Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Coronation Meadows: One year on

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

Over a year has passed since our patron, HRH The Prince of Wales hosted the launch of his ambitious Coronation Meadows project. Much has happened since then and in many ways the real work has now begun. The Prince’s vision to identify a flagship Coronation Meadow in each county and then use green hay from these to literally seed new meadows is gradually taking shape.

Muker Meadows, a Coronation Meadow in North Yorkshire. Image by Don Gamble.

Here are some highlights from the last 12 months:

  • Coronation Meadows have now been identified in all but one of the 72 counties of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (just two counties remain).
  • In Scotland, where there are fewer suitable sites, Coronation Meadows have been identified in 22 of the 34 counties.
  • Restoration work in 2013 saw 12 new meadows created in 12 counties, and many of these are showing spectacular results this year with superb germination following the mild winter and the warm, wet spring.
  • Thanks to a generous grant from the Biffa Fund, £990k of funding has been secured towards the creation and restoration of meadows across England and Wales over the next 3 years.
  • As a result of this funding, work is underway this summer to create and restore 30 meadows in 24 counties.

Harvesting green hay to seed a new meadow.
The creation and restoration of meadows is not an easy task. It requires lots of planning, site preparation, hard work and skill. The funding from Biffa will now pave the way for much of this activity. But it’s matched with an equal amount of enthusiasm from meadow owners and farmers who are beginning to appreciate the true value of flower-rich meadows. With their dedication and help, the vision of a new meadow in every county can be achieved, securing a legacy for the next 60 years.

It also goes without saying that Plantlife could not be leading this project without the support we receive from our members. Why not help us do more by becoming a member?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

114 million orchids in the slipstreams of our cars

Andy Byfield
Landscape Conservation Manager

I guess I could be voted Britain’s worst driver during the summer months, for when at the wheel my eyes are invariably affixed to our glorious flower-covered road verges, and all-too-rarely on the road ahead.  A recent distraction has been the fabulous displays of pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) across our warmer, more lime-rich parts of the countryside.  Last week I spotted them on every verge and roundabout on the outskirts of Gloucester, but a particular favourite are the pyramidals that adorn the Ilminster bypass, the gateway to the south-west, for those hauling westwards along the A303.

The Ilminster bypass was opened in 1988, and today drivers pass dense displays of the orchids on warm, south facing road cuttings along the few miles of this route, roughly 25 years after the habitat was created.  I ‘guestimated’ roughly 1100 flowering plants along the short few miles earlier this year, but suspect that there are many, many more (the Ilminster bypass is a notorious accident blackspot, so I cast only half an eye on the verges).  The great thing is that they are being managed properly – being allowed to flower and seed, before the grass cutters ‘go in’ to clean up.

Of course, the orchids and other flowers make my car journeys immeasurably more pleasurable, but in a landscape ever more devoid of colourful grassland, these verge refuges become ever more important for myriad flowers, insects, mammals, birds and much more.  Now, here is a heartening thought about Britain’s changing attitude to road verge management: on average, a typical pyramidal orchid produces 65 flowers, of which 80% set viable seed (information so far from the orchid books).  If we make the conservative assumption that each developing seed pod produces 2000 seeds (plump bee orchid pods can contain as many as 26,000!), then the Ilminster colony will produce a staggering 114 million seeds this year, to be carried in your and my slipstreams as we head away on holiday.

I am thrilled to say that the Highways Agency division that manages the Ilminster bypass verges do so very much with wildlife in mind: they do the essential verge cuts, but they do them late in the year (often even in winter).  But how very sad that so many of our verges are cut down in the prime, when plants are in full flower, destroying literally in a single swipe so much potential for bringing colour back to the countryside.

If you like the idea of 114 million orchids on our verges, why not add your voice add your voice to our campaign for better management?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The best of our beautiful wildflower-rich road verges

Luke Morton
Plantlife Moderator

We've had a fantastic response to our Road Verge Campaign this year. Four Councils have signed up for Alan's Challenge and many, many more are talking to us, trying to find a way to improve how their roadsides are managed for wildlife. A huge part of this is down to you. We've been overwhelmed by your support. Whether its engaging your council, raising awareness, taking photos or signing the petition every action has helped. So thank you - both from us and our roadside wildlife.

