#CleanAirDay: Air pollution is ravaging Wales' wildflowers and the wealth of wildlife they underpin
♦ Plant diversity nose-diving as soils become overly enriched with nitrogen
♦ 95% of farm ammonia emissions come from unregulated units in Wales
♦ Wales not on track to meet legally-binding 2020 clean air targets
♦ Regulation needed to curb expansion of unregulated dense clusters of polluting farm units
Air pollution is threatening environmental damage and wildlife loss across Wales, says a hard-hitting new report released today (21 June).
The Plantlife report, endorsed by a wide range of conservation organisations including the National Trust, WWF, Wildlife Trusts Wales, RSPB Cymru, Buglife, the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland, the British Lichen Society and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales raises particular alarm about rising ammonia emissions mostly from the boom in intensive poultry and dairy farming.
The report reveals that, out of whack with other emissions, ammonia emissions are steadily rising. Almost all of the ammonia emissions clouding the Welsh skies are from fertiliser use and intensive poultry and dairy farms that are increasingly popping up across rural Wales.
Ammonia, a colourless gas with a characteristic putrid smell, is not only directly damaging wildlife, but also human health – a fact which is only now beginning to be fully appreciated. Ammonia plays a major role in creating urban smog, as well as nitrogen deposition (5) that is rapidly decreasing plant diversity.
In Wales, 89.4% of sensitive wildlife habitat is already suffering from excessive nitrogen levels that are creating unnaturally nutrient-rich conditions. Given that almost 90% of Britain’s wildflowers prefer lower-nutrient soil this is having a devastating impact. Many rare and threatened wildflowers like harebell and bird's-foot trefoil are being crowded out of the countryside as a marauding gang of 'nitrogen guzzlers' such as bramble, stinging nettle and cow parsley outcompete their more delicate siblings. Welsh grasslands, woodlands, heaths and bogs have all become colonised by nitrogen-loving plants.
Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife Botanical Specialist, said: "Air pollution, much of it from intensive farming practices, is threatening wildlife. As nature's balance is being distorted by excess nitrogen we are seeing many wildflowers and the wildlife they support pushed to the edge of extinction. The knock-on effects of habitats overly enriched with nitrogen are chilling: marsh fritillary butterfly feed almost exclusively on Devil's-bit scabious, a plant that cannot survive in nitrogen-rich soil."
Plantlife is calling for urgent regulation to tackle the spiralling ammonia problem. Presently only the largest Welsh pig and poultry farms - those that house over 2,000 pigs or 40,000 poultry - come under direct regulation. Smaller yet often sizeable units are not obliged to apply for environmental permits and Plantlife is particularly concerned that dense clusters of these units that house many thousands of animals yet still fall under the threshold are cropping up and causing damage to nearby wildlife.
Dines added: "The ammonia problem has been flying below the radar for too long and it is high time real action was taken to stem the flow of this gas to protect people and wildlife. It's of great concern that, when 86% of emissions are known to come from farming, only the most intensive of pig and poultry farms are properly regulated. One need only look at how excess ammonia can turn lichens - historically an indicator of clean air - into sickly algal slime to know it is time to act.
"Current trends of rising ammonia demonstrate that government intervention is needed to strengthen regulation, monitoring and enforcement, as well as providing advice and support to farmers."
Simple measures such as slurry store covers and improved housing floor systems in farm units can dramatically reduce ammonia emissions. Without the rapid roll-out of such measures, the report warns that Wales will fail to cut 8% of ammonia emissions by 2020 and 16% by 2030 (compared with 2005), as required by the UK’s legally-binding targets under EU and international law. Emissions could even exceed the 1990 baseline, causing even greater damage to wildlife, people and our climate.