Decline of Scotland’s Ancient Arable Wildflowers

“We should be concerned about losses to British native plant diversity for the simple reason that it decreases the richness and variety of a countryside that has developed over thousands of years.” – Dr Oliver Pescott,UKCEH plant ecologist

Our wild plants are in serious decline. Since the middle of the last century changes in the way we farm and the loss of natural habitats has resulted in just over half our native plants such as heather and harebell declining in distribution since the 1950s.

The new Plant Atlas 2020, which is based on 30 million records collected by almost 9,000 botanists over the past 20 years, has been produced by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). 

Of the 3,445 different plant species recorded, 1,692 are native to Britain and 1,753 non-native. Most of the non-native species, many of which have been deliberately or accidentally introduced into the wild by humans, are benign, though some such as New Zealand Pigmyweed and Sitka Spruce have become invasive, outcompeting native plants in some locations. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

UKCEH plant ecologist Dr Oliver Pescott, carried out analysis of trends based on the records. He said:

“We should be concerned about losses to British native plant diversity for the simple reason that it decreases the richness and variety of a countryside that has developed over thousands of years.

“Thanks to the dedication of thousands of volunteers who spend many hours every year collecting valuable data on plants, scientists are able to provide the essential evidence base to highlight that action is needed and to support conservation efforts.”

The situation in Scotland is just as concerning.

Matt Harding, BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) Scotland Officer, said:

“Nitrogen enrichment, habitat degradation and changes in grazing pressure have led to the decline of many species in Scotland. Damp meadows have been drained, leading to long-term declines in plants such as Globeflower and Grass-of Parnassus, and traditional grasslands have been reseeded or over-fertilised, resulting in declines for species such as Moonwort and Sheep’s Sorrel.

“The decline of our ancient arable wildflowers is particularly concerning, with 66% of these species such as Corn Marigold decreasing in range in Scotland over the last 70 years. This is primarily due to arable intensification, but also to the abandonment of small-scale cropping around crofts in northern and western Scotland.”

heather and grasses on the maritime heath at Yesnaby Orkney
Yesnaby, Orkney

Climate change is likely to be the primary cause of decline of some Scottish mountain plants, such as Alpine Lady-fern and Alpine Speedwell.

Matt continued:

“These species depend on areas where the snow lies late in the spring and summer, and reducing snow cover linked to climate change is impacting them. For example, nearly the entire British population of Snow Pearlwort occurs on Ben Lawers in Perthshire, where half of all known colonies have disappeared over the last 40 years, mainly due to competition from warmth-loving species.”

Scotland’s peat bogs and moorlands will be essential as we strive to combat climate change, but these habitats are being impacted by species such as Sitka Spruce, the most frequently planted non-native commercial forestry species in Britain.

a wide spread of wildflowers in the Flow Country with in the far distance wind farms
The Flow Country

Matt added:

“Sitka Spruce had the greatest increase in range of any species covered by Plant Atlas 2020. Its ability to regenerate successfully on peaty soils that are vital for native biodiversity and carbon sequestration means that future planting will need to be carefully managed to ensure that these important peatland habitats are protected.”

Key conclusions from the report include:
•    Damp meadows have been drained, leading to substantial declines in plants such as Devil’s-bit Scabious
•    Agricultural intensification has led to substantial declines in plants associated with arable crops, with an estimated 62 per cent of our ancient arable wildflowers such as Corn Marigold having declined in distribution.
•    Many native mountain plants such as Alpine Lady-fern, Alpine Speedwell and Snow Pearlwort, which depend on areas where the snow lies late in the spring and summer, have declined in distribution due to climate change, but some southern species such as Bee Orchid have benefited and spread further north.

UKCEH has created a website, hosted by the Biological Records Centre (BRC), for the new atlas. BRC, based at UKCEH, supports biological recording for a wide range of species, and analyses distribution trends derived from these large-scale, long-term datasets.

  • The Plant Atlas 2020 website features information about 3,495 native and introduced plant species
  • Interactive maps display frequency and distribution at a variety of scales.
  • The website provides photo galleries to help you identify that plant, information on flowering times and summarises trends – whether the plant is on the increase or in decline.

Dr Kevin Walker, BSBI Head of Science and Plant Atlas 2020 co-author, said:

“There’s lots we can do to reverse these declines, but the most important are to increase the protection plants receive, extend the habitat available to them, and to place their needs at the very heart of nature conservation. We also need to ensure that our land, water and soil are managed more sustainably so that plants, and the species which rely upon them for food and shelter, can thrive. Plant Atlas 2020 provides the evidence we need to do this important work, but we’ll need even more research and monitoring to help better conserve our wild plants and their vitally important habitats in the decades to come”.

The replanting at Crask, lots of wildflowers emerging , notice board explaining what is happening
Crask – in the Flow Country

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