The State of Nature

Dr Trevor Dines

Dr Trevor Dines

Plantlife Botanical Specialist

2nd December 2016

I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm in the rolling hills of the Hampshire downs.

Dad’s corn fields were full of poppies, or - as they were once called – the “thunder flowers” that heralded the arrival of summer storms. Up on Barrow Hill, Night-flowering Catchfly (Silene noctiflora) breathed its rich, clove scent into the air at dusk to attract pollinating moths. And then there was that long hot summer – full of hushed excitement and secrecy – when a Montague’s Harrier took up home in one of our fields (“Don’t tell anyone”, said my Dad, “or they might scare her away”).

But I also remember vividly the day when a steep little bank on our neighbours farm – a tiny fragment of ancient grassland - was ploughed into the ground. It was the only place I knew where an enchanting little orchid - Autumn Lady's-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) – grew. I just couldn’t see any rhyme or reason why this flowery bank had to be destroyed.

This sort of gradual attrition, though, - a field corner here, a small copse there - has been the story of our countryside for many decades. It’s a story of a death by a thousand cuts – each small act seemingly insignificant, but each one carving out a much bigger picture. The poppies shrank back to the field gateways, the Catchfly dwindled and the Montague’s Harrier never did return.

The truth presented in this State of Nature report is startling. This is a clarion call – a unified voice from our bugs, bees, birds, bats and bellflowers – that our countryside is in crisis:

  • Of nearly 4,000 species studied, 56% show a decline in the long term, and by that we mean since 1970 (now, I was 1 year old 1970, so this is within my own lifetime).
  • Over the same period, 213 of our Priority Species have declined by 67% in abundance and 35% in range.
  • And more than 1-in-7 of all our wild species are now threatened with extinction. Heartbreakingly, 142 species have already met this fate; Downy Hemp-nettle (Galeopsis segetum), Apple Bumblebee and Large Copper butterflies are some of those now extinct in the UK.

But if we look at smaller areas of land – such as individual counties – the rate of extinction is even higher. My mother grew up and now lives again in Northamptonshire – a county that includes your own constituency, Secretary of State for the Environment. In this county alone 103 wild flowers – including Meadow Saffron (Colchicum autumnale) and Lesser Butterfly-orchid (Platanthera bifolia) - have become extinct, making it the county with the second highest rate of plant extinction in England.

What is driving all this change in our wildlife? Taking evidence of both positive (green) and negative (red) effects on 400 species over the last 40 years, we can see which ‘drivers of change’ are most active:

Climate change is often thought to be the biggest threat, but, interestingly, the positive and negative effects are rather evenly balanced. We are seeing more southern species moving northward than northern and montane species declining. However, as our climate warms, this balance is likely to tip – a few weeks ago it was reported that Snow Pearlwort (Sagina nivalis), which grows on just a few peaks in the Scottish Highlands, has disappeared from half its sites since the 1980s.

There is, however, a much more profound and immediate threat. By far the biggest impact comes from our day-to-day treatment of our land. It’s these day-to-day actions – the intensive management of agricultural land, drainage, undergrazing, and the abandonment of woodlands – that lead to most losses.

Take a tractor and plough and an ancient wildflower meadow like this...

...can be destroyed within a single morning, with the loss of maybe 100 or more species of wildflowers.

Most have been replaced with this...

... intensively farmed pasture with just a handful of tough plants.

This quiet catastrophe has befallen over 97% of our wildflower meadows and grasslands since the 2nd World War. Pause for a moment to reflect on that figure – if I said that over 97% of our woodlands had gone there’d be a national outcry. It amounts to 7.5 million acres – and if you struggle to visualise that figure it equates to an area of meadow one and a half times the size of Wales.

I want to challenge this notion that ours is “green and pleasant” land. The increase in agricultural production, underpinned and driven by agricultural policy, has fundamentally changed our countryside.

As a boy, even as I was learning the names of the plants around me – Ragged-Robin and Venus’-looking-glass - I was aware of the herbicides ... the fertilizers .... and the insecticides that were being poured, spread and sprayed onto the fields. As Sir David Attenborough once put it so eloquently - we developed an “extraordinary expertise in destroying, poisoning and knocking down things”.

Where there were once flowers at our feet, there is now a factory floor - little more than green concrete. Yet, within one generation – we’ve come to accept this as... well... entirely acceptable.

This impact on our habitats cascades through the food chain. When our flowers go, so do the pollinators. When the leaves go, so do the caterpillars. When the seeds go, so do the finches that feed upon them. It always amazes me when people ask “Where are our birds? Where are our bees? And where are our butterflies?” My response is simple: “Where are the plants & flowers that sustain them?”

Ask any member of the public which of these they want – wildflower meadows or productive pastures, and I bet they actually want both. But the pendulum has swung too far over towards production – big agribusiness has won - and we need much more of a balance across our entire landscape – both wildlife and production, not one or the other.

So... what next? The State of Nature partnership has many of the solutions. And we know they work. Two of the best include creating new habitats – new flower-rich grasslands, new magnificent meadows and new wetlands - and the introduction of wildlife-friendly farming through agri-environment schemes.

We have very good evidence that well designed, well targeted and well funded agri-environment schemes do work. Wildlife can thrive thanks to public money being used for public good. And adequate funding is essential - as one farmer said, “you can’t do green when you’re in the red”. Many farmers want wildlife on their farms. They want to do the best they can and they want to achieve that balance. We need to do all we can to work alongside all farmers to encourage and support them.

This really is the crux of it. For all the doom and gloom of the statistics, our wildlife is opportunistic and resilient. If we provide them with the right conditions, they will come back from the brink.

Back on the farm in Hampshire, agri-environment schemes now mean that field margins are left unsprayed and unfertilized. The poppies and Night-flowering Catchfly have appeared again on Barrow Hill, springing up like buried treasure from the soil seed bank. We just have to give them a chance.

And so, Secretary of State... as these declines continue on what is now your watch, we offer you our support. We’re ready to work with you, just as we are with farmers and others, so that we can bring about real benefits for wildlife and people.

In these challenging times - you, me and we - all need...

  • A robust policy framework that genuinely supports the restoration of species, habitats and ecosystems, rather than simply handing over £3 billion a year to those fortunate enough to own land.
  • Our remarkable special sites - our most protected areas – to be looked after so that they really do brim with wildlife and help re-seed nature, rather than the 50% of SSSIs in the UK that are currently in unfavourable condition.
  • A holistic plan to deliver the truly landscape-level changes so that we all benefit from the services that nature provides, like flood prevention, carbon capture, and healthier and happier lives

Now, I'm going to finish with a little botanical quiz. Don't worry, it shouldn't be too challenging. Can you name any of the following?

Yes, that's right - they're bluebells, buttercups and conkers. Now, the Oxford Junior Dictionary – aimed at 7 year olds - has removed quite a few words from its most recent edition. These include the words “bluebell”, “buttercup” and “conker”.

They’ve been replaced with words that the OED have found to be used more often by children these days, words like “broadband”, “blog” and “chatroom”.

As a reflection on the State of Our Relationship With Nature, this speaks volumes. It says more to me than any statistic describing the decline of a species. And this isn’t the fault of a dictionary. It is our responsibility – each and every one of us - to do something about it.

Next spring, take your sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, grandchildren and godchildren into your local wood and show them the sheer joy of bluebells in all their glory. In the summer, take them into a meadow - put a buttercup under their chin – and see if they like butter. And this autumn – in the next few weeks - take them into your nearest park and have a good old fashioned conker fight with them.

And for once, let’s not just think about doing it, let’s all actually do it.

Because the future of our nature depends upon it.