Your British bluebell needs you

Press release - 15 March 2008

Bluebells have flowered in February for the first time in the UK – earlier than ever before. Join the Natural History Museum’s bluebell hunters to survey Britain’s wildflowers.

Bluebells are already flowering in Dorset and parts of Wales – in February – so scientists are calling on Britons to start up their bluebell hunting, in a bid to discover if escapee garden varieties are threatening native species. Bluebell lovers can use an online survey, to identify and record the different bluebell types found where they live. 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 Natural History Museum is working in partnership with Plantlife and the Ramblers’ Association (RA).

‘February is the earliest we’ve ever known bluebells to flower,’ said Mark Spencer, curator of the British plant collection at the Natural History 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.’

The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and its cultivated varieties were introduced to British gardens more than 200 years ago. In 2004, a report by conservation charity Plantlife highlighted concerns that hybridisation may be having negative effects and could threaten the future of the native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).

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. Using field studies and genetic research, scientists at the Natural History Museum have selected a new set of characteristics to aid identification. The public will be testing these characteristics as part of the survey.

‘Interestingly we learnt last year that the identification keys we professional botanists use are not as easy to use for general people,’ said Spencer. ‘So we’ve adapted the keys to make it easier for everyone to use. Hopefully we’ll get even more data to really be able to tell what’s going on out there.’

Bluebell hunters can take part by joining the Rambler’s Association’s season of led bluebell walks, taking place up and down the country throughout April, May and June. They are free and open to everyone. The RA is urging walkers everywhere who spot early bluebells to fill in the Natural History Museum’s online survey. 

Ruth Wembridge, Head of Membership at the RA said, ‘Bluebells bring joy to walkers everywhere in springtime, bursting into life in woodlands and hedgerows. Now as well as enjoying the sight of bluebells in the countryside, vigilant walkers can help scientists understand how they are responding to a changing environment.

This spring, we are urging people throughout the country to get out, join a Ramblers’ Association-led bluebell walk, complete the online survey and help save this beautiful flower.’

Dr Jayne Manley from Plantlife, the leading charity working to conserve wild plants, says, ‘Voted Britain’s most popular wild flower in a Plantlife public poll, the native bluebell has its international stronghold in the UK, with more than 50 per cent 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.’

For more information and to take part in the survey, please visit www.nhm.ac.uk/bluebells or join Mark Spencer live at the Natural History Museum on Friday 11 April and Saturday 12 April when he will be talking about the project at 12.30 and 14.30 as part of the Museum’s daily Nature Live events.

Ends

Notes for editors

  • Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.

  • The Ramblers’ Association is the Britain’s biggest charity working for walkers. Details of the RA’s led bluebell walks can be found at www.ramblers.org.uk/walkthemes/bluebells.html

  • Plantlife is the UK’s leading charity working to protect wild plants and their habitats. For a free colour information leaflet on bluebells, please contact Plantlife on 01722 342730 or email enquiries@plantlife.org.uk

  • More information about bluebells is available at www.nhm.ac.uk/bluebells and survey results can be submitted online from the end of March.
Cartoon image of a hatchet fish on a museum pass

Until 1938 whale carcasses were buried in the Museum grounds so that their flesh would decay leaving only the skeletons.