The Mail on Sunday
How Brussels has launched a spiteful war on our glorious snowdrops and rhododendrons
Petty and vindictive even by EU standards, they’re banning the import of plants that have touched British soil – putting jobs at risk and raising prices in UK garden centres
THIS should be peak season for Joe Sharman, a man known as ‘Mr Snowdrop’ and one of the biggest growers in the country. Woodlands and front gardens are now dotted with the shimmering white flowers that the poet Wordsworth called the ‘venturous harbinger of spring’.
Mr Sharman, whose customers include the Queen, sells thousands of bulbs from his Cambridgeshire nursery to buyers in the EU and beyond. He also drives vanloads to sell at snowdrop festivals in Germany.
But not this year. At a stroke, draconian EU regulations have wiped out half of his business.
The punitive new rules, which treat British growers as if they were located thousands of miles away in China or Brazil, have all but ended his export business. They have even prevented deliveries of snowdrops and other plants to homes and garden centres in Northern Ireland, which, following the Brexit agreement, remains under EU trade rules.
So extraordinary are the regulations that a plant that has so much as touched the soil of Great Britain can never be exported to the EU or any part of Ireland. No one has calculated the total cost of the regulatory assault,
I’ve had German customers in tears. Some have bought from us for years
but what is certain is that British horticulture has seen millions of pounds wiped from its profits overnight.
Businesses are confronting piles of paperwork and harsh inspection fees for even the simplest shipment of anything from packets of seeds to tree saplings.
One knock-on effect is likely to be a 20 per cent price increase on plants at UK garden centres as growers struggle to remain afloat. Mr Sharman alone expects to lose in the region of £100,000 this year and in subsequent years – and he is in no doubt who to blame. ‘This is Brussels playing hardball. They’re ticking every box and crossing every T,’ he says. ‘Last year, there were no restrictions for us, but at one minute past midnight on January 1 we became toxic.’
To him, it’s an act of spite, particularly as British plants have been grown to exactly the same standards as those in the EU for many years. ‘I’ve had German customers in tears. These people have been buying from me since 1988 – they’re my friends.
‘I’ve shed tears, too. I never thought I’d have to deal with this. I’m now hoping the EU leaders get off their high horse and let us trade.’
The sheer weight of regulation and the stringent detail – some of it bizarre – make it all but impossible for British growers to turn a profit. Under the new postBrexit rules, Britain is treated as a ‘third country’ for horticulture, which means that for every consignment of plants – be it one bulb or one million – an expensive ‘phytosanitary’ safety certificate is required, stating that the goods are soiland pest-free.
These are issued by an inspector from the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) at a cost of £ 127.60 per every half- hour spent on the consignment. The certificate itself then costs a further £25.52. Species such as snowdrops are more tightly regulated. Controlled by CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – snowdrop bulbs require additional permits at a cost of £74 per order. Then come t he r ul es about soil. Plants that have been grown in, or have ever touched, British earth can no longer be sent either to the 27 EU countries or to Northern Ireland because of the supposed potential risk of pests and disease. Even pots that have been placed on or touched the ground are deemed unsafe. It is all the more infuriating for exporters that UK plants grown in 100 per cent peat compost have been judged acceptable to EU bureaucrats, despite the serious environment damage caused by peat digging. Imports have also been hit. Many nurseries bring in plants from Europe, but from April they will have to pay an £ 182 inspection charge for every EU consignment.
The most unsettling effect has been the block on trade with Northern Ireland which, to prevent a hard border being erected across the island of Ireland, is still governed by EU trade regulations (placing a notional border down the Irish Sea instead).
So harsh are the rules that publishers of UK gardening magazines have been obliged to rip packets of free seeds from their covers before shipping them to newsagents in Belfast.
The sheer complexity of the rules means that some courier companies refuse to take plants from Britain to Northern Ireland and the EU. None of Mr Sharman’s Northern Irish customers seemed to realise they would be cut off in this way.
‘We had lots of enquiries from people who just weren’t aware of the changes,’ he says. ‘We had to say, “Sorry, you’re part of the EU now.” ’
‘The rules are almost impossible to comply with.‘And even if I could comply – which I can’t at the moment – the expense would be disastrous. Just think of the staffing costs to plough through all these documents, and that’s before you’ve paid for the inspections and certificates. It’s extremely difficult and completely unnecessary.’
Johnsons of Whixley, in North Yorkshire, has been particularly hard hit. One of the largest commercial nurseries in the UK, it handles about six million plants a
There were no restrictions until January 1 – and then we became toxic
year and has many big customers in Northern Ireland.
Now, because of EU regulations, it will have to try to sell £500,000 worth of plants elsewhere or simply compost them.
‘I knew there would be issues,
but I completely missed the technicalities around the Northern Ireland legislation,’ says Jonathan Whittemore, head of production and procurement.
‘ The thing that caught us out is soil. Our growing systems are on the ground, even though the plants are in containers. And that means we couldn’t send them to Northern Ireland.’
Several hundred rhododendrons and azaleas at Whixley that had been destined to brighten up parks in Belfast are now marooned.
‘We brought those in before the new rules came into force but then we stood the pots down on the ground in the UK. So that’s that. We can’t send them,’ says Mr Whittemore. ‘It’s ridiculous.’
Similarly, 10,000 Griselinia littoralis evergreen hedging plants sit close to a 25ft-high compost heap of discarded vegetation – mostly plants thrown away in the past few weeks. ‘We grew these specifically for that Northern Ireland contract, but now they won’t be going because they are grown in UK soil. There is no immediate marketplace for them and without a viable customer they will be end up on that compost heap, too,’ says Mr Whittemore.
‘It’s cost us about £1 per plant to get to this stage, but it’s really the principle of it. You’ve got a UK nursery that can’t sell to another part of the UK. It’s absolutely absurd. It has a huge impact on the guys in Northern Ireland and it gives Europe an opportunity to sell directly to them.’
Johnsons spent £12,000 in January on paperwork alone and would expect additional costs of £1.5 million a year if it continued to export as much as it does.
The cost to the staff has been greater still, Mr Whittemore says.
‘Employees have been in tears because of the amount of work, stress and strain of it all. We’ve had suppliers say they’re done with the UK because there’s too much bureaucracy.
‘I’ve been in this industry for more than 25 years. I’ve never had such a stressful time. We need to reach a resolution with the EU and ease restrictions. The rules are just impossible to comply with, full stop.
It is particularly galling for British growers that, in important ways, the UK is treating plant imports from the EU under the same rules as before.
There is no ban on soil from France, Holland or Poland, for example, yet that huge favour has not been returned.
A few weeks ago, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove criticised such EU red tape and how it is killing trade from one part of the UK to another.
‘It does not threaten the integrity of the EU single market to have bulbs ordered from a wholesaler in Scotland or England, which will then be planted in a garden in Belfast or Ballymena,’ he commented.
So far, though, there is no sign of a solution.
All of this is bad news for British gardeners who, inevitably, will have to pay more for their plants – perhaps by 20 per cent, the e s t i mated c o s t o f t he hi t to the industry.
And for some growers, it spells the end.
Glendoick Gardens, in Scotland, is world-famous for its splendid rhododendrons and supplies gardens belonging to, among others, the National Trust.
Managing director Ken Cox comes from a family of famous plantsmen. His grandfather was the renowned plant-hunter Euan Cox, who introduced a blood-red rhododendron called mallotum.
But a third of the nursery’s turnover – as much as £90,000 a year – came from exports to EU countries and Northern Ireland.
And now, with the new rules, this trade has been wiped out and Mr Cox might have to close down this part of his business. He says: ‘ It’s heartbreaking to think we might have to shut down over this. My father says it’s absurd. I think he hopes he’ll die before the consequences hit. I feel the pressure of our family history on my shoulders.’
The problem i s, again, t he bureaucrats’ view of British soil.
‘The rules of the EU say they won’t accept plants in our soil,’ Mr Cox says.
‘As we’ve been sending plants in soil s to Europe for 30 years, I think that th horse has bolted. Yet the EU is allowed to send as many plants in soil to us as it likes.
