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Red Alert: Wales poppy declining

Poppies are our symbol of remembrance, but these iconic wildflowers are now facing their own battles.

June 19 2014

Under threat? Prickly Poppy © Jason Ball/Sheepdrove Farm

Under threat? Prickly Poppy © Jason Ball/Sheepdrove Farm

Plantlife’s Farmland Report for Wales reveals how the poppy is under threat, whilst 27 species of farmland flowers in Wales have become extinct. 

As Wales prepares to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the sad fact is that some of our much loved red poppies now belong to the fastest declining group of plants.  Wales farmland is rapidly becoming the domain of a few species where once there was abundant diversity, with increased intensification resulting in wild flowers such as prickly poppy and rough poppy being squeezed out of the landscape:

And on that Farm he had NO flowers…….ei ei o!

  • Of the 1,467 flowers in the Welsh flora, 302 are considered to be threatened with extinction, the majority (95%) are found on farmland and, as they disappear, so the colour is wiped from our countryside.
  • Across Wales we are losing species that have been locally present for centuries. In the worst affected Welsh counties, one species is lost nearly every other year. For example shepherd’s-needle has declined by 96%, and is now practically extinct!
  • 75% of arable land across Wales was lost between the 1930’s and 1990’s resulting in  cornfield flowers such as corn buttercup, large-flowered hemp-nettle and small-flowered catchfly are now highly endangered.
  • Hay meadows are home to flowers such as butterfly orchids, eyebrights, wood bitter-vetch, whorled caraway and globeflower, yet there are only 1,700 hectares left in Wales

Agri environment schemes are the equivalent of a welfare state for our wildflowers and wildlife but did you know that:

  • Less that 3% of threatened Welsh heathland is supported by Glastir
  • Across Wales just 5 ha of land has the most effective management for threatened cornfield flowers, that’s equivalent of just one small field!
  • Under Glastir Entry the equivalent of 9240 rugby pitches of land can be fertilised at levels damaging to wild plants and fungi.

Report author, Dr Trevor Dines says “When the First World War broke out, farmland flowers like poppies and corn marigolds were abundant across Wales.  Today they are still amongst our most loved species but now belong to our most threatened group of flowers. The vast majority of our arable land has either been turned into improved pasture or managed much more intensively. Small pockets of farmland flowers including small-flowered catchfly and cornflower, still survive so there is hope of a revival.  Lowland flower-rich meadows, once part of every farm, are sliding towards extinction with the loss of plants like lesser butterfly orchid, field gentian and waxcap fungi. Around our western coastal headlands, the impressive physical geography is still there but much of the botanical richness is gone. Plants of acid heathland including chamomile and yellow century are nearing extinction."

"It is clear that we need to target the existing resources more effectively.  What’s important is not how widely programme money is distributed or simply a game of numbers around how many farmers are involved, it’s how effective the scheme is at achieving its purpose – giving wildlife the opportunity to thrive in productive, farmed landscapes. We hope the Assembly government will focus the scheme on the wild plants that underpin all our ecosystem services, such as pollination and flood control.  The good news is that if we put wild plants and fungi at the very heart of policy, they are the building blocks for the environment and, if we secure their future, nature as a whole can start to recover.”

The following recommendations will ensure an agri-environment scheme that’s fit for purpose:

1. Management options are the crux of any scheme. They must achieve their aim and be flexible so they can be tailored to the needs of individual farms. Some options are actually damaging to plants and fungi. 

2. A diversity of management leads to a diversity of wildlife. A publicly-funded agri-environment scheme should deliver a more diverse and resilient landscape and encourage a greater diversity of habitats on individual farms.

3. We need to target the existing resources more effectively to deliver real benefits for wild plants and fungi in specific areas, such as Important Plant Areas (IPAs).

4. Personal support for farmers must be provided by well-trained advisors.

5. Payments must encourage the uptake of options and must be financially viable.

David and Holly Harries own Somerton Farm in Pembrokeshire, a small permanent grassland holding  which supports a whole host of wildlife including dragonflies, many butterfly and bumblebee species,  breeding birds including skylark and linnet, as well as otters, polecats and grass-snakes. Both the permanent grassland and waxcap-grassland assemblage are considered by Natural Resources Wales as being of SSSI quality.

The Harries were in the former Tir Gofal scheme from 2000 to 2013, but towards the end of that period faced a very worrying time not knowing if they would be offered entry into the Glastir Advanced programme. Eventually, after an appeal and much lobbying, they were invited to join the scheme which provides 5 more years support for their farming practices which ensure that wildlife continues to thrive on their farm.

“This potential lack of continuity - falling off a well established and effective scheme into a black hole of uncertainty regarding substantive agri-environment support - provides no basis for future planning. Will farms such as ours continue to survive without this support? Many farmers may have no option but to fertilize the pastures and increase stocking levels. Others may change direction and abandon farming to allow more commercially minded farmers to take over the land. We have been working for over 13 years to enhance the biodiversity across our farm but our achievement may be lost if the support which has underpinned our work to establish and maintain traditional farming systems is withdrawn. Wildlife conservation requires commitment."