Cow parsley: the countryside killer

The white flowers may make English country lanes look pretty, but in reality they are killing other wild plants

 

Share

There’ll always be an England, the song went in the last war, while there’s a country lane… but it’s funny how those country lanes won’t always look the same. And it’s funny how a huge and damaging change in the natural world can look quite attractive, until you find out what it really means…

If you go for a drive down a country lane in much of Britain right now, you will find many of them fringed on each side by a sort of 3-4ft-high flower hedge, a foaming froth of tiny white blooms, held on umbrella-like stalks. This is cow parsley, a member of the umbelliferae or carrot family; and although its English name will win no prizes for charm – more fastidious souls prefer to call it Queen Anne’s lace – its lace-like appearance, which it does indeed possess, has always been extremely decorative of our roadside verges.

This year, however, it seems to me to be denser than ever – driving down lanes in Hampshire and Dorset earlier this month I noticed that many verges were simply engulfed by an overwhelming amount of the plant, which looked pretty enough,  but there was not very much growing  of anything else at all. And my feeling  that it seems to be taking over along roadsides was strengthened last week, when I spent a few days driving around very similar lanes across the Channel in Normandy.

Over there, although cow parsley was everywhere present, it was nowhere wholly dominant as it now is in so many places here. Instead, the verges of the French country byways were displaying a very attractive diversity of spring flowers, with species such as comfrey, ox-eye daisy, stitchwort, crosswort and in particular, early purple orchids, just as common as Anthriscus sylvestris, or more so.

Isn’t this, with a panoply of different flowers, how the sides of country lanes used to look in Britain? And isn’t cow parsley a lot more ubiquitous than it used to be? That was just my impression, but I wasn’t sure, until I spoke to a couple of leading botanists.

Simon Smart, from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Lancaster, dug out some fascinating figures from the Countryside Survey, the enormous census of the habitats and vegetation of rural Britain that the Government carries out every 10 years. These made it clear that cow parsley is very much undergoing a boom.

On monitored plots along linear landscape features such as road edges, the survey found, between 1978 and 2007 the plots in which cow parsley occurred increased in Britain from 129 to 204 (a 58 per cent increase) and in England only, from 100 to 153 (a 53 per cent increase).

“I would say that’s pretty substantial,” Smart said. “These figures are an indication of geographical spread, but they’re also consistent with increased abundance where the plant occurs.”

To put it simply, there’s more than half as much again of the stuff, along the sides of our country lanes, as there was 30 years or so ago. But why is it happening? There seem to be two reasons: the way we manage roadside verges today, and the increased fertility of the landscape as a result of intensive farming.

In the past, Smart said, verges were often grazed by farm animals, or they were cut for hay, and the grass and other plants, once mown, were taken off. Now they are mown by local councils, and the mowings are merely left in place, which adds nutrients to the soil and makes it more fertile. And soil fertility is being increased further by the huge amounts of fertilisers farmers now add to the landscape, and even by motor vehicle exhausts, which add their own nutrients to roadside verges in the form of oxides of nitrogen.

This is bad news for many plants, since a lot of our wild flowers – counter-intuitive though it may seem – need infertile soil to flourish. Otherwise a few big robust plants will outcompete everything else.

The result, says Kevin Walker, head of research at the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, has been winners and losers. Over the last half-century, a small number of bigger plants have done very well, while a large number of smaller, more specialised plants have lost out.

The biggest winner has probably been the nettle, said Walker, which is now the most common plant in Britain. The bramble is another such. And cow parsley is a third, a big plant which thrives on nutrient-rich ground, and doesn’t let other species get a look in.

So when you next drive down an English country lane, look on the feathery white flower border of springtime with a more jaundiced eye. It might look pretty; it does look pretty; but for all that, it’s a monoculture, and it’s giving us many roadside verges, once fascinating for their flora, that have now become one-dimensional.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum