Cheshire Wildlife Trust on the fight to save the English bluebell
- Credit: Tom Marshall
There’s no clearer sign of spring than our woodland floors turning from browns and oranges to a sea of blue. However, the native English bluebell has a battle on its hands, as Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall discovers
‘We’d walk home with our arms full of spring’ was how one author in Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s recent book Cheshire’s Favourite Wildlife described his childhood experiences with that quintessential spring flower, the English bluebell.
Although a scene many of us would share, this seemingly innocent pastime has been just one of a number of factors that have gradually led to a slow decline in the fortunes of a flower that is as synonymous with spring as strawberries and cream are with Wimbledon.
With its subtle, delicate beauty bringing a riot of colour to the woodland floor, bluebells, like the ubiquitous daffodil, have always been an easy target for the kitchen table vase. Unfortunately, these seemingly endless blue carpets belie a loss that has been felt no more greatly than here in Cheshire – England’s least wooded county.
A gradual disappearance of their favoured ancient woodland (that which is more than 400 years old) providing the dappled sunlight they need, coupled with picking for the garden and home has seen our bluebell carpets rapidly becoming occasional rugs.
Along with the physical removal of bluebell plants and an overall loss of habitat, a challenge of a different kind has come from the non-native, invasive Spanish bluebell. Cross-pollinating – probably from imported garden varieties that have been introduced into the wild – has seen a slow erosion of the traditional and wholly English bluebell to the extent that in some areas, many plants are rapidly becoming hybrid populations.
So with the potential loss of an English countryside icon at stake, local bluebell lovers and conservationists have taken up a wartime motto – ‘dig for victory’.
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Perhaps surprisingly, the battle lines in this effort to bring back the English bluebell begin not in the warm days of spring but deep in the frost-dusted soil of winter.
From seeds collected earlier in the year at Barrowmore Estate near Chester, numb-fingers in woollen gloves carefully take baked-bean sized bulbs of our traditional Hyacinthoides non-scripta and nurture them in greenhouses until they are ready to dig deep – literally.
It can take seven years for bluebell bulbs to become ready to fulfil the ultimate accolade of decorating the woodland floor, and throughout this time they remain hidden under the muddy boots of Roy Probyn and his team at Barrowmore.
When the day comes, usually in early winter, the bulbs are gently teased from their underground slumber and packed into boxes by the hundred, ready to rejuvenate woodlands across Cheshire.
This careful and considered regime has seen over 7,000 bluebell bulbs transplanted into more than a dozen woodlands in the last two years alone, and there are tens of thousands more ready to help win the war.
This hands-on approach doesn’t stop there though, as each individual bulb then receives very special attention as one of the 500 or so planted in each specially chosen site, identified by Cheshire Wildlife Trust along with local community groups and local authorities.
From established forests and parks that have seen their bluebell cover shrinking by the year, to newly planted woodlands where the bulbs can emerge and develop as the woodland matures, the project is giving the English bluebell the best chance to recover.
But it’s not just about maintaining the chocolate-box aesthetic of our countryside, there’s much more at stake too, says Sarah Bennett, biodiversity manager at Cheshire Wildlife Trust. ‘Bluebells are critical to our understanding of the woodland ecosystem. Along with a small handful of other species, they’re what we call ancient woodland ‘indicators’ – those plants that tell us that when a habitat is well established, balanced and healthy. For the most part, the right conditions for bluebells don’t happen overnight, but over centuries.
‘That’s why when we see bluebells, we know we’re looking at a fragile site that may have been a home for wildlife for hundreds of years. When you remove either the whole site or just the bluebells themselves you start to tip the balance for nature.’
With early-emerging spring insects like moths, butterflies and bees reliant on bluebells, there’s a bigger picture than simply providing a colourful backdrop to a spring stroll.
‘With bluebells out of the picture, our woodlands would start to look very different,’ Sarah added.
It’s not just the wildlife that’s getting a welcome boost from the project, as local communities have come together too; from Scout and school groups, to local businesses, special needs colleges and Barrowmore Estate’s own disability and learning difficulties teams all taking this hands-on approach to re-building lost landscapes.
‘Our volunteers love to see the bluebells coming up each spring,’ said Roy from Barrowmore. ‘It’s good for the guys here on the estate as they can see how much they’re helping people, after the hard work of collecting the seeds, sowing them, harvesting and finally preparing the blubs.
‘There might be up to a million bulbs beneath our feet here at Barrowmore, so there’s no reason why we can’t keep up the good work for years to come.’
So it seems all is not lost for the English bluebell in Cheshire. With arms full of spring perhaps no longer the best way to treat our favourite bell-shaped blooms, it looks like there’ll be arms full of bluebell bulbs instead to keep rolling out the blue carpet each year.
Since 1998, trade in the sale of wild bluebell seeds or bulbs has been banned, and it has been illegal to remove bluebells from the wild since the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.
If you do want to purchase bluebells, make sure you’re getting the real deal – Hyacinthoides non-scripta – the English bluebell.
Mislabelling can be a problem, and if you’re not sure your local garden centre has got it right, don’t buy them. The origin of cultivated bulbs for sale should be clearly indicated, and not shown as ‘wild’.
Introducing Spanish bluebells by planting or careless disposal of compost may only add to the challenge facing conservationists.
The Cheshire Bluebell Recovery Project began in 1996 and is managed by the Cheshire Bluebell Action Group, which includes Cheshire Wildlife Trust, The Mersey Forest and the Cheshire Region Biological Records Centre (RECORD) and supported by WREN (Waste Recycling Environmental), The Linley Shaw Foundation and Cheshire West and Chester Council.
How do I know?
Only our native English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) boasts the classic ‘drooping’ stem to one side, with deep, violet blue flowers that are scented. Pollen is also cream in colour.
Hybrid English/Spanish bluebells may have paler, almost white flowers, little scent and thicker leaves.
Non-native Spanish bluebells are generally much larger, with leaves up to 30cm (a foot), upright stems and flowers that appear less bell-shaped. They can also come in pink colours, with no scent and have dark blue pollen.
Where to see bluebells
Bluebell Cottage, Dutton, Weaver Vale: A wonderful woodland bluebell spread, owned and looked after by former BBC Gardener of the Year, Sue Beesley. www.bluebellcottage.co.uk.
Cheshire Wildlife Trust nature reserves: The Trust’s woodland reserves, many of which are 400-year old ancient woodlands, boast carpets of bluebells and other spring wildflowers. www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife/reserves.
Rode Hall, Alsager: The home of Sir Richard Baker-Wilbraham, the estate’s delightful bluebell walk is one of the best in the county. Visit the website for opening times in late April and early May. www.rodehall.co.uk.