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Plantlife seeding principles

Plantlife is asking land managers, conservationists and gardeners to think about where they use wild flower seed. Britain’s flowers are struggling against continuing and significant changes brought about by habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change and pollution. Used in the wrong places, wild flower seed in the wild brings yet another pressure to bear on wild flower populations that need sympathetic and supportive management to survive. In the right places, wild flower seed brings lost colour back to places where it cannot hope to return of its own accord.

Think good management first

  • Assess the existing wildlife value and restoration potential of your site. A sympathetic and sustainable land management regime should be an integral part of project planning. Simple changes to your existing land management system could lead to wild flowers appearing or moving in – it may be that this is all that is needed and could save you the costs associated with buying and sowing wild flower seed mixes. At a site in Gloucestershire, working in partnership with Gloucester Wildlife Trust and Natural England, Plantlife has had great success in bringing back meadow clary from the brink, simply through changing the grazing regime. Rather than the time and expense of planting out some new plants, which would have been less likely to survive, it was much more satisfying to see the abundance of blue spires responding to this management.
  • Think about the potential of natural seedbanks and/or natural transfer of seeds from adjacent semi-natural habitats (for example, through management of livestock movement). Natural regeneration and spread takes longer but the results will be far more sustainable and cost-effective. At Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm Reserve, we put in a headland around an intensively-managed field and switched off the herbicide. Broad-leaved cudweed appeared in great numbers and Ranscombe Farm Reserve is now home to 95% of the total British population.
  • Use ecological principles to locate habitat restoration and creation schemes. Target habitat conservation to maximise species benefits, to buffer existing habitats and to provide opportunities for species to move through the landscape. At Plantlife’s reserve in Carmarthenshire, lesser butterfly orchids have spread naturally into the neighbouring farmers’ fields now they are being managed through appropriate grazing as part of an agri-environment scheme.
  • Consider the creation of habitat patches to provide emergency food sources for animals as a short-term option and seek to enhance the plant diversity of existing semi-natural habitat more naturally in the longer term.

Where not to sow

  • Avoid sowing wild flower mixes adjacent to existing semi -natural habitats or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) where there is a good chance that regeneration can take place naturally.
  • Always avoid introducing seeds or plants to existing species-rich habitats or those of high conservation value, except in extreme circumstances as part of a rare plant rescue project.

If sowing, what to consider

  • At sites where there is no realistic hope of natural colonisation (or where there is a desire to create a new habitat type next to an existing area of semi-natural vegetation), we recommend either:
    using the green hay method (or wild harvested seed e.g. for woodlands) from local sites within the same landscape which lie on similar soils/geology
    (b) sowing basic mixes of approximately five colourful, universal species, such as oxeye daisy and yellow rattle. The mixture should be chosen according to geology and region. Don't attempt to replicate complete national vegetation types - less is more. Over time, additional species are likely to appear, allowing the more natural development of species-rich vegetation.
  • Concentrate resources on providing the right ecological conditions for the development and long-term survival of the vegetation being created. Thin, nutrient-poor soils typically re-establish as species-rich vegetation more rapidly and more satisfactorily than nutrient-rich soils. Management, such as grazing or mowing, is likely to be necessary to ensure that meadow, pasture or heathland communities retain their species-rich characteristic.
  • Document and monitor carefully any attempts to restore habitats and make note of any species sown, so enabling you and others to distinguish between new native colonists and sown introductions.
  • Avoid non-native plants - a small percentage can be aggressively invasive, whilst others can compromise the scientific interest of natural vegetation types. See our Invasive non-native plant pages for more information on problem non-native species.
  • Encourage processes that help seeds move around the landscape, as part of restoring ecological networks. This is an essential component of all sustainable conservation management e.g. moving grazing animals around different sites and between different habitats, and encouraging natural water flows to spread seed.
  • To help native plants adapt to our changing climate small isolated populations need to be linked and reinforced to enhance gene flow and broaden gene pools. To encourage genetic diversity, gather seed from multiple sites and sow seed from a range of local sources.
  • Monitor attempts to create new habitat and share your findings with us; often such initiatives are poorly documented and can remain unmonitored.
  • When seed or plants are intentionally introduced into a site, we recommend that they are of local origin. See the Flora Locale website for the most up-to-date and accurate information on suppliers of locally sourced seed and plant material.
  • Check the seed packet labelling to ensure your wild flower seeds are native species and sourced as locally as possible to your chosen site.

Reintroductions of rare and threatened plants

  • Be cautious about restocking rare and threatened plants in the wild: follow IUCN guidelines on reintroductions/translocations, which promote the notion of ‘only as a last resort’. Many wild plants can reappear from buried seed banks, whilst many rare plant reintroductions fail unless the precise habitat conditions they demand are in place. Rare plant introductions should be appropriate to the prevailing management regime.
  • Where possible, material for reintroductions should originate from material collected from multiple local donor sites. For further advice on conservation action directly affecting small or isolated populations, please contact Plantlife.
  • Document and monitor carefully any attempts to reintroduce plant species so enabling you and others to determine success and distinguish between native and reintroduced populations.

Arable sites

Arable flowers, such as cornflower and corncockle, are the most threatened group of plants in Britain. We have nearly 50 different arable plant communities in Britain - some of which are rare elsewhere in the world. Arable flowers, with their incredibly-long lived seeds, also have the greatest potential to regenerate from the natural soil seedbank if given the opportunity to do so - this is how they have evolved to survive. Of all habitats, arable fields are the one where natural regeneration from the seed bank is most likely to work well – and quickly - and the use of seed mixes for bird food, nectar and game cover should be avoided. It is also a much cheaper and easier option.

  • Use agri-environment scheme options to stop or reduce herbicide and fertiliser use on headlands or whole fields. Consider deep-ploughing or soil inversion as a way to bring both the buried soil seed bank and nutrient poor soil to the surface. At Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm Reserve, we deep-ploughed a former site of rare arable flora – the following summer Ranscombe Farm became home to the UK’s only native population of corncockle and of international importance. Our experience shows that judicious management of land can allow rare and attractive arable plants to survive, whilst controlling the worst pernicious weeds.
  • Most annual plants of arable fields require annual ploughing in order to survive. Perennial weeds can build up over time but autumn applications of herbicide (such as Glyphosate) can be used to control them. Download a copy of our Arable Plants Management Guide (Scottish guide here) for information on arable plant management.
  • Find out if the area you are intending to work in is an Important Arable Plant Area (IAPA); this land is likely to have a rich seedbank.

Gardens, parks and amenity spaces

  • This is an area where it’s great to create wild flower-rich habitats from seed or plugs, particularly in urban/suburban areas.
  • Again, think about the right ecological conditions for the development and long-term survival of the species you are planting. Thin, nutrient-poor soils are much better and grazing, mowing or even soil inversion techniques may be necessary to ensure that meadow, pasture and heathland communities retain their species-rich characteristic. Most annual cornfield plants, such as poppies or cornflowers, require annual soil disturbance (such as ploughing) in order to survive.

Trees and hedgerows

  • The above principles apply equally to the establishment of tree and shrub species. Wherever possible, allow natural regeneration – the natural succession from scrub through to maturing woodland - and only plant basic mixes where there is no hope that woodland and scrub will regenerate naturally. Use the Forestry Commission Seed Zone guidance to identify appropriate seed sources for the trees you wish to plant. As most tree and scrub species produce seed that is either distributed by wind or bird, in most instances, natural regeneration will occur with surprising speed.

Britain’s countryside. Save it with flowers.