Wild flower may blossom with farmers' help

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The early gentian is one of many types of wildflower which flourished under traditional farming methods and which have been almost obliterated by modern practices.

After decades of decline, it is now recorded in only 49 thinly scattered 10km squares from Cornwall in the south-west to Lincolnshire in the north- east. Botanists chart the abundance of all kinds of plants across Britain by dividing the country up into these squares.

The early gentian, which is unique to Britain, grows up to six inches tall and has small, delicate leaflets. A biennial, it puts out a pink, trumpet-shaped flower in its second year, and other members of its family are popular garden flowers.

It is one of 116 declining or endangered British plant and animal species covered by rescue plans drawn up by a steering group of government scientists and wildlife conservation organisations. The Government has said it will respond to the proposals in the spring.

The early gentian requires fairly exposed conditions, sloping ground and shallow soil on chalk or limestone. Two main reasons for its decline are the ploughing up of grassland and the decline of sheep grazing, allowing scrub to move in.

The steering group proposes that all surviving populations should be safeguarded and that by 2004 the plant should be re-established at 10 sites where it has recently become extinct.

The way to do this, says the group, is to ensure that land-owners know what kind of land management is needed to let the early gentian survive. And more farmers need to take part in the Ministry of Agriculture's Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme, which pays them to use traditional farming methods.

Once scrub is cleared, the early gentian can reappear on downlands, as it has at Banstead Downs in Surrey, where volunteers from Plantlife, a wild-plant conservation charity, have been clearing shrubs.

The Government has proposed that seven sites across southern England where the early gentian lingers should become Special Areas for Conservation under the European Union's Habitats Directive.

The steering group estimates it would cost up to pounds 23,000 a year to implement its proposals, with the money coming from government and voluntary bodies.