadows is that each one is different. Each has its own special community of plants – different species in different quantities - that gives it character and identity. Moss Hill is unique. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. 

Protected by a colonnade of trees, the meadow undulates over the rocks below. In one spot, the rock breaks through the surface, a broad dome of stone that provides a viewpoint over the flowers. Elsewhere, folds in the rock accumulate deeper soil and I think it’s this variation – thin, skeletal dry soil in some parts and deep, moist, fertile soil in others that fosters the diversity of vegetation at Moss Hill.

Everywhere I looked there was a haze of Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra), Betony (Betonica officinalis) and Devil’s-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), this latter a real feature of the meadow, growing in quantities you don’t often see. All these flowers hosted a myriad of bees, butterflies, hoverflies and beetles, a frantic morning rush hour infinitely more pleasant to be involved with than our own commutes. 

These bright pink and blue highlights were softened by patches of billow Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and, surprisingly, lots of Burnet Saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga) – a species that usually prefers lime-rich soil and was unexpected on this mildly acidic site.

Getting down on hands and knees in the damp grass, the Eyebrights (Euphrasia sp.) were flowering abundantly. Each sparkling flower was striped with purple and stained with a single yellow spot. Their resemblance to a bruised eye means they were once used to cure all sorts of eye problems, hence the common name. They’re some of the most difficult plants to identify correctly (22 species and 71 hybrids are known in Britain, confounding even the best experts), but these were some of the loveliest I’ve seen with large, soft lilac flowers.

Unfortunately, the Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), Greater Butterfly Orchids (Platanthera chlorantha) and Northern Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza purpurella) were long over, but their seed pods could be seen ripening amongst the grass. Still in joyous flower, though, were Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), a lovely form growing here with very deep blue flowers, translucent and luminescent in the morning sun. 

Then a final and very unexpected surprise. Growing in scattered patches and clumps at one end of the meadow was Common Cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense). While not uncommon in north Wales, it’s really a plant of oak woodland and, occasionally, open moors. I’ve never seen it growing in a meadow before, but hear it was, having not read the textbook and happily breaking all the rules. 

Once we get a bit of warm sun in this dismal summer, the seed in this wonderful meadow will quickly ripen. It will then be brought down the valley and scattered on our own field. I can’t wait to see what will appear.

Buzzing about bee stamps

But can you ID the wildflowers they're feeding on?

August 21 2015 - 14:48

We love these new stamps from Royal Mail featuring six of our 250 native species of bees. The illustrations by Richard Lewington are meticulous and vivid, really bringing each bee to life. 

We also love that they’ve been shown in context, feeding from some of the wildflowers on which they rely for pollen and nectar. But can you identify the flowers? Time for a bit of detective work...

(clockwise from top left)

Scabious Bee (Andrena hattorfiana).

No prizes for guessing this one – but which Scabious is it? This rare bee is closely associated with Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis) but also Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria). The pollen collected from Field Scabious, though, has a very characteristic salmon-pink colour, clearly visible in the stamp.

Verdict: Field Scabious

Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus).

This bee is confined to the far north and northwest of Scotland where it lives in flower-rich grassland. As with most bumblebees, it forages from many species of flower, but newly emerged queens show a preference for Bird’s-foot Trefoil in spring. The orange tint to the flowers on the stamp help confirm this flower.

Verdict: Bird’s-foot Trefoil 

Northern Colletes Bee (Colletes floralis).

Another very rare bee found in the Western Isles of Scotland, one site in Cumbria and also in Ireland. This species feeds on a very wide range of flowers – from at least 10 different plant families – making this the most tricky one to identify. The bee does have a preference for the carrot family (Apiaceae) and the illustration could be one of several of these - Pignut (Conopodium majus) or Burnet Saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga) perhaps – but something about the shape and crimping of the flowers suggests Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to me.

Verdict: Yarrow

Potter Flower Bee (Anthophora retusa).

Now found only on the south east coast of England, this species excavates small burrows in sandy soil. It is thought to forage from plants in the cabbage (Brassicaceae) and dead-nettle (Lamiaceae) families, and plant illustrated so beautifully is Ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea) with its distinctive dead-nettle-like flowers.

Verdict: Ground-ivy

Large Mason Bee (Osmia xanthomelana).

This bee on the brink of extinction, being found at a single site on the Isle of Wight. There, the females feed only on Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa). The clear yellow of the flowers illustrated and the arrangement and shape of the leaflets (rather like an Ash leaf) identify this as Horseshoe Vetch.

Verdict: Horseshoe Vetch

Bilberry Bumblebee (Bombus monticola).

A scarce bee of upland areas in Britain, this species feeds on several species but has a distinct preference for bilberries (Vaccinium sp.) in spring. We have five different Vaccinium in Britain – Bilberry, Cranberry, Small Cranberry, Bog Bilberry and Cowberry – but the combination of the broad leaf and the dark pink flower with a very narrow opening means this can only be Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus).

Verdict: Bilberry

Remember, all our bees rely on flowers for supplies of pollen and nectar. Some feed from lots of different types of flower while others rely on just one or two species. Restoring flower-rich habitats across our countryside, as we are doing with projects like Coronation Meadows and Save Our Magnificent Meadows, is essential if we are to save our bees.

You can pick up a set of Bee Stamps on the Royal Mail website here.

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 2

Making hay while the sun shines...

August 14 2015 - 15:45

As a farmer’s son, I probably shouldn’t have been quite so excited, but I arrived home on Tuesday to find our hay being cut at last. The first local farmer we approached feared the fields were full of boulders, the second couldn’t get his machinery down the steep track and the third just failed to show up (I suspect a heavy night at the local agricultural show), so it was a huge relief when the fourth chap we asked arrived with his tractor and mower and got to work. 

It was a perfect summer’s evening and there were no signs of any boulders. Just over an hour later the meadows were cut – all that thick growth chopped off at two inches above the ground and reduced to rows of wilting grass. A couple of buzzards who’d nested nearby got as excited as me, mewing loudly as they searched for an easy meal in the fields. As the evening gathered a red kite joined them, cartwheeling overhead, and as the dark arrived the shadow of a fox moved across the rows of hay.

Then Wednesday was glorious drying weather, with warm, unbroken sunshine all day. What a relief! In the evening, the farmer returned to turn the hay. This operation, of course, aims to get the grass as dry as possible – damp grass at the bottom of the rows gets thrown around, exposing it to air and sunshine – but it also inadvertently shakes and scatters any wildflower seed from their capsules and pods, keeping it in the meadow. 

Then on Thursday we had the threat of thunderstorms spreading from the south. It was a bit of a race – could we get the bailing done before the rain arrived? 

In the nick of time we did. I must say, it’s a far cry from when I was a lad growing up on a farm. In those days, a tractor and bailer would have to go at walking pace. These days, they operate at a sprint! The fields were bailed and cleared in under an hour and the buzzards returned to scout the bare grass.

With this job done, we’re now ready for the next exciting stage...

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 1

An introduction to our fields of green

August 12 2015 - 15:30

Last winter we moved to live in the Conwy valley. For anyone familiar with north Wales, Dyffryn Conwy (as it’s called in Welsh) is a magical place. It follows the course of the Afon Conwy from the Migneint moors in Snowdonia down to the sea at Conwy, where its mouth is guarded by the majestic ramparts of Conwy Castle. Nestled between steep hills, much of the valley is a verdant sliver of green – a pastoral antidote to the harsher slate landscapes of Snowdonia to the south.  

Here, in countryside the colour of a Mallards’ head, we’ve been lucky enough to buy two small meadows. I still can’t really believe it. After years of visiting meadows, helping manage other people’s meadows and advising people how to look after meadows, I can call two of these tapestry squares my own. I can’t really put my excitement into words and I’ve spent most of the spring and summer exploring my little patches of green.

Nestled on a slope next to the river, our two pastures have not been ploughed or re-seeded since the war, so they should be bursting with wildflowers. Years of continuous grazing, though, have prevented many wildflowers from seeding. The effect of this over time has been to reduce the diversity of flowers in the pasture. Small, early-flowering species survive - for example, there are lots of buttercups ... 

There's celandine, field wood-rush, red clover and lesser stitchwort, this last one a good indicator of neglected pasture. In one corner, you'll find some late-flowering knapweed and there’s even a bit of bird’s-foot trefoil...  

But mostly it is a kingdom of grass, with vigorous things like cock’s-foot, perennial rye, fescue and creeping bent joined by more welcome company – a bit of sweet vernal and crested dog’s-tail. Of yellow rattle, eyebright, betony, orchids, vetches, crane’s-bills and oxeye daisy there are none. 

And so, in the next few days and weeks, I’ll be practising what I’ve been preaching for years. We’re about to embark on the floral restoration of our fields. 

Thanks to Biffa Award funding through the Coronation Meadows project, we’re about to receive seed from the Conwy Coronation Meadow – Mosshill. This National Trust owned meadow near the top of the valley is remarkable for its display of wildflowers, especially devil’s-bit scabious and knapweed in late summer. 

Of course, there’s no better way to learn than to be thrown in at the deep end, and I’m rapidly coming to appreciate just how involved the process of meadow restoration can be. It’s a carefully orchestrated set of operations, all of which need to happen in sync:

  1. Cut the field closely for hay – bale and remove
  2. Before the grass re-grows, harrow the field to open up the turf and expose bare soil
  3. At the same time, collect seed from the donor site (Mosshill)
  4. Transport the donor seed to the receptor site (our meadow) and spread over the whole area
  5. Bring livestock onto the field to trample seed into the soil

There’s also a world of difference between advising other people on how it’s done and doing it yourself. It’s all a bit more scary, but also very thrilling. 

We’ve already had some preparatory work done. When we arrived last winter, some of the fences were in such a bad state they were laying on the floor. A contractor from the local village of Eglwysbach has done a fantastic job putting up new fences and replacing the gates to make the fields thoroughly stock-proof.

We’re now playing a waiting game. The awful cold and wet summer has delayed everything and we’re hoping for a break in the weather to do the hay cut (number 1 on the list above!). Once that’s been done, the real fun can begin.

