Guest blog – Cloak and dibber: the rare plant introduction controversy by Amanda Tuke

Amanda is a nature and environment writer and blogger based in the wilds of suburban south London. She writes mainly about suburban wildflowers, insects and birds on her blog.    Her nature writing has appeared in anthologies, on the London Wildlife Trust blog and in Devon Life Magazine.  She also blogs on www.freelancenaturewriter.com about her experience of becoming a freelance nature writer after ditching her day job.

Twitter: @suburbanwilduk

Cloak and dibber: the rare plant introduction controversy

For amateur botanists like myself, plants you find in the wild are not all equal. How the plant you’ve found came to be growing there matters a great deal. It’s exciting to find a rare flower in a place where small numbers have always hung on. It’s even more thrilling to find one which has reappeared naturally or following a change in habitat management. Discovering the rare flower you’ve spotted was secretly planted is like having your birthday present taken away.

For professional conservationists, uncertainty about a rare plant’s provenance can have much more serious implications. Deliberate but unrecorded plant introductions – whether to boost diminishing populations, reintroduce a plant to a historic habitat or even colonise a new habitat – can mask the worrying reductions in threatened plant numbers.

From media coverage you could be forgiven for thinking it’s only mammals and big birds which are released into the wild in Britain. Stories about plant introductions in the mainstream press are scarce but that may be changing. While breeding beavers, butterflies or turtles in your back garden aren’t options for most people, wildflowers don’t need much space to propagate.

Twenty-something Josh Styles started growing wild plants in his mum’s garden when he was in his teens and depressed by the extinctions reported each year in his county’s Rare Plant Register. “I was frustrated that other botanists seemed content just to record extinctions but not do anything about them” he told me.  After graduation, Josh used scholarship funding to launch a conservation programme for rare, declining or extinct species and the North West Rare Plant Initiative was born. Some habitats he works on, like the Manchester peat bogs, have been so degraded that he believes plant reintroductions are an essential part of restoration. “A perfect example of a successful reintroduction is Brown Bog-rush which is only extant in the UK today because of translocation,” he said. Josh admitted to me there has been some criticism of his projects, despite them being consistent with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines. “It’s not a case of digging things up and whacking them somewhere else,” he told me. Josh spends a lot of time and effort propagating plants, writing feasibility analyses and getting consent as well as sharing project reports with botanical organisations. 

While Josh is carrying out well-planned and recorded reintroductions, I found it hard to believe he was the only individual botanist out there taking direct action to try and save rare plants. Written accounts were scarce so I took advantage of the reach of social media. My question about experiences and views of plant introductions clearly hit a nerve and triggered a vigorous debate. One side despaired of the secret “seed-sprinkling botanists” taking things into their own hands and putting existing plant communities at risk by introducing variants or pathogens. The other side was all for individuals taking action and expressed great frustration with the inertia of conservation organisations.

One botanist told me with great passion about the projects he had been involved with. “In the past there were times when myself and other botanists had to step in quickly when rare plant populations were at risk,” he said. “There wasn’t time to worry about regulations. Thank goodness we did just get on with it as at least now there are plants growing in gardens ready to boost remaining populations.” He told me there is an extensive network of propagators who know what each other are growing and exchange plants.

All the botanists I talked to seemed knowledgeable about the laws covering plant introductions – whether or not they always worked within them – but are the current regulations enough?  I waded through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which lists threatened ‘schedule 8 plants’ subject to particular regulations and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which covers Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). I discovered that there was nothing to stop me planting a threatened species outside of an SSSI – or at least a species which was judged threatened in 1981 when the schedule 8 list was compiled – as long I hadn’t dug it up or taken seeds from elsewhere in Britain. The IUCN guidance Josh had told me about might be best practice but without robust national regulation, it’s only discretionary.

Even when plant introductions are in line with regulations, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) believes they “should be seen as a last resort and only when conditions are right.”  Kevin Walker, BSBI’s Head of Science, told me that the organisation’s main concern is to ensure that introductions are appropriate, records are kept and populations are monitored.  “It would be really useful to know what rare plants botanists have growing in their gardens too so that they can be used for conservation when wild material is in short supply”, he told me. Recent excitement about finding a third population of rare Large Yellow Sedge turned out to be premature when a chance conversation revealed that it had been planted following an experiment. The BSBI did set up a plant introductions advisory panel back in the 1980s to oversee introductions and maintain a record of what had been introduced but this ultimately failed due to lack of support from statutory conservation agencies

The conservation charity Plantlife has a similar stance to the BSBI on planting. Plantlife’s Trevor Dines told me “We prefer to get habitat conditions and management right so the last remaining plants can spread and thrive again – in other words proactive conservation before the plant is lost.” However a Plantlife reserve did benefit from the introduction of a grass species, Interrupted Brome, when it was discovered that “an enterprising soul” had been busy growing the grass in his garden.

