Wild flowers disappearing from the countryside

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Britain's common wild flowers are growing scarcer in every county, apart from a few species which are flourishing at the expense of the rest, according to a new report from the conservation charity Plantlife.

Britain's common wild flowers are growing scarcer in every county, apart from a few species which are flourishing at the expense of the rest, according to a new report from the conservation charity Plantlife.

A wholesale impoverishment of the United Kingdom's native flora is taking place, the report says, with the countryside suffering "a relentless erosion of its botanical diversity".

While fewer than 20 species of wild flowers have become extinct nationally in the last century, in individual counties the picture is very much grimmer, with some counties losing more than a species a year. Northamptonshire lost 93 of its wild plant types between 1930 and 1995, while Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire and Middlesex each lost nearly 80 between 1900 and 1990.

The result is a natural environment that is becoming less diverse and more homogeneous - it is "the McDonaldisation of the countryside", declares the report.

It is happening, the report says, only partly because of habitat destruction, development, the drainage of wet places and the decline of woodland management.

Another major reason, so far unappreciated, is the overall increase in Britain's soil fertility, as a result of nitrogen enrichment from years of chemical fertilisers being used in farming, and from nitrogen deposits laid down by road-traffic pollution.

This is leading to a small number of plants which flourish in nitrogen-rich soil, such as stinging nettles and cow parsley, growing to a prodigious extent - nettles are now being found that are 11ft tall - and outcompeting everything else. Most wild flowers do well in poor soils, where they cannot be outcompeted by a few strong plant species.

"Increased fertility has amounted to a substantial decline in the diversity of plant species across lowland Britain," the report asserts.

Concern about nitrogen in the soil has led to a European Union nitrates directive which attempts to set strict limits on nitrates in groundwater - but the basis for that was concern for human health. There has been no focusing on what excess nutrients might be doing to our wild plant communities.

Until now, concern for British wild flowers has tended to concentrate on individual rare species, often glamorous ones such as the lady's slipper orchid, and their possible decline to extinction.

But the Plantlife study, entitled Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, and written by the well-known botanist Peter Marren, breaks new ground by looking at the full range of nearly 1500 British wild plants in the round - and finding it is in a very poor state of health.

It does so by examining the county floras - the published records of all the wild plants found in a particular county. The county-by-county litany of decline makes for depressing reading. Northamptonshire, for instance, has lost nearly all the flowers that once gave colour to its cornfields: cornflower, corn cockle, corn marigold, corn buttercup. Norfolk has lost its fen violet, its pennyroyal and its slender cottongrass; Suffolk has lost a myriad of wild orchids - fen, frog, burnt-tip, bog, musk and early spider orchids. Insect-eating plants, such as sundews and butterworts, have gone from many counties and are barely hanging on in others.

"The steady attrition of the local flora can be compared to a slowly sinking ship," the report says. "The cargo hold and lower decks are already underwater and the sea is now rushing through the portholes of the promenade deck. The most vulnerable plants (clubmosses, pondweeds, spider orchids, stoneworts) go first, and the slightly less vulnerable (arable plants, flowers of commons and sandy banks), whilst the once-widespread primrose banks and bluebell dells become ever fewer - to be replaced by nettle-filled hollows."

Peter Marren, the report's author, believes that Britain's increased soil fertility is the most "insidious" of the causes of our wild flower decline. "It's about competition," he said yesterday. "The competition favours a few strong flowers at the expense of all the rest. People still talk about acid rain, but they've missed the main cause."

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