Category Archives: Plant conservation

Launching the State of Nature: building diversity & having fun

On Wednesday 14 September, the State of Nature partnership launched the second State of Nature report. At its launch in Edinburgh, I gave this speech. I was aiming to help people remember what fun nature can be and  inspire them to act with us to save nature. Let me know of your memories of nature and the memories you would like to foster for future generations. Here or on twitter @DeborahlLong #nature memory

(c) Plantllife; Bill Baillie
(c) Plantllife; Bill Baillie

Let me start with a massive and heartfelt thank you! THANK YOU to all the volunteers who have contributed the data on which this report is built. It would not exist without the estimated 60,000 hours of volunteer time (and that is just part of the data collecting volunteer team – there are another 66,000 getting out mending paths and fences, and leading walks) dedicated to Scotland’s nature.
They have witnessed and verified first hand the decline in species. What are they seeing? More to the point, what are they not seeing?

Have you seen a moth snowstorm this summer? A murmuration of starlings? A shiver of basking sharks? A coterie of orchids?

(c) Jim Jermyn
(c) Jim Jermyn

We are all witnesses to the decline in species diversity across Scotland to such a point that 9% of our species are now at risk of extinction.
Does it matter that we, and our children are much less likely nowadays to see a curlew, a mountain pansy or a common blue butterfly? Our children are much less likely to be finding newts in their pond, collecting ladybirds from the field or making whistles from elder trees. Does that matter?
Well yes I would say. That sort of experience is what enriches a childhood and fires the imagination. But even beyond that it also matters because our ecosystems across Scotland are becoming more simplified. They have fewer species, which results in less diversity, which in turns leads to less resilience to change. A simplified ecosystem is one much more likely to fall over in times of change – times of climate change even. We have measured this through the Biodiversity Intactness Index, which in Scotland falls below the 90% levels recognised as the level beyond which our ecosystems can reliably met society’s needs. And while that sounds dry and boring, these ecosystem services include those we know about like flood prevention and fertile soils, as well as those we don’t know about but still take from granted: future medicines and alternatives to plastic for instance.
Scotland trades on our image: Scotland is renowned across the world for its majestic landscapes and species diversity.  Where else can you see alpine gentians growing next to arctic cloudberry? Nowheere else of course. But we are not doing enough to conserve it and with it our own future.
So what can we do other than drown our sorrows with the help of a Botanist gin? What can we all resolve to do so that the next State of Nature report shows us a reverse in this decline?
We need to work together. This report show how, when we work together, we can achieve good things. Look at the examples in the report. Then, if you already volunteer – thank you and please carry on. If you don’t, how about it? There is a very exciting range of opportunities out there and again the organisations in this partnership can help you get involved or inspire you to get involved.

And finally use this report, and its sister report, Response to the State of Nature, launched last year, to implement change in your own area of work. Use the report, reflect on its messages and join us in doing something about it. Biodiversity loss is the biggest threat to the world but has been largely forgotten. This report shows why that is a dangerous oversight.
We need nature – much more than it needs us. In Scotland, we’re making good progress towards climate change and the government’s targets. But we’re only tackling half the story. There are only two ways to combat climate change: one through reducing emissions and one through maintaining species diversity so our ecosystems are able to sequester carbon. Scotland has positioned itself as a world leader in setting and attaining targets on emissions reductions and it could equally become a world leader in enhancing biodiversity and its attendant sequestration capability. Until we reverse the decline in biodiversity across Scotland, our future, and our children’s future is getting less diverse, and dare I say it, less fun , every day.
So help us make a difference, bake blaeberry tarts, make nettle string, watch an eagle soar. And with it, your resolve to help halt the loss of Scotland’s amazing nature.


Yes, no mebbe…does the nation care about native plants?

In Autumn every year, Scottish Natural Heritage commissions a public attitude survey about nature [1] . Scotland loves its native plants, doesn’t it?

Scotland’s informal national anthem is ’Flower of Scotland’, Scotland’s national poet had a penchant for wild flowers, his wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r being one of many to feature in his poems, Scotland has a national tree, the Scots pine and, as Hugh MacDiarmid had it, hills that are so much more than nothing but heather. Despite all this, it seems flowers are still not part of Scotland’s natural psyche.

