Our vanishing flora – new Plantlife report


By Holger.Ellgaard (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Holger.Ellgaard (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Our Vanishing Flora is a new report from Plantlife.

This report tells the awful story of how local losses of plants from our counties add up to a national disgrace. Over the reign of HM The Queen 10 plant species have become nationally extinct – hardly a subject for a jubilee celebration.  Those 10 losses are the culmination of an avalanche of local loss that continues and accelerates to this day.

Corn buttercup - gone from the UK's fields.  By HermannSchachner (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Corn buttercup – not yet gone from the UK’s fields, but going. By HermannSchachner (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Although I recognise that it’s partly a matter of the availability of data, plant conservationists do a good job in making these national losses more locally relevant by charting the county losses of plant species.  Plantlife produces a league table of counties – ordered by the rate in which flower species have been lost from the county. My county of residence, Northamptonshire, has the third highest rate of species loss at a stunning 0.82 species per year.  So, in the 30 years I have lived in Northants, we have lost 25 species of plant from the county – that’s scary.  Why isn’t Northants County Council mounting a recovery plan now?

Banffshire and Middlesex are arguably the only worse places to live than Northants which is closely followed by Berwickshire, Sussex, Cambridgeshire, Denbighshire, Leicestershire, Bedfordshire and the Bristol region.  No wonder I am a nature conservationist – I’ve spent most of my life in those places!  Another 7 counties are also above the ‘one species lost every two years’ level.  And even the lucky inhabitants of Wiltshire, the ‘best’ county in the list, lose a plant species every 12 years. Have a look at where you live and see where you fit in.

Summers Lady's tresses - already lost from our countryside
Summers Lady’s tresses – already lost from our countryside

I can’t help but compare this way of looking at the data with the way that the bird data are usually publicised.  Because the bird data are better – there is no other way to describe them despite botanists wrinkling their noses when they read it – we tend to give UK-wide or country-wide (eg England or Northern Ireland figures) figures.  And we have bird data every year so we can draw national graphs of trends. So there is stuff that bird conservationists can do with the data that plant conservationists cannot do. But that is probably one reason why the local relevance of the patterns and local changes are missed out of the bird data.  How would a nap of avian county extinctions look, I wonder?

I would like to see a league table of loss of farmland birds from counties and I think it would be very interesting.  Which counties lead the way in losing farmland species? And are they similar to the plant lists?

Northants probably wouldn’t look too bad in that list as turtle dove (I guess) and grey partridge, lapwing and tree sparrow hang on as breeding species despite massive losses of numbers.  Does corn bunting still nest in Northants – maybe, but not, I think, near me?

But I cannot but be sad that Northants has lost its snakeshead fritillaries (as have another 16 other counties or vice-counties).  Here there are inadequate fragments of ‘natural’ habitats (what is natural?) left, like the heathland remnant on a firebreak between a rail line and a plantation.  What type of future do heathland plants have in Northants when they have been thoughtlessly and carelessly confined to a tiny plant-rich ghetto?

And that is the message of this excellent report. The reign of Queen Elisabeth II has seen many aspects of our lives improve but throughout that time we have pushed more and more plants to local extinction and towards national extinction. We know this is happening to birds but just the same is happening to plants and our wildlife as a whole.  And we should rage against this.  It is simply uncultured of us to have done this and not repair the damage. Which political party will commit to stopping this rot or replacing this damage – they would get my vote?

Prince Charles, in  the report’s foreword, writes that it is not too late to do something about it: ‘…next year [now this year!] sees the 60th anniversary of The Queen’s coronation. What better excuse for a concerted effort to begin the creation of at least one meadow in each county.‘. That sounds like a good idea to me.  If Plantlife takes that idea further then it will deserve our support.

In fact, reports like this remind me of the fact that I am proud to be a member of Plantlife – are you too?

Nigel Homer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Nigel Homer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



19 Replies to “Our vanishing flora – new Plantlife report”

  1. And of course the loss in floral diversity explains a large part of the declines witnessed in everything else including birds, butterflies, moths et al. Wall to wall rye grass, rape and wheat doesn’t support an awful ot of wildlife.

  2. Does make for sad yet interesting reading, strange memory I have from this summer though was the number of “spots” that all of sudden were in bloom with wild flowers in Northants, areas that were barren seemed to bloom to life, maybe it was the weather but I also noticed a lot more orchids too, maybe Northants poor showing on the list is linked with the number of houses being built? As for Corn Buntings in Northants there is one little stonghold left.

    1. Across the border, here in Bedfordshire, it was a very good year for flowering plants and in particular orchids. Almost certainly due to the wet weather.

  3. Us ‘lucky people’ in Wiltshire are probably at the bottom of the list (or is the top) for a couple of reasons. The county distinctly splits into 2 with chalk downland in the south and clay soils in the north, giving quite a wide habitat range. As important is the fact that there is a big hole in the middle called Salisbury Plain where plants and wildlife get bombed occasionally and seem to like that, whereas build a few houses and change farming techniques and they don’t.

    1. “Us ‘lucky people’ in Wiltshire”

      Salisbury Plain – red flags everywhere, deterring visitors. It’s not all show, some of the ordnance is real, judging by the concussions I can feel through my feet when all else is still, late at night.

      Is there a message there – wildlife thrives when people stay away?

    2. Bob – yes, Salisbury Plain must be a big factor. We should start bombing more counties – obviously!

  4. A big impact on plant diversity is nutrient deposition from the atmosphere giving rise to tall ruderal vegetation (the common ‘weeds’); while this habitat still has a large and important invertebrate fauna it does outcompete more diverse shorter vegetation with the inevitable loss of invertebrate diversity too. Increasing sward height and decreasing diversity are unfortunately quite difficult (time consuming and/or costly) for some land owners/managers to get to grips with in this current economic climate.

  5. Mark – great post, thanks for publicising the Plantlife report.

    Purely by sort of co-inicidence I found myself thinking about ash dieback this morning (as I often do). My thought was what would state would the country be in if we’d just discovered a disease had found it’s way to our shores that might kill 90% of domestic cats. My guess is there would be uproar. Whereas it seems to have been accepted that the majority of our ash trees must go gently into the good night, with no one to rage on their behalf.

    And so it is probably even worse with the smaller plants, where we’re in a shifting baselines gone mad world of accelerated decline and extinction, unnoticed and therefore accepted by default by almost everybody. Thank goodness then for Plantlife and people prepared to scour their local neighbourhood for small rare things and record the sad fact that they may no longer be there. How many connections between the catastrophic decline of x plant(s) and y bird have never even been established because x plant had gone before it could even be thought of to do the research, let alone fund it, get the paper published and publicised etc.? What a country we live in.

    Interested in your point about Northants CC’s recovery plan. I’d sort of assumed local authorities had long since lost any power to do anything effective at a landscape scale, apart from areas under their direct jurisdiction (like nature reserves they own or road verges, not that the latter are insignificant as you highlighted last year). What responsibilities do councils still have in this area?

    And do the County bird reports provide any the ‘local interest’ and insight into localised declines and extinctions of breeding and wintering bird species to mirror the local plant recordings? Is it that the data is there, but no-one has yet done the collation and analysis to get to a hard hitting league table to hit home with?

  6. I live in wiltshire too and have been growing a meadow in my garden. A small number of my friends are also interested in the natural world and we sometimes have conversations about wildlife. But more often than not I get a blank expression from them. Never is it more so than when I try to talk about wildflowers.

    Some rare butterflies are hard to manage for in the UK because they specific habitats. The same is true for rare wildflowers which in some cases need two or three other specific wildflowers growing with them and cannot grow on their own ( Plant communities). They may also need the right habitat, amount of water, sunlight and pollinators

    And as you mentioned Mark as is normally the case it is the lack of awareness of these plants which causes them to go extinct.

  7. Radical solution is available to stop”Our Vanishing Flora”.Pay farmers to grow it or those really keen to keep it buy a field and grow them.There are always some land to buy just like Hope Farm came up for sale,maybe even the RSPB buy a farm to stop some becoming extinct.

    1. Dennis – not so radical, that option (sort of) exists through agrienvironment schemes right now. Not many farmers take up the options which would help plants the most, the money is not targetted that well and the prescriptions aren’t anywhere near perfect. Apart from that it’s sorted!

      And some might say that we ought to get more plants for out billions of pounds investment in agriculture anyway.

  8. Despite the perception the whole of England will soon be built up, in fact only 9% of England is urban and of that gardens actually cover more space than building. Another 9% is woodland and 70% is agriculture. Another 3 million houses at present densities & use of brown field at recent levels would only use a further 1%. It is agricultural intensification that has done the damage – first arable and then, less obviously but just as damaging, grassland. What impresses as discussions about GM and mega dairy herds continue is the thoroughness: not 90%, not even 95% but in many places effectively 99 or 100% – reflected even more by flora than birds, which somehow hang on.

    The SSSI statistics are interesting too: with roughly equal areas in England, MOD come out top. Tragically, bombs beat good intentions like so frequently in the world. There are some extraordinary sights if you can get onto MOD land: I’ll never forget the scene in a meadow in the safety zone for the Dorset tank ranges – cattle grazing meadows that could have been from the 1930s – and even as a trained agriculturist I was amazed by the difference in vegetation structure and species- roughly the same (albeit 15 inches high !) as the difference between a rain forest and a palm oil plantation.

    Next comes the Forestry Commission – the incidental consequence of the lower intensity, lower pesticide management of forestry compared to farming. And in third place, conservation in the form of the National Trust. If I were running the National Trust I’d want to be first – which, had anyone questioned whether the Trust should simply follow the ‘norm’ in its farming it could have been. As MOD proves all you had to do is stop the clock ! That’s history – what happens next for all these three organisations is vital to the survival of our wildlife – and especially our flora.

