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The British countryside has lost its wildlife at an alarming rate and to a terrible extent. Agricultural intensification and specialisation have simplified the farmed landscape and made it the domain of a few species where once there was abundant diversity. But it doesn't have to be this way. Below we look at how our wild flowers are faring in England, Scotland and Wales - what the problems are, what can be done to fix them and some examples of farmers who have done just that.
A walk through most of our farmed countryside today is a dispiriting experience - it’s certainly green but where has the colour gone? Lowland meadows are sliding towards extinction. Once part of every farm, they are now no longer part of the living fabric of the countryside but instead exist as tiny enclaves of flower-rich beauty in a sea of industrial grassland – bright patches amongst what might as well be, botanically, green concrete. In the uplands, traditionally managed hay meadows are now few and far between.
As you travel through National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty such as the Lake District, the Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales, the skeleton of dry stone walls and the impressive physical landscape are still there but much of the botanical richness is gone. On arable farmland, management intensification has probably gone further than anywhere else. Once familiar cornfield flowers are now of conservation concern, with species such as corn buttercup and small-flowered catchfly going from ‘weed’ to ‘rarity’ in just a few decades.
However, it doesn’t have to be an inexorable decline. Farmland plants underpin the natural systems that support the growth of the rural economy and agri-environment could work for the majority of them. It’s just that in its current form, Environmental Stewardship, it mostly hasn’t. The design of the two-tiered scheme has resulted in a high uptake of the broad and shallow Entry Level Scheme (ELS) by farmers. Yet, despite the hundreds of millions of pounds of public money which has gone into it, ELS, as currently implemented has resulted in little real ecological gain for the majority of our threatened farmland flora. 80% of threatened lowland meadow flowers are not supported by ELS options nor are 72% of threatened upland meadow flowers.
The Higher Level Scheme (HLS) is more "narrow and deep" and really could make a substantial difference to the fortunes of farmland flowers and the wildlife they support but needs to receive a greater proportion of the funds available to make the difference it could. This is what Plantlife is campaigning for.
- And on That Farm... read our full report for England
- Case study: How one farmer in the Dales used the HLS to bring wildlife back to his fields
- Entry Level Stewardship: fit for purpose?
- Higher Level Stewardship: ecological hero?
At first glance, the situation north of the border does not appear as dire as in England: Scotland’s countryside is still home to the braiding of field margins with poppies, cornflowers and chamomile, to hay meadows of buttercup, cranesbill and rare northern bedstraw and to hedgerows vibrant with hawthorn, black-thorn, dog rose and honeysuckle.
But that does not mean that all is well. Agricultural intensification and specialisation are in danger of simplifying this farmed landscape and making it the domain of fewer species where once there was abundant diversity.
Our wild flowers and plants support an extraordinary diversity of pollinators, birds and mammals. Flowers, including bird’s-foot trefoil (which supports 132 invertebrates, such as burnet moths and small blue butterfly) and common knapweed (which supports 67 invertebrates), are part of our productive landscapes. As well as supporting pollinators, our native flora also contributes to flood control and clean soil and water. Without wild plants, our productive lands could not be productive.
Scotland’s farmers, however, are not in a position to farm for free and the wildlife benefits we want to see need to be paid for. Agri-environment schemes are the only mechanism to do this. Worryingly, these cannot deliver the environmental priorities we, in Scotland, have set. To date, only 18% of the Rural Development programme funding is spent on agri-environment. The rest goes to rural infrastructure and Less Favoured Area Support payments. And of agri-environment scheme funding in 2011–2012, just under 15% was approved for options that could benefit plants and fungi in enclosed production lands. The actual benefit of this spend for plants and fungi has never been measured.
Things could be better. We still have it in our grasp to change the future for Scotland’s remaining ‘bonnie gems’. Browse the links below to find out what can be done and how we can do it.
- And On That Farm... Read our full report for Scotland
- Case study: How Treshnish Farm went from overgrazed pasture to a prized "Coronation Meadow"
- Five things we need to get the best for Scotland's wild farmland flora
- The Future of Scottish Agriculture: our vision
Wales is a land of grass. Most of our upland and lowland landscapes are dominated by verdant green fields; indeed, 83% of our farmed landscape is permanent pasture or rough grazing.
Whilst this rich green landscape appears pleasant, it has, in effect, become a factory floor – ploughed, re-seeded, fertilised and sprayed with herbicide to maximise productivity. Just as our flower-rich meadows have gone, so have our flower-rich cornfields. Over the last 60 years, 75% of arable land was converted to pasture; Anglesey, for example, is no longer regarded as the “bread-basket of Wales”. The remaining cornfields are so intensively managed they have lost all their colour.
These changes could be seen as inevitable and irreversible – the world needs feeding and concerns over food security encourage ever greater agricultural intensification and specialisation. Yet we do have choices about the way we farm.
Plant declines are much greater than other wildlife which has received more attention and publicity. Yellowhammers have declined by 40% in the past 20 years but are now relatively stable. By contrast, shepherd’s-needle has declined by 96% in 50 years and today is practically extinct as a wild flower.
However, it doesn’t have to be an inexorable decline. Agri-environment could work for the majority of farmland plants – it’s just that in its current form it mostly hasn’t. Lessons from the Tir Gofal scheme, which showed that high-quality management options targeted at the right places can deliver real benefits for plants, have not always been adopted in the new Glastir scheme.
Agri-environment schemes like Tir Gofal and Glastir could have led to a considerable regeneration of farmland plants, with good uptake and many of the right management options for some plants like cornfield flowers. However, their impact has been minor as the right options have low uptake in the right places. We are in the crux of change with the fledgling Glastir under review and the new Common Agricultural Policy budget due to start this year. This is the opportune moment to decide how we manage our countryside and wildlife for the future.
Without the wink of pheasant’s eye or the smile of milkmaids, our insects and birds have declined, leaving a countryside that is not only monochrome, but also silent. Plantlife Cymru urges the Welsh Government to ensure that the right management is targeted at the right locations and at the right degree of scale to successfully maintain and enhance our farmland flowers for the future.
- And on that farm... read our full report for Wales.