Spear thistle
Spear thistle

When asked what wildlife do you associate most with Scotland, not a single plant, or even tree, was named. I find this hard to believe. Plants define Scotland’s landscapes. Where would machair be without flowers, where would Celtic rainforests be without lichens and bryophytes? Where would the uplands be without heather?

Maybe plants aren’t seen as wildlife? This survey strongly indicates this might be the case: we still not winning the battle of hearts and minds. Plants provide the backdrop but haven’t yet found their way onto centre stage. They remain the wallflowers at the biodiversity ball.

Does this matter? Yes it does.

It is resulting in wild plants being invisible. Plants are not seen as part of wildlife. In 2015, fewer people were concerned about the loss of biodiversity than in 2014. The public is becoming less engaged in biodiversity at home in the garden, fewer people see themselves as green consumers and fewer people are volunteering.

Wild plants are invisible to politicians and policy makers too. Native plant diversity is continuing to decline: in 2007, the Countryside Survey showed significant declines in plant diversity in the best places for plants, as well as in the wider countryside. Even this survey, the only one that monitored long term changes in plant diversity, is no longer funded. This is resulting in an ongoing decline that we can’t see and no longer measure.

And there is the rub. With plants and fungi being invisible to policy makers, there are fewer and fewer resources allocated to them. Funding to the Countryside Survey is being cut and governments across the UK are relying on a new citizen science project [2], run by Plantlife with CEH and BSBI, to assess changes in wild plants. It will take at least 6 years before we have enough data to detect trends, and funding for the survey is only guaranteed until next year. Funding for actual conservation projects is drying up with cuts to SNH grants and no other funders prioritise plant conservation.

The net result will be a continued decline in plant diversity and the concomitant decline in ecosystem diversity, leading to simplified ecosystems. Plantlife’s Vanishing flora report [3], showed the ongoing loss of diversity in plants. Since the 17th century when botanical records began, Scotland has lost 97 native species. And of those left, one in 4 are classified as in danger of extinction.

At Plantlife we want to celebrate our fantastic, life-supporting flora and celebrate our long term love affair with our native plants. But to do that, we need more people to notice them and to value them. That’s the only way we’ll persuade our politicians and policy makers to put resources into plants and fungi conservation. Because if they don’t we’ll continue to be witness to the ongoing loss of native plants across Scotland. That is not a legacy we should be passing on.

Want to help?

With Scottish Environment LINK, Plantlife will be asking all our new MSPs to become Species Champions. Keep an eye on progress here:

Take part in the NPMS to help measure plant diversity across Scotland:




Plantlife at 25: 25 years of plant conservation in Scotland

Plantlife is 25 years old this year. On 11 March, we celebrated with an event at Stirling Castle where I cast my eyes forward, looking for the end of the rainbow…

(c) Dominic Habron
(c) Dominic Habron

To quote Iris Murdoch: ‘people from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.’ It is the beauty and diversity of Scotland’s flowers that get my team and I to work every morning and give us the impetus to keep going.

Over the last 25 years we’ve have had our successes and we’ve faced our challenges. Plants are still the wallflowers at the biodiversity ball. Today, while attention and fashion shifts from species and habitats work to healthy ecosystems and ecosystem services, we still have a big job to do. And we see that job as providing clarity on conservation and providing inspiration to keep going and try something new. If we cast our eyes forward, what is tomorrow’s colour for conservation?

It’s not all about being green …. It’s actually an entire rainbow.

Plant conservation is all about colour. Conserving the colour in our countryside is how we put it. This means managing the full diversity of amazing and unique habitats we have here in Scotland.

So what’s making us see red?
Homogenisation and monotony. Scotland has such a wide variety of habitats and species in it. Our geographic location and our geology have bequeathed us with colour. Our Important Plant Areas (IPAs) show what we have: over the next few years, we want to see out IPAs cherished and protected. And outside of them, we want to see our farmland managed with nature in mind. We want to see support for high Nature Value Farming and Forestry and we want to see land managers being paid to deliver the public goods, we and the rest of the public want to see – more biodiversity, more plants and fungi across the country. Let’s make managing for wild plants a normal part of everyday farming.

Orange is the colour of joy:
Over the next 2 years, we will be rolling out our new HLF supported Celtic rainforest project in the west coast IPA, concentrating on Argyll and with our outdoor education centre partners getting school children out into our Celtic rainforest, taking up our new John Muir Trust Celtic Rainforest Discovery Award and dragging their parents out too. Let’s ensure every child in Scotland gets to sniff moss, make nettle string and draw in fungus ink.

The shaft of yellow:
We’re looking for funding for a new project to bring the generations together to enjoy wild plants and fungi and to learn from each other. Our volunteer flora guardians are generally older people with a great and building font of knowledge. Our children are increasingly isolated from nature. We want to bring these two forces together to build intergenerational relationships that cherish plants and fungi together, that learn and know more about their local plants and fungi and that inspire others to act to find out more and help us work to conserve them. Including politicians. Our ray of sunshine is building confidence in identifying and using wild plants.

The blue skies of vision:
This is where IPAs come in again: they show our vision of what can be achieved. We’ve been providing advice on managing the plants in IPAs since 2008 and we are focussing on promoting with our partners the roll out of landscape scale advice and action in the west coast Atlantic woodland and the Caledonian pinewoods and others.
We can continue to underpin this with our species advisory service, getting staff out to provide advice, provide demonstration days so land managers can see what can be achieved, can network and learn from each other and from specialist experts we can bring in.
In the next 15 years, we would like to have rolled out our IPA programme further so that landscapes scale projects are successfully operating in 4 more IPAs, reconnecting fragmented habitats, supporting a high diversity of plants species, drawing wildlife and people and inspiring communities and individuals in those areas to get involved on our vision for flower and fungi rich places.

The purple haze of Holyrood:
We want all our politicians to be signed up as species champions and for them to be able to use their species in all their policy work, to nature proof every legislation decision that is made in Holyrood.

So where is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
Our pot of gold is our support. Founder members, life members, partners, volunteers and supporters. Increasing support and increasing wider awareness of the importance of plants and fungi, ecologically as well as socially and economically, has 2 clear benefits:
It gives us more resources to do more stuff on the ground, working with others.  AND it gives us more political weight. It is a numbers game at Holyrood – the more people we have behind us saying plants and fungi matter to them, the stronger our voice is at Holyrood.

We want to do more for plants and fungi in Scotland. With your support, we can build a stronger future, not just for plants and fungi but for everything that depends on them.

Medicinal plants: the life blood of Nepal

(c) Dominic Habron
(c) Dominic Habron

Plants are central to Nepalese life. Flowers adorn homes, gods and goddesses. Most people grow their own food. And traditional medicine is dependent on plants. Ayurvedic medicine is one of four traditional health systems in Nepal and is a major source of medical care in Nepal. It has its own government department, 2 government hospitals, 216 public dispensaries and pharmacies (Gewali 2008) and a new research and training centre. However, health care is sparse in Nepal: there are estimated to be about 21,205 people per doctor in Nepal, all hospitals are located within urban centres and of the 3468 health centres of health posts in rural areas, most are without proper medical facilities or trained health workers (Tiwari et al 2014). It is in this void that traditional medicine practitioners provide health care to 80% – 90% of the rural population, using hundreds of medicinal plants to cure simple and complex ailments (Tiwari et al 2014).

As a result of both of the diversity of medicinal plants native to Nepal and the high levels of dependency on them, medicinal plants and their conservation is a key issue. The current Minister for Forestry and Soil Conservation, within which sits the Department of Plant Resources, stressed the value of Nepal’s indigenous knowledge about native plants and their traditional uses at a workshop on 9 November. While we celebrate as a victory even the mere mention of plants in a Minister’s speech in the UK, in Nepal, it is recognised as a fundamental part of Nepal’s sustainable development.

The Minister’s stress reflects the reality that the conservation of these plants is a growing concern. High levels of harvesting of wild medicinal plants and the increase in cultivation of selected medical plant species is responding to a growing market from across the world (Gewali 2008). In 1998 – 1999, the total annual trade from Nepal to India, one of the biggest markets, was US$3.2 – 12.8 million (Gewali 2008). In this market, in 2003, a harvester of wild medicinal plants could make Rs 585 cash profit per year, compared to a village trader making 58 times more and a regional trader 4307 times more (Subedi 2003). While the village harvester makes the least amount, medicinal plant collection remains a very important part of income generation for Nepal’s rural communities.

