The Bluebell wood – public good – private property – pay per view

Oh, to be in England
Now that April ‘s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That now we must pay for life’s simple pleasures
Like viewing the bluebell, our woodland treasure…
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!


Robert Browning, Home-Thoughts from Abroad (partially modified)



A recent article in the Daily Telegraph highlighted the issue of visitor control during the peak Bluebell viewing season at a National Trust site in Hertfordshire. It noted that for the first time the Trust would be charging visitors coming to look at wild flowers (charges would only apply for a specific time period). The money would go towards paying for crowd control measures such as fencing to limit the damage caused by large visitor numbers, which was believed to be contributing to a decline in the Bluebell population at the site. The article noted that the proposed measures were based on suggestions by visitors in previous years.

The National Trust’s proposals reflect a standard reaction to ‘congestion’ in an ‘open access’ regime, which is to control or restrict access in some manner.  In effect turning the resource from a public good, where anyone can utilise the resource, into a toll or club good where access is restricted by some form of payment or other control measure.  ‘Congestion’ is a major issue with many public goods, and a problem we are likely to see increase as both global population and standards of living rise.   Many resources we currently manage as public goods potentially suffer from the ‘congestion’ problem.  For example a road can be considered as a public good, and the fact that I drive on the road does not affect or limit the ability of others to use that road…up to a point.  If there are too many users then traffic slows, it takes longer to make a journey, and each individual’s utility gained from road use declines.  Everyone is familiar with the impact of morning rush hour or bank holiday traffic on road use.  A standard approach to controlling road use is a toll which, if set at the correct level, maximises income to the road owner/manager while also minimising the negative impacts of congestion.  The management of the road shifts from that of public good to a toll or ‘club’ good where only those willing to make the payment have access.

The congestion problem applies to many other areas and activities that are constrained in some way by the location and/or size of the resource, such as visiting a popular beach, using a footpath or public right of way, boating on a lake, or fishing a stretch of river.  Without some form of control the number of users accessing the resource either damages the resource itself (as indicated by the National Trust in regard to Bluebells), or diminishes the value each individual gains from being able to access the resource.

The alternative to implementing a toll/payment regime would be to create some form of ‘commons’.  A public good afflicted by such high levels of use that each person’s enjoyment is limited or reduced by the presence of others is effectively a commons (defined as a resource where it is difficult to limit access but where one persons use subtracts from the ability of another person to also use the resource).  There are plenty of examples of sustainable management of commons around the world but the nature of the resource, and the assignment of property rights do not always permit management of a good or resource under a commons regime.  A commons management regime requires some form of assignment of rights (i.e. ‘who can do what’) and institutional arrangements in order to limit access to, and use of, the resource.  To preserve benefits for the maximum number, where woodlands are open to all (as in the National Trust case), then it will be difficult to do anything else other than implement a ‘toll’ (payment) regime in order to protect and maintain the quality/quantity of the resource.

Bluebells are in the strange situation of being part of our common heritage, a public good, but protected by national legislation and (for the most part) through the institution of private property.  This latter aspect, while protecting many areas from the potentially damaging effects of too many visitors, also limits access to Bluebell woodlands, leading to congestion on those few sites open to all, or where public rights of way happen to cut through suitable woodland.



The Bluebell  as part of our common heritage


The Bluebell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air:
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit’s care.

Excerpt from ‘The Bluebell’, by Emily Bronte (1838)


It has been estimated that around half of the world’s bluebell population can be found in the UK.  In England the flower is dedicated to St George and various meanings that have been ascribed to the flower over time have been handed down to us through folklore.  In the past the flower had many uses: in the Middle Ages, for example, a sticky substance in the bulbs was used to glue feathers onto arrows and in bookbinding (it is toxic and so also deterred insects from eating the binding), it was also used as a medicine, and to stiffen ruffs in Tudor times.  Even today the flower yields potential for use and is being studied for its medicinal qualities (Bluebells contain water-soluble alkaloids that potentially can be used in treatments against cancer).

In folklore, it was ‘considered unlucky to trample on a bed of bluebells, because you would anger the fairies resting there’. One tale suggests that by wearing a wreath made of bluebell flowers, the wearer would be compelled to speak only the truth. Or that if you could turn one of the flowers inside out without tearing it, you would eventually win the one you love. It has also been suggested that as the bluebell is a symbol of constancy, it is the origin of the ‘something blue ‘in the old rhyme of what a bride needs to wear on her wedding day, to bring a long and happy marriage (‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’).

Today the flower is widely admired for its spectacular appearance in spring, usually under ancient woodland where for a short time it covers the ground like a blue carpet, and as the Telegraph story suggests, people will travel long distances to walk among the bluebells.  A bluebell wood early on a spring morning can be a magical experience.  Just as the leaves coming out on the Beech trees still have that youthful light green colouring, and mingled in places with the reddish tinge of the Copper Beech.  The foliage is not heavy enough to keep out the sun, which sends great shafts of light slanting across the sea of green and blue that laps around the base of the grey tree trunks.  It can make one feel an intruder, as if you were in some gigantic dwelling, treading delicately on a blue carpet that spreads out in every direction as far as the eye can see.  It’s only close up, when you focus on the individual flowers, that you can see their fragility, and how a wrongly placed foot can crush the life and colour out of each thread in this fabric.


Protecting a fragile public good

The value of the bluebell is not limited to folklore and medicine, it also plays a valuable role in woodland ecology forming an important early source of food for bees, hoverflies and butterflies which feed on nectar.  Bluebells spread slowly, and are a potential indicator of ancient woodland sites (it takes around five years for a seed to grow into a bulb).  Where large numbers of bluebells are found it is usually a sign the area has been a woodland for a long time, or was a woodland in the past (around three-quarters of Bluebells are found in broadleaved woodland or scrub). In other areas it can be found in association with hedgerows, under bracken, and even colliery spoil.

Despite its apparent abundance across the UK the bluebell is not immune to the multiple threats facing much of our natural fauna and flora.  As well as the impact from the trampling feet of too many admirers bluebells are also under threat from damage by grazing animals (sheep cattle, muntjac deer), cross-breeding with the Spanish bluebell which has escaped from gardens, habitat loss, and removal of plants and bulbs from the wild.  This last activity, particular removal for commercial sales, was the reason for protecting H. non-scripta under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (CWA) 1981.  Section 13(2) of the Act prohibits anyone (including landowners) from removing common bluebells on their land for sale, and it is a criminal offence to remove the bulbs of wild common bluebells. Bluebells were added to the list or protected plant species found under Schedule 8 of the Act in 1998.  Offences can incur fines of up to £5,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 6 months.

Now that the species is protected from removal under the 1981 CWA Act the onus is on landowners to deal with many of the other issues identified above.  Bluebells growing in private woodland are at least spared the impacts of large numbers of visitors, though may face other threats from grazing animals and habitat loss.  In woodlands maintained for public recreation there will continue to be a tension between the desire for open access (to maximise the number who can gain enjoyment), and the need to protect our common heritage from the damaging effects of ‘congestion’.  In the long run, uncontrolled ‘congestion’ in a public good destroys the value of the resource.  With limited tools at our disposal for protecting easily accessed woodland, temporary charging and fencing seem a small price to pay for the continued viewing of nature’s short but spectacular displays of bluebells.