Watch this space!

10 Top tips for taking photos of wildflowers and meadows

With the Magnificent Meadows closing at the end of the month, some tips on how to snap that winning shot ...

August 11 2015 - 13:31

1.    Wait for the right light

This is what photography is all about, really: thinking about the light in terms of its quality, quantity and direction, and how it suits the subject. To reveal detail and reduce the contrast of a scene, shoot when the light is soft and diffused. Outdoor portraits and macro photos look great when shot under bright but overcast skies. Less so at midday on a bright, clear day – the light is just too harsh.

2.    Use Simple Backgrounds

The simple approach is usually the best in digital photography, and you have to decide what needs to be in the shot, while not including anything that is a distraction. If possible, choose a plain background – in other words, neutral colors and simple patterns. You want the eye to be drawn to the focal point of the image rather than a patch of color or an odd building in the background.

3.    Compose in Thirds

To use the rule of thirds, imagine four lines, two lying horizontally across the image and two vertical creating nine even squares. Some images will look best with the focal point in the centre square, but placing the subject off centre will often create a more aesthetically composed photograph.

4.    Leading Lines

When we look at a photo our eye is naturally drawn along lines. By thinking about how you place lines in your composition, you can affect the way we view the image, pulling us into the picture, towards the subject, or on a journey "through" the scene. 

5.    Framing

The world is full of objects which make perfect natural frames, such as trees, archways and holes. By placing these around the edge of the composition you help to isolate the main subject from the outside world. The result is a more focused image which draws your eye naturally to the main point of interest.

6.    Take your time 

When you first encounter a beautiful meadow it can be quite daunting and difficult to know where to start. Don’t start taking photos as soon as you arrive unless you know where to go to get the best shots. Have a walk round and explore your surroundings first.

7.    Make a note of the name

Ask the people working at nature reserves the name of the flowers and plants you have taken. If you want your images used in books or magazines these details are vital. It can be easy to think you’ll remember it but after a few more photos or a few days you’ll forget. 

8.    Plant portraits

Consider cropping right in on a plant to isolate details. Look for colour and detail and what it is that makes each subject unique: only by focusing on a plant’s character – the sweep of a leaf, say, or the point of a petal – you’ll be able to create an image that’s more of a portrait of the plant than a standard shot.

9.    Kneesy does it

Because shooting wildlife and flowers outdoors involves spending a lot of time on your knees and elbows, a gardener’s mat could come in handy.

10.    Be wary of wind

A strong wind can be the flower photographer’s worst enemy. Even a gentle breeze can cause long-stemmed plants to bob about, resulting in blurred images that are no use to anyone. Early mornings are usually better – and try using a clamp on long-stemmed plants to steady them between gusts.

Enter your snaps in the Magnificent Meadows Photo Competition before 31 August 2015 and you could win a fabulous three night December stay at the National Trust's Cwm Ivy Lodge Bunkhouse on the Gower coast or a £100 voucher to spend in RSPB's online shop. For more information, click the link below:

Pink Frog Orchids in the Pasture

Orchid oddity found at Plantlife's Augill Pasture reserve

July 28 2015 - 14:44

X Dactyloglossum mixtum © Joe Costley/Plantlife

X Dactyloglossum mixtum © Joe Costley/Plantlife

It’s always exciting to find a wild orchid. But finding a very odd wild orchid you’ve never seen before – one that doesn’t quite fit the bill and looks rather extraordinary – brings a special type of excitement.

While scrutinizing every inch of the sward at Plantlife's Augill Pasture reserve in Cumbria, counting frog orchids (Coeloglossum viride), Lois Harbron was lucky enough to find one such oddity. Both frog orchid (52 counted this year) and common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) grow at Augill but what Lois discovered was a rather wonderful cross between them. 

This beautiful hybrid goes by the ungainly name of “X Dactyloglossum mixtum” and, as you can see from the picture (right), it really is mixture of the two species. Maybe it needs a more descriptive common name, like “pink frog orchid” perhaps? 

Hybrid orchids are not actually that uncommon. They’re a promiscuous group of plants – especially the marsh and spotted Dactylorhiza orchids - and will readily get into bed with their fellow species given half a chance. Pollinating bees and other insects, of course, visit many different flowers on their forages, unconcerned that they might be mixing up the DNA gene pool. This mixing of genes is, of course, the very essence of evolution; orchids like these are often described as still “actively evolving”. Whenever you find several different species of orchids growing together, keep your eye out for hybrids.  

This particular one, however, is quite rare. Since 2000, it’s only been found at about 15 sites in Britain. It looks like this hybrid is also a new record for the county (it’s not mentioned in the superb Flora of Cumbria by Geoffrey Halliday, 1997) and since the nearest current record appears to be from the Peak District, this is a wonderful addition to the list of wildflowers found at the reserve. 

“I knew instantly what it was" Lois told me. "It’s something I had hoped to see somewhere, but I didn’t expect to find it at Augill. Despite strong wind and heavy rain, I had a huge beam on my face as I went home.”

Augill Pasture is managed on behalf of Plantlife by Cumbria Wildlife Trust

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Discovering Munsary Peatlands

July 24 2015 - 14:19

It was an overcast day in the far northeast of Scotland; the early promise of bright sunlight fled southeastwards as hazy clouds rolled in from the north Atlantic. Still, the threatened rain never fell. In short it turned out to be just right for a 6 mile, there-and-back walk to the edge of the bowl in the hills that holds Plantlife’s Munsary Peatlands nature reserve.

A group people turned up one morning in June at the small car park area at Loch Stemster, just by the C1053 to Lybster, just off the A9 at Achavanich on the Thurso road, with the prospect of a 3 mile hike along the farm track to the inbye at Munsary. This place is not dubbed “the Back of Beyond” for nothing.

Loch Stemster delayed the start of the walk as peewits, oystercatchers, common sandpipers and the like caught folks’ attention. Then we were off, taking in the bogbean Menyanthes trifoliatum peppering the surface of a small pool by the track, the old quarries that produced the stone that defines the architecture of the area, the bogcotton wafting white over the heather.  This in itself told us something of the ecological history of the adjacent land, as Hare’s-tail Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum) indicates a recovering bog surface, a wetting up of a dried out surface.  The old stone sheep pens mutely tell the reason why; drained and burned for a sheep run.

The inclines and twists of the road gave the views – stunning at the top of the rise where the bowl of Munsary opens up, sweeping down northward from the ridge, with its green fringe of conifers, the grey of scattered farm buildings nestling in the brown muir, white towers of turbines against the skyline.

And onward past Ballachly (pronounced Balach-LIE), a working farm whose cattle help keep the Munsary inbye in good condition, grazing over the spring and summer, opening up the sward for feeding waders, and letting the Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris) and Marsh Cinquefoil (Potentilla palustris) flourish.

Reaching the fence that encloses the inbye, buildings remain from previous lives, the drystane dyke of the park proving useful for containing the cattle. Stone walls give shelter for quietly enjoying a packed lunch.

Looking across beyond the dykes there is the expanse of slopes, hummocks and sinuous burns, to the glittering dubh lochs on the peatland domes, reflecting the sky – here is a tranquillity, an openness, a wildness that gently seeps in, even with the wind whipping the grasses into the “summer horses”; the mirage of grass stems across the landscape in waves of motion.

Munsary Peatlands demonstrates that curious conundrum – a managed landscape and a wild place, both at once. This is a place to seek out, expend time and energy reaching, enjoying. It is an experience that must be sought, not handed on a plate.

So follow the trail guide, find out about the plants, the peat, the culture of this hidden landscape in Caithness. No matter the weather, Munsary Peatlands will provide something to take home with you.

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“Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves…”

Do the facts justify the fear?

July 20 2015 - 19:16

Bee feeding on ragwort © Beth Halski

Bee feeding on ragwort © Beth Halski

In an 1832 poem, The Ragwort, John Clare, countryman and perhaps our greatest nature poet, celebrated ragwort as a beautiful wild flower. Clare, ever the triumphalist of what many would call weeds, revels in ragwort’s simple beauty, it’s colours - ‘gold’, ‘browns of all hues’, and ‘shining blossoms’ -  which adorn sites that would otherwise be ‘dreary to behold’. 

Such a view is an anathema  to many modern country folk who believe ragwort to be a dangerously poisonous weed, which must be eradicated. There is even the Ragwort Control Act 2003.

But do the facts justify the fear? Perhaps it’s time for us to adopt a more balanced understanding of this much maligned native wild flower and learn to celebrate its role as a vital habitat and food source for a number of our country’s rarest insects.

Common ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) is seriously poisonous to some grazing animals, so important to our landscape, recreation, our farmers and our economy. Horses can be particularly vulnerable to ragwort poisoning.  Generally they avoid the live plant so it only becomes a problem when the plant is dead in hay or if the pasture is overgrazed and there is nothing else left to eat unless they are supplied with alternative food then horses can consume lethal doses of the plant – usually 5-25% of the body weight. For this reason, it is important to  keep ragwort under control in fields where animals are grazing and especially where fodder, such as hay, is being cut. 

Yet, is there any need to pull up or spray ragwort  where it poses no risk to grazing animals? Unbeknown to many, ragwort also supports a wide range of wildlife, playing a vital role in the ever diminishing biodiversity of our country. At a time when biodiversity indicators are showing continued stress on habitats, it is time to revaluate the role of this infamous plant and ensure that we do not proceed with an unnecessary national eradication plan, which could further damage our already fragile biodiversity. It should also be borne in mind that pulling up ragwort without the landowner’s permission is a crime under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Cinnabar Moth caterpillar on ragwort - its exclusive food source. © Henry Hemming

Common ragwort is understood to be home and food source to at least 77 insect species in the UK. Over half of these use ragwort as their exclusive food source. There are even 10 rare or threatened species for which ragwort is the exclusive food source. These include the picture winged fly Campiglossa malaris, the Scarce Clouded Knot Horn micro moth (Homocosoma nimbella), and the Sussex Emerald moth (Thalera fimbrialis). The most famous is the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae - pictured above). There are also 14 species of fungi associated with the plant.

These are just a few examples of why we need to update our thinking on common ragwort. We should understand that ragwort, like many plants considered ‘weeds’, has a critical role in supporting our natural biodiversity. Instead the focus should turn to improved grazing management regimes since pasture with a tight sward and little or no bare ground will suppress ragwort emergence.

In addition, the sale of fodder containing common ragwort is illegal, and there would seem to be much that could effectively be done by Trading Standards to ensure that horse feed does not contain high concentrations of ragwort.

The final area of focus should be on improving the welfare of horses through eliminating fly grazing and ensuring horses are not left for long periods in fields with insufficient fodder and prevalent ragwort.

Where horses are well cared for, and feed carefully monitored, there is a negligible risk of ragwort poisoning. As Professor Andy Durham of the Liphook Equine Hospital recently stated “There is no evidence that ragwort toxicity represents a large health hazard in UK horses that are subject to veterinary care”.  

Just as Clare fashions us with a richer understanding of the beauty of ragwort, so should we learn to love this plant – not only through seeing its beauty, as Clare did, but also seeing the beauty in the role it plays in the UK’s biodiversity, protecting a myriad of important species.

The Ragwort (1832)

Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves 
I love to see thee come & litter gold, 
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves; 
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold, 
That without thee were dreary to behold, 
Sunburnt and bare-- the meadow bank, the baulk 
That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields, 
Rich with the tints that harvest's plenty yields, 
Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk 
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields 
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn 
So bright & glaring that the very light 
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn 
& seems but very shadows in thy sight. 

John Clare (1793-1864)

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Knapweed in the pink at Skylark Meadows

July 20 2015 - 14:49

There's a splash of pink across our Skylark Meadows reserve in Somerset at the moment. This photo - taken recently by Jane King - shows the tufty heads of common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) swaying amongst the grasses.

Also known as "hardheads", common knapweed is the tough guy of the meadows, able to barge aside competitors on land not grazed or annually cut. That said, it's also incredibly generous: its a rich source of nectar for bees, butterflies and other pollinators and its seeds feed goldfinches and many other birds.

It's also prone to popping up on the odd road verge or two. Perhaps you've seen it near you? If you have let us know.

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A bee’s eye view of flowers

July 15 2015 - 10:07

We are at a time of year when wild flowers brighten up our countryside. Predominant colours are white, yellow, shades of pink, blues purples, and all of them are trying to attract insects to pollinate them. However the colours that we see do not look the same to the bees. So how do plants attract them?

The answer is that they produce designs that we cannot see but bees can...

The photo above (courtesy of © Bjørn Rørslett/NN) shows two images of common silverweed, (Potentilla anserina). The first, the one on top, is how we see it - entirely yellow. Under ultraviolet light, however, a dramatic change occurs. A clear target has been provided for the bees to aim at.

Bees and other insects see in the ultraviolet spectrum of light, and this means blues, greens and violet shades, and they cannot see red at all, to them it appears black. A look at a guide to British wildflowers shows that there are very few native red flowers with the poppies being the truest red. In tropical areas many flowers that are red will be pollinated by mammals such as bats that are attracted to the bright colour.

The pattern has been highlighted in red in the "bee vision" image (the bees, of course, will not see it as red, this is only so we can see it ourselves. How exactly they perceive the pattern no-one is entirely sure).

Meadow crane's-bill (Geranium pratense) shows a similar effect...

Meadow cranesbill as we see it (top) and under UV light (below) © Bjørn Rørslett/NN 

A pattern has been created in the UV spectrum that acts to attract the bees to the pollen at the heart of the flower. There is evidence to show that the chemical compounds producing these patterns can also deter herbivorous insects, in particular caterpillars, protecting the plant’s reproductive capability.

Can you give our bees and other pollinators a helping hand? Add your name to our road verge campaign.

“You primrose small and low…”

Emyr Roberts, Chief Executive of Natural Resources Wales, comments on Plantlife’s recent vote to find the Nation’s Favourite Wild Flowers.

July 07 2015 - 13:14

The National Wildflower Vote has been a great way to raise interest and awareness in the plants that are around us and in getting people to think about what they value in their local environment.

The idea of involving the public and enthusiastic amateurs alongside the professionals in plant recording is of course a great tradition and one which Natural Resources Wales fully supports. Wales has a long history of both professional and citizen-based science. Many early British botanical notes and books relate to the Welsh flora and plant localities in Wales and they include works by famous names including Salisbury, Ray, Llwyd, Brewer and Banks. The wilds of Snowdonia were a particular attraction to the plant-crazed Victorians seeking out romantic landscapes alongside rare ferns and plants, with the help of local botanical guides.

Coming from Anglesey, I am pleased to be able to hold in my hands here today a copy of “Welsh Botanology” (1813) by Hugh Davies from our library in Bangor. This was the first book devoted to the flora of any part of Wales, and it describes the flora of my home county. Many of the flowers from Plantlife’s vote are still found on Anglesey, especially the woodland plant that are a common sight along the many lanes bounded by cloddiau (earth-filled stone walls) and road verges that still retain a varied flora.

While it’s no surprise that bluebell took the overall title and was also the winner in England, in a remarkable demonstration of devolution Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all voted for primrose as their national favourite flower. I think many people love primroses because they’re one of the first harbingers of spring (the ‘prima rosa’ or ‘first rose’ of the year). It’s a plant that has attracted many superstitions. It was believed unlucky, for example, to bring less than 13 primrose flowers into the house. If you did, this would be the number of chicks your hens or geese would hatch that year.

In Wales, primroses, called ‘briallu’ or ‘briallen’ have inspired some very well known verses. A famous hymn, which I remember from my childhood, starts:


Ti friallen fach ar lawr
(You primrose small and low) 
Dan goronog wlith y wawr
(Under a crown of the dawn’s dew) 
Yn disgleirio ngolau’r haul
(Sparkling in the light of the sun)
Duw fu’n gwneud mor hardd dy ddail
(God made your leaves so beautiful)


Primroses are also very long-lived and we often become attached to our favourite little clump. Unlike other wildlife, we see the same plants growing in the same place each year and are able to form a relationship with them. Over time, the flowering of a favourite clump of primroses on a regular walk is like the return of an old friend.

When I was a boy growing up on Anglesey, my uncle and aunt had a small farm. They milked cows and I vividly remember the cows walking slowly up and down the lane to the farm when they were turned out in the mornings and returned in the evenings. The hedges were lined with primroses and they provided a stunning show each spring.

One day, my uncle and aunt returned home after a day out and met two elderly ladies carrying bags down the lane. Asking what was in the bags they were told primroses; the ladies had dug them up to take them back their gardens.

I remember the outrage which our family felt at this vandalism; we felt that our heritage was being taken away from us. The primroses never returned.

Fifty years later, my connections with the village are now almost gone, but when I do walk down that lane, I look out for the primroses. And they’re not there. It seems to me that all of us who are concerned about conserving the natural environment should retain that sense of outrage and passion, and combine it with the science that started centuries ago with the Reverend Davies and which continues today. That is our mission.

This is an extract of a speech given by Emyr at the recent 25th Anniversary celebrations for Plantlife Cymru held at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff.

The Gorse of true love…

Why you should check the gorse on International Kissing Day.

July 06 2015 - 14:30

Did you know today is International Kissing Day? If you did and you're preparing for a smooch, you might want to check one of our commonest prickly shrubs first. According to a traditional saying "When gorse is out of bloom, kissing's out of season." 

The good news is that it very rarely isn't in bloom somewhere. For the first half of the year common gorse (Ulex europaeus) produces yellow flowers with its close relative western gorse (Ulex gallii) following in the second. In fact, a few flowers can generally be seen even in the harsh winter months.

So there you have it - kissing is never out of season, as the saying's originators likely knew all too well.

Here's a few more fascinating gorse facts:

  • Gorse flowers are said to have a distinctive coconut smell, but its strength depends upon the person who's smelling it. The scent is said to be quite pungent to some individuals, but weak to others.
  • Before the Industrial Revolution, gorse was valued as a fuel for fires and kilns.
  • Gorse was voted the County Flower of Belfast.

If you would like show some love for our wild flowers, here's a few easy ways you can help:

Hay under the hammer

June 28 2015 - 17:33

Lugg Meadow, on the eastern outskirts of Hereford city, is an ancient common, most of which is now a nature reserve belonging to Plantlife and to the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust. In fact, Lugg Meadow is common land for only half the year, from Lammas (1st August) to Candlemas (2nd February).  This unusual state of affairs reflects the fact that Lugg Meadow has been managed as a hay meadow at least since medieval times, meaning they were only grazed for half the year. In contrast, most registered commons in England derive from land that was grazed all year round, and so today are commonland for all the year. Common Meadows (also known as Lammas Meadows) were once widespread, but most were lost through historic enclosure of open fields. Lugg Meadow is the largest surviving example.

The tradition of hay-making on Lugg Meadow remains alive today. The other week I went along to the auction of "mowing grass", an annual event at which the owners of plots on the meadow sell their hay as a standing crop. Meadow land was historically valued at a higher rate than arable land because hay was vital to sustain livestock over winter. Fertile floodplains such as Lugg Meadow were particularly suited to growing hay, and even today farmers come from far and wide to bid for the fine hay that grows there. Last time I attended the auction it was held in a barn, but this time it was conducted in the road outside!  Farmers gathered in small groups to share news and enjoy some banter before Graham Baker (who is also Secretary to the Lugg Meadow Commoners Associations) opened proceedings for the 18th year, pausing briefly to let a car pass through. Sale prices were considerably lower than they were this time last year, perhaps due to the mild winter and a reduction in cattle numbers.

It is likely that the auction is an echo of a similar annual occasion to allocate hay plots in medieval times. On many Lammas Meadows, lots were cast each year to decide who should have which plot. As with the auction, the lot casting was not normally done until close to mowing time so that it was in everyone's interest to protect the whole meadow early on while the grass was growing. In those days the lot casting would have been done on the meadow itself, the men walking from plot to plot "drawing lots" from a bag to decide who should have which plot; the plots being marked on the ground by stones (known as Dole stones), many of which survive on Lugg Meadow today or have been replaced by posts.  

