An uncropped cultivated margin on the edge of an arable field showing some glorious results © JP Martin / Plantlife

Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

19th March 2010

Blue sky and clouds… a field of wildflowers blowing in a gentle breeze… It’s a quintessential English sight to gladden the heart. Or not.

A recent publication by Plantlife, a charity working to protect Britain’s wild flowers and plants, fungi and lichens in the habitats in which they are found (slogan: our plants, our planet, our future), suggests that the present generation is losing its capacity to be moved by wild flora.

Jack Watkins reports…

In the hierarchy of British wildlife, flowers come a distant third behind birds and mammals in public recognition. In fact the gap could be widening. Not so long ago, the environmental editor of a national newspaper suggested that British native flora, as objects of beauty and wonderment, had disappeared off the radar, ‘not just for children, but for the whole population’.

It’s a sentiment that Plantlife echoes when it claims that our flora is ‘the least protected, invested in, and acknowledged part of our wildlife’. In recent years the charity, established in 1989, has released several reports drawing attention to the fact, arguing that wild plants, integral to the fight against climate change, have been marginalised and taken for granted for too long. Plantlife points out that every county in the UK loses, on average, one species every two years. The old county of Middlesex, for instance, lost 76 species in the last century.

Were such a decline to be sustained by the native avian population, there would be an outcry; indeed, the continuing struggle of wood and farmland bird populations does make newspaper headlines. But, as Sue Nottingham, editor of Plantlife magazine, says: “Plants don’t move around like birds, mammals and insects, which people can see doing things. They are the background everyone takes for granted, at the bottom of the food chain. They are the basis for other wildlife, so they are often forgotten until the point where their declines start to affect other species.”

It’s also true that pronouncing on whether any particular plant is on the point of actually dying out can be a tricky business…

Plantlife’s most recent report, the Ghost Orchid Declaration, came out towards the end last year. The Ghost Orchid – which the report announced was officially extinct in Britain – is a true wild plant in that it cannot be grown from seed or nurtured in a botanical garden. The name arises from both its wan colouration – caused by a lack of chlorophyll – and its spectre-like characteristic of flourishing in a certain spot for several years, and then vanishing.

Always a rarity, it was known to haunt the beechwoods of the Chilterns, but it had last been seen in Buckinghamshire in 1986, when it was down from 25 plants in 1953 to five, and it had not reported since then. An expert group, drawn up from individuals of seven different organisations, decided that it was appropriately classified as extinct under IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) guidelines. But, nature being full of surprises, on the very day the report was published, a Ghost Orchid was reported to be growing in a Herefordshire oak wood.

Impression of a Ghost Orchid © Andrew Evans / Plantlife

It’s little more than a stay of execution, though. According to Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife Wales’s Conservation Manager and co-author of the report, the Ghost Orchid “remains vulnerable to changes in habits in the wood in which it was found, and also to disturbance by people looking for it to flower again in future years. For most species, if their habitats have declined almost to nothing, or if they have been collected extensively – as happened in the past with some species – they will remain extremely vulnerable to extinction.”

One of the sad things revealed by the charity’s studies is that the rate of decline is as significant in low human density rural counties as it is in more developed ones. In fact, wildflowers might be safer in suburban Surrey than in farming counties like Lincolnshire. Monoculture farm landscapes are as much a feature of England now as are our chain store-dominated high streets, devoid of independent retailers. ‘Improved’ nitrogen rich grasslands, vast areas of crops, and the draining of wetlands has had a devastating impact on arable species like poppies, cornflowers and cleavers. While nettles, cow parsley and non-natives like Giant Hogweed thrive on the high fertility soils, delicate, low-growing species like scarlet pimpernel, orchids and scabious, as well as the stoneworts and pondweeds, face a battle for survival. The Declaration calculates that one in five British plant species is at risk of extinction.

You might have thought that the agri-environment schemes, where farmers are rewarded for encouraging wildlife, would have proved beneficial, but Plantlife says that, sadly, they are largely failing to protect wild flowers and plants. As Kate Still, the charity’s farmland officer, explains: “The Entry Level stewardship scheme is relatively simple and hands-off, and has had a very good uptake by farmers. However, often farmers have selected options which do not deliver the most for biodiversity.”

Inevitably, leaving overwintering stubbles and hedge and ditch maintenance have proved more popular than other, more complicated schemes that benefit plants – which farmers may regard as weeds – but can interfere with day-to day farming operations. Skylark plots are a familiar, high profile option, but, as tiny sprayed off areas in the middle of sown fields, they do little for all-round biodiversity. Plants are, however, at the base of the food chain for invertebrates and birds, and Plantlife has been working with individual farmers, says Still, “to create enthusiasm about achieving more for wild plants on their land.”

The big concern is that many species disappear entirely from ‘everyday’ countryside, lingering only in specially protected areas or nature reserves. What sort of country would this be, however, where space for wild things is to be found only in officially designated areas? In any case, we are even failing on that account. According to government statistics less than half of Sites of Special Scientific Interest are in favourable condition: suffering from poor management, monitoring or botanical understanding.

Perhaps the most disappointing factor of all that the Ghost Orchid Declaration highlights is the decline of interest in botany. Government agency resources for botanical expertise are seriously underfunded, while the number of students choosing to study the subject at university is badly down. “We haven’t done any research on why students are no longer opting for botany as a subject,” says Sue Nottingham, “but gut feeling is that it is to do with the disconnection that much of the population feels from our countryside. Fewer people live on the land, or in villages, where wild plants would have been seen daily, and would have been part of their lives, often through things such as making dandelion wine or elderflower cordial, or as herbal medicines.” She also points to the lack of an inspirational botanist on TV at present. It’s a valid observation. Since David Bellamy has joined the climate-change sceptics, he is much missed.

Plantlife enthusing others © Plantlife

To try and encourage more ‘non-botanist’ public interest, Plantlife is this year launching a Wildflowers Count, building on its Common Plants Survey, and individual plant counts. Another scheme, Wild About Plants, celebrates the subject with a range of family orientated events across the country. Meanwhile, they continue their battle to encourage broadcasters to include more content about wildflowers. It’s important that they succeed. For too long, as Plantlife’s chairman – Professor Roger Crofts – says, plants have been the wallflowers at the biodiversity ball.

For more on the Ghost Orchid Declaration: www.plantlife.org.uk

For details of family activities: www.wildaboutplants.org.uk

Find Your Local