The vanishing flowers of Britain: one in five species faces extinction

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The Independent Online

One in five of Britain's wild flower species is threatened with extinction, according to the most detailed analysis to date of the British flora.

One in five of Britain's wild flower species is threatened with extinction, according to the most detailed analysis to date of the British flora.

The total is far higher than previously thought and has shocked the team of senior botanists who discovered it through a two-year intensive survey of all of Britain's 1,756 native plant species.

The survey, published today, paints a completely new picture of the conservation status of Britain's wild flowers, listing no fewer than 345 of them - or 19.6 per cent - as "critically endangered", "endangered" or "vulnerable to extinction", according to internationally recognised criteria.

Britain has always had great rarities in its flora, such as the lady's slipper orchid. But the survey's most startling finding is that our threatened species now include nearly 80 that are familiar and widespread and have never been listed as being at risk, such as the corn buttercup, field gromwell, yellow bird's nest and English eyebright, pictured.

All of these flowers may still be found in at least 100 locations across Britain. Yet, in fact, they are in headlong decline, undocumented until now.

In the past 40 years, the survey shows, the corn buttercup has declined by more than 80 per cent, corn chamomile by more than 70 per cent, and field gromwell and yellow bird's nest by 65 per cent each.

It is this picture of massive decline in flowers which are not yet actually considered rare which has been highlighted by the survey, The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain, produced by a partnership of some of Britain's leading conservation bodies.

The pattern has been found in no fewer than 78 species which are now designated as threatened with extinction in Britain.

The findings mean that priorities for conserving Britain's wild flowers in future will need to be reordered, with more concern for commonplace plants in the fields of the wider countryside outside protected areas - the ones that are really at risk.

"We had no idea that some of these declines were as bad as they are and we were very shocked to discover them," said Dr Trevor Dines, of the wild flower conservation charity, Plantlife, and one of the authors of the survey.

The Red Data List project has been made possible by the interlinking of two great mapping surveys of Britain's wild flowers, made 40 years apart. The first was The Atlas of the British Flora, published in 1962, which displayed the distribution of our wild plants on a grid of 10km squares imposed on the map of Britain.

If a plant occurred in fewer than 15 squares, it was considered "rare"; in fewer than 100 squares, it was considered "scarce".

In 2002 a successor volume, The New Atlas of the British Flora, was published which showed not only where plants occur but where they have disappeared from locations in the earlier atlas.

So the corn buttercup, for example, was shown as occurring in 157 grid squares in 2002 - but it had occurred in 672 grid squares 40 years earlier.

As it was still in more than 100 grid squares it was considered neither "rare" nor "scarce" by the old criteria - but it was clearly undergoing a catastrophic decline, and needed to be flagged up as a species at great risk. Its rate of decline means it has now been listed as "critically endangered".

* Cheffings, CM and Farrell, L (eds): 'The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain', Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough

On the endangered list

* Corn buttercup Ranunculus arvensis

Red Data List status: Critically endangered

An attractive annual buttercup with small yellow flowers, a weed of crop fields, which has undergone an astonishing decline of 81 per cent, mostly in the past 30 years. Introduced into Britain by Roman farmers, along with opium poppies, peas and beans.

* Purple milk-vetch Astragalus danicus

Red Data List status: Endangered

A small perennial herb of short, unimproved turf on well-drained calcareous soils, mostly on chalk and limestone, and also on sand dunes. Down by 51 per cent. It has declined largely because of agricultural improvement or lack of grazing.

* Lesser butterfly orchid Platanthera bifolia

Red Data List status: Vulnerable

A well-loved orchid that grows in a wide range of usually poor soils, including heathy pastures, grassland, open scrub, woodland edges and rides, and on moorland. It has disappeared from 64 per cent of grid squares in recent decades.

* English eyebright Euphrasia anglica

Red Data List status: Endangered

Eyebrights are small annuals of unimproved grassy habitats, with 23 species in Britain. This particular one grows in tightly grazed acidic grassland, heath-land and moors and is down by 62 per cent. Compresses from eyebrights were once used to treat eye disorders.

* Prickly Poppy Papaver argemone

Red Data List status: Vulnerable

A small, brightly coloured poppy which often has black marks at the base of its petals. It has declined by 61 per cent. A species of traditional arable fields that has not yet made the jump to waysides and road verges as the common poppy has.

Field Gentian Gentianella campestris

Red Data List status: Vulnerable

A biennial or annual herb with attractive purply blue flowers, found in pastures, hill grassland, grassy heaths, sand dunes, machair and road verges. Locally common in northern England and Scotland, but absent from most of south and central Britain. Gone from 57 per cent of grid squares in recent decades.

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