Interrupted Brome. Photo: Richard Moyse/Plantlife

I asked Natural England what I needed to know if I was planning to reintroduce a rare plant and they responded with a link to the IUCN guidance. Ecologist Richard Lansdown chairs Natural England’s Aquatic Plants Taxon Group and has been personally involved with a number of carefully planned and monitored introductions. Richard also keeps an ear out for ‘informal’ planting. He heard a few years ago that an endangered plant, Starfruit, had been introduced to some ponds in an SSSI in the south east of England. While technically illegal because of the SSSI status, the efforts seemed initially successful and received tentative approval from Natural England. This unravelled when a second species, Pillwort, was introduced to the ponds and eradicated the Starfruit. None of this had been documented so as Richard said, “Little has been contributed to our understanding of the needs of either species”.

Starfruit. Photo: Richard Lansdown.

Without comprehensive records of plant introductions and their outcomes, there’s limited evidence to counter the argument that habitat loss can be mitigated by simply shifting rare plants to alternative sites. At the moment we have no idea whether achieving self-sustaining populations from plant introductions is likely or in fact exceptional. Until that evidence is collected, it wouldn’t hurt to keep the salutary lesson of Starfruit in mind.

The weak regulations covering introductions seem to be exacerbating that vigorous debate in the botanical community, which is in turn a disincentive for information sharing. Dom Price of the Species Recovery Trust told me he believes the botanical organisations need to get on with setting up a new introductions advisory panel to take a view on proposed projects and maintain introduction records. I suggested to Dom that an amnesty might be needed to persuade the secret plant introducers to come forward with historical information without fearing sanction.

Media stories about plant introductions presented as a battle between activists against the plodding conservation establishment won’t help. Habitat preservation and restoration projects will continue to need the funds and long-term commitment which organisations may be best-placed to deliver, while the detailed species knowledge and propagation skills might best be contributed by individual botanists. Whether or not we can find some consensus in the debate, the passionate individuals I talked to will carry on propagating and informally introducing plants.

The impact of climate change suggests that the controversy about rare plant introductions is unlikely to let up anytime soon and ‘assisted colonisation’ might be the next conservation storm brewing. An oversight panel won’t in itself turn the tide on plant extinctions in the British Isles but it should support constructive discussion on effective action. And all botanists, whether amateur or professional, would benefit from knowing the provenance of rare plants.

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10 Replies to “Guest blog – Cloak and dibber: the rare plant introduction controversy by Amanda Tuke”

  1. Excellent article - interesting to hear that there's been more surreptitious 'conservation' planting going on than we knew, but might have suspected. In the wood we worked in the ground flora had been mostly shaded out by invasive rhoddie, Portugese and cherry laurel, and snowberry for decades. Some native species came back from the seedbank once they were cleared, but we must have lost many others and as the wood was largely surrounded by urban areas little chance they'd get back on their own. In situations like this I think there's a strong case for bringing in plants to compensate for an unnaturally suppressed biodiversity and barriers to dispersal, re-establishment.

    To put these issues in context though, non native invasive plants are still being put in, quite legally, as cover for gamebirds. Given the massive negative impact this has already had on ground flora throughout the country it's astonishing this is still going on - this nursery is still selling cherry laurel (it was also selling snowberry until recently) one of the worst offenders and it certainly isn't good for wildlife as advertised!! https://www.ashridgetrees.co.uk/nature-mix

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  2. Dear Amanda, an interesting blog, thank you. Patrick Barkham wrote a fascinating long article in the Guardian about this topic in relation to butterfly releases. There were hundreds of undocumented (except in the protagonists notebooks) release, over decades. Also, tree planting is a form of plant (re)introduction and I find it especially concerning when it involves uncommon species with restricted natural ranges, such as Wild Service Tree, or more common ones planted well outside their range, such as Hornbeam in the north of GB.

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    1. Thanks Stuart. Patrick's article was the one which first made me wonder what the story was in relation to plants. Yes, it's easy to discount tree planting isn't it? An effective plant introduction panel could be considering these too.

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  3. This, does I think highlight a real problem and it is not just the actions of those people planting rare plants. The problems come about because especially with intensive farming almost all of our former “unimproved “countryside has been lost and with it rare plants are made even rarer. The other problem, as the writer highlights, is the speed that most conservation organisations react and their policies in this area. The speed of reaction is often painstakingly slow and in some cases they have a formal policy against any introductions. All this leads to those that wish to save a rare plant, understandably, “taking the law into their own hands” if the plant is to be saved. In other words there is not really any system established to satisfactorily cope rapidly with emergency wildlife situations.
    The added problem is that rare plants are very often rare because they have very specific requirements for their germination and growth. It is also frequently difficult to know exactly what these are eg michorizal fungi for wild orchids.. Establishing what these requirements are exactly can take a long time.
    I much prefer the term reintroduction rather than introduction.
    REintroduction in practice therefore should apply only to native plants and mean they are reintroduced as near as possible to where they used to grow given of course the same or very similar habitat.
    The whole situation is a mess but, while not encouraging individual reintroductions, one can fully understand it as there is a real emergency situation out there in the countryside for wildlife and rare plants. The Government bodies e.g. Natural England and some wildlife trusts have no system for reacting rapidly to these emergency situations .

