Air pollution is having a devastating impact on plant diversity

  • Air pollution is not only a public health issue – it’s also driving a dramatic loss of plant diversity, pushing many wildlife habitats into critical condition
  • Plantlife report reveals 90% of sensitive habitats in England and Wales are suffering from excess nitrogen
  • Dr Trevor Dines: Nitrogen deposited from the air may present a 'far more immediate threat' than climate change to wild plants, lichens and fungi
  • 'Thuggish' plants such as nettles that flourish with high levels of nitrogen are overpowering the UK’s rare and endangered wild plants
  • Over a third (37%) of our flowering plants prefer low nutrient conditions and are therefore at threat from increasingly nitrogen-rich, high nutrient conditions

Atmospheric nitrogen deposition is silently ravaging our plant communities and the precious habitats they underpin, says Plantlife, Europe's largest charity dedicated to wild flowers and other flora, in We Need to Talk About Nitrogen, a report launched today.

The report, which is backed by the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, RSPB, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, the British Bryological Society, the British Lichen Society, Flora Locale, SEI, and Chester Zoo, spells out how tackling the destructive impact of atmospheric nitrogen deposition on plants and ecosystems is one of the greatest challenges faced in nature conservation.

Nitrogen deposition takes place when nitrogen emissions from transport, power stations, farming and industry – mainly emitted as nitrogen oxides and ammonia - are deposited back into the natural environment directly from the air or in rain.

The report highlights that 90% of all nitrogen-sensitive habitats in England and Wales – such as heathlands, acid grasslands and sand dunes - are receiving deposition at higher levels than they can tolerate. Across the whole of the UK, the figure stands at 63%. As a result, low nitrogen plants are declining. Over a third (37%) of our flowering plants prefer low nutrient conditions and are therefore at threat.

Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife's Botanical Specialist, said:

"It is hard to exaggerate what a destructive impact nitrogen deposition is having on our wild flowers and other flora, fungi, and ecosystems more broadly. Put simply, this report reveals that nitrogen deposition may present a far more immediate threat to semi-natural habitats than even climate change.

"As the first flush of warm weather sees the countryside and waysides greening up, all may seem as it should but look more closely and the truth is a little different. Nettles, hogweed and hemlock - 'thuggish' species that thrive in soil steeped in excess nitrogen - are drowning out rare and more vulnerable wild plants who can only survive in less nutrient-rich soil.

"The negative impact of poor air quality on human health is, rightly, increasingly well-documented and it is now incumbent on us to ring the alarm bell for nitrogen deposition. We are force-feeding the natural world a diet of nutrient-rich junk food and it is having a devastating impact. Once diverse habitats are becoming monotonous green badlands where only the thugs survive and other more delicate plants are being bullied out of existence."

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We need to talk about Nitrogen...

Nitrogen in the air is one of the greatest threats to our wild plants, lichens and fungi, yet few people have even heard about it.

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