The decline of flower cultivation on Scilly and the associated loss of arable ‘weeds’

I have been visiting the Isles of Scilly now for over 25 years and on my last trip I was very struck by the dramatic changes that have happened on the islands with regard to bulb/daffodil  farming and their associated arable weed communities. As the Chair’s introduction to the IOS AONB Plan 2015-2020 states ‘Farming has also bequeathed one of the Islands’ quintessential landscape features in the bulb-strips created by flower farmers since the 19th century.’

Natural England’s Natural Area Profile for the Isles of Scilly also makes great play of the important of the bulb fields from a landscape and biodiversity perspective – see here. The report states for example ‘Rare arable plants survive in the islands’ small bulb strips, where species found include smaller tree-mallow and purple ramping-fumitory.’

Rosemary Parslow in her 2007 Collin’s New Naturalist on the The Isles of Scilly, devotes  37 pages or 8% of the entire book to the arable weeds on Scilly’s bulb fields which shows the importance of Scilly for Red Data Book, Nationally Scarce and local species of arable weeds. In addition she has produced (in 2010) for the Scilly AONB a booklet on how arable weeds can be conserved within the bulb fields ‘Arable plants of bulbfields and other arable field in the Isles of Scilly‘ – see here. Explicit in this is the fact that the arable weeds on the Isles of Scilly are a feature of national importance in terms of biodiversity.

Whilst the network of Scilly’s strip fields is clearly apparent and intact (in landscape terms) it is the land use within them that has changed dramatically. In 2005 the DEFRA land use census identified 139.4ha of the islands were cultivated for flowers / bulbs – this represented 9.1% of the total farmed landscape. The Isles of Scilly Travel Company website states ‘By 1950 there were 90 family owned flower farms on the islands. There are 9 remaining on St Mary’s today due to the increase of overseas production, but much remains true to the original idea of small sheltered fields, family farms and beautiful scents.’

Whilst I was on Scilly I tried to access and analyse the land use change data for the Islands via the Land Cover survey held by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, unfortunately the fees required to download the data were prohibitive for a private individual. This is a rich area of research for an MSc or PhD student and I am sure it would provide a great dataset which showed a dramatic change over a short period of time.

My casual observations this autumn suggest that three trends are happening with regards to the bulb fields on Scilly:-

  • Intensification – those bulb fields which still exist are intensively farmed, they are very ‘clean’ fields which do not contain ‘weeds’. My interpretation of this is that herbicide use is much increased and arable weeds are being excluded.
  • Diversification – many of the former bulb fields are being put to other uses. For example old bulb fields now grow fodder crops for cattle, are grassland fields for grazing, are homes to pigs and turkeys, are used for glamping, are used for the cultivation of vegetables and the production of honey from bees.
  • Abandonment – it is clear in some places the bulb fields have been completely abandoned and scrub is taking over the open fields. The most obvious examples of this are on Gugh (where it happened decades ago) and on Bryher where it is happening now.

See the series of photos at the end of this blog for examples of the above.

As a result the nationally important arable weed flora on the Isles of Scilly appears much reduced compared to what it was 25 years ago. This has a wider impact than just plants, for example, the arable weed seeds are an important food source for birds and the weeds are food plants and nectar sources for animals such as moths.

So what has happened? There are many drivers at play here.

Firstly, bulb farmers do not receive Common Agricultural Payments / Subsidies so are faced with the full impact of market forces and being an island community 28 miles offshore from mainland Britain massively increases their costs in settings sales to market.

Secondly, Natural England (the Nature Conservancy Council and English Nature) failed to identify the importance of the bulb fields for their biodiversity when designating their suite of Sites of Special Scientific Interest. As a result they have been left undesignated and therefore unprotected.

Thirdly, as a result of the lack of designations (national and European) agri-environment funding is being directed elsewhere, especially now in  a world of very limited resources

Fourthly, in 2009 the bulb flower research centre at Trenoweth on Scilly closed and with it the champion for bulb farming and its development and improvement was lost

Fifthly, there was a drive to diversify the agriculture of Scilly – making it less dependant on the increasing less competitive and unintensive flower production systems of old. As Matt Lobley, Matt Reed, Roger Metcalf and Jon Stephens  said as early as 2006 in their report Food production, distribution and processing in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (page 46) ‘The area of vegetable and salad crop production may increase on the Isles of Scilly as part of a local food and farm diversification programme. The idea is to offer farmers an alternative to flower production through trials of new varieties and to assist in the development of alternative crops such as carrots, marrows, lettuce and chillies.’

