Posted 6th Jul 2018 by Peter Byrne
The devastation of our meadows is leaving some of our favourite wild flowers, including wild strawberry, ragged robin and harebell at risk
Plantlife has warned some of our best-loved wild flowers are struggling and rapidly declining due to the eradication of our grasslands - including wildflower meadows, 97 per cent of which have been eradicated since the 1930s.
A wide number of traditional meadows and other grassland flowers, the majority of which were once widespread, now find themselves on the Near Threatened list in England, including quaking-grass, harebell, crosswort, wild strawberry, common rockrose, field scabious, hoary plantain, tormentil, ragged robin and devil's bit scabious.
In the run up to National Meadows Day tomorrow (7 July), Plantlife has highlighted the devastating impact that the decline of these flowers is having on wildlife.
The dip of wild strawberry, field scabious and devil's-bit scabious proved to be a point of concern, as they act as the plant food for 51, 26 and 25 invertebrate species respectively.
These include the rare Cistus forester moth, the small bloody-nosed beetle and marbled white butterfly.
Another meadow mainstay, Bird's-foot trefoil is a food plant for an amazing 160 species of insect yet is also declining.
A healthy wildflower meadow will be home to a concentrated and unique diversity of flowers, sometimes numbering over 140 species. 38 of the 52 native meadows and grassland orchids include some that are becoming increasingly rare, the military, monkey and greater butterfly orchids.
However, meadows are more than just pretty flowers, acting as an unrivalled haven for wildlife. Over 1,370 species will eat our most common meadow plants, as do an army of pollinating bees, butterflies and hoverflies, while the soil pulsates with ants, fungi, worms and beetles.
The Marsh fritillary butterfly will almost exclusively feed on devil's-bit scabious, which lives or dies based on the prospects of its plant food.
Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife Botanical Specialist, said: "The steady, quiet, and under-reported decline of our meadows is one of the biggest tragedies in the history of UK nature conservation; if over 97% of our woodland had been destroyed there’d be a national outcry. There exists a very real threat that we will lose our remaining meadows and the wealth of wildlife they underpin unless we learn to love, cherish and protect them.
"People tie themselves to trees as the chainsaws arrive, but nobody lies down amongst meadow buttercups in protest at the ploughing up of ancient meadows. But the vanishing of our species-rich grassland must be opposed and countered unless we are to slip into a thoroughly nature-depleted landscape where the wilds things are lost, and where the only strawberries children know are those boxed in plastic in the supermarket aisles."
Plantlife is at the forefront of saving, restoring and creating the meadows, successfully restoring over 9,000 hectares of meadow and grassland across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland between 2014 and 2017, as part of their Save Our Magnificent Meadows partnership.
However, much more still needs doing, with Plantlife and the Magnificent Meadows partnership launching a grasslands action plan, which is calling for proper protection, along with large-scale restoration to save our meadows, coupled with the myriad of benefits they bring, including carbon storage, flood prevention, water purification and crop pollination.
Under the plan, a clarion call to "Protect, Love and Restore" meadows, Plantlife and partners is calling for:
- 120,000 hectares (just under a quarter) of the government's pledged 25 year target to create half a million hectares of new wildlife-rich habitat to be aimed at restoring flower-rich grassland habitats and government support for communities, farmers and charities to play their part.
- Explicit legislative protection - the scarcity of wildflower meadows has seen 75 per cent occur in small fragments and remains vulnerable to destruction. This should be recognised and given the same protection as other heritage, including ancient woodlands.
- Meadows mapping: the establishment of a national inventory of species-rich grasslands alongside the Ancient Woodland Inventory.
Dines said: "Given that a fifth of all priority species for conservation action are associated with grassland habitats it is absolutely essential that we get serious about creating and restoring meadowlands. 120,000 more hectares - just half a percent of UK land cover - is achievable with government support and can deliver a tremendously positive impact for nature. Plantlife and the Magnificent Meadows partnership have already made a start and are committed to working with governments and others across the UK to make this a reality".
He added: "It is only through connecting with nature that people can begin to fully value its full worth and attending a National Meadows Day event (5) is a great way to explore and enjoy the petalled paradise that is a blooming meadow in high summer. We mustn't forget meadows' special place in our shared social and cultural history, a natural tapestry that is as much a part of our heritage as the works of William Shakespeare and David Hockney."
Image left: Jonty Sale / Plantlife; image right: Martin Down Wilts / Plantlife