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

Make your own calennig apple

December 21 2016 - 16:16

Across Wales on New Year’s Day, groups of children would go from door to door in their local neighbourhood to collect ‘calennig’, a New Year gift. They would offer good wishes in the form of an apple, skewered with holly and other evergreen branches and decorated with nuts or cloves. After singing a verse or two, the children would wait expectantly for a gift of a few coins or some tasty treats. Why not revive this ancient custom by making a calennig apple for your home?

Get ready

  • Choose an apple to decorate – a local variety if you can
  • Find a few branches of an evergreen plant such as holly or box
  • Select your decorations - these could be cloves, nuts or anything else you fancy!

Put it all together 

  • Remove the leaves from one of the evergreen branches and cut it into three equal pieces. Insert these into the base of the apple like a tripod.
  • Insert two or three of the evergreen branches into the top of the apple
  • Stick your decorations around the apple and admire your creation!

Why not get into the true spirit of calennig and learn a traditional New Year’s Day song?

Did this tradition once take place in your part of Wales? Do you know anyone that still exchange calennig gifts?

Saving Culm Grassland in Cornwall

Our once-in- a-lifetime opportunity in an ancient north Cornwall landscape

November 29 2016 - 12:45

The grandly-named "Atlantic Highway" follows Cornwall's north coast between Newquay and Bude.  It serves a string of coves, beaches and popular destinations along its full length, including Padstow, Port Issac, Polzeath and the castle of Arthurian legend at Tintagel.  Inland, the landscape is sparsely-populated and, north of Bodmin Moor, overlooked by most tourists.  Plantlife's Greena Moor reserve, which lies in this area between Launceston and Bude, certainly feels like a venture off the beaten track.  The route is through quiet pastures, wooded valleys and narrow, sunken lanes that snake and dip like roller coasters beneath wind-clipped hedges.

Buried deep in this away-from-it-all landscape, Plantlife’s Greena Moor reserve represents the remains of an ancient and once extensive moor.  Its 91 acres have a delightfully scruffy quality; water-logged fields of rushes and tussocks of Purple Moor-grass are alive with insects and the heady aromas of Meadowsweet and Water Mint. This rather primeval habitat is known as Culm grassland, found in areas with heavy clay soils overlying carboniferous rocks that are known as “Culm Measures”.

These are so-called because they sometimes contain deposits of a soft, sooty coal that is known locally as “Culm”.  The habitat has always has a restricted distribution, being confined to North Devon and North Cornwall, with similar grassland types found only in south Wales, southwest Scotland, northwest France and a few other places.  Yet it is also increasingly-rare; a staggering 92% of Culm grassland has been lost in the past 100 years, with 48% disappearing between 1984 and 1991 alone.

The Plantlife reserve represents the second largest and one of the most species-rich areas of Culm remaining in Cornwall.  No fewer than six of the wild plants recorded here are listed as threatened on the England Red List.  These are Three-lobed Crowfoot, Petty Whin, Pale Dog Violet, Wood Bitter-vetch, Hay-scented Buckler Fern and Lesser Butterfly Orchid.  The latter, a plant of sparkling beauty with spikes of white, night-scented flowers, is currently the subject of conservation action at a national level; the species having been lost from about 75% of its former range in England.  

Glittering amongst the rushes are a host of other colourful flowers; the pinks of Meadow Thistle, Bog Pimpernel and Ragged-robin, yellows of Wavy St-John’s-wort, Marsh Ragwort and Bog Asphodel, an abundance of white Whorled Caraway and the blue Devil’s-bit Scabious that is particularly intense in evening light.  The latter is the food plant for caterpillars of the rare Marsh Fritillary butterfly, which occurs here in good numbers.

The reserve is a partnership venture; Plantlife’s land being leased to Cornwall Wildlife Trust who manage it on our behalf with the support of a tenant whose family has a long history of farming in this unique landscape.  
The land is fragmented into two parts that are divided by a large area of pasture in separate ownership. These two areas are, by necessity, managed in isolation and scarce species such as Three-lobed Crowfoot are essentially penned-in to their existing ghettos.  However, the presence of Bronze Age barrows is a clue that the flora of this area was once, by contrast, part of an unenclosed and more expansive landscape.  Our conservation aims must therefore not only look inwards to the reserve itself, but also outwards - at ways in which we can piece together more expansive and better-connected habitat.

The exciting news is that we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just this; connecting the two isolated areas of Culm through the acquisition and management of a 40-acre area that spans the gap between them.  This area is ripe for restoration as it retains a water-logged character and a good range of desirable plants including Lesser Spearwort, Gipsywort, Fen Bedstraw and Marsh Violet.  Acquisition of these fields would give us a fabulous opportunity to restore species-rich grassland habitat, creating the largest and best Culm grassland site in Cornwall.  It would also allow us to establish new populations of rare plants found on the existing reserve, to expand habitat for the marsh fritillary butterfly and make improvements for our visitors to the site.

All of this can only be achieved if we are able to secure the necessary funds.  Buying and restoring this land will cost more than £300,000 over the next few years. That’s in addition to a similar sum we have to spend every year keeping all of our existing reserves in the best condition. A legacy we have received will give us a generous £150,000 start towards this total. But we cannot reach the target without help.  

If you would like to help make this happen, then now is a good time to do so.  To make your generosity even more valuable, we are taking part in The Big Give’s Christmas Challenge, the UK’s biggest online match-funding campaign. If you give online between 29 November and 2 December, whatever you donate will be doubled. You can do this online via The Big Give

However, you can also give at any time online via the Big Give or by calling 01722 342756. Every penny will make a big difference for our rarest plants and habitats. If we raise more than we need for Greena Moor, we can put it to good use protecting wild flowers on our other reserves.

Plantlife buys land very rarely. This site has such huge potential for restoration that we really want to grasp the opportunity. This is a vital step in creating a plant-rich habitat, a lasting legacy, not only for Cornwall but for the UK as a whole.

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 11

November 18 2016 - 09:49

It’s now 14 months since we prepared the ground and spread the seed from Moss Hill on our new meadow. We’ve come full circle at last, experiencing the first complete turn of the haymaking calendar. Once again, it was time to make hay.

So on the last day of August, we cut the meadow. Thankfully, a few days of dry weather allowed us to turn the neat rows of grass three times (to knock out as much seed as possible) and then produce 21 round bales of sweetly fragrant hay.

Bringing in a harvest is always enormously satisfying, but two things struck me. Firstly, 21 bales is quite a lot of grass for a 3 acre wildflower meadow. Thinking back, the conditions in 2016 – a cold, wet spring followed by a warm, damp summer - really encouraged the grass, especially Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus). This amount of grass isn’t ideal. Over the next few years, the Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) will help reduce the vigour of the grass, but it was also clear that we needed to graze the meadow much harder.

Secondly, I was shocked at just how harsh a mechanical hay cut like this can be. One moment you have a field of grass that’s been growing gently for 5 months, then an hour later it’s cut to within a few inches of its life. The plants will, of course, come back, but the impact on invertebrates can be drastic. Many need standing grass over winter – for both shelter and food - and although some standing grass remains around the edges of the meadow, I do wonder if there’s another way. Some meadow owners are now cutting their hay over a period of weeks, or even leaving some areas uncut, rotating such areas around the meadow each year. Something to think about for the future.

But for now, we had 21 bales of hay. In a nice old-fashioned bartering sort of way, we used 11 of these to ‘pay’ the chap that did the hay-cut for us. Then 8 bales went to Geraint and Eleri to feed their Highland cattle and to thank them for all their help though the year (as novice cattle owners we’ve needed quite a bit of help!) And we’ve kept the final 2 bales to feed our own Highlands over the winter.    

In the blink of an eye, the grass grew back, the field turned bright green and it was time to get some grazing animals onto the meadow. This is an absolutely essential part of the hay meadow cycle. Not only does it enable the farmer to feed livestock on fresh pasture during the autumn and winter, it keeps the grass under control and allows other plants to germinate and grow. I’ve been looking at the meadow very closely all year, and have been astonished at just how much germination there is from late summer and throughout autumn. If we didn’t cut the hay and then introduce ‘aftermath grazing’ as it’s called, these seedlings would quickly be swamped by a blanket of grass. 

So, wanting to get extra grazing in this year, we took up an offer from Geraint and Eleri to take on another of their Highland cows and also their lovely little flock of 15 Ryeland sheep. So meet Sorcha the 10 year old Highland (who’s currently pregnant) along with our own two cows.

And here are the Ryeland sheep. These are one of the oldest British native breeds that originated in Leominster, Herefordshire, seven centuries ago when monks would graze them on rye pastures, hence their name.

To give you an idea of the effect these extra animals are having, the two photos below were both taken on the same day - 25th October – one year apart. The top image was taken in 2015, when we just had our two Highland cows (Cadi and Breagha) grazing the meadow. The bottom image is from this year with the three cows and 15 sheep.

At this time of year, you should be aiming to graze meadows as hard as you can (without, of course, causing any loss of condition in your animals). You really want to start to see bare ground through the sward, as this means there’s light to stimulate germination and room for seedlings to grow. Across our own meadow this year, the results have been incredible. Millions upon millions of seedlings are germinating, such as these Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa).

We had hoped to spread some more brush harvested seed from Moss Hill again this year. Unfortunately, even the best laid plans sometimes go awry, and we found ourselves unable to collect any seed (despite clear instructions, the grazier decided to put his animals into the meadow a few weeks early!). So instead, I’ve set up a little plug-plant nursery at home. This is an excellent way to introduce ‘target’ species into newly created and restored meadows, as not everything will come in with the green hay or brush-harvested seed.

Thankfully, over the summer, I’ve been collecting little bits of seed from plants growing in local hedgerows and meadows (including Moss Hill), things like Betony (Betonica officinalis), Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis), Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) and Mouse-ear-hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum). I’ve now sown these in small-celled trays using soil collected from the meadow. I don’t want to introduce any foreign soil – such as commercial seed compost - into the meadow so I’ve been making use of the molehills to collect soil. I’ve now got myself a mini-plug plant nursery and can’t wait to get planting them out next year.

A final flourish of colour in the meadow. As soon as it turns wet and cold, the waxcap fungi appear in a multitude of shapes and colours. The classic red and yellow species are lovely, but I’m particularly fond of the tiny Snowy Waxcap (Hygrocybe virginea). Wherever it appears it looks like someone has scattered little porcelain buttons in the grass.


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

The complete meadow restoration story can be followed from the previous blog entry here.

Hunting for the Gruffalo

Searching for an orchid with Julia Donaldson, wild flower lover and celebrated author of 'The Gruffalo'

November 08 2016 - 16:24

As a self-confessed orchid-fanatic, I’ve seen a good many of our British orchid species over the years. But I’m no twitcher - I don’t race around the country adding plants and flowers I've not yet seen to my ‘life-list’ just for the sake of it. I’m much more interested in just wandering around interesting places and sites to see what I can find. For me, the real joy comes from the unexpected finds, the surprise discovery of something wonderful, regardless of its rarity.

But occasionally, you have to break your own rules, especially when you get a chance hunt for a new orchid... with one of our most famous authors.  

And so I found myself on Castle Hill national nature reserve just outside Brighton with Julia Donaldson, author of best-selling children’s books The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man. We were filming an edition of Treasures of the British Library for Sky Arts, in which cultural icons select books from the archives with special meaning for them. A very keen lover of wild flowers, Julia had selected Gerarde’s Herbal (1597) as one of her treasures, and we were hunting for an orchid pictured in the Herbal that neither of us had seen before.

As the name suggests, early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) flowers very early - it was only late April - and its small green and brownish-purple flowers were difficult to spot in the still winter-browned grass.

We combed the hillside where we’d been told they were growing, but without luck. Then, I decided to use an old plant-hunters trick. I changed our perspective. Throwing ourselves down into the grass (Julia was very game and we both fought off an urge to roll downhill like a pair of children) we pressed our faces against the turf and scanned the horizon. There – a few meters away – we could at last see a small flower spike pushing proudly above the ground.

We might not have found a Gruffalo, but the orchids were beguiling and beautiful, and it was wonderful to share this moment of utter joy with Julia (and add one more to my list!)

Treasures of the British Library with Julia Donaldson will be shown on Sky Arts tonight (Tuesday 8th November) at 9.00pm 

Nature: moving forward, post-Brexit

As the enormity of that decision sinks in, we are starting to work with partners to ensure our environmental legislation is strengthened in the years ahead.

November 04 2016 - 13:20

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

Trevor’s speech at the State of Nature launch kicked off some good conversations on the future of farming - particularly his heartfelt description of  the gradual decline of the wildlife on his dad’s farm in Hampshire.

While this decline is undeniable, there is clearly a better way and we need to head clearly along this path post-Brexit.

A key problem is that most public funding goes to farmers in their role as landowners, leaving too little to reverse the wildlife declines most taxpayers want from the countryside. This needs to be about how we can develop a more sensible approach to what we want from the countryside. Two conversations this week have helped me understand the challenges and the way ahead...

The first was when chatting to some farmer friends about what they saw as the future of farming. Their story was telling – they were in Stewardship previously but couldn’t afford to maintain the field margins and other wildlife features once their scheme expired, so ploughed these short-lived habitats back into the ground. Instead, they now carry out more modest efforts (including a glorious species-rich meadow in the garden) and ‘do their bit’ wherever possible, but otherwise are focused on the important and commercial job of producing good-quality food. They are good at this and happy to ‘go it alone’, and while undoubtedly enjoying the benefit of their public subsidy for the acres they own, recognise that public money is better spent where wildlife can be properly nurtured.

The second discussion happened whilst showing The Woodland Trust around our Ranscombe Farm Reserve, which is in Stewardship. Here we work hand-in-glove with the tenant farmer delivering both food and exceptional wildlife. This is only possible with the right advice and targeted intervention, but the results were clear to see.

My conclusions? We should focus our public money on delivering those public benefits that come from proper stewardship of the countryside and to do this means a tough discussion on where best to focus our efforts so we rebuild wildlife for all our benefits.”

