Grey imports, what they are and the impact they are having?

Grey imports, what they are and the impact they are having?

Grey imports is a new term I learned yesterday from our trustee Mike. I was explaining to him the biggest problem our native flora has. It is, when imports of our native species are sown or planted here. Mike quietly said, “there’s a name for imitations of the real thing being imported – Grey imports“. “Yes!” i said, finally, i had a way to explain, a phrase to use, if you like, to get the message out there. So many people, who want to do the right thing, yet in reality by spreading grey imports, make the situation much worse. And, unfortunately, the damage is potentially irreversible. Once bees and other pollinators spread the pollen of the grey imports to our native inhabitants, the resulting progeny are no longer like the native. Continuing crossing and back-crossing in subsequent generations, means the problem would be here to stay.
With around 14,000 years of adapting under their belts, our island version of the plants is arguably different. Until we know for sure, through DNA testing, a precautionary principle is a good idea. Then on a global scale, we the inhabitants of this island, can be seen to be responsbile in our actions and preserving the biodiversity here.
You might argue, sure what does it matter? Who cares, it’s only plants? Or it’s only a snapshot in time on a planet that’s only got another few billion years anyway. Until then, it’s good for us as a race, to care for others… and by default, those that rely on our plants.
What joy is in it for us to create a planet full of hybrids, where once there was diversity?

Importers of non-native seeds from overseas of plants that occur natively in Ireland (grey imports), are not regulated in Ireland north or south.
Until recently, imports, and unscrupulous/ignorant importers have been few, mainly supermarkets and some garden centres. But the boom in the popularity of “Planting native wild flowers” is now huge. The tide of uninformed “improvements” is a tsunami of disaster. Certain seed companies, who have been informed of what they are doing, continue regardless. I have implored them to stop, but in the name of money they feel they must continue – not only that, the misleading marketing of “Native wild flowers” (from overseas -but that’s not mentioned), should be nothing short of illegal, yet still nothing is done from a government level.
I have also heard many examples of councils and other “Environmental” organisations importing seed from the EU and GB. The excuse we couldn’t get native seed is not good enough. Either support the naitve Irish seed industry to get you seed, or let nature do its own thing for example the Don’t Mow, let it grow project.
Thankfully the farmers project is now stalled, this project failed to insist on the use of native origin wild flowers, yet did insist upon using native species, which were then imported. Our only hope is that the imports don’t fare so well in our climate and die out, but was it before leaving behind their genes?
Making your own seed collections from the wild on a small scale is alright, as long as the land owner is consulted and says it’s not already been picked from. But really, well, you could take a little and grow it out yourself for a few years and bulk it up that way, but our flora is under pressure all around and mass seed collecting by amateurs, who may or may not be able to properly care for that seed could just tip the fragile balance for many wild populations.

There are regulations to stop imports of plants that are on the Schedule 9 – for example, Spanish bluebell, or colourful little primulas, sea kale, but there are not the resources to actively find and stop perpetrators. But, this is also leading to the loss of our native flora.

In March 2020 Germany stopped grey imports, not only over German borders but also between 22 distinct regions within the country. The island of Ireland needs to take note and do the same, and better sooner than later… Our flora is still largely unaffected. In Europe we stand the best chance of all countries, bar none, but we need to start now.
If this inspires you sufficiently i urge you to write to your local MP.

What can you do?

When you a buying wild flower seed just ASK… “WHERE DOES YOUR SEED ORIGINATE FROM?” Not provenance, this word is much misused. ORIGIN relates to the entire family history. A bona fide Irish seed producer will be able to tell you where their seed originates from. They will be happy to tell you. If they can’t or won’t, well sure that speaks volumes.

Some ideas that could help save our native flora:

The definition of a species is a human constraint. The use of subspecies helps, so for a few Irish species you’ll see the subspecies “hibernica” added. This could prove a useful future addition to species names.
We need to perform reliable, comparable, well defined DNA testing, so it can be reproduced for specimens from around the globe. Currently, reliable testing is just beginning on our native Irish species, but still very little has been done around the EU. We are in contact with 2 PhD students who are starting the testing.
THS has many contacts across Europe, Ireland and Britain, so it is well placed to be able to get reliable specimen material should funding for such a project become available. Please get in touch with debbie@trueharvestseeds.org if you think you would like to contribute and or collaborate.