Of course, we cannot be complacent. There's still a long way to go. If you haven't already, please sign our petition and if you have a friend who loves wildlife please encourage them to do so too.

With so many beautiful wildflowers being mown down in their prime, its easy to forget how wonderful our road verges can look. Thank goodness then, for all you photographers out there who've snapped some fabulous displays. We've been compiling them on a special Storify page and it never fails to brighten our day. Have a scroll through yourself and if you've any you'd like to submit please tweet them to @Love_plants.

In a couple of weeks the growing season will be over and it'll be time to "Say YES to the Mow". Dr Trevor Dines will be here with a blog explaining how and why, but in the meantime enjoy them while they last...

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Wildflowers of Inchnadamph

Davie Black
Conservation Co-ordinator, Plantlife Scotland

We in the Plantlife Scotland team like to give members something of a interesting challenge occasionally: this year was an exploration to discover the special collection of wildflowers that grow on the limestone rocks on the eastern fringe of Assynt, in the far north-west of Scotland.

15 suitably kitted-out explorers joined myself and Andy and Roz Summers from The Highland Council ranger Service to trek up the path toward The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph.
A lovely speckling of yellow, purple and blue in amongst the green grass and brown heather greeted us on a misty and slightly midgy morning as we slowly worked our way along the trail. As ever with botanical excursion we didn’t progress very fast as cries of “what’s this one?” diverted us into the sward to check some small but beautifully coloured wild plant.

Milkwort (Polygara vulgaris) (right) was an interesting one for me as in Scotland I am used to finding the small, indigo flowers of Heath Milkwort lurking in the heather.  Here however, due to the richness of the minerals in the limestone rocks it turned out to be Common Milkwort for a change, and had us rooting around the base of the stem to see if the leaves were opposite or alternate – one of the more obvious diagnostic features.

Viviparous Fescue (Fetusca vivipara) caused some exclamations on the curiousness of nature – a grass that doesn’t produce flowers and set seed, but the flowerhead composed of small, living plantlets, that drop off and, hopefully, take root.

A detour to a small waterfall brought lunch and a lovely sprinkling of Yellow Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) (left, © Laurie Campbell) over the rocks nearby.  Here it was that we came across the Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) (left) a plant with a flower of 8 white petals and a cluster of bonny yellow stamens in the centre.  This transforms itself in seed to produce the most amazing long silky hairs, that take a twist to themselves, looking mostly like a delicate shaving brush, twirling itself up out of the flower stalk, while nestling in its bed of crinkly dark green leaves.

The specialty of the place was saved until after lunch and a criss-crossing of the boulder-strewn bed of a burn.  What caught our eye first was the bright curving blades of Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis), clear, glossy green, with slightly pointed tips to the leaflets.  Since it grows on calcareous rocks it is something of a rarity to see in Scotland.

But that wasn’t what we were looking for. We were after the Scottish Asphodel (Tofieldia pusilla) (right, © Hedwig Storch under Creative Commons BY-SA licence). This wildflower is tiny, so its hard to find but don't let its size put you off. A hidden treasure, it usually grows up on mountain slopes and is rarely found on the coast. But because of its unique environment, Inchnadamph is one of the few locations this miniature beauty grows.

One sharp-eyed plant hunter said quietly to me “what’s that beside the Holly Fern?” and yes, we had been focused on the bright green fern and hadn’t noticed the small delicate spike of white flowers that was the Scottish Asphodel, nestling in a crack in the rock where some soil had accumulated.

Back to the lochside, the botanising at an end, and we each of us learned something that we had never known before about the wild plants that we share the land with. We didn’t walk too far, but we scrambled off the track, up over rocky knowes, and hopped cautiously over burns. We peered closely at the form and structure of the wild plants we found; from the tiny perforations in the leaf of St John’s Wort, to the shape of the lips of the Twayblade flowerhead.  Pleasantly tired we knew we had had a good day out and certainly left me wanting to roam the hills again.

Its special places like these that the Plantlife Scotland team works to protect. By providing landowners with help and advice, they can manage their land in such a way that helps our threatened wild flora and fungi. And where there are wild plants, you get other wildlife: butterflies, bees, birds and other creatures all creating a healthy habitat. Just recently we produced a free management guide for coastal grasslands like those those found at Assynt. You can find out what we're up to on our webpage or even better why not join us?

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.