Take three woodland wildflowers


The thrill of seeing Herb Paris in the wild in Britain stays with me. In the roundabout way that these things happen, I was growing the plant in the garden before I realised it was one of our native woodland wildflowers. What attracted me to it originally was that it seemed to be a cousin of the showy spring-flowered trilliums, native woodland plants that we had seen growing in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Eastern America, and which we just had to get for our garden.

We bought the trilliums at a Harrogate Spring Flower Show, finding the Herb Paris there as well, along with other wildflowers that we had seen in the Smokies, such as foam flower, false Solomon’s seal (smilacina) and goats-beard. We also bought a Mayflower or May lily, a woodland plant that had glossy green, heart shaped leaves. All these plants thrived in our woodland garden and, within two years, we were off again, to Canada and America to walk the western woodlands. We saw many trilliums, but also other wonderful woodland wildflowers like vanilla leaf and the red-flowered Clinton bead lily (we had seen its Eastern, yellow-flowered cousin in the Smokies) as well as plants in the wild that we had growing in our garden already such as fringe cups (tellima) and alumroot (heuchera). In another delightful recognition, we saw many drifts of Mayflower, growing wild in often quite shady woodland, and wherever we happened to dive in, such as in small woodland around the suburbs of Vancouver.

We now spend a lot of our time walking woodland in Britain with the hope that there will be more exciting discoveries to come, and with the occasional foray to woodland abroad. It was while walking in the woodland of the Triglav National Park in Slovenia that we next came across Mayflower, although in Europe it is May lily, a very similar species to the North American wildflower. We found the May lily fruiting there, as we did Herb Paris, but another plant from the woodland lily family was also fruiting, whorled Solomon’s-seal. The latter is a cousin to the native Solomon’s-seal of British woodland that differs by having its leaves in a ring around the stem rather than on either side. As you would expect, we soon bought some of this whorled Solomon’s-seal for the garden.

Herb Paris, whorled Solomon’s-seal and May lily grow in woodland throughout continental Europe - they are widely spread native woodlanders in at least 19 European countries (1). It had been a marvellous pleasure to discover that Herb Paris was a native of Britain, and to find it growing wild only a few miles from us. It was a surprise then later to read that the whorled Solomon’s-seal and May lily that we have in our garden are also native woodland flowers (2), as we have yet to come across them in the wild in Britain. The reason why is simple, both plants are rare and their conservation status on the Red List for Britain is classified as vulnerable (3).

Some plants will always be rare, but rarity can mean different things (2). In the case of these two woodland plants, it’s the number of locations that is small, rather than necessarily the number of plants in those locations. Thus there are only nine sites known for whorled Solomon’s-seal, and all of those are in the Tay River catchment in Perthshire (4). The story is no better for May lily, as there are really only three locations where the populations are considered to be native – at sites in Co Durham, N Yorkshire and Lincolnshire – with a very few others, such as in North Norfolk where the plant is thought to be introduced (4). In comparison, Herb Paris can be found in over 380 of the 10 kilometre square grid locations (hectads) on the floral atlas for Britain (5). Even Herb Paris though, an indicator plant of ancient woodland, is considered to be on the decline (1).

Whorled Solomon’s-seal and May lily share ancient woodland plant characteristics with Herb Paris. All three are non-bulbous geophytes, being perennial wildflowers with a bud-like underground, or near surface, food storage organ. This property gives them the edge, in common with bulbing geophytes like bluebells, in being able to start into growth early in the year and thrive in the shade of woodland. In the main, these non-bulbous geophytes spread by creeping rhizomes because their flowering and fruiting is low and variable according to the amount of light, and also moisture in the case of whorled Solomon’s-seal. Their creeping behaviour makes them very susceptible to physical disturbance and also severely limits their ability to spread from one suitable habitat location to another, unlike birds, butterflies, mammals, and the more mobile, open landscape plant species. Thus these woodland plants are only safe and stable if their habitat is unchallenged and undisturbed. Each loss of their habitat inevitably results in a lost population of the wildflower, never to be regained (6).

