Blog

Thoughts, news and updates from members of the Plantlife team.

What effect will Brexit have on the natural environment?

The Environment Audit Committee have published their report on the potential effect of leaving the EU on the natural environment. Here's our thoughts...

January 04 2017 - 15:27

Today, the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) published their report on the potential effect of leaving the EU on the natural environment. It is not a comfortable read, warning of a dystopian future of “zombie legislation”, a “triple jeopardy” in trade relations and unclear subsidy objectives all putting at risk the hard-won improvements to our natural environment.

Plantlife fully supports the call for a new Environment Protection Act to ensure our wildlife is effectively protected. Before Article 50 is triggered at the end of March, Ministers need to make a clear commitment to new legislation that will build on the environmental protection our EU membership has established and to avoid sleep-walking into an uncertain future that is bad for our wildlife, our farmers and the public. The government’s long awaited 25 year plan must go beyond warm words if the Conservatives are to realise their manifesto commitment ‘to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it’.

Intensive farming is the key issue impacting our wildlife, as the recent State of Nature report clearly demonstrated. In Plantlife’s recommendations to the EAC inquiry in September 2016, we called for a radical rethink of rural land management in Britain; leaving the EU presents us with an opportunity to do things very differently. But such reform takes time and, in the vacuum of uncertainty, much environmental damage can be done; in previous rounds of CAP reform some flower-rich grasslands and meadows were ploughed up to avoid a loss of flexibility in future farming practises. 

In 2013, we published a series of “And on that farm he had...” reports looking at agriculture and wildlife in England, Scotland and Wales. It’s heartening that many of the core recommendations in these reports are included in the new EAC report, such as the need for detailed management options to be available as targeted landscape-scale packages that can deliver demonstrable outcomes for priority species and habitats.

The future environmental landscape must support an integrated and sustainable rural economy. As Dr Trevor Dines set out in his speech at the launch of the State of Nature report, we must work closely with farmers to support them in rebuilding nature for the clear benefits this provides to us all. To do this will mean a shift away from the current perverse flat subsidies for land owners to one where willing farmers are supported with well targeted advice to deliver the benefits the public wants. There are plenty of examples of where this occurs – such as our work to locate Important Arable Plant Areas in England and Wales and direct good agri-environment scheme management to these sites. No doubt we’ll hear others at the #RealFarmingConference later this week.

But in order to achieve this, the Secretary of State for the Environment, needs to set out her plan of a properly resourced approach to improving our natural environment.  

Andrea Leadsom has until the end of March. 

Make your own calennig apple

December 21 2016 - 16:16

Across Wales on New Year’s Day, groups of children would go from door to door in their local neighbourhood to collect ‘calennig’, a New Year gift. They would offer good wishes in the form of an apple, skewered with holly and other evergreen branches and decorated with nuts or cloves. After singing a verse or two, the children would wait expectantly for a gift of a few coins or some tasty treats. Why not revive this ancient custom by making a calennig apple for your home?

Get ready

  • Choose an apple to decorate – a local variety if you can
  • Find a few branches of an evergreen plant such as holly or box
  • Select your decorations - these could be cloves, nuts or anything else you fancy!

Put it all together 

  • Remove the leaves from one of the evergreen branches and cut it into three equal pieces. Insert these into the base of the apple like a tripod.
  • Insert two or three of the evergreen branches into the top of the apple
  • Stick your decorations around the apple and admire your creation!

Why not get into the true spirit of calennig and learn a traditional New Year’s Day song?

Did this tradition once take place in your part of Wales? Do you know anyone that still exchange calennig gifts?

Saving Culm Grassland in Cornwall

Our once-in- a-lifetime opportunity in an ancient north Cornwall landscape

November 29 2016 - 12:45

The grandly-named "Atlantic Highway" follows Cornwall's north coast between Newquay and Bude.  It serves a string of coves, beaches and popular destinations along its full length, including Padstow, Port Issac, Polzeath and the castle of Arthurian legend at Tintagel.  Inland, the landscape is sparsely-populated and, north of Bodmin Moor, overlooked by most tourists.  Plantlife's Greena Moor reserve, which lies in this area between Launceston and Bude, certainly feels like a venture off the beaten track.  The route is through quiet pastures, wooded valleys and narrow, sunken lanes that snake and dip like roller coasters beneath wind-clipped hedges.

Buried deep in this away-from-it-all landscape, Plantlife’s Greena Moor reserve represents the remains of an ancient and once extensive moor.  Its 91 acres have a delightfully scruffy quality; water-logged fields of rushes and tussocks of Purple Moor-grass are alive with insects and the heady aromas of Meadowsweet and Water Mint. This rather primeval habitat is known as Culm grassland, found in areas with heavy clay soils overlying carboniferous rocks that are known as “Culm Measures”.

These are so-called because they sometimes contain deposits of a soft, sooty coal that is known locally as “Culm”.  The habitat has always has a restricted distribution, being confined to North Devon and North Cornwall, with similar grassland types found only in south Wales, southwest Scotland, northwest France and a few other places.  Yet it is also increasingly-rare; a staggering 92% of Culm grassland has been lost in the past 100 years, with 48% disappearing between 1984 and 1991 alone.

The Plantlife reserve represents the second largest and one of the most species-rich areas of Culm remaining in Cornwall.  No fewer than six of the wild plants recorded here are listed as threatened on the England Red List.  These are Three-lobed Crowfoot, Petty Whin, Pale Dog Violet, Wood Bitter-vetch, Hay-scented Buckler Fern and Lesser Butterfly Orchid.  The latter, a plant of sparkling beauty with spikes of white, night-scented flowers, is currently the subject of conservation action at a national level; the species having been lost from about 75% of its former range in England.  

Glittering amongst the rushes are a host of other colourful flowers; the pinks of Meadow Thistle, Bog Pimpernel and Ragged-robin, yellows of Wavy St-John’s-wort, Marsh Ragwort and Bog Asphodel, an abundance of white Whorled Caraway and the blue Devil’s-bit Scabious that is particularly intense in evening light.  The latter is the food plant for caterpillars of the rare Marsh Fritillary butterfly, which occurs here in good numbers.

The reserve is a partnership venture; Plantlife’s land being leased to Cornwall Wildlife Trust who manage it on our behalf with the support of a tenant whose family has a long history of farming in this unique landscape.  
The land is fragmented into two parts that are divided by a large area of pasture in separate ownership. These two areas are, by necessity, managed in isolation and scarce species such as Three-lobed Crowfoot are essentially penned-in to their existing ghettos.  However, the presence of Bronze Age barrows is a clue that the flora of this area was once, by contrast, part of an unenclosed and more expansive landscape.  Our conservation aims must therefore not only look inwards to the reserve itself, but also outwards - at ways in which we can piece together more expansive and better-connected habitat.

The exciting news is that we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just this; connecting the two isolated areas of Culm through the acquisition and management of a 40-acre area that spans the gap between them.  This area is ripe for restoration as it retains a water-logged character and a good range of desirable plants including Lesser Spearwort, Gipsywort, Fen Bedstraw and Marsh Violet.  Acquisition of these fields would give us a fabulous opportunity to restore species-rich grassland habitat, creating the largest and best Culm grassland site in Cornwall.  It would also allow us to establish new populations of rare plants found on the existing reserve, to expand habitat for the marsh fritillary butterfly and make improvements for our visitors to the site.

All of this can only be achieved if we are able to secure the necessary funds.  Buying and restoring this land will cost more than £300,000 over the next few years. That’s in addition to a similar sum we have to spend every year keeping all of our existing reserves in the best condition. A legacy we have received will give us a generous £150,000 start towards this total. But we cannot reach the target without help.  

If you would like to help make this happen, then now is a good time to do so.  To make your generosity even more valuable, we are taking part in The Big Give’s Christmas Challenge, the UK’s biggest online match-funding campaign. If you give online between 29 November and 2 December, whatever you donate will be doubled. You can do this online via The Big Give

However, you can also give at any time online via the Big Give or by calling 01722 342756. Every penny will make a big difference for our rarest plants and habitats. If we raise more than we need for Greena Moor, we can put it to good use protecting wild flowers on our other reserves.

Plantlife buys land very rarely. This site has such huge potential for restoration that we really want to grasp the opportunity. This is a vital step in creating a plant-rich habitat, a lasting legacy, not only for Cornwall but for the UK as a whole.

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 11

November 18 2016 - 09:49

It’s now 14 months since we prepared the ground and spread the seed from Moss Hill on our new meadow. We’ve come full circle at last, experiencing the first complete turn of the haymaking calendar. Once again, it was time to make hay.

So on the last day of August, we cut the meadow. Thankfully, a few days of dry weather allowed us to turn the neat rows of grass three times (to knock out as much seed as possible) and then produce 21 round bales of sweetly fragrant hay.

Bringing in a harvest is always enormously satisfying, but two things struck me. Firstly, 21 bales is quite a lot of grass for a 3 acre wildflower meadow. Thinking back, the conditions in 2016 – a cold, wet spring followed by a warm, damp summer - really encouraged the grass, especially Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus). This amount of grass isn’t ideal. Over the next few years, the Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) will help reduce the vigour of the grass, but it was also clear that we needed to graze the meadow much harder.

Secondly, I was shocked at just how harsh a mechanical hay cut like this can be. One moment you have a field of grass that’s been growing gently for 5 months, then an hour later it’s cut to within a few inches of its life. The plants will, of course, come back, but the impact on invertebrates can be drastic. Many need standing grass over winter – for both shelter and food - and although some standing grass remains around the edges of the meadow, I do wonder if there’s another way. Some meadow owners are now cutting their hay over a period of weeks, or even leaving some areas uncut, rotating such areas around the meadow each year. Something to think about for the future.

But for now, we had 21 bales of hay. In a nice old-fashioned bartering sort of way, we used 11 of these to ‘pay’ the chap that did the hay-cut for us. Then 8 bales went to Geraint and Eleri to feed their Highland cattle and to thank them for all their help though the year (as novice cattle owners we’ve needed quite a bit of help!) And we’ve kept the final 2 bales to feed our own Highlands over the winter.    

In the blink of an eye, the grass grew back, the field turned bright green and it was time to get some grazing animals onto the meadow. This is an absolutely essential part of the hay meadow cycle. Not only does it enable the farmer to feed livestock on fresh pasture during the autumn and winter, it keeps the grass under control and allows other plants to germinate and grow. I’ve been looking at the meadow very closely all year, and have been astonished at just how much germination there is from late summer and throughout autumn. If we didn’t cut the hay and then introduce ‘aftermath grazing’ as it’s called, these seedlings would quickly be swamped by a blanket of grass. 

So, wanting to get extra grazing in this year, we took up an offer from Geraint and Eleri to take on another of their Highland cows and also their lovely little flock of 15 Ryeland sheep. So meet Sorcha the 10 year old Highland (who’s currently pregnant) along with our own two cows.

And here are the Ryeland sheep. These are one of the oldest British native breeds that originated in Leominster, Herefordshire, seven centuries ago when monks would graze them on rye pastures, hence their name.

To give you an idea of the effect these extra animals are having, the two photos below were both taken on the same day - 25th October – one year apart. The top image was taken in 2015, when we just had our two Highland cows (Cadi and Breagha) grazing the meadow. The bottom image is from this year with the three cows and 15 sheep.

At this time of year, you should be aiming to graze meadows as hard as you can (without, of course, causing any loss of condition in your animals). You really want to start to see bare ground through the sward, as this means there’s light to stimulate germination and room for seedlings to grow. Across our own meadow this year, the results have been incredible. Millions upon millions of seedlings are germinating, such as these Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa).

We had hoped to spread some more brush harvested seed from Moss Hill again this year. Unfortunately, even the best laid plans sometimes go awry, and we found ourselves unable to collect any seed (despite clear instructions, the grazier decided to put his animals into the meadow a few weeks early!). So instead, I’ve set up a little plug-plant nursery at home. This is an excellent way to introduce ‘target’ species into newly created and restored meadows, as not everything will come in with the green hay or brush-harvested seed.

Thankfully, over the summer, I’ve been collecting little bits of seed from plants growing in local hedgerows and meadows (including Moss Hill), things like Betony (Betonica officinalis), Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis), Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) and Mouse-ear-hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum). I’ve now sown these in small-celled trays using soil collected from the meadow. I don’t want to introduce any foreign soil – such as commercial seed compost - into the meadow so I’ve been making use of the molehills to collect soil. I’ve now got myself a mini-plug plant nursery and can’t wait to get planting them out next year.

A final flourish of colour in the meadow. As soon as it turns wet and cold, the waxcap fungi appear in a multitude of shapes and colours. The classic red and yellow species are lovely, but I’m particularly fond of the tiny Snowy Waxcap (Hygrocybe virginea). Wherever it appears it looks like someone has scattered little porcelain buttons in the grass.

 

The Coronation Meadows project is generously supported by Biffa Award and Natural Resources Wales. Seed for our meadow has come from the National Trust meadow at Moss Hill, Penmachno.

The complete meadow restoration story can be followed from the previous blog entry here.

Hunting for the Gruffalo

Searching for an orchid with Julia Donaldson, wild flower lover and celebrated author of 'The Gruffalo'

November 08 2016 - 16:24

As a self-confessed orchid-fanatic, I’ve seen a good many of our British orchid species over the years. But I’m no twitcher - I don’t race around the country adding plants and flowers I've not yet seen to my ‘life-list’ just for the sake of it. I’m much more interested in just wandering around interesting places and sites to see what I can find. For me, the real joy comes from the unexpected finds, the surprise discovery of something wonderful, regardless of its rarity.

But occasionally, you have to break your own rules, especially when you get a chance hunt for a new orchid... with one of our most famous authors.  

And so I found myself on Castle Hill national nature reserve just outside Brighton with Julia Donaldson, author of best-selling children’s books The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man. We were filming an edition of Treasures of the British Library for Sky Arts, in which cultural icons select books from the archives with special meaning for them. A very keen lover of wild flowers, Julia had selected Gerarde’s Herbal (1597) as one of her treasures, and we were hunting for an orchid pictured in the Herbal that neither of us had seen before.

As the name suggests, early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) flowers very early - it was only late April - and its small green and brownish-purple flowers were difficult to spot in the still winter-browned grass.

We combed the hillside where we’d been told they were growing, but without luck. Then, I decided to use an old plant-hunters trick. I changed our perspective. Throwing ourselves down into the grass (Julia was very game and we both fought off an urge to roll downhill like a pair of children) we pressed our faces against the turf and scanned the horizon. There – a few meters away – we could at last see a small flower spike pushing proudly above the ground.

We might not have found a Gruffalo, but the orchids were beguiling and beautiful, and it was wonderful to share this moment of utter joy with Julia (and add one more to my list!)

Treasures of the British Library with Julia Donaldson will be shown on Sky Arts tonight (Tuesday 8th November) at 9.00pm 

Nature: moving forward, post-Brexit

As the enormity of that decision sinks in, we are starting to work with partners to ensure our environmental legislation is strengthened in the years ahead.

November 04 2016 - 13:20

Above: Poppies at Plantlife's Ranscombe Farm Reserve in Kent.

Trevor’s speech at the State of Nature launch kicked off some good conversations on the future of farming - particularly his heartfelt description of  the gradual decline of the wildlife on his dad’s farm in Hampshire.