Harvesting of course is not necessarily sustainable and plants collected from the wild constitute the major source: Gewali quotes 70 – 90% of plant species, 50 – 70% in terms of quantity, are plants collected from the wild. Of the 2,400 – 9,400 tons of exported herbal resources, five species made up more than 50% (Gewali 2008). Of these 5 species, 3 are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and 2 are listed on Nepal’s list of protected species against collection or export.

There are initiatives underway in mountain communities across Nepal to support the cultivation of medical plants. A key crop today is Swertia chirata (chiraita). Used for a range of ailments, chiraita treats fever, jaundice and digestion problems as well as coughs, colds, asthma, skin infections and more. Chiraita seed in 2014 cost Rs 25,000 per kg. 1 kg of seed would supply an entire village. The crop is planted on field edges and non cultivated areas of land and takes 2 years to mature. Income per kg in 2014 was Rs 600 in one of the villages we visited. In Kachenjunga Conservation Area in 2013, US$375,000 was generated by local people through the cultivation of chiraita (WWF 2013).With its value rising, interest in chiraita production is growing and as long as cultivation remains sustainable and does not impact on village ability to grow food, there is every reason to support wider cultivation of this important plant, moving pressure away from wild collected sources.

Traditional medicine is however highly dependent on sustainable collection from the wild by local healers. Reducing the pressure on wild plants from collection for cash insures future health care can be provided by traditional healers. They can then provide long term viable health care in rural communities.

This is moving against another tide however. Allopathic (western) medicine is increasingly popular and can provide quick relief. But it is rarely available in rural areas. It makes so much more sense to use the infrastructure of traditional healers to provide health care, with support from primary allopathic care where possible. What do I mean? See my visit to Bjher, Dolpo in the next blog.

In Nepal, plants do more than cure people. They also provide a cash income where there are few alternatives. Key to all this is their conservation. There is a long way to go – illegal trade in medicinal plants is fantastically high in Nepal but with so much riding on their conservation, there is a clear momentum to do more to protect them and their habitats.

Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal: unlocking the potential

Set up in 1998, the Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal was conceived just as the links between natural resource use and community development in Nepal were coming into focus. With its highly diverse flora and the diversity of its people, many of whom retain a strong reliance on native plants, the need for an ethnobotanical home in Nepal was clear.

A small dedicated team of specialists, led by Professor KK Shrestha, has been the driving force of the Society ever since. Having delivered training programmes, published reports and books and coordinated local community development projects based on plant use, the society is now at a juncture. Its objectives

  • To enhance documentation and safeguard indigenous knowledge
  • To conserve plant resources
  • To enable sustainable utilisation of plant resources through coordination, promotion and research activities

are just as relevant today as they were a decade ago. But there are now new opportunities to be developed.

Nepal is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). The 16 GSPC goals for 2020 are stretching for all signatories. Yet Nepal is making progress on arguably some of the toughest targets. Take, for example, Target 3: Development and effective sharing of advice and guidance for plant conservation and sustainable use, based on research and practical experience. With experience in medicinal plant conservation, sustainable use and cultivation and more recent involvement in small scale biofuel projects, ESON has built an effective model of working in strong partnerships with local communities, other NGOs, government and universities.

IMG_2593 no date

ESON could contribute more by building on its current work too. Target 13 is a case in point: The decline of plant resources, and associated indigenous and local knowledge innovations and practices, that support sustainable livelihoods, local food security and health care, halted. If Nepal is serious about delivering on the CBD and the GSPC, ESON, even as a tiny organisation with very few resources beyond its dedicated volunteer staff, is leading the way. With its partners, it is delivering projects to ensure a future for rural healthcare by conserving traditional medicine and its plant resources in remote areas.

