Monday, 23 June 2014

Guest Blog: James Fair hits the road to see wildflowers

James Fair
Environment Editor, BBC Wildlife Magazine

Taking to my bike for a rare morning away from the kids at the weekend, I was happy to realise that it was a really good way to see wildflowers. I was going fast enough to cover plenty of ground, but slow enough to spot things as I went, and I didn't have to worry about blocking a narrow country lane when I stopped to take some shots.

I went with nothing but my not-very-top-of-the-range smartphone, and while some photos didn't come off, most look pretty good.

This picture of common poppies Papaver rhoeas and ox-eye daisies Leucanthemum vulgare was taken on the edge of a field, but it was easily accessible from the road.

I found these pyramidal orchids Anacamptis pyramidalis on the very steep Culver Hill which makes its way up some 500 feet or so from the bottom of the Nailsworth Valley to Minchinhampton Common.

I saw this white campion Silene latifolia at the Rodmarton Long Barrow – a neolithic burial site that's in the middle of vast fields of wheat.

As I said, I was only carrying my smartphone, so some shots didn't quite come off. These meadow cranesbills Geranium pratense – at least I hope they're meadow cranesbills – were swaying in the wind, which may be why I haven't quite got the focus right.

Dog roses Rosa canina were everywhere and looked fantastic.

These flowers have tested my ID skills – they don't look quite right for red campion Silene dioica to me, so I wonder if they could be hybrids. The wildflower guide in the office suggests they could be.

There was only one point when I regretted not having a proper camera with a long lens with me. I saw a roe deer sitting among a huge wheat field, and when it ran off, leaping high over the lush crop, it would have made a fantastic photo.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Saving wildlife with fields of peas and beans

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

It’s not often that I’m rendered utterly speechless by Defra, but last week I struggled to make sense of what I was reading. I genuinely checked that the date wasn’t April 1st. Defra has announced that farmers can now receive public money, originally intended to conserve farm wildlife, for growing crops of peas and beans. The idea is that this will help pollinators.

As I read Roger Harrabins BBC article it got worse. While acknowledging the lack of biodiversity compared to pasture, the National Farmers Union actually provided the following quote: “Anyone with broad beans in their garden will see they are full of pollinators at the moment. Wildflower meadows tend to have quite a limited flowering season but some legumes are flowering from April to June, and others much later in summer. We think including this measure is very positive for the environment."

We think Defra and NFU need to visit a wildflower meadow. This decision clearly demonstrates the lack of understanding that Defra and NFU have of farmland wildlife, a disconnect with the reality of nature and ecology. Just to put the record straight:

  • Many wildflower meadows begin their provision of nectar and pollen in February and March with flowers such as primroses, violets and celandines . The supply peaks in June and July and continues into September and beyond with late-flowering knapweed (Centaurea nigra), betony (Stachys officinalis) and devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis). I’d call it a good and varied diet over a very long season indeed. 
  • Research indicates that not many pollinators will actually benefit from peas and beans. In her excellent blog on nectar provision by legumes, Lynn Dicks shows that while bumblebees might benefit from beans for a short period, solitary bees are unable to feed from the chunky flowers. For peas, there is less evidence, but some studies show that solitary bees don’t find related clover and alfalfa crops particularly attractive either.
  • A meadow sustains a wide range of important pollinators, such as butterflies and moths, beetles, wasps, hoverflies and other flies. Despite the focus of attention at the moment, it’s not just all about the bees. This is a simple ecological lesson; maybe Defra and NFU should study Buglife’s Pollinator Identification Chart.
  • It’s also about plants providing food for invertebrates. A field of peas or beans will support just over 40 invertebrate species. A meadow with just nine of the most common meadow flowers, like bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), red clover (Trifolium pratense), knapweed and Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus), can support over ten times this number (422 in total). And remember, all these inverts are what farmland birds feed on; it’s about sustaining the complete food chain from the roots up. 
  • With no restrictions on the use of pesticides and fertilizers on these crops, these chemicals can be freely applied with consequent effects on wildlife.  So even those 40 invertebrate species are likely to be wiped out, while the fertilizer will scupper any chance for cornfield flowers, like nectar and pollen rich poppies and dead nettles, to grow amongst the crop, further reducing benefits to wildlife. 

The Government's own biodiversity strategy is about the multiple benefits that intact, semi-natural habitats can bring in providing a range of 'ecosystem services'. But Defra are failing to appreciate these benefits. Instead, they seem to be focusing solely on pollinating bumblebees and providing them with a quick, cheap, sugar rush. A bee will feed on a bean flower in the same way that you and I might occasionally eat a MacDonalds, but that’s not a healthy, long-term solution to declining farmland wildlife. And, of course, it does nothing at all for Britain’s declining wild flowers.

The decision also turns back the clock to the headage payments and crop subsidies of yesteryear, something that the government is meant to be moving away from. Since peas and beans are a crop, taxpayers money will directly supplement farm income, rather than supporting wildlife in the public good.

