Our True Bluebells project focuses on our beloved British bluebells, which are at risk from hybridisation with Spanish bluebells.
A carpet of bluebells within a spring woodland is one of the most beautiful and memorable sights to be seen. The UK's woodlands are home to over 50% of native British bluebells - Hyacinthoides non-scripta - meaning that local populations here in South Yorkshire - where we also have the most publicly-accessible urban woodland in the UK - are of global importance.
However, along with their ancient woodland homes, our beloved native bluebells are threatened by human development and activities. One major concern is the rise of the Spanish bluebell - Hyacinthoides hispanica - which hybridises (cross-breeds) easily with our native variety.
Spanish bluebells are a popular garden plant and are either mistakenly planted in place of native bluebells or are favoured for their larger, more substantial build. Unfortunately, packages can be mislabled, and many people are unaware of the problem at hand. As a special license is required to breed protected native bluebells, many garden centre stocks are imported from Europe.
Why is hybridisation a problem?
Native bluebells hybridise easily with Spanish bluebells. This dilutes their unique characteristics, changing future generations forever
Within an urban environment, Spanish bluebells are not a conservation problem. However, if Spanish bluebells or their aggressive hybrids infiltrate ancient woodlands, they can quickly outcompete and hybridise with the native bluebells that may have stood for centuries.
Hybridisation dilutes or eliminates the unique characteristics of native bluebells and permanently changes their genetic makeup. Cross-breeding can occur if gardens are particularly close to woodlands, or if garden waste is dumped within woodland habitats.
According to Plantlife, sightings of Spanish bluebells have increased by 52 percent in the past 15 years, and those of hybrid bluebells have risen by 55 percent. Many sightings are found in urban areas such as Sheffield and Rotherham.
Our True Bluebells project aims to identify areas of Sheffield where Spanish bluebells and their hybrids post a threat to our delicate natives, particularly in Sheffield's valuable ancient woodland habitats.
Help us map Sheffield's bluebells!
We are asking the general public to help us map the spread of Spanish bluebells and their hybrids, allowing us to direct our conservation efforts to protecting important native bluebell populations.
To take part, simply follow the steps below:
1. Visit your local woodland
The best time to do this is in April - May when bluebells will be in flower. If you see bluebells, that's brilliant! The next step is to find out what they are and to tell us about it.
For a great list of local ancient woodlands where you're likely to see bluebells, click here.
2. Study our bluebell identification guide
Follow the links above or click here to read how to tell the difference between native and Spanish bluebells and to identify their hybrids.
3. Take a close-up photograph of newly-opened flowers
Focus on individual flower spikes that have just opened. Older flower spikes may lack important identification details. We need to see how the flowers are arranged around the stem, the pollen colour, and how curled the individual petals are. If you see different kinds of bluebells in the same place, please record these as different sightings and tell us about all of them.
This is particularly important as it helps us identify areas where native bluebells are particularly at risk.
4. Upload your bluebell photograph and sighting details
You can simply upload your photograph and some simple details, or you can answer some more detailed questions to help identify whether they are hybrids.
Again, if you see different kinds of bluebells within the same area, please tell us, and if you can, submit multiple sightings and photographs.
What else can I do?
You can help protect our native bluebells by gardening wisely.
If you're planting new bluebells in your garden, make sure that they are of the native variety. Be careful - some bulbs are incorrectly labelled. If possible, ask advice or check the country of origin - bulbs coming from Europe are most likely Spanish plants.
Get rid of invasives
If you do have Spanish bluebells in your garden, why not replace them with native British bluebells? They're perfect for bees and butterflies and carry a wonderful scent that the Spanish bluebells lack.
If you do uproot Spanish plants, it's essential that you dispose of them carefully. Dig up the whole plant, including the bulb and leaves, and leave it to dry out. Don't throw it in the green waste bin as this could allow the plants to spread to other areas. Instead, tie them in a black plastic bag and leave them for a year to rot down.
Support our Bluebell appeal
If you’re not a budding citizen scientist - or even if you are - what else can you do to help? First and foremost, sustainable woodland management requires long-term funding and our local woodlands need greater investment if they are to continue to thrive. Funding to maintain our green spaces - from street trees to parks to ancient woodlands - is scarce, and we rely on the incredible support of our community of wildlife lovers in Sheffield and Rotherham.
Help protect and enhance our local wildlife and green spaces by joining Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust. By joining our community of wildlife lovers today you can help care for the wild places you love – like our ancient bluebell woodlands – preserving them for years to come.