Air pollution is ravaging plantlife

Dr Trevor Dines

Dr Trevor Dines

Plantlife Botanical Specialist

12th March 2017

The negative impact of poor air quality on human health is, thankfully, increasingly well-documented. Not only does air pollution contribute to thousands of early deaths, it also compromises the health of people suffering from ailments like asthma and hay fever. So we all should breathe a sigh of relief that more moves are afoot to better tackle the silent killer that is air pollution.

However the blight that is air pollution is, sadly, much more than just a public health issue. Flying largely beneath the radar is the devastating impact air pollution is having on plants and the habitats and wildlife they underpin.

It is no exaggeration to say that an excess of nitrogen deposited from the air is pushing many wildlife habitats in to critical condition. In a report released today by Plantlife we reveal that a staggering 90% of sensitive habitats in England and Wales are suffering from excess nitrogen.

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. And the results of nitrogen build-up are hugely damaging to biodiversity. 'Thuggish' plants - such as nettles - that flourish with high levels of nitrogen are overpowering many of the UK’s rare and endangered wild plants, who simply cannot survive in such nutrient -'rich' soil.

As the countryside greens up this Spring the impacts of nitrogen deposition are clear for all to see; you don't need to venture far to see that nettles are running ever more rampant. In some areas once diverse habitats are becoming monotonous green badlands where only the nitrogen-guzzling thugs survive and other more delicate plants - such as harebells - are being bullied out of existence.

Our 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.

As it stands, we are force-feeding the natural world an unhealthy diet of nutrient-rich junk food and it is worsening the health of habitats. But, thankfully, there are workable solutions. Extracting excess nitrogen from soils is no mean feat but concerted action at national and international level to reduce long-range deposition can make a real difference. As can local action such as tree buffer belts that reduce or intercept emissions close to sensitive designated nature conservation sites.

It is now vital that landowners, industry and politicians come together to urgently address this mounting, and largely under-reported, problem. The very fabric of our countryside is changing under this rain of nitrogen and if the damage continues it will harm the ability of our most precious wildflower habitats to cope with other pressures such as climate change. Starting today, we really do need to talk about nitrogen.

Find out more:

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