After the auction I stood for a while watching the swallows and admiring the sweeping, big-sky landscape; sheets of buttercups shining gold in the evening sun. It would be a familiar scene to those lot-casting groups in medieval days, chatting and joking as they walked amongst the flowers. Graham Harvey described flower-rich hay meadows as “a masterpiece of the pastoral arts……the handiwork of generations of unknown craftspeople”. There can be no finer example than Lugg Meadow, a place of history and dazzling beauty, whose future depends on a continued tradition of hay-making; a continued partnership between people and nature.  

Why not join us in our quest to keep the colour in the countryside? Here's a few easy ways you can help:

Last chance to save the laws that protect our most valued natural places.

June 25 2015 - 13:48

Plantlife has formed a united voice with 100 organisations across the UK to show our support for the Habitats and Birds Directives. These might sound like dull bits of EU legislation, but they’re actually the cornerstones of wildlife protection in Britain. But, just like the species and habitats they intend to protect, the Directives themselves are now under threat. 

The Directives preserve in law a series sites identified to protect the most seriously threatened habitats and species across the UK and Europe, including Special Areas for Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), which together form the Natura 2000 network. Crucially, the majority of our Important Plant Areas overlap with this network.  

The European Commission is carrying out a REFIT ‘Fitness Check’ of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. A REFIT is essentially a review to see where EU law can be made ‘lighter, simpler and less costly’ by identifying 'regulatory burdens' and so 'opportunities for simplification'.  

What does this all mean? This review could see the Directives and the protection they offer weakened, based on the unsubstantiated belief that they are an unnecessary burden on business, development and economic growth. In fact the Directives aim to ensure a level playing field across Europe, so that one Member State cannot gain advantage over another at the expense of species and habitats. 

Above: Sunset on the Norfolk Broads © Russell Smith

Despite inadequate funding and incomplete implementation of the Natura 2000 network, there is proof these nature Directives deliver significant benefits for the wildlife and the environment. They have lead to a more sustainable approach to development, compensation for damage caused and improved protection. 

An example is the abstraction of water from within The Broads SAC and Broadland SPA in East Anglia. This network of wetland habitats is an Important Plant Area, noted for internationally protected species such as fen orchid (Liparis loeselii) and habitats such as calcareous fen. Following advice from Natural England on the appropriate assessment of the impact of water abstraction from fens in the SAC and SPA, the Environment Agency decided not to renew their licences for water abstraction based on the 'the potential for adverse effect on site integrity at The Broads SAC and Broadland SPA'

These Directives really are very important for the future health of our wildlife and the homes they need. We would really appreciate it if you can give two minutes of your time to show your support for nature and respond to the consultation here. Nearly 270,000 have participated in the Nature Alert questionnaire but we still need your voice before it closes on the 24 July. 

If you want to know more, Plantlife together with 100 organisations, have published a position statement setting out why these Directives must not be weakened. 

Nature needs our voice more than ever. It’s time to speak up if we want to keep the colour in the countryside. 

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Loving the alien?

Dr Trevor Dines comments on the thorny subject of non-native, invasive plants...

June 22 2015 - 11:02

Some interesting comments have been made about invasive non-native plants recently by well-known and persuasive voices in the national and gardening press, as well as in various books and journals. The case is being argued that, rather than trying to control their spread, we should be loving the aliens and accept that they pose little threat to native biodiversity. Conservation attempts to control them are misguided and a waste of valuable funding. This is strong stuff. 

It’s true that no non-native plant has caused the national extinction of a native plant. It’s also true, as several studies have shown, that some invasive non-natives are still very rare in the wild.   

But there is a wider picture. It’s time to inject some balance into the debate. 

Botanically multicultural

It’s impossible to say which species was the first to be introduced by man to Britain, but ivy-leaved speedwell (Veronica hederifolia) and shepherd's-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) are likely to have been among the first arrivals, with archaeological evidence for them dating back to the Neolithic period (from about 4000 - 2300 BC).

Since then, we’ve introduced an awful lot of species to these lands. There are now more non-native plant species than natives in Britain (the last comprehensive Atlas mapped 1748 aliens compared to 1486 natives). Let’s be clear about one thing: the vast majority of these – I would say over 98% - are completely benign in the wild. They find their niche and grow happily alongside native species without causing any damage (it’s a long list, but think of red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum) and white campion (Silene latifolia) for example). Many have a rich cultural history (think poppies and horse-chestnut) and others are cherished and celebrated; snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis - above left, © Laurie Campbell) and fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), for example, were in the running to be crowned the Nation’s Favourite Wildflower, coming 4th and 8th respectively.  

Like many botanists, I’m fascinated by non-native plants. They can add huge interest and excitement to a day out plant-hunting, providing an injection of the unexpected when you’re tiring of the familiar. Many also have fascinating behaviours in the wild, which in turn result in interesting distributions based on of their underlying biology; Nootka lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis), for example, is making a home along some rivers in the east of Scotland where conditions mirror those in their native Canada and Alaska.

In short, our nation wouldn’t be the same – botanically, ecologically or culturally - without them. We value them and welcome them. 

Good aliens, invasive aliens 

But, while the vast majority of non-natives are utterly benign, a few are not. I could list on one hand those that cause us real headaches in the wild, but their impacts are real. I’d invite you to join me on a remote mountain in north Wales, where a stunning mosaic of upland heathland and grassland – broad expanses of heather, juniper and bilberry, interspersed with rare lichens and feeding grounds for chough – is punctuated with thousands of seedlings and saplings of rhododendron (above left) and Lawson’s cypress which have found their way here from the valley below. If no action is taken, this area will be utterly transformed into a dense thicket of rhododendron and conifer scrub in less than 30 years, with very little of our natural diversity surviving.

We’re also good at forgetting that much of our biodiversity is 'hidden'. Some of the most severe impacts of invasive species can be borne by bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) and lichens; they’re highly sensitive to being shaded out. I’ve seen trees under a canopy of rhododendron whose trunks are devoid of any such life. 

The physical ecology of sites is also overlooked too. Any new species has the potential to bring changes in soil ecology, hydrology, shading and nutrient cycling, all of which can change the delicately balanced ecology of a site. We always need to look at the bigger picture.

Scanning the horizon – prevention’s better than cure

For some invasive aliens, such as Canadian pondweed (Elodea canadensis) and buddleja (Buddleja salviifolia), the horse has already bolted; they are now so widespread that any efforts to control them would be largely pointless. For this reason, much of the conservation focus is on identifying species that might cause problems in the future. Detailed risk assessments take many factors into consideration. Very, very rarely, the red alert button gets pushed. This is why you’ll not find water primrose (above left, © GBNNSS) for sale in England. It has been banned from sale because experience in Europe shows us that it has potential for destructive spread. The evidence is there if we care to look and the few escapes into the wild in Britain have been dealt with quickly. I’d much rather us err on the side of caution (even if we’re wrong in the end) and nip the problem in the bud rather than bear the enormous cost of eradication in the future. 

How much do we spend on aliens?

Interestingly, no one has actually ever asked us. What do you think it might be? Over 70% of our budget? Maybe nearer 50%? Well, no. In 2014/15 Plantlife spent 3.4% of our conservation budget on action against non-native invasive plants. 

That means that the vast majority of our work - whether it’s controlling gorse or bracken, restoring wildflower meadows, remobilising dune grassland or reinstating coppice rotations – is about managing the typical native flora of sites with native plants and habitats. 

Occasionally, and I mean occasionally, we need to tackle invasive plants that appear at these sites as well, but usually they’re alongside native species that are also behaving invasively. On Portland Bill in Dorset and Gower in South Wales, for example, we’re working to restore limestone grassland which has become dominated by gorse and cotoneaster following a relaxation of grazing. And in mid Wales, we’re restoring oak woodland lichens such as tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria - above left) which are being shaded by ash saplings and rhododendron following a lack of management. 

Management, management, management...

The essence of conservation is the day-to-day management of special places. It’s about maintaining a balance so that no one species – whether alien or native – dominates to the detriment of the other (native or non-native) species at the site. It’s about encouraging diversity.

Quite often it’s local, small-scale and involves the day-to-day business of grazing, fencing, mowing and felling. Sometimes this means controlling invasive species, but more often than not these are native species such as gorse, bracken, holly, tor-grass, bramble, ivy, blackthorn, dogwood, birch and willow.  And yes, sometimes, it does involve removing invasive non-native species – cotoneaster, rhododendron or Sitka spruce at some sites, strawberry tree, Hottentot fig (above left, © RPS Group) or floating pennywort at others. We make no apology for that. The control of invasives is rarely an isolated action, but simply part of the management of a site to bring balance and maximise the diversity of all species.


We’ve lived with ‘alien’ plants in these islands for a long time – probably around 6,000 years. They make up more than half the threads in the warp and weft of the fabric that we call wild. They are part of our heritage and culture, and I simply don’t recognise the botanical xenophobia that conservationists are accused of. 

There is no “national war” being waged by misguided conservationists with a purist vision, intent on eradicating every alien plant from our countryside. There is no “native good, alien bad” mentality.  There is no national plan to eradicate rhododendron or Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera - above left). Any work to remove non-native invasive plants is about retaining diversity in the landscape; it is emphatically not about preserving a narrow band of agreed 'desirable' plants.

We work hard to preserve the texture of the ever-changing fabric of our countryside, patterned as it in all its glorious colours. Plant conservation is about managing change, encouraging a shift in the balance of all species present on any site. If this shift means curtailing the over-exuberance of some species – native or non-native - to allow others to thrive then I’m happy with that. In 50 years time, I hope that hillside in Wales is still a rich tapestry of heather, bilberry and juniper. 

Heads of conservation charities reveal their favourite wildflowers

With only five days left to vote for the Nation’s Favourite Wildflower, we asked the Chief Executive officers of some of our fellow wildlife conservation charities which flower they’ve voted for and why.