But what do you think? Write and let us know your views.

Plants, people and partners

What’s next for Plantlife Scotland?

October 27 2016 - 20:59

October 2016, we published our five year vision for Plantlife Scotland.

It runs from 2016 to 2021. Since Plantlife was founded in 1989, we’ve been actively working to conserve plants and fungi and the places where they grow in Scotland. And in that time, we’ve achieved some great things:

  • In 1999, we acquired Munsary peatlands, Plantlife’s biggest reserve and part of the Caithness and Sutherlands peatlands, a candidate for World Heritage Site status.
  • In 2007, we worked with partners to identify and publish a list of the very best places for plants across Scotland and the UK, as part of our Important Plant Area work.  This met target 5 of the first  Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (2010 – 2015) and we’re now working with partners to ensure these areas are under appropriate management to meet target five of the revised Global Strategy for Plant Conservation by 2020.
  • We’ve completed seven species conservation projects successfully improving the future for species like pillwort, twinflower, lesser butterfly orchid and Irish lady’s tresses orchid. as well as improving the status and future for internationally important habitats including Celtic rainforests and species rich grasslands. From 2009, we’ve developed management guidance for 6 priority habitats in Scotland and from 2012, we’ve been providing sitebased advice in these habitats, working at more than 60 sites to date.  
  • We work with more than 200 volunteers who are out and about across Scotland monitoring common plants species through the National Plant Monitoring scheme and rare plants through Flora Guardians who complete just under 200 hours of survey work annually.  
  • We worked closely with 6 MSP species Champions in the last Parliament, who helped us promote the status and need for action for their species. In 2016, with the relaunch of the project following the election, we’re already working with 5 MSPs on species from Mountain everlasting to Wilson’s filmy fern and Scottish primrose.

Our 2016 – 2021 plan shows what we’re going to be doing next. Our priorities will be:

  • To conserve and restore: we’ll be working with land managers to conserve native plants and their habitats. 
  • To develop and lead restoration programmes in key priority habitats including Caledonian pinewoods, Celtic rainforests and species rich grassland
  • To build a body evidence: we’ll be providing even more opportunities for local communities and interested individuals to work with us to gather evidence that we can use in our policy work 
  • To campaign: we will continue to work with politicians to improve the visibility of plants and fungi in legislation to ensure that legislation works for plants and fungi and builds them a secure future. 

We would love to work with more people from across Scotland. You can get involved by volunteering with us, working with us to tweak your land management to benefit plants and fungi  or you can work with us in partnership projects. You can share knowledge with us by coming along to our demonstration events, joining our citizen scientists and supporting our campaigns. And you can support us by becoming a member, donating to support our projects or providing grants to support our work.

Keep in touch us through our twitter feed @PlantlifeScot, on Facebook or by signing up to our monthly E-News.


Five Apple Facts for Apple Day

October 21 2016 - 14:43

The 21st October is National Apple Day, so to mark the occasion, here's three apple themed factoids:

1. There are over 6,000 varieties of cultivated apple

In fact, if you ate a different one each day it would take you over 16 years to get through them all!

2. Many are descended from the humble crabapple (Malus sylvestris, pictured):

Don't try to pick them and eat them, though - wild crabapples taste far more tart and sour than cultivated apples. However, they do make a rather tasty jelly.

3. Apple blossom was used to indicate a preference

... according to floriography, also known as the "Language of Flowers". The Victorians were particularly keen on floriography, so receiving a bouquet of apple blossom from a Victorian Gent likely meant he fancied you more than anyone else.

4. Best not to get it mixed up with Crabapple blossom though...

Crabapple blossom, conversely, suggests you think the recipient is ill-tempered!

5. Mistletoe is particularly fond of apple trees

...which is why so much grows in our Joan's Hill Farm Reserve in Herefordshire (an old 19th century orchard is part of the site). Mistletoe, in turn, provides a home for six species of insect that can live nowhere else. 


Get updates from the field! Sign up to our E-News

How do Fairy Rings form?

October 17 2016 - 13:59

Have you ever seen a fairy ring?

Jane and her dog Jed did - a very good one, as it happens - and sent us this photo as evidence:

So what is a fairy ring and how do they form?

Sadly they are not the work of dancing elves, as European folklore might have it. Instead, they are the result of a single fungus growing in a patch of grassland. Unseen, underground, small threads called mycelium sprout and spread out in a small circle, just a few centimetres across. The next year, the fruiting bodies (that's the toadstools) form at the edges of this circle, and pop up above ground. 

Over time, the mycelium depletes nutrients from where it’s been growing, so it tends to grow outwards into “fresh” grass. This advancing edge is where the fruiting bodies appear each year. Eventually, a complete ring is formed as the circle continues to expand. 

Fairy rings can be decades old, but if anything disrupts its outward expansion (a mole digging a hole, rocks underground or even a vehicle churning up the grass) then shape of the circle can be disrupted. This can happen quite often, so perfect circles are rare. 


Get updates from the field! Sign up to our E-News

Fen orchids saved at Catfield Fen

October 06 2016 - 13:13

Fen orchid ©

Fen orchid ©

Many consider Catfield Fen to be the "jewel in the crown" of the Norfolk Broads Important Plant Area.

As well as providing a home to the rare Swallowtail Butterfly, it also supports a community of endangered fen orchids (Liparis loeselii) and other wild flowersSo when we heard it was under threat, we were, naturally, concerned.

Eight years ago, owners Tim and Geli Harris noticed the fen was drying out. The cause? A local farmer who was abstracting water from the site. Whilst lost groundwater can be replaced by rainfall, doing so can make the land more acidic. This presented a danger to the fen orchids and other species who lived in the area.

In response the Environment Agency stopped the farmer's activity by refusing him an abstraction licence. But the farmer appealed and an inquiry was launched. Plantlife and other environmental charities submitted evidence supporting TIm and Geli's claim: that the abstraction was making the land more acidic and thus threatening the wildlife on the site.

At the end of last month we heard the good news: the inspector dismissed the challenge, ruled in favour of the Environment Agency and halted any future abstraction. Catfield Fen has been saved!

That's not the only good news from the East of England. Some of you may remember, earlier this year, that one of our botanists was babysitting some fen orchids. We're happy to say that, not only did they survive their move, many of them flowered this summer!

Preparations are now underway for a full-blown reintroduction this winter. You can help us keep up the good work.

The State of Nature in Wales

October 03 2016 - 15:53

On 21 September 2016, a coalition of more than 50 leading conservation bodies across Wales united to highlight the State of Nature in Wales. 

This new report reveals that 56% of species studied have declined across the UK over the last 50 years. In Wales, one in 14 species is heading for extinction – with a worrying 57% them being wild plants.

Over the long term, 57% of vascular plant species declined in Wales whilst 29% of the 55 fungi and lichen species that were assessed were also declining. For the 52 bryophytes featured on the priority species list and we assessed 49 of them and 47% of these were declining.

We now know more about the state of nature in Wales than ever before and the threats it is facing. For the first time, we’ve been able to identify and quantify the main reasons why our wildlife is changing - and it’s clear that changes in land management and climate change are the two greatest factors that impact nature.

However there is good news. We know that, when implemented well, conservation measures work and can help reverse species and habitat decline. This is evident with the rise in numbers of lesser butterfly orchids (Platanthera bifolia) on the two Plantlife nature reserves and work to increase the population of pillwort (Pilularia globulifera) in North Wales and yellow Whitlow-grass (Draba aizoides) on the Gower.

How we protect and manage our environment is key to reversing nature’s decline. It needs a coordinated approach across government, business, conservation organisations and the public. The National Assembly for Wales recently passed a landmark piece of law which, if implemented effectively, could see Wales leading the way for biodiversity recovery in the UK. We need the Welsh Government, supported by the people of Wales, to rise to the challenge.


The State of Nature in Scotland

Building diversity and having fun

September 20 2016 - 09:55

On Wednesday 14 September, the State of Nature partnership launched the second State of Nature report. At its launch in Edinburgh, I gave this speech. I was aiming to help people remember what fun nature can be and  inspire them to act with us to save nature.

Let me start with a massive and heartfelt thank you! THANK YOU to all the volunteers who have contributed the data on which this report is built. It would not exist without the estimated 60,000 hours of volunteer time (and that is just part of the data collecting volunteer team – there are another 66,000 getting out mending paths and fences, and leading walks) dedicated to Scotland’s nature.

They have witnessed and verified first hand the decline in species. What are they seeing? More to the point, what are they not seeing.

Have you seen a moth snowstorm this summer? A murmuration of starlings? A shiver of basking sharks? A coterie of orchids?

We are all witnesses to the decline in species diversity across Scotland to such a point that 9% of our species are now at risk of extinction.

Does it matter that we, and our children are much less likely nowadays to see a curlew, a mountain pansy or a common blue butterfly? Our children are much less likely to be finding newts in their pond, collecting ladybirds from the field or making whistles from elder trees. Does that matter?

Well yes I would say. That sort of experience is what enriches a childhood and fires the imagination. But even beyond that it also matters because our ecosystems across Scotland are becoming more simplified. They have fewer species, which results in less diversity, which in turns leads to less resilience to change. A simplified ecosystem is one much more likely to fall over in times of change – times of climate change even. We have measured this through the Biodiversity Intactness Index, which in Scotland falls below the 90% levels recognised as the level beyond which our ecosystems can reliably met society’s needs. And while that sounds dry and boring, these ecosystem services include those we know about like flood prevention and fertile soils, as well as those we don’t know about but still take from granted: future medicines and alternatives to plastic for instance.

Above: cloudberry  © Laurie Campbell

Scotland trades on our image: Scotland is renowned across the world for its majestic landscapes and species diversity.  Where else can you see alpine gentians growing next to arctic cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus - above)? Nowhere else of course. But we are not doing enough to conserve it and with it our own future.

So what can we do other than drown our sorrows with the help of a Botanist gin? What can we all resolve to do so that the next State of Nature report shows us a reverse in this decline?

We need to work together. This report show how, when we work together, we can achieve good things. Look at the examples in the report. Then, if you already volunteer – thank you and please carry on. If you don’t, how about it? There is a very exciting range of opportunities out there and again the organisations in this partnership can help you get involved or inspire you to get involved.

And finally use this report, and its sister report, Response for Nature, launched last year, to implement change in your own area of work. Use the report, reflect on its messages and join us in doing something about it. Biodiversity loss is the biggest threat to the world but has been largely forgotten. This report shows why that is a dangerous oversight.

Above: the Cairngorms, an Important Plant Area. © Laurie Campbell

We need nature – much more than it needs us. In Scotland, we’re making good progress towards climate change and the government’s targets. But we’re only tackling half the story. There are only two ways to combat climate change: one through reducing emissions and one through maintaining species diversity so our ecosystems are able to sequester carbon. Scotland has positioned itself as a world leader in setting and attaining targets on emissions reductions and it could equally become a world leader in enhancing biodiversity and its attendant sequestration capability. Until we reverse the decline in biodiversity across Scotland, our future, and our children’s future is getting less diverse, and dare I say it, less fun , every day.

So help us make a difference, bake blaeberry tarts, make nettle string, watch an eagle soar. And with it, your resolve to help halt the loss of Scotland’s amazing nature.

Let me know of your memories of nature and the memories you would like to foster for future generations in the comments below or on twitter #naturememory.


The State of Nature

A copy of Dr Trevor Dines' speech at the launch of the State of Nature 2016 report.

September 13 2016 - 15:31

I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm in the rolling hills of the Hampshire downs. 

Dad’s corn fields were full of poppies, or - as they were once called – the “thunder flowers” that heralded the arrival of summer storms. Up on Barrow Hill, Night-flowering Catchfly (Silene noctiflora) breathed its rich, clove scent into the air at dusk to attract pollinating moths. And then there was that long hot summer – full of hushed excitement and secrecy – when a Montague’s Harrier took up home in one of our fields (“Don’t tell anyone”, said my Dad, “or they might scare her away”). 

But I also remember vividly the day when a steep little bank on our neighbours farm – a tiny fragment of ancient grassland - was ploughed into the ground. It was the only place I knew where an enchanting little orchid - Autumn Lady's-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) – grew. I just couldn’t see any rhyme or reason why this flowery bank had to be destroyed. 

This sort of gradual attrition, though, - a field corner here, a small copse there - has been the story of our countryside for many decades. It’s a story of a death by a thousand cuts – each small act seemingly insignificant, but each one carving out a much bigger picture. The poppies shrank back to the field gateways, the Catchfly dwindled and the Montague’s Harrier never did return. 

The truth presented in this State of Nature report is startling. This is a clarion call – a unified voice from our bugs, bees, birds, bats and bellflowers – that our countryside is in crisis:  

  • Of nearly 4,000 species studied, 56% show a decline in the long term, and by that we mean since 1970 (now, I was 1 year old 1970, so this is within my own lifetime). 
  • Over the same period, 213 of our Priority Species have declined by 67% in abundance and 35% in range. 
  • And more than 1-in-7 of all our wild species are now threatened with extinction. Heartbreakingly, 142 species have already met this fate; Downy Hemp-nettle (Galeopsis segetum - below), Apple Bumblebee and Large Copper butterflies are some of those now extinct in the UK.

But if we look at smaller areas of land – such as individual counties – the rate of extinction is even higher. My mother grew up and now lives again in Northamptonshire – a county that includes your own constituency, Secretary of State for the Environment. In this county alone 103 wild flowers – including Meadow Saffron (Colchicum autumnale) and Lesser Butterfly-orchid (Platanthera bifolia) - have become extinct, making it the county with the second highest rate of plant extinction in England.

What is driving all this change in our wildlife? Taking evidence of both positive (green) and negative (red) effects on 400 species over the last 40 years, we can see which ‘drivers of change’ are most active:

Climate change is often thought to be the biggest threat, but, interestingly, the positive and negative effects are rather evenly balanced. We are seeing more southern species moving northward than northern and montane species declining. However, as our climate warms, this balance is likely to tip – a few weeks ago it was reported that Snow Pearlwort (Sagina nivalis), which grows on just a few peaks in the Scottish Highlands, has disappeared from half its sites since the 1980s. 

