Yesterday, the World Wide Fund for Nature pleaded with customers shopping in nurseries and garden centres to shun plants dug from the wild. 'Almost everyone has bought them unwittingly,' said Martin Jenkins, a botanist, who has written a report on the trade.
'Customers have to insist on buying garden and house plants which are cultivated. They have to prod the retailer who, in turn, has to prod the wholesaler.'
Plantlife, the conservation charity, estimates the trade in British wild bulbs is worth about pounds 1m a year. Paul Evans, its former conservation director, believes that some of the bulbs are exported in bulk to the Netherlands, centre of the international trade, then reimported to Britain for sale in garden centres and market stalls.
The diggers put advertisments in local newspapers and magazines inviting landowners to have their bluebells thinned out for a payment. Sometimes they take the wildflowers without permission which, apart from being common theft, is also an offence under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Earlier this year three men were found guilty of taking 5,000 bluebells from a privately owned wood near Melton Constable, in north Norfolk - the first time a bulb-digging offence had been taken to court. English Nature, the Government's conservation arm, was disappointed at the scale of the sentences; the highest fine was pounds 250 and one of the three was given a three-month suspended sentence.
Norfolk Crown Court was told that the men had a piece of equipment from a bulb wholesaling company, O A Taylor, of Holbeach, Lincolnshire.
Bluebells and snowdrops are not endangered as yet. 'Their ancient woodland and hedgerow habitats have been destroyed on a very large scale in the last 50 years,' Mr Evans said. 'It's a moral issue; we shouldn't dig them up from the wild if they can be cultivated. Once gone it takes decades for them to return.'