Britain's ancient flowers fall victim to fertiliser and fumes

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Britain's love affair with the car and modern farming practices are driving some of our ancient native plants from their natural habitats, a national survey of flora shows.

Britain's love affair with the car and modern farming practices are driving some of our ancient native plants from their natural habitats, a national survey of flora shows.

The aggressive spread of fast-growing weeds feeding on soil rich in nutrients from farm fertiliser and vehicle pollution has left protected nature sites as the last refuge for some wild plants.

Conservationists spoke yesterday of an alarming decline in some species, especially on arable land. Some of the worst-affected areas are in the south and east of England, where typical cornfield flowers such as shepherd's-needle and the cornflower are rarities.

The findings are in a 910-page volume – the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora – that shows how creeping urbanisation and intensive farming have turned once-common flowers into rare species. The beach-living woodland ghost orchid and purple spurge are among those that vanished.

Species such as the pennyroyal, the fen orchid, water germander and sharp-leaved pondweed are almost entirely restricted to sites of special scientific interest. Foreign plants that spread from gardens and the demise of mixed farming have also helped to change the landscape in the 40 years since the last atlas was published.

In those decades, changes in farming and forestry practices and a huge increase in vehicle use have had a profound effect. Professor John Lawton, chief executive of the National Environmental Research Council, said pollution threatened the nature of the "archetypal English landscape". He added: "As much nitrogen falls from the air because of car exhausts [as] farmers used to put on their fields in the Fifties. It's a great challenge. If policy makers care about having a rich countryside with flowers the issue must be addressed."

The new atlas contains 750 new species not listed in the previous volume but shows a decrease in species introduced to Britain in ancient times such as the corn buttercup and the corn marigold. Simon Leach, a botanical expert for English Nature, which advises the Government on wildlife and plants, said: "There are two ways you can kill a species-rich meadow. One is to plough it up and build houses on it, the other is to throw on fertiliser. The very act of increasing the nutrient soil will be to allow more vigorous species to prosper and some less vigorous to suffer."

The atlas recorded only 10 ancient species that had gone since the first recording period in 1930. But there was more evidence of flowers disappearing from local areas, with many counties losing more than 10 species in the same period. The atlas has listings on 1,396 native species that arrived by natural colonisation, such as birch and oak trees and daffodils. A further 149 species introduced before AD1500, and 1,402 introduced since are also included.

Climate change is believed to be having its first effects on the countryside with Mediterranean plants starting to prosper in the south of England. Although butterfly numbers appear to have increased because of warmer conditions, flowers take longer to respond and the atlas suggests there has been no dramatic response among British plants.

The study shows a 10km square in Dorset, including Wareham, is the richest habitat in the UK, with 844 species recorded there since 1970, including 56 rare and scarce species. The atlas, produced from nine million records and with 2,412 maps, is based on work by 1,600 volunteers who visited almost every 10sq km plot of land in Britain and Ireland.

It builds on research from the Fifties in the 1962 Atlas of the British Flora. Plants that have increased include recent arrivals, such as the mountain butterfly-bush, native to China, and the American willowherb.

Plants in decline. . .

Burnt orchid Lost from 80 per cent of its 265 habitats, the biggest decline among chalk grassland plants.

Corn marigold Victim of intensive farming on arable fields, mostly in the South-eastbut also in Scotland.

Camomile Once thrived in acid grasslands but has declined across Britain as well as in Northern Ireland.

. . . And those on the increase

Welsh poppy Native populationsin decline, but plant seeds freely and is widespread in woods and roadsides.

Danish scurvygrass Flower has moved inland from coastal haunts to be found by roads treated with salt.

American willowherb May have been introduced in imported timber. Now most common in urban areas.