There is, however, a much more profound and immediate threat. By far the biggest impact comes from our day-to-day treatment of our land. It’s these day-to-day actions – the intensive management of agricultural land, drainage, undergrazing, and the abandonment of woodlands – that lead to most losses. 

Take a tractor and plough and an ancient wildflower meadow like this...

...can be destroyed within a single morning, with the loss of maybe 100 or more species of wildflowers.

Most have been replaced with this... 

... intensively farmed pasture with just a handful of tough plants. 

This quiet catastrophe has befallen over 97% of our wildflower meadows and grasslands since the 2nd World War. Pause for a moment to reflect on that figure – if I said that over 97% of our woodlands had gone there’d be a national outcry. It amounts to 7.5 million acres – and if you struggle to visualise that figure it equates to an area of meadow one and a half times the size of Wales. 

I want to challenge this notion that ours is “green and pleasant” land. The increase in agricultural production, underpinned and driven by agricultural policy, has fundamentally changed our countryside. 

As a boy, even as I was learning the names of the plants around me – Ragged-Robin and Venus’-looking-glass - I was aware of the herbicides ... the fertilizers .... and the insecticides that were being poured, spread and sprayed onto the fields. As Sir David Attenborough once put it so eloquently - we developed an “extraordinary expertise in destroying, poisoning and knocking down things”.

Where there were once flowers at our feet, there is now a factory floor - little more than green concrete. Yet, within one generation – we’ve come to accept this as... well... entirely acceptable.

This impact on our habitats cascades through the food chain. When our flowers go, so do the pollinators. When the leaves go, so do the caterpillars. When the seeds go, so do the finches that feed upon them. It always amazes me when people ask “Where are our birds? Where are our bees? And where are our butterflies?” My response is simple: “Where are the plants & flowers that sustain them?” 

Ask any member of the public which of these they want – wildflower meadows or productive pastures, and I bet they actually want both. But the pendulum has swung too far over towards production – big agribusiness has won - and we need much more of a balance across our entire landscape – both wildlife and production, not one or the other. 

So... what next? The State of Nature partnership has many of the solutions. And we know they work. Two of the best include creating new habitats – new flower-rich grasslands, new magnificent meadows and new wetlands - and the introduction of wildlife-friendly farming through agri-environment schemes.

We have very good evidence that well designed, well targeted and well funded agri-environment schemes do work. Wildlife can thrive thanks to public money being used for public good. And adequate funding is essential - as one farmer said, “you can’t do green when you’re in the red”. Many farmers want wildlife on their farms. They want to do the best they can and they want to achieve that balance. We need to do all we can to work alongside all farmers to encourage and support them.

This really is the crux of it. For all the doom and gloom of the statistics, our wildlife is opportunistic and resilient. If we provide them with the right conditions, they will come back from the brink.

Back on the farm in Hampshire, agri-environment schemes now mean that field margins are left unsprayed and unfertilized. The poppies and Night-flowering Catchfly have appeared again on Barrow Hill, springing up like buried treasure from the soil seed bank. We just have to give them a chance.     

And so, Secretary of State... as these declines continue on what is now your watch, we offer you our support. We’re ready to work with you, just as we are with farmers and others, so that we can bring about real benefits for wildlife and people.   

In these challenging times - you, me and we - all need...

  • A robust policy framework that genuinely supports the restoration of species, habitats and ecosystems, rather than simply handing over £3 billion a year to those fortunate enough to own land.
  • Our remarkable special sites - our most protected areas – to be looked after so that they really do brim with wildlife and help re-seed nature, rather than the 50% of SSSIs in the UK that are currently in unfavourable condition.
  • A holistic plan to deliver the truly landscape-level changes so that we all benefit from the services that nature provides, like flood prevention, carbon capture, and healthier and happier lives

Now, I'm going to finish with a little botanical quiz. Don't worry, it shouldn't be too challenging. Can you name any of the following?

Yes, that's right - they're bluebells, buttercups and conkers. Now, the Oxford Junior Dictionary – aimed at 7 year olds - has removed quite a few words from its most recent edition. These include the words “bluebell”, “buttercup” and “conker”.

They’ve been replaced with words that the OED have found to be used more often by children these days, words like “broadband”, “blog” and “chatroom”.

As a reflection on the State of Our Relationship With Nature, this speaks volumes. It says more to me than any statistic describing the decline of a species. And this isn’t the fault of a dictionary. It is our responsibility – each and every one of us - to do something about it.

Next spring, take your sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, grandchildren and godchildren into your local wood and show them the sheer joy of bluebells in all their glory. In the summer, take them into a meadow - put a buttercup under their chin – and see if they like butter. And this autumn – in the next few weeks - take them into your nearest park and have a good old fashioned conker fight with them.  

And for once, let’s not just think about doing it, let’s all actually do it

Because the future of our nature depends upon it.


Making a wildflower meadow in the heart of London

As it happened: the creation of the 90th new Coronation Meadow.

September 08 2016 - 14:44

Tuesday 6th September was a special day for us: we got to make a meadow in the heart of London!

And this meadow was no ordinary meadow. Together with the Wildlife Trusts and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and supported by BiffaAward we have been creating new "Coronation Meadows" across the land and this would be our 90th. Dubbed the Queen's Meadow - in recognition of The Queen's 90th birthday - it was to be grown in London's Green Park.

The brainchild of our patron, HRH The Prince of Wales, Coronation Meadows were created both as his tribute to The Queen on the anniversary of Her Majesty's Coronation and as an answer to the devastating loss of wildflower meadows in England, Scotland and Wales since the Second World War. The aim? To create a new meadow in every UK county.

A lot of hard work goes into making an authentic wildflower meadow – it’s not as simple as it looks. So to give a little insight, here's what happened on the day.

If you're going to make a meadow in London, you need flower power: Agrifactors' especially decorated tractor and power harrow prepared the ground for seeding.

Then the real horse power arrived: Aragon and Royale II from the Royal Parks.

The Meadow Makers recieved a warm welcome from our vice president Rachel de Thame.

Led by our patron, HRH The Prince of Wales, local children scattered the first wildflower seed, taken from Valebridge Common in West Sussex. An ancient Coronation Meadow, its a closer match to Green Park's soil than the London Coronation Meadow at Horsenden Hill - although we did add some Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) seed from the latter. 

Finally the public joined in - not to mention the Plantlife team! Left to right, below are: Dr Trevor Dines (Plantlife's Botanical Specialist), Professor David Hill CBE (Plantlife's Chairman), Rachel de Thame and Marian Spain (Plantlife's Chief Executive).

Who knows, next year it might look something like this (Valebridge Common in bloom):  

We'll be back in the summer of 2017 with photos and an update!

Find out more:

One man went to mow…

Poldark's back, so what better time to look at the ancient art of scything?

September 02 2016 - 10:23

Who will ever forget Poldark’s topless scything scene in the BBC’s popular drama?

It was enough to get housewives’ hearts a flutter and good reason for Radio Times to ask 44,000 readers to vote for their top TV moment of 2015. And perhaps unsurprisingly, actor Aidan Turner took the honours, with 45% of the vote.

However, not wishing to belittle that memorable TV moment, experts have pointed out that Poldark’s overexuberant technique left a lot to be desired, claiming that it didn’t have to be quite so intense to get this sedate job done. They said that the only time anyone would mow with as much effort as Poldark demonstrated in his macho meadow-mowing scene is in a competition.

What's the correct way to scythe? Become a member and find out in our summer magazine.


Popular with both sexes, the ancient art of scything is enjoying a revival and is favoured by smallholders who might not be able to afford expensive equipment but who make hay on a small scale, perhaps with an acre or two to mow. Equally, a scythe is useful for areas inaccessible to other equipment, such as steep slopes or sensitive habitats – and it’s a great work-out and helps keep you fit.

Says Richard Brown of the Scythe Association of Britain & Ireland (SABI): "We feel that the good news story most relevant to Plantlife members is how much the 21st-century renaissance in scythe use is empowering individuals and community groups to manage grassland, and help conserve endangered plants and plant communities.

Plantlife's Coronation Meadows initiative - where we're making new meadows all over the UK - is making use of this phenomena, and it's also a brilliant way to engage people in meadows and their conservation."

Fashioned for cutting vegetation at ground level, the scythe first came to the British Isles 2,000 years ago and is an ancient cutting tool that was used for centuries, prior to horse-drawn and modern mowing machinery. It was probably first designed to cut grass, but as animals were increasingly fed on different types of straw, the importance of cutting oats, barley and other grains close to the ground became more important and the scythe began to replace the sickle as a way of harvesting crops. The scythe is, therefore, found in most areas of the world where grass and grains such as wheat, barley, oats or rye are the predominate agricultural crop. 

However, the resurgence of interest in scything today is largely down to the efficiency and design of the super-slick Austrian scythe – it’s lighter in weight, easier to manoeuvre and more elegantly constructed than traditional English scythes. The Austrian (or continental) scythe’s blades are waferthin and hand-forged into an elegant curve, and with an ashwood snath can weigh as little as 1,8kg (about 4lb), compared to heavier Anglo-American scythes that come in at a hefty 3kg (almost 7lb).

So does this ancient tool have a place in the modern world? Absolutely... talk to any enthusiast dedicated to keeping this age-old art alive and you’ll soon see that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. And Poldark’s portrayal of scything as an exhausting exercise couldn’t be further from reality. 

Instead, scything has been described as a "poetic way of cutting", a pleasurable, relaxing activity rather than a back-breaking chore. And, most importantly, a task that helps relax the mind and maintain that valuable connection with nature.

You might also like:

Rare woodland wildflower returns

Let sunshine in to the forest floor and the stars will shine

August 26 2016 - 11:42

Spreading bellflower (Campanula patula) is one of our most elusive – and beautiful – wildflowers.

Unlike other campanula’s, with their bell-shaped flowers, the five petals of this species spread wide like a star - hence the name. Living in the dappled shade of woodland glades, rides and edges, it loves the spots where sunshine and shelter provide sufficient warmth for it to grow. It’s a biennial, growing in the first year to flower and die the next, and its often transient appearance in many sites reflects the ever changing conditions that are typical of these habitats. 

Over the last three years, we’ve been working with many landowners to help them provide the conditions it needs, work supported by donations from Plantlife members as part of our Woodland Appeal.

So I was very pleased to receive news that it, after an absence of several years, this wonderful flower has returned again to an area of restored coppice in Silk Wood at the National Arboretum, Westonbirt. This is not an easy plant to encourage, so it’s really good to know that by maintaining active coppice management it can flourish.

Trials are also being done here to find new ways of protecting the early coppice growth from deer browsing, using special fencing kindly donated by a Plantlife member. This is a novel technique using two lines of netting, running parallel to each other, to deter the deer from jumping over; early signs that it works are encouraging.

Plantlife has also been supporting coppice management as part of the Back from the Brink project at Frith Wood near Ledbury, working with the Forestry Commission to coppice chestnut and hazel along ride margins. And it’s worked, with vigorous plants growing this year!

This really highlights how important it is, in the right places, to open up woodlands by restoring traditional management in our all too often neglected woodlands. It is not just the bellflower of course that enjoys the warm sheltered conditions created by such sensitive management, the insects and many other woodland plants all need the light to shine in.

Plantlife can only do this, however, with your support. 

We can restore our wonderful woodlands and bring them back to life. Donate to our Woodland Appeal today and let’s protect our internationally important woodlands and their special plants for future generations to enjoy.

What Scotland can learn from Slovenia

The two countries share common ground when it comes to wildflowers.

August 19 2016 - 10:33

Last month a group of Scottish conservationists went on an investigative trip to south-west Slovenia, to see what they could learn.

Wildflowers have a high cultural cachet in the Karst region of Slovenia, you see. Hay meadows are a common sight in the flatter agricultural lands, surrounded by thickly wooded hills. This hay crop provides essential fodder for farm animals through the year and it's rather surprising to see such a traditional method of land management continue in Slovenia when flower-rich grasslands have become a very rare sight in Scottish agriculture. 

Above: traditional land parcels near Cerknica

This lies in a large measure to the system of land tenure still in existence, where land is passed on from generation to generation by subdividing it. This results in what looks to our eyes like a pre-Enclosure landscape from the 18th century, with long, narrow strips for hay and other crops striping the landscape in shades of green and ochre, and an absence of stock fencing over much of the landscape.

A farmer’s landholdings then may comprise a number of these strips, and may not even lie next to each other, with a strip here and another one there, to be cut or dug over at the farmer’s convenience.  This land tenure is replicated in the forest too, with small plots scattered over an area.

This system of land tenure has maintained a rich diversity of wild flowers in the landscape, as the plots are too small to be able to accommodate the large machinery that is in use in many parts of Scotland – plenty of old Fiat tractors were in evidence – so intensive agriculture hasn’t become standard in the hill country:

Commonly used machinery, able to access small strips of land.

In addition it is rare to see domestic stock out to pasture, which would reduce plant diversity over time as the flowering heads are browsed.  Stock is traditionally kept indoors and fed hay – possibly because the land parcels are so scattered that grazing would be impracticable in many instances.

Our visit took in the limestone karst region in south-west Slovenia, where water behaves strangely. The bedrock is scattered with eroded sinkholes of varying sizes, like an Emmental cheese as our host put it. So when snow melts, the pores in the rock fill up and can flood the alluvial plains between the hills, creating seasonal intermittent lakes. When the water flows away it goes deep underground into interconnected cave systems, leaving the surface dry. Some springs were evident in the low-lying marshes near to Ljubljana, but in the hills the sound of rushing water that we are so used to hearing in Scotland was absent.

The water regime, the mineral-rich geology and the low-intensity farming all conspire to produce a landscape rich in wild flowers, a landscape both visually colourful with the sprinkling of bright colours through the sward, and audible too as the air hummed with wild pollinators doing what they do.

