Where have all the flowers gone? A new report makes for troubling reading

A fifth of all of Britain's plant species are under threat, with some facing alarming declines

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The Independent Online

I’ve always been very fond of ragged-robin, one of our prettiest wildflowers, which is a close relative of the red campion found in every springtime hedgerow, but a lot prettier. Its petals seem to have been shredded, hence the name, and they are a soft but striking pink; the plant generally grows in damp places and ditches, so it’s not quite so visible as its campion cousin.

The Wetland Centre in Barnes in west London, that most inspiring of urban nature reserves, has planted it out along its mini-waterways, so the reserve has actually become the most reliable place I know for a ragged-robin sighting when summer arrives.

For I see ragged-robin less and less, in the countryside as a whole, although I’ve always thought of it as a very common plant, not in any way a rarity. Similarly, I seem to see a lot less than I used to of tormentil, another common species, which I have long loved for its lemon-yellow Maltese cross of a flower, titchy but jaunty, shining low down among the grasses (and also for its haunting name). I do, I see less of it. Like the ragged-robin. Is that just me? Should I be getting out more? Or do I maybe need a new pair of glasses?

A magisterial survey of all England’s wildflowers published last month suggests not. For the England Red List of Vascular Plants – that just means what you and I think of a normal plants, as opposed to things like mosses and liverworts – has turned up the surprising fact that a whole suite of flowers which we still think of as common and widespread, ragged-robin and tormentil among them, have started to tumble in numbers.

The Red List, compiled by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (the BSBI) in conjunction with Natural England and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, assesses how threatened all England’s 1850 or so plant species are, according to the formal threat categories of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near-Threatened, and Least Concern).


The headline finding, which has been widely reported, is that fully a fifth of them are under threat, with the majority of these threatened species, such as great sundew or burnt-tip orchid, suffering declines of 30 per cent or more. A subtler discovery, however, concerns this group of common plants, which tend to be concentrated in lowland England: when a Red List was compiled in 2005 for Britain as a whole, their declines did not show up, as they were diluted by the GB picture. But their English declines, taken separately, show more than 20 of them placed in the Near-Threatened category – that is, they have fallen in numbers by between 20 and 30 per cent.

Ragged-robin has gone down by 25 per cent; tormentil by 26 per cent. Many of the others on the list are wildflowers which are similarly much loved. Wood sorrel and devil’s-bit scabious have both fallen by 20 per cent; harebell, that pale blue delight at the end of the summer, has gone down by 23 per cent; and wild strawberry, as charming for its diminutive white flowers as for its diminutive sweet fruits, has gone down by 29 per cent. The changes to the countryside brought about by intensive farming over recent decades are assumed to be behind the losses.

“With such rapid change, it is troubling – but perhaps not particularly surprising – to find out that species we have long thought of as common in the wider countryside, and under no immediate threat, have declined to such an extent,” said the BSBI’s Dr Pete Stroh, the Red List lead author and project coordinator. “In many cases, this equates to a decline of more than 20 per cent during what is, botanically speaking, the blink of an eye.”

These losses are troubling for a simple reason: once the common things start disappearing, everything is at risk. The Red List has, as epigraph, a very apposite quote from the grand old man of British nature conservation, Norman Moore: “It cannot be said too often that it is as much the conservationist’s job to keep common species common, as it is to ensure the survival of rare species.” But once we can’t keep the common species any more, where are we headed?