Plant theft: a growing concern?

From the theft of bluebells and snowdrop bulbs to rare orchids and ferns, it’s a crime that can have a disastrous affect on plant populations...

Dark Red Helleborine by Chris Channon

...and yet current legislation doesn’t offer plants the same protection as other wildlife. Without changes to the law some of Britain’s most endangered plants such as dark red helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens - above, © Chris Channon) could become extinct.

There are three types of illegal activity. The first comes from the “what’s the harm?” mentality, the theft of widespread plants like primroses or common spotted orchids by people to grow in their gardens. They justify their actions by thinking there’s little harm if a few plants are dug up, ignoring the fact that it’s a criminal act.

Then, there are cases where large numbers of often attractive plants, like flowering rush, are collected, probably for a black market in garden plants.

Even worse are those with an “egg collector” mentality who target very rare and threatened plants, especially orchids and ferns, either for themselves or for onwards sale to others. Driven by a need to possess the genuine wild plant, their actions can have devastating consequences.

In all cases, these thefts often go undetected – there’s no “smoking trowel” and the first sign of a crime is usually a hole in the ground. Unlike animals and birds, plants are easy “sitting ducks” – thieves can return at night, trowel in hand, to do the dirty deed. The impact of this activity can be immense. We’ve seen some rare species nearly exterminated through collection, but the loss of even common wild flowers can deeply affect those that love them. If a favourite patch of orchids you’ve enjoyed for years on a local walk are dug up, it’s truly heartbreaking.

Plant Theft can have a devastating impact on species targeted by thieves:

  • The orchid Summer lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes aestivalis) was lost from Britain in 1956, largely due to collection from its last remaining sites in the New Forest. It is still classed as Extinct.
  • Once not uncommon in parts of northern Britain, the exotic and beautiful lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) was completely wiped out by thieves and as a result declared extinct in 1917. A single wild, native plant was then discovered in 1930 and this remains the only native site.
  • Of the 73 populations of Lizard orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum) (out of 201) for which we know their fate since the 1940s, over half were picked or dug-up by collectors.
  • The currently known handful of sites for Killarney fern (Trichomanes speciosum) and Woodsia ferns (Woodsia alpina) are all relics of what escaped collection during the Victorian Fern Craze. Their populations have never recovered and what survives now are basically what was kept secret or couldn’t be reached.
  • The hybrid spleenwort fern removed from a wet wall in Leek, Staffs in 2000 was the only plant known of its type in Britain at the time, and the first seen since the 19th century. If this had occurred with a similarly rare bird or animal the response would probably have been very different.

One of Plantlife’s major concerns has been the widespread theft of native bluebells, where in some cases whole areas have been stripped so they can satisfy demand on the black market. In response to lobbying by Plantlife, Schedule 8 legislation was amended to ban this activity which led to the following prosecutions and a decline in thefts of the much loved British bluebell.

  • In 1998, 3 men were fined £995 for removing 7,000 bluebell bulbs from a site.
  • In 2007, two men were fined £7,000 for stripping bluebells from woodland near Pwllheli after admitting breaching the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
  • Reports of bluebell collection for sale have dried up (none reported since 2007) so it seems the legislation has been successful. This shows that, if the legislation exists and prosecutions with substantial fines are made, plant theft can be stopped.

Our main concerns

1. Equal legislation for plants
At the moment there is a lack of equal legislation for plants under Schedule 8. The places where legally protected animals live are protected. It is illegal, therefore, to damage, destroy or disturb water vole breeding and resting sites or convert your loft if it’s home to bats, yet there is no equivalent protection for the sites where protected plants grow. Plantlife are calling on the Government to create an offence of reckless destruction of the place where a protected plant or fungus grows.

2. Landowner permission
Another concern is the uprooting of any wild plant without the landowner’s permission, which is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). Although this protection is afforded to all wild plants and is the principle mechanism to safeguard our flora, it is very rarely acted upon. This concern extends to the digging up of wild plants to supply a black market for the horticultural trade, in which plants are often removed without the landowner’s permission.

3. Recording thefts
Our final concern is that these thefts are not even being recorded and collected nationally. National wildlife crime agencies do not keep registers of reported plant thefts, so the scale of the problem is difficult to assess. Without this, resources to tackle the problem cannot be allocated appropriately. It’s a slightly “head in the sand” approach, exacerbated by the fact that plants receive such little attention when compared to birds and animals.

Plantlife has started an inventory of wild plant thefts and invite anyone with knowledge of such thefts to provide us with details.