What are the laws that protect wild plants?
All wild plants in England and Wales are offered some protection under the law.
A wild plant is an uncultivated plant that grows as nature intended it to in the wild in England and Wales. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 the term 'plant' includes algae, lichens and fungi, mosses, liverworts and vascular plants.
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is unlawful to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier. To uproot (digging) a plant means to 'dig up or otherwise remove the plant from the land on which it is growing', whether or not it actually has roots. Even plants growing wild are the legal property of somebody as they have been cultivated and under the Theft Act, 1968, it is an offence to uproot plants for commercial purposes without seeking authorisation.
In 1992 the European Community adopted Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (EC Habitats Directive). This is the means by which the Community meets its obligations as a signatory of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention). The Directive applies to the UK and to its overseas territory of Gibraltar. The provisions of the Directive require Member States to introduce a range of measures including the protection of species listed in the Annexes; to undertake surveillance of habitats and species and produce a report every six years. There are 189 habitats listed in Annex I of the Directive and 788 species listed in Annex II. The Directive has been transposed into the UK by the Conservation (Natural Habitats, & c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended). These are known as 'the Habitats Regulations'. Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) on land or freshwater areas are underpinned by notification as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). In the case of SACs that are not notified as SSSI, positive management is promoted by wider countryside measures, while protection relies on the provisions of the Habitats Regulations. The Joint National Conservation Committee (JNCC) advises government on the interpretation of 'conservation status of habitats and species' under the terms of the Directive. In addition, together with the country nature conservation advisors, it advises government on the UK suite of sites that meet the criteria for consideration as SCI. For more information on the JNCC and protected species please visit the JNCC website.
The SSSI's are governed by tight rules and regulations and owners and occupiers of such sites may be prosecuted if they destroy plants growing in these sites or remove plant material, unless they have first consulted the statutory conservation agencies, for example English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales. Over and above this some Nature Reserves, Ministry of Defence property or National Trust land have by-laws which must be adhered to and it is unlawful to pick, uproot or remove plants if such by-laws are in operation which forbid such activities.
Red Data Books
These are lists of species whose continued existence is threatened. Information on plants in danger of extinction nationally or locally are published in national Red Data Books and County Rare Plant Registers. Red Data Book species are classified into different categories of perceived risk. Each Red Data Book usually deals with a specific group of animals or plants (for instance, reptiles, insects or mosses). They are now being published in many different countries. JNCC is responsible for some of these publications reflecting the status of some plant species types in Britain
Lists of rare species can be obtained from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, or viewed on its web site.
CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Roughly 28,000 species of plants are protected by CITES against over-exploitation through international trade. They are listed in the three CITES Appendices. The species are grouped in the Appendices according to how threatened they are by international trade
The only UK species to which CITES applies are Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, if this is native, and all the orchids. For further information on CITES or to view protected species please view the CITES website.
Plants which are specially protected in England and Wales
Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which is revised every five years provides a list of endangered plants. Under the 1981 Act It is unlawful to intentional pick, uproot or destroy the wild plant or any seed or spore attached to the wild plant. In any proceedings the plant will be deemed to be wild unless the contrary is shown.
A person will not be guilty of such a crime if it has been carried out under a licence obtained from the relevant authority, the damage is a result of a lawful activity and could not reasonably have been avoided. That the unlawful act was incidental of a lawful operation or other activity, and whilst carrying out that lawful incident or activity that person took reasonable precautions to avoid uprooting, destroying etc. the plant, or he did not or count have reasonably foreseen that the unlawful act would have occurred during the lawful operation or activity.
It is also unlawful to sell, offer or expose for sale, is in possession of or transports for the purpose of selling, publishes, causes to be published any advertisement likely to be understood that a person buy or sells or intends to buy or sell any live or dead wild plant or anything derived from such a plant included in Schedule 8.
However there are some plants listed in the Schedule that the offence is only to sell, advertise, publish etc. any live or dead wild plant or anything derived from such a plant. For example the English Bluebell. The following species listed in Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 are protected against sale, or offer for sale, exposes for sale
- Bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta
- Creeping Marshwort Apium repens
- Early Gentian Gentianella anglica
- Fen Orchid Liparis loeselii
- Floating Water-plantain Luronium natans
- Killarney Fern Trichomanes speciosum
- Lady's-slipper Cypripedium calceolus
- Marsh Saxifrage Saxifraga hirculus
- Shore Dock Rumex rupestris
- Slender Naiad Najas flexilis
Introduction of new species
It is an offence for any person without a licence to plant or cause to grow in the wild any plant which is included in Part II of Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 or a hybrid of any plant included in that Part. These schedules include alien plants which may pose a threat to our native flora.
This would include plants like the Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam.
However there is no offence if it happens to grow in your garden and there is no requirement to control it unless it is part of a legally binding contract or agreement with another party. For advise on what to do if you have Japanese knotweed or Himalayan balsam growing in your garden please go the the Environment Agency website at or the Royal Horticultural Society.
However, it shall be a defence to a charge of to prove that the accused took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to avoid committing the offence. Under the Weeds Act 1959 there are five weeds that are classed as injurious.
Whilst it is not an offence to have these weeds growing on your land they must not be allowed to spread to agricultural land, particularly grazing areas or land which is used to produce conserved forage. landowners can be required to take action to prevent the spread of these weeds and enforcement orders can be issued by Natural England. DEFRA provide useful guidance on how to deal with ragwort:
- common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea),
- creeping or field thistle (Cirsium arvense)
- spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare),
- broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius)
- curled dock (Rumex Crispus).
Sale of invasive non-native species
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 a person will commit an offence if he sells, offers or exposes for sale, or has in his possession or transports for the purposes of sale a live plant which must not be released etc. into the wild or anything from which a plant can be reproduced or propagated. A person will commit an offence if he publishes or causes to be published any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that he buys or sells, or intends to buy or sell a plant to which this section applies, or anything from which such a plant can be reproduced or propagated.
Picking and collecting
To promote the conservation of wild plants, picking is not encouraged - plants are better left for others to enjoy. However if you wish to pick the plants be careful not to trespass and never take material from a nature reserve or protected site without permission, and remember to:
- Take flowers and foliage only from large patches of the plant.
- Always pick in moderation so that plenty is left for others to enjoy.
- Do not pick flowers such as poppies as they will wilt before you get them home.
- Be careful not to damage other vegetation when picking flowers.
- If permission has been obtained from the landowner or occupier, gathering of mosses, liverworts, lichens or algae for decorative purpose, hanging baskets or model making should be restricted to the minimum needed for personal use.