Farming pushes common plants towards extinction

One in five plants that grow in the UK are now threatened, following intense farming and long-term pesticide use.

According to the Plant Red List for Great Britain, which has been published this week, there are now many plant species in rapid decline that were common not so long ago.

The main causes of this decline were identified as overgrazing, farming and development. The report also suggested that, while we had been successful as a nation in looking after our rarest plants, we had not been so good at preventing widespread species suffering severe declines.

"It is clear that we must focus our future efforts on halting and reversing the loss of previously common and familiar species," the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) stated in its report. "The diversity of our countryside is being constantly degraded as habitats are fragmented and the associated plants are lost."

"This goal can only be achieved through changing the policies for countryside management, but with our improved understanding, we can be optimistic that we know where to focus our efforts."

Everyday plant species now beginning to disappear from our countryside included basil thyme, corn spurrey, prickley saltwort and purple milk-vetch.

"I grew up seeing purple milk-vetch on the roadsides, but this is now, by and large, gone," plant advisor at the JNCC, Chris Cheffings, said. "Seeing these species being Red Listed is shocking, as it's no longer just those rare plants that you never saw anyway."

The survey covered all plants growing in the UK, including hybrids, and levels of threat facing each species were monitored and measured as either extinct, critically endangered, vulnerable or least concern.

Botanical advisor at English Nature, Simon Leach, said the new Red List was important because it was the first attempt at analysing the whole of the British flora in this way.

"We've become rather good at stopping rare plants from becoming extinct, but less good at stopping common plants from becoming less common," he explained. "We are hoping that agri-environmental schemes and other landscape-scale initiatives will help to arrest and reverse the decline of many of these species."

"The new Red List points to those that need the most urgent action."

By Jane Kettle



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