It has to be said that both whorled Solomon’s-seal and May lily are more choosy about their woodland habitat than Herb Paris, with the respective needs of the rarities being lush sub-montane deciduous woodland that is moist and base rich, and deciduous woodland with light, free-draining acidic soil. Both these woodland habitat types have markedly diminished over the millennia in Britain, becoming isolated by fragmentation: the lush sub-montane woodland through habitat destruction and grazing out by livestock; the woodland on well-drained acidic soils invariably ended up being cleared and turned into lowland heath (2, 4). As Richard Deakin says in his book Wildwood, we have “carelessly lost more of our woods than any other country in Europe” (7).

What are we to do about these two, rare and vulnerable native woodland plants?

Simon Barnes, in his Wild Notebook in the Times, is fond of saying that conservation works. As a birdist, Barnes is fortunate in having much evidence to support his contention since we designate and manage large areas of our landscape under the EU wild birds directive as Special Protection Areas for bird species (8); many of these same birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA) 1981 (9); and they also feature in the Species Action Plans of the priority listing for birds in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) (10). There’s a lot going for these birds: big voices making a case for them like the RSPB, lots of public money, and a burgeoning conservation industry to spend it. I doubt, however, if there is a single moment of contrition in the current craze for restoring and creating lowland heath for birds, especially by the RSPB who think they can do much more than the current target for lowland heath in the UKBAP (see their ‘Raising our sites’ target in (11)). Do any of these heathland zealots consider that the original clearing of woodland on free draining, acid soils and creation of these heathland landscapes led to the obliteration of what were once probably extensive populations of May lily in Britain?

As it is, whorled Solomon’s-seal has a history of loss from being collected from the wild for planting in gardens, as well as suffering from the destruction and decline of its characteristic habitat. Hence it is protected under the WCA 1981 from picking, uprooting or trading. It is also listed as a priority plant species in the UKBAP, but there is no Species Action Plan for it, so I am not sure why, unless it got on the UKBAP list because someone noticed it was protected under WCA 1981? May lily isn’t on any list other than the ones that say it and whorled Solomon’s-seal are rare and vulnerable. Let’s just ponder what vulnerable means here – there is a high risk of their extinction in the wild unless we protect the remaining few populations of these wildflowers (3). That doesn’t even allow for any expectation that the distribution of these wildflowers can, or will be increased.

It is clear that the loudest and most connected voices in Britain get to have their say on what is a priority in nature conservation – just look at the UKBAP process for confirmation of this, and the composition of the various advisory committees on species and landscapes (12). Were you ever asked about any of this? If I wanted to make the suggestion, how would I give weight to the idea of reintroducing May lily around Britain by artificially spreading it at suitable locations? It is a tempting idea when you consider that pretty much all of the industrialised nature conservation going on around us is just gardening on a landscape scale! On the back of that suggestion, I could also make the case for leaving secondary native woodland regeneration uncleared and untouched on lowland heath since it is a natural reinstatement of what would be the rightful habitat for the May lily.

I wonder if Ashdown Forest was one of the original sites for May lily?

The heathland at Ashdown Forest, on Hastings Sands, resulted from early woodland clearance, and is now one of the contemporary battle grounds between conservation professionals who want to hold back natural woodland regeneration on this area designated an SPA, and local people who despair at the perfunctory way that the trees are cleared and expensive grazing schemes introduced (see Changing face of Ashdown Forest). As is the way with conservation professionals beleaguered by local public opinion, a Forest Stakeholder Engagement Program (i.e. consultation process) was launched by the Board of Conservators of the Ashdown Forest, but with all the bias and predetermination that has come to be expected of these processes – it would be remarkably familiar to anyone who took part in the consultation on Blacka Moor (see Four Strands of Barbed Wire – a Blacka Moor update).

When the public at a meeting in Hartfield last June were asked for their views on the management of Ashdown Forest, much of the meeting was taken up with disapproval of the winter tree felling (13):
One man said he felt so emotional about the trees cut down along Priory Road in Forest Row he did not want to go back into the forest……Many residents told the Conservators they wanted the forest to grow naturally.”

With an eye firmly on the issue, the Conservators present at the meeting were told that the forest had to move on and grow "Stop hanging on to some arbitrary idea of what the forest was like in the past." The past in this case was not the original natural woodland that would have covered the area, but the later heath created by early farmers clearing the woodland, and the more recent history of keeping it clear of trees by commoners grazing the heath with livestock. We can get an indication of how the contention arises from one of the documents produced by the consultation facilitators (‘engagement professionals’?) where they tease out why it is that the conservation professionals are so out of step with the public (14):
“The need to maintain a balance between heathland and woodland needs to be communicated more effectively…..The importance of heathland is, perhaps, not appreciated by all the public in the same way it is by the staff and Conservators of the Forest.”

As many people at the Hartfield meeting suspected (15), this consultation process was unlikely to influence the outcome of the management plans for Ashdown Forest as their trajectory had already been set by the conservation orthodoxy of the staff employed by the Board of Conservators, and by the ability of the staff to defend their decisions by hiding behind the SSSI and SPA designations covering Ashdown Forest that focus management on maintaining heath for birds. Let us also not forget the UKBAP targets for lowland heath that conservation professionals fall over themselves to contribute to. Sure enough, the Strategic Forest Plan that was eventually delivered confirmed this, particularly with its careless prejudice about the existing woodland in Ashdown Forest when it says that much of the woodland is of “relatively low biodiversity value”. (The wording in the copy of the Forest Plan posted on the Ashdown Forest website was altered from the paper copy I first saw to “relatively poor for wildlife” – see (16)).

Bending farming subsidy

What I find so perverse about this situation is the way public funding is being bent to fulfil the fixations of the conservation industry for land that is in local public ownership. The recent tree felling that so incensed local people around Ashdown Forest was funded by money from the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), a farming subsidy that was intended to pay farmers for lessening the environmental impact of their farming. Except that there is little farming use made of Ashdown Forest now since – to the despair of the conservation professionals - few of the commoners exercise their rights to graze livestock on the common. More public money was paid by English Nature (now Natural England) to a member of staff of the Conservators to produce two reports that encapsulated the dead hand orthodoxy of heathland restoration and management, and particularly dwelt upon on the difficulties that commons present to conservation professionals because legislation prevents them from fencing them off so that they can throw on grazing livestock, their favourite conservation tool (17, 18).

It doesn’t stop there, as the Conservators now get paid under the Higher Level Scheme (HLS) of environmental stewardship funding, the farming subsidy scheme that replaced the CSS. This pays for the salary of the Conservation Officer, the member of staff that wrote the grazing reports and, bizarrely, it also paid for the consultation process, which Natural England were very keen to observe since there is a considerable recent history of public dissent at tree felling and the imposition of fencing and conservation grazing schemes (18, 19). Natural England are probably rattled about challenges to the management of SSSIs on heathland commons and moorlands since it will undermine their reaching of the Public Service Agreement target on the condition of SSSIs. The the main use, however, of the HLS funding in conservation terms is in paying for a close-herding shepherdess, her working dogs, Blackberry PDA, and a flock of cute Hebridean sheep that she moves around the Forest for grazing management, the close herding getting around the need for fencing. In a public relations charm offensive, the shepherdess uses her Blackberry to update a 'sheep blog' on the Ashdown Forest website (20). The twee-ness of this blog, its recruitment of visiting school parties to the cause by suggesting they have been won-over to the grazing, and the fact that the positive comments posted about blog entries come from other staff members, makes this somewhat nauseating. (I wonder why the identification of staff funded out of HLS is shown in the paper copy of the Strategic Forest Plan, but is missing from the later website copy?)

