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.
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…
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, 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.
Under the new post-Brexit 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 soil- and 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 new rules 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
‘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 post-Brexit 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 soil- and 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 the rules 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 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 estimated cost of the hit 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 is, again, the 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 to Europe for 30 years, I think that horse has bolted. Yet the EU is allowed to send as many plants in soil to us as it likes.
‘They [British plants being exported to the EU] have to be in pure peat or peat and coir [fibre from coconut husks] that would have to be shipped from Sri Lanka, so not exactly environmentally sound. Our UK customers, such as 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.’