Wildlife column: The great big bluebell hunt is on

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The native, wild bluebell is one of our most iconic species for which we in Britain hold around 70 per cent or more of the global population; in conservation importance, our oak-bluebell woods are the equivalent of the rainforests.

This is also one of the few wild flower species that almost everybody knows –or do they? You probably haven’t noticed but not all bluebells are equal and for nature conservationists this is cause for the jitters.

The genes of both species are transferred a mile or more by pollinating insects

The native flower is under threat from an invasive and more aggressive alien species and it is feared that external genes may flow from the imported garden plants and into our precious native, thus altering for all time the genetic integrity of the British bluebell.

The non-native is often called the Spanish bluebell and is cultivated in gardens, having been imported about 300 years ago. To be fair, it is a stunning plant and is big, bold and brash and hence popular with gardeners.

But the plot thickens because what you see in gardens and everywhere that gardeners dump their green ‘waste’ is not the Spanish bluebell at all but a version diluted and hybridised.

Research by national expert Fred Rumsey has shown that the native genes got into the exotic plants to produce the big plants with hybrid vigour that we see today.

The genes of both species are transferred a mile or more by pollinating insects meaning that the cat is truly ‘out of the bag’.

At an excellent talk to Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust recently, Fred explained the results of many years of meticulous work in field and laboratory to determine what is going on.

However, for now, there is more urgent business afoot since the Wildlife Trust and one of my postgraduate students, Adel Harrison, need your help. We are mapping the two ‘species’, or at least the native and the ‘hybrid’, and we need you to be the eyes of this important ecological survey. You can send in your records and even your pictures to get sightings verified if you are unsure. There are several really good websites, but the one which you really want, is www.wildsheffield.com/bluebells.

We have just a narrow window of opportunity when the bluebells are in flower and they are at about their peak now. Please take part.