Campaign to arrest decline of wildflowers with splash of colour

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This "cornfield" at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is probably now the only place in Britain where between ripening ears of wheat you can see the scarlet of poppies next to the intense dark blue of cornflowers and bright yellow of corn marigolds.

This "cornfield" at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is probably now the only place in Britain where between ripening ears of wheat you can see the scarlet of poppies next to the intense dark blue of cornflowers and bright yellow of corn marigolds.

All of them have disappeared from much of the country as farming has been intensified. Yesterday at Kew, south-west London, a new field guide to arable plants, the wildflowers of old-fashioned cornfields, was launched. It served as a reminder of exactly what has been lost.

With their whimsical ancient names such as corncockle, mousetail, fluellen, fumitory, downy hemp-nettle and lamb's succory, they have music as well as colour.

Yet they are the fastest declining group of wild plants in Britain: they make up a fifth of the species targeted for special help on the national biodiversity action plan.

They are plunging in numbers in much the same way as farmland birds have done, and for similar reasons - the ripping out of hedges, the mass spraying of herbicides and pesticides and artificial fertilisers, the replacement of mixed farming by monocultures, the year-round planting of crops and all the other changes associated with modern agriculture in recent decades.

Understandably, to most farmers, the bright flowers are, and always have been, weeds. Jill Sutcliffe, the top botanist at English Nature, which is publishing the book, said that life had long been tough for arable plants. "It's always been an uphill struggle for them because the farmer wants a crop. But the difficulties have sharply accelerated in recent decades," she said.

Sir Martin Doughty, English Nature's chairman, said that the organisation was not advocating turning the clock back "to the age of horse-drawn vehicles in Constable's day". He said: "We want to strike a balance between agriculture and wildlife, and recognise that these plants are part of a richly biodiverse environment, and we should not be seeing them disappear."

The guide, written by Phil Wilson and Miles King, both botanists, describes 100 species of flowers and grasses of arable landscapes; many declining, several now on the verge of extinction, and a few that have disappeared. Heading the list of plants declared extinct in recent years is corncockle, a lovely deep pink flower, and the interrupted brome, a grass species. Close behind comes the cornflower, once ubiquitous but now known only from 15 locations in southern and eastern England. There are colour pictures and full descriptions of each plant.

The guide's authors think that arable plants have been a neglected group, partly because botanists are not very likely to search through a dense field of crops on the off chance of finding something the weedkillers have missed. The guide's purpose is to make possible a better idea of the true distribution of arable plants, by letting everyone concerned with the countryside recognise them - farmers in particular.

But it is not all bad news. Across Britain, the old wildflowers are returning as farmers join agri-environmental schemes that offer them incentives to leave certain areas, such as field margins, unsprayed. Sir Martin said: "We need to ensure that agri-environment schemes take these species into account. The plight of farmland birds has been well-documented, but arable plants have fared just as badly, if not worse."

* Arable Plants: a Field Guide, £15, is available from English Nature on 08701 214177 or by e-mail at english-nature@twoten.press.net

Comments