Weekly Witter: Our green energy story

Since our energy strategy, “Grow your own” was published back in 2010, we’ve embarked on a journey of energy-awareness.  We set ourselves two big challenges, to reduce our energy by 20% and to generate 50% of that remainder through renewable and low-carbon energy resources.  We’ve committed to do this by 2020.

Some of this is nothing new for us.  We’re lucky enough to have access to some amazing natural resources – water, sun (well, sometimes sun) and woodlands.  Previous owners of our properties knew this – for example, at Cragside, Northumberland (where Lord Armstrong installed what was probably the first hydro-electric scheme in 1868).  Not to mention many historic milling sites, such as Patterson’s Spade Mill, Morden Hall Snuff Mill, Winchester City Mill, to name a few.  We’ve brought water-power back to Morden and we’re bringing it back to Cragside.

We’ve already done some great work at enthusiastic properties – from charging an electric mower through a small solar panel at Nymans Gardens to installing our first solar panels on a Grade-I listed castle at Dunster Castle (our latest listed building installation is at Lindisfarne Castle).  We also do less obvious work behind the scenes, by replacing our oil-fired boilers with wood-fired ones – for example, Uppark, Chirk Castle, Calke Abbey, and Castle Drogo.  Last year, we generated 6% of our energy needs through renewables.

Green energy at Snowdon

Green energy at Snowdon

Our biggest project to date is happening right now, in Snowdonia.  We’re installing a 600kW hydro-electric system on one of our farms. This scheme will generate the electricity equivalent of over 600 3-bedroom homes.   The project team there have just run a very successful open-day.  Despite the constant rain, over 200 very keen people were in attendance to see the site and ask questions.  We want to do more of this.

We’ve identified just over 40 sites (a mix of hydro-electric, wood-fired systems, and heat pumps) which will help us achieve our goal of 50% generation.  Recently, we announced a new partnership with Good Energy, an energy supplier.  For every new customer that signs up to their electricity and/or gas tariffs, a donation (£40 for dual-fuel) is made to the National Trust to support our energy strategy and investment in renewables.  We’re exploring other options too.

On the energy-saving front, which is arguably more important for us, we have seen lights and equipment being switched off, new heating controls, roof insulation and secondary glazing being put in – all the actions we’d do at home.  South Somerset properties went even further quite recently.  Their green team held a “green week” which featured a fuel-free Friday, local apple juice and use of thermal images (which shows heating leaks from buildings) – all good ways to encourage energy-saving and the use of local resources.

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Last year’s winter was so cold, that we did not quite meet our energy saving target.  However, actions like those of South Somerset’s team are just what we need to manage and take ownership of our energy use.  We know that whatever we save has a global impact, as well as local impact.  Whatever you believe about climate change, we’ve seen the very real impact that freakish weather patterns has on our properties – from flash-flooding affecting historic buildings and contents to storm damage of centuries-old landscapes and ancient woodlands.

  • Kirsty Rice has been the Energy Adviser for the National Trust since 2007.  She is responsible for devising national energy strategy and reduction targets, in addition to providing advice on energy efficiency and renewable or low-carbon technologies.  Her background is in project and financial management, working on environmental projects for the last ten years in public and private sectors.
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: The Behrends and art of the First World War

The National Trust has a varied and stimulating schedule of events planned for the commemoration of World War I. It has given me the opportunity to look at our painting collections and their relevance to the Great War, although actually we have very little Modern British art in our properties. This is mainly because the families who donated or bequeathed their estates to the Trust simply weren’t in a position to commission avant-garde works of art at a time when everyone was living in straightened circumstances. Houses had been requisitioned as hospitals, servants were laid off and rationing was in force. Moreover, these aristocratic families were compelled to prioritise maintaining the fabric of their vast houses over the commissioning of works of art.

There is one stellar exception in Trust collections, which is arguably one of the greatest glories of art in Northern Europe, and one of the most magnificent examples of Modern British mural painting. Sandham Memorial Chapel was painted by Stanley Spencer, and records his personal wartime experiences, which are notable for their domestic rather than combative emphasis. The paintings will play a major role in the Trust’s events schedule later this year (watch the press for further announcements!).

“The chapel was described as ‘one of the most enlightened acts of patronage that ever happened to an artist’.”

The chapel was funded by John Louis (1881-1972) and Mary (1883-1977) Behrend, who did not hail from an aristocratic pile, but were distinctly ‘non-Establishment’. They are the forgotten heroes of the Modern British art scene and played a huge role in nurturing creative genius in all the arts, from music, to literature, to painting. The chapel was described as ‘one of the most enlightened acts of patronage that ever happened to an artist’, and yet the Behrends have been largely forgotten in the mists of time, in favour of some of the more self-publicising patrons. They are important because they had the money, the taste and the courage, which was a powerful combination.

Spencer at Burghclere

Spencer at Burghclere

“It was indeed an exceptional partnership and atypical of the usual patron/artist dynamic; for example, Mary insisted that they did not commission the chapel – rather it was all Stanley’s idea.”

John Louis came from a rich Jewish family, which had made its money from dealing in cotton seed in Egypt, chartering ships on the Baltic exchange in London, and milling rice, which was sold in large Hessian sacks stamped with the name BEHREND. He and his wife Mary built up a considerable collection of pictures of diverse subject-matter and style, many of which were by Spencer himself. They also owned works by Henry Lamb, Walter Sickert, Victor Pasmore, Edward Burra and Augustus John, to name to few. Many of their pictures now hang on the walls of national museums. Their main residence was the Grey House at Burghclere, the same village which houses the memorial chapel. This became a convening point for the many artistically-minded friends, of diverse disciplines, that they had made. Set against a backdrop of walls densely-packed with paintings, they hosted the likes of Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Henry Lamb, Marie Rambert, Eric Newton, as well – of course – Stanley Spencer.

The Behrends found creativity exciting and alluring. How else would they have otherwise dealt with what was a fairly complicated relationship with Stanley? They had no formal contract, and endured the ups-and-downs of the process with unfailing good grace. I have recently found some letters written by Mary towards the end of her life in which she comments on the longevity of her relationship with Spencer. It was indeed an exceptional partnership and atypical of the usual patron/artist dynamic; for example, Mary insisted that they did not commission the chapel – rather it was all Stanley’s idea. What has become clear during my research on the Behrends is that by the time the chapel was being created, they were not nearly so well-off as they had been. On the death of his father and uncle, John Louis only inherited one third of the family business. The family were smarting from his conversion to Christianity when he married Mary. In light of this, both ideologically and financially, the chapel was doubly courageous. After the war, the Behrend rice mills were sold and the Behrends lived in considerably straightened circumstances. The chapel became increasingly expensive to maintain, and it was given, with an endowment, to the National Trust in 1947. Their fortune may have dwindled, but they left a far richer legacy in the brave, outlandish and beautiful ‘Holy Box’ that is Sandham.

  •  Amanda Bradley, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Pests and pestilence at the Chelsea Flower Show

Stop the Spread

No it’s not about butter…but tree pests, diseases and invasive species in general. This is the subject of a ground breaking garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

“The garden will also have a black pool of water with a small living oak tree on a plinth in the middle at the end of the dead avenue.”

The National Trust has joined other organisations as a partner in the  Food and Environment Research Agencies  (FERA) garden designed by Jo Thompson to help raise the profile about the increasing threats we face but more importantly what we can all do about them.

The modern world we live in and our globe-trotting lifestyles combined with our increasing desire for ever more exotic food and plants is only increasing the chance of new pests and diseases and non-native species threatening our countryside, woodlands, forests and gardens.

“be prepared to be shocked… as there are dead (non living) trees at Chelsea for the first time…yes really!”

Since 2003 the National Trust has had to spend around £1m to deal with one disease alone, Phytophthora ramorum no small amount for a charity in these challenging financial times. But add in another 14 or so tree pests and diseases including the dreaded news making ‘Ash dieback‘ and the constant battle to keep our waterways and countryside clear of non-native species which sucks in vast amounts of staff time dealing with what is often a ‘fire fighting’ exercise, you can start to see why the Trust wants to help make a difference.

So was born the idea of working with others to raise the profile of these issues at the most famous garden show in the world, which in it’s centenary year is set to be a media show stopper.  But, be prepared to be shocked… as there are dead (non living) trees at Chelsea for the first time…yes really!  If you don’t believe me and you can’t go in person, check out our videos of the garden at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chelseaflowershow or tune in to watch some of the television coverage which will be on BBC2 every evening of Chelsea week.  The garden will also have a black pool of water with a small living oak tree on a plinth in the middle at the end of the dead avenue.

But there is beauty as well as we know that this is not a lost cause and we can all do things to help prevent the spread of plant pests and disease.

Here are my top tips of some things we can all do to help ‘Stop the Spread’:

 Taking some simple steps when gardening or buying and planting new trees, can help reduce the risk:

Ask your nursery/garden centre for help: Wherever possible, buy home-grown trees and plants; they’re more likely to be “acclimatised” to our conditions and less likely to be a home for new pests and diseases or non native species. Don’t bring plant material home from holidays abroad.

Buy small and watch it grow.  Semi-mature trees often grown overseas pose a higher risk of introducing pests and diseases. So be patient and plant smaller trees instead – they’ll often establish quicker too.

Right plant; right place.  A healthy tree or plant is less likely to succumb to disease – try to match a tree to its preferred location, type and size of tree, soil type, available space.

Help it to establish itself.  Feed your tree but avoid over-feeding which can lead to vulnerable soft growth. Consider a mycorrhizal fungi planting treatment to encourage healthy root growth. Use a good stake and tie, but don’t strangle your tree!  Lower leaves in contact with the soil risk picking up disease, so remove them when you plant or use a good mulch.

Give it room to grow.  Space trees as widely as possible to ensure good air movement and reduce humidity.  Prune out any dead and diseased branches and dispose of the waste sensibly.

Keep clean.  Pests and disease are easily spread on soil and plant debris attached to footwear or on tools like secateurs and saws, so clean mud and leaves off regularly.

Don’t stop planting. The worst thing we can do is to stop planting trees. Simple measures like those above will help protect our beautiful woodlands and forests in these difficult times.

 Dispose of garden waste responsibly. Compost your waste properly or dispose of in a responsible way. Don’t dump garden or pond waste in the countryside or water courses

Top tip: When buying look for: healthy, vigorous trees and plants, not pot bound, not too much soft growth. Avoid signs of dieback, leaf spotting, insect infestation and mould growth. Look out for other non -native species species hitching a ride.

The team hard at work

The team hard at work

  • Ian Wright is the National Trust’s Gardens Adviser based in the South West of England.  He advises on all things horticultural at the 30 great gardens in the South West. He has built up an extensive knowledge of plant and tree pests and diseases over his 26 years working for the Trust and in more recent times produced guidance for staff aimed at preventing the spread of pests and disease.  Ian describes himself as ‘almost a tender perennial’ and now ‘lacking the appetite for true British winters’ after working in the favoured climate of the South West for so many years.  Potential sponsors take note… Ian’s greatest dream is to design a ‘Gold winning’ show garden for the National Trust at Chelsea…..any offers?
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular weekly mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about the news, current affairs, and what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Where are Britain’s Bees?

A Buzzless Spring…

Hindsight is useless. Foresight is what’s needed, but it is far easier to prove something retrospectively.  Conservation and technological science need to be forward looking, and to prime future actions.  Furthermore, there’s a jumping off point where science has to prime belief.  That jumping off point is often hard to determine: sometimes we have to jump before we have full scientific certainty, which is where belief becomes important.

“I know that much is wrong with our bees, and that the situation is steadily worsening.”

Much has been said and written about neonicotinoids (‘neonics’) and the plight of bees, hived and wild.  I’d love to say that I fully understand it all, but I don’t; some of the science is beyond me, and some of it seems woolly. Good science is often partial, and there is much inadequate science around (often acting as a stepping stone towards good science).  Yet as an entomologist who has been interested in our native bees for over thirty years and as someone who has been involved in bee keeping on and off since childhood, I know that much is wrong with our bees, and that the situation is steadily worsening.  If there was a single cause we would in theory have got to the bottom of it by now, so I suspect a cocktail, a nasty cocktail.

My wife and I gave up bee keeping circa 2000 when we finally had to accept that we couldn’t keep them in the arable landscape in which we live.  It was unfair on the bees; they kept dying – and not just because of poor weather or Varroa mites, or even inadequate husbandry.  Moreover, we became increasingly aware that bees kept by friends in more suburban environments were faring considerably better.  Much of what our own bees gathered was Oil Seed Rape (OSR), which in my opinion makes revolting honey (and not simply because it sets rock hard).  Since then our local farms have increased their OSR acreage considerably.

“What all parties seem agreed upon is that seriously good research is required urgently – but good science cannot be hurried.”

In 2012 some 490,000ha of OSR (76 per cent of the UK crop) were treated with ‘neonics’, along with some 600,000ha (30 per cent) of wheat (Advisory Committee on Pesticides Data, 2012).  A formal review by the European Foods Standards Agency reported in January that ‘neonics’ pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored evidential data upon which regulatory agencies have relied may be flawed.  Their review concluded that an acute risk to honey bees is posed by dust drift from the seed treatments used in maize, OSR and cereals, and that a similar high risk is posed by residues in nectar and/or pollen.  In response the European Commission is implementing a temporary ban on some neonicotinoids. This is effectively an evocation of the Precautionary Principle of the Rio Declaration, which states: ‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’

honey_bee North Eastern Photography

Will honey bees soon be a thing of the past?

Whether this will actually help bees remains to be seen.  Crops sown this autumn will not be affected by the moratorium, and two years is a pathetically small window of opportunity – especially as ‘neonics’ can persist in some soils for up to four years.  Furthermore, it is unwise to assume that the alternatives to ‘neonics’ are less damaging, so we urgently need to see guidance provided to farmers and gardeners on practices to use instead.  What all parties seem agreed upon is that seriously good research is required urgently – but good science cannot be hurried.  Meanwhile in Wales there is perhaps some hope in the production of a Pollinator Action Plan (open for consultation until June 4th) which could be usefully extended and developed on a UK-wide basis as our bees don’t respect borders.

Why we are growing all this Oil Seed Rape in the first place is a question only naïve people like me ask…

  • Matthew Oates has worked for the National Trust for over 20 years.  Although passionate about butterflies he is very much an all-round naturalist and is effectively the Trust’s resident naturalist. He works closely with the Trust’s network of ecologists and naturalist rangers throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular weekly mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about the news and what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Spring catches up

At last we had a decent May Day Bank Holiday, you all say.  Actually, that of 2011 was sunny, though spoilt by a penetrating north-east wind, and we have to go back to 2005 for the last genuinely good one.  Hopefully the nation made the most of Monday’s most welcome sunshine.

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Nature certainly did.  It went into rapid catch-up mode.  Until this last week spring had been running late, the latest it’s been since 1996, though 2006 also saw a late spring.  But spring can move fast when released, and in the space of a mere week the countryside has been transformed.  Blink, or spend a week on an intensive indoor training course, and you miss it.

Bluebells have come from nowhere, or at least from a state of serious retard, and are now at or approaching their peak in many places. But why do they matter?  The answer is simply because they flower en masse when spring it at its absolute zenith.  Our scented bluebell drifts therefore form the pinnacle of spring – add a distant cuckoo call or the vibrancy of the nightingale and you’ve reached what TS Eliot called ‘the still point of the turning world’ (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton).  Also, and more obviously, we have no other native plant that forms such stunning purple haze carpets (though devil’s bit scabious can perform a poor man’s version in September).  And our native bluebells are strongly scented.  We can get mildly intoxicated on the sight and scent of a bluebell carpet, especially on warm still spring afternoons – like Monday’s bank holiday.  To put it bluntly, bluebells are a legal and natural high.  They are especially good this year as some of the early spring flowers, with which they often grow, are still in flower – notably the pinky-white wood anemone or windflower, which are normally finished before the bluebells start.

nt-infographic-bluebells 2The trees are also, quite suddenly, breaking into leaf – and this seriously transforms the landscape.  The oaks are leafing late this year, so late in fact that they are coming out at the same time as the ash trees.  This may or may not be worrying, depending on how aware of, or convinced you are about, the rural saying concerning the leafing of ash and oak.  2013 could, of course, be the year in which Ash Dieback starts to do to our landscapes what Dutch Elm Disease did back in the early to mid 1970s.  We shall see, but in good spring weather there is always optimism – for spring is essentially about the fulfilment of promise, the promise of summer.  Perhaps we truly belong in summer?  Certainly, we are overdue a good summer.

Some migrant birds have arrived late, held up by northerly winds.  Two of the British Trust for Ornithology radio-tagged cuckoos arrived on our shores, found that the weather wasn’t to their liking – and promptly flew back south across the Channel.  Hopefully the warm spell has lured them back again.  It certainly brought a major flurry of arrivals – a major fall of common whitethroats over the bank holiday weekend, and more recently garden warblers.

In effect, spring is happening, all at once and all in a hurry right now.  It is impossible not to be moved by it.

Weekly Witter: Out of the strong came forth sweetness

Spring is a time of joy for all naturalists, leaf burst and blossom delighting all of us, not least the entomologist who has suffered a long and bleak winter with hardly a buzz or a flutter of wings. The search for the rare and spectacular is most definitely on and it’s not in praise of leaf or flower that I devote this blog. I’m celebrating a sweet and intoxicating liquor, a dark brown liquid that oozes, bubbles and even gurgles from trees. Sap-runs or flux as they are sometimes known, prove irresistible to insects and insect hunters alike.

There are many reasons why sap might spring from trees, bacterial disease, physical damage or the attentions of wood boring insects such as the chunky larvae of the goat moth which might spend five years developing on the frugal diet of solid wood. Whatever causes the sap to flow from the tree there are rich pickings for insects. Flies, beetles and wasps are all attracted to the sugary secretions. While some of the species such as red admirals and wasps are fairly ordinary, there’s a chance of finding more rare species per square inch than any other habitat I know.

The dark brown streaks on this oak trunk are a tell-tale sign of a productive sap-run.

The dark brown streaks on this oak trunk are a tell-tale sign of a productive sap-run.

The tree in the photograph was in a field at Maidenhead and Cookham Commons and is clearly in decline although the sap runs are a symptom rather than the cause. One of the first things I check for on such trees are the exit holes of the twin-spot wood-borer, a formerly rare beetle that has become much more common as a result of acute oak decline. These beetles, sometimes implicated in the spread of disease leave holes that are distinctive for being flattened on one side, much like a D. There was no sign at all of where this handsome beetle had been, indeed despite seeing hundreds of holes on scores of trees I’d never seen this species in over ten years of trying. Other species though were there in abundance.

Wasps were frequent, along with their bigger cousins the hornet. These, despite their fearsome reputation are luckily kind-tempered; praiseworthy when poring over the trunk with your nose an inch away from where they feed. Sap-beetles, fungus beetles and hoverflies all flocked to the sweet sap. The rare brown tree-ant, a real southern speciality was busy, scurrying across the trunk, drinking sap and seemingly attending hoverfly larvae that were immersed in the syrupy stream. Several hoverflies are known to breed exclusively in sap runs, some of these are tiny and rather dowdy but the inflated hoverfly is a much more robust beast. This inch long fly is a dapper black and orange affair and always a pleasure to see.

The inflated hoverfly, a distinctive sap-run specialist.

The inflated hoverfly, a distinctive sap-run specialist.

Red admiral butterflies had settled onto the trunk to feed occasionally flashing their wings to startle other insects attempting to muscle in. The smell of the sap was even tempting enough to lure a purple emperor away from its sylvan kingdom. After a good twenty minutes of inspecting the insect life on this once mighty tree I thought that the emperor would be the highlight. Just as I turned to walk away, another insect alighted at the foot of the tree, the wings creating an audible buzz as it did so. Its slim shape and spangled appearance gave it away as one of my most sought after species. Agrilus pannonicus, the oak jewel beetle, the twin-spot wood-borer (so good they named it thrice), a Holy Grail that serendipity (and sap) had seen fit to allow me to meet.

oak j Oak Jewel Beetle

Oak Jewel Beetle

  • Peter Brash is a wildlife and countryside advisor for the National Trust. He specialises in animal ecology; specifically birds, insects and bats. As well as the surveying of habitats, wildlife interpretation and engagement.
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Battle of Britain’s bluebells

The Natural History Museum online Bluebell Survey

Are British bluebells under threat?

Are British bluebells under threat?

Since 2006 scientists at the NHM have been asking the public to look more closely at one of Britain’s best loved plants and report their data online. Initially driven by the desire to understand whether this iconic species was indeed threatened by an invasive alien, the Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), our work soon became a quest to understand just what the plant we thought of as the Spanish Bluebell was and where it had come from, before we could begin to understand what we were seeing in the British countryside. Molecular work demonstrated that the Spanish and English Bluebells were very similar, indeed there was as much genetic variation between the populations of Spanish bluebell isolated on the different mountain ranges across Iberia as there was between it and our native plant. Study of the narrow zone where they meet in northern central Spain revealed a confusing mix, just like we can find in urban areas in Britain. Only geographical isolation has kept them apart and distinct as there is no apparent barrier to breeding between them. As a consequence our horticultural endeavours have in less than 250 years done much to undo the last 10,000 plus years of isolation and evolution!

“So were the doom merchants justified in their apocalyptic statements?”

It became clear that the plant which had become associated in British botanist’s minds as typical Spanish Bluebell was actually a triploid, the like of which our criss-crossing of Iberia had failed to find. It is likely that if this didn’t arise early in cultivation it was of a selected form, picked out for its robustness and vigour (and not for its charm!) not subsequently found in the wild. It was also obvious that over time plants from different parts of Iberia had found their way to British gardens and because of the variability in the species we could determine that our problem plants might better be called Portugese rather than Spanish Bluebells!

“Plants abandoned on roadsides adjacent to major native populations may inexorably spread alien genes…”

So were the doom merchants justified in their apocalyptic statements? To an extent yes – with no barrier between them interbreeding will occur wherever the taxa meet, and our gardens, wherever they be across the country, the British public had shown us were full of hybrid plants. It was also clear that the major ancient woodland areas supporting the world’s largest stands of Hyacinthoides non-scripta were, as yet, largely unsullied and untainted by the alien. In areas around our major towns and cities, where ancient woodland habitats are small and fragmented and in close proximity to gardens and fly-tippers, populations were mixed. The message thus then became one of educating the public not to dispose of unwanted garden plants irresponsibly. Plants abandoned on roadsides adjacent to major native populations may inexorably spread alien genes although encouragingly it seems that most pollinator movements may be going the other way, from our native plants to the invaders.

Having better established the distribution of alien plants (or their genes) within the British Isles we then decided that our survey may provide us with an excellent opportunity to build a more robust data set looking at the phenology of flowering in this species, which may help provide evidence on the existence and effects of climate change. To do this meaningfully requires very many years’ worth of data (not least to counter natural yearly fluctuations such as we see now) and as many members of the public contributing as possible, hopefully with the same plants recorded year after year. Responses to the survey peaked late in the flowering period last year following my appearance on the BBC’s One Show and we hope that all those people who contributed then will do so again this year. Last year our first records were made early in the first week of March, some five weeks or more ahead of our first this year and most plants I see even in the cities heat are still more than a fortnight from flowering.

A stunning bluebell display at Fountains Abbey.

A stunning bluebell display at Fountains Abbey.

By carefully identifying plants using our online guidance, with the fallback of being able to send images to me here at the museum enquiries team (ias2@nhm.ac.uk) to help with this, it will be possible to document whether hybrid and Spanish plants do flower earlier so that we can discount this as one cause of change in flowering time and behaviour.

  • Fred Rumsey- Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, NHM
  • Experts at the National Trust believe that due to the late spring, British bluebells are still weeks away from flowering. Read more here.