‘ They [ Brit i s h pl a nt s bei ng exported e to the EU] have to be in pure p peat or peat and coir [fibre
It’s like being a tiny bit of rubbish being tossed around in i a huge storm
from fr coconut husks] that would have to be shipped from Sri Lanka, so not exactly environmentally sound. Our UK customers, such as a the National Trust, want us to stop using peat. What are you supposed to do?’
The nursery has some £200,000 of rhododendron stock that may, too, be destined for the compost heap. ‘We will try to sell them but if not, we’d probably burn them,’ Mr Cox says.
‘All this is not good from a conservation point of view either. We’re the only people in Europe who grow certain types of rhododendron. Some are included on the red list of threatened species. We hold the national collection for the poganatha group. If we stop growing them, that’s the end of them.
‘I think Northern Ireland will get sorted out in some way – but I have no hope for the rest of the EU trade.’
Some like ‘ Mr Snowdrop’ Joe Sharman are trying to diversify – rare snowdrops remain big business, after all. His most expensive variety is the ‘Ice Princess’ at £500 per bulb. His own private collection is worth millions of pounds.
Mr Sharman has spent £6,000 in an attempt to boost UK sales and plans to spend the same again on a subsidiary business in Holland.
He will export his snowdrops to Holland, which is more affordable as a single destination for exports than it is to multiple destinations in the bloc, and from Holland sell to the rest of Europe and, ironically, Northern Ireland.
‘The insanity of it is that if I can get my plants to Holland, I can then send them to Northern Ireland,’ he says.
‘It’s like being a tiny bit of rubbish in a huge storm.’
THE skies of Exeter were filled with plumes of smoke last night after a Second World War bomb was blown up by the Army.
Residents described a ‘horribly loud’ bang which was heard up to ten miles away as the device, dropped by German planes some 80 years ago, was destroyed in a controlled explosion.
The bomb, measuring eight foot in length and 27 inches in diameter, was uncovered on a building site near the University of Exeter on Friday morning. An initial cordon of 330ft was extended to 1,310ft yesterday and all 2,600 nearby households ordered to leave.
Those evacuated included around 1,400 students living in 12 halls of residence close to the site. At around 6.10pm, personnel from the Army’s Royal Logistics Corps exploded the device.
On the same day, police in South-West London also had to deal with the discovery of an unexploded bomb. Specialist officers were called to East Sheen Common at around 12.20pm and sealed off the area. They safely removed the device before taking down the cordon at 1.45pm.
The MoD is called out to around 60 unexploded Second World War bombs every year, while Zetica, a company which specialises in dealing with ordnance, said private companies handle around 8,000 a year, although it is not known how many of them are from the war.
MARITAL di s cord t akes many forms. But that between Edward Maund and his wife Eleonora has gone down in history as a fascinating symbol of the power of early day feminism. At the beginning of the last century, after 36-year-old Eleonora defied Edward’s will and embarrassed his status as the head of the household, her husband made his anger very public.
Eleonora was one of thousands of women now known as ‘Census evaders’. They used the opportunity of the 1911 Census to protest about Edwardian society’s mistreatment of women.
Not only did they consider the Census ‘sexist’ because Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government asked for the form to be filled in by each ‘head of household’ – naturally a man – but many women used it as an opportunity to express their anger at not having the vote.
Under the rallying cry of ‘If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted’, groups across the country made their strong opinions known on the day of the Census – April 2, 1911.
Eleonora Maund’s behaviour, considered most unwifely at the time, can be seen among many similar in records of the survey held in the National Archives. They show that her husband, a prosperous African-explorer-turned-businessman 22 years her senior, filled in the Census, listing himself, his wife, three children and two servants as living in their home in West Kensington, London.
However, like countless other women, Eleonora intercepted the form before it was given to the official enumerator and crossed out her own name. Instead, at the bottom, she wrote ‘Wife Away’.
Her furious husband discovered this sabotage, restored his wife’s name and added in angry red ink: ‘My wife, unfortunately being a suffragette, put her pen through her name, but it must stand as correct – it being an equivocation to say that she is away – she being always resident here & has only attempted by a silly subterfuge to defeat the object of the Census. To which as “Head” of the family I object.’
‘Silly subterfuge’ or just one brave pinprick against unthinking male domination, Eleonora Maund’s defiance cannot be erased from history.
Intriguingly, today, we are witnessing another, very different generation of women threatening to sabotage next month’s ten-yearly Census.
INSTEAD of being a feminist call-to-arms, their protest demonstrates just how far British society has come in the intervening 110 years and how political priorities have changed. Fair Play For Women has launched a legal challenge against the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which is running the survey, over the issue of sex. The head count – which has been going since 1801, although this year’s, on March 21, could be the last, with future population counts being carried out in other, cheaper and easier ways – will be the first to ask people about their gender i dentity among many other questions. But campaigners disagree with the change to the Census that allows people to answer the question whether you are male of female by using the sex recorded on a document such as t heir passport. They believe only your birth certificate should be used because a passport, which can be changed simply with a doctor’s note, allows people too much freedom to choose their sex, regardless of their sex at birth.
They say this will defeat the purpose of the £906 million Census by not collating accurate data. For its part, the ONS says: ‘The guidance makes clear we are referring to government- issued documents. This is not self-identification.’
In today’s debate, feminists and transgender activists find themselves on different sides.
As one woman blogger put it on Twitter: ‘ When the suffragettes boycotted the Census, they were making a point about a lack of human rights afforded to women, and the inability to participate in democracy and society. Today,
TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] are just angry that transwomen are able to record themselves as women.’
Of course, in the days before sex-change surgery and Twitter, Eleonora Maund and her sister feminists had to find other ways to be heard.
Against growing feminist milit ancy fuelled by t he recently formed Women’s Freedom League, which saw hunger strikes and Parliament rejecting several opportunities to give some women the vote, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had become unsympathetic to women’s suffrage. So, the 1911 Census offered an ideal protest vehicle, and women’s organisations, whose supporters had already vandalised government property, called for a boycott.
And thus‘ the battle for Census’ began.
Margaret Wynne Nevinson, a member of the Women’s Freedom League, was typical in her view, saying the cause was based on ‘ the great axiom of the British Constitution – that government must rest on the consent of the governed’.
The Census had been the brainchild of the President of the Local Government Board, John Burns.
His concern was t he size of families, high levels of infant mortality and how fertility was affected when women worked in different types of employment.
As the 16th child in a family of 18, only nine of whom survived infancy, he was on a mission to reduce mortality by improving housing and childcare.
Interestingly, in view of the complaints about the gender quest he tion on next month’s Census, there were concerns, while compiling the 1911 survey, that questions about the length of marriage would be ‘too intrusive’.
Among t he l oudest ‘ Boycott The Census’ voices was Edith How-Martyn, who said: ‘Any government which refuses to recognise women must be met by women’s refusal t o recognise the government.’
Leading suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst urged passi ve protest, whereby women at home on Census night should refuse to complete the return ( and risk a £ 5 fine or a month’s imprisonment), or avoid the Census altogether by making sure they were out of the house.
All across the country on Sunday, April 2, 1911, women left their homes so they couldn’t be counted or were ready with a pen to sabotage the answers given by their ‘head of household’.
They were urged to write across the form: ‘ No Votes for Women; no Information from Women.’
Alternatively, thousands absented themselves, remaining away until midday the following day.
Some hired or borrowed houses from wealthy sympathisers so women could hole up together, holding all-night revelries. It was to one such gathering that Ada Flatman, 35, and a friend were heading in Cheltenham when two policemen suddenly started shadowing them.
Ada, a Women’s Social and Political Union member, had organised amid nights upper party at a borrowed house. She told the Gloucestershire Echo newspaper afterwards: ‘We parried the detectives and at last I held them at bay while my friend disappeared down a side street.’
On arrival at the house, she and nine other women spent the night listening to violin music. Elsewhere, women held bridge parties and concerts.
In Manchester, Jessie Stephenson rented a large house – later known as ‘ Census Lodge’ – and invited fellow evaders to bring ‘refreshments, rugs and cushions. Musical friends should bring their instruments. Every evader is asked to… bring at least ten women with her’. Sentries were posted on the doors of the property in Victoria Park to guard against police.
The enumerator called early in the morning to collect the Census form. Jessie’s was the only name recorded, along with 156 anonymous women and 52 men sympathisers.
Among more famous resisters was Sidney Mappin, a director of
A protest was called an orgy and proof of the folly of giving women the vote
the Royal silversmiths Mappin & Webb.
Some of the larger house parties allowed access to the Press, and photos appeared in newspapers of women sleeping, crammed together on the floor.
One reporter wrote that women assembling like this ‘for a kind of orgie’ was ‘proof of the folly of giving them a vote’. Some women stayed out all night by walking the streets or moors. Others acquired horse-drawn caravans to overnight on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire and on Wimbledon Common, SouthWest London.
In Central London, a rally with speeches was held in Trafalgar Square until resisters were moved on by police. But they decamped to nearby Aldwych, where a large indoor roller-skating rink had been hired specially.
Dorothea Rock, a 29- year- old Essex suffragette, wrote on her Census form: ‘I, Dorothea Rock, in the absence of the male occupier, refuse to fill up this Census paper as, in the eyes of the Law, women do not count, neither shall they be counted.’
In Malvern, Worcestershire, Kate Gillie sabotaged her form, dedicating it ‘in loving memory of Mrs Clarke and Miss Henria
Williams who lost their lives for the cause’. ( Williams had recently died after being roughly treated by police during a taxresistance protest. Her coffin was draped in the suffragette colours with a wreath saying: ‘She hath done what she could.’)
Gillie added acidly: ‘ If I am intelligent enough to fill in this Census form, I can surely make an X on a ballot form.’
Mary Howey, of Cradley, Hertfordshire, tartly recorded as her answer to the question about illnesses and infirmity ‘not enfranchised’. Another woman stuck a ‘ Votes for Women’ flyer across the form, writing sarcastically: ‘No persons here, only women.’
In Kensington, author Laurence Housman, brother of the poet A. E. Housman, and a supporter of the women’s vote, opened his house to women for a ‘midnight orgy of resistance’.
He wrote on his form: ‘All information refused by the four women inmates as protest at their exclusion from the Franchise.’
The most eye-catching protest was made by suffragette stalwart Emily Wilding Davison, who was determined that if her vote was not counted at Westminster, then at least she would be.
She smuggled herself into the House of Commons on Saturday, April 1, and hid in a broom cupboard – sustaining herself with meat lozenges and lime juice.
After being found by a cleaner on the Monday morning, the Clerk of the Works for the Houses of Parliament recorded her address on the Census as ‘Found hiding in crypt of Westminster
Hall’. She was also described as the sole occupant of the Houses of Parliament. A triumph indeed, although two years later Davison died for her cause, hit by King George V’s horse Anmer during the Epsom Derby.
The suffragettes had gained great publicity, and not a single protester was arrested or fined, which they saw as a government climbdown.
However, John Burns, who had devised the Census, tried to downplay the actions of what he called ‘ vixens in velvet’, saying their number was ‘negligible’.
Jill Lid ding ton, in her book Vanishing For The Vote, estimates that between 3,000 and 4,000 people actually boycotted the Census.
The fact that the female-male ratio had not changed since the last Census in 1901 – 1,068 women per 1,000 men – suggests that the protest’s effect on official statistics was, indeed, negligible.
Certainly, the boycott did nothing to sway Asquith, who remained obstinately opposed to women’s suffrage. It was only in 1918 that Parliament granted some women the right to vote – but not on an equal basis to men, who gained universal suffrage.
Ten years later, the Representation Of The People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 gave all women over the age of 21 the vote on the same basis as men.
Nonetheless, as Laurence Housman wrote, it allowed the ‘ nonheroic many’, who baulked at window- smashing or going on hunger strikes, to play their part in the fight for the vote.
When we fill in our Census forms next month, we should spare a thought for the midnight walkers, roller-skaters and E leo nora Maunds of 1911 and their fight to be counted as citizens, not simply statistics.
If I’m clever enough to fill in this form I can surely put X on a ballot