Guest blog – Wildflower-rich road verges – the botanists’ Hen Harrier? by Kevin Walker

Kevin Walker is a botanist who leads on science, monitoring and data management for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Before that he spent 12 glorious years working as a plant ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Monks Wood, although much of that time was spent away carrying out fieldwork. Although his day job is botanical, he’s interested in all aspects of natural history, especially birds for which he has a life-long passion. He also has a passion for Hebridean Islands; he co-authored the Flora of Rum and is currently working on a Flora of Colonsay.

Wildflower-rich road verges – the botanists’ Hen Harrier?

The world of botany is rarely rocked by controversy. But earlier this week a furore erupted over a tweet by naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham. He was congratulating a local authority on a colourful roundabout in their town, which to any botanist had obviously been seeded or planted with a “wildflower seed mix”. Chris also suggested that “every council across the UK should aspire to this”. Those who accidentally stumbled upon the subsequent exchange of views were probably wondering what on earth all the fuss was about. How could something as seemingly innocuous as a roundabout full of pretty flowers possibly generate such passionate feelings?

Like Chris, I’m a lifelong birder although I work professionally as a botanist – but these are just labels. I’m a naturalist at heart and I care deeply about all our wildlife, so with this perspective, I’d like to try and explain why so many people got so worked up about Chris’s (probably well-meaning) comments.

The roundabout in question had been seeded with ‘wildflowers’ by the East Lothian Council as part of a national scheme to create corridors (‘B-lines’) for pollinators run by the charity Buglife. And the results were truly stunning – a riot of flowers in all colours of the rainbow, worthy of an RHS Gold Medal and surely a good thing for people and wildlife?

Local authorities have a difficult job at the moment, keeping us and our wildlife happy, especially in these times of austerity and Chris quite rightly applauded their efforts. The original tweet by Edinburgh Spotlight badged it as a ‘wildflower roundabout’ (as the council called it) but keen-eyed botanists were quick to point out that very few of the species were actually wildflowers (in the sense that they are native in the British Isles and occur naturally without human influence). Most were gardens plants such as Californian Poppy and Austrian Chamomile or former cornfield weeds such as Common Poppy, Cornflower, and Corn Marigold that are added to the kinds of wildflower seed mixtures that you can buy in any supermarket, garden centre of DIY store.

Some of us questioned the relative benefits of these colourful displays when compared to wildflower-rich road verges in our towns and cities. These verges are usually mown to oblivion by local authorities in an attempt to keep our towns neat and tidy. This year, however, lockdown has put paid to that. Many verges were left uncut and this produced some astonishing displays of buttercups, clovers, and daisies with obvious benefits to pollinators and other wildlife. Some of our rarest and most exotic wildflowers have also benefited. Bee Orchids for example, have popped up in many new places where previously they were never given the opportunity to flower – our social media feeds have seen many reports from people delighted at what has appeared in their local area.

What followed Chris’s tweet was, rightly or wrongly, a series of impassioned pleas by many well-informed botanists for better management of road verges, roundabouts and public spaces rather than the promotion, by a very prominent and widely admired wildlife campaigner, of ‘quick fix’ solutions, pretty as they are.

In a later tweet Chris responded to “angry botanists”, bemoaning pedantry and narrowmindedness, and accusing anyone who disagreed with him of failing to see the bigger picture. Better to get the ball rolling than get stuck in the weeds over technicalities and details?

This caricature of what had been, up till then, a nuanced and polite debate was disingenuous to say the least and is what angered us the most. All natural history groups have topics that their enthusiasts care passionately about. For birders it is Hen Harriers, and their illegal persecution by a privileged few; for zoologists it is the seemingly relentless slaughter of badgers to control Bovine TB; for entomologists it is the catastrophic declines of our native pollinators due to habitat loss and the use of pesticides. For botanists it is the lamentable loss of wildflower-rich grasslands. We have been losing these for centuries. Writing in the middle of the 19th Century, John Clare, one of our finest nature poets, was incensed by the enclosure and ploughing-up of grasslands and heaths around his Northamptonshire home – “Inclosure thou’rt a curse upon the land, And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned.”

Since then, we have lost almost all of our wildflower-rich grasslands, largely due to changes in the way we farm the land. What has survived is now confined to nature reserves, road verges and hidden corners of farmland too difficult to plough or improve. The wildlife conservation charity Plantlife has estimated that our nations’ road verges represent an area the size of Northamptonshire so as wildflowers have retreated from our meadows and pastures, they have become more and more important as a refuge for many species. Yet they have received relatively little interest from conservationists. But thanks to the work of Plantlife, and many other organisations on the ground, the importance of these habitats for wildflowers is finally being recognised. And this work is already having huge benefits. Each year more and more verges are left uncut during May and June when our native wildflowers are at their best. Even in my home town of Harrogate, famed for its neat lawns and manicured borders, little corners are being left to grow long. Campaigns such as #NoMowMay have encouraged us as individuals to do our bit and the results have been astonishing with lawns full of daisies, dandelions and buttercups providing vital nectar for bees and other pollinators. We have a long way to go but at least the ball is moving, and in the right direction.

