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

There had been a colossal smothering, truly weird to witness

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

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