Colouring in the margins: Discovering the arable habitat and resources to help

Colour in the Margins is a Back from the Brink project running since 2018. Led by Plantlife in partnership with the RSPB it has been working to secure the future of some of our rarest arable species. The project has targeted the conservation of 13 key species: ten plants and three ground beetles that rely on the farmed environment.

Arable farmland (land that has been cultivated or prepared for growing crops) is vital for the wildflowers and animals that have co-existed with us since the dawn of agriculture – and you may or may not know, that arable plants are the fastest declining suite of plants in the UK. Many species that were once widespread across the UK’s arable farmland are now restricted to localised patches. With the intensification of farming practices, changes in agricultural land use to more pastoral farming systems and development pressure around urban areas, we have lost important arable habitat and seen the decline of many species which depend on it.

(c) Cath Shellswell

By making room for wildlife within the margins of our productive land will reward us with a rich patchwork that is buzzing with life. By nurturing land for arable plants we can create areas teeming with pollinators which will in turn increase crop production and provide a reservoir of invertebrates that could facilitate integrated pest control. Sensitively managed arable land can provide a vital food source for small mammals, bats and beetles as well as important nesting habitat for many declining farmland birds. If we can create and secure habitat for species that live on arable farmland, we can make a real difference to their conservation on a global scale.

(c) Ben Andrew

The project has been working with landowners and farmers to improve the way in which this land is managed, as well as members of the public to enthuse and inspire them to care of this habitat. We have worked with over 130 farms and sites in Devon, Cornwall, Kent, Somerset and Wiltshire to help secure the future of some rare species – from changing management to reintroducing species to suitable areas. Some of our successes include reintroduction of Small-flowered Catchfly, Pheasant Eye and Corn Buttercup.

(c) Cath Shellswell

So, have you ever gone for walk on a footpath or through a field near you, looked at some of the plants that line the path and wondered what they are? Well, whether you are an amateur botanist or experienced ecologist, we have some resources that may help.

Through our work, we have created a huge number of resources which are freely available to anyone who has an interest in plants and who would like to learn more about this interesting, unique habitat.

Species crib sheets focus on the primary species we have been working on throughout this project and you can use these to find out more information on them, from management to distribution and survey methods to lifecycle information.

We also have crib sheets to help with identifying arable plants and species that are closely related to them which are also downloadable on the link. They cover all identifying features including roots, leaves, seeds and fruits, flowering periods and size – we have them for Buttercups, Carrots, Cornsalads, Mints, Poppies and Speedwells. These are great if you want to brush up on your ID, or if you are working as an ecologist or advisor and would like more identifying features without the sometimes-complicated keys you can use in the field.

There is also a range of habitat management guides which have been put together to help you better understand changes you can make on land to help encourage and improve the habitat for arable plants and the species that are dependent on them.  If you are after something a little more beginner-botanist friendly, we have our brilliant 'Mosey in the Margins' guide as well as a 'Discovering Arable Habitat' worksheet – linked to the curriculum and perfect for parents, carers and teachers.

All of these resources are available in downloadable format here (scroll down to the yellow bar half way down that says “show downloads”, or you can request hard copy versions of any resource by emailing

You can find out more about the project and how you can get involved by visiting the Back from the Brink website and clicking on the Colour in the Margins Project page:


Zoe Morrall

Colour in the Margins Outreach Officer


Colour in the Margins is part of the Back from the Brink programme, funded by the National Lottery, and led by Plantlife in partnership with the RSPB.

 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.