Some of our best-loved wild flowers including wild strawberry, ragged robin and harebell are declining markedly as a result of the devastation of grasslands including our wildflower meadows – 97% of which have been eradicated since the 1930s, says Plantlife, Europe’s largest charity dedicated to wildflowers and other flora.
Traditional meadows and other grassland flowers, many of which were once widespread, that are now on the Near Threatened list in England include quaking-grass, harebell, crosswort, wild strawberry, common rockrose, field scabious, hoary plantain, tormentil, ragged robin and devil’s bit scabious.
Ahead of National Meadows Day (7 July) Plantlife highlights that the decline of these flowers is having a devastating impact on the wildlife they underpin. The steep and steady decline of wild strawberry, field scabious and devil’s-bit scabious is particularly concerning as they are the plant food for 51, 26 and 25 species of invertebrates, respectively. Insects on the list include the rare Cistus forester moth, the small bloody-nosed beetle and marbled white butterfly. Bird’s-foot trefoil, another meadows mainstay experiencing decline, is, alone, a food plant for a staggering 160 species of insects.
Meadows’ unique value
A healthy wildflower meadow can play home to a concentrated and unique diversity of flowers – sometimes over 140 species. 38 of our 52 native British orchids of meadows and grassland include the increasingly rare military, monkey and greater butterfly orchids.
But meadows are much more than just pretty flowers. They are unrivalled havens for wildlife; over 1,370 species of insects eat our most common meadow plants, along with an army of pollinating bees, butterflies and hoverflies and a soil pulsating with ants, fungi, worms and beetles. The Marsh fritillary butterfly feeds almost exclusively on devil’s-bit scabious, so lives or dies according to the prospects of its food plant.
Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife Botanical Specialist, said: “The steady, quiet, and under-reported decline of our meadows is one of the biggest tragedies in the history of UK nature conservation; if over 97% of our woodland had been destroyed there’d be a national outcry. There exists a very real threat that we will lose our remaining meadows and the wealth of wildlife they underpin unless we learn to love, cherish and protect them.”
“People tie themselves to trees as the chainsaws arrive, but nobody lies down amongst meadow buttercups in protest at the ploughing up of ancient meadows. But the vanishing of our species-rich grassland must be opposed and countered unless we are to slip into a thoroughly nature-depleted landscape where the wilds things are lost, and where the only strawberries children know are those boxed in plastic in the supermarket aisles.”
Plantlife has been at the forefront of saving, restoring and creating meadows; between 2014 and 2017, Plantlife led the Save Our Magnificent Meadows partnership (4) that successfully restored over 9,000 hectares of meadow and grassland across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But we know much, much more needs to be done and Plantlife and the Magnificent Meadows partnership today launches a grasslands action plan calling for proper protection, and large-scale restoration to save meadows and the myriad of benefits they bring including carbon storage, flood prevention, water purification and crop pollination. Under the plan, a clarion call to “Protect, Love and Restore” meadows, Plantlife and partners is calling for:
Just under a quarter – 120,000 hectares – of the government’s pledged 25 year target to create half a million hectares of new wildlife-rich habitat to be targeted at restoring flower-rich grassland habitats and government support for communities, farmers and charities to play their part.
Explicit legislative protection
The scarcity of wildflower meadows – 75% occur in small fragments and remain vulnerable to destruction – should be recognised and afforded similar protection as other heritage, such as ancient woodlands.
Meadows mapping: the establishment of a national inventory of species-rich grasslands alongside the Ancient Woodland Inventory.
Commenting on the plan, Dines said: “Given that a fifth of all priority species for conservation action are associated with grassland habitats it is absolutely essential that we get serious about creating and restoring meadowlands. 120,000 more hectares – just half a percent of UK land cover – is achievable with government support and can deliver a tremendously positive impact for nature. Plantlife and the Magnificent Meadows partnership have already made a start and are committed to working with governments and others across the UK to make this a reality”
Re-connecting people with meadows is absolutely vital
Dines, himself a meadow-maker, added: “It is only through connecting with nature that people can begin to fully value its full worth and attending a National Meadows Day event is a great way to explore and enjoy the petalled paradise that is a blooming meadow in high summer. We mustn’t forget meadows’ special place in our shared social and cultural history, a natural tapestry that is as much a part of our heritage as the works of William Shakespeare and David Hockney.”