The air thrums with the sound of wild pollinators

The best comparisons that can be made in Scotland are the coastal fringes where crofting is the main agricultural activity. The scale of management, size of machinery and sharing of resources were similar, only this type of farming was much more widespread in Slovenia. However crofting also involves grazing beasts on extensive areas of land which was not a common activity in Slovenia.

Plants formed a basis for the farm produce: herb-rich hay for cattle, fruit for both food and drink, fresh salad produce from the abundant small allotment plots that lay in and around the villages.

Clearly the local people lived close to the land and appreciated what it gave them – traditional management of resources produced small batches of seasonal produce. These do not produce large incomes by themselves although they are sustainable over the longer term, so the diversification of activities was also very important in order to create diverse income streams.

Family allotments are common across the region.

On visiting a couple of eco tourist farms and asking if they thought they were being successful, the reply was yes.  On asking if they wanted to expand their operations, the reply was an interesting no.  Apart from a few improvements to infrastructure, they had sufficient to maintain the family group, and had little interest in mass production. This might have been peculiar to this hilly limestone region and a different tale might be told in the flatter arable lands in central Slovenia though.

A particularly telling encounter was when asked if the farmers had thought about ploughing and re-seeding the land with productive high-calorific agricultural grasses.  A puzzled no was the response. “Do farmers like having lots of wild flowers in their hay?” “Yes, it is good for their animals, they wouldn’t want just grass.” 

Maybe our rural colleges teaching agriculture to students might wish to reflect on this response from practitioners living close to their beasts on the land. Good for their animals, and also good for the wild pollinators in the fields that help produce the fruit that flavours so much local produce, not least the excellent local brandies and schnapps that accompany food.

Not just grass – wildflowers too!

What was evident though was that public funding was available to maintain this social cohesion – infrastructure funding, agri-environment support, collaborative tourism initiatives. They all combined to create a landscape and an experience that lay pleasantly on the senses: the colourful landscape needed pollinators to keep the wild plants blooming, the farmers needed both plants and pollinators for the produce to maintain their families, and the farms and villages needed a thriving workforce for a sustainable way of life.

Sounds idyllic, and it certainly looked that way on the surface, but challenges are facing these rural communities, the same as elsewhere, in that the children grow up, go to college in the cities and many stay for higher paid, urban-based careers, fewer returning. In addition, villages close to main transport routes become expanding dormitory villages, where the people in the houses aren’t working the land.

It was noted by some that this is resulting in greater neglect of the traditional land management for both hay and forestry. There is renting of land to farmers as the folk in the cities don’t tend the family plots. But the difficulty in this renting out is that the plots can be scattered around, not able to be consolidated, and the renting farmer has to make the calculation if the time taken to get around cutting, baling and storing the hay is worth the return from it.

What to bring home to Scotland from this?  The need for farming policies that recognise the biodiversity value, and the socio-economic value, of maintaining small-scale agricultural systems.  These are less intensive, low-input systems. They support a range of wild plants and pollinators on which we are all reliant. They also provide a focus for co-operative activity in rural communities.  But, they can’t compete with the large consolidated agri-businesses in an open market. There is a need to recognise that the smaller systems can provide the highest nature value, and produce quality food, but that this product requires support.  And that wild flowers are a key feature of the landscape – for food, for health and wellbeing, and just for the sheer pleasure that they give to us.

The Study Visit to Slovenia was organised by ARCH Network in Scotland and Vitra in Slovenia, and supported by Erasmus+.

Get updates from our team in Scotland: subscribe to the Plantlife Scotland E-News

The bumblebees are buzzing at Caeau Tan-y-Bwlch!

Plantlife's Welsh reserve is blooming with wildflowers.

August 18 2016 - 09:54

There's a bit of a buzz going on at our north Wales reserve at the moment:

Packed full of common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) along with the last of the bird's-foot-trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and tufted vetch (Vicia cracca), the bees are having a feast before the end of the flowering season. Common knapweed, also known as black knapweed, is a firm favourite with pollinating insects including bees, butterflies and beetles. Birds also love this plant and feed on the seeds in late summer and autumn.

Why not take a trip to this lovely reserve yourself and admire the view overlooking the Irish Sea? You can find all the details here: Caeau Tan y Bwlch

Get updates from the field! Sign up to our E-News

The strongest and fastest wildflowers and fungi

August 12 2016 - 15:20

Imagine plants and fungi had to prove themselves at gymnastics, or on the athletics field or in the pool, which species would you choose?

With Team GB beating their medal target at the Olympic Games in Rio, here are the native British plants and fungi we’d want on our team: 


Gorse (Ulex sp.)

Straight off the starting blocks is gorse. This spiny evergreen with yellow, coconut-scented blooms, fires seeds from its pods with an audible crack. Heat is is what pulls the starting gun's trigger - whether during warm weather or from a heathland fire. Four to eight seeds are shot up to 3m - not quite 100m, but still fast enough to compete with Usain Bolt.


Dodder (Cuscuta sp.)

A parasitic plant with impressive technique, as it initially anchors its roots before sending out a stem to twine around its opponent. Then it is only a matter of time before dodder establishes itself, drawing nutrients from the host plant via its penetrating “haustoria”, and going on to form a dense web of twisted stems around it. Image: © Hans Hillwaert/CC BY-SA 4.0

Synchronised swimming

Branched bur-reed (Sparganium erectum)

A beautiful, elegant plant both in and out of the water. Branched bur-reed has graceful, linear leaves that lie broadside to the stem. It’s wonderful at balancing its delicate, ball-like flowers as it pirouettes alongside riverbanks and water edges, marshy ground and ditches – with its fellow plants, this gives the illusion of synchronised movement. 


Shaggy ink cap (Coprinus comatus)

This distinctive fungus with black gills crops up in the most unexpected places, such as roundabouts and other urban environments. Which just goes to show how tough it is. The stalks function as vertical hydraulic jacks and can even push up Tarmac. Did you know that one discovered in Hampshire reportedly lifted a paving stone 4cm above the pavement in about 48 hours. Image: Steven Cook


Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

Ever wondered why brambles are so prolific in the countryside? Perhaps it’s down to their ability to climb over anything in their way. The bramble does this by first putting down very strong roots among other shrubs and in hedges. Then its arching canes clamber over other plants in what is surely British plant life’s answer to human hurdling.


Get updates from the field! Sign up to our E-News

Should we pick wildflowers?

August 10 2016 - 10:06

Child with daisies © Paul Flynn/Plantlife

Child with daisies © Paul Flynn/Plantlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 10

A new Coronation Meadow begins to bloom

August 08 2016 - 14:13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The complete meadow restoration story can be followed here:

It’s not easy being green…

July 27 2016 - 15:27

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

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

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

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

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

July 22 2016 - 10:39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like what you've read? Sign up to our E-News

My first meadow

July 08 2016 - 10:38

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

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

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

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

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

10 magnificent ways to enjoy Meadows Day this Saturday

June 27 2016 - 14:40

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

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


1. Join a horse-drawn safari!

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


2. Go barefoot

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


3. Take a tractor 

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


4. Get on your bike

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


5. Unleash your inner Poldark

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


6. Go batty

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


7. By moonlight

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


8. Get arty

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


9. With wild food 

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


10. Spot bumblebees

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

Using wild plants on your skin

June 24 2016 - 15:31

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

1. Comfrey

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

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

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

2. Dog rose

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

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

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

3. Chamomile 

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

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

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

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

Discover more...

Driving change…

The latest on Plantlife's Road Verge Campaign

June 22 2016 - 11:13

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

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

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

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

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

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

How you can help:

Watching over the wild orchids of Wales

The annual count is here again!

June 02 2016 - 15:02

Heath spotted orchid © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

Heath spotted orchid © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find out details of the reserve surveys and orchid counts here

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

Keeping the wild in wildflower

A balanced approach to conservation seeding

May 26 2016 - 14:41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A generic cornfield flower mixture © Richard Croft on Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discover more:

Keeping the Wild in Wildflower

Caithness in the spring

May 25 2016 - 14:26

A trip to our reserve at Munsary, in Caithness, at the end of April sounds like one of those tasks that that is a heavy burden to bear: curlews piping across the moor, the burns rushing the winter water from off the slopes, the Sphagnum mosses glowing, claret and chartreuse, amongst the purple-brown heather.

Although I think I picked the wrong week this year. Driving along to the reserve from Thurso the skyscape was grey and streaked, the landscape draped in white, like the decorators had just come in and started work on your living room. And the wind, wow.

Reaching the track out to the reserve I found myself driving through half an inch of snow, and then the flakes came whirling in and around.  Making the best of the situation I decided it was the right time to pay a visit to our neighbouring farmer and his wife whose stock graze the inbye, to catch up on what’s happening, and to drink tea beside the aga.

The aim of the visit was to walk the boundaries to get a feel for how the reserve is looking, and to do the predator transect surveys to check if there is a threat for the breeding moorland birds that use the reserve in the spring. When the snow eased off I left the warmth of the farmhouse and stepped out into the arctic landscape that was Munsary Peatlands in late April.

Following the Munsary burn that runs from the inbye to the northern boundary I flushed a snipe, and caught sight of a hen harrier adjusting its flight in the buffeting gusts as it hovered over the dubh lochans. Then the sun came out with towering cumulus clouds racing along like a yacht race in the huge sky. 

I wanted to see what the red deer were doing while I was there, and as the northern boundary was reached and the corner turned on the Allt-nan-Scaraig I saw them – a herd of 35 sheltering in the leans – the Caithness name for the grassy parts that line the burns that flow around the heather-covered domes of peat. Then there were another 25 over the fence in the area of recently felled forestry, and the first lot, seeing me, perked their ears up and legged it away, spooking another group of 30 who joined them in the mad gallop across the bog.  

Carrying on past the dubh lochs, reflecting the clouds in the rippling water, there was ahead of me the long slow toil up the slope to the highest point of the reserve at the south-east corner, at 211 metres. It doesn’t sound much of an ascent to those of us used to hiking, but it takes on a different feel wearing wellies and splashing through soggy, leggy heather with not a path to be found.

Here there was a different landscape, M19 blanket bog for the NVC lovers, Calluna vulgaris-Eriophorum vaginatum blanket mire (heather and cotton-grass in English). This was a walk through a whole range of different colours. This slope bog type is drier than the flatter bit with the dubh lochs; here was the crinkly grey-green of Cladonia lichen, lush heather, with the pale brown dead leaves of the cotton grass. Here also was Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) and Fir Clubmoss (Huperzia selago) – and Red Grouse. A couple of grouse exploded out of the heather in front of me and whirred away across the brae.

Deer tracks were noticeable here too, as they make their way to browse the grass-rich flushes and springs that seep out on the hillside and form the headwaters of the Wick River.

After a cup of tea at the trig point it was along the southern boundary, splashing again through a saddle mire at the top of the hill, with the vast shallow bowl of Munsary flowing northward, specked dark and light brown with faded green – and a large grey block of cloud coming straight at me.  No where to hide, one walks on with the hood up, as the hailstones lash in at a 45 degree angle.  It passed in 15 minutes, but what a quarter hour that was – exhilarating!

With the wind blowing hard from the north, and me walking into it, the handful of deer grazing by an old stone sheep pen never noticed me until I was almost upon them.  Up they perked and off they ran, down a dip and up they popped on other side, reinforced by another 80 of their pals who had been down in the burnside sheltering from the spring weather! 

The results of the predator transect survey?  Evidence of fox in three places (pawprints in the snow), and two hoodie crows flapping across the dubh lochs – not a great threat to breeding waders of Munsary, but part of the natural way of life on the bog in spring.  

There is a narrow window in the year when the bog dries out a little and it becomes easier to move around and get things done, from about June until mid September, after the Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus) has flowered and set seed.  Then the water table rises again and the wetland challenges anyone who ventures beyond the inbye. My advice if visiting the reserve is to choose your timing carefully – even spring can throw some wintry surprises at you.

Discover more:

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 9

With the grazing removed, its all grow in the meadow

May 12 2016 - 14:53

It’s been a thrilling and absolutely fascinating few weeks in the meadow. With the appearance of the first yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) seedlings in the first week of April (hooray!), we moved the cows up into their summer quarters, a field above the meadow which perhaps we should call Y Hafod (or ‘summer dwelling’). They’ll stay there now until late summer, returning to the meadow again after the hay has been cut.

With the grazing removed, the meadow has sprung into life. Although the rest of April was cold, it didn’t stop the celandines (Ficaria vesca) and field woodrush (Luzula campestris) coming into flower; it’s not without reason that the latter is often called ‘Easter grass’. There are certainly more of both than last year, the celandines especially finding more room to grow in the open turf.

But it’s the yellow rattle that’s really been capturing my attention. Also known as ‘the meadow maker’, this is the number one species we want to establish in quantity. Its roots tap into those of the grasses growing around it, taking their water and nutrients and suppressing their growth by up to 60%. As a result, other wildflowers have more room to grow and aren’t swamped by the vigorous grass. As soon as the first yellow rattle seedlings appeared I thought we’d get a great rush of germination across the meadow. But no - a single seedling here, another one way over there – I was quite despondent that not enough seed had arrived after all the hard work we did last September.

But I need not have worried. I now know that yellow rattle plays a slightly different game. Since those first seedlings appeared nearly 6 weeks ago, more and more have steadily appeared. Even now, with the first plants growing strongly and some nearly 5” tall, new tiny seedlings are still appearing. The meadow is thick with yellow rattle and I couldn’t be happier.

Along with the yellow rattle, one of its relatives is also putting in an appearance. I have a personal fascination with eyebrights (Euphrasia sp), beautiful little white flowers that are also semi-parasitic on grass. Around 20 different (but very similar-looking) species grow in Britain and they hybridise together like mad (over 70 hybrids are known), making identification a challenge for even the most nerdy of botanists. Following the remarkable flowering of one plant in our meadow mid-winter I knew they were here, but thousands of seedlings are now appearing. Their leaves are slightly different to those of yellow rattle – blunter and more rounded – and I’ll try and identify the ones we have when they come into flower.