Summary of some of the main and unfortunate impacts that Grey Imports are having:

As an island nation we must work on the precautionary principle that our plants may be distinct from other regions of the planet. Being an island, plants naturally adapted over the millennia where necessary, so it stands to reason, to hypothecise that they might well have adaptations that make them stronger and also be tuned in to our island’s rhythm, holding their place in the biodiversity web for the safety and benefit of our other interconnected species.
– Hybridisation is THE BIG, Number 1 problem. Bees and other pollinators do not distinguish between grey imported plants and native plants. This leads to hybridisation between visited plants and the loss of those plant’s seed’s native integrity, the current tragic example being our native Irish bluebell, which is now widely hybridised with the Spanish bluebell. It is directly because of this that our native bluebell is on the endangered species list here in NI, and in the authors humble opinion, largely extinct. Please correct me if I’m wrong, i will drop everything to include native Bluebell seed in the seed bank if you permit.
– Introductions of non-natives, from for example, Poland and Hungary countries who produce massive amounts of crop selected and native-to-their-own-country, seed every year. Introductions of non-natives here have the very real ability to dilute, any and all, wild populations genetically and not only directly affect their places in their habitats, but ultimately lead that habitat’s demise and further if the problem becomes widespread enough, mass extinctions of Ireland’s native flora, replaced with hybrids.
– Loss of natural adaptations that our native populations have developed themselves through natural selection over the last 14,000 odd years of island isolation, have afforded them strength and survivability, not just supporting themselves but the niche of the habitat they will be part of.
– The physical space they take up whilst being recorded as native, when they may not be.
– The recent surge in “native” seed bombs, impregnated paper and all manner of gimmicky marketing of non-native seeds as “Native Wildflowers”.
– Some seed mixes contain seed of endangered species, for example Geranium pratense.
– Going out into nature our vice-county recorders have no idea where populations of this or that have sprung up from – with regards to the above 2 points. It is our vice-country recorders who feed their expert data into the BSBI, see the new BSBI online atlas. https://plantatlas2020.org. Ill informed improvements with non-native seed pose a real danger to our data set on our wild flora, skewing distributions and our knowledge.
– The very small Native Seed Producers industry that exists in Ireland, both north and south is in danger of being lost.
From being out-competed in price, lack of public understanding of the issues surrounding good quality, appropriate seed, to non-native seed imports being specified in local government projects, the lack of seed knowledge in this country is hurting the fragile industry.
See European Native Seed Producers Association website: https://native-seed.eu and code of conduct https://native-seed.eu/index.php/about-us/code-of-conduct.

If you’re interested in helping True Harvest Seeds, there’s a few things we need:

1. A nursery person, paid, part time to work at Kilclief with me. Email me Debbie Gillies on debbie@trueharvestseeds.org, or my phone number is 07516264888.
2. A new trustee to help with fundraising and booking keeping, this doesn’t need to be the same person. Email Mike Thompson on marketing@trueharvestseeds.org.
3. We’ve just submitted a planning application to the planners to build a dedicated plant resource centre for Ireland, housing the Native Irish Seed Vault. We would love your support online when it goes live on the South Down Planning portal, most likely be mid May.
4. We’re fundraising for the above. Our target is £200,000. We’ll raise an initial amount from our public supporters and use that as match funding for funding applications. There’s a go fund me page and other ways to contribute on the website.
5. And last, but by no means least, a person to help coordinate volunteers and seed collection expeditions. This post has no funding as yet, but if you can fundraise and i’ll help you if you need, there’s no reason we can’t get the official Seed Collection Officer post up and running. By far one of the most botanically interesting, well travelled and communicative posts we would have. I’d do it myself, i always have done, but running the charity and organising building the Plant Resource Centre is taking up my time. So, conversely, if you feel inspired to do the latter, i can always fulfil the Seed Collection Officer post.
We are and intend to remain a flexible organisation – the key principle being that we can all do most jobs, so we can step in for each other when times are hard for anyone and work still need done.
Ultimately we want to save our flora, which is the basis of life on earth… and enjoy the process. It is truly a great feeling to work in conservation.

To summarise:

Scientifically and arguably, hybridisations could be advantageous, disasterous, or make zero difference. The point is, we don’t know yet, the genetic testing has not yet been done. If we destroy what we have through ignorance, for capital gain, or to fulfil those pressing funded projects, everyone loses, but most of all our innocent flora.

The Solution: Stop imports, now.

by Debbie Gillies
6th May 2023

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

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