The Nagoya protocol is another important area of work in Nepal, as it enshrines the rights of indigenous people to intellectual property rights over local biodiversity. Ethnobotany holds the key for the future of biotechnology, with the ability to save time and resources by working with indigenous people to shortlist potentially useful chemicals. This key brings with it a heavy duty however to ensure that those indigenous communities benefit economically from biotechnological developments. It is all too easy for successes in the laboratory to trail an amnesia about the very communities that provided, usually free of charge, the shortcut to success. If ESON is to provide such a service, it will be beholden to ensure those communities benefit economically into the long term future.

ESON is at a turning point. It is looking to reinvigorate its members and to inspire them to get more involved and help the society make more of a difference in the conservation and sustainable use of Nepal’s amazing flora. In developing a new 5 year plan, it is hoping to reach out to new partners and funders, to inspire them to support it in its work to ensure a future not just for plants, but for people too.

You can support their work by donating to my Just giving page at

Effective conservation of medicinal plants starts at home

In countries like the UK, conservation often follows a ‘top down’ approach where government, or a national NGO, decides that ‘something should be done’. Usually, this follows pressure from international level to set a standard or lead by example. In the UK, it usually means that there is a plethora of action plans, time lines and strategies. It can sometimes seem as if so much effort goes into planning that there is no energy left for real conservation, on the ground.

This is where the approach of community led conservation has distinct advantages and lessons to tell.

In the UK, there are two key risks to the way we usually conduct conservation: one is that the local community doesn’t know what they have is special and second is that they resent ‘incomers’ coming in and telling them what to do with their plants.

In Nepal, the experts are still resident in the local communities. Local health care needs are largely met through traditional medicine delivered by these local experts, traditional doctors – amchis, who have accumulated knowledge of local plants and their uses over the centuries. Tied tightly to the religious belief systems of the local area, this health care system remains highly relevant today and is widely practised and accepted throughout the Himalayan area. With its basis on local plants, the expertise that lies within the amchis provides a very strong foundation for sustainable use and hence conservation of a common, and valuable, resource.

Projects conducted through the Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal since 1997 have been exploring sustainable conservation solutions to the long term future of medicinal plants in Nepal. Threats to medicinal plants in the Himalaya include habitat loss, including deforestation, and habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, burning and unsustainable harvesting. These threats to plant communities are the same throughout the world. However the difference in finding solutions to these threats lies in adopting widescale, long term and adaptive approaches to habitat management and access to resources. More widely known as the ecosystem approach, the approach is often as the latest band wagon for conservation to jump onto. Not at all – in the Himalaya it is an approach that’s been shown to work, where NGOs work with local communities to facilitate and take action.

This is where the lessons for the UK start. And this is what I will be looking at in Nepal in October and November this year. Keep track of what I’m doing here.

Conserving medicinal plants of Nepal

Woman with medicinal plant, Tatopani A Hamilton

The World health Organisation estimates that about 80% of the world’s population relies on traditional plant based medicine – wild medicinal plants. This is not a bad thing. These resources are locally collected and those who collect them have a vested interest in sustainable collection. Arguably relying on locally sourced medicine, accessed through local knowledge is a very sustainable health care model.

The problems only arise when demand rises, usually from trade.  The trade in medicinal wild plants has been identified as one of the biggest threats to medicinal plant communities in Nepal. Addressing it is vital.

The Ethnobotanical Society Of Nepal (ESON) – Allacy project in 2007,   Community-based Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Potential Medicinal Plants In Rasuwa, Nepal Himalaya, highlighted the value of a community led conservation approach. Local traditional medicine practitioners, local communities and ESON worked together to identify key actions to implement sustainable collection and ensure access for the local community to medicine going into the future. The approach has potential to be of value in all conservation circles, but it shows its most obvious benefits when it comes to medicinal plants.

There is an interesting parallel in the approach to plant conservation most usually adopted in countries like the UK. Plant conservation is not seen as a national priority. Where action is galvanised, it is often led by a ‘community of interest’, like Plantlife supported by its 8,000 members.

If we can bring the two approaches together, we have a strong model to roll out sustainable use of locally sourced plants, a locally accessible health care system and long term trade potential for wild collected plants. One of the keys however in achieving that final step is to value adequately the collected plants.  A start has been made through the Fairwild Standard While this standard points a way forward, we need to see much wider adoption of community led conservation before we will see a change in the status of wild plants.

Image: (c) Alan Hamilton