THE DEFLOWERING OF BRITAIN

Once splashed with vibrant colour, and a perfect habitat for wildlife, meadows are a pale imitation of what they were in the 1960s. A new report counts the cost of modern farming
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The Independent Culture
On Llwyn Derw Farm in the Vale of Clwyd, North Wales, around 30 acres of verdant, low-lying fields are cut each year for hay. But these are not the hay meadows speckled white with oxeye daisies, blue with tufted vetch and yellow with buttercups and cowslips that Bryn Williams (who has lived on the farm for nearly 60 years) remembers as a joy. All of them have long since been ploughed, reseeded and fertilised, annihilating their wild flowers and converting them to a high-yielding agricultural mix of rye grass and clover. Only on the less accessible banks, around hedges and along some roadsides do the cowslips, the stitchworts and the bluebells still survive.

What has happened on Mr Williams's farm is, in microcosm, what has happened to virtually the whole of the British countryside. Over the last half- century, bit by bit the colour has been drained from it. Fuelled by the EC's Common Agricultural Policy - and, before that, by the more pressing needs of food shortages during and after the Second World War - our farmland has been transformed. Flower-full meadows, heaths and pastures have been ploughed, wetlands drained, hedges grubbed out and heather moorland converted to grassland. The cornucopia of flowering plants to which these habitats were home has disappeared with them.

Off the farm, housing and industrial development has destroyed all sorts of habitats, from coastal sand dunes resplendent with the pink flushes of sea bindweed to broad-leaved woods, rich in the garlic odour of ramsons. And plantations of conifers have put paid to many an acre of heather moor glowing dusky red in late summer with bell heather and cross-leaved heath.

Only now is the scale of the destruction becoming clear. Dr Tim Rich and Rosemary Woodruff, until recently at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology's Biological Records Centre near Huntingdon, have compared a vast number of plant records for England and Scotland collected between 1930 and 1960 (most of them in the six years up to 1960) with those collected between 1987 and 1988. They have just published their findings.

What they discovered was that 195 of England's native flowering plants, and 50 of Scotland's, have decreased substantially in that time. They include many of what were once our most abundant flowers, like the showy yellow marsh ragwort of wet pastures (now drained and ploughed) and the delicate blue pale dog-violet of heathlands (which have been burnt and ploughed, or grown over with scrub).

"The cause is mainly habitat loss on a huge scale," says Tim Rich. "This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, because we have simply recorded plants as being either present or absent. One plant of a species, even if there were thousands in that area in the previous survey, is still recorded as present. Only if it has died out completely, in the kilometre squares we use for recording, is it noted as a decline." So the real picture is even more bleached of colour than Rich and Woodruff paint, because losses are only recorded as such if a species has died out in its previous location.

The findings show a marked reduction in the diversity of our native flowering plants. To anyone familiar with the enormous scale of habitat destruction in the countryside, this may come as no surprise. In the 50 years to 1984, England and Wales lost 97 per cent of its natural lowland grasslands, the haunt of celandines and the beautiful green-winged orchid. The total area of limestone and chalk grasslands - one of our richest habitats for flowers - is down to 40,000 hectares countrywide.

On arable land, copious quantities of selective herbicides and fertilisers have vastly increased grain yield, but virtually eliminated those once typical cornfield flowers - the pillarbox-red poppy, the bright yellow corn marigold and the vivid blue cornflower.

Immortalised by Thomas Hardy, the heathlands of lowland England no longer "fill the whole circumference of its glance", as he wrote in The Return of the Native in 1878. In Dorset, Cornwall, Surrey, Hampshire and East Anglia, only one-sixth of the English heathland present in 1800 survives.; in summer, it was once an extravagance of purples, yellows, pinks and greens. Expanses of common heather, gorse, bell heather and fescues, with their scatterings of tiny red and white bird's foot, yellow petty whin and blue speedwells have declined as a result.

Not even the flowers that once so commonly added colour to walks in the hills of the north and west of Britain have fared well in the last half- century. Since the 1940s, England and Wales have lost a fifth of their heather moorland, obliterated by plantations of conifers (under which few plants grow), or ploughed, drained and sown to grassland to nurture yet more sheep on emerald green pastures without a flower in sight except some clover and possibly the odd daisy.

Little wonder, then, that Cicely M Barker's The Book of the Flower Fairies is now only relevant for reminiscence therapy, of no modern relevance to the vast bulk of what was once England's green and pleasant land. Take, for instance, "The Song of the Lady's Smock Fairy": "Where the grass is damp and green,/Where the shallow streams are flowing,/Where the cowslip buds are showing,/I am seen."

In some parts of Britain - arable areas of eastern England are a good example - once common flowers only survive on roads and tracksides, in what hedgerows remain, and in specially protected conservation areas.

"Waysides and verges may not have changed so much," says Tim Rich. But, in places, less cutting has allowed the toughies of the plant world - like bramble and cocksfoot grass - to take over roadside banks at the expense of more fickle flowers such as fellow tormentil and blue forget- me-nots.

"We've lost a lot of open, disturbed ground," says Dr Rich. "Such as along roadsides where milk carts used to cut into banks." Flowers like the tiny, prostrate, pink field madder and the yellow common cudweed, once widespread, are now rarely seen. Country traditions, like keeping a cow or two on the village heath, or helping out with hay cuttings, have died out. So, too, have many flowers which these traditional practices long nurtured. As Tim Rich puts it: "Commoners have become commuters."

Ironically, while we have been losing our native flora, many other plants have been on the increase - no less than 174 in England and 86 in Scotland over the decades from the 1940s to the 1980s. But the vast bulk of them are introductions, plants that would not naturally be here at all. Most are escapees from gardens, such as buddleia and various species of sedum (stonecrops), or they are flowers planted in landscaping schemes, such as berberis and escallonias.

A few of these so-called aliens are making a nuisance of themselves. Japanese knotweed, an 8ft giant with stems like bamboo, was introduced to Britain as a garden plant in 1825 but spread rapidly on grassland, waste ground and riverbanks. Between the 1940s and now it has more than doubled its British distribution. Today, few areas of the countryside are without it. All would be well if its dense growth did not reduce the space some of our native flowers previously occupied.

"Great lettuce [a large, yellow flowering plant], which was previously unknown in Britain, is now spreading on roadsides," says Tim Rich. "Giant hogweed is spreading along several of our rivers. The banks of the Spey, in places, are covered in it."

It isn't just grasslands, woods and waysides, either, that are feeling the effects of the invaders. Pigmy weed - a robust, white- or pink-flowering aquatic plant native to Australia (but introduced to Britain by aquarists) - is currently swamping ponds in southern England. It is likely to spread elsewhere, too, ousting native flowers like the Hampshire purslane, a speciality of pools in the New Forest.

"If we had a healthy native flora," Tim Rich explains, "we wouldn't be very worried about these introduced plants - except a few species whose spread, like that of giant hogweed, will be at the expense of native species." But in the context of so many of our once-common species becoming uncommon, and uncommon species often becoming very rare, the invaders are much less welcome.

So is it all doom and gloom? Perhaps not. In the last decade, albeit slowly, the Common Agricultural Policy has been modifying its shape because of mounting criticism over food surpluses and because of the environmental damage it has fostered. Schemes such as Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs), Countryside Stewardship in England, Tir Cymem in parts of Wales, the Habitats Scheme and others - all voluntary - are designed, in one way or another, to make annual payments to farmers in exchange for them farming in more environmentally sensitive ways. Slowly, they are helping to bring back some lost habitats and their wildlife.

Chris Bacon, at Boundary Farm at Framsden near Stowmarket, is typical of many farmers who have entered ESA schemes. "I've entered 50 acres of grassland in the Suffolk River Valleys ESA," says Mr Bacon. We're going to be taking a hay cut and grazing it afterwards. These fields were all arable until recently, but in the old days they were meadows. The idea is to get them richer in plants again."

Not all planting schemes specialise in plants which are alien to our shores. Many new roads have their embankments sown with our once well- known flowers and trees. The new A55 dual carriageway that runs past Bryn Williams's farm in North Wales is redolent, at this time of year, with more extensive swathes of snowy white oxeye daisies than were ever seen on Llwyn Derw farm when it had traditional hay meadows. In the springtime, these same banks glow yellow with cowslips, the pleasing result of a progressive planting scheme funded by the Welsh Office.

Is there much room for optimism? "You could say that the light is getting brighter but the tunnel is getting longer," comments Dr Jane Smart, director of the plant conservation charity, Plantlife. "ESAs are generally good and the measures they put in place are becoming more positive. But there is still a general loss of flowering plants in the bulk of the British countryside; only about 10 per cent of the land area is in ESAs. Flowers are becoming more and more restricted to special areas, managed for conservation. We should be trying to stop the common species becoming rare," she adds pessimistically.

Retrieving what we have lost in such a short time is going to be exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible, without substantial changes in the way we manage this land of ours. We have watched helplessly as our native flora, and many of the insects, birds and mammals dependent on it, has been ravaged. We have deprived our countryside of so much of its colour, grace and beauty. We have been witness to the deflowering of Britan. !

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