June 03 2015 - 14:51

Wood Anemone

Stephanie Hilborne, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts 

“I chose the wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) because when carpets of these delicate white flowers grace one of my favourite woods in Nottinghamshire they never fail to lift my spirits.”


Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive of Buglife

“The rich Royal blue flowers of viper's-bugloss (Echium vulgare) are glorious and where the spikes wave you find flower visiting bees and sand-loving ground beetles and bugs aplenty” 


Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of RSPB

“I’ve voted for honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum). My childhood memory of walking through a Downland wood into a wall of scent in the velvet dark of a midsummer night will live with me always – it’s why I care.”


Martin Warren, Chief Executive of Butterfly Conservation

“The primrose (Primula vulgaris) is the epitome of spring and a sign of warmer days ahead. It is also a vital early nectar source and food-plant of one of my favourite butterflies, the Duke of Burgundy.”

Cow Parsley

Dame Helen Ghosh, Chief Executive of the National Trust

“I voted for cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris - or to use one of its more romantic names, Queen Anne’s lace). For me, it’s the first sign of spring as the lanes and verges fill up with its delicate tracery.  It’s easy to take for granted because it’s so common – but we once thought that about the house sparrow and the hedgehog. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!”

Snake’s-head Fritillary

Tony Jones, Chief Executive of Landlife

"I’ve voted for Snake's-head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) because of its beautiful hanging flower that seems far too big and heavy for its fragile stem. It has a lovely unusual colour and anyone can identify it. I've voted for Snakes Head Fritillary but it's not got to number one. Yet. "

Don't forget to vote for your favourite! Voting ends Tuesday 9th with the winner expected to be announced on that evening's Springwatch.

In praise of the poppy

Why the wide-boy of the botanical world should win the wildflower vote.

June 02 2015 - 15:57

What's more patriotic than the common poppy (Papaever rhoeas)?

Springing from the death-ridden mud of the French and Belgian battlefields of the First World War, it rapidly came to represent the terrible losses of that appalling period, and the hope of new life beyond the carnage. If the poppy has come to be our common memorial to the First War dead, then perhaps, more subtly, it also marks for us all a change in the way we saw ourselves as a nation. Philip Larkin wrote, in his poem, MCMXIV ...

"Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word"

... the poppy stands for this loss of innocence in blood red.


But the poppy represents more - and more that is British - than this. Poppies and other annual wildflowers are the Del-Boy Trotters of the plant world. They are the duckers-and-divers: plants which live in the gaps and the cracks, briefly flourishing where ground is turned over before dropping from sight again. In the orthodox, steady world of woods and meadows they hide beneath the surface, their seeds waiting for any disturbance - a tree-fall, a cliff-slip, the developer's digger - to trigger germination, flowering and the production of more seed. Many of these plants, poppies included, make their best living in arable fields, where the ground is in regular and repeated motion, like Del-Boy in the continual hustle-and-bustle of a South London market. The poppy is a wide-boy, a beloved British stereotype whose lineage includes Falstaff, the Artful Dodger and Dad's Army's Private Walker.

But like so much that is British, the poppy's roots actually lie elsewhere. Punch and Judy, fish and chips, even St George, all have their origins in other parts in the world. The common poppy, together with cornflower, corn marigold, corncockle and many others, has its origins (like St George himself) in the Eastern Mediterranean. These plants first found their ideal niche in the very earliest farmed fields of the late Stone Age; as farming spread north-west into Europe, they hitched a ride, their seeds incidentally harvested together with the barley and wheat grains and then accidentally sown wherever the migrant farmers stopped. 

So vote for the common poppy as Britain's favourite flower: the plant that best tells us about our nation's past, about our national character, and about the mixed-up magic of our cosmopolitan national culture.

All images © Bob Gibbons.

5 tasty wild plants to grow in your garden

These wildflowers will please both your palette and pollinators.

May 28 2015 - 10:24

Plants that attract pollinators are essential for any garden that aspires to be wildlife-friendly. Here's five suggestions that you might also find tasty...


1) Blaeberry 

 Above: Blaeberry © S. Rae

Widespread in the hills and glens of the north of Scotland, blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus, known as bilberry in other parts of Britain) is a deciduous shrub. It will provide the allotment grower and gardener with pretty pale pink flowers in the spring, tasty berries in the summer and then lovely foliage that turns red in the autumn. This plant will also attract pollinators, especially bees – providing an early source of nectar in spring. There are some indications that blaeberry has been eaten since pre-historic times. In Scandinavia certainly, blaeberries are commonly eaten, used in preserves, pastries and flavourings. They can also be eaten raw. This medium sized plant will provide a good medium/low cover in an allotment or bed, but does demand an acidic soil. You might want to leave some berries for the birds who adore them too!


2) Ramsons

 Above: Ramsons (Allium ursinum) on a roadside © Joe Costley/Plantlife

This "wild garlic" will do well in any damp, shady border. In the wild it grows in deciduous woodland and can be an indicator of ancient woodland. Many Scottish woodlands are known for their carpets of ramsons and bluebells in the spring. Large clumps of ramsons can smell very garlicky but with their fluffy white flower heads and bright green foliage are attractive and delicious - every part of the plant is edible except for the roots. The leaves can be crushed to make an excellent wild garlic pesto! A 17th Century saying runs, “Eat leekes in Lide and ramsins in May, And all the yeare after physitians may play.”


3) Sea Kale

 Above: Sea kale at Dungeness © Pauline Fletcher/Plantlife

Sea kale (Crambe maritima) is one of the few vegetables we really can call our own in the UK. Unlike potatoes and carrots, it is indigenous to the UK. In fact, so popular was it with our ancestors, that at one stage it became difficult to find. Traditionally sea kale was found - and cultivated - on sandy and shingle beaches, above the high tide mark. Now, however, it is making a comeback with foragers and allotment growers. In summer it blooms with white, honey-scented flowers. As well reproducing by seed, sea kale can also grow from detached pieces of its root. It can be found growing wild in the extreme south-west of Scotland. It is thought that the construction of sea defences may have possibly caused the decline of this maritime flower in some areas, by destroying the shingle habitat on which it thrives. In other areas, however, it is on the increase - maybe because it is no longer as popular a foodstuff as it was in days gone by! It flowers in June and July. Plant in a moist, well prepared soil in a sunny spot ready for harvesting from March onwards.


4) Chickweed

 Above: Common chickweed (Stellaria media) © Stavros Markopoulos

This plant loves allotments, in fact it grows everywhere; but it is also incredibly tasty, hardy and useful to have in the garden. As it will produce new growth several times throughout the year, take advantage by only picking the new tips - these young tips like in most salad greens, are the tender sweeter part of the plant - older chickweed can be a bit tough and chewy. This can be eaten raw and added to a salad or can be put into soups, sauces and pestos. The yellow shell moth feeds off chickweed and can be a frequent visitor to gardens.


5) Water mint 

 Above: Bumblebee Mimic Hoverfly on Water Mint (Mentha aquatica) © Allan Hopkins

One of the UK's very few native culinary herbs. This perennial has attractive dark-green stems and leaves, sometimes tinged purple, and pink flowers from July into October that are loved by bees and hoverflies. Like all mints it is easy to grow and like all mints, it is recommended growing it in a pot in your pond to keep it in check. Unlike other mints though this one prefers to have damp feet – it often grows in standing water beside rivers, ponds and canals. It makes delicious mint tea!

Plantlife Scotland will be helping promote wildlife-friendly gardening ideas via a series of workshops at this year's Gardening Scotland 2015. Click below to find out more.

Why you should vote Fritillary

May 27 2015 - 10:41

The tale of why I’m not a botanist is summarised as:

Start Polytechnic botany module, lecturer advises we draw plant bits every week, end Botany module as I can’t draw. 

From then on plants remained a mystery even though my ecologist mind knew they were extremely important. 

The tale of why I regained an interest in plants, though I’m very far from being a good botanist, was due to a trip with a friend to a field (but not a ‘field trip – that’s far to naturalist) near Wolverhampton to seek them out. 

Me – very dubious.

Friend – very excited. 

Suddenly, not out of the mist as it was a sunny day (isn’t that disappointing?) there they rose. Masses of Snakes head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris). Even I could tell what they were. Anyone can. No specialist ID skills required.

 Above: Fritillaries in a field © Bob Gibbons

And what a plant! A beautiful checkerboard purple flower hanging from a fragile stem. It looks like its about to topple even if it doesn’t break. Surely this shouldn’t exist. On it own it’s fantastic, in masses it’s absolutely stunning. And that’s why it beats other wildflowers. A bluebell, primrose, poppy, snowdrop, cowslip, cornflower, foxglove (all above Snake Head Fritillary’s 8th ranking at the time of writing) on their own are lovely flowers but need to be in large groups to be truly fantastic and stunning. The Snakes Head Fritillary achieves this distinction on its own or in masses.

So, vote for Snakes head fritillary. It’s the only sensible choice.

By the way, does anyone think of dragons when they see this plant? Now that would be a great rebranding exercise.

The difference a day makes?

You’ve voted... now what? Yes, the election is over, but casting your vote is just the beginning of getting change to happen. Now more than ever, we need to get our voices heard.

May 22 2015 - 13:08

On June 17th, I'll be representing Plantlife as part of the Climate Coalition's rally at Westminster where we are hoping to be joined by 10,000 people. We will be speaking up for all the things we love and that could be affected by climate change - from our tiny gems (aka our lichens, liverworts and mosses!) to the vast wilderness that is Plantlife's peatland reserve in Munsary.

Can you join me and meet your MP to talk face-to-face about what really matters to you? You can find out how to sign up and email your local MP on the 'Speak up for the love of' coalition website and from the lobby guide. It's going to be enjoyable day out with music, activities and famous faces, right in the heart of London so please join us if you can. 

 Above: Plantlife at the Copenhagen Climate Summit rally in 2009

Here’s an idea of what to expect from the day...