But what has concerned me most in some recent discussions is how little the general public seem to value our native wildflowers. Perhaps this is not surprising. From an early age we are conditioned to not value them as much as more ‘charismatic’ groups. If wildflowers get a mention in the media, and they rarely do, they are there to provide food and shelter for other wildlife or even worse, simply to look pretty. Earlier this week my kids received copies of their RSPB nature magazine. In a quick flick through 30 odd pages I noticed hardly any photos of plants – and those I did see were included simply to provide context or a pretty backdrop to some beetle or other. Come on RSPB – you can do better!

This unconscious bias – this plant blindness – has its roots in many things, not least our cultural separation from wildflowers which started when John Clare was a boy roaming the Northamptonshire countryside. Added to this is the fact that botany is no longer taught in schools unless your kids are lucky enough (as mine are) to go to a Forest School where they foster a broad interest in the natural world. Botany is no longer an option in higher education either – there is no longer a BSc in botany available anywhere in Britain – and there is little value or prominence attached to learning field ID skills within most natural science higher degrees.

But possibly more fundamental than this, in an age of TV and social media, is the overwhelming focus on birds and mammals, with a supporting cast of amphibians, bats and insects. Like most naturalists I am an avid consumer of SpringWatch and AutumnWatch – they are touchstones for wildlife lovers and safe places for us to indulge our nerdy passions and obsessions. Both programmes are always educational, inspiring and superbly presented by Chris, Michaela, Iolo and co. But where oh where are the wildflowers? In years of watching I have seen 100s of blue tits fledge but I’ve never seen a sundew devour an insect. So it’s really encouraging to see the young botanist, Joshua Styles, given the opportunity recently to talk about carnivorous plants on Channel 4 – to my mind the most innovative channel in terms of new content. And to give the SpringWatch team credit where it’s due, there has been some excellent coverage of wildflowers on the programme since the infamous tweet.

I will continue watching the BBC’s coverage because I’m passionate about all our wildlife. I just wish the media could extend a little more favour towards our wildflowers. Let’s face it, they are the biofuel that keeps our great British wildlife going.

So as the furore dies down and Twitter moves on to pastures new, please give a thought to all the “angry botanists” banging on about whether something is native or not and why we should really manage our road verge vegetation better. These things really do matter, as does the fate of our most graceful and precious moorland raptor – the Hen Harrier.

To quote Edinburgh Spotlight who kicked this all off – “every day a school day!”. As a home-schooling parent during lockdown, I completely agree. Right, better get home in time for the first lesson.


46 Replies to “Guest blog – Wildflower-rich road verges – the botanists’ Hen Harrier? by Kevin Walker”

  1. There are shades of the great daffodil debate here in terms of what people want to see on roadside verges. Many people love them simply because they look pretty. More widely, most of the public love parakeets, Canada geese, grey squirrels and other non natives without pausing to think about the damage they can do to native species. Perhaps the thing that most surprised me on Twitter was the way that Chris and others wanted to shut down the debate, as if it were foolish to even question what the council was doing here. Surely it’s useful to debate these things and try to push for options that bring the most benefits for native wildlife.

    1. Top comment. This is the problem of what happened in a nutshell. It wasn’t about two sides and one side being right or wrong, it was the attempt to shut down the debate which was the problem.

    2. I think the debate on twitter has often been unhelpfully strident on both sides. Very often the botanical critics of “urban meadows”, or whatever term is settled upon, critique tweets from a position of absolute righteousness. Clearly the whole thing is a lot more complex than this. No doubt many Councils could do a lot better in managing public greenspaces for wild plants, but that doesn’t necessarily mutually exclude the use of urban meadow-type approaches in some places and at some times. Perhaps the commenters here and elsewhere are right in that it is always done as a cheap alternative to “better management”, but it would be nice to see some actual data on this, rather than the anecdata that currently abounds.

      If the approach is limited to small areas, in predominantly urban locations, then I don’t personally see that criticising such instances on twitter is necessarily directly relevant to encouraging the improvement of verges etc. more generally. One thing quickly becomes a placeholder for another, legitimate concern about the wider management of the countryside; but it’s quite possible that this approach to the debate will only serve to annoy people who are doing their best to improve particular urban locations, and people’s lives.

      There is a very real sense, then, in which Chris P’s response was not a “caricature”, as Kevin contends above, but a reasonable exasperation at card-carrying botanists beating up on some other groups who don’t share their botanical values, and who apparently can’t conceive that the British landscape is large enough to accommodate both some urban meadows in appropriate places, and better management of road verges at larger scales. Is dumping on one to achieve the other really a sensible strategy?

      The deeper tensions underlying this whole debate are clear in Kevin’s piece above. Once Chris P is given the fatal debating stigmata of “disingenuity”, then the full range of botanical anxieties are given play: people don’t know anything about native plants and habitats, children don’t learn botany etc. These things may well be true, but it is not unreasonable to think that land management types like the urban meadow might encourage people to notice wilder plants everywhere, and therefore might have a positive effect on people’s natural education. Equally, perhaps sowing non-native annuals somehow corrupts people’s knowledge of “nature”, but, either way, it is not enough to merely assert these arguments, they need properly investigating. Even then, impacts on individuals are likely to be highly variable across time, place, and culture, as all individual responses to aspects of reality are.

  2. I think the point that Chris was trying to make was that at least it was a step in the right direction rather than default weekly mowing. I think I even read him saying get the non mowing of verges on the councils agenda and then press for the details e.g. the right way to do it for our native wildflowers.

  3. Of course the debate should be had, and not “shut down”. I suspect that Chris was simply saying that this is a good thing because the roundabout is no longer just a useless piece of mown grass and draws people’s attention to flowers and their importance. In the same way that encouraging people to put up a string of peanuts to feed five Blue Tits may have a beneficial effect on the person, but certainly not on the birds or conservation in general. The problem with wildflowers and “native v. non-native” is two-fold, I think. The UK is overrun with species of non-native plants in a way that it isn’t in the world of birds and mammals. This makes it difficult for the general public to understand what is the right thing to do. Also, it can be very difficult to distinguish between a native species of plant, tree or shrub and it’s non-native congener. Secondly, I’ll just say gardens and gardeners – pfft. I don’t have any answers, but I’m pleased to say that we have an enlightened council here in Orkney on the subject of roadside verge cutting, which I’ve outlined previously in a blog comment here.

  4. Good blog.
    Plants always get a raw deal compared to things that move.
    Fungi come off even worse – the first (and often only ) question asked of mycologists is “Can I eat it?”
    Presumably releasing those 25 million colourful birds every year ,cheers everyone up and provides food for predators. I’ve not counted the females because they’re a bit brown and boring.
    Then again we don’t always think before we give an opinion, me included.

        1. I was once asked that very question by a Troubador in the Cliffe Arms in Mathon who said I was the first person who had known the answer to which I responded that he could not have met a mycologist before

  5. I’ve been fascinated by wildlife since I was a child growing up in Harrogate ( Hi Kevin!) and now in my 70th year can look back a long way to when the roughs of Harrogate Golf course, then mowed for hay and some of the fields between there and Knaresborough were awash with wildflowers. Its what first got me into flowers and butterflies, Those places are still there but with changes in management the vetches, clovers, buttercups and a host of others are now gone. Our countryside is for a large part green wastes trashed by modern agriculture and our verges host even some of the lost grasses from fields. I now live in Montgomeryshire and in some ways its even worse, reseeded pastures everywhere for barely economic sheep farming, the verges are even this year largely mown as are the sides of many farm lanes and with lockdown I have been unable to travel to the more botanically and insect rich places within an hour or so of travel. I love all nature but we need to value more our truly wild and native plants, with those on our verges left to flower unmolested.
    I can remember a conversation with two ladies Kevin probably knew, Margaret Sanderson and Helen Jackson they were talking of a young African who had come to Yorkshire to learn about conservation from the YWT, Yes I know! When about to return home he was asked what he would most remember about our wildlife. The answer was all the yellow flowers on the spring verges everywhere — Dandelions. Little more needs to be said.

    Is that Wild boar fell in the background of the photo Kevin?

  6. Much of the revised management of our roundabouts and urban road verges is driven by the need to save money hiding under the guise of ‘being good for pollinators’. It is the number crunchers in the Highways Departments that have worked out that cultivation and sowing a seed mix of dubious provenance and just letting it go for the season is so much cheaper that having to pay to mow it every 6 weeks. Stick a picture of a bee in it and everyone is supposed to be happy. Certainly the public and Councillors are. Many of my former colleagues who are County Ecologists have had litlle or no involvement in this process and who could have advised on alternative strategies. There is hope that Highways departments can change their modus operandi but the challenge for all of us is to shift this to somethinng that is better for our native biodiversity.
    And, Kevin, if you are frustrated about how little plants are featured on wildlife programmes, be thankful you are not a bryologist or lichenologist!

    1. The thing is though, a once or twice annual cut is so much cheaper than constant glyphosate, collection of dead material, weeding and re-seeding year-on-year.

      1. I’m confused. I thought one of the arguments put forward by those arguing the case against urban meadows was that they were a cheap distraction from more traditional management. So are they cheap and easy quick fixes, or are they expensive relative to cutting twice a year or whatever? It would be nice to see some clear economic breakdowns irrespective of other, more value-based arguments.

        Also, across a whole county or Council area, it is not very clear to me why both approaches couldn’t be used in appropriate locations. Your comment suggests that one is always appropriate and the other inappropriate. On what basis do you make this decision for all people throughout Britain and Ireland? It would be cheaper to grass over municipal parks, but presumably some people feel that ornamental displays etc. are worth the outlay.

  7. Arable plants (weeds) are the veins in which our wildlife blood flows, it’s some what difficult to understand the relationship, connectivity and importance these plants have in the whole scheme of bio-diversity, when you don’t see their development and interaction with other species on a day to day basis.
    Most people see a uniformly balanced 6 inch high wildflower meadow packed with colourful plants and think that’s the archetypical meadow we should aim for, wonderful as these meadows are, they are not this farms’ vision.
    Our wildflower fields look like they have gone 15 rounds with Tyson Fury for at least once in a 5 year cycle, that’ll increase diversity ten-fold, I don’t care if I get a bramble patch in the middle of a field, or the blackthorn encroaches within the field, I want that to happen, I don’t care if deer nibble the plants, I want a tiered shrubby habitat of different heights. The cows now can graze the whole farm, fields, woods, glades and rides, the species list is already high, it’s about to get even higher. The result of this for the first time in seven years, all of us will gather tomorrow for an orchid count and a picnic.
    Unfortunately, the conservational bodies that visit us are still under the impression that you cut these fields into an even sward, no – you don’t, you let nature do the work, nature knows somewhat more than what these dimwits do.
    Our biggest mistake in starting out seven years ago was to follow NE stewardship guidelines, getting those fields back into a wildflower environmental condition is a monumental job.

    1. Even when you do see what’s a real wildflower meadow or chalk grassland I still feel my heart sink for the very reasons you mention – from a structural viewpoint they’re pretty monotonous and the principal of having habitat mosaics gets forgotten – in this regard they can make me think of grouse moors somewhat. Yes I’d love to see patches of bramble, dock and nettle with bits of scrub added to the traditional picture of what a meadow is, after all it’s a product of agriculture rather than nature. I wish the conservation organisations would adopt a principle that over a certain area of meadow they have to add at least one pond of a minimum size. This would create a lot of ponds and increase biodiversity one hell of a lot – dragonfly and amphibian breeding sites without fish, bathing spots for birds, drinking places for hedgehogs…….

  8. I’m afraid I’m with Chris P on this one (as on lots of things), for several reasons.
    Firstly, I’m a huge fan of arable weeds, and they are hugely under-appreciated. They can produce pollen, nectar and seeds over a long period, and they can look stunning. They work well even on quite nutrient-rich soil (unlike hay meadows) and can be easy to maintain. However, I don’t know why Austrian Chamomile is included in cornflower mixes even from reputable suppliers, but things like Cornflower and Corn Marigold are great.
    Hay meadows have only quite a short period when they really churn out pollen and nectar, and unless they’re on very poor soil, an even shorter period when they look good from a distance. Once the flower spikes of the grasses grow up it’s difficult to see many of the wild flowers without actually walking through the meadow. Of course, if nutrient levels are really low, as on good chalk grassland, this isn’t a problem, but on many sites the grasses will obscure the flowers when viewed ‘from the side’.
    Finally I think there is a bit of naturalists’ snobbery here. All half-way competent botanists love and appreciate hay meadows, but we have to reach out beyond that audience. A splash of instant, gaudy colour may be just the thing to enthuse the wider public.
    Changing the subject slightly, I have really enjoyed this year’s slightly calmer, more contemplative Springwatch. More power to your elbow, Chris P!

    1. I think you misunderstand the point the botanists and ecologists were making. They weren’t purists being sniffy at arable weeds as non-natives. They were pointing out that often there was no proper surveys before these exotic seeds were sowed, and that often it was preceded by the use of herbicide.

      1. This is an oversimplification, not all the commenters were saying this, and there were cases where people started off complaining about other things (e.g. what they considered inappropriate use of the term wildflower or meadow, use of non-natives or annuals etc.), and then resorted to this criticism because it is something no one can easily disagree with (or will take the time to prove or disprove the relevance or facts of in any given case — e.g. this argument is hardly relevant if said roundabout used to be a municipal flowerbed or shrubbery).

