Readers of this blog will probably be familiar with Plantlife, the plant conservation charity. They do significant work around the country managing land and raising awareness of the importance of wildflowers and the crisis they are in. I’m grateful for their work. The senior people I’ve heard and met from Plantlife know their potatoes and are good communicators, charismatic and impressive.
In terms of the UK conservation world they’re a relatively large, well funded charity. Their turnover is around £3.5 million and their income is largely from government agencies and organisations like the Heritage Lottery Fund. They have over 50 people in their head office and many other volunteers and outreach officers. Their PR is fabulous; as a charity with Prince Charles as patron they are regularly on Radio 4, for example, as they were this morning talking about their Wildflower Hunt (an interesting project). They have over 28 thousand Twitter followers and specialists running their social media feeds. Their website SEO is professional and the site ranks well in searches. This is all great for wildflowers.
Plantlife don’t seem to like the wildflower seed business. Last year this became apparent in the McMeadows fiasco. They attacked the industry in a pretty ill-informed and unhelpful way. People – including me – were very upset. Essentially they don’t like “off the shelf” wildflower seed mixes of any sort, regardless of quality, origin or provenance. All suppliers, good, bad and ugly were lumped in together.
At the time I made the point that we should encourage the development of an economically viable and responsible wildflower seed business, not undermine it. There are very few folk scratching a living out of wildflower seed at the moment, battling people selling imported seed, non-native species and agricultural cultivars as “UK wildflowers”.
NGOs don’t have the resources or incentives to do what the commercial sector can potentially contribute. On a practical basis, if 97% if your wildflower meadows have disappeared then it’s difficult to source local plant material in the way that Plantlife would like us to, in anything like the volume required. They should engage with the good guys and we can all work together.
We pay farmers to let us harvest seed from their meadows, for example, and then sell it. Guess what? They then seed more meadows as they can see a return from them. We have set up a website to enable small specialists to sell their locally harvested meadow seed mixes. It’s to our advantage to encourage people to buy them. These are simple instances of aligning commercial and ecological interests.
I understood Plantlife’s views might have changed since, as they learnt more about the business. I’d heard some encouraging things from them. Out of curiosity I checked their website this morning to see if that was reflected there. In fairness, there was no recent McMeadows stuff. I did find this in their policy document, though:
Planting wildflower seed mixes doesn’t conserve wild flowers or restore fragmented habitats. Worse, it could threaten the distinctiveness and natural genetic variation of our local flora. Our challenge is to conserve wild flowers whilst maintaining their essential wildness. Rather than reaching for a packet of wildflower seed, the Plantlife to-do list looks like this…
Well – yes, sort of. The plant material is often not available to do what they would like us to – that’s the point. You can, however, buy packets of some direct harvest local wildflower seed mixes. The more people we encourage to buy them the more there would be available. Local provenance is something we very much promote, although even the arguments about that are complicated – far, far over my head!
Anyway, although you can disagree with the message at least it’s consistent. But then – just as I was about to close my browser – I noticed that Plantlife now have a shop. I couldn’t believe what they were selling.
Wildflower seed mixes in packets.+
You can understand why I was so gobsmacked. These are the very wildflower seed mixes they disapprove of when sold by other people. This isn’t just unfair, it’s utter humbug.
Plantlife have a huge and obvious competitive advantage over someone trying to make a living out of selling wildflower seed. In some ways this is a good thing, of course – much better to buy Plantlife seed from John Chambers than some cr@p off Amazon or Ebay. In other ways it’s clearly not.
The RHS commercial arm ran into similar accusations of unfair advantage, which they at least partly resolved by promoting good quality UK nurseries and growers, through their Plant Finder scheme and magazine, for example. It would be really, really helpful if Plantlife did something similar.
*You knew there would be a but.
+AND sourced from one of our competitors – doh!