Why half a million fritillaries didn’t make it this year

There had been a colossal smothering, truly weird to witness

A A A

Natural disasters in the wildlife world are not unknown – for example, the Siberian winter of 1963, when all water bodies were frozen solid, killed most of the kingfishers in Britain. But I’ve just witnessed the strangest one I’ve ever seen– the smothering of half a million of our rarest wild flowers.

The blooms in question are snakeshead fritillaries, chequered purple nodding bells, and before you say, hang on, I thought fritillaries were butterflies, well so they are too (the name for both comes from fritillus, the Latin for a chequered-pattern dice box used by the Romans).

Snakeshead fritillaries, the plants, are exquisite springtime things which grow only in a very specific habitat: hay meadows in lowland flood plains. And since we have lost more than 97 per cent of our old-fashioned hay meadows, to the plough and to intensively grown monoculture grassland, Fritillaria meleagris has become a very rare flower indeed, occurring in fewer than 30 sites in the whole country.

Yet one fritillary site has always been reliable, and not only reliable, but profuse and splendid in its offerings: North Meadow at Cricklade in Wiltshire, the charming small town on the infant Thames. North Meadow is vast, nearly a mile long and covering well over 100 acres and, because its damp surface has never been “improved” with artificial fertilisers or pesticides, it still has its original and magnificent species-richness, containing more than 250 different kinds of plant; yet what makes it perhaps the most celebrated wild-flower meadow in all of England is its fritillary congregation.

There are about 500,000 of them. (No one knows precisely how many, of course, but that’s the conventional estimate.) They represent about 80 per cent of all the fritillaries in the country. Imagine: half a million stems of one of our rarest plant species, all packed into a single field. At their best, in mid to late April, they cover the ground with a trembling purple haze, and draw visitors from all points of the compass, and, on Tuesday, they drew me.

I saw one. One snakeshead fritillary. One solitary stem out of half a million. Something catastrophic had clearly happened within the fritillary ecosystem, and when the Natural England warden, Anita Barratt, chugged up on her quad bike, she explained what it was: last summer, the hay couldn’t be cut.

North Meadow is situated between two rivers, the Thames and the Churn, and is seasonally flooded every year; but in the summer of 2012, the wettest on record in England, it never became unflooded. It was under water the whole time and, indeed, is only drying out now. This meant that the hay in this hay meadow could not be harvested last July and August; it could not be taken off, and it remains there, a thickly packed, flat mat over all the ground, through which virtually nothing – certainly not the fragile fritillary stems – can penetrate. There has been a colossal smothering, truly weird to witness.

I was lucky on Tuesday; I did not go fritillaryless, because a botanist friend told me about another fritillary site, Clattinger Farm, a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve seven miles away, a further terrific example of unimproved hay meadows, and there, the nodding purple bells were out in all their glory. Not half a million, of course, but perhaps 50,000, still enough to thrill.

Yet when I left, my thoughts kept returning to Cricklade. You might say: come on, it’s only wild flowers. And it’s a one-off. They’ll be back next year. I would say: one survivor out of 500,000. Incredible. What happened there made me realise that evolution has prepared wild species for almost every eventuality – but not quite all. In exceptional circumstances, things can still go under. And let us fervently hope that the wet summer of last year was indeed the exception, and not the new rule.

Twitter: @mjpmccarthy

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea