Thursday, 24 April 2014

A Walk in the Woods with Spring Wildflowers

Richard Moyse
Ranscombe Farm Reserve Manager

There are some mighty mood-lifters in the natural world. There's always a kick in seeing an interesting plant or animal for the first time, and it doesn't even have to be something spectacular - I got quite excited by early meadow-grass a few weeks back, which is a diddy little plant and a bit anaemic-looking to boot. But the big pick-me-up, raising us all out of the winter gloom, is the arrival of spring. Robert Browning wrote "Oh, to be in England, now that April's there," as a hymn to the English spring, even though he was in Italy at the time. Or, if you're in the mood for a bit less poetry and a bit more outright enthusiasm, Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, gave us "Ma Nature's lyrical with her yearly miracle, Spring, Spring, Spring", accompanied by a troupe of dancing farmhands.

For myself, a walk in woods in April is a heart-filling joy, with the previously dull vegetation suddenly chucking a load of colour at us: white stitchwort, yellow celandines, pink cuckoo-flowers, purple orchids and, of course, bluebells.
Bluebells at our Ranscombe Farm reserve.
Why is it so exciting when the flowers open in spring? Yes, there's the contrast with what's gone before, but it's also the promise of a good, long season of flowers to come. The first flowers of spring are like the opening number at a concert by your favourite band: they are bright and familiar and you know you're in for plenty more good stuff before the show's over.

All our spring plants have different stories to tell. People have had such a long familiarity with woodland wild flowers that a they've all got their nicknames, mythologies and back-stories. Lesser celandine was "butter and cheese" or (less lovely) "pilewort". Greater stitchwort ("dead man's bones" - pictured on the left) was a cure for pains in the side for some, a plant of the devil for others. We know these plants because people have lived in and with woodlands for millennia: woods were where you gathered fuel, pastured pigs, obtained building materials.

Pretty much all the woodlands of England and Wales have been exploited by people for many centuries, and this exploitation shaped the woodland we see today. Particularly important in this respect has been coppicing of trees - cutting them down and allowing them to regrow, before cutting them again, all on a cycle of 15 to 25 years. It is this practice which has encouraged the diverse flora of many woodlands through the alternation of period of bright light and deep shade. At Ranscombe Farm Reserve, we are continuing the long practice of coppicing precisely because it works so well for wild flowers.

So get out in the woods right now. They are looking wonderful, and the curtain has only just gone up on what's going to be a great show.

Find out more about how Ranscombe Farm Reserve is managed as a farm and as a nature reserve on short, guided walks with our tenant farmer and the Reserve Warden, on Saturday 26 April. For more information go to our website.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Running the London Marathon for Our Countryside

Emily Guy (right, with fellow runner Hannah Birch)
Plantlife Marathon Runner 2014

Luke, Plantlife Moderator: One of the fantastic ways people can raise money for Plantlife is by running the London Marathon. This year we were blessed with a team of seven runners Emily Guy, Anna Worthington, Hannah Birch, Mike Farrow,  Richard Challis and Zoe Floate. All passed the finish line and we would like to say a big "Thank You". Running the marathon is a huge challenge and we are honoured they chose Plantlife as their cause. Here's Emily's story:

"The London marathon was a challenge I had always wanted to set myself. It would test my mental strength and determination and was something only I could do for myself.

I am lucky enough to have lived in such beautiful parts of Britain and having rowed through my teenage years we spent a great deal of time out in the countryside enjoying the views, waterways and roads in my training.

After leaving school I started working at a garden centre during university, it was here a friend introduced me to Plantlife and the work they do. About two years ago I noticed they had fundraisers running the London Marathon for them. I was in awe of their determination and the money supporters donated.

Last spring, along with some running friends we entered the public ballot; this was potluck so with no idea if we would get a place we decided to ask Plantlife if they would let us run and fundraise for them. Unbelievably they said yes and the challenge was set.

It wasn't plain sailing through the year- between us we broke a foot, broke an ankle, hurt a hip and shoulder and had an assortment of other running related injuries and missed weeks of training. However, the determination to raise money to protect the countryside, wild flowers and our own personal reasons for choosing Plantlife kept us going across the winter. Each training run took us through the countryside and past the plant life we were helping to protect, a daily reminder that it was worth it.

We worked on a basic fitness level first until December when we chose to follow the marathons beginner 17 week plan. It is essentially three runs per week and some cross training if you had time.

Before we got to London we had some amazing donations, more reason to keep going when it got really tough. We are organising a raffle to add to the proceeds and have made jewellery and some Christmas cards which we sold to friends and family. All of this was extra incentive to make sure we made it to the finish line.