        1. Perhaps I should have been more clear. My comments were directed solely at the blog piece printed here – I don’t get involved in twitter squabbles. Indeed, for any issue with some complexity or nuance, I think twitter is just about the worst possible forum for its discussion.
          I just took slight exception at the implication that arable plants were not really wildflowers at all. Many have been with us for thousands of years, and, according to Plantlife, represent the most rapidly declining group of plants in the UK. A dozen or so arable species were included in the UKBAP list of species of priority concern, and Plantilfe runs a scheme specifically to conserve and raise the profile of arable plants.
          Arable weed seeds were traditionally a major food source for small farmland birds, both among the crops in summer and in overwinter stubbles in winter and spring (in the days before autumn sowing took over).
          I’m sadly old enough (just) to have seen arable fields before herbicides changed them for ever, and they could be simply amazing – complex, colourful and ever-changing. They actually stand out in my memory more vividly than hay fields.
          No-one disputes that we should be careful about the provenance of seeds we plant in the wider countryside, especially at or near precious botanical sites, but as Matt Shardlow points out, we can surely be a little more relaxed when considering an urban roundabout.
          Finally, I’d rather have a cheap quick fix than no fix at all, any day of the week. But then, I’m not a purist…

          1. Firstly, as the article is specifically about what happened on Twitter, it’s rather impossible to avoid what did happen. And no it wasn’t a “twitter squable”. Chris tweeted about this roundabout sowed with exotic flower seed “Every council across the U.K. should aspire to this – it’s beautiful and productive and what people want from a new normal for wildlife and the environment . Top work Musselburgh !”

            All very experienced and knowledgeable botanists and ecologists did was to politely and respectfully point out that this type of seeding was far from ideal. They pointed out that there was a problem with this sort of seeding taking part on verges which hadn’t been surveyed. I didn’t see anyone personally criticising Chris or in anyway saying anything personal about him. These were not purist comments, but usually nuanced and insightful comments from experts, from the ecological perspective.

            Read the article here. “This caricature of what had been, up till then, a nuanced and polite debate was disingenuous to say the least and is what angered us the most.”

            This is the whole problem. Your comment about “purists” and Chris’ complete misrepresentation of what had been said is the problem. These were not purist arguments, they were not “angry botanists”. As Kevin Walker says in the article here, this misrepresentation of what had been up to that point “a nuanced and polite debate” was “disingenuous to say the least”.

            It is dishonest, and the straw man logical fallacy, when someone makes a sensible, polite, informed point, and to make it easy to argue against, someone entirely misrepresents what they say, falsely characterising them as “angry botanists” and “purists”. These were not “purist” arguments, and they were not angry comments, and none had been personally critical of Chris. What was claimed were complete misrepresentations of what was said.

            Please note how I used direct quotations, rather making up something which never happened to make a cheap and false point.

            Please don’t misconstrue what I say. I am not spoiling for an argument, but it is very difficult when someone completely misrepresents what someone said, and then instead of dealing with what the misunderstanding is, further compounds it with entirely false misrepresentations of what was actually been argued.

            Don’t you think you should have at least double-checked what these botanists and ecologists actually said, before rather offensively dismissing them as “purists”?

          2. Well, I’m glad I didn’t meet SteB on a day when he/she WAS spoiling for an argument!
            All I’m going to add is that I didn’t call anyone a purist, and I don’t think I used the words ‘angry botanists’ anywhere. If I did, I apologise.

          3. @AlanTwo

            I think you need to actually read the article and the tweets the article is about (they are linked to in the article).

  9. I made a number of pleas to Chris on Twitter to reconsider his position and it was very unhelpful for him to tweet about angry botanists, when most of the botanists and ecologists, were criticising the argument and not Chris personally. By making it personal, with this sort of unnecessary personalized tweet, by addressing them on the grounds of supposed personal characteristics, and not their arguments has caused a lot of offence. This is not speculation, I know how they feel, because one prominent botanist told me, and whilst I haven’t asked others, I could, but as what they said in response was on the record, there is no need.

    As I made clear in my tweets when I tried to play peacemaker, I took a pragmatic middle way view on this. Saying that yes, this seeding of exotic wildflower mix was better than closely mown grass for generalist pollinators.

    However, here is the rub, and it is where Chris shot himself in the foot. In a tweet responding to criticism, Chris said something to the effect of which is better, this or bare brown grass. This is a classic false dichotomy, which made no sense. If you can let wildflowers grow to full height and not mow them before they can flower, then why do they have to be exotics? The whole argument makes no sense.

