Police clamp down on gangs stealing wild flower bulbs to order

A thriving and lucrative black market in stolen bluebells, orchids and snowdrops is threatening some of Britain's best-loved species
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Snowdrops, orchids and bluebells are being stolen to order in a worrying upsurge in thefts of Britain's favourite wild flowers, senior police officers and botanists have warned.

Snowdrops, orchids and bluebells are being stolen to order in a worrying upsurge in thefts of Britain's favourite wild flowers, senior police officers and botanists have warned.

Criminal gangs and unscrupulous people in the garden trade are hiring thieves to dig up tons of wild flower bulbs and tear up acres of delicate mosses for a thriving black market in garden plants.

Now, as Britain's garden centres prepare for this year's spring rush, the police have made plant and bulb stealing a key priority in their nationwide campaign to tackle wildlife crime. Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales and spokesman on wildlife crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers, revealed that plant theft was now a "much bigger issue" for the police.

Bulb stealing was pushed up the agenda when police wildlife crime experts agreed to a major shift of policy after years of focusing solely on egg thieves and smuggling.

The new campaign, which is being mirrored by much tougher sentencing and more forces appointing full-time wildlife crime experts, follows a spate of prosecutions for stealing plants. One thief was recently jailed for four months after helping to steal 1,300 legally protected bluebell bulbs from a wood in Norfolk.

Norfolk is the country's most notorious hotspot for plant thefts. Police suspect a gang caught in November was hired by a criminal with a record of masterminding bulb thefts. He is thought also to have hired three men arrested with 18 crates of snowdrop bulbs in 1999.

"These people are normally involved in traditional crimes, but are moving into this field to make quite a lot of extra cash," said Inspector Alan Roberts, the Norfolk force's wildlife crime expert. Other species are also threatened, such as weft-forming moss, winter aconite flowers, water soldiers and several varieties of orchid.

Experts at English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage, and botanists at the charity Plantlife, are pressing MPs to close loopholes in nature protection legislation which can leave landscapes poorly protected. Martin Harper, Plantlife's conservation director, said bluebells and snowdrops could be harvested, but only in small quantities. However, in Norfolk, the last bog orchid has now been stolen. "The worst-hit counties are losing one species a year," he said.

English Nature's Jill Sutcliffe said: "People are taking plants for profit, as though there's no cost to the environment. Every plant supports other wildlife, and helps to make every part of the UK different."

Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis

One of the most poisonous plants in cultivation. In 1822, it accounted for the death of a woman who used it to make horseradish sauce.

Common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis

Not native to Britain, the snowdrop comes from eastern Europe, and was very fashionable with Victorian plant hunters.

Bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Native to north-western Europe and found in hedge-banks and woodlands. Although it is poisonous, the Elizabethans took starch from its bulbs to glue books together.

Sphagnum moss, Sphagnum cymbifolium

Known as bog moss, this soft, thick plant is found in wet, boggy areasand is well known for its medicinal properties as a wound dressing and, with garlic, as an antiseptic.

Military orchid, Orchis militaris

Named because its "lateral lobes" look like a soldier's arms, with its spotted body like a buttoned tunic. Once thought extinct, it is now being carefully conserved.

Habitats need saving as much as the plants themselves

We have a pathetically small tally of native plants in this country. So, if one is threatened with extinction, we take it hard. And quite right, too. I'd go to the barricades for the soldier orchid, Orchis militaris. Late one May, my mother led me to see one on the South Downs. I was only eight, but I understood this was a pilgrimage; her reverence for plants was as close as she ever got to religion. Me too.

But do I feel the same when the SOS message goes out – Save our Snowdrops? No, not quite. Like all bulbs, snowdrops can reproduce themselves in two ways. They bulk up underground by making small bulblets or offsets, and they also set vast quantities of seed. So they double their chances of survival. The soldier orchid has a fiendishly complicated sex life and has always been a rare native.

And there's another difference: the snowdrop isn't native, though in various areas of the country it has become naturalised. Its real home is further east, in Europe. In Herball (1597) John Gerard talks of it as a garden novelty, "the timely flowering Bulbous Violet". "Wild" snowdrops were first recorded in the 1770s in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, first planted out and then naturalised in light woodland.

The winter aconite Eranthis hyemalis, which now spreads in the light sandy soils of East Anglia, arrived here in the 16th century. So why, I ask myself rebelliously, do the eco-warriors tell us we must fight for these immigrants, but seek out and destroy others? I'm thinking of the beautiful giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum. "Poisonous", people tell you with horror, as though it will drown you in its irritant sap. But snowdrops and aconites have irritant sap, too – and are poisonous if eaten.

Protecting habitats is the key to protecting plants. Yes, we can keep a plant alive in a botanic garden, but it's no good "saving" an orchid if it hasn't got a proper home to go to.

Anna Pavord