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  4. The introduction of plants (planting and seed sowing), and the spread of introduced species, are so ubiquitous in many parts of Britain, that they almost go unnoticed. It has been happening for millennia; Papaver rhoeas (Common Poppy) is a good example of an ancient introduction. By unnoticed I don't mean the occasional (?) surreptitious planting of a rare or uncommon native species in a "wild" location. Almost all lowland farmland relies on plant introductions, i.e. arable crops or grass leys. Almost every road building scheme will see banks and verges sown with seed. Plants are mobile, and many are accidentally moved e.g. via the tyres of vehicles; witness the remarkable spread of salt-tolerant coastal plants along the road network. But many native plant species are never planted, and are not very mobile; they persist if habitat conditions remain suitable. If not they go locally extinct. So the situation is an incredibly complex juxtaposition of near natural plant communities, cultural landscapes, and the highly artificial. In the bird, mammal or butterfly worlds, there is really nothing to compare.

    A couple of the responses to this blog post mentioned trees. I ran a search on the BSBI's online database, to find recorded occurrences of plants "in the wild" where the observer considered the species to have been planted. Of the 100 most widespread planted species, 98 are trees or woody shrubs. The other two were Nymphaea alba (White Water-lily) and Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrop).

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  5. Unofficial introductions mean one thing and one thing only: The official channels are dragging their feet.

    That is it. People want to improve their environment, and generally people want it to be done properly and safely, but too many of the official organisations who are supposed to be doing this are spinning their wheels and you can only get away with that for so long.

    Time is up for slow moving orgs. People have lost confidence in them. They have gone from the instrument of change, to impediments to them. And people are done waiting for them to do anything. The orgs need to either accept the criticisms and move quickly to restore confidence and begin their own real introductions [and no, a few beavers in a fenced in area doesn't count], or collapse into total irrelevance and obsolescence.

    The easiest thing they can do to restore confidence, and thus obviate the need for citizen activists, is to stop trying to get bad faith actors like farmers, anglers, and gamekeepers' approval. That is just a way to keep the spinning wheels spinning in place, and nobody is up for that anymore. Act or perish, is the new order of the day. Join the resistance, or be part of the regime being resisted.

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  6. It concerns me that this seems to be portrayed as a conflict between old-school botanists and conservationists carrying out what are often well-researched reintroduction projects. Provided there is consultation, proper documentation, reporting and monitoring, these projects have much to offer plant conservation, especially if they maintain local gene pools. But, in any case, they are dwarfed in scale by inappropriate and ill-informed wildflower sowing that goes on throughout Britain, often carried out by environmental organisations and/or using public funds.
    To give a few examples I've seen in the past 2 years: large scale seeding with agricultural legumes, including cultivars of kidney vetch and birdsfoot trefoil, by the Environment Agency within a SSSI/SAC/SPA/Ramsar site; a Wildlife Trust sowing a commercial chalk grassland mix over several hectares within an area of national importance for upland hay meadows; and proposals for a "Poppies and Pollinators Meadow", by a major ecological consultancy for a new road scheme crossing upland moorland.
    This kind of thing goes on unchallenged on a massive scale. Some perspective would be useful.

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  7. Rather than introduce endangered plants into existing valuable habitats it would be good if an interested organisation could buy a suitable piece of land and create an "Endangered Plants Park" In this "park" suitable habitats could be created - ponds marshy areas etc. to take the endangered plants. It would be a contained experiment if the land was not near habitats that the plants might naturally escape to. If successful it would also provide an endangered plants resource.

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  8. Just a comment on Josh Styles' remark: “A perfect example of a successful reintroduction is Brown Bog-rush which is only extant in the UK today because of translocation”.
    In fact this is in error.
    Brown Bog-rush (Schoenus ferrugineus) was known only by Loch Tummel, but was eradicated there by damming of the loch (1950). Prior to that, two populations had been established elsewhere by translocation (Ben Vrackie, 1945).
    However, more recent discoveries (late-1970s, etc.) of native populations mean that "TEN populations are currently known at SIX localities", near Blair Atholl [my emphasis], total about 12,000 plants (!). (See, e.g., British Red Data Books - Vascular Plants, 1999; New Atlas of Br & I Flora, 2002, etc., etc.)

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