Bluebells have flowered in February for the first time in the UK. They made their early appearance in Dorset and Surrey and now Natural History Museum scientists are calling on Britons to help survey these wildflowers.
'February is the earliest we've ever known bluebells to flower,' said Mark Spencer, British plant expert at the Museum. 'It really is quite extraordinary.'
'Combined with changes in the climate, we don't know what is in store in terms of survival for the British bluebell - they may even become seriously threatened as weather patterns change. We need everyone's help if we are to really understand what's happening in the real world.'
To help find out if escapee garden varieties of bluebells are threatening native species, people are asked to take part in the online bluebell survey.
There are 3 varieties to look out for, the native, Spanish and hybrid. The native bluebell is called Hyacinthoides non-scripta. The Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica, and its cultivated varieties were introduced to British gardens more than 200 years ago.
The Museum is working in partnership with conservation charity Plantlife , and it was their 2004 report that highlighted concerns that hybridisation may be threatening the future of the native bluebell.
Hybridisation can alter the genetic make up of a species and make it harder for it to survive. It can also make it harder to accurately identify the different bluebell types.
The recordings will be used to map where bluebells grow in the UK and when they flower. Scientists use the information to learn about the evolution of and relationship between Britain's bluebells, and measure the risk to our native species.
The Museum is in partnership with the Ramblers' Association (RA) and bluebell hunters can take part in the RA's season of free guided bluebell walks, taking place throughout the country in April, May and June.
'Voted Britain's most popular wild flower in a Plantlife public poll,' says Dr Jayne Manley from Plantlife, 'the native bluebell has its international stronghold in the UK, with more than 50% of the world's total population. This means we have a global responsibility to conserve it.'
'Plantlife plays a leading role by raising awareness of the threats from illegal collection, mislabelling of bulbs in garden centres and habitat loss. This spring's survey is a terrific opportunity for the public to play their part to help conserve one of the UK's most iconic wild flowers.'