Cornfield Flowers Project

We like to think of our countryside as a colourful place, full of flowers, but changes in agriculture, especially the use of chemical weed-killers, has meant that many of our arable areas have been stripped of colour. Once-common arable weeds, such as Venus' looking-glass, Shepherd's needle, Prickly poppy, Narrow-fruited cornsalad, Corn buttercup, Corn marigold, Annual knawel, Large-flowered nettle and Red hemp-nettle were facing extinction in the North York Moors and the wider area but the Cornfield Flowers Project is giving them a helping hand.

The brainchild of dedicated botanist, Nan Sykes, Ian Carstairs of the Carstairs Countryside Trust and National Park Ecologist, Rona Charles, the Cornfield Flowers Project has become a showcase for the local restoration of arable plants and has lodged seeds in the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew.

The project aims to:

  • Safeguard the rare plants of arable fields in and close to the North York Moors by collecting seeds, growing the plants on and returning them to farmland
  • Raise awareness amongst the general public of the plight of arable flowers
  • Encourage farmers to use Stewardship schemes to help arable plants on their land

A bit of background

Work began by identifying 92 target species that were known to have grown in the National Park at the beginning of the 20th century. Volunteers set about finding surviving populations, collecting seed and raising young plants. For the Project to expand, a dedicated nursery was created at Ryedale Folk Museum where plants could be raised for planting in other sites.

The museum donated one of its fields enabling experimental work on establishing arable weeds in a cereal crop and allowing volunteers to gain experience in management techniques. The National Park Authority helped the Carstairs Countryside Trust to buy a field near Silpho which could be managed and plants were introduced into field margins.

Growing success

As farmers' confidence in the Project has grown, more farmland sites have been established and one or two disused limestone and chalk quarries are being used too. Seeds from Corn buttercup (found at only one site), Red hemp-nettle (from finds at just three sites), Shepherd's-needle (which had been found at two sites), Night-flowering catchfly, Large-flowered hemp-nettle and Hairy buttercup have all been donated to the Millennium Seed Bank and there is potential for extending expertise into the cultivation of other plants that are threatened in the wild.

Funding has enabled two officers to be recruited to the project so fieldwork to locate new sites of surviving arable plants will continue and it is hoped that small-scale farmers and non-farming landowners will create more sites for re-establishing species. More volunteer gardeners are also being recruited to expand the seed stock, whilst school children are growing on the plants in their grounds and harvesting seed.

Spreading the message

The Project has recognised that isolated action alone is not enough and to have any guarantee of success means that the wider population must fight to save these species too.

School visits to the field at Ryedale Folk Museum have proved very popular and enable children to learn about traditional farming methods. Special events and annual harvest days are held and talks are given to local organisations.

Media coverage has included farming journals, local radio, local and national television and printed news media. The project had stands at agricultural shows, biodiversity fairs and conferences. A high quality photographic exhibition was recently produced and displayed at Kew's Millennium Seedbank (see below) and a book about the project published, A Harvest of Colour, written by Ian Carstairs.

And the future?

The Project aims to be self-sustaining by 2015 with a group of volunteers taking over from paid staff, offering advice and demonstrations to farmers and continuing to educate the public about the conservation of arable plants. It is hoped that a long-term, secure future will be obtained for our cornfield flowers, as a cherished and valuable part of the agricultural landscape.

How you can help

If you are a local farmer, smallholder, horticulturalist, naturalist or school and would be interested in working with the Cornfield Flowers Project, we would be very pleased to hear from you.

We would like to involve more groups in the propagation of plants and collection of seed, and would also like to share with you the specialist knowledge required in nurturing such remarkable plants.

Useful information to download

Cornfield Flower Project Newsletter (pdf)

About the Cornfield Flower Project (pdf)

Cornfield Flower Project Millennium Seedbank Photo Exhibition Part 1

Cornfield Flower Project Millennium Seedbank Photo Exhibition Part 2


Carstairs Countryside Trust, Ryedale Folk Museum, North Yorkshire Moors Association


The project is extremely grateful to the dedicated band of volunteers, local farmers and the many organisations that have supported the project: Natural England, Campaign for the Farmed Environment, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Country Land and Business Association, National Farmers Union, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, the Food and Environment Research Agency, DEFRA, the Howardian Hills AONB, Ryedale District Council, Scarborough Borough Council and North Yorkshire County Council.


North York Moors Sustainable Development Fund, Carstairs Countryside Trust, North York Moors Coast and Hills LEADER Programme and Heritage Lottery Fund


Rona Charles, Senior Ecologist, 01439 772700

Chris Wilson, Project Officer, 01723 863467

Tom Normandale, Project Officer email

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