  9. Good to read your comments on the Plantlife report (I did the words; Jenny Duckworth did the flora-combing and stats). I was rather moved by MK’s description of the recorders “scouring their neighbourhood for small rare things”. Naturalists have been doing just that, and publishing the results ,for more than 300 years, and despite the frequently prophesied death of the local flora the publication rate is, if anything, increasing ( and often paid for privately). As a result there is a mass of information about the local fortunes of British wild flowers, and sometimes bryophytes and lichens too, in the hands of conservation bodies should they care to use it. We deliberately did not go into the many reasons why so many wild flowers are in decline since they are well known – and I agree that nitrogen deposition should be near the top of the list (and who is monitoring its effects now that the CEH’s Countryside Project has been scrapped?). And linked with that is this quiet homogenization of the countryside, of special places turning into ordinary places, even if they do, technically, seem to be in ‘favourable condition’.

    May be the lack of public attention on the plight of our plants is because, unlike birds, they are no longer familiar to most people, and what we don’t know, we don’t care so much about. Over the years I have watched one of my local plants die out: the round-headed rush. It grew in the partly trampled vegetation on boggy ground in a hollow by a footbridge, and in the past two wet summers that ground has become a morass of churned up mud, lightly laced with dogshit. Footpath diversion is impractical and the obvious solution is to fill the hollow with gravel. We are talking about three or four square meters, but that little patch is the only place in the parish I know for at least three species of plant ( a rush, a pipe-rush and a grass). It’s coincidence, I know, but the person who discovered it and recorded its status annually, died last year. Its little things like this, hardly noticed by anybody, that are wiping out little plants in their last spaces in the parish. I don’t see any national agri-environment scheme coming to their aid, because they don’t live in the wider ‘environment’ but in subtle niches within it, and indeed I don’t know what the solution is. Perhaps this is where local naturalists trusts come into their own, but even they do not seem to be very focussed on plants. Without a few hundred dedicated botanists, Plantlife/BSBI members we wouldn’t even know there was a problem.

    Dammit, I wish I was interested in something cheerful, like, I don’t know, fast cars?

    1. Peter – I hope you were moved in a good way! This also gives me a belated chance to say how much I appreciated your Ashes to Ashes blog late last year – that was the opening line of a comment I started drafting in response, but that never got finished.

      I wouldn’t bother with fast cars – or even slow ones – they just eat money and rust in the end. And anyway, plants are much more beautiful and useful.

  10. Invertebrates are also vulnerable to habit loss. The media are reporting the imminent extinction of Pthirus pubis but my Buglife RSS feed hasn’t mentioned it yet, so I don’t know whether this is true. Brazilian deforestation is alleged to be a major factor.

  11. Interesting report but not surprising. I wonder how accurate it is. Many naturalists will not pass on their records of rare plants for several reasons. One is that local authorities who should protect wildlife in their area will not do so. Another reason is that there are cases where the presence of a rare plant becomes public knowledge and the next time the recorder of that plant goes to look for it, it has disappeared. It is a disgrace that our wild plants are being treated as “zoo” exhibits and can only be seen in cages or designated areas. What is the answer? Better education on wildlife matters, stiffer penalties for wildlife crimes? More TV programmes featuring native british wildlife? Perhaps a combination of all these. It is now normal practice to destroy all habitats where buildings or roads are to be sited and then replace native species which support a myriad of wildlife with foreign species which have the capacity of introducing foreign diseases. Wildlife laws are ignored in the rush to create the built environment. We should not have to make a car journey to look for wildlife habitats. Meadows are only a distant memory in my area due to changing agricultural policies. The same applies to many wildlife habitats. Who is at fault. We cannot blame farmers for following EU policy, they have to make a living as well as the next man/woman. Is it too much to ask for a less destructive policy on farming and “development?” Where have the woods and ponds gone? The hedges, supposedly protected by Law? All these habitats were also the home of our native flora. We should not slow down these losses, we should stop them.

  12. With Northamptonshire all is not lost. Over the past few years I have been very lucky to refind a few extinct plant species for the county while during recording for the Northamptonshire Rare Plant Register and the forthcoming new flora for the county coming out at the end of the month. Refound species included Blinks (Montia fontana) last seen pre 1930 and Small Cudweed (Filago minima) last seen 1956, both found at a site in clearings in the wood where heathland once occurred years ago. Fingers crossed that more extinct species for the county are refound but for some the habitat has gone or has changed so much that it is not suitable now for certain species. But new species never recorded in the county of Northamptonshire before are turning up and being found which is some good news. With being asked to record 10km squares in Northamptonshire for the third Atlas of the British Flora due out in 2020 I am looking forward to what could be found or even refound for the county of Northamptonshire.

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