The Truth Will Out?

I recently read a thought provoking and rather poignant ‘guest blog’ by Lizzie Wilberforce (who I believe works for The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales) on Mark Avery’s blog (http://markavery.info/blog/).

What interested me was to see her highlighting the coming of the ‘post-truth’ world to conservation. To quote:

‘Over the last ten years, across the suite of charities and agencies with which I regularly work, I have seen all manner of damaging behaviour defended as activity necessary to raise the profile of a project, or organisation. I have seen charities use slogans that are ecologically illiterate, just because the appeal of their simplicity is deemed more important than a nuanced but accurate message. I have seen charities quietly try to out-bid each other for land acquisitions. I have seen attempts to suppress criticism of agencies failing in their statutory environmental duties because of the importance of the funding relationship. I have seen innumerable press releases from all manner of charities dispensing with accuracy and moderation in their description of a story, in order to trample their competitors to the front page with a cute picture and a feelgood headline.’

There are a whole range of issues here, but it’s the widespread abandonment of the facts that bothers me, and this is an issue that I will be returning to again and again. To give just one recent example, the latest issue of The Garden (the magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society) celebrates ‘Hosts of golden daffodils bloom again’ (January 2017, p.9). According to the RHS, wild daffodils are now a ‘rare sight’, but help is at hand because 25,000 Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp. pseudonarcissus and native Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) will bloom after being planted at 11 English Heritage properties around the country, including on the Isle of Wight, Warwickshire and Bedfordshire. Apparently this will help secure the future of wild daffodils.

There are several problems with this. The first, and most problematic for me, is the statement that wild daffodils are a ‘rare sight’. It is hard to be sure of Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp. pseudonarcissus’s native range in Britain, as daffodils are so commonly planted (or thrown out by gardeners, ending up on road verges or woodland edges – just about anywhere you can pull-up and chuck out a bag of garden rubbish). But, as far as can be told, as a true native wild flower Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp. pseudonarcissus has a scattered but very definite distribution in Britain, with concentrations in, for example, the Lake District and around the Severn and Wye Valleys. Within its native range there have been some declines (an apparent loss from around 15% of the historical range), but nothing startling. In the UK as a whole and in England its conservation status is ‘Least Concern’. On the contrary, in some areas it is common (e.g. in Gloucestershire – see the photo – in Worcestershire, where the new Flora states that ‘long-known native populations are locally common in the west’, and in Bedfordshire, where the 2011 Flora states that ‘the native populations are still present and, in fact, are reasonably healthy’).

The Garden refers to Plantlife (the wild plant conservation charity) for its assessment of the status of wild daffodil, and that’s a story in itself, but the fact is that the RHS are talking nonsense. RHS members are getting the ‘feelgood headline’, but this initiative seems to be more about gardening and less about conservation, and certainly not much to do with the facts.

Simon Harrap, 22 December 2016

Abundant native Daffodils in Gloucestershire

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