We will be meeting at Westminster from 12pm-5:30pm and, while we get ready to meet our local MPs, there will be entertainment by artists, street-performers, face-painters and more. Having emailed your local MP, both you and your MP will be given a place and time to meet, and along with others from your constituency, you will have the option to talk to your MP, highlight what you love that will be affected by Climate Change and ask them what they are going to do about Climate Change. The main aim is that we want our MPs to be champions on climate change – and to stand up for what matters to their constituents. You can even ask your MP to add his or her message to your bunting if you like – and take a photo of them doing so.  And after you’ve spoken with your MP there will be a star-studded line-up of speakers, entertainers and musicians as a rousing finale to the day.  

Why now?

In December there will be a United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris where a new a legally binding and universal agreement on taking climate action, from all the nations of the world is going to be struck. We want to put Climate Change at the front of the political agenda and ensure the Government knows they have a strong mandate from the public in pushing for a meaningful climate change agreement. 

Only 267 MPs who were around when the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008 are still in Parliament. That means 59% of MPs (383) have never been lobbied in a big way on climate change and we want our elected leaders to be reminded that this is something which we, their constituents, care about. 

We want the rally to have as much impact as possible so please do join us, and bring your family and friends too. This guide should give you all the information you need but please drop me a line if you would like more information.  

Orchids galore!

Great news from our Joan's Hill reserve.

May 08 2015 - 11:12

Here's something to cheer the heart - record numbers of green-winged orchids (Orchis morio) have been flowering at our Joan's Hill Farm reserve this year! Perhaps our careful management involving grazing is paying off. 

These wildflowers are often thought of as the harlequins of the meadow. Certainly the botanist that gave them their scientific name noticed their green and purple motley: morio, is Latin for 'fool'. It can sometimes be confused with the early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) but - aside from their green-veined "wings" - a good way to tell is to look at the leaves. Early-purple's are spotted. Green-winged's are not.

This discovery is particularly heart-warming. Although green-winged orchids are widespread in much of England, they have become scarce in the south-west. Let's hope we see even more of their merry flowers next year. You can help by becoming a Plantlife Member and supporting our nature reserves.

My favourite wild flower

May 07 2015 - 11:10

Lesser celandines © Sophia Evans/Plantlife

Lesser celandines © Sophia Evans/Plantlife

My Favourite Wildflower would be considered by some as left-field, underwhelming or even far too common to be deserving of such an accolade as the ‘Nation’s Favourite’. In fact, looking down the current ‘Top 25 Flowers’ in Plantlife’s poll, it’s currently at a very underwhelming 16; but bear with me while I present my case.

The lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), is not just my favourite flower, but it was also none other than Wordsworth’s too. For him this blazing, splash of gold blew away the possibly more celebrated “host of golden Daffodils” he famously waxed so lyrically about. One of the reasons I love this flower so much is that it represents a wonderful signpost, for me it is simply the gateway to spring - the time of blackbirds singing, leaves unfurling from the trees and an end to the days where you don’t need to wear four layers outside anymore. Another facet I adore about this much underrated flower is that it’s a fair weather plant. It only deigns to unfurl its petals on the ‘best’ days, in other words those days with plenty of blue sky. In fact it is such a dedicated sun-seeker that if you sit and watch them for long enough, you can observe their flowers tracking the sun across the sky like mini-satellite dishes!

I admit I’m also rather fond of its old name of ‘Pilewort’ too, because according to the ancient ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, it’s knobbly tubers were supposed to resemble and therefore be a cure of haemorrhoids! But I think the main reason why this plant should be higher on the list is that its an every man’s plant. We can’t be voting for an an overly tarty plant like Bee Orchid, or a vanishingly rare plant like Pasqueflower or Cornflower either, because the humble old Pilewort can be seen brightening up people’s days in meadows, hedgerows, woodlands and wastelands the length and breadth of Britain. Now that is a plant to vote for! 

In praise of the wild daffodil

In a a guest blog, Springwatch presenter Michaela Strachan explains why she's championing this yellow spring bloom.

April 17 2015 - 14:58

© Bob Gibbons

© Bob Gibbons

Being a huge fan of the flower fairies when I was a child I want to say that lavender is my favourite flower as I so wanted to be the lavender fairy! 

Mainly because of the cute purple dress and the fact that it was one of the easier fairies to trace! Or how about the very sweet marigold fairy or Narcissus fairy in the little white tutu. Every girl's dream! But after my co-presenter on Springwatch, Chris Packham, called the daffodil the "naffodil", I feel I should champion the yellow spring beauty. The flower that 'floats on high o'er vales and hills', the flower that is such an obvious, bold and blatant sign of spring, it simply can't be missed.

There has been a lot of debate on twitter since Springwatch at Easter aired, on the virtues of the daffodil. Is it a naffodil or a daffodilight? Take this flower for granted at your peril I say! Numbers of daffodils have decreased in the wild so let's celebrate and champion this wonderful yellow beauty for when 'my heart with pleasure fills', it 'dances with the daffodils'!'

Is the wild daffodil your favourite wild flower? Give it your vote on the Nations' Favourite Wild Flower chart.

Related pages:

Ghost Orchid: the wild flower that came back from the dead

Chris Packham named it his favourite wild flower - but what is it?

April 10 2015 - 14:15

Ghost orchid © Orchi under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence

Ghost orchid © Orchi under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence

Those of you who watch Springwatch (and there are many!) may have scratched your heads at what was Chris Packham's favourite wildflower: the wonderfully spooky-sounding ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum). If you did, you have good reason as it is one of the UK's rarest wildflowers.

In fact, "ghost orchid" is a remarkably apt name: not only does it look phantom-esque, it also came back from the dead. After 23 years with no sightings, it was classified as extinct in the UK. Then, a single flower was spotted in a Herefordshire wood in 2009.

One small wildflower, however, does not a long-term population make. Unlike many other plant species ghost orchid cannot be reintroduced from cultivation or using seed from a deep-freezer. Its presence in Britain thus remains precarious and it is classed as Critically Endangered. 

Above: Close-up of a ghost orchid flower, by Hans Stieglitz - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What else happened in 2009? Well, inspired by this rare beauty, Plantlife released a "call to arms". The Ghost Orchid Declaration highlighted the threat our wild plants faced. As Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife's Botanical Specialist said at the time: 

"The Ghost Orchid itself remains an evocative emblem of the 1 in 5 of our wild flowers that are threatened with extinction. If we fail to focus attention on these fundamental building blocks of our countryside, then all our other wildlife will fail to thrive."

This is the cause that Plantlife remains committed to. Whether its protecting the rare and threatened (such as corncockle (Agrostemma githago) and meadow clary (Salvia pratensis) at our Ranscombe Farm Reserve or fen orchid (Liparis loeselii) at Kenfig) or preventing more common species going into decline (such as ragged robin (Silene flos-cuculi) and cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)), we believe that the great diversity of our flora should be saved. For such plants feed not only our wildlife but also as our own senses. 

So join us in celebrating them and raise the profile of their plight by voting for your favourite wild flower and encourage others to do the same.

Related pages:

“Cornflowers do not last”

March 24 2015 - 16:30

Did anyone catch Poldark the other night? We have to admit, we were drooling during the scene in the hay meadow... No, not the sight of Aidan Turner going topless, but the gorgeous blue cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus, pictured below © Lliam Rooney) that surrounded him!

"Cornflowers do not last," says Elizabeth in the same episode "see, they're fading already." She is talking about Demelza's posy but the same could be said about this flower in the wild. In Poldark's time it was a common sight but today there are very few natural populations.

 This is where Plantlife aims to help: part of the work we do is advising landowners, so they can manage their land so that wildflowers thrive alongside their crops. With your help, perhaps we can stop those cornflowers from fading.

What plant is the shamrock?

Red clover? White clover? Or wood sorrel?

March 17 2015 - 15:05

Wood sorrel - is this the elusive shamrock? © Laurie Campbell

Wood sorrel - is this the elusive shamrock? © Laurie Campbell

What is a shamrock?

On the face of it, the answer is obvious: the distinctive three-leaved sprig that symbolises Ireland. St Patrick famously used it to symbolise the Holy Trinity. However delve a little deeper and a mystery emerges. Unlike the daffodil of Wales or the red rose of England, there is no plant commonly called “shamrock”. Given its St Patrick’s Day, we thought we’d take a closer look.

The word shamrock actually derives from the Irish seamróg, which means “little clover”. And the shamrock’s leaves do indeed suggest a clover. But which clover is it? Even the great names of botany disagreed:

As it happens, the most likely candidate is none of these. Toward the end of the 19th century, various investigations and surveys of what the Irish public thought was a shamrock – including one where people were asked to send in a sprig which was then identified by botanists - revealed lesser trefoil (Trifolium dubium - below, © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife) as the favourite.

Even as recently as 1988, however, the matter still wasn’t clear cut with over a third preferring white clover. It may be fairer to say there is no “true” shamrock, at least in a botanical sense!

We have 20 native species of Trifolium clover in Britain, some with evocative names like hare’s-foot, subterranean and strawberry, Clovers are such oft-seen plants it might be surprising to hear some species are threatened. For example, did you know that roadsides in East Anglia are one of the few places you can still find sulphur clover (Trifolium ochroleucon)? We have many miles of road verge that could provide similar sanctuaries if they were only managed better for wildlife. Please help us bring about that change by adding your voice here.

Do you know what a catkin is?

March 16 2015 - 11:24

The word ‘catkin’ has been in use for at least 437 years. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “an inflorescence consisting of a spike, usually hanging, of much reduced flowers of either sex: occurs in birch, hazel, etc”.

That rather dry description belies the rather more poetic origin to the word. Picking up on the phrase “usually hanging”, catkins do just that - hang like a little tails from the bare branches. The word catkin comes from a now obsolete Dutch word katteken, meaning kitten, from their resemblance to kitten’s tails. In a similar vein, another common British name for hazel catkins is lamb’s-tails, encapsulating not just their appearance but the time of their appearance too – just as the fields fill with lambs in the spring (although these days, most of the lambs I ever see are sadly bereft of their catkin-like tails).