I’m spending far too much time wandering around the meadow at the moment, trying to find what’s coming up. I’ve even been called in to dinner a few times, returning to the house feeling like a naughty boy who’s been playing outside with his friends for too long. It’s a strangely satisfying feeling I’ve not experience for many, many years!  

But it’s just too exciting. Along with the yellow rattle and eyebright – both of which are new to the meadow - several other flowers seem to be appearing in quantity. There’s definitely lots more common bird’s-foot-trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata), common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) and common sorrel (Rumex acetosa). Both oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) are also new to the meadow.

I cannot account for the biggest surprise so far though. Wandering rather aimlessly across the slope at the bottom of the meadow one evening, I found a patch of leaves I just didn’t recognise. Like a familiar friend seen in an unexpected place, I just couldn’t work out what it was. I now think (in that way where you’re almost certain but fear you’ve made a huge mistake), that it’s common restharrow (Ononis repens). This is a beautiful wildflower which usually grows in sunny spots on well-drained lime-rich soil – think seaside, sand dunes and chalk downland. What it’s doing here on a shaded bank with damp, acid soil I cannot say. It certainly hasn’t come from the donor meadow, so it must have been in the soil seed bank –quite a few plants are appearing over a large area. My only thought is that it must have come from the estuary, which is about 100 metres away; the Conwy River is tidal at this point and is flanked with saltmarsh vegetation, but I’ve not actually seen it there either. Wherever it came from, it’s a very welcome addition to our meadow.

But there’s absolutely no sign of devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) or betony (Betonica officinalis), despite sowing the seed from the donor Coronation Meadow. It’s a reminder that we’re actually playing a long game here and we shouldn’t expect everything to happen in the first year. Others have reported difficulties with establishing these species in other meadows, so it might be that our seed is simply lying dormant for now and might appear next year.

All of this botanical interest was brought into sharp focus when a crew from a local TV company arrived to film the meadow recently. With drones, hand-held cameras and time-lapse cameras on posts, they produced a lovely little item for a new series, Garddio a Mwy (‘Gardening and more’). You can catch my attempts at Welsh here (the item starts after 4 minutes and subtitles are available by clicking the icon next to the speaker).

As the season starts to get underway, thousands of bulbous buttercups (Ranunculus bulbosus) are starting to flower. Standing in the meadow early on a warm, humid morning, I detect a delightful vanilla fragrance. I’m not sure if this is coming from the buttercups or the sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) that’s also starting to flower in profusion.

Either way, it’s a magical moment and reminder that meadows can feed the soul on many different levels.

The State of the World’s Plants

May 10 2016 - 12:00

It's not often that plants make it onto the front page but thanks to a new report by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew we've done just that.

Launching their State of the World's Plants report today, Kew remind us of the sheer scale of plant diversity - over 390,000 species catalogued from across the world; and there are many riches still yet to found – an astonishing 2,000 new species were discovered last year alone. Ours really is a biodiverse world.

Above: The Wildflowers of Namaqualand, South Africa. © Martin Heigan/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is exciting stuff. Cataloguing the world’s flora and assessing the threats facing each species helps us quantify the challenges we face ourselves in understanding, protecting and sustainably utilising our botanical diversity. With one-in-five of our plants threatened with extinction, these challenges face us all. As the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation makes clear, "without plants there is no life. The functioning of the planet and our survival depends on plants."  

This statement shouldn't be misconstrued as threatening or alarming. Rather, it’s elementary science: all these plant species capture the sun’s energy and, as Sir David Attenborough puts it, “fuel the diversity of life on Earth”. They drive the world's ecosystems, create the very habitats that pandas and tigers need to live in and kick-start the food chains that keep us and most other life forms alive. 

Above: Grandidier's Baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) near Morondava, Madagascar. © Bernard Gagnon/CC BY-SA 3.0

Working together, Plantlife, Kew and many others are busy doing the hard graft that is plant conservation. Coordinated under the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, we're all able to play a part. I'm delighted we were able to contribute to the report and write about the importance of wild plant conservation and the work Plantlife helps lead in the identification, protection and management of Important Plant Areas. 

As it says on tin, these Important Plant Areas are where we focus our efforts to ensure we keep wild plants where they belong - in the wild.  With increasing enthusiasm to identify Important Plant Areas we're working across the globe to help support partners identify where their IPAs are and how to ensure they are appreciated, valued and sustainably managed. 

I'm just back from the Caucasus, a stunning botanical hotspot that forms a bridge between the Black and Caspian Seas and where the European and Asian continents meet. The local organisations I met fully recognise the importance of conserving their plant diversity and it’s great to see a growing coalition of support from government, universities and NGOs working together to identify their Important Plant Areas. It is this local support that has proved to be crucial in ensuring that these globally Important Plant Areas are nurtured; such networks are the best way to ensure we maintain the brilliant and beautiful diversity of plants in each of these special places. 

Above: wildflowers blooming near Arkhyz in the Grteater Caucasus region. © PBV1960

My work there was to provide technical support and encouragement based on Plantlife's 25 years of experience and to discuss how we might best implement conservation plans to ensure the region maintains the swathes of endemic species that still sweep across the landscape. It was reassuring to see an increasing recognition that these same IPAs also underpin other treasures - be it wolves or golden eagles - and are the same places where timber products can be resourced sustainably and increasing numbers of tourists want to visit and explore. I'm confident that with the right support we'll be successful in nurturing IPAs in the Caucasus. 

We can all play a part and I hope you'll take a moment in your busy day to stop and marvel at the plants outside your window and consider what you might do to improve the state of the plants in your world. 

A new favourite

May 03 2016 - 11:08

The question that surprised me most when I was interviewed for my job at Plantlife a couple of years ago was “What’s your favourite wildflower?” Well if the question was a shock, the answer was easy: the bluebell, for its rich pure colour, its heady scent, its joyful abundance and because I drive through bluebell woods on my way to work every day.

But after a visit to Stanford End Mill Meadows near Reading this morning with Plantlife trustee and “Parliamentary Species Champion" Richard Benyon MP to see the snake’s-head fritillaries, I may have a new favourite. As Richard said, walking into the meadow was like walking into a work of fine art. The fritillaries were so abundant we couldn’t help trampling them (Richard: “I feel as if I’ve just stood on a Picasso”) and so bountiful that we could see every natural variation of colour and form that this magical little plant exhibits – dark plums, mauves, lilacs, pure white, purple markings, even the elusive twin flowered stems. Just a week ago, the field had been green – now it was pointillism of purple. 

Above: Fritillaries in Magdalen Meadow, Oxfordshire

Bill Dance, who farms the Meadows, told us that in his father’s day on St George’s Day local children would come and pick armfuls. He also shared his photographic record of the field on 20 April over the last decade, demonstrating how much the flowers depend on flooding and sunshine and how much they vary each year – 2016 is a late season. 

All of which makes even it even more poignant the harsh facts of its decline, that mean that we can now only see wild fritillaries in a handful of sites mainly, clustered around the wet meadows of Berkshire and Oxfordshire (but also at Plantlife’s Lugg Meadow Nature Reserve in Herefordshire). It once grew in its thousand at over 100 sites, but in my home county of Berkshire, for example, out of 22 only 4 remain. It is completely extinct in 17 vice counties. Far from taking our children to pick armfuls, most of us would struggle to show them one.

Why so rare? Partly because they are so fussy! They need wet in winter, time and space to seed in spring, sun in summer to ripen the bulbs, a late summer haycut, some trampling, munching cattle in the early autumn to keep the more aggressive grasses and species such as meadow sweet at bay and a pure diet with no additives (ie fertilisers).  Give them all of that and as I saw today they flourish. But that regime is not sadly part of most modern farming systems. Commercial picking in the 1930’s put them under strain, drainage and ploughing post war did for many sites, pollution of the water that floods their fields threatens survival, and still today we are allowing development in flood plains that has wiped out even more.

Above: (l-r) Marian, Bill and Richard admire the wildflowers

Plantlife’s recipe for their future success? Start by protecting what we still have and  supporting the farmers like Mr Dance to continue to care for them (he describes himself as lucky to have a management agreement , advice and funding from Natural England under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme). Top up with monitoring and researching so we understand them better. Add the conditions beyond their remaining strongholds allow fritillaries to spread to new places. Mix in politicians like Richard Benyon prepared to speak up and champion their cause in Government.  And serve up with a flourish - give people the chance to see them in the wild so that they care enough about them to want them to survive. 

Maybe we also need to remind people that what’s good for fritillaries is good for us too – the wet meadows they need are also important in managing flooding and the bumblebees that are their main pollinator also pollinates our food crops.    
So has the fritillary pipped the bluebell for me in the favourite stakes? The jury’s still out – maybe if the ones in my rather dry meadow at home stop sulking they might finally win me over! 

Marian Spain

PS: if you want a fix of purple, why not go along to Plantlife’s Lugg Meadow, or the famous Cricklade North Meadow in Oxfordshire? You could also do your bit by taking part in the annual Fritillary Count organised by our colleagues in the Floodplain Meadows Partnership.

Heaven scent

What are the secret ingredients of the bluebell's unique aroma?

April 28 2016 - 16:47

When I was young, I loved visiting our grandparents’ house in the village of Farley, Wiltshire. Not only did they have a beautifully kept garden (with apple trees and mistletoe and everything!), but a small gate at the end of the path led out into magical bluebell woods behind the house. The thing I remember most is not the woodland floor turning blue, but the remarkable scent which carried on the air. Ask many people why they love bluebell and they’ll mention the smell – it seems to lodge in people’s memories.

Its something I’ve always been fascinated by, how plants use them and how they’re produced and a few years ago I had an opportunity to unlock the secret of bluebell's. Working with colleagues at the University of Bangor, we discovered that our native bluebell has a very complex scent, built from many compounds called monoterpenes. Each of these lends a different fragrance ‘note’ to the scent. These include fruity notes of lemon, cooking apple, mango and lychee, spiced up with dashes of ginger, eucalyptus and lemongrass, and then given a very earthy tone with a dose of fresh mown grass.

This helps us understand why the scent is so appealing to us. It’s incredibly refreshing and uplifting – a veritable fruit salad served out on the lawn – and is unique to our native British bluebell. But why do they priduce such a unique aroma? Well, scent is a powerful lure for pollinators, indicating a source of nectar. Bluebells use it to draw insect pollinators into the woods, because this cool, shaded and damp habitat is not exactly the most enticing place for them to come on a sunny spring day. 

When you’re next out in a bluebell wood, have a good sniff. Can you pick up any of the notes we found?

Primrose: woodlander par excellence

April 19 2016 - 15:37

I guess that we all have a favourite local walk.

For me, it is down through the woods to the beach, along the shores of one of South Devon’s lesser estuaries, about six miles there and back. As the track passes southwards, it cuts across a range of Devonian geologies, and the plants above ground pick out these rocky differences every bit as accurately as some piece of laboratory kit.

The severely acid shales support bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and great wood-rush (Luzula sylvatica). Nearby more fertile soils support a richer woodland flora, such as wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides), violets, twayblades, spotted orchids, and a couple of patches of the bastard balm (Melittis melissophyllum), a local speciality.

And of course, as this is an account of a Devon wood, it would be incomplete without mention of the primroses (Primula vulgaris), airbrushed across the ride-side banks in great sweeps of gleaming, pale lemon. I love the way that this unique mix of species – primrose, balm, hawkweed – very much tells me about where I am, in the same way a rural dialect tells so much about origin and place. 

Above: Primroses in bloom by Edwina Beaumont

My Devon amble is not just inspirational, but instructional too. Each year, the ride-sides are “topped” in the autumn or winter, to remove the excesses of growth that has built up through the year. The cut zone is not very wide – just the width of one pass of a tractor-mounted flail – yet the difference in vegetation between cut and uncut is glaring. The unkempt vegetation is just that, a choking tangle of bramble and ivy, branches and leaf-litter. It is in the mown strip where most of the floral action takes place.

The primrose is a woodlander par excellence. In dark and dingy woodlands, the species is very much a rarity, but immediately that woodland work takes place, and light reaches the forest floor, so the primrose springs into action. Light induces copious flowering, which in turn generates an abundance of seed. Provided that these fall on to bare earth, they germinate prolifically, reaching flowering size within just a year. As the years pass, each plant grows into a spreading mat so over just a few years, a population explosion takes place, providing that splash of spring-time colour beloved of countrygoers and insects alike.

In Devon, and elsewhere, this process of boom is also taking place on north-facing road verges, wherever good verge management takes place, showing the power of this species to spread naturally when conditions takes its fancy. So, for me at least, this isn’t a plant that needs to be artificially introduced into the countryside – just let’s do the management, and the humble primrose will do the rest.

The place to enjoy planted primroses is in the garden, where they will flourish for decades given the right conditions. They grow best on moist, fertile loams enriched with abundant organic matter, within the partial shade of a shrub or on the north side of a wall or building. Get the soil right, and they will romp away.

Above: Primroses in a Devon garden by Sue Nottingham

But people report that they can decline after a number of years. Sometimes this is because organic matter in the soil dwindles, leaving heavy, airless and often overly-wet soil, something primroses absolutely hate. At other times, plants grow short, woody trunks and push up out of the ground, producing ever fewer leaves and flowers. This seeming death-wish is actually an adaptation for woodland life: in the wild, this growth habit stops the plant from being buried under an autumn deluge of falling leaves: new roots grow at the tops of the “trunks” and so the plants continue to flourish. In the garden, an annual top-dressing of leaf litter (or organic mulch from your local recycling centre) with a sprinkling of bonemeal works wonders on both counts.

One final tip. Avoid so-called wild primrose plants on sale in your local garden centre unless you can be sure of their origins. To my eyes, they are far too large and cabbagey to be the real thing, and I suspect that the plant breeders have re-selected primrose-coloured plants from the multi-coloured garden hybrids beloved of some. Instead, search out a nursery that specialises in British wild flowers, and can guarantee their stock to have originated from UK sources.