While this decline is undeniable, there is clearly a better way and we need to head clearly along this path post-Brexit.

A key problem is that most public funding goes to farmers in their role as landowners, leaving too little to reverse the wildlife declines most taxpayers want from the countryside. This needs to be about how we can develop a more sensible approach to what we want from the countryside. Two conversations this week have helped me understand the challenges and the way ahead...

The first was when chatting to some farmer friends about what they saw as the future of farming. Their story was telling – they were in Stewardship previously but couldn’t afford to maintain the field margins and other wildlife features once their scheme expired, so ploughed these short-lived habitats back into the ground. Instead, they now carry out more modest efforts (including a glorious species-rich meadow in the garden) and ‘do their bit’ wherever possible, but otherwise are focused on the important and commercial job of producing good-quality food. They are good at this and happy to ‘go it alone’, and while undoubtedly enjoying the benefit of their public subsidy for the acres they own, recognise that public money is better spent where wildlife can be properly nurtured.

The second discussion happened whilst showing The Woodland Trust around our Ranscombe Farm Reserve, which is in Stewardship. Here we work hand-in-glove with the tenant farmer delivering both food and exceptional wildlife. This is only possible with the right advice and targeted intervention, but the results were clear to see.

My conclusions? We should focus our public money on delivering those public benefits that come from proper stewardship of the countryside and to do this means a tough discussion on where best to focus our efforts so we rebuild wildlife for all our benefits.”

But what do you think? Write and let us know your views.

Plants, people and partners

What’s next for Plantlife Scotland?

October 27 2016 - 20:59

October 2016, we published our five year vision for Plantlife Scotland.

It runs from 2016 to 2021. Since Plantlife was founded in 1989, we’ve been actively working to conserve plants and fungi and the places where they grow in Scotland. And in that time, we’ve achieved some great things:

  • In 1999, we acquired Munsary peatlands, Plantlife’s biggest reserve and part of the Caithness and Sutherlands peatlands, a candidate for World Heritage Site status.
  • In 2007, we worked with partners to identify and publish a list of the very best places for plants across Scotland and the UK, as part of our Important Plant Area work.  This met target 5 of the first  Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (2010 – 2015) and we’re now working with partners to ensure these areas are under appropriate management to meet target five of the revised Global Strategy for Plant Conservation by 2020.
  • We’ve completed seven species conservation projects successfully improving the future for species like pillwort, twinflower, lesser butterfly orchid and Irish lady’s tresses orchid. as well as improving the status and future for internationally important habitats including Celtic rainforests and species rich grasslands. From 2009, we’ve developed management guidance for 6 priority habitats in Scotland and from 2012, we’ve been providing sitebased advice in these habitats, working at more than 60 sites to date.  
  • We work with more than 200 volunteers who are out and about across Scotland monitoring common plants species through the National Plant Monitoring scheme and rare plants through Flora Guardians who complete just under 200 hours of survey work annually.  
  • We worked closely with 6 MSP species Champions in the last Parliament, who helped us promote the status and need for action for their species. In 2016, with the relaunch of the project following the election, we’re already working with 5 MSPs on species from Mountain everlasting to Wilson’s filmy fern and Scottish primrose.

Our 2016 – 2021 plan shows what we’re going to be doing next. Our priorities will be:

  • To conserve and restore: we’ll be working with land managers to conserve native plants and their habitats. 
  • To develop and lead restoration programmes in key priority habitats including Caledonian pinewoods, Celtic rainforests and species rich grassland
  • To build a body evidence: we’ll be providing even more opportunities for local communities and interested individuals to work with us to gather evidence that we can use in our policy work 
  • To campaign: we will continue to work with politicians to improve the visibility of plants and fungi in legislation to ensure that legislation works for plants and fungi and builds them a secure future. 