This year, the hazel catkins seem to be especially prolific. Hedgerows, coppices and woods are thick with them, as if some sort of mustard-yellow smoke hangs amongst the branches. Catkins like these are the male flowers of plants pollinated by the wind. They don’t have to be big and blousy to attract insect pollinators, so their tiny flowers are produced in huge quantities, ensuring that enough pollen is released into the wind to reach the smaller female flowers nearby. Good for reproduction, but bad for anyone that suffers pollen allergies. 

Hazel catkins will soon fade and be replaced by others. Alders are coming into bloom now (pic, right) – look out for the particularly long, fat catkins of Italian alder (Alnus cordata), often planted as a street tree and in parks. Then, of course, there are the willows. Spring just wouldn’t be complete without the lovely, furry pussy willow catkins produced by both goat willow (Salix caprea) and grey willow (Salix cinerea).

When I was little, we’d always collect a few sprigs of hazel catkins or pussy willows when we first saw them on our walks. They were often the very first sign of spring – a hint that the sap was rising at last. They didn’t last long indoors, but I loved to watch how they elongated over the course of a few days – kitten’s tails unfurling in the spring sunshine.

Carol Klein once wrote, “every child should have the opportunity to feel against their cheek the sleek, silver catkins of the pussy willow”.

And so the decision to drop the word ‘catkin’ from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, along with a host of other words from our natural world such as ‘acorn’ and ‘buttercup’, is deeply shocking, especially as they’ve been replaced with words including ‘broadband’, ‘chatroom’ and ‘blog’. Nothing speaks more clearly of the sad disconnection between children and their natural world. We couldn’t agree more. Sadly, it seems that fewer and fewer even know what catkins are these days.  

Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel and former laureate poet Andrew Motion have been among the many writers expressing their dismay at the move, and we’ve been raising awareness on social media ourselves with the #IknowWhataCatkinIs hashtag. If you feel like we do, why not let @OED know? Tweet a photo of your family with catkins tell them you want these words put back.

Why you should go wild this Mother’s Day

March 13 2015 - 14:13

I’ve not bought a bunch of flowers for years.

Now don’t get me wrong - I’m no misery guts. The symbolism involved with giving and receiving flowers is incredibly powerful and reveals the deep, subconscious relationship we have with plants; we don’t after all, “say it with seagulls”. I honestly don’t think there’s any better way to express your love for someone.

But, rather than using the flaccid forecourt fodder on offer at the local garage, what better way to do this than with a bunch wild flowers that you’ve picked yourself? Shops and supermarkets this weekend will have row upon row of the most garish and unseasonal blooms. Flown in from all over the world, they remind me more of plastic supermodels dressed for tarty night out in Ibiza.

Instead, a hand-picked bunch of wild flowers will mean so much more. It will be unique and personal - a blend of flowers and foliage that reflects you and where you live rather what some nursery manager in a far-flung continent thinks your mother will like. And when you consider the price, wild flowers become even more attractive.

Annoyingly, Mother’s Day falls a bit too early in the year, when many wild flowers are yet to bloom. But if you rise to the challenge, the finished bouquet will carry much more meaning. You’ll need to get outside and see what’s around. I did just this yesterday and was surprised at what I could find.

Rather than big and blousy, I’d suggest keeping it tasteful and refined. A mix of subtle colours and leaf textures can be bought together in a small, hand-tied bouquet. And you don’t have to be purist about it either; other garden flowers that are out now or a small bunch of tasteful blooms from the florist can be brought to life with the addition of some wild, foraged leaves and flowers.

You can see the result of my efforts in the photo above. Here, I’ve put together the following:

  • Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis): Although not native, they’re beautiful and familiar woodlanders that are wonderfully pure with their white and green nodding flowers.
  • Hazel (Corylus avellana): A sprig of this with some catkins looks very spring-like and very architectural.
  • Polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare): Evergreen and deeply lobed, these sometimes have bright orange spores on the back.
  • Ivy (Hedera helix): The flower stems and young berries are very distinctive and architectural.
  • Yew (Taxus baccata): A wonderful evergreen, which flowers early with beautiful pale yellow bobbles that go on to form its red berries.
  • Bog myrtle (Myrica gale): Dark mahogany coloured stems with distinctive short catkins. Not common but grows in western upland areas.
  • Lichen: Small fallen twigs with some lichen can be included for unusual colour and texture.

It all depends on what you find. Keep you eve out for other early flowers such as violets, and primroses, other textures from different ferns, and even dried seed-heads from last-year’s flowers.

But what about picking wild flowers? Isn’t that illegal? Usually it’s not. At Plantlife, we not only endorse but thoroughly encourage people to pick common wild flowers when it legal to do so. For full details, click here.

We want people to get back in touch with their wild flowers – literally - and bring them back into their lives and use them again. So on this Mother’s Day, why not find time to reconnect with wild plants? Your mum will probably be delighted.

Signs of spring

March 06 2015 - 16:01

There are many ways to tell that spring is round the corner: leaves sprouting from elder trees, lesser celandines in bloom. Or, in the case of those watching the Plantlife Twitter channel (@Love_plants for those who are interested) a sudden increase in wonderful wild flower pictures.

These images never fail to brighten our day, so we decided to set up a gallery so we could share them with you. Enjoy!

If you go down to the woods…

The winter months have seen a lot of activity in our woodlands.

February 27 2015 - 15:18

Wild flowers may be thin on the ground, but Plantlife have not been idle. We've been working hard with our partners to give at least two a helping hand. Narrow-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) and spreading bellflower (Campanula patula) are rare and beautiful wild flowers. If you've not seen them in the wild (and chances are many won't) here's what they look like: 

Narrow-leaved helleborine:

Spreading bellflower:], via Wikimedia Commons">Campanula patula - Harilik kellukas

So what have we been up to? Here's a brief summary:

  • On Rodborough Common, Gloucestershire, where we're working with the National Trust, we've been creating small glades, extending the area where narrow-leaved helleborine appears. We'll be following up later this month to remove the overlying grass that local cattle have not grazed off.
  • In the Wyre forest, two more narrow-leaved helleborine sites have been connected together with the support of the Forestry Commission an area of semi mature wood-land is being opened up to connect two narrow-leaved helleborine sites by a large corridor. Work includes tree removal, stump grinding to establish more permanent open glades in the woodland.
  • Near Ledbury, Herefordshire,we've been restoring spreading bellflower to woodland rides with the Forestry Commission, by clearing thick vegetation and coppicing chestnut and hazel trees.
  • At Frith wood in Gloucestershire, we're enhancing growing conditions for spreading bellflower (and other wild plants) and trialling some soil management techniques. 
  • At Dorstone in Herefordshire we're working with Herefordshire Wildlife Trust and private landowners, at three sites all within a few miles of each other where spreading bellflower has been recorded, have had work carried out over the last month removing over shading vegetation. The sites have been neglected for many years so we shall watch with interest to see what appears later this year.
  • In the Forest of Dean we are continuing to monitor the regeneration of vegetation along ride sides in the Reddings inclosure, another spreading bellflower site.
  • At Savernake in Wiltshire, two training days have been run over the winter and another this week to recruit volunteers to assist in the ancient tree survey and to re-record information about the ancient and veteran tree assemblage. This initiative is being supported by North Wessex Downs AONB and Forestry Commission. This information is being backed up by an up dated lichen survey of the forest. 

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In praise of hedgerows

There can be few places that rival Britain's extraordinary diversity of hedges, or that have a more ancient hedgerow history.

February 24 2015 - 14:52

Hedges were common in the English landscape by the eighth century, and many of our surviving hedgerows are over one thousand years old. There are even hedge banks in Cornwall that have been dated to the Bronze Age.

Not all hedgerows were planted. Some are what Oliver Rackham calls the ghost of woods that have since been grubbed out to leave only their edge as a field boundary. Others have arisen where tree seedlings colonise a linear feature such as a ditch or fence, and become established because they are protected from livestock. These various origins of our hedgerows, their differing agricultural histories, geographies, ages and soil types is what gives rise to their exceptional diversity. The pattern of diversity also defines locality; our hedges "reflect and embody the nature of the particular place" as Adam Nicholson wrote*. Think of the tall beech hedges of Exmoor, the windswept gorse and thorn hedges of North Cornwall or the elm-dominated hedgerows of the Suffolk coast.  

There was a drastic loss of hedgerows in the decades after the Second World War, with many being grubbed out to make larger fields for modern farming. In some parts of the country, 50% of hedgerows were destroyed. Of those that do survive, the zealously-trimmed examples - comprised of low, mushroom-shaped stubs - are all too familiar. Many others are neglected and evolving into gappy lines of trees. Thus most hedgerows ultimately require some management (but not too much) if they are to survive.

Plashing or laying is a traditional technique that is used to rejuvenate hedgerows that have become gappy at the base. This involves cutting the upright stems near to the ground and 'laying' them down; bending them in effect, but leaving enough of the stem uncut to keep it alive. In this way, new growth is stimulated and a dense, bushy structure is restored.  With funding from the Veolia Environmental Trust, Plantlife is currently restoring over 250 metres of hedgerow at our Joan's Hill Farm nature reserve in Herefordshire using this method. It is skilled work, for which a specialist is required. Fortunately there has been something of a revival in this country craft and we have been able to recruit a young and enthusiastic hedgelayer (Dave Jackson, below, working on one of the hedgerows at Joan's Hill Farm. Dave's business combines woodland and hedgerow management with the production of traditional and innovative wood products) whose impressive skill is the result of both extensive practical experience and a keen academic interest in the subject.

According to the National Hedgelaying Society, there are over 30 different hedgelaying styles in Britain, reflecting the varied nature and uses of hedges. We are using the Midlands style because it is relevant to the region of which Joan's Hill Farm is part (see example, below). Hedgerow trees will be retained, and these include mature oaks and (locally characteristic) cider apples.