More about this wildflower:

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 8

Holding my nerve until the yellow rattle appears

March 29 2016 - 13:10

It’s been a long winter. Or rather, it’s been a long non-winter. Since the last update to my meadow making adventures back in November, we’ve not really had a winter at all. Despite a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, down in our valley on the banks of the River Conwy we’ve had just a handful of frosts – literally only 4 or 5 mornings when the grass was rimed with ice - and no snow at all. We’ve had plenty of rain though - a record-breaking 1 metre or 3’ 3” in December - and gales that brought down an old ash tree in the corner of the meadow, but we’re heading into spring with a distinct feeling of having been cheated out of an entire season.

In order to pass the time, I’ve put together a little video of our adventures so far. It’s nothing fancy, just some footage and photos I’ve taken on my phone, but it’s a nice reminder of all the work we’ve undertaken so far and might be helpful if anyone is planning to create a wildflower meadow

Not that it’s been quiet in the meadow of course. With such an exceptionally mild winter, things have just carried on growing. The biggest shock came in early March. I was wandering aimlessly around the meadow one afternoon when a tiny pinkish-white flower in the corner of my eye caught my attention. Eyebrights should flower in the very height of summer, from June to August, but here was a single, tiny plant braving the elements in mid-winter. I can only guess that it germinated soon after we seeded the meadow and conditions have remained mild enough since then for it to survive.  

As the days lengthen and temperatures rise, a second wave of germination is now taking place across the meadow. Many of the seeds sown last summer need a certain period of cold over winter – say several weeks below 5oC – in order to trigger germination the following spring (a process known as stratification). Thankfully, we’ve probably seen temperatures low enough for this, so we’re now seeing seedlings of species like knapweed (Centaurea nigra) starting to appear.

But all this growth presents us with a problem. If we’re not careful, the grasses will grow away rampantly, smothering the small seedlings and closing off the bare ground they need to germinate. In the future, the grass will be kept in check by yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), whose roots will tap into those of the surrounding grasses and steal their nutrients, reducing their growth by up to 60%.

But for this year, until the yellow rattle has taken a hold, we really need to keep on top of the grass. Although I desperately want to allow everything to grow and revel in the excitement of seeing what comes up, we’re keeping our two highland cows on the meadow to graze it hard. Normally, I’d have removed them long ago – in December or January – so the flowers could romp away with unchecked abandon, but this spring I’m holding my nerve for as long as possible.

The girls are doing a great job – the sward is short and still full of gaps – but the tension is killing me!

I’m playing a waiting game now. The big question is when do I remove them? I’ve decided to let the meadow tell me when the time is right. The cows will stay until the yellow rattle germinates. Very excitingly, I’ve just spotted the first yellow rattle seedling in the meadow...

Living on the edge #3: Cut and split

March 21 2016 - 13:56

The arable fields at Ranscombe Farm Reserve are amongst the very richest - for wild plants at least - in the UK.

We have extensive areas which are packed not just with rare arable wild flowers, but with thistles, fat hen (Chenopodium album), fumitories and other seed-bearing plants which are such an important food-source for farmland birds.

And yet the birds just aren't there.

Actually, that's not entirely true - we certainly have plenty of skylarks, and good numbers of linnets (which may well benefit from the growing of oil-seed rape as part of the regular rotation of crop), but two once-common farmland bird species - Yellowhammer and Turtle Dove - are missing.

Above: Yellowhammer, © Andrew Morffew

Why is this?

Habitat structure is almost certainly a key factor. Yellowhammers nest on the ground on the edge of scrubby vegetation: they like the bases of hedgerows and young, open coppice; I've even seen a nest amongst raspberry canes on an allotment. Turtle Doves, by contrast, prefer taller, denser scrub, tucking their nests away some six to ten feet up in thorny bushes.

At Ranscombe, this scrubby edge habitat is largely missing, and most arable fields butt-up against tall woodland which lacks the dense, low cover that the birds need. So a large part of our work in the Life on the Edges project is about bringing the woodland edge into management. Over the three-year lifetime of the project, we will be coppicing more than four miles of woodland edge to create a margin of young, low regrowth about five to ten metres deep around all our arable margins.

Above: Turtle Dove, © Tony Sutton

This sort of work produces a lot of timber. In fact, conservation management of woodland across the whole reserve produces huge amounts of cut timber, and there is only so much that you can stack up as dead-wood piles. So we are increasingly looking at timber as a raw material. Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) can be processed into fencing, and, with a bit of practice, you can also make more sophisticated products. Equip yourself with an oddly-named set of old-fashioned tools (you need  draw-knife, a froe, a twybil and a side-axe) and you can split and joint chestnut poles to make gate hurdles.

Above: One newly crafted Sussex hurdle with (l-r) a twybil, draw-knife, side-axe and froe

Gate hurdles - also called Sussex hurdles - were once commonly used to make sheep-pens, but we've found another use. Placed where footpaths cross arable field margins, they provide an attractive, easy-to-install, temporary barrier to discourage people and dogs from straying along the field margins and disturbing birds while they are nesting.

So our plan is to train a small team of volunteers in the old-time skill of hurdle-making and use our cost-free raw materials - the by-product of habitat management - to make sure that our newly-improved woodland margins are as attractive as they can be for the farmland birds we hope will return to nest here.

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

The Earth’s eyes

March 10 2016 - 12:47

"We have no waters to delight
Our broad and brookless vales-
Only the dew-pond on the height
Unfed, that never fails ...."

- Rudyard Kipling

Dew-ponds are not natural features. They were created by farmers to provide drinking water for livestock. A functional origin, from which they have developed a surprisingly-rich cultural history; acquiring an aura of mystery and associations with the super-natural; capturing the imagination of poets, folk singers and artists.  

Above: A nearby dew-pond previously restored by the Peak District National Park

Dew-ponds are particularly associated with a few key areas of chalk and limestone including the South Downs, Yorkshire, the Lincolnshire Wolds and the White Peak in Derbyshire. Instantly-recognised by their saucer-shaped appearance, their construction was a work of great skill. Small gangs of specialist 'dew-pond makers' would tour the country, building ponds during the winter and spring; up to fifteen each year.  

The South Downs are home to our oldest-known dew-ponds, where a few are known to date from the Bronze Age. Those in the White Peak were mainly built in the nineteenth century, but because of the sheer number (there were an estimated 2,500 at that time), the White Peak has a particularly strong association with them. One of the surviving White Peak ponds is at Plantlife's Deep Dale reserve, three miles west of Bakewell, and is currently the subject of a restoration project.

Deep Dale, like most dales in the White Peak, is now a  dry valley; any surface water rapidly percolates into the limestone and is swallowed below ground. A 'sough' (underground tunnel/channel created to drain water from lead mines) outlet partway up the dale can produce torrents of water after winter rains, but generally runs dry in the summer months. Rearing livestock in such a desiccated landscape raised obvious difficulties. So at Deep Dale, and on adjacent fields, local farmers created dew-ponds (known locally as meres). The traditional method was to first excavate, by hand of course, the characteristic dish shape some 10 to 20 metres across. This would then be lined with a layer of lime ash and then two layers of puddled clay; each layer being beaten down by wooden rammers. Finally the pond would be paved with stone "setts" and then left to fill with water.

Many were impressed by the ability of dew-ponds to collect and hold water.  Gilbert White noted that a "little round pond" (dew-pond) near to his home in Selborne was "never known to fail" even during severe droughts. People wondered where dew-ponds got their water from; it seemed almost magical. By early twentieth century the mystery reached fever pitch, with debates in the letters pages of The Times and The Field and elaborate experiments to resolve the matter. We now know that most of their water comes from rainfall, rather than condensing dew. But the fascination remains, and it is certainly the case that ponds were built with dew-catching in mind, many being built on a bed of straw to keep the stone lining insulated from the warmth of the ground beneath.

Above: A dewpond at dawn on the South Downs © Carl Abrams 

Even in purely visual terms, dew-ponds have an undeniable magic about them, circular mirrors in the landscape, "the earth's eyes"; bright discs like an echo of a full moon. It is a magic that has been memorably captured by numerous celebrated artists including Eric Ravillious and the photographers Don McCullin and Fay Godwin.

The last of the professional pond-building teams were still operating in the 1930s. However, dew-ponds gradually became redundant, replaced by galvanised troughs connected to piped water. The remainder of the 20th century saw a great many ponds fall into neglect, with others being destroyed altogether. Of the 2,500 ponds known in the White Peak at the end of the nineteenth century, at least 50% have been filled-in or no longer hold water.

In recent years, however, there has been a small but important revival in the fortunes of dew-ponds.  The Peak District National Park Authority (PDNPA) has provided funds for the restoration or maintenance of over 200 ponds since the 1990s. As a result, a skilled, albeit small, band of new pond-makers has emerged. One of these is Dan Spencer, who has himself been involved in the restoration of around two-dozen ponds, his latest being at Deep Dale nature reserve; a project led by Plantlife and supported with funding from the Derbyshire Environmental Trust through the Tarmac Landfill Communities Fund and the PDNPA. 

Above: Dan Spencer with the newly-restored dew-pond at Deep Dale nature reserve

I met Dan last week as he was completing work on the pond, his face lit with a smile that spoke instantly of a great pride in his craft.  "I love being in these places" he said. It took Dan about 5 weeks to complete the restoration, working nearly every day, often from dawn to dusk. Dan will now leave the pond to fill naturally with rainwater, which he reckons could take until the end of Spring.

In a landscape largely devoid of standing water, dew-ponds in good condition can support a surprising-rich aquatic life, most famously, the great crested newt. In restoring the dew-pond at Deep Dale, we are providing a scarce and important wildlife habitat; but we are also bringing back a little bit of magic to this corner of the Derbyshire Dales.

Related pages:

From Mr MacGregor to mushrooms

Beatrix Potter – writer, illustrator and pioneering naturalist

March 08 2016 - 11:30

Beatrix Potter’s first known paintings of fungi were made in 1887 when she was just 21. So good are they, they’re still used by experts today. 

During her childhood and throughout her 20s, Beatrix’s family holidayed in Perthshire, staying at Dalguise House and Eastwood, and it was here the accuracy and beauty of her paintings captured the attention of Charlie Macintosh, the local postman and well-known naturalist. Charlie became Beatrix’s mentor and would send fungi for her to paint, advising on the parts to illustrate for scientific identification. Over the next ten years, she would paint hundreds of fungi, make detailed drawings of their microscopic features and conduct scientific experiments. It was the germination of fungus spores that caught her focus and after years of experimenting she submitted a paper “On the germination of spores of the Agaricineae” to the Linnean Society in London – a society set up for the promotion of natural history which still exists today.

It was not easy at that time, as an amateur and a woman, to have scientific work taken seriously by the professional elite. Beatrix had already had her ideas and drawings dismissed by the director of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens as “inconsequential”. At the Linnean Society her paper was discussed but not accepted. The paper has since been lost, and its contents and the details of why it was not published are shrouded in mystery. But we do know that in 1887 women were not allowed to be members of the Linnean Society, so Beatrix herself could not attend. More than a century later, attitudes have changed and to mark the centenary of the Armitt Library and Museum in Ambleside, which holds an extensive collection of Beatrix’s paintings, I was asked to present a reworked version of Beatrix’s paper to the Linnean Society. Finally, this talented woman’s work was formally presented to the audience for which it was originally intended. 

Delving into Beatrix’s past was a fascinating journey, as I worked through her decoded journal, letters to Charlie Macintosh and her many scientific drawings to discover what the contents of her paper may have been. It is certain that she was one of the first in Britain to successfully germinate and record the growth of mushroom spores. She also had ideas about “hybrid” fungi, and the presence of asexual spores. These ideas are now taken for granted but at the time were ground-breaking. There is even the possibility that she believed that lichens were in fact a partnership between algae and fungi – a theory now proven, but rejected by most botanists at the time.

If you look closer at the drawings of her animal characters, you will see that underneath their clothes they are anatomically accurate. Beatrix loved the natural world, was a great observer and drew what she saw. This meant despite having no training and working largely on her own she made observations about fungi that professional mycologists would not discover for decades.

If Beatrix had received support from the scientific community who knows what she might have discovered? But then she may not have had the time to create the stories we know so well, nor protect and conserve the Lake District countryside, a legacy of her vision and conservation work we still enjoy.

Many of Beatrix’s illustrations of fungi are on display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the Perth Museum and the Armitt Trust in Ambleside. When I’m teaching, I use her illustrations in the book Wayside and Woodland Fungi, by Walter Philip Kennedy Findlay. It’s amazing to think that not only have generations enjoyed her children’s books, but that her pictures also continue to inspire.

Keep up-to-date with our work: subscribe to our E-News

Nipped in the bud

The European Union has clamped down on high-risk invasive species.Dr Dines considers the impact...

February 29 2016 - 12:39

American skunk-cabbage © GBNNSS

American skunk-cabbage © GBNNSS

As a keen - some would say slightly obsessive - gardener, I’m acutely aware that not all the plants in my patch are particularly well behaved.

They have come from all over the world but thankfully, most of the worst offenders – highly invasive things like Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), Rhododendron x superponticum and variegated yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon subsp. argentatum) – were already here when we arrived. My only real mistake was to plant knotted crane's-bill (Geranium nodosum), which now seems hell-bent on complete world domination, or at least domination of my shady borders. If only I’d have known how invasive this would become I’d never have planted it, and I should have ruthlessly weeded out every seedling before this became an impossible task.

Most gardeners learn similar lessons the same hard way. To be honest, I find it baffling that we’re still sold plants that can ruin our gardens. I know many come with warnings, but we’re always seduced by the promise of an easy plant to fill a difficult space and we never believe they’ll get quite that bad for us. I firmly believe the horticultural trade has a duty of care, both to us gardeners and to the environment. If we’re not able to buy them, they can’t cause problems. 

