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.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Setting Up a No-Mow Zone.

Luke Morton
Plantlife Moderator

"Never ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself" said Eleanor Roosevelt and with that advice in mind, I have decided to take Plantlife's Say No to the Mow challenge by making a No-Mow Zone in my own back garden.

For those who have not heard of it, Say No to the Mow is a bit like a botanical Movember: both involve allowing a hirsute patch to flourish where normally you'd keep it cropped short. But instead of the hair on your upper lip, Plantlife is asking you to spare a small "No-Mow Zone" of lawn from your mower's blades this summer. Then as it begins to flourish, you can download a free ID sheet featuring fourteen key wild flowers and enter which ones you spot online. The results will form a blooming great map of the UK, showing what’s in flower and when.

But first things first: Where should I put my No-Mow Zone? Plantlife botanist (and passionate gardener) Dr Trevor Dines suggested choosing a spot away from the beds.

The grass here has not been mowed since last autumn. As a rule of thumb, the longer its been since you last mowed your patch the more likely you'll get wildflowers. March is a key cut-off month as plants are beginning to sprout for the spring, so any mowing that occurs later could stop some in their tracks.

Now I need to mark it out. Here's what I'll need:

There's no limit to the size or shape of your No-Mow Zone. You could make it the entire lawn or spell out your name. We say the ideal size for a No-Mow Zone is 2m squared, but as I've only a small garden I'm opting for 1m x 1m. Using the tape measure I place a peg at each corner:

With the pegs in place I then apply some string to keep that hungry mower at bay...

A finishing touch: my No-Mow Zone security guard. Would you mess with a gnome like this?

And there it is! Ready to flourish.

Next stop downloading my free ID sheet and adding what pops up to the online map which of the wildflowers pop up.

Joining me and my gnome in Saying No to Mow? We'd love to hear how you're getting on. Share your stories, sightings and photos with us on Twitter adding #saynomow.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Making a Haven for Butterflies and Bees

Ali Murfitt
Events Officer

When you think of wildflowers, what do you see? All too often people think of the countryside - meadows, bluebell woods or country lanes - but there's plenty of places in our towns and cities that can (or could) play host to them too. And where you get wildflowers, you get pollinators too: butterflies, bees and hoverflies. So when the Co-operative asked Plantlife to help it provide a "wildlife makeover" of seven unloved patches of urban land as part of their Plan Bee campaign, it wasn't hard to say "yes please!"

Hundreds of people nominated a patch of unloved, overgrown land in their local area to be turned into a "pollinator patch". The seven winners were then chosen by Co-operative members from across the UK. One of these was at Galston in East Ayshire and in October 2013 headed off to get started. Our mission: to help create a wildflower haven for bees, butterflies and the local community.

© Andrew Macdonald
The land in question surrounds Barrmill Hall, a communal building used by the people of Galston to provide daily activities for children, their parents and carers. When we arrived we were greeted by the very enthusiastic ladies of Galston Babies and Toddlers group and work soon got underway.

The main task was preparing the ground for wildflower seed sowing. In nature, plants generally shed their seeds on earth that hasn't been prepared, but a bit of a rake over increases their chances of germinating successfully by getting them into the ground as opposed to on top of dry or rocky soil. Everyone got stuck in, there were rakes a plenty and lots of muddy boots by the end.

Meanwhile there was apple planting to get on with...

© Andrew Macdonald

We dug fairly deep holes and put in plenty of compost to give them a good start. One was a crab apple, who’s sweet scented flowers bloom in late spring and are loved by bees. Its apples though sour to us are eaten by a variety of mammals and also by birds like the blackbird and thrush. We also planted a Galloway Pippin, a local variety which bears large yellow apples.

© Andrew Macdonald
We weren't just planting apples either. Creating a wildlife haven was thirsty work and the apple juice pressed as we worked by John (and helpers) from Scottish Orchards definitely helped.

It was also great to have Paul from the charity Buglife who came along to give a hand building bee boxes (see photo on the right). These should provide homes for a variety of solitary bees.

The last order of the day was to sow the wildflower seed. All the seed we sowed came from Scotia Seed and is native to Scotland. Some wildflowers are more likely to germinate if you sow them in the autumn as they need a period of cold before they will sprout.

© Andrew Macdonald
With the winter now over, we can’t wait to go back and discover the fresh new shoots of wild flowers. I'm really looking forward to seeing plants such as the delicate yellow flowers of ladies bedstraw, the pink-coloured red campion and - later in the year - the blues of field scabious brightening up that patch of ground and providing food and shelter for pollinators.

We hope that the  our work at Barrmill Hall will not only have a positive impact on the local environment, it will help the local community, providing children with opportunities to explore wildlife and discover the natural world.

Our next work day is on the 16th May, where we will be sowing more seed, planting plug plants, creating a herb bed, and installing more homes for pollinators. Perhaps you'd like to help us? Or aid another pollinator patch in the UK? Plan Bee has buzzing schedule of work days and activities this spring. Find out more on their events page.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Making Wildflowers Count this Spring

Sue Southway
Volunteer and Survey Coordinator

The first day of spring is officially upon us. March 20th is the vernal equinox when the hours of darkness are the same as those of daylight. Time for us all to look forward to longer evenings, warmer temperatures. Spring is definitely in the air.

Where I live in the south west corner of Hampshire there are already early signs: lesser celandines are brightening up the roadsides, blackthorn is blossoming in the hedgerows and pussy willow - with the amount of pollen it produces - is making me sneeze!  The bumble bees are busy seeking any nectar they can find and Brimstone and Peacock butterflies are in flight.

Personally I am looking forward to going for walks, and to paying a visit to my Wildflowers Count survey square in the New Forest.

It is no coincidence that Plantlife chooses the spring equinox to launch their annual wild flower survey - the only of its kind in the UK. What better way to get to know an area, its habitats and the plants that grow in them? And now its about to become bigger and better.

One of our surveyors in Scotland
We’ve joined up with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and The Botanical Society of the Britain and Ireland (BSBI) in a joint effort to provide more robust data that will feed directly into Government monitoring. Our familiar list of 99 species is about to be expanded to 400 (with suitably extended ID leaflet to boot).

2014 is a transition year ahead of the fully-fledged roll out next year. Anyone wanting to more information or to register to take part in the Wildflowers Count can find out more here. We’ll keep you up to date with changes as they happen.