Mapping cornfield flowers

Our cornfield flowers – the familiar annuals of wheat, barley and oat crops - include some of the most threatened plants in Britain. Since the introduction of intensive farming practises, many have declined to the point of extinction. Against this backdrop, it’s essential that we know what’s left growing in our fields.

Cultivated arable fields account for 30% of all agricultural land in the UK, totalling 4.5 million hectares. With their annual cycle of ploughing, cropping and harvesting, only plants well adapted to this environment can survive. Over 160 different species of plant make such land their home, often growing together to form distinctive communities:

  • Fields on lime-rich chalk soils in southern England often support the richest flora, with Dense-flowered Fumitory (Fumaria densiflora), Rough Poppy (Papaver hybridum) and Red Hemp-nettle (Galeopsis angustifolia).
  • In western Wales, more acidic soils on shale support Small-flowered Catchfly (Silene gallica), Annual Knawel (Scleranthus annuus) and Corn Marigold (Gebionis segetum).
  • On heavier clay loam soils in central and southern England you can find Corn Buttercup (Ranunculus arvensis) growing with Shepherd’s-needle (Scandix pectin-veneris) and Field Penny-cress (Thlaspi arvense).

In order to help conserve these flowers, we need to know where they’re still growing. We have developed a method to compare the cornfield flowers of individual fields and farms, scoring those that support rare and threatened species more highly. The highest scoring sites are of international importance and are identified as Important Arable Plant Areas (IAPAs).

We are working with a range of partners in England and Wales to identify IAPAs and help direct agri-environment measures designed to conserve arable plants to these areas.

Our goals:

- map the distribution of threatened arable plants across National Character Areas in England.

- map the distribution of threatened arable plants across eight vice-counties in Wales (Anglesey, Caernarfonshire, Cardiganshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Glamorganshire, Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire).

- identify and map sites of county, national and international importance through the Important Arable Plant Area method.

- Communicate results to agencies responsible for the targeting and uptake of agri-environment scheme options to help conserve arable plants.

Under threat:

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)

Although widely sown in wildflower seed mixtures today, this is very rare as a genuine arable flower. It prefers light, sandy soils but is rarely abundant. Although more tolerant of fertilizer than other arable flowers, its large seeds are easily removed from those of the crop, contributing to its demise. Photo (c) Cath Shellswell.

Rough Poppy (Papaver hybridium)

The rarest of our cornfield poppies, this species has very distinctive small, carmine-red petals, each of which carries a black dot at the base. The seed pods are rounded and covered in bristles and a single plant can produce 1500 seeds. It is almost always found on chalk soils. Photo (c) Trevor Dines.

Small-flowered Catchfly (Silene gallica)

This small annual catchfly germinates in the autumn and is intolerant of low temperatures, seedlings being killed off below -10oC. Formerly scattered at sites throughout England and Wales, it is now more commonly encountered in coastal areas where it inhabits less intensively cultivated fields or disturbed areas of soil. Photo (c) Hans Hillewaert under Creative Commons License.

How's it going?

The mapping projects in England and Wales have now been completed and the results are available below:


- Download report providing information about how the mapping was undertaken.

- Important arable plants in the Cotswolds

- Important arable plants in the North Downs

- Important arable plants in the Hampshire Downs

- Important arable plants in the Mid-Somerset Hills

- Important arable plants in the Suffolk and Essex Claylands


- Download a summary report explaining the results of the mapping and recommendations.

- Download a full report containing the method and a detailed analysis of the mapping with recommendations for action.

Who are we working with?

Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland

Natural England (funder)

Natural Resources Wales

Welsh Government (funder)