Local people taking authority

The events at Ashdown Forest over this last year must have been disheartening for the members of the Ashdown Forest Action Group, formed in opposition to the proposals for fencing and sheep grazing of the Forest (21). It may be difficult for them to sustain their opposition, but they must know they are not alone in rejecting the juggernauts of the conservation industry. The number of protestors on the petition to the National Trust over their management of Harting Down is now over 200 (see Harting Down –obsession with conserving man made landscapes). Even when the conservation professionals think they have weathered the storm of criticism and no longer have to care what local people think of them, then the doggedness of a few continues, as is happening with the Friends of Blacka Moor (22) and with the Blacka Blogger who documents the wild values of this moorland landscape, and how it is being degraded through the management by a wildlife trust (23).

The publicly owned Blacka Moor, gifted in the 1930’s for the recreational use of local people, was absorbed into the empire building reserve network of Sheffield Wildlife Trust (SWT) when it was leased to them by the City Council. The moorland had mostly been untouched for 70 years, but farmification of this erroneously designated SPA/SSSI began almost immediately after the disingenuous consultation process had ended, with the imposition of barbed wire fences and the public relations charm offensive of grazing cute Highland cattle. A condition of leasing was that SWT had to carry on meetings with local people in a Reserve Advisory Group (RAG). In a breathtaking move to stifle continuing local opposition from loyal users of the moor, SWT last July threw out five local people from attending the RAG meetings. If they hadn’t done so, then perhaps SWT would have avoided the debacle in January of chopping down trees on the moor that had been planted 30 years ago in commemoration of a long-serving officer of the Ramblers Association.

It can sometimes seem that much of our nature conservation practice is driven by the needs of birds, as is the case of the SPAs at Ashdown and at Blacka. It’s the easy assumption of conservation professionals that all the appropriate bird species will promptly take up residence in any semi-natural habitat that we are capable of manufacturing. This is of course pretty useless when it comes to expanding our native woodland since many woodland species like the ancient woodland indicator plants have little mobility. However, the existence of naturally regenerated secondary woodland is normally an indication of a better potential for the quality of newly regenerated woodland habitat than would be the case if an improved pasture or an arable field were planted with trees. But it is that very woodland on lowland and upland heaths that is persecuted: at Ashdown where we will never know whether it was an original site for May lily, and who knows what native woodlanders were lost with the clearing of the original woodland on Blacka Moor?

It is clear that local protest at the conservation juggernaut is unlikely any time soon to overturn the multiple layers of conservation legislation and designation that are at the heart of the problem, let alone cause a miraculous conversion in the conservation industry away from their fixation on managing landscapes for birds. But local communities can make strides in taking back authority over their public landscapes so that there is a reigning-in and a challenge to the hegemony of the conservation professionals. At Ashdown Forest, local parish councils have been making the case for having a greater say by seeking membership of the Board of Conservators (24). As a parish councillor myself, involved in a forum process for local, publicly owned moorland, I thoroughly support this move. However, the issues raised over the legal context for representation on the Board, identified during the Governance Meetings of the Ashdown Forest Consultation Process (25), strongly support the longer term aim of the Ashdown Forest Action Group to have the Ashdown Forest Act 1974 revised. Moreover, the Governance Meetings have raised issues about the operation of the Ashdown Forest Trust, the Charitable Trust set up 1988 to take Ashdown Forest into public ownership, and how this in turn impinges on the representation and operation of the Board of Conservators.

At Blacka Moor, a member of the Friends group took the issue of SWT arrogance towards local opinion to a Scrutiny Board of the City Council. The Council’s solicitor confirmed that the Council or members of the public had a right to seek information from those organisations to whom public land had been leased, and that there should be mechanisms for members of the public to approach the organisation, as well as a complaints procedure. The Board agreed and passed a resolution requiring various heads of Council Departments to report back on measures that ensured that leases included “mechanisms to ensure that the public have access to question the organisation concerned and influence its decisions where appropriate” and details of how the terms of leases are enforced by the Council by reference to the recent examples relating to the “disposal of land at Castle Dyke, Ringinglow and Blacka Moor” (26).

