Bye-bye Poppy fields?

Ambitious conservation project underway to save England’s forgotten farmland flowers and wildlife.


Poppy field © Danny Beath/Plantlife

The poppy, one of the nation’s favourite wildflowers, is as iconic as the Brown Hare, Harvest Mouse and Skylark – endearing species we associate with England’s golden cornfields in summer. But did you know colourful cornfield flowers that characterised our farmland abundantly 100 years ago, are now the fastest declining group of wildflowers in the country and risk disappearing altogether if urgent action isn’t taken?

Farmland flowers have declined by a staggering 96% in the last 200 years, and are now critically endangered, and 7 species are now extinct

Over 120 wildflowers including Cornflowers and Corn Marigolds depend on our farmlands to survive; Unlike the familiar poppy, the majority are unheard of and neglected. But with the intensification of arable farming, techniques such as seed cleaning to remove any wildflower seed from crops and the growing use of selective herbicides over the last 50 years, they now require urgent action before they disappear from our English soil forever, taking with them our diverse farmland birds, insects and mammals.

  • Rare arable wildflowers with evocative names describing their original farmland connection, like Corn Buttercup, Broad-fruited Corn Salad, Small-flowered Catchfly and Pheasant’s-eye, each survive at fewer than 30 fields in the UK and are at risk of extinction by 2020
  • Farmland birds have declined By 54% since 1970, and seed-eating birds such as corn bunting have declined by 90% over the past 40 years, through lack of food
  • The Harvest Mouse now survives in scattered locations in England, having suffered a 70% decline at the end of the last century.

Urgent action is now underway to save these species and more.

The “Colour in the Margins” project is part of England’s biggest ever species conservation initiative called Back from the Brink. It sees Plantlife join forces with the RSPB, Kew, Buglife and other bodies to conserve our most threatened arable species. Thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and support from Natural England and Rethink Nature, the project team will work with 50 farmers to save 13 key species in 6 regions. The project will focus on nationally important, arable hotspots. From the warm, dry landscape of Breckland to the rich clay and shale soils of Cornwall and Devon, to the chalklands of Kent, where Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm Nature Reserve4 is one of the best places to see rare arable plants in the UK.

The arable habitat is special: It’s been directly shaped by farming practices over hundreds of years and supports a myriad of wildflowers that can lie dormant for generations but rely on the disturbance of ploughing to spring up and then need little input to flourish. Small changes may be all that’s required for arable wildflowers to thrive and reappear on our farmlands.

Plantlife project leader, Cath Shellswell, explains “We now have an excellent opportunity to work closely with farmers and land managers to restore England’s dwindling arable wildlife habitat; By making small adjustments like leaving corners and edges of a field uncut or unsprayed, or tweaking management regimes, will invite nature back in; It will encourage pollinators, which will in turn help increase crop production, provide vital food sources for small mammals as well as create important nesting habitats for birds – a project on this scale across England could make a real difference to conservation.

Plantlife’s Dr Trevor Dines says “I grew up on a large arable farm in Hampshire and remember showing dad some rare prickly poppies growing in a field gateway. Afterwards he was really proud of them and always left a few field margins unsprayed to encourage their spread. It’s deeply satisfying to return to the farm today and still be able to find these poppies - and many other cornfield flowers - growing in the unsprayed margins.”

Andrew Lingham, tenant farmer at Ranscombe Farm, Kent says “Enhancing diversity within margins increases predator species which helps with things like natural pest control within farming systems. Since managing the farm in this way, birds, insects and various predators are more numerous – the margins are providing food and shelter to enable these species to thrive”.

Marian Spain, Plantlife CEO, says “England has been an arable nation for millennia. Over 70% of our land is farmland of which over 30% is farmed for crops like wheat and barley, and we’re experts at cultivation. Yet somehow, we’ve failed to also care for the wildlife that depends on arable farming: Our arable wildflowers lead a marginal existence. The Back from the Brink partnership will show us the way to a future where arable wildlife thrives alongside a bountiful crop. Arable wildflowers such as Pheasant’s-eye and Corn Buttercup are an important part of our wildlife heritage and play an important place in our shared history, as well as being stunning beauties in their own rights. These plucky, tenacious flowers should be as much a part of our arable farmland as the crops they grow alongside”.

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Colour in the Margins

Encouraging arable wildlife in our landscapes.

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