Collecting plants abroad
Whether bringing plants home as a holiday souvenir or specifically travelling abroad to collect plants, gardeners need to know how to do this responsibly and without breaching regulations.
It is illegal to collect, import or trade in wild collected plants such as orchids, cycads, cacti and pitcher plants (Nepenthes)
Over-collection of plants leads to loss of genetic diversity
Introducing wild collected material increases risks from plant pests, diseases, and potentially invasive plants
here. Collecting plants from natural habitats in the country you are visiting is covered by various regulations that apply to amateur gardeners as well as to commercial nurseries. This applies just as much to collecting seeds or picking up some
- Always check if the plant or plants you want are available in the UK. It may not be commercially available but there may be other sources or collections that might be approached
- Decide how important is it to obtain the plant material from another country
- Check whether it could be obtained through normal commercial or official channels from the country concerned
- Plan ahead and get the correct permits
- Remember to ensure that you have phytosanitary certificates &/or import permit for material that requires it
- Remember to retain any paperwork and keep to any of the agreed conditions for use of the plants
Planning before travelling
If you intend to collect plant material, this page is designed to provide an overview of the steps needed to do so. The first thing to be aware of is that you need to secure the relevant permits well in advance of when you travel. This requires checking the relevant laws of the country where you intend to collect. Time needs to be allowed for applications to be processed and for permits to be sent. Often there are charges associated with the issuing of permits. It is also the case that different permits will be required and these may be issued by different offices.
When bringing plant material back into the UK, you also need to find out whether a plant health certificate, plant passport or an import permit is required, and may well need to arrange for the material to be held in an approved quarantine or isolation reception facility until inspected by Defra. There will be charges for the inspection of this material. If you are planning to collect in another country then it is advisable to begin the process of obtaining permits at least one year in advance.
Most countries have regulations concerning the collection of plants from the wild, including seed. These regulations are likely to prohibit collection from certain protected places, such as national parks, ban the collection of rare or endangered species, and require permits to collect where special protection measures are not in place. In addition there is likely to be an additional permit to export any collected plant material. Travellers are advised of regulations in force at airports and other points of entry to a country. Breach of the regulations will result, as a minimum, in the confiscation of plant material if discovered and any such material brought back to the UK is illegal.
Countries that agree to let you collect plant material will generally want to know what you plan to collect, how much you want, and what you are going to use it for. There is an international agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that came into effect on 31 December 1993. One element of this agreement is Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) which establishes the principle that a country has a right to the biodiversity that it holds, and therefore should receive a share of any benefits arising from the use of that biodiversity. Most countries have signed up to the CBD and have laws in place to implement it.
Anyone wishing to collect plant material will need to contact the National Focal Point of the country to establish Mutually Agreed Terms (MAT) to access the plant material. This will involve letting the country know what you intend to do with the plant material when you have it back in the UK, and agreeing with the country any conditions on its use. If collecting for personal use or research, most countries will require you not to commercialise the material. You will need to keep a copy of the MAT with you when you are in the country.
Also in advance, you need to arrange an export permit for the material you are collecting. This may be issued by the office which issues the MAT document, but more likely it will be issued by a separate authority. Without an export permit you will not be able legally to take the plant material out of the country.
When abroad, you will also need to seek permission from the owner of the land where you are collecting the plant material. This is known as Prior Informed Consent (PIC) and can be in the form of a standard letter issued by you, which the landowner signs, and which lays out what you plan to collect and what you will do with the material. If collecting in a nature reserve or national park, or any other state-designated special area, you will need a separate permit which is usually issued by the management authority.
Irrespective of any national legislation or the CBD, the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) gives protection to species listed in the various Annexes to the Convention. At the highest level (Annex A), export or import of these species is illegal unless for specific purposes and accompanied by the relevant certificates. When planning any collection of wild plants, you need to be aware of whether any of them are listed on the Annexes to CITES.
This is a supplementary agreement of the CBD which provides a framework for Access and Benefit Sharing. In the UK this is implemented by the European Union Regulation which became law from 12 October 2014, and requires anyone utilising genetic resources (and this does not have to be the collector) from another country, which is a signatory of the Nagoya Protocol, collected after 12 October 2014, to carry out due diligence to ensure that the material was collected in accordance with the Protocol and the CBD.
While the most likely examples of utilisation are the development of new products or medicines from plants, breeding programmes to raise new plants for horticulture would also be covered. Although the burden to prove legitimate use of the genetic resource lies with the person or organisation utilising the genetic resource, anyone providing the source of the genetic resource (such as wild collected plants) will need to be able to provide the relevant paperwork, such as a Mutually Agreed Terms and Prior Informed Consent.
European Habitats Directive
The full implementation of this Directive into UK law in 2007 extended protection to all of the European Protected Species (EPS) listed in the Appendixes of that Directive (these are Appendixes II(b) and IV(b) for plants) whether they are native to the UK or not. This requires a licence for material of any of these species collected in the wild after 1994. These are issued by Natural England (for England), the Natural Resources Wales (for Wales) and Scottish Natural Heritage (for Scotland). The UK authorities issue licences for UK plants. For other EU states a collector would need to contact the relevant national authorities.
While countries will seek to regulate the collection of plants in the wild, the status of plants in cultivation is not so clear. Cultivated plants are included as biodiversity in the CBD and some will be of considerable value to the country of origin, such as crops or medicinal plants.
It is advisable to check the laws of the country concerned before bringing any cultivated plant material back to the UK. This will apply whether you collect plants with permission or are given plants by the owner.
If you have purchased the plants then you will not need MTA or PIC, but you may require a phytosanitary certificate and possibly an export permit and/or import permit to the UK. Under the circumstances it is likely to be easier to arrange with the supplier to send the plants to you.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.