In the second half of the 20th century there was a decline in the practice of hedge laying due to labour costs, use of machines to cut hedges and increased reliance on wire fencing. Yet the experience of our project at Joan's Hill Farm suggests that there is a new generation of hedge layers with a serious interest and pride in their craft. In our modern agricultural landscapes, hedgerows are a vital refuge for wild plants and other wildlife. The need to conserve our hedgerows is clear, and a new generation of enthusiasts offers hope for the future.

*Quoted in "England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive" by Sue Clifford and Angela King.

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Have you seen a celandine?

Did you know that the 21st February is traditionally noted as celandine day?

February 21 2015 - 10:08

Lesser celandine at Plantlife's Caeau Tan y Bwlch Reserve.

Lesser celandine at Plantlife's Caeau Tan y Bwlch Reserve.

In 1795, the renowned naturalist Gilbert White observed that the first celandines usually appeared in his Hampshire village of Selborne on this date. A hundred years later, exactly the same average date was observed by Hertfordshire botanist John Hopkinson. Even today, this date holds more or less true; in 2014 the first peak in flowering was around the 17th February. 

The name 'celandine' is derived from the Greek chelidon meaning ‘a swallow'. Of course, the two don’t appear in our countryside at the same time; instead it’s thought that the name might have arisen because celandines were simply viewed as a vegetable version of the swallow – a floral first sign of spring.

Talking of names, the lesser celandine (as opposed to the greater celandine, which is an entirely different plant) has recently undergone a bit of taxonomic jiggling around. Familiar to generations of field botanists as Ranunculus ficaria, the name originally bestowed upon it by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, it was changed to Ficaria verna in 2010 (in the 3rd edition of Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles). Just we begin to get used to the new name, it’s been put back again to Ranunculus ficaria. Now, I don’t in any way object to taxonomic accuracy - there are rules to follow, after all – but this sort of meddling is unnecessary and gives taxonomy a bad name (pardon the pun!). I suggest we have a moratorium on names, only accepting new ones after a review every 10 years. This would allow taxonomists to make up their minds, and field botanists to have fewer headaches (and don’t get me started on poor old corn marigold, which has gone from the poetic Chrysanthemum segetum to the downright ghastly Glebionis segetum). 

Anyway, back to the lovely little lesser celandine (image, above copyright Laurie Campbell). The bright flowers, with their paler lemon eyes, really are a thoroughly cheerful sight in early spring, but I also love them because of their leaves. Small, rounded and slightly fleshy, they can be delightfully patterned with pale green and purple shades, and many an hour can be spent searching for different combinations. Sometimes the purple takes prominence and occasionally covers the whole leaf, as in the popular garden variety ‘Brazen Hussy’ (what is it with these names?). 

Celandines grow in woodland and along hedgerows, verges, riverbanks and cliff tops. Often they form complete carpets of yellow stars, especially where the soil is damp and conditions are cool.You might think that William Wordsworth’s favourite flower would have been the daffodil of his famous poem. In fact, it was the lesser celandine. He wrote no less than three poems about this bright and beautiful flower - The Small Celandine, To the Same Flower and To the Small Celandine

Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;

Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine.

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The Lent Lily

February 17 2015 - 11:56

Wild daffodils © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

Wild daffodils © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

The season of Lent is upon us, and whilst there are a few things we'd recommend giving up (peat compost, for example, or mowing a patch of your lawn) looking out for wild flowers is not among them. 

In fact, there has never been a better time to start looking for signs of spring. The first blooms are already beginning to appear including one particularly pertinent to Lent: the wild daffodil.

Smaller and paler than many garden varieties, our native daffodil is often called the "Lent Lily" as it blooms and dies away between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It used to be a relatively common wild flower until it mysteriously declined in Victorian times (a fall in cash crops, advancements in agriculture and poor management of habitats have all been blamed) but you can still find it scattered in places, particularly in the west. One of the most famous areas is the ‘golden triangle' around the Gloucestershire villages of Newent and Dymock and you can even take a walk along The Daffodil Way. If you see any wild daffodils this Lent, we’d love to see pictures - you can tweet them as part of our Twitter bloomwatch (follow us via @Love_plants).

We'll leave you with this poem by A. E. Housman, who encapsulates its symbolism all too well:

'Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.

And there's the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there's the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring's array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.

Worried about climate change? Show the Love!

February 12 2015 - 10:37

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) is one of many plants that might be affected by climate change. © Laurie Campbell

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) is one of many plants that might be affected by climate change. © Laurie Campbell

With February 14th around the corner, Plantlife has decided to Show the Love as part of the Climate Coalition's Valentine's Day campaign

Climate change remains one of the greatest threats to the nature we love and too often take for granted. With wild flowers and other plants, it can be hard to predict exactly what may happen. It is almost undeniable however, that it will have an impact. Artic-alpine plants, for example, are especially at threat as they have nowhere to go: there will be no cooler higher ground to colonise and they cannot follow the 'climate space' as it tracks northwards. Sea level rise could affect coastal habitats and temperate rainforest - found in Britian and very few other places - could suffer. Losses are almost inevitable. 

In fact, we are already seeing the tip of the iceberg. Here, for example, are a handful of examples that have been noted by Plantlife botanists Dr Trevor Dines and Tim Wilkins:

  • Some plants, such as pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis), bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) and hart's-tongue fern (Phyllitis scolopendrium), are already moving north in their distribution. The diversity of southern Britain may increase with the arrival of new colonising species, such as tongue-orchid (Cryptostylis subulata), from the continent.
  • Lichens with a south-western distribution in Britain are extending their range north and east. Increasing warmth and moisture, however, will likely have a negative influence on many other species. Slug grazing will intensify, wood will rot faster and competing algae and bryophytes will become more vigorous. Eastern lichens of lowland trees, a strongly declining group even under the present climate, are particularly threatened.
  • The recent rise in tree diseases has been correlated to increasing international trade in plants but there is also evidence that the global ranges of many fungi & lichens are altering due to climate change. Some of these fungi will be pathogenic and could have major impacts on wild plants and their habitats.

Is there anything we can do? Well, as it happens, yes. You can "show the love" for those things we may lose on the Climate Coalition's website. Send a special Valentine's card with a personal image and message, share a star-studded video made for the campaign or make an origami heart for your sleeve. All these activities are intended to show the amount of support from the public to tackle climate change and send a message to politicians, building up to the biggest ever climate lobby of the UK parliament on 17 June.

Do you want to build a snowman? No – I’d rather find some flowers…

February 05 2015 - 16:27

Gorse, snapped blooming just the other day. © Dr Trevor Dines

Gorse, snapped blooming just the other day. © Dr Trevor Dines

Every year it seems to come as a surprise that so many plants can be found in flower in the depths of winter. But this in nothing new. In 1869, Alfred Bennett published a paper in the Journal of the Linnaean Society on the subject, referring to flowers that “…may be found in December or January, and of which we are favoured with lists every year in the corners of newspapers, as evidence of ‘the extraordinary mildness of the season.’”. Well, there’s nothing wrong with keeping a tradition alive, and I love getting out for a wild flower hunt in depths of winter.

Only a few of our native plants are actually programmed to flower now. The most flamboyant, and the one that brings most colour to our otherwise dull winter countryside, is common gorse (Ulex europaeus). This shrub begins to bloom in late autumn and finishes with a triumphant flourish of flower in spring. This seemingly continuous display, though, is apparently provided by two types of gorse-bush: those that flower mostly in the winter, with a smaller number of flowers over a long period, and those that flower abundantly for a shorter period in the spring. This strategy has been adopted to help overcome predation of gorse seeds by the Exapion weevil. The weevil emerges in spring and can infect up to 95% of seed pods. Bushes that flower in winter therefore escape this predation, while those that flower abundantly in spring produce so much seed some of it is bound to survive. Surprisingly, pollination rates in winter and spring are similar; any mild winter days will see pollinators emerge and, with very little else in flower, insects flock to the only restaurant in town that’s open.

This winter, gorse seems to be especially prolific. Around where I live in north Wales, some hedgerows and heaths are splashed with yellow as if it were April already. It always amuses me when people say the scent of the flowers reminds them of coconut. Coconuts only received widespread popularity in Britain in the 1830s, so presumably, for a time people remarked that the scent of this new novelty reminded them of gorse. In an attempt to keep connected to our own native flora, whenever I smell coconut I try to think, “Oh, it smells just like gorse”!  

Many other plants can be found in bloom at this time of year too. During the wonderful New Year Plant Hunt organised by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, an astonishing 368 species were found in flower. Admittedly, many of these were found in milder areas – the Channel Islands, south-west Ireland and western England and Wales, but over 50 species were flowering in the east and north of England, and 39 were even flowering in Edinburgh. Early spring flowering plants will often make the most of a mild winter to flower earlier than normal. These are often woodland plants that usually flower before the leaf canopy expands. There are reports of primrose (Primula vulgaris), early dog violet (Viola reichenbachiana), dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) and stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) already in flower, with bluebells in some woods already showing signs of growth. Hazel (Corylus sp.) can also be found in flower now – look out for the tiny female flowers as well as the long male catkins (pictured below, copyright Laurie Campbell).

The vast majority of plants in flower now, though, are pure opportunists - summer and autumn flowering plants that continue to grow and flower while the weather remains mild, setting seed for future generations. They include weedy annuals like groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), shepherd's-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) and scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), as well as more refined annuals like corn marigold (Glebionis segetum) and sharp-leaved fluellen (Kickxia elatine), all just about hanging on from better days in autumn. A large number are perennial plants, able to draw on resources in buried roots and rhizomes that are protected from the worst of the weather. White dead-nettle (Lamium album), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and daisy (Bellis perennis) are commonly found in flower now, but more unusually cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), angelica, oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) are still in flower, survivors of the mild autumn and winter so far.

With sunnier aspects and a milder maritime climate, it’s not surprising that some coastal flowers are already in bloom too. Thrift (Armeria maritima, above, copyright Laurie Campbell), kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) and sea campion (Silene maritima) have all been spotted, along with the extraordinary bright pink flowers of Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis) – a denizen south African that can escape from gardens and run riot on coastal cliffs.