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.

voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn