Wild flowers at risk from 'failed farm policy'

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The Independent Online

Current conservation policies are failing to stem the decline of the wild flowers of Britain's cornfields, many of which have become endangered species, according to the wild flower charity Plantlife.

From the corn buttercup to the prickly poppy, and from shepherd's needle to pheasant's eye, arable plants, as they are officially known - many of which were once regarded as all-too-common "weeds" - have become the most threatened group of plants in Britain.

Some 54 species are now rare or threatened, and seven have already become extinct within crop fields. Yet agri-environment schemes, intended to boost farmland wildlife, are failing to conserve them, Plantlife says.

The difficulty is that farmers receiving payments under the new schemes brought in two years ago are not being directed to the best management options for their land, says the charity.

"Less than 0.2 per cent of the total area of cropped farmland in England is being managed under the options known to be of highest value for plant conservation, equating to only one field in 500," it claims in a new report.

The problem concerns Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), the first level of the Environmental Stewardship scheme introduced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2005. ELS has a high uptake among farmers but each applicant is free to choose the management options that suit them best in return for the payments, irrespective of the relative benefits they will bring to a farm. "Entry Level Stewardship has all the right components to help save our cornfield flowers, but it's not working as it should do," said Kate Still, Plantlife's arable plants officer and co-author of the report. "The majority of farmers applying to the scheme are choosing the most basic management options available such as hedgerow and ditch management. Farmers need more inducement to choose options such as uncropped, cultivated field margins, where the field margins are left unsown and with no chemical inputs. These are known to be the most effective at conserving and resurrecting populations of our rare arable plants."

Andy Byfield, Plantlife's landscape conservation manager and report co-author, said: "The low level of uptake of the best management options means the scheme is wasting money on options that are not as effective at conserving plants or improving the overall health of farmland."

The report recommends that ELS payments should be reviewed to place more value on the more important options for conservation. It also highlights the regions around Britain that are richest in arable flora.

"We believe putting more resources into one-to-one advice for farmers in these most important areas will achieve the best results," Mr Byfield said.

Ms Still added: "Thanks to the ability of many species to lie dormant in the soil but still remain viable, arable plants can respond very rapidly and successfully to favourable management. We just need the ELS to be improved so farmers are directed and encouraged towards those options which will allow our wonderful arable flowers to thrive."

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