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

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. 

Related links

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.

Xenophobia?


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.”

Viper’s-bugloss

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” 

Honeysuckle

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.”

Primrose

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.