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The state of our arable landscape

Small-flowered catchfly © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

Small-flowered catchfly © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

The English 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.

On arable farmland, management intensification has probably gone further than anywhere else. Once familiar 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.

Plant declines are much greater than those which have received more attention and publicity. Skylark numbers have halved in the last 30 years but are now relatively stable. Cornflower numbers have declined by around 99% in 50 years and today are practically extinct as wild plants.

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' - offering environmentally sensitive land management - could work for the majority of them. It’s just that in its current form, Environmental Stewardship, it mostly doesn’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. The narrow and deep higher level scheme (HLS) –which really could make a substantial reversal to the fortunes of farmland flowers and the wildlife they support – simply doesn’t receive a high enough proportion of the funds available to make the difference it could.