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PETER FROST investigates an outbreak of countryside crime.

“IT IS my belief, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of crime than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” So said Sherlock Holmes. Sadly it still seems to be true today.

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All over the country this weekend people will be taking themselves off to parks, gardens and other open spaces to see the snowdrops. These tiny but spectacular flowers will be announcing the end of winter and the arrival of spring.

While they do, others will be packing small spades and trowels to dig up some of those delicate but often surprisingly valuable plants.

The story of how those exotic snowdrops reached our parks and gardens goes back a long way — to October of 1854, in the rolling meadows of Crimea, 600 brave British soldiers were ordered to their death by ignorant and arrogant aristocratic officers keen to extend the British empire.

Tennyson summed up the destiny of the common man in his famous poem: “Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die:/Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.”

Tennyson also wrote a poem in praise of snowdrops.

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Then at the end of January, in a curious parallel of the flush of blood-red poppies that painted the fields of Flanders in another foreign war, the hills of Crimea bought forth a huge beautiful display of tiny snow white flowers.

British soldiers were amazed to see the battlefields covered in little, frail snowdrops. The flowers were, in fact the Crimean snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus).

Many of the British soldiers took the tiny bulbs home with them, some even slipped the bulbs — little bigger than a grain of wheat — into letters to their wives and sweethearts at home.

Today snowdrops, both the Crimean species and our own native and slightly larger common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) are a familiar and very welcome part of our midwinter countryside.

Did you know that there are over 2,000 different types of snowdrop, or galanthus, growing wild in our countryside and in our parks and gardens?

There are even snowdrop clubs and snowdrop societies and the rarest and exotic varieties change hands for hundreds of pounds for a single bulb. Last year a single bulb reached nearly £1,400 at auction.

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Perhaps then we should not be surprised that these plants — worth far more than their weight in gold — are becoming common victims of the crime of snowdrop poaching.

Last year plant trader William Robson Adams  (below) was fined £370 for illegally harvesting wild flowers from a beauty spot in Cumbria.

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When police raided Adams’s home at Great Orton, they found he had a stash of around 5,000 wild snowdrop bulbs. He had been seen carrying a rucksack and digging in the area.

He was prosecuted by the National Wildlife Crime Unit, working with local police officers.

Local dog walkers realised that the flowers were regularly vanishing from woodland for more than a year. Some reported seeing a dog walker with a rucksack digging in the area.

Adams confirmed to police that he was a plant trader and that he had set up a small business selling plants and bulbs.

During the search of his home, officers also found invoices for the plants he sold online through Ebay and Amazon.

The plants included bluebells, wild garlic and snowdrops, all of which are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Snowdrops are also protected under a section of the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997, so they can only be sold if they have been legally acquired or lawfully imported.

It is strictly against the law to take them from the wild and this means that their sale is a criminal offence.

Adams also faced a charge of fraud by misrepresentation, because he had advertised plants for sale as artificially propagated, when they had actually been unlawfully uprooted. Adams admitted all the offences.

The 5,000 bulbs which Adams took were all seized and then later replanted back into the wild by local volunteers.

There is, of course, a huge legitimate trade in snowdrops. Specialist breeders have developed hybrids with splashes of colour on otherwise white petals and also with interesting hues in the leaves.

Modern techniques mean that a single tiny bulb can be dissected into scores of parts each of which will produce a new flowering plant.

The rarest of these demand amazing prices from snowdrop enthusiasts and also attract specialist thieves.

The National Trust’s Anglesey Abbey (below), just north of Cambridge, has one of the finest snowdrops collections in the country with over 300 varieties of the delicate white flowers, including 20 varieties that have been bred at the Abbey itself. They have over 60 varieties for sale.

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Because of previous thefts individual bulbs at the abbey — some worth up to £700 — are now security tagged.

Last year, the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire had so many rare snowdrops stolen that they now only keep them on limited display.

Out in the gardens clumps of more common snowdrops are watched over by hidden security cameras.

All over the world wildlife crime is a threat to biodiversity. We tend to be aware of rhino horn and elephant tusk poaching or egg thieves raiding the nests of magnificent and threatened birds of prey.

In fact plant crime is just as big business. Orchids, rare lilies and exotic bulbs all sell on the illegal horticultural market.

In some locations mature trees and giant cacti sell for huge prices by those impatient to landscape new houses.

There are 5,000 animals on the endangered list prepared by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species and six times as many plants registered as being at risk. One of them is the humble snowdrop.

This article was first published in the Morning Star 17 February 2017.

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