In order to get maximum value from public money, Defra must place the focus of CAP reform back on to semi-natural habitats with their constituent species and the diversity of these habitats in the farmed landscape. This aim should be underpinned with good, evidence-based habitat management. Habitat restoration can’t be rushed, there are no quick fixes, and it should be done with the wild in mind; naturally regenerating set-aside fields can have three times as many nesting bee species as clover fields and arable field margins come from soil seed banks, not from seed packets.  

How any right thinking person can accept that an intensively farmed crop is as good for wildlife as a meadow bursting with wild flowers and alive with all of its attendant birds, butterflies and bees is a bit scary.  There are many alternative and ecologically rigorous measures that could be put in place, perhaps as part of a National Certification Scheme, including ecological set-aside, creation of "buffer zones" for high nature value areas, management of uncultivated strips and field margins and conversion of arable land into extensive low-input grassland. All of these will allow our wild plants to do their thing, bringing colour back to the countryside and ultimately providing food and shelter for all our other farmland wildlife.

We ask that Defra reconsider this decision.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

What happened when I said "No to the Mow"...

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

It was not a good start. I marked out a patch of lawn in early March, selecting an area that wasn’t particularly special but did at least have a few cowslips. I could see their rounded leaves poking through the turf and thought it’d be nice to spare them the mower and allow them to flower.

But a few weeks later they had gone – completely vanished – and the grass didn’t seem to have grown much either. I couldn’t work it out. Then, returning from work one day I found the culprits; three sheep had found their way through the fence and were having a very merry time munching away on the lawn. I’m amazed they were so selective, but they’d found each cowslip plant and eaten them right down to the roots.

My new campaign, “say no to the sheep”, started with a patch they’d thankfully not reached. The mower came out of hibernation in a grumbling, spluttering mood and over the next few weeks the patch began to take on its shape and texture as the grass grew. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my lawn won’t win any prizes in the next series of “The Great British Lawn Off” or “Come Mow With Me”; it’s not seen any herbicides or fertilizers in the 18 years I’ve looked after it so it’s pretty full of things other than grass. But this doesn’t mean they get to flower. Most of the lawn is kept pretty tightly mown so it’s rare that anything taller than a daisy gets to raise its head above the blades.

It has therefore, frankly, been a joy therefore to see what has come up. While not a mad riot of wild flowers, the procession of species has been fascinating to watch over the last few weeks, starting with cuckoo flower, dandelions and thyme-leaved speedwell, moving on to creeping buttercup and a few glorious oxeye daisies at the moment, and with self heal and clovers to come. It’s been a delight to actually pause and look in detail at a small patch of grass, noticing that this is where the pheasants now like to linger and where banded snails are most frequent.

The grasses are also playing their part of course, with tiny spreading meadow-grass now dwarfed by Yorkshire fog with its soft, downy leaves and purple haze. Common sorrel is also there, looking rusted-red and hinting at the poor nature of the soil. In total, I’ve found eighteen species in a 2m x 2m square, not a spectacular haul but far better than your average rye-grass and bent-grass dominated lawn. It’s not a diversity of species that I’m looking for (although this will come in time) but giving an opportunity for plants to flower, provide nectar and pollen, set seed, be eaten by caterpillars and froghoppers and maybe even give a home to a grasshopper or two.

In a way, my patch of unmown lawn is like a little window on a real wildflower meadow or roadside verge. Around it, my lawn is green but bereft of any colour, just like many of the improved fields around our relict wildflower meadows and beside our verges. Many of the plants are still there: if we just give them a chance to grow and flower they grasp the opportunity and work wonders for our wildlife.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Jewels of the Limestone Landscape: Summer wildflowers are blooming at our Deep Dale reserve.

Joe Costley
Reserves Manager

Our Deep Dale nature reserve in the Derbyshire Dales has a long flowering season, glorious at any time.  Yet when I visited earlier this week, its flora seemed to be at the absolute zenith of its riches.  

Deep Dale
I was there to review grazing management with our tenant farmer, cattle having been turned out earlier than usual this year. This is in line with the way that the dales were farmed historically and we believe that it makes sense to follow that tradition in some years.  Having the same fixed dates every year cannot benefit everything and does not reflect seasonal variations in the way that would have happened historically.  It is early days, but we are pleased with the way things are going so far.

The visit was also an excuse to see lots of wonderful plants, and there were "wow" moments at almost every turn.  The spectacular show of early purple orchid flowers has finished, but these are replaced by a host of others including colombine (blue and white versions), lily-of-the-valley, bird's nest orchid, mountain pansy and common spotted orchid.  Here's few I captured on camera:


Bird's Nest Orchid


There were flower buds emerging on the small colony of dark red helleborines and some big plants of moonwort on old mounds of lead spoil.  I was also delighted to find a rosette of saw-wort, which is rare in Derbyshire and has never previously been recorded on the reserve.  This is typical of Deep Dale; never predictable, but always rewarding.