The dark clouds looming over our countryside

Too many butterflies, birds and flowers are dwindling, dropping away from the fabric of the landscape

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The days have been damp and dull for August, but if you know where to look, you can always pick out some bright spots in the gloom. Take the resurrection of Snowdonia hawkweed, for instance. It may sound like a character out of Harry Potter, but is in fact a spindly yellow flower that had been missing, presumed extinct, for 50 years. Earlier this summer a keen naturalist went out on what he thought would probably be another fruitless wandering on hills near Bethesda in northern Wales, when he saw its little lemony petals glimmering up at him from the grass.

The days have been damp and dull for August, but if you know where to look, you can always pick out some bright spots in the gloom. Take the resurrection of Snowdonia hawkweed, for instance. It may sound like a character out of Harry Potter, but is in fact a spindly yellow flower that had been missing, presumed extinct, for 50 years. Earlier this summer a keen naturalist went out on what he thought would probably be another fruitless wandering on hills near Bethesda in northern Wales, when he saw its little lemony petals glimmering up at him from the grass.

Now that it has been found again, Snowdonia hawkweed's future is pretty well assured, because the keen naturalist is now planning to collect its seeds and breed it in the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Snowdonia hawkweed will not disappear again. Who cares that we've never heard of it before? It's a flower that has returned from the grave, that has cheated extinction, that has sprung up against the long decline of the British countryside.

Snowdonia hawkweed isn't the only wild thing to be making a comeback. These are good times for Britain's rare plants, which are now being cosseted back into strength. Take that icon of rare flowers, the lady's slipper orchid, which was down to a single plant in the wild for many years; for the last few years it has been carefully propagated in laboratories and then planted into protected enclosures, where its clashing purple and yellow petals can glow again.

These are the sort of tales of resurrection that we want to hear, and the Government has learnt that. An upbeat press release a couple of days ago from one government department put a glossy spin on the current fortunes of British butterflies. "Green farming schemes are helping England's butterflies", it stated. "Defra's schemes are starting to halt the decline in some important butterfly species."

Reports of the finding that fields where farmers are paid to manage their land in an environmentally friendly way have larger butterfly populations led to upbeat stories in some newspapers. The headlines were generally delighted – "Blue skies for butterflies"... "Farming reforms slow decline of butterflies" – and the stories illustrated by large pictures of butterflies that charmed the eye. A pale chalkhill blue perched on a mauve flower presented a combination of lucent colours that Matthew Williamson would die for.

Of course, these tales of recovery lighten the summer. It doesn't matter if you have never set eyes on a chalkhill blue in the sunlight, or Snowdonia hawkweed in its stony pasture, such stories still reassure us that out there the British countryside is carrying on, full of intricate colour and texture and sound. Somehow, even for those of us born and bred in the city, that matters. It matters far more than we are often able to express that skylarks still bubble away in the cloudy skies and butterflies dip their wings on colourful meadows.

But such spots of colour should not be confused for a wholly bright outlook. The picture for the British countryside is still much bleaker than these tales might suggest. If you read on in the story about the butterflies, you find yourself stumbling over figures that are darker than some of the headlines propose.

Most butterflies in the study were still declining steeply in numbers; it's just that on these special sites the rate of decline was two per cent slower than the average. That diaphanous chalkhill blue, for instance, has seen its numbers decline by 25 per cent in the past 30 years and is now confined to small breeding areas. "Overall the picture is gloomy," a spokesman for Butterfly Conservation conceded.

Similarly, although some of the rarest of Britain's wild flowers are being brought back from extinction by the careful collection of seeds and the protection of rare colonies, flower meadows are still declining at surprising speed. A survey published by Plantlife earlier this summer showed that of the 1,100 hectares of unimproved grassland identified in Worcestershire in 1975, three quarters had been damaged or destroyed in the last 25 years.

This is the strange truth when it comes to Britain's wildlife. There are many conservation schemes backed up by masses of scientific knowhow, which are preserving endangered species and even, here and there, increasing their numbers. From dormice to red kites to orchids, it's possible to find tales of optimism. Many naturalists are rightly proud of such successes, keen to build on them and to bring back species long extinct in the British Isles – one Scottish landowner has even been talking enthusiastically about seeing the wolf roaming again in Scotland.

But out in so many of the hills and fields of Britain, the colour is still draining away. Too many flowers and birds and butterflies are dwindling, retreating into narrow locations and dropping away from the everyday fabric of the landscape. Experts have been pointing out for some years that while some of the rarest birds in the UK have recently seen their populations increase, because agencies buy up and protect their habitats, common birds are suffering ever more harshly from widespread changes in land use and agriculture. When you read that, say, the skylark's numbers have fallen by 75 per cent in 30 years, that only confirms the way that much of the countryside seems to be becoming quieter and less colourful. For many of us, the landscape that we see and touch and smell and hear this summer will be more impoverished than ever.

Of course, there is nothing new about this lament. Just as there is nothing new about the touted solutions that we keep hearing about – the need to reduce numbers of sheep, to keep down the amount of fertilisers and pesticides on the fields, to allow untidiness and wilderness to return here and there to our tamed island. Yet there is still a great inertia hanging over the way agriculture is practised in Britain. Intensive farming is still the unchallenged norm. And this is also a time when the Government is suggesting that many of the few remaining patches of green space in the South-east must make way for housing and airports.

The same inertia seems to be reigning internationally. When the thousands of politicians and environmental experts meet in Johannesburg in three weeks, biodiversity will be high up the agenda, and threats to wildlife – including intensive agriculture and forestry destruction – will all be discussed. But why should developing countries listen to us asking them to hold back on destroying their forests and building their dams when we cannot even keep our few meadows in bloom? Many experts are understandably gloomy at the prospect of any progress being made at all. At the last Biodiversity Convention in April, one delegate from Birdlife International said: "This conference has been a disaster and an abject failure. After 10 years of these meetings there is no impact I can discern on slowing down the destruction of the natural world."

Where the destruction of the natural world is being slowed down, it tends to be only in demarcated nature reserves, protected habitats, botanic gardens, parks and propagation schemes. As we can see in our own countryside, all these schemes certainly help to preserve nature for us, but they do so only patchily, in isolated areas, while the rest of the landscape goes on becoming greyer. Is that good enough? Maybe not, but it may also be the best that we can hope for.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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