Kevin Walker is a botanist who leads on science, monitoring and data management for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Before that he spent 12 glorious years working as a plant ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Monks Wood, although much of that time was spent away carrying out fieldwork. Although his day job is botanical, he’s interested in all aspects of natural history, especially birds for which he has a life-long passion. He also has a passion for Hebridean Islands; he co-authored the Flora of Rum and is currently working on a Flora of Colonsay.
Wildflower-rich road verges – the botanists’ Hen Harrier?
The world of botany is rarely rocked by controversy. But earlier this week a furore erupted over a tweet by naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham. He was congratulating a local authority on a colourful roundabout in their town, which to any botanist had obviously been seeded or planted with a “wildflower seed mix”. Chris also suggested that “every council across the UK should aspire to this”. Those who accidentally stumbled upon the subsequent exchange of views were probably wondering what on earth all the fuss was about. How could something as seemingly innocuous as a roundabout full of pretty flowers possibly generate such passionate feelings?
Like Chris, I’m a lifelong birder although I work professionally as a botanist – but these are just labels. I’m a naturalist at heart and I care deeply about all our wildlife, so with this perspective, I’d like to try and explain why so many people got so worked up about Chris’s (probably well-meaning) comments.
The roundabout in question had been seeded with ‘wildflowers’ by the East Lothian Council as part of a national scheme to create corridors (‘B-lines’) for pollinators run by the charity Buglife. And the results were truly stunning – a riot of flowers in all colours of the rainbow, worthy of an RHS Gold Medal and surely a good thing for people and wildlife?
Local authorities have a difficult job at the moment, keeping us and our wildlife happy, especially in these times of austerity and Chris quite rightly applauded their efforts. The original tweet by Edinburgh Spotlight badged it as a ‘wildflower roundabout’ (as the council called it) but keen-eyed botanists were quick to point out that very few of the species were actually wildflowers (in the sense that they are native in the British Isles and occur naturally without human influence). Most were gardens plants such as Californian Poppy and Austrian Chamomile or former cornfield weeds such as Common Poppy, Cornflower, and Corn Marigold that are added to the kinds of wildflower seed mixtures that you can buy in any supermarket, garden centre of DIY store.
Some of us questioned the relative benefits of these colourful displays when compared to wildflower-rich road verges in our towns and cities. These verges are usually mown to oblivion by local authorities in an attempt to keep our towns neat and tidy. This year, however, lockdown has put paid to that. Many verges were left uncut and this produced some astonishing displays of buttercups, clovers, and daisies with obvious benefits to pollinators and other wildlife. Some of our rarest and most exotic wildflowers have also benefited. Bee Orchids for example, have popped up in many new places where previously they were never given the opportunity to flower – our social media feeds have seen many reports from people delighted at what has appeared in their local area.
What followed Chris’s tweet was, rightly or wrongly, a series of impassioned pleas by many well-informed botanists for better management of road verges, roundabouts and public spaces rather than the promotion, by a very prominent and widely admired wildlife campaigner, of ‘quick fix’ solutions, pretty as they are.
In a later tweet Chris responded to “angry botanists”, bemoaning pedantry and narrowmindedness, and accusing anyone who disagreed with him of failing to see the bigger picture. Better to get the ball rolling than get stuck in the weeds over technicalities and details?
This caricature of what had been, up till then, a nuanced and polite debate was disingenuous to say the least and is what angered us the most. All natural history groups have topics that their enthusiasts care passionately about. For birders it is Hen Harriers, and their illegal persecution by a privileged few; for zoologists it is the seemingly relentless slaughter of badgers to control Bovine TB; for entomologists it is the catastrophic declines of our native pollinators due to habitat loss and the use of pesticides. For botanists it is the lamentable loss of wildflower-rich grasslands. We have been losing these for centuries. Writing in the middle of the 19th Century, John Clare, one of our finest nature poets, was incensed by the enclosure and ploughing-up of grasslands and heaths around his Northamptonshire home – “Inclosure thou’rt a curse upon the land, And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned.”
Since then, we have lost almost all of our wildflower-rich grasslands, largely due to changes in the way we farm the land. What has survived is now confined to nature reserves, road verges and hidden corners of farmland too difficult to plough or improve. The wildlife conservation charity Plantlife has estimated that our nations’ road verges represent an area the size of Northamptonshire so as wildflowers have retreated from our meadows and pastures, they have become more and more important as a refuge for many species. Yet they have received relatively little interest from conservationists. But thanks to the work of Plantlife, and many other organisations on the ground, the importance of these habitats for wildflowers is finally being recognised. And this work is already having huge benefits. Each year more and more verges are left uncut during May and June when our native wildflowers are at their best. Even in my home town of Harrogate, famed for its neat lawns and manicured borders, little corners are being left to grow long. Campaigns such as #NoMowMay have encouraged us as individuals to do our bit and the results have been astonishing with lawns full of daisies, dandelions and buttercups providing vital nectar for bees and other pollinators. We have a long way to go but at least the ball is moving, and in the right direction.
But what has concerned me most in some recent discussions is how little the general public seem to value our native wildflowers. Perhaps this is not surprising. From an early age we are conditioned to not value them as much as more ‘charismatic’ groups. If wildflowers get a mention in the media, and they rarely do, they are there to provide food and shelter for other wildlife or even worse, simply to look pretty. Earlier this week my kids received copies of their RSPB nature magazine. In a quick flick through 30 odd pages I noticed hardly any photos of plants – and those I did see were included simply to provide context or a pretty backdrop to some beetle or other. Come on RSPB – you can do better!
This unconscious bias – this plant blindness – has its roots in many things, not least our cultural separation from wildflowers which started when John Clare was a boy roaming the Northamptonshire countryside. Added to this is the fact that botany is no longer taught in schools unless your kids are lucky enough (as mine are) to go to a Forest School where they foster a broad interest in the natural world. Botany is no longer an option in higher education either – there is no longer a BSc in botany available anywhere in Britain – and there is little value or prominence attached to learning field ID skills within most natural science higher degrees.
But possibly more fundamental than this, in an age of TV and social media, is the overwhelming focus on birds and mammals, with a supporting cast of amphibians, bats and insects. Like most naturalists I am an avid consumer of SpringWatch and AutumnWatch – they are touchstones for wildlife lovers and safe places for us to indulge our nerdy passions and obsessions. Both programmes are always educational, inspiring and superbly presented by Chris, Michaela, Iolo and co. But where oh where are the wildflowers? In years of watching I have seen 100s of blue tits fledge but I’ve never seen a sundew devour an insect. So it’s really encouraging to see the young botanist, Joshua Styles, given the opportunity recently to talk about carnivorous plants on Channel 4 – to my mind the most innovative channel in terms of new content. And to give the SpringWatch team credit where it’s due, there has been some excellent coverage of wildflowers on the programme since the infamous tweet.
I will continue watching the BBC’s coverage because I’m passionate about all our wildlife. I just wish the media could extend a little more favour towards our wildflowers. Let’s face it, they are the biofuel that keeps our great British wildlife going.
So as the furore dies down and Twitter moves on to pastures new, please give a thought to all the “angry botanists” banging on about whether something is native or not and why we should really manage our road verge vegetation better. These things really do matter, as does the fate of our most graceful and precious moorland raptor – the Hen Harrier.
To quote Edinburgh Spotlight who kicked this all off – “every day a school day!”. As a home-schooling parent during lockdown, I completely agree. Right, better get home in time for the first lesson.