It is perhaps the passing of this City Council resolution that moved the Director of SWT to write to me at inexorable length, inviting me to balance my opinion by learning about SWT’s aims from their reserve manager for Blacka Moor. Not until SWT reinstates those five local people to the RAG!

Mark Fisher 4 February 2008

This is the first in a series of three articles. It is followed by Swineholes Wood - 'Too many trees being cut down', 18 Feb 2008 and then High price for heath - Loxley and Wadsley Commons 8 March 2008

(1) Species database, Ecological Flora of the British Isles www.ecoflora.co.uk

(2) Britain's Rare Flowers, Peter Marren (1999) T & AD Poyser ISBN 0-85661-114-X

(3) The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain. Species Status 7, Cheffings, C.M. & Farrell, L. (Eds), Dines, T.D., Jones, R.A., Leach, S.J., McKean, D.R., Pearman, D.A., Preston, C.D., Rumsey, F.J., Taylor, I. (2005) Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough  www.jncc.gov.uk/pdf/pub05_speciesstatusvpredlist3_web.pdf

(4) Taxon details for Maianthemum bifolium and Polygonatum verticillatum, National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary www.nhm.ac.uk/nbn/

(5) Species search for Paris quadrifolia, NBN Gateway www.searchnbn.net

(6) Natural Woodland - Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions, George F. Peterken (1996) Cambridge Uni. Press ISBN 0-521-36792-1

(7) Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin (2007) Hamish Hamilton ISBN: 978-0241141847

(8) Species Accounts, Special Protection Areas, JNCC www.jncc.gov.uk/page-1418

(9) Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 www.jncc.gov.uk/page-3614

(10) UK List of Priority Species and Habitats, UKBAP JNCC www.ukbap.org.uk/NewPriorityList.aspx

(11) Futurescapes: large-scale habitat restoration for wildlife and people, RSPB (2001)


(12) Priorities Review Group, UKBAP JNCC www.ukbap.org.uk/bapgrouppage.aspx?id=16

(13) Anger Follows Forest Felling, Courier, 14 June 2007 thisiscourier

(14) Ashdown Forest Consultation Plan – Updated July 2007, 3KQ, Ashdown Forest (this may have disappeared off the website)


(15) Transcript of Ashdown Forest Workshop No. 4 - Public Consultation Process held on 11 June 2007 at the Hartfield, 3KQ, Ashdown Forest www.ashdownforest.org/docs/Transcript%20Hartfield.pdf

(16) Strategic Forest Plan of the Board of Conservators of Ashdown Forest 2008-2016 www.ashdownforest.org/docs/Draft_Forest_Plan.pdf

(17) Ashdown Forest -A review of grazing, C.J. Marrable (2003) English Nature Research Reports No 535

(18) Ashdown Forest Grazing Action Plan, C.J. Marrable (2004) English Nature Research Reports No 602

(19) South East Commons and their Conservation Management, Entec (2005) English Nature and the Countryside Agency


(20) Sheep Blog of the Close-herded Shepherding Project, Ashdown Forest www.ashdownforest.org/blog.html

(21) Ashdown Forest Action Group www.ashdownforestactiongroup.co.uk

(22) Friends of Blacka Moor http://friendsofblackamoor.co.uk

(23) Blacka Moor – an independent view www.theblackamoorsite.blogspot.com

(24) Third Governance Meeting, 19 September 2007, Ashdown Forest Consultation Process


(25) Fourth Governance Meeting, 18 October 2007, Ashdown Forest Consultation Process


(26) Culture, Economy and Sustainability Scrutiny and Policy Development Board Minutes 20th September 2007, Sheffield City Council



www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk