Cowslip counters search for lost blooms

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The Independent Online

Once people gathered cowslips by the armful, strewed them on paths at weddings and wore them as garlands on May Day, they were so plentiful; now they're being asked to count them.

The brilliant golden-yellow flowers, clustered luxuriously on their tall stems and forming great swaying carpets of colour across meadows and chalk hillsides, were one of the best-loved sights of the English countryside until about 40 years ago.

But the subsequent decades of intensive farming, with downland ploughed up and meadows sprayed with pesticides and artificial fertiliser, have virtually wiped out their habitat.

Now cowslips are much less common, and for many people exist only in books and paintings. Yet their exact status in the countryside is unknown, so Plantlife, Britain's wildflower charity, is joining forces with the National Trust in organising a national cowslip survey.

In what is probably the first attempt at a nationwide count of a wildflower, members of the public are being asked to go out into the countryside over the next few weeks to log all the cowslips they can find. (They can stop at a hundred plants in any one place.)

"We want to find out in which areas of the countryside the cowslip is suffering most, so we can prioritise conservation action," said Martin Harper, Plantlife's conservation director. "Britain has lost 98 per cent of its wildflower meadows over the past 50 years and this beautiful and evocative plant has been one of the main victims of this tragedy."

Cowslips are primulas, and closely related to primroses; the two sometimes hybridise to produce false oxlips. They are certainly one of the premier plants of countryside lore, with more than 40 local names recorded: milk-maidens in Lincolnshire, tisty-tosty in Devon, fairy cups in Dorset and paigles in many counties.

The flower's common name comes from the Old English cu-sloppe - the cowpats from which the flowers were sometimes seen to spring.

Shakespeare's spirit Ariel slept in a cowslip ("Where the bee sucks, there suck I; In a cowslip's bell I lie) and it makes one of the most delicate of country wines.

In some places the first Sunday in May used to be celebrated as Cowslip Sunday.

"The cowslip's cultural history suggests a flower that was once as abundant and accessible as the buttercup," wrote Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, the wildflower encyclopaedia published four years ago. "No wonder that its dramatic decline between the 1950s and the 1980s was felt so keenly."

In recent years, however, Mr Mabey suggests, the flower may have started to recover. "On the chalky and light-soiled areas of England and Wales that were its stronghold, it has begun to return to unsprayed verges and village greens and to colonise the banks of new roads - no doubt assisted here and there by the scattering of wildflower seed mixtures."

The cowslip count is a special part of a new Common Plants Survey, a nationwide survey of 58 common wildflowers that will be regularly repeated to track changes in populations.

Anyone who would like to take part in the survey should access the Plantlife website at www.plantlife.org.uk or telephone Plantlife on 020 7808 0118, or the National Trust on 020 8315 1111.

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