On a journey of discovery with wild orchids as his guide, Ben Jacob has scaled steel fences, battled with corrupt police in foreign lands and embarked on a guerilla-planting initiative to save a flower revered in the world of nature. He tells Fergus Byrne about his journey.
The irony of the names given to new housing developments is not lost on Ben Jacob ‘the Orchid Outlaw’. For him, names such as Cherry Tree Vista, The Elms or West Orchard simply highlight the decimation of natural environment that has taken place to make way for new development.
Obsessed by orchids since childhood Ben spent years travelling to exotic places to see them in the wild. He has seen orchids the size of a Volkswagen Beetle as well as those so tiny their flowers are only half a millimetre across. However, it is closer to home in British building sites that he finds himself scouring the earth to save species that are destined for a sudden messy demise. Crushing wild flowers with two tonne machines is not illegal he says, but saving them may put him in jail.
Orchids flower at different times of year, so like many other flowers and plants they may not be obvious to a survey done during their dormant period. In the first chapter of his book, The Orchid Outlaw: On a Mission to Save Britain’s Rarest Flowers, Ben points out that land set for development, where he can often be found during the early pre-dawn light trying to save orchids from rampant diggers, may have many species that are inconspicuous before they flower. An environmental survey done before their flowering period for example, could easily miss them; which is why the opening of his book sees him scaling steel fences with signs advising that “Trespassers will be prosecuted”.
His heart in his mouth and a clod of earth in his hand he thinks about the action he takes to protect a future that he believes is often overlooked by the whims of policy makers. “It is about life, our place on this planet and the duty we all have to protect it” he writes. Squeezing through a gap between a hedge and the steel fence he looks back knowing that the tiny orchids that he has liberated may be the last in a line that graced this plot of land for centuries.
But the challenges faced by people like Ben come from the laws of the land as much as from climate issues and rampant development. Asked about the difficulties faced by nature activists Ben said: ‘The law is increasingly being tightened to penalise, let alone discourage, activists from exercising their right to protest about incredibly important matters—matters which are going to significantly impact future generations.’ He believes many of these laws prevent meaningful change and says: ‘The values they protect often belong to a different era; the world has changed, the laws need updating and our values and habits need changing too.’
He also points to the political and media reporting of eco activists and how depictions of them can turn public perception against them and their causes. ‘In some media outlets, activists are cast as villains, “crusties”, “self-serving individuals” working in opposition to the law-abiding public who are trying to earn an honest wage. These depictions ignore the fact that activists are the public, what they are protesting about will increasingly affect everyone, and everyone’s ability to earn a wage is increasingly dependent on making the kind of changes which nature activists support. In many cases they are risking a great deal for taking a moral stand—this is not “self-serving”’.
A University lecturer by day and an ecologist by night, Ben’s fascination with orchids has seen him survive some pretty hairy moments. On a trip to Caracas he was mugged by local police ending up in hospital. When he returned to his apartment all of his belongings, and most importantly his notes and photographs from his orchid research, were gone. This was the experience that led him back to England where he thought he might be safer. Once home, a bad fall and subsequent back injury gave him time to read up on orchids. He shares their science and history liberally in his book. But what he shares more widely may never be credited. For many years Ben has been planting orchids in locations where they have a better chance of survival. He has spent long hours with petri dishes trying to grow a new orchid generation, while guerrilla-planting tubers and trawling planning applications from a two-up-two-down terrace house with a tiny back yard. As he puts it in his book “doing what well-funded national institutions were seemingly not.”
Ben Jacob is not the only and certainly not the first ‘orchid outlaw’. In his book he tells the story of how a Sawfly (Ophrys tenthredinifera) a “stumpy Mediterranean species” once appeared above Dorset’s coastal cliffs. How had it got there? Was seed blown in on a breeze or had it been accidentally delivered by a migrant bird? Or could it have been planted by local ‘orchidophile’ the internationally acclaimed writer and Lyme Regis resident John Fowles? Once in an interview Fowles is said to have admitted that he once found himself in hospital after a stroke repeating the word tenthredinifera over and over?
While Ben’s passion for orchids may match the enthusiasm of many of those that in the past have given up their lives to the research and protection of the species, he is very aware that environmental policy and biodiversity issues need decision-makers promoting forward-thinking agendas. ‘The environment underpins everything—our societies, jobs, economics, food security—everything’ says Ben. ‘Continuing on this path with our increasing human population and consumerist habits is simply not sustainable.’
He says the result is likely to be catastrophic and prevaricating while waiting for a technological solution is no excuse. ‘We have all the answers and technology we need right now and they can lead to economic growth, jobs, social, health and food security. What policy-makers should realise it that saving biodiversity and the environment for the future is a win-win situation—and they should realise, as everyone should, the profound value in saving our planet for future generations.’
While he is keen to raise awareness of the issue around biodiversity he is also mindful of the ‘eco fatigue’ that creeps into the climate debate. We have to reinforce the fact that we can all make a difference he says. ‘When I set out to save orchids in the dead of night, trespassing on development sites and breaking the law to salvage rare species, I didn’t realise how satisfying saving those plants would be. It’s more than satisfying; it’s profoundly meaningful.’ He knows he is making a difference in a way that shopping or watching TV or grumbling about the situation at home is not. ‘I think that’s something which we all should be able to do; to say to future generations, I did what I could to help. Saving nature for the future is time well spent. In that way we can all make a difference and feel less helpless.’
Around the corner from “ragged groups of students, souped-up hatchbacks and hungry revellers” queuing up outside kebab shops, Ben turns into a park and furtively replants orchids. He describes how crowds bustle past places that he has planted those salvaged or grown. They cling to their phones, distracted by screens of information and he wonders if any of them might even be learning about orchids.
Today his terraced house has grown too small for his orchid laboratory and he has moved to a larger home with a small shed that was once used for chickens. ‘In some ways The Orchid Outlaw is about a journey of discovery with wild orchids as my guide’ he says. ‘By retelling that story I hope to share what I have learned with others so that they might gain the insight I did from these wonderful, fascinating plants. If this book leads others to have a greater appreciation for our natural heritage and its importance to us all, that would be very rewarding. As for my orchid journey, I’m still on it. I think they still have much to teach me. I’ll keep reintroducing wild orchids where I can—the chicken shed lab, by the way, is under construction… hopefully it’ll be completed by prime orchid seed-sowing season later in the year.’