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.
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.
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”.
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.