Even the commonest wild flowers are disappearing from the countryside, a new analysis of Britain's biggest wild plant survey has shown.
Sites which should hold species typical of their habitat, such as scarlet pimpernel in cornfields, or primrose in woodlands, are increasingly being found with none of their characteristic plants. Although concern has long been expressed that some of Britain's rare flowers, such as meadow clary and corncockle, are being pushed to the edge of extinction by intensive agriculture, there has been much less focus on common species, some of which may be traditionally thought of as "weeds".
But the fact that common plants are also disappearing is being vividly demonstrated by the annual Common Plants Survey (CPS) run by the wild flower charity Plantlife. This uses volunteers to examine more than 500 sites across the country for the presence or absence of 65 different common or familiar plant species. New analysis of recent results for the survey shows that of the 524 sites surveyed, 121 contained none of the "common 65" whatsoever. Every county of England – except for Co Durham – held sites that were completely empty of the target plants.
The sites most frequently holding nothing fell under the category "arable and horticultural", which in essence means cornfields. Survey workers were looking for the presence of three flowers once regarded as absolutely typical cornfield plants – scarlet pimpernel, common chickweed and common poppy. Yet 52 out of the 107 cornfield plots in the survey contained no trace of any of them, indicating that something has gone very wrong, from a botanical point of view, with arable plants in Britain.
Another significant finding was the absence of common flowers in the category "broadleaved woodland and scrub". Here, the number of sites holding nothing was smaller – six sites out of 81 – but here the number of target species, 11, was much larger. They were: wood anemone, bluebell, herb robert, bugle, lords and ladies, red campion, lesser celandine, primrose, foxglove, golden saxifrage and traveller's joy.
This is in essence a litany of Britain's best-loved and most familiar wild flowers, and to find a wood that contains not one of any of them would be remarkable at any time; yet to find 7 per cent of woods bare of foxgloves and absolutely everything else in the list shows that woodlands, like cornfields, are in botanical trouble.
"The fact that there are so many plots with none of the common species is very worrying," said Dr Jayne Manley, Plantlife's director of development. "Common species are being lost from the countryside, which means the countryside environment is a lot less healthy than it ought to be."
Plantlife pointed out that common plants and flowers have tended to be undervalued by conservationists in the past, as attention has focused on rarer species, yet common species play pivotal roles in ecosystems, providing both habitat and food for British wildlife. Launched on the first day of spring – 20 March – every year, the CPS is the UK's only annual survey of wild plants and flowers, and is intended to act as an early warning system for the English countryside. It is similar to the Breeding Birds Survey of the British Trust for Ornithology, which has given enormous amounts of data on the health or otherwise of Britain's wild bird populations.
The plant survey has now been running for six years and has started to build up a data baseline against which trends can be detected, but more volunteers are needed to widen the survey's scope. The work involves making three trips to a site each year to identify the plants in a given area.
To take part in the CPS, contact Plantlife to receive a free survey pack and wildflower guide and to be allocated a random 1km square close to where you live. Call 01722 342755 or email email@example.com
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies