Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Five invasive non-native aquatic plants banned from sale: our response.

Posted by Nicola Hutchinson, our Head of Conservation Programmes, England and Wales.

The problem of invasive non-native species (sometimes called alien species) is one of the best known environmental issues. Whether in towns or countryside many of us will have dealt with garden ponds or rivers choked with water weeds, watched Japanese knotweed grow and spread wherever it has taken root, and perhaps even admired the pink flowers of Himalayan balsam along a riverbank before thinking how much it has taken over.  Internationally, invasive species have long been recognised as one of the top threats to wildlife and the environment.  Ten years ago our own government set out a series of recommendations to deal with the problem and currently the European Union is considering a Directive as a way to better coordinate a response.  It's important stuff.

This is why it's great to hear the Government announce today that five of the most destructive invasive water plants will no longer be legally traded in England and Wales.  At last, some decisive and essential action.

Australian stonecrop, Crassula helmsii
one of the banned plants © GBNNSS
A range of specific measures are needed to really crack the problem,  with the most important of these being to curb the number of new incidences.  The primary mechanism for which is to simply ban the most troublesome from sale.  No matter how conscientious we as gardeners or landscapers may be, once invasive species are established in our gardens and parks they find their way over the fence into our streets and countryside.  Don't put them there in the first place and we've instantly removed a key pathway for invasion.

However, herein lies the twist with today's news.  The industry which trades in these problem species in England and Wales has been given a further 14 months to "adjust" to the new regulation.  This means that trading can continue until April 2014 - a move to allow existing stock and pre-orders of these invasive water weeds to be sold off.  Really, it beggars belief.  It's been agreed that these species are so damaging to our environment that it must become illegal for them to be sold, yet here we are inviting the biggest of all 'every last item must go' sale.  Are we really saying we want one last final push to get as many of these water weeds out of the shops and into the wild?

This sort of compromise agreement is one of the most frustrating aspects of environmental politics.  We are falling over evidence on the impacts of invasives; ten years ago the government recommended a ban on sale of the worst offenders, and 7 years ago the actual legislation was put in place to enable this to happen.  Yet, at the last minute, we've lost our nerve, ending up with a really smart move turning into a ridiculous one.

Government moved to halt the trade in ash trees, harbouring a non-native fungal invader, in response to the ash dieback crisis.  Questions were asked at the time whether this action was taken quick enough.  It seems we aren't learning our lessons well.

A sheep struggles through a channel choked with
Floating Pennywort © Trevor Renals
In these economic times, one appreciates the difficulties businesses may face when new regulations mean changes to the way they operate. However, in the case of invasive non-native plants, representatives of the horticultural and aquatic trades have been involved in discussions for well over a decade. Couple that with the legislation being put in place in 2006, the list of proposed species to ban consulted on in 2010, and this stacks up to ample time for traders and retailers to adjust already.  No-one in the industry can say they didn't know this was coming.

It makes me mad.  So I have to remind myself at these times that amidst the ditherings of others, here at Plantlife we've just been getting on with doing our best to implement solutions. Often that has meant direct action on the ground to clear established invaders from some of our most important places for wildflowers such as the Isle of Portland and the limestone cliffs of Torbay. And, with the principle of prevention being better than cure at the forefront of our efforts, we have researched which of the thousands of water and land plants available for sale pose the greatest threat to our native wildlife- this helps to hone our collective response, and gives the green light to the overwhelming majority of garden and pond plants available.   Indeed, to make it even easier for retailers and consumers we've worked with partners to publish reports and advice on which plants to choose as alternatives to those which cause problems (see our guides to landscaping and keeping ponds and aquaria without harmful invasive plants).

We've invested our time and resources into working out solutions to the invasive species problem because it really matters when it comes to conserving wild plants, incredible landscapes and other wildlife. Now we need everyone's help - do the right thing, it's easy, stop selling and stop buying these plants:

And whilst you're at it, avoid these other ones too because they're equally as bad…

In the meantime, Plantlife applauds those retailers who've already made the shift to stop selling invasive plants, or who at least avoid the temptation to offer a 'buy one get one free' on curly waterweed!

For everything else you need to know about avoiding invasive plants and suggestions for fabulously non-invasive plants to grow have a look here. 

Friday, 25 January 2013

Burns Night

Posted by Dr Seona Anderson

Robert Burns
© Hantsheroes/
Creative Commons BY-SA
Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet, is celebrated in gatherings across the world on January 25th. His poetry, music and womanising are well known but his love and knowledge of wild plants is perhaps less so.

Burns only wrote one poem dedicated to a wild plant: ‘To a mountain daisy’ (1786) in which he compares the daisy uprooted by the plough to a girl betrayed by men. But floral themes run through much of his work. One of his more famous lines from Tam O Shanter concerns the poppy and the transience of beauty and pleasure:

but pleasures are like poppies spread.
You seize the flower its bloom is shed.

Then there is the song ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ - still popular in many countries. Whilst we may be more accustomed to the horticultural variety, the red rose of Burns has a wild relative, the Rosa gallica. This romantic bloom hails from southern Europe and south-west Asia but may have been introduced into Britain as long ago as the Roman period. It was certainly recorded growing in gardens in the 1500s. The rose, of course, is the symbol of love and purity in many cultures across the world.

Ragwort nags
Burns also records many Scottish plant customs in his poems such as the witches that were supposed to ride ragweed (or ragwort) nags across the skies and the custom of putting nuts in the fire to choose a sweetheart - those that sit side by side are destined for a good union:

And monie lads’ and lasses’ fate,
Are there that night decided:
Some kindle couthies side by saide,
An’ burn the gather trimly,
Some start awa wi’ saucy pride’.

