Working with Arable Plants – Guest Blog

 Walking along a footpath through a typical cornfield, it is easy to see why someone may be rather nonplussed by arable plants. An occasional creeping thistle or bindweed that has missed the spray boom, may be all that is visible amongst a mono-culture of wheat or barley. Even at the field margin or corners, there may be a patch of browning grass or nettle scorched by the herbicide. Of course, it was not always like this. Prior to the post-war use of agricultural chemicals, our arable crops were studded with a mixture of attractive as well as less notable plants.

A few years ago, I took a road trip to Hungary, Slovakia and Poland in eastern Europe and was amazed to find barley fields, with a distinct blue hue visible from miles away. Cornflower grew in abundance along with many other plants of cultivation. In the citrus and olive groves of Greece and Italy, the annual hoeing of the stony ground underneath the trees, can result in a stunning display of flowers in crimson and magenta. Many of the species we think of in our cornfields and treat as native, have actually been brought with grain from the Middle East and Mediterranean. They were likely to have originally arrived in Britain through the early trading routes, in Neolithic times, 3000-4000 years BC and now make an interesting addition to our flora.

It wasn’t until I joined the National Trust as a Head Warden and Wildlife Adviser in Cornwall, 30 years ago, that arable weeds, (as they were known), really came to my attention. One of the sites I looked after was the stunning West Pentire headland, near Newquay. Farming was very marginal and the crop often failed after an Atlantic storm blew in suds of salt spray and eventually the tenant gave notice to quit. Visiting the farm prior to re-letting, we realised the potential, with patches of Poppy, Corn Marigold and less exotic perennial Sow Thistle and Onion Couch. With the help of various colleagues, academics and volunteers, we devised a plan to transform the 11 small fields in to an ‘arable weed nature reserve’. We took the land back in hand, so that we could trial different forms of management, and a wonderful volunteer called Hazel Meredith, set about monitoring the impacts of autumn versus spring cultivation, deep ploughing, versus harrowing and all manner of different techniques. Slowly, the list of flowers began to increase, along with the associated birds and insects. After 13 years, the list of plants recorded on the headland reached 154 (including those on the maritime grassland).

Cornflower & Poppies - Cath Shellswell, Plantlife

By the early 1990’s, spectacular displays of arable flowers started to appear, which were all the more impressive against the azure sea at nearby Crantock. West Pentire began to appear on postcards, books and newspaper articles and attracted a large number of appreciative photographers and visitors. The species list added a number of brilliantly names plants such as Shepherd’s Needle, Sharp Leaved Fluellin, Night Flowering Catchfly and Weasel’s Snout.

Gaining more knowledge in arable plants, I started to find other sites on the lighter soils of the North Cornwall coast where I worked and began to adjust the management to favour these species.

Yellow Hammer, RSPB

In 2003, I moved to Wessex, as National Trust Nature Conservation Adviser and was excited to find some interesting sites on the chalk at Stonehenge, Sherborne, Avebury and Kingston Lacy. The dilemma for me was that our aim was that we often wanted to re-create chalk downland, by reseeding with local provenance seeds, on these extensive areas of cultivated land, yet they were also home to important arable plants and birds. At Lytes Cary Manor near Yeovil, we realised that the arable fields were home to many notable species and working with Plantlife and our Biological Survey team, the land was surveyed. We were able to work with our farm tenant and to devise a system to farm the land, while protecting and enhancing the rare and notable species. Cultivated and non-cultivated headlands were instigated, allowing special plants to thrive, while the tenant is still able to grow a mixture of barley and wheat. Farmland birds have also flourished as well as a number of species of bee, including the rare Shrill Carder Bee, which uses Red Bartsia and Comfrey.

Shrill Carder Bee - Daisy Headley, Bumblebee CT

Although arable plants are perhaps a bit of a Cinderella group of species, they can be more spectacular than almost any group of flora and they are certainly worthy of our care and protection.


Arable Plants by Simon Ford
Consultancy Manager & Wildlife Advisor
National Trust



Would you like to help these incredible species? There are numerous ways in which you can:

  • Why not volunteer for Back from the Brink? Check out our events page for opportunities near you.
  • Help us to spread the word of this species, and the others we will be helping over the next 3 years, by sharing our message across our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages. Follow us: @naturebftb.
  • Finally - help support the work we do across England by donating. Our impact will be greater with your help.