The IOS AONB Management Plan for 2010-2014 acknowledges the problem as follows ‘Although most flower farms are now trading profitably, farmers in Scilly are disadvantaged by the burden of high costs incurred when operating from an Island location (see also chapter on Transport). The small-scale of farms also means that critical mass and economies of scale are more difficult to achieve. This challenging economic situation is having a negative impact on the character of the Islands’ landscape, particularly on the off-Islands where a number of unmanaged fields are reverting to scrub with the loss of habitat for rare arable weeds and a trend towards degradation of soil fertility.’

Sixthly, the situation is further complicated as often bulb fields are put into fallow to eliminate pests and diseases associated with flower cultivation e.g. eelworm. Such fields are often grazed by cattle during this rest period which may last for up to five years. So it is possible that some of  the fields currently being grazed will in due course return as bulb fields.

It is perhaps not surprising that NCC/EN/NE failed to designate any of the bulb fields for their arable weeds as these are not communities that were identified by Derek Ratcliffe in his seminal Nature Conservation Review and it was not until 2000 that arable weed communities were effectively classified in the National Vegetation Classification (see here). Indeed this book identifies that OV2 the Briza minor Silene gallica community only occurs in the UK on Scilly.

It is also important to point out that the bulb farmers on the Isles of Scilly are not to blame for the decline in the arable weed communities. Their efforts only attract modest agricultural subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy as these are based on land holding size which in the case of Scilly are very small, there are no environmental designations which restrict their farming activities and whilst there is a Higher Level Stewardship Option to encourage them to farm bulb fields in a low intensity fashion but again because of land holding sizes the grants are modest. If they are to survive they must be innovative and diversify their activities.

The Future?
However all is not lost and there are opportunities into the future. In  theory arable weed habitats are easy to produce and manage and perhaps some of the abandoned bulb fields on Bryher for example could be ploughed annually to create the necessary conditions for a suite of arable weeds. Indeed it may be desirable to collect seeds of some of the rarer / iconic Scilly arable weeds and replant them to ensure they survived into the future on the Islands. The seeds of many arable weeds can survive for many years in the soil, so whilst the flowers elements of the species may not be visible at present their viable seeds certainly are.

Maybe the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust with all their local on the ground contacts are in a position to draw up a little strategy for the conservation of arable weeds on Scilly and then deliver it, either on their own or in partnership with local farmers. Such a project would be innovative and I would have thought been eligible for funding from organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund.

As mentioned earlier this topic has great potential for further research indeed if it were carried out it would be able to directly influence the much needed arable weeds strategy discussed above.

 Some examples of Scilly’s extant ‘bulb’ fields

A bulb field on St Mary’s – highly efficient regime but not an arable weed to be seen

martins-weedy-fieldA more traditional weedy bulb field on St Martin’s

agnes-beet-fodderA former bulb field on St Agnes now growing root beet (winter fodder) for the dairy herd at Troytown

agnes-pigsAgain on St Agnes – a former bulb field being used to raise pigs

agnes-new-houseA former bulb field on St Agnes – now a holiday cottage and garden

agnes-new-buildingsA bulb field now hosting a new agricultural barn used to facilitate non horticultural agriculture

bryher-cattleOn Bryher bulb fields used to raise Ruby Red Cattle

bryher-market-gardenOn Bryher – poly tunnels in an old bulb field growing salad veg and some carnations

martinsA suite of bulb fields on St Martins – unclear what is happening here but no evidence of active bulb growing at the present time

martins-market-gardenThe growing of vegetables and salad crops on St Martin’s

martins-beesA bee hive along with plenty of nectar crops

bryher-abandoned-fieldAn abandoned bulb field on Bryher

One thought on “The decline of flower cultivation on Scilly and the associated loss of arable ‘weeds’

  1. A fascinating article. I hope the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust take up your suggestion. We have noticed the changes in the islands. My partner is a Bryher man (his family go back generations on Scilly). We now we live on the mainland, though visit the Islands as often as we can.

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