The popularity of wild flower gardening, swelled by a welter of television series and books, is encouraging criminal gangs to raid ancient woodlands and dig up tens of thousands of flowers and bulbs in a single haul. But few offences are detected and pursued in the courts: Plantlife knows of only 14 convictions since 1980.
A haul of 10,000 snowdrop bulbs sold wholesale to garden centres is valued at between pounds 500 and pounds 2,500. Yet typical fines are in the range of pounds 20 to pounds 250 - a fraction of the pounds 2,500 maximum.
In one case near King's Lynn, Norfolk, two men were found stealing 30,000 snowdrop bulbs, worth at least pounds 5,000. They were each fined pounds 150 with pounds 50 costs. In the first case involving the theft of moss, in high demand for hanging flower-baskets, a man was found with 26 dustbin- liners filled with moss stripped from a ravine in Derbyshire. He was fined pounds 20 with pounds 25 costs.
Martin Harper, Plantlife's conservation director, said: "These low fines are scandalous. We need fines to fit the profits to be made from the crime or they will never deter the criminals responsible. Ideally we should be looking at custodial sentences in the most severe cases."
Plantlife says the law needs changing. Offenders must be caught in the act of digging up plants if a conviction is to be secured. Damage is a crime only if "intentional". Landowners can therefore spray rare plants with herbicide, plough them up or mow off flower heads, claiming damage was incidental.
"We badly need a new and stronger protection for our wild plants if they are to survive the next century," Mr Har-per said. "We strongly hope that a Countryside Bill will be announced in the Queen's Speech and we urge Government to use it to close the legal loopholes and increase the levels of punishment."