    I still support Chris, because of the work he does. I gauge people on the overall work they do, not my personal evaluation of them. It does say that Chris has a bit of a personal blind spot and is unable to deal with reasoned arguments against his pet subjects. Chris didn’t like it when I pointed to the science against his arguments on population, even though I could support my points with peer reviewed papers, and he could not. But as I say, Chris’ personal peccadilloes doesn’t mean anything to me. Yes, I regret that Chris is unable to take on board reasoned positive criticism, but he still does great work. But many very well respected botanists and ecologists have been personally offended by this false characterisation of them by Chris, and it was a silly thing to do. Chris could quite easily make amends, but he is rather stubborn in this regard.

    Mark knows I took issue with his sweeping statements about Natural England. I agreed with the general criticism, but not the nuances of the argument, because I think it is the political control that matters, not the organization itself. But I don’t hold this personally against Mark and still generally support him.

    I’m not a specialist anything, being very much a generalist. So on this subject I defer to the specialist botanists and ecologists. I just wish Chris could understand they had a point and to concede that. You don’t have to necessarily agree, to at least acknowledge someone has a valid point. It would go a long way to healing this unnecessary rift, if only Chris would at least concede they had a valid point, and that they were not being pedantic as Chris falsely accused them of being.

    1. I agree that amenity grassland/urban meadow is a false dichotomy, but this is also the case for the argument that says that we should always choose natives over non-natives in every situation like this because, why not? Well, we could easily choose to manage 99% of the verges etc. in a county in the way you suggest, and then choose to install non-native urban meadows in the remaining 1% in suitable locations where we feel the local benefits are most appropriate. Yes, there may be scientific papers showing that certain types of native habitat provide more nectar over a longer period etc., but all this provides is evidence for one particular outcome as a result of one type of management. This result doesn’t tell us how to choose between different land management regimes in different places at different times, because this involves a local value judgement by those managing and/or living near a given piece of land. As naturalists our values may urge us to argue for one set of outcomes over others, but ultimately changing minds in this way is politics, not science.

  10. Before the council planted the roundabout it was a tightly mown grass dome (with some daffodils).

    While native wildflowers are better for wild pollinators than non-native wildflowers, indeed in the wider countryside Buglife always uses native flowers with good provenance, however in urban areas, such as this, there is more flexibility about what can be planted and creating a visual spectacle that the public enjoys and also benefits wildlife is vastly preferable to sterile mown grasslands.

    Buglife, Plantlife and our partner organisations have produced clear guidance on the issue of planting for pollinators and we would encourage everyone to carefully follow the guidelines –

    1. My urban lawn was just ‘tightly mown grass’ until I moved into my home. Since I’ve allowed it to grow with a once or twice annual cut, I’ve recorded over 35 vascular plant species, including 14 grasses in the first year, important food plants for many of our native butterflies, amongst other things.

      It baffles me that people so easily discount ‘mown grass’, particularly in urban places. We need to be fighting plant blindness, and wrecking urban/rural green infrastructure with constant glyphosate and swathes of non-native is not how to combat it.

      Needless to say that constant herbicide application and continued erosion of our verges, etc is absolutely awful for our wildlife.

      1. And if you fertilise “lawns” or use herbicides it just makes more work mowing and dealing with the cuttings and going down the shops for more petrol. Is that what you want? ‘Cos that’s what’ll ‘appen.

  11. My local council, which includes some of the most deprived wards in the UK, has sown these mixtures in several places and they seem to be widely appreciated. Of the 4 plots I pass regularly, one was paved over before, one was covered in ground cover shrubs and 2 had displays of wilted begonias. I don’t care if there are California poppies in the mix, it’s a huge improvement on what was there before and they’re bringing colour and life to pretty grim urban streets where people have very little contact with nature. These mixes are a form of urban horticulture. They are designed to be eye-catching, colourful and temporary. They’re not (or shouldn’t be) purporting to be restoring semi-natural habitats.
    If there are instances of councils spraying off grassland of high conservation value to sow these mixes, that’s deplorable. But that’s certainly not true of what I’ve seen. While we’re still losing SSSI meadows, a little perspective would help.
    Hundreds of hectares of locally-inappropriate perennial ‘meadow’ mixes are sown every year with agri-environment funding or by developers, public bodies and even Wildlife Trusts. This concerns me much more than a colourful mix of archaeophytes and exotics being sown on an urban roundabout.
    There was some unwarranted vitriol in the responses to Chris P’s post, and a big dose of snobbery. I suspect many of those complaining take access to wildlife-rich countryside for granted and have little concept how nature-deprived a lot of urban landscapes are.

  12. Great articulate balanced article. Chris P excellent naturalist, great broadcaster and truly passionate I hugely respect him for this. But actually elements of him are subversive, stubborn, with little concern for others. Fundamentally there is no room for other views, it is his world view and he will do anything to get it. He is nasty and unsympathetic to those who he is opposing and often their world view and way of life. He railroads and cherry picks. He is strategically very clever, but a danger to a balanced way forward for all. Shame. He’s the Richard Dawkins of his patch. Famous, clever, rightly respected, but not very nice. This all said, I’ve not met him and I could be wrong, so if I am I’m, very sorry.

    1. Jamie – thank you for your first comment here, which is fairly nasty and not the least bit sympathetic. But I’ve not met you so I could be wrong.

  13. It has been a good discussion above and thanks to Kevin for bringing up ‘plant blindness’. Half the time when people are talking about ‘wildlife’ you realise that they haven’t even considered plants at all. Among those who do see the plants though there can be a bit of ‘plant myopia’ where we just see the plant issues we hold closest, whether it’s the pretty flowers, the food for bees or the native distribution and perhaps we all need to look up a bit. Twitter is part of the problem. Twittering is good for the birds but it’s a rubbish way for humans to communicate.

    1. Giles – I’m sure Twitter is part of the problem just as it is part of any solution. But the state of plant blindness has been around for how long? And how long before social media arrived? And is Facebook just as bad?

  14. I very much appreciate this blog post, and this discussion. As a pollination ecologist (albeit from an insect background) involved in development of wildflower seed mixes for urban habitats, I try to see plant and pollinator and people sides to this discussion.

    I think that planted meadows can be a great way of improving food availability for pollinators, and we can plant pollinator mixes that not only use species native to the UK, but also use locally sourced native seed provenances – an example is Scotia Seeds here in Scotland.

    While seconding all calls for support to native pant populations and habitats, I also think that in appropriate situations (urban gardens, for example), non native plants that provide suitable nectar and pollen can be very valuable ‘pollinator restaurants’. The benefit to native plants might be in maintaining pollinator populations through lean times, allowing pollinators to repopulate surrounding native habitats, and so export pollination services to native plants.
    During surveys of my own Edinburgh garden during covid lockdown, I have been surprised by the richness of bees – including many solitary species – collecting pollen and nectar from non-native plants (flowering red currant and Pulmonaria species earlier in spring, Cotoneaster and Hebe species just now, and, I expect, Buddleia later one). Non native plants in meadow mixes are also often selected for their visual impact for people – flowers and their associated wildlife are increasingly recognised for their beneficial impact on human wellbeing. My suggestion would be that where options exist, use natives, and where a non native seems like a good idea, use one that provides nectar and pollen (some commercial meadow mix species do not).

    A recognised issue for urban pollinator populations is their relative homogeneity – so, cities tend to support a particular set of pollinator species. Though this can be quite species-rich, it is still only a subset of what there could/should be. A challenge in maintaining flower rich habitats (whether planted meadows, relaxed mowing verges, back gardens, window boxes,….) is to maintain and increase their diversity, which will in turn increase the diversity of pollinators and other organisms they support. We also need to provide the other key resources – such as nesting sites and larval foodplants – that pollinators and other organisms need. This can be quite a challenge, and I learned long ago (and am still learning) that expert botanists, whether angry or no, have a great deal to teach us.

  15. First of all I thank Mark for allowing Kevin Walker this guest blog, and to Kevin for writing a very well balanced appraisal of both the misunderstanding and the overall situation and context.

    Initially, I was encouraged by the response, until I had a more in depth read of many comments, then I realised that there is a very big unresolved problem here. I’m not spoiling for a fight, and indeed refrained from saying anything in response to Chris’s first tweet, because more expert botanists and ecologists than me had encapsulated the problem very well, and I hadn’t got anything to add to what they’d pointed out. I was a bit disappointed that Chris failed to properly engage with what were polite, nuanced, insightful and well balanced comments. Unfortunately, it became impossible to ignore when Chris entirely misrepresented the points and positions of the botanists and ecologists who had first responded.

    Obviously quite a few people here have been taken in by Chris’ misrepresentations of the initial responses to his first tweet. I see groundless claims about vitriol, “purist” arguments. So to be fair to Chris, in case someone had been rude, personally critical, was engaging in purist or elitist arguments, I went back and re-read “all” the tweets. I’ve been back and double-checked this morning. People are making this up and arguing against points and positions never stated.

    This really is a train wreck of misrepresentation and false argument. I cannot overstate just how upset and offended some very respected botanists and ecologists are. I’ve been trying to hold off commenting on this because I greatly respect the work that Chris does, and still respect him. I was hoping Chris would realise he’d made a mistake. I take a broader view of things. I am not speaking for myself. I’m not really currently focused on botany and I’m not personally offended by anything Chris said, because I didn’t invest any effort in trying to correct his somewhat naive and misinformed tweet. But some did.

    I may not be focused on botany, but I have the greatest respect for the botanists involved, and I have enough of a background in vegetation ecology, botany and ecology in general, to understand their perspective on this.

    This whole issue is being misrepresented as two sides, on the one side purist botanists who believe in only planting native seeds of known provenance, and on the other side, pragmatists who see the big picture. This is an absolutely travesty of a misrepresentation. None of the botanists and ecologists responding were engaging in this type of argument, and this was not their position. This is a complete straw man logical fallacy misrepresentation of their argument and position.

    I have wanted to settle this sensibly. However, the problem is the ball is entirely in Chris’s court. He misrepresented what the botanists and ecologists were saying. They have tried their best to explain what they were saying, and this is not even being acknowledged by those being critical of them.

    Just as an aside, I have seen allusions here to deprived areas, and tweets falsely alleging elitism, middle class values, privilege etc. I don’t want to make too much of this. I have actually lived in deprived areas and have done a lot of my natural history stuff and and nature photography alongside so called sink estates, one of which was featured on Panorama as one of the worst in the country. I said I took a pragmatic middle way approach because I have first hand experience of land being planted with this exotic mix after lots of terraced houses were demolished close to where I lived, in one of these terraces (not demolished). Please do not even think of lecturing me about deprived areas.

    Can we please have a proper debate about these issues, and refrain from misrepresenting what other people are saying, and then arguing against these straw man misrepresentations as if it is actually what was said. If people do this it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy as you have to be critical, just to establish what the facts are. It really is deeply unhelpful.

    1. Stephen – one of the comments directed at Chris Packham reads “any reason you’re being a knob today?”. Is that not vitriol? I’d completely agree this is debatable issue and many of the points made criticising Packham’s post are polite and reasonable. However, there were other comments which were basically a Twitter pile-on.

    2. Just to point out, the replies to a tweet, replies to replies etc are not “all” the tweets. If someone responds to a tweet by quoting it and adding a comment that prefaces it, then you will not necessarily find it unless you use the search function, or follow the person who tweets in this way or others who interact with it. There were also people who no doubt noticed the tweet because of Chris P’s highlighting it and then quoted the original tweet, criticising it on grounds of terminology etc. E.g.

  16. Talking about the botanist Hen Harrier I have been surprised that botanist groups have not been more enthusiastic to ban Driven Grouse Shooting and reviving their Heather monoculture. With about 17% of Scotland is managed in this abysmal way I mystery to me why they are not more supportive of the revive coalition and the petitions to ban Driven Grouse Shooting.

    1. I think you’ll find that many of the botanists and ecologists commenting in response to Chris’ original tweets, mainly have been supportive of the campaign against the illegal persecution of raptors on grouse moors, and I’m a bit puzzled why you think they haven’t been.

  17. I don’t have anything to add regarding the discussion of the twitter spat but I absolutely agree with Kevin that it is sad that plants are given such a low profile. My own botanical skills leave much to be desired (I try!) but I recognise that the decline in numbers of people capable of competently identifying wild flowers and other plants is a serious worry that may in time have serious consequences.

    Universities obviously believe that the future lies in ‘sexy’ biotech subjects but as the natural world shrinks before our eyes the need for people with with knowledge of whole organisms and how they interact within ecosystems surely increases. The role of plants within ecosystems hardly needs stressing so the loss of botany courses from universities is a lamentable fact.

    The media and wildlife NGOs have a part to play in redressing the balance. If plants are not a part of ‘Nature’s Home’ I don’t know what is so the RSPB could certainly up its game on this. Springwatch this year did give some focus on plants and promoted ‘no mow may’ which is great but there is potential to do much more.

    1. After reading the blog yesterday I had a squint online and far from no botany first degrees offered in UK there were numerous options at many of the usual suspects but who knew there was a university at Edge Hill? How many of these were “pure” enough to escape an “applied” label I didn’t pursue. Suffice it to say that many botany options were modules within broader courses in plant science. I didn’t find out whether other plantologies were modules within botany courses.

      When I found a student review that bigged-up her university for being a safe inclusive place I felt grateful to be of an age that allowed me to count Frank Brightman, J P Hudson, Walter Heydecker, T F Hering, M B Wilkins and Hugh Bunting as my mentors and in whose presence I never felt “safe”.

  18. Thank you Filbert. I confess that when a senior figure in the BSBI asserted that the study of botany to BSc was no longer an option in this country I took it as true without checking. You are correct that there may be no BSc course named ‘botany’ but plant biology is certainly available and I guess that is botany by another name. Plant ID and surveying are included in course modules.
    That is good to know of course. I would still suggest that the profile of plants in the media and within wildlife NGOs could be usefully raised so that more people appreciate the importance of plants and the fact that like other components of nature they are struggling to persist in the modern world.

  19. Can anyone supply a link that can be used to direct a local council to best practice for wildlife friendly roadside verges.

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