Caught on camera! 
Amazingly we all did, exhausted, emotionally wrecked and completely elated I personally made it in 4:34. It was by far the hardest challenge I've done but the most rewarding. The atmosphere is electric and the crowds are cheering for you, the noise is awesome, the sights keep you plodding on and crossing the finish line is the best feeling ever.

A marathon will never be an easy achievement, but it's one I would recommend to anyone and one that will never be taken away."

Sunday, 20 April 2014

3 Fascinating Floral Facts for Easter

Katie Cameron
Wild About Plants Officer

1. Did you know that the yellow dye extracted from gorse flowers was once used to colour and decorate Easter eggs? Eggstra-ordinary! In Russia, peasants used the nettle to colour eggs yellow on Maundy Thursday. In fact Easter eggs in the Ukraine are decorated with batik designs using nettle dye to this day.

2. Our beautiful native Pasqueflower blooms around Easter: hence the name "Pasque" (meaning "like Paschal", of Easter). Legend has that it grows on the graves of Viking warriors, springing from their blood! It is sadly now declining from its former sites and has been recorded in only 19 sites in England.

3. At one time the English clergy played handball at Easter with male members of their congregation and at the end of the match the winners received tansy cakes (made from a mixture of eggs and the young leaves). Hence the rhyme:

On Easter Sunday be the pudding seen,
To which the tansy lends her sober green.

The leaves were also one of the flavouring ingredients in a rich, custardy Lenten and Easter pudding known as ‘Tansy’ which according to one contemporary writer was ‘a nauseous dish’.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Rhododendron: Blacklisted?

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

Sitting on a hillside above the village of Beddgelert and surrounded by the peaks of Snowdonia, I feel like I should actually be in the wilds of northern China. All around me are billowing mounds of Rhododendron, their fat buds ready to explode and paint the landscape purple. This is proper Rhododendron forest; thick, dense, dark and completely silent. This is how Rhododendron kills – the canopy of evergreen leaves blocks sunlight so that nothing can grow beneath it and chemicals from its fallen leaves inhibit the germination of seeds. Once Rhododendron has taken hold, eradication is costly and time-consuming.

Only it’s not actually Rhododendron ponticum, a rather weak and tender species from southern Europe, we’re talking about, but an invader of our own making.

The view in question. © Dr Trevor Dines

All invasive Rhododendron found in the wild throughout Britain is a hybrid created by Victorian gardeners. By crossing R. ponticum with more robust North American species they created a highly invasive newcomer. Perhaps in allusion to its power to spread, it has now been named R. x superponticum.

But what’s in a name? The European Parliament is currently drawing up plans to blacklist the most invasive non-native species. This new legislation will ban the possession, transport, selling or growing of species deemed to be of "Union Concern". This is a major step forward in co-ordinated efforts to tackle the spread of the worst offenders, but alarm has been raised in some quarters around the lack of clarity over which species will be included. It’s been suggested, for example, that 300 garden Rhododendrons could banned as they can trace their parentage back to Rhododendron ponticum.

It is highly unlikely that R. ponticum will be included. Since R. ponticum is native to Spain and Portugal it can’t be listed as a concern for the whole Union; only the most invasive non-native species across Europe can be included. Instead, it can only be placed on a Regional list for those countries where it’s a problem and this limits what can be done about controlling it under the new legislation.

We are a long way from deciding what goes onto the list. The regulations being voted on now won’t come into force until 1st January 2015 and there will be a further 1.5 years to put the measures in place. Until then, we have time to develop selection criteria and propose which species should be listed. Any species proposed will have to be put through formal Risk Assessment before making it onto the list, a process we’ll all be involved with.

As for the hybrid R. x superponticum, research published by the RHS allows us to clearly identify this taxon from others. This one R. ponticum hybrid is invasive and it’s in our gift to determine how it’s treated under the new legislation. If any other Rhododendron hybrids are invasive, and I’m not aware of any that are, they should be put through Risk Assessment and treated accordingly. As one Spanish colleague put it, raising concerns now is rather like “putting on a plaster before having an injury”.

Just as these species have leapt over the garden wall and escaped, we sometimes need to look over the garden wall ourselves and acknowledge the damage they’re causing in the wild. The last few sites for Starfruit, a beautiful water-plantain, are threatened with New Zealand Pigmyweed and the species might now be extinct in Britain. On Gower in south Wales the only British sites for Yellow Whitlowgrass are threatened by seven different species of Cotoneaster. And on the coast of south west Ireland, farmers are having to abandon fields that are being taken over by Giant-rhubarb.

