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Keeping the wild in wildflower

Why Plantlife is urging caution when sowing wildflower seed in the countryside

May 25 2016

The headline-generating declines of bees, butterflies and birds have caused many to look at our countryside again and wonder what we can do to help.

And therein lies the problem.  We have too few wild flowers...  

And it is the decline of wild flowers that lies behind the plummeting numbers of pollinator and farmland birds. Some landowners, keen to do their bit, reach for the wildflower seed mix.  And, in the short term in some places, sowing nectar or seed mixes can support ailing populations of wildlife. But, argues Plantlife, this is more like a sugar hit, than a long-term healthy diet for our wider countryside:

 

  1. Sowing wildflower seed mixes doesn't conserve wild flowers
  2. In some places, it can even be bad news for our native flora, threatening the natural genetic variation of our flora and the distinctiveness of local landscapes
  3. Seed mixes and their quick fix solution don't deal with the causes of wide scale wild flower decline. 

This May, Plantlife is sending their new guidance to hundreds of organisations, businesses and landowners across England, Scotland and Wales with a plea for a more balanced approach to managing the countryside and the health of our wildlife.

Dr Deborah Long sums it up: “It's simple really - it's about achieving conservation for all nature. In our rush to save wildlife, we are forgetting that our wild flora is an integral part of that wildlife."

"To relegate wild flowers entirely to a 'nectar' or 'seed' mix is to miss the point that they are as much a part of our local natural and cultural heritage as butterflies, birds and bees. For example, there is a world of difference between enjoying otters in your local wildlife park to coming upon them in the wild; and so it is between enjoying, say, bluebells planted prettily in someone's garden to standing in a spring woodland shimmering with wild bluebells."

"Plantlife is not advocating no wildflower seeding but simply a more balanced approach. In many places, a change in management will bring wild flowers back naturally from the buried seed bank. The good news with this approach means we get local flowers in local landscapes. Or follow best practice and use locally collected seed. By using non local  seed mixtures again and again, we run the risk of turning our countryside into generic ‘McMeadows’. An ancient Norfolk meadow with green-winged orchids and pepper-saxifrage is different to an Argyll meadow with whorled caraway and lesser butterfly-orchids – unique mixtures of flowers that make our sense of place so special. And the standard cornfield flower mix of cornflower, corn cockle, corn marigold and poppies never actually occurs anywhere in nature! It doesn’t occur at all on most of our Scottish islands. Our challenge is to conserve wildflowers whilst maintaining their essential wildness.”

 

New evidence shows that plants grown from seed of very local origin (from within your own or neighbouring counties):

  • Grow better and flower more profusely, therefore producing more nectar, pollen and seed 
  • Are more likely to grow and flower at the right time when local insects are also active and need to feed
  • Can actually cope better with warmer seasons than plants brought in from warmer areas further south

Plantlife recommends that we: 

  • Protect remaining fragments of wildflower-rich habitat so species can spread outwards from these 
  • Restore surrounding areas by allowing natural regeneration from the soil seedbank, or by using natural seeding techniques such as green hay or seed collected locally. 
  • Link flower rich habitats across landscapes so that species can spread by natural colonization, assisted by the movement of livestock, wildlife and other natural processes. 
  • Where there is no wild flower seed bank, and no chance of wild flower colonisation from adjacent habitats, then use locally collected seed. Scottish seed producer, Scotia Seeds carefully records the precise local origin so that all of the seeds they sell can be traced back to the wild Scottish plant communities from which they came. Giles Laverack commented: ‘our own research team and research partners in the UK and throughout Europe are keenly aware of the importance of conserving the genetic diversity of native plant species and developing best practice in the responsible production and use of local wildflower seeds’.

Seeing is believing... where the Plantlife approach is already resulting in more wild flowers in our countryside:

  • At Treshnish Farm on Mull, a carefully balanced grazing regime, adopted from 1994 now supports an abundance of wild flowers including 15 species of orchids.
  • At Ranscombe Farm in Kent, cornfield flowers such as poppies, fumitories and round-leaved fluellen have returned to fields after 25 years absence following a change in management.
  • At Joan’s Hill Farm in Herefordshire, the wildflower richness of five meadows has increased significantly simply as a result of stock moving through the fields. 
  • 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. 
  • At Kittyfield Farm in the Scottish Borders, the 400 species of wild flower found there are part of a flexible profitable approach to farming where arable options are used to maintain wild flower populations as well as profit margins.
  • At Redgrave and Lopham Fens, Suffolk, a restoration programme following the cessation of water abstraction has seen the resurgence of fen plants, including few-flowered spike-rush, bog pimpernel and sphagnum mosses, where they were rare or, intriguingly, previously unknown.  
  • 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, eyebrights and tormentil flowering where there were none before. 

There are situations of course when sowing wildflower seeds is beneficial, especially where it’s unlikely that wildflowers will recolonise naturally, such as in urban areas. Dr Trevor Dines advises “In areas where there are simply no wildflowers left and no flower-rich sites nearby then our advice is to use a seed mix sourced as locally as possible. If you start with a few basic flowers in a seed mixture, additional species will appear naturally over time if the land is managed well. At Close Sartfield, a seeded wildflower meadow on the Isle of Man, for example, new species are appearing even after 23 years; the reserve now boasts rarities like adder’s-tongue fern and ivy-leaved bellflower – a win-win situation.” 

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