This approach – nipping a problem in the bud before it becomes impossible to deal with - is now being adopted in the fight against invasive species. Of the 75,000 plants available to us to buy and grow in Britain, only a very, very small proportion are aggressively invasive enough to escape over the garden wall and cause problems for wildlife. Most of those that escape are completely benign, not only adding interest to our flora but also, in the case of plants like snowdrop and poppy, becoming wildflowers that are loved and cherished by many

But, as the saying goes, it only takes a one bad apple to upset the barrel. The key, then, is to identify those species with the potential for invasive behaviour and prevent their spread in the first place. 

This is the thrust of a new EU regulation that came into force in January. A list of species ‘of Union concern’ have been identified, meaning that they pose such a high risk of invasion somewhere within the EU that a co-ordinated Europe-wide response is needed to limit their spread. It will not be permitted to cultivate, transport, sell or exchange these species, or release them, intentionally or unintentionally, into the environment anywhere within the EU. 

The majority of species – 14 in fact- are plants, and of eight of these are sold for the garden in Britain. Perhaps the most popular and well-known is American Skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus - above, right). This imposing waterside and bog garden species has yellow arum-like flowers in spring and huge, paddle-shaped leaves that can reach up to 1.5m tall by summer. It spreads rapidly by seed and rhizomes and can quickly colonise garden plantings, spreading from there into wild situations such as wet woodlands, ditches and wetlands, where it can form very dense stands that sometimes out-compete 100% of other native vegetation. Occurrences in the wild have increased by 84% in the last 15 years and at one site in the New Forest (Hampshire) control has cost over £9,000 since 2010. Many managers of reserves and wildlife sites across the UK have reported the alarming spread of this species and welcome the new measures. 

Above: American Skunk-cabbage infests the New Forest. Image © Neil A Sanderson

As is so often the case, there are very good alternatives to grow. In this particular case, there’s Asian skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton camtschatcensis), a beautiful and much more elegant plant with white flowers and no desire for world domination. Again, there’s usually very little justification for selling any particular invasive species (although I’ve heard some pretty poor excuses in my time) and there are always alternatives.  

Although the new EU measures are stringent, this approach is very welcome. UK governments have 16 months to implement the new controls (although it’s worth noting that in Scotland, it’s already illegal to plant, or otherwise cause to grow, any non native plant in the wild and land owners can already be required to control invasive non native species that are spreading from their land). According to Defra, there will be no attempt to remove species on the EU list if they are already growing in your garden, so long as you act responsibly and don’t allow them to escape into the wild. However, sites where they are causing problems will have to be restored and costs may be recovered in accordance with the ‘polluter pays’ principle, so whoever caused them to spread or be released into the wild may have to foot the bill for subsequent control.

We know this approach can work. In April 2014, five aquatic species were banned from sale in England, including the highly invasive water primroses (Ludwigia grandiflora, L. peploides & L. uruguayensis - infesting a pond, below. Image © GBNNSS).

Backed up with a rapid response approach, meaning that eradication is undertaken at any infected sites as quickly as possible, spread appears to have been slowed – there were only 4 reports of it in the wild during 2014 and 2015.

In the fight against invasive non-native species, one of our main priorities is to scan the horizon and look for the invasive species of the future. In 2011, Plantlife assessed nearly 600 non-native horticultural species using a rapid risk assessment method, with 92 species emerging as ‘critical 5-star’ threats that warranted full risk assessment. Unless this is done and appropriate action is taken, we only stand to suffer the expense and trouble of eradicating more species like Cotoneaster on Portland and Gower in the future.

Useful info:

The ancient trees that are out-of-this-world

February 24 2016 - 16:19

What do Lord of the Rings and Star Wars have in common (other than being epic, fantastical tales)?

The answer is Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean. This weirdly wonderful woodland inspired Tolkein's Mirkwood and doubled as the planet Takodana in Star Wars: The Force Awakens:

Above image: A mossy grove at Puzzlewood, © eltpics

So what makes Puzzlewood so otherworldly? The answer is a mix of geology and botany: long ago, caves were formed in the underlying limestone which, over time, became exposed to the surface. Known as "scowles" these were mined for iron by Ancient Britons and Romans, leading to the strange rock formations we see today.

Atop these grow trees that have survived here for centuries - many of them, in fact, are quite ancient - and this combination of warped wood and stone creates a landscape that is "out of this world".

So what has this got to do with Plantlife? Well, our Woodland Advisor Paul Rutter is leading a project with the University of Worcester to survey the ancient and notable trees of the Forest of Dean and their related archaeology, as part of the Forester's Forest programme. You can find out more about this, and how *you* can get involved by visiting their website (link below).

Colour in the monochrome months

February 16 2016 - 11:09

For many lovers of wildflowers, winter is the quiet time, the down time, the lull in the botanical calendar.  

Gone are the spring woodlands awash with pools of blue and white, the bright days of June with meadows in full throttle, and of August barley fields blazing red under a hot sun. It’s time to put away the hand-lens and the identification books, for the long monochrome months are here.

And yet, of course, that’s just not true. If you’re prepared to brave the elements there’s plenty to see in winter, and finding a bit of unexpected colour is always especially rewarding. This year is particularly fun, as the record-breaking mild temperatures mean the countryside is still specked with flowers.

Some plants are actually programmed to flower at this time of year. Gorse is king of the season, and if it’s in flower now it’s likely to be common gorse (Ulex europaeus) – both western gorse (Ulex gallii) and dwarf gorse (Ulex minor) flower in summer and autumn.  

Common gorse begins its display in late autumn and finishes with a triumphant flourish of flowers in spring. This seemingly continuous display, though, actually comes from two different forms of common gorse that grow side-by-side: some bushes flower with small number of blooms over a long period in winter, while others flower abundantly for a shorter period in the spring. This strategy has been adopted to help overcome predation by a small weevil. Exapion weevils emerge in spring and can attack up to 95% of seed pods. Bushes that flower and produce their seed pods in winter therefore escape this predation, while those that bloom in spring flower so abundantly that a greater number of the pods survive. Surprisingly, the level of pollination in winter and spring is similar; mild winter days will see pollinators emerge and, with very little else in flower, they’ll flock to the only restaurant in town that’s open.

While we’re on the subject of gorse, it always amuses me when people say the scent of their flowers reminds them of coconut. Coconuts only received widespread popularity in Britain in the 1830s, so presumably, for some time, people would remark that the scent of this new novelty reminded them of gorse. In an attempt to keep connected to our own native flora, I like to maintain the comparison and whenever I smell a coconut I try to think, “oh yes, that reminds me of gorse”.  

Another winter-flowering plant is hazel (Corylus avellana). To be more accurate, hazel produces its catkins during the winter, but these usually remain tightly closed, like little versions of those Liquorice Torpedo sweets, only not quite so brightly coloured.

Typically, these catkins elongate and open with the warmth of spring from mid-February onwards, taking on the appearance of lambs-tail’s hanging from the branches. But it’s been so mild this year that open hazel catkins have already been reported across much of Britain. If you spot them in woods and hedgerows near you, remember that these are the male flowers, the structures designed to shed their pollen into the wind. The tiny female flowers are much less conspicuous but are well worth seeking out as they’re beautiful. Have a look on twigs around the open catkins and you should find what look like fat little flask-shaped buds with a tuft of bright red or pinkish-red hairs. These are the female flowers with stigmas sticking out to catch the passing pollen. They always remind me of tiny red fireworks exploding on the branches.

It’s not just flowers that can be seen now. One of my favourite ferns - the Polypody (Polypodium vulgare) – is worth seeking out at this time of year too for its incredible spores.

Unlike most of our ferns, which die down in winter and produce a flush of new fronds each spring, polypody produces its new fronds in late summer.  The slightly leathery leaves are deeply cut into a herringbone pattern and stay fresh and green all winter.  Look for them on laneside banks, walls, tree trunks and in rocky woodland and if you find a clump, turn a frond over. You should see a wonderful pattern of bright yellow or brownish dots. These are sori – clusters of structures containing ripe spores (the fern’s equivalent of seeds) - and these spores are ready for dispersal through autumn and winter.

But the polypody doesn’t leave dispersal entirely to the wind. The spores are held in odd little structures called sporangia. Imagine a baseball player’s glove tightly closed around a handful of marbles and you’ll get the idea. On dry days, a line of cells around the sporangium dries out and causes the structure to split and curl backwards – our metaphoric baseball player curls his wrist back and bends his forearm backwards. Suddenly, the cells rupture, spring back to their original position and the spores are catapulted from the sporangium - the baseball player flicks his forearm and wrist and sends the marbles flying. Incredibly, the spores can reach a speed of 10 metres a second and can be flung a considerable distance from the parent plant. You might want to step back a little!

Of course, it’s the flowers that really catch our eye at this time of year, rather than flying spores. This year has been exceptionally mild, although I’m always mindful of a paper on the subject written nearly 150 years ago lamenting the annual lists of flowers that are published in newspapers every December and January “ evidence of the extraordinary mildness of the season”. But a record-breaking average UK December temperature of 8°C is unusual, and a huge range of plants are either continuing to flower or are flowering early. In November, one botanist clocked an astonishing 97 species in flower on a 2.5 mile walk. The results of the New Year Plant Hunt, a three hour survey of what’s in flower at the start of the year arranged by the Botanical Society of the British Isles, will be fascinating; social media was full of the flowers found, including very out-of-season plants like ivy broomrape, hawthorn and milkwort.

Many people were recording 10-20 species in flower, some got up to the 40s and one even reported 77 different plants in bloom. 

But this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. We must remember that plants are adaptable and opportunistic; if there's a chance to set some seed they'll take it. Species adopt several different strategies to flower during the winter months. There are summer-repeaters (summer flowering plants like oxeye daisy that can have another go in winter), continual bloomers (things such as white deadnettle that just seem to keep going all year-round), cornfield opportunists (annuals like field pansy that can germinate in late summer and flower in winter if it’s mild) and, of course, those precocious spring flowers, usually woodland plants such as violets and dog’s-mercury, that just get away early if it’s mild. For more on these and other winter flowering plants, take a look at my previous blog.

So enjoy the winter! These might be the monochrome months, but they’re not without colour if you’re prepared to look.

Darwin, the orchid & the very long-tongued moth

February 12 2016 - 12:22

Happy ‪Darwin Day‬!

The father of evolution would have been 207 today. But did you know a prediction he made in 1862, was confirmed over a century later?

Charles had been sent an orchid from Madagascar, a beautiful, star-shaped flower called Angraecum sesquipedale. Like many orchids, its nectary (the part of the flower that secretes the nectar) was elongated, meaning an insect needs a long tongue to reach the nectar. But in the case of A. sesquipedale it was almost a foot long!

Above: A. sesquipedale - an orchid with a seriously long nectary. Image © Wilfred Duckitt

That's exceptional even by orchids standards, as Darwin himself noted...

"Good Heavens" he wrote to a friend at Kew "what insect can suck it?"

The answer, he surmised, must be co-evolution:

"In Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches [25.4–27.9cm]".

At the time, the idea there was an titanically-tongued moth, that had evolved in tandem with an orchid was novel. In fact, back then, there were no known candidates. Darwin, was essentially making a prediction - for this orchid to exist, there must be, somewhere, an undiscovered moth to pollinate it.

For the rest of his lifetime, such a moth did not turn up. But then, 20 years after his death, a subspecies of the gigantic Congo moth named Xanthopan morganii praedicta was discovered with a massive proboscis over 20cm long.

Above: X. morganii praedicta - a moth with a seriously long tongue. Image © Bernard Dupont

Confirming it fed on A. sesquipedale, however, was altogether more tricky. In fact, it wasn't until 1992 that it was observed doing so, and then pollinating another plant.

British orchids and moths are not quite as well-endowed, although no less beautiful for it. The photo below is of Common-spotted orchids at our Joan's Hill Farm Reserve in Herefordshire.

We'd certainly recommend a stroll there in the summer. For further information click the link below. 

Three Flowers for the Year of the Monkey

Dr Trevor Dines marks the Chinese New Year...

February 08 2016 - 13:59

Today, millions of people around the world will be celebrating the Chinese New Year and the start of the Year of the Monkey.

One of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, it is believed that people born in the Year of the Monkey are intelligent and quick-witted, curious and innovative and a bit cheeky and mischievous. 

While can often see monkey-like characteristics in people – after all, we all know a cheeky-monkey – we can also see monkeys in some flowers. If fact, the resemblance can sometimes be quite remarkable. One of our rarest orchids, the Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia) – found in just two sites in Britain - has a flower in which the lip is modified into what can only be described as torso complete with long, simian arms and a pair of legs. I don’t want to elicit any blushes, but there’s even a hint of a male appendage. With the rest of the flower forming a large head-like hood, the similarity is so close that even the plant’s Latin species name, simia, means ‘monkey’ or ‘ape’.  

Above: Monkey Orchid © Plantlife/Andrew Gagg

But taking the resemblance to a whole new level are the wonderfully-named Dracula orchids from the cloud forests of South America. These unusual plants, part of a very large group of orchids know as the Pleurothallids,  have rather un-orchid like flowers in which the three large outer sepals – which are triangular and often drawn out into long points – dominate. The other two petals and lip are small in comparison and can be seen in the centre of the bloom, the petals looking like a pair of eyes and the lip like a little mouth.  Peer into some of these flowers and you’ll see a near-perfect money-like face looking back at you, especially in the (again, appropriately-named) Dracula simia – the Ecuador Monkey Orchid.

Above: The Ecuador Monkey Orchid © Dick Culbert / CC BY 2.0

Orchids have been highly regarded in Chinese culture for centuries, representing  integrity, nobility and friendship, all of which are virtues of a perfectly cultured gentleman and scholar. The Chinese philosopher Confucius likened orchids to a virtuous man and to echo this sentiment many Chinese artists put orchids in their works. Indeed, in classic and modern literature the plum (梅), orchid (蘭), chrysanthemum (菊) and bamboo (竹) are referred to as “the noble four” (四君子) of plants.