We would love to work with more people from across Scotland. You can get involved by volunteering with us, working with us to tweak your land management to benefit plants and fungi  or you can work with us in partnership projects. You can share knowledge with us by coming along to our demonstration events, joining our citizen scientists and supporting our campaigns. And you can support us by becoming a member, donating to support our projects or providing grants to support our work.

Keep in touch us through our twitter feed @PlantlifeScot, on Facebook or by signing up to our monthly E-News.

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Five Apple Facts for Apple Day

October 21 2016 - 14:43

The 21st October is National Apple Day, so to mark the occasion, here's three apple themed factoids:

1. There are over 6,000 varieties of cultivated apple

In fact, if you ate a different one each day it would take you over 16 years to get through them all!

2. Many are descended from the humble crabapple (Malus sylvestris, pictured):

Don't try to pick them and eat them, though - wild crabapples taste far more tart and sour than cultivated apples. However, they do make a rather tasty jelly.

3. Apple blossom was used to indicate a preference

... according to floriography, also known as the "Language of Flowers". The Victorians were particularly keen on floriography, so receiving a bouquet of apple blossom from a Victorian Gent likely meant he fancied you more than anyone else.

4. Best not to get it mixed up with Crabapple blossom though...

Crabapple blossom, conversely, suggests you think the recipient is ill-tempered!

5. Mistletoe is particularly fond of apple trees

...which is why so much grows in our Joan's Hill Farm Reserve in Herefordshire (an old 19th century orchard is part of the site). Mistletoe, in turn, provides a home for six species of insect that can live nowhere else. 

 

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How do Fairy Rings form?

October 17 2016 - 13:59

Have you ever seen a fairy ring?

Jane and her dog Jed did - a very good one, as it happens - and sent us this photo as evidence:

So what is a fairy ring and how do they form?

Sadly they are not the work of dancing elves, as European folklore might have it. Instead, they are the result of a single fungus growing in a patch of grassland. Unseen, underground, small threads called mycelium sprout and spread out in a small circle, just a few centimetres across. The next year, the fruiting bodies (that's the toadstools) form at the edges of this circle, and pop up above ground. 

Over time, the mycelium depletes nutrients from where it’s been growing, so it tends to grow outwards into “fresh” grass. This advancing edge is where the fruiting bodies appear each year. Eventually, a complete ring is formed as the circle continues to expand. 

Fairy rings can be decades old, but if anything disrupts its outward expansion (a mole digging a hole, rocks underground or even a vehicle churning up the grass) then shape of the circle can be disrupted. This can happen quite often, so perfect circles are rare. 

 

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Fen orchids saved at Catfield Fen

October 06 2016 - 13:13

Fen orchid © firstnature.com

Fen orchid © firstnature.com

Many consider Catfield Fen to be the "jewel in the crown" of the Norfolk Broads Important Plant Area.

As well as providing a home to the rare Swallowtail Butterfly, it also supports a community of endangered fen orchids (Liparis loeselii) and other wild flowersSo when we heard it was under threat, we were, naturally, concerned.

Eight years ago, owners Tim and Geli Harris noticed the fen was drying out. The cause? A local farmer who was abstracting water from the site. Whilst lost groundwater can be replaced by rainfall, doing so can make the land more acidic. This presented a danger to the fen orchids and other species who lived in the area.

In response the Environment Agency stopped the farmer's activity by refusing him an abstraction licence. But the farmer appealed and an inquiry was launched. Plantlife and other environmental charities submitted evidence supporting TIm and Geli's claim: that the abstraction was making the land more acidic and thus threatening the wildlife on the site.

At the end of last month we heard the good news: the inspector dismissed the challenge, ruled in favour of the Environment Agency and halted any future abstraction. Catfield Fen has been saved!

That's not the only good news from the East of England. Some of you may remember, earlier this year, that one of our botanists was babysitting some fen orchids. We're happy to say that, not only did they survive their move, many of them flowered this summer!

Preparations are now underway for a full-blown reintroduction this winter. You can help us keep up the good work.

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