Back on my Welsh hillside I’m surrounded by Rhododendron on all sides. In the valley below a magnificent Celtic Rainforest - home to countless rare mosses, liverworts and lichens – has been infested. Although the oaks still stand proud the ground beneath them and all the life it supported has been obliterated. Even where I’m standing, high in the hills, an advancing front of young Rhododendron saplings can be seen marching across the heathland. The Junipers won’t last for much longer. In a few years they’ll be skeletons under the Rhododendron forest.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Bewitched by Wildflowers on the Cliffs of South Gower

Tim Wilkins
Plantlife Botanist

On a recent visit to the rugged limestone cliffs the South Gower coast, I went looking for one of Britain’s rarest native wildflowers – Yellow Whitlowgrass. A perennial member of the cabbage family, at first glance it looks more like a saxifrage, with tight rosettes of fine leaves supporting sprays of bright yellow flowers.

Gower is the only place in Britain where Yellow Whitlowgrass is truly wild, somehow finding sanctuary here during the last Ice-age. Once thought to be a flower that was introduced from mainland Europe, genetic analysis has shown the Gower plants to be distinct from their cousins over the Channel and it is now considered genuinely native. A perfect choice then, for the people of Glamorgan when they voted it their County Flower.

After much clambering across screes and around outcrops I finally found my first plants nestled neatly on a rock ledge and just catching the spring sunlight – perfect! Camera in hand, I took a couple of photos:

Other remarkable plants cling to the limestone rocks or hide in crevices but are easily overlooked when passing by: the lichens, mosses and liverworts. Some species such as Blue Blister lichen and Pretty Cord-moss are protected under Welsh law because of their scarcity.

Sadly though, the habitat is far from pristine as non-native plants, principally Cotoneasters, are smothering great swathes of the coastal slope including botanically rich limestone grassland and lichen-clad rocks.

To tackle the problem, Plantlife, the National Trust, RSPB and Natural Resources Wales are joining forces under a new project to be announced later this spring.

As I left the site my heart was lifted once more as two Choughs called and twisted through the sky overhead. The perfect end to a fantastic day.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Taking Action on Invasive Plants

Nicola Hutchinson
Head of Conservation, England and Wales

Just over a year ago I vented my frustration on this blog about the news that a long needed ban on the sale some of the most invasive non-native water plants had been announced and then immediately delayed for 14 months to allow for retailers 'to adjust'.  Fortunately we have finally reached the day when it really is against the law for floating pennywort, water primrose, New Zealand pigmyweed, parrot’s-feather and water fern to be sold in England and Wales.  Good, that's one thing out of the way.  But what else do we need to crack on with to really make a difference with this well documented environmental problem?

Over the past year the political arena for invasive non-native species has actually been quite a busy one, headlined by negotiations on an EU-wide regulation which is inching towards conclusion.  This regulation would set rules to help all Member States prevent and manage invasions, and it makes sense to do so at this scale.  Rarely does the natural environment respect political or administrative boundaries, but perhaps more importantly in this case are the trade rules that operate on an EU scale.  Hopefully one result of the regulation will be the total prevention of new potentially invasive species into the whole of the EU, and what is called 'regional cooperation' to tackle species causing particular problems in any one country.  So, first on the jobs list is one for the European Parliament to ensure it votes this regulation through.

The next step we should take is back on domestic shores, that's doing something with the review of the GB Strategy on Non-Native Invasives which has also taken place this past year.  Admittedly the strategy bit sounds a tad dull but if you cut to the chase then what this piece of national policy can give us is the opportunity to prioritise and work together on our biggest problem areas.  This might mean increasing our look out for new invasives in known trouble spots, or targeting resources to whole landscapes and catchments to truly rid them of established invasives.  There is a lot of activity already going on out there in our towns and countryside to get on top of species invasions, we simply could make a greater impact with some proper national support.  This one sits in Defra's camp for now, yet as ever we are ready to help where we can.

My final choice of where we need to go next with invasives is a challenge outside of government, one aimed at how we view the scale of the problem posed by non-native invasives.  We were recently asked by a journalist to comment on a story which headlined that gardeners who grow rhododendrons were to be criminalised by the new regulations coming through.  What we offered in response was a sense of perspective.  It is indeed true that a particular species of rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum x Rhododendron maximum)  has escaped into the wild and causing major problems in areas such as Snowdonia and the wonderful Atlantic woodlands of Scotland's West Coast.  However, there are plenty of other varieties of rhododendron which grow merrily in parks and gardens without causing any damage; the same can be said for most invasive non-natives, where there is a bad guy there will be plenty of good alternatives.  We are always careful to point this out and what I'm seeking here is to urge everyone not to cause unnecessary concern through oversimplification or exaggeration.  Addressing invasive species is not a blame game, rather it is an action game: there is a problem and we have spent a lot of time working out precisely which species and issues we need to be concerned with. So let's focus our efforts, get on with the tasks at hand, and collectively make the difference we can.