He also wrote a list of his favourite plants in a letter and they include daisies, harebells, foxgloves, wild briar rose, budding birch, and the hawthorn.

Burns also recognised the value of a plant rich landscape for enriching art and the lives of the people who live or visit the countryside. In a letter to the Duke of Atholl in 1787, Burns pleads humbly for the beautiful waterfalls of Bruar to be accompanied by trees:

Let lofty firs and ashes cool,
my lovely banks o’erspread,
and view, deep-bending in the pool,
their shadows’ wat’ry bed.

Let fragrant birsk,
in woodbines drest,
my craggy cliffs adorn.’

It is impossible to imagine the work of Robert Burns without the wild plants and trees of Scotland and we are asking anyone with an interest in poetry, wild plants or sewing to contribute a Burns inspired square to our Patchwork Meadow Project. Click here for  how to take part
  • To find out more about the wild plants in Burns please download our factsheet.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Coastal dunes project

Posted by Andy Byfield, Plantlife's Landscape Conservation Manager

Work continues apace at Kenfig to reverse the fortunes of many rare plants that grow there.  Diggers are again on site scraping away coarse vegetation to reveal the all important sand below.  The reason that we – and our partners Bridgend County Borough Council and the Countryside Council for Wales – are doing this is simple: over the millennia our rarer sand dune plants and animals have evolved to cope with the vagaries of ever-shifting sand, yet these days, our dunes have become cloaked by a thick, lush thatch of plant life.  The result: classic species such as petalwort, fen orchid and many other beautiful plants are declining fast, and some are steadily heading towards extinction.

The fen orchid.  Image © Tim Pankhurst
Britain’s sand dunes seem to be changing, as the high hills of blowing sand have ‘greened-over’.  Various factors may be to blame.  Increasing deposition of nitrates and other nutrients are being deposited across our lands as the rains bring industrial and agricultural pollutants back down to earth, feeding coarse vegetation.  There seems to be less sand off shore to feed mobile dunes.  And one can’t help thinking that this year’s excessive rains have simply allowed lush vegetation to become lusher still.

Last year, Plantlife coordinated the clearance of over three hectares of dunescape in the hope of exposing sufficient bare sand to kick-start natural duneland erosion, an as I write this the diggers are in expanding the area to a vast 10 hectares – by far the largest example of sand dune rejuvenation ever undertaken in Britain.

And not surprisingly, the media have been  keen to find out just what is going on.  I have just returned from filming a forthcoming BBC Countryfile item about our work with Matt Baker and his team from the BBC.  If you want to know more, tune into BBC One this coming Sunday evening (27th January).

On the scent of the native bluebell

Posted by Dr Trevor Dines, botanist and Plantlife Cymru Conservation Manager.

It’s early morning and we’re heading towards a small bluebell wood a few miles outside Birmingham. In one hand I’m clutching a box of glass funnels and in the other a script for the day’s filming. This script guides everyone in the crew through the item we’re about to film - for example, which shots are needed, what lines have to be spoken and even what I’m meant to be wearing. But when I look at the final section - the critical bit, where the science behind the whole story is revealed - I discover it is worryingly blank...

Filming is all about telling a story. That’s the beauty of Wild Things: there are thousands of maps for thousands of plants, each with its own tale to tell. Asking questions like "Why?", "How?", "When?" and "What?" we can discover the stories behind 50 years of change. It might be a clever quirk of biology, a change in our behaviour or something unexpected in the way two species interact. The trick is then to present it in a new and exciting way. That’s why for the story of Danish scurvy-grass - the fastest spreading plant in Britain - we took advantage of a closed section of the M6, commandeered the NEC in Birmingham to show how its seeds are spread by speeding cars, and set up beach-side laboratory in the back of Chris’s Landrover, complete with fluorescence-cameras to demonstrate how it copes with deadly salt.

Since filming began, I’ve been learning whole a new language. The script is littered with terms like “PTC”, a piece to camera, meaning lines spoken while looking directly down the lens of the camera, “VO” indicating line delivered months later as a voice over in a dubbing studio, and “wild track”, which instructs to whole film crew to be dead silent while the soundman records a few minutes of background noise.  It’s all great fun, if a little daunting at first!

So... Back to that ominous gap at the end of the script! We’ve been trying to track down the unique scent of our native bluebell, so we can work out why it’s so memorable and show what we might lose if the scentless Spanish bluebell takes over. Samples have been collected and sent to Bangor University for analysis, but this has proven more complicated than first thought. The results have been delayed. Without them, we can’t finish filming.

To our enormous relief, we arrive at the bluebell location to find Toby from Bangor University. His results are literally hot off the press. Suddenly we’re talking the complex chemistry of bluebell scent. Molecules like zingiberene, citronella, geraniol and eucalyptol are mentioned in rapid succession. Chemicals similar to these are packed into bluebells, giving them not only their unique scent but also one that’s fruity and refreshing. This explains why we find the scent so attractive and memorable. A quick detour to a supermarket allows us to buy fruit with similar scents and we’re off – filming the final scene so the bluebell item can proceed!

Once we’re in the woodland, surrounded by a carpet of bluebells, we replicate the scent collecting experiment and I can get to work. This is the bit of the whole filming experience that I’ve enjoyed most. With everything in place and the camera rolling, I relax and take a deep breath. On the words “…and action….” I look into the camera and let my enthusiasm and passion for plants take over.