The chrysanthemum is especially esteemed in China, and is also one of two lucky flowers associated with the year of the Monkey. Our own wild species, the beautiful Corn Marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum) is a shining chrome yellow, considered to be the most beautiful and prestigious of all colours. 

Above: Corn Marigold © Peter O' Connor / CC BY-SA 2.0

Indeed, there is a Chinese saying, “Yellow generates Yin and Yang”, meaning that yellow is at the centre of everything. Unfortunately, this lovely Chrysanthemum has suffered under the hand of the taxonomists and was rebranded Glebionis a few years ago. It’s an ugly name that I refuse to use; to me those fields of barley shining under a hot sun are pure chrysanthemum yellow.

Living on the Edge pt 2: Who’s with us?

If you are carrying out new or experimental management, you want to know that it's working...

January 29 2016 - 11:00

One of more than 150 Ground-pine plants counted by the Wildlife Study Group - a record  for the reserve.

One of more than 150 Ground-pine plants counted by the Wildlife Study Group - a record for the reserve.

As part of Ranscombe Farm Reserve's 'Life on the Edges' project, we are recruiting and training up a team of volunteer wildlife surveyors who will help with the very extensive task of recording the wild species using our arable field margins, and showing how they are benefiting from the work we are doing.

We've set ourselves quite a task: we particularly want to know about bumblebees and other pollinating insects, about wild flowers (of course!) and about farmland birds. And we want to do it in sufficient detail that we can demonstrate a link between the work, the plants and the other wildlife.

This is testing for all of us, but it's had some unexpected advantages. We've met some great people who have joined our Ranscombe Wildlife Study Group, which has not just been a good social experience, but, like all the best volunteer enterprises, has started to pull us in new and interesting directions.

For instance, we had never thought of the Harvest Mouse as a target species until Pam Worrall of Kent Mammal Group introduced us to Steve Kirk of Wildwood, who gave us a free training day on these tiny and little-known mammals. Surveying for Harvest Mice takes place in winter, and it was a wet and cold November day when ten of us headed to Ranscombe to try out Steve's methodology.

But it worked! We found two harvest mouse nests in grassland close to one of Ranscombe's arable fields - the first ever record for the reserve!

Above: Our first Harvest Mouse nest!

It's doubly exciting, because harvest mice are a Section 41 species: that is, they are on the government list of those species in England which are most in need of targeted conservation action. And they should directly benefit from the habitat management we will be carrying out through the Life on the Edges project - especially now that we know they are there and can take their needs into account.

Of course, in our excitement, we can't lose sight of the species we originally planned to target. So it's just as well that our Wildlife Study Group days have turned up other bonuses. We found several workers of the Brown-banded Carder Bee - one of the UK's rarest bumblebees - during a training session, providing the first good evidence that this species is breeding on the reserve.

Above: Jenny and Steph come face-to-face with an Early Bumblebee on a training day.

And a count of Ground-pine in one of our arable fields showed record numbers for this threatened wild flower. Where will this take us next? Next year our monitoring programme gets under way in earnest, coupled with professional survey work to find out just how many species of bees and wasps are using Ranscombe's fields. So you'll just have to keep watching this space ...

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

Related pages:

Five wee gems to look for this winter

January 28 2016 - 14:55

The Celtic Rainforests of Scotland have a lot to offer at this time of year, when the weather is not at its best and the leaves are still not on the trees. It’s the wee gems that we can look for; the mosses, liverworts and lichens of the forest. These species are the unsung jewels of the rainforests as they are crucial to forest health; helping to maintain the high levels of humidity needed. So why not get out there this winter and see which gems you can find? You can select a Celtic rainforest to explore from our handy map!

Here is a small selection of the commoner and easy to spot species, found not just in Scottish rainforests but south of the border too:

1. Black-eyed Susan

(Bunodophoron melanocarpum) 

This distinctive pale grey ‘shrubby’ lichen is an ancient woodland indicator. The black ‘eyes’ of this lichen are actually fruiting bodies, which produce the spores for reproduction. The main body of the lichen has very fine branches, reminiscent of coral.
Where to find it: On the bark of deciduous trees, such as Birch, Alder and Oak.

2. Cudbear 

(Ochrolechia tartarea)

This white ‘crusty’ lichen stands out well again the darker tree trunks where you find it. It is an ancient woodland indicator but in the 18th and 19th centuries it was also important in the Scottish textile industry, producing a purple-coloured dye. The manufacture of the dye took several weeks to complete with the lichen being boiled and then steeped in lime and urine before being dried and ground into a powder. Look out for its pale yellow ‘jam tart’ fruits!
Where to find it: This lichen likes the trunks of Birch, Alder and Oak trees.

3. Slender Mouse-tail

(Isothecium myosuroides)

A characteristic moss of the Celtic rainforest, forming dense mats. On closer inspection, you’ll see its tree-like growth form, unbranched near its base and becoming branched nearer the top.
Where to find it: mainly found on tree trunks and boulders

4. Tree Lungwort

(Lobaria pulmonaria)

This is a relatively large, ‘leafy’ lichen, with green lung-like lobes when wet. It has occasional red fruits and is white underneath the lobes. The lobes are attached at their bases but the rest are free, growing away from the trunk.
Where to find it: This lovely lichen lives on tree trunks of Ash, Hazel, Rowan, willow and old oak trees.

5. Western Earwort

(Scapania gracilis) 

A true oceanic resident of the Celtic rainforest, preferring wet, humid conditions. Look out for its small, individual rounded heads which form compact mats.
Where to find it: This liverwort can be found in extensive patches on boulders and trees.

Happy hunting!

Find out more:

Wee, modest, crimson-tippèd flow’r…

January 25 2016 - 16:10

Farmland wildflowers © Plantlife

Farmland wildflowers © Plantlife

Wee, modest, crimson-tippèd flow’r,
Thou’s met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure
Thy slender stem:
To spare thee now is past my pow’r,
Thou bonnie gem.

Robbie Burns - To a Mountain Daisy

In 1786, Robert Burns wrote about the fate of a single farmland flower as it succumbed to the plough at the farm of Mossgeil. One can only wonder what he might have thought about the most recent Countryside Survey, which highlights the ongoing loss of plant diversity across Scotland. Today we are not only losing wild flowers in the wider countryside but also in special habitats identified for their botanical richness. 

Scotland’s countryside is still home to the braiding of field margins with poppies, cornflowers and chamomile, to hay meadows of buttercup, cranesbill and rare northern bedstraw and to hedgerows vibrant with hawthorn, black-thorn, dog rose and honeysuckle. The diversity of habitats that can be found in the corners of our farmland supports a huge range of species. But agricultural intensification and specialisation are in danger of simplifying this farmed landscape and making it the domain of fewer species where once there was abundant diversity.

Our wild flowers and plants support an extraordinary diversity of pollinators, birds and mammals. Flowers, including bird’s foot trefoil (which supports 132 invertebrates, such as burnet moths and small blue butterfly) and knapweed (which supports 67 invertebrates), are part of our productive landscapes. As well as supporting pollinators, our native flora also contribute to flood control and clean soil and water. Without wild plants, our productive lands could not be productive.

Scotland’s farmers, however, are not in a position to farm for free and the wildlife benefits we want to see need to be paid for. Agri-environment schemes are the only mechanism to do this. Whilst agrienvironment budgets remain under severe strain, it is vital that payments are targeted towards securing the greatest public good. Currently, biodiversity-rich areas, such as small crofts, often receive the lowest levels of Rural Development support. 

Worryingly, agri-environment schemes in Scotland cannot, even at present rates, deliver the environmental priorities we, in Scotland, have set. To date, only 18% of the Rural Development programme funding is spent on agri-environment. The rest goes to rural infrastructure and Less Favoured Area Support payments. And of agri-environment scheme funding in 2011–2012, just under 15% was approved for options that could benefit plants and fungi in enclosed production lands. The actual benefit of this spend for plants and fungi has never been measured. 

Burns writes that to spare his farmland flower was ‘past my pow’r’. We still have it in our grasp to change the future for Scotland’s remaining ‘bonnie gems’.

Havens from taxes

Help us save one of the largest funds available funds for conservation

January 19 2016 - 15:38

Yellow whitlowgrass on the Gower coast now has a more secure future thanks to Biffa Award funding

Yellow whitlowgrass on the Gower coast now has a more secure future thanks to Biffa Award funding

It’s early spring and I’m standing on a windswept cliff on the Gower peninsula in south Wales. At my feet, a tiny plant is flowering its heart out.  Yellow whitlowgrass (Draba aizoides) grows nowhere else in Britain.

This wild flower finds its footing in the cracks and crevices of limestone rocks but its future at this site was threatened by some recent arrivals - several different species of invasive cotoneaster, garden escapees from China and the Himalayas. They grow in the same cracks and crevices and spread fast, forming mats so dense and tightly pressed to the rock face that yellow whitlowgrass cannot hope to compete. Some have already been lost.

Galvanised into action we launch a rescue mission with the landowner, the National Trust. Plantlife has been trialling methods of controlling cotoneasters on Portland Bill in Dorset and we can bring our experience here. The project is funded by Biffa Award and, as well as yellow whitlowgrass, other species benefit, like rare basil thyme, juniper and chough. As a landfill operator, Biffa is able to fund projects like this because of the Landfill Communities Fund. 

Another cracking project funded by the Landfill Communities Fund is Coronation Meadows - our flagship partnership project with The Wildlife Trusts and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which is helping to reverse the shocking trend in ancient meadow loss across the UK.  Funded generously by Biffa Award since 2014, this extraordinary project has so far seen the creation and restoration of wildflower meadows at over 50 locations across 37 counties; the establishment of 16 mini-plant nurseries, and some 350 volunteers involved with monitoring, seed collection and spreading of green hay. 

The third year of this project is now under serious threat because of proposed Government changes to how this fund works.

A highland cow grazes a wildflower meadow in Conwy, north Wales, restored as part of the Coronation Meadows project (c) Trevor Dines

In essence, the Landfill Communities Fund (LCF) takes the tax that Government collects from landfill companies and uses it for projects that improve the lives of communities living near landfill sites. It’s a considerable fund; £1.4 billion has been used to fund 51,000 projects since 1996.  

Until recently, one of the rules when applying for this funding was that a 'third-party' had to make a contribution – just 10p in every pound. Now the Government wants the landfill operators in England and Wales to pay this contribution themselves, adding an extra burden on them. On the face of it, this makes things easier for charities and other organisations applying for funding - there's less to organise and the money raised can be spent on environmental and other good causes more quickly.  However, the landfill operators are reluctant to do this (one operator estimates it would cost them an extra £500,000 each year) and have said they’ll not find the extra money, threatening the whole future of the fund and leaving the Treasury to mop up the winnings.  We have until the 3rd February to persuade the Government that the 10% third party contribution rules should be adapted in England and Wales so that anybody can pay, including the charity receiving the grant or the community who would benefit (the proposed changes do not affect the fund in Scotland). 

Some recent Plantlife projects that have only happened because of LCF funding include:

On the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall, we’ve restored grass-heathland habitat to save some of Britain’s rarest plants, including chamomile, pennyroyal mint, pygmy rush and pale dog-violet. Pools have been excavated, scrub cleared and trackways restored.

Pale dog-violet, a rare heathland species found on the Lizard peninsula (c) Trevor Dines.

At our Ranscombe reserve on the North Downs (Kent), we’ve introduced cattle to help the creation and restoration of more than 38 ha of lowland calcareous grassland in a more sustainable way. We’re also improving the conservation of rare cornfield flowers at this internationally important site, with 4 miles of field margin being managed for flowers, pollinators and farmland birds.

Poppies in an arable field at Plantlife's Ranscombe Reserve, Kent (c) Trevor Dines/Plantlife

In the Breckland of East Anglia we’re restoring up to 60 ha of unique Breckland grassland and bringing back 13 plant specialities on Branham Cross Common, including spring speedwell, spanish catchfly and tower mustard.

Local volunteers survey rare plants on Branham Cross Common (c) Plantlife

Along the south Wales coast, we’ve embarked on an ambitious project to restore open sand habitats to several major dune systems, improving conditions for the internationally threatened fen orchid and other species such sea stock, violet crystalwort and ruby-tailed wasp. Work has started to remove over 80 ha of invasive sea buckthorn from the dunes.

Restoration of Pembrey Dunes, south Wales, with removal of invasive sea blackthorn (c) Simeon Jones


Back on the Gower cliffs and not far from the yellow whitlowgrass, I find an elderly couple out enjoying the wildlife, spotting birds and looking for flowers. They’ve found a large, gnarled juniper, hunkering down out of the wind. It’s probably hundreds of years old. Growing over it are two cotoneasters, maybe only about five years old but already smothering the juniper. In another five years the juniper will be buried.

We can take action. But not without the Landfill Communities Fund.

And it's not just the plants, habitats and all the wildlife they support that stand to lose out. Each of these projects connects, in all sorts of different ways, people to local projects. The LCF creates opportunities for local people to get involved with volunteering on local wildlife projects, funds local contractors to undertake traditional management like hedge laying, and helps local farmers to graze their livestock. At the end of the day, local communities benefit by having wildlife-rich places to visit and enjoy.


How can you help?

We’d love you to show support for the work we do through the Landfill Communities Fund. Here’s how you can help:


1. Tweet your support for the current Landfill Communities Fund using ‘Support #TheLCF’.

For example, you could tweet:

Here’s how @love_plants have used landfill tax to created havens for wildlife. Support #TheLCF  


2. Please follow us on twitter and share our #TheLCF tweets

Follow @love_plants and retweet our ‘Support #TheLCF’ messages.


3. Write to your MP

In England and Wales, find your MP here and write to them expressing your concern about the potential loss of the Landfill Communities Fund, asking your MP to write to the Exchequer Secretary of the Treasury, Damian Hinds MP (if the MP has not already done so) urging Mr Hinds to allow local communities to continue to cover the 10% third party contribution.