Wild flowers are overpowered by exhaust fumes

Pollution blamed as nettles and grasses flourish – and force out much-loved species


Many of Britain's common wild flower species are disappearing because of nitrogen compounds falling from the sky, air pollution experts said yesterday.

Well-loved and familiar species such as birds-foot trefoil, harebells and eyebright are being crowded out by a few more robust plants. These grow more strongly because of the fertilising effect of the nitrogen, which originates in vehicle exhausts and agricultural fertilisers. It is borne on the wind and deposited on the land – about 400,000 tons of it in Britain every year.

As a result, in many places a small number of plants such as stinging nettles, cow parsley and some grass species are now outcompeting and suppressing almost everything else – for the majority of Britain's smaller wild flowers need poor soils to flourish alongside each other. If the soil is heavily fertilised, they lose out – and nearly 100 species have been found to be affected.

"It is a dramatic change to the flora of Britain," Professor David Fowler, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said yesterday at the start of a major review of UK transboundary air pollution – pollution originating in Britain and being exported, or coming into the country from the outside. "We're essentially changing the fertility of the whole country, even the remote parts, by fertilising the landscape through the atmosphere. It is bad for our wild flowers as a whole. The tendency is to think nutrients and fertiliser are good, but they're only good if they promote the growth of the things you're interested in. In this case, they're removing key species from the environment."

Sulphur emissions from UK power stations, which in the 1970s and 1980s produced acid rain over Scandinavia, have been substantially reduced. But although nitrogen emissions from vehicles havefallen, nitrogen deposition on land is unchanged over 20 years – partly because there is more nitrogen in the atmosphere from agricultural fertilisers. Dr Carly Stevens, of the University of Lancaster, said hardly anyone outside scientific circles realised it was happening. "If you talk to old people they will say that there were more wild flowers when they were young. People think the old always look back favourably, but this is a case where it is true."

A study co-authored by Dr Stevens last year found 91 species adversely affected by nitrogen deposition.

Cow parsley: The feathery creamy-white flower heads make a fine sight lining a country lane in May – but they are so numerous because the plant is outcompeting everything else.

Stinging nettle: The nettle is another species which is flourishing mightily under conditions of heavy nitrogen deposition. Examples have been found which are 13ft tall.

Harebell: The harebell, which appears at the end of summer, is one of our frailest wild flowers – its stalk is as thin as a wire – so it is easily outcompeted and shut out by grasses.

Bird's foot trefoil: A typical plant of roadside verges and grassy banks, now disappearing from many places. It is the food plant of one of our prettiest butterflies, the common blue.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power