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Can Wildflowers Make a Comeback?

by Nan Sykes

This article is reprinted with permission (with minor modifications) from the North York Moors Association magazine “Voice of the Moors”

Wildflowers in the past

After the glaciers and permafrost of the last ice age diminished some 10,000 years ago, the land we now know as north-east Yorkshire gradually greened over with mosses, ferns, sedges, flowering plants and eventually trees. More than 1,000 different species found a niche on our hills, dales and coast. Then some 6,000 years ago Britain’s land bridge to mainland Europe was cut by rising sea levels and further natural migration of continental plants ceased. The ebb and flow of climate change affected distribution and dominance of groups of plants but the overall diversity of species perhaps changed little until human settlers arrived and added more species to our flora, both accidentally and intentionally.

Thereafter, despite extensive land clearance and cultivation, human influence failed to diminish this botanical diversity. Even the drastic land changes brought about by the enclosure movement of the C18 and C19 had minimal impact as sufficient wildwood and wasteland persisted; age-old farming methods continued, and expectation of living standards, as evidenced by housing and transport, remained modest. Had a flora of land in today’s North York Moors National Park been compiled by the Romans in say 200AD the variety of species is likely to have been broadly similar to that of 1950. But a flora written today would reveal a different picture.

Wildflowers Today

The past 50 years have brought far-reaching changes of land use - new farming methods, conifer plantations, tarmac roads, extensive housing schemes, widespread use of chemicals and concrete, designer gardens. But what became of ‘wildness’ - the haunt of 1,000 wild plant species?

Through the middle decades of the C20 we did an excellent job of eliminating wildness. Garden centres mushroomed to enable us to plant new-found exotics in place of cottage flowers akin to those in nearby countryside; farm machinery, weed eliminators and intensive livestock systems produced a manicured farmland; untidy hedges were given ‘short top and sides’ uniformity; ancient woodland was felled to provide quick softwood crops; ever growing demand for more and better housing, services and roads absorbed spare land beyond the farmed environment; even the hallmark of our National Park - heather moorland - was found capable of being ‘improved’ i.e. destroyed in favour of a ryegrass sward. In half a century we succeeded in transforming a widespread and varied natural vegetation to a seriously fragmented and diminished vestige amidst an intensively manipulated landscape.

Increasingly from the 1970’s grew an awareness of the price we had paid in terms of lost wildflowers and all the birds, butterflies, insects and fauna which depend on them. Country lanes and roadside verges were no longer coloured by seasonal changes of wildflowers; lily-of-the-valley and wild columbine absent in modern woodland; cornflower and corn buttercup vanished completely from cornfields and gardens regarded as unkempt if a patch of butterfly-friendly nettles survived.

As public opinion moved towards dismay and alarm at the imbalance we had created, so also did the realisation of how difficult it would be to retrieve even a fraction of wildness. Local flora built up over two millennia had been degraded in decades, but its revival would be far more difficult. Tracts of unused wasteland no longer existed. Wildflowers simply had nowhere to go apart from coastal cliffs, a few disused quarries and the reserves which the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and other far-sighted persons had attained. Shrinking populations of wildflowers either vanished altogether or became too small to survive.

An early attempt to address the problem was contained in the Park authority’s farm, woodland and moorland conservation schemes, followed last year by a biodiversity audit. This revealed all too clearly the scale of the problem. Believed to have become extinct recently are burnt-tip orchid, field and marsh gentians, red hemp nettle, small white orchid, shepherd’s needle, corn buttercup, cornflower, pillwort, jacob’s ladder and autumn lady’s tresses. Teetering on the edge of survival are several species including green winged orchid, marsh st. johnswort, bird’s nest orchid, bee orchid, royal fern, mountain everlasting and gromwell. Only one or two small populations remain of venus’ looking glass, night flowering catchfly, meadow saxifrage, yellow star-of- Bethlehem, frog orchid, fly orchid and broad leaved helleborine. These plants - together with their invertebrate and bird associates - used to be spread widely in grassland, deciduous woods or on farmland, hedgerows and byways unlike other groups which at their geographical limit were always rare in these parts.

Restoration schemes

Obviously for any of these species to make a comeback their appropriate habitats have to be re-created, but in our intensively used landscape where is that to be found? Farmland may provide some with countryside stewardship schemes now including an option to manage cereal field margins for arable wildflowers and seed- eating birds. Grassland needs complex measures to re-create herb rich swards and wet pasture needs to be engineered to attract marshland plants, but a start has been made to tackling the immense challenge of re- wilding at least some of our landscape. At this stage schemes are focused on land in commercial use which inevitably means the marketable crop takes priority over wildflowers, added to which the seed resource on most of this land is now seriously depleted.

To make significant impact on wildflowers in the Park it is likely that land will have to be designated primarily for that function. On Ellerburn Bank and Ashberry Pasture (both Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserves) stock grazing is managed for the benefit of the plants - a reverse of normal farming practice. Finance then becomes the main issue. Can government/European money be obtained? Can such land become a tourist attraction sufficient to pay its way? Should we learn from African states which “sell” the sight of elephant and rhino in order to sustain them? Yorkshire Dales National Park has managed to retain flower-rich hay meadows which draw many visitors to the area. In our own Park we have a major attraction with Farndale daffodils, and perhaps the time has come for more wildflower-based tourist schemes.

Considerable resources are put into sustaining the heather moorland both for its flora and fauna, and as a recreational resource for visitors - but how many people have seen the insectivorous plants (sundew and butterwort), the exquisite cranberry, bog pimpernel, bog asphodel and other mysteries of a moorland flush? In lime-rich grassland rockrose, viper’s bugloss, marjoram, orchids and felwort would provide a colourful attraction. A streamside walk with clumps of ragged robin, marsh marigold, sneezewort and fleabane would be a novel family outing. The possibilities are endless if financial backing could be combined with enterprise and allocation of appropriate land.

While commercialised viewing of some re-created habitats could make an important contribution, along with farm schemes supporting less intensification, there are other ways in which many of us could help. We need to balance tidiness with wildness. From TV screens and shops, regulations and adverts we are cajoled towards achieving the ultimate sanitized appearance - anything less is inefficient if not downright slovenly. Garden centres offer endless equipment to get rid of the last weed in our paths, leaves on the lawn, self-sown seedlings in the border; fields cultivated from edge to edge epitomise good farming; churchyards and public places with rough grassland are deemed unkempt. But wildlife will flourish only in the right environment, be it street or moor, garden or farm, churchyard, school grounds or road verge, and that means abandoning our ‘tidiness at any price’ philosophy. By keeping the sprayer off those awkward field corners, by not cutting churchyards away from path sides; by joining parish schemes to protect road verge wildflowers, by creating a wild area in our gardens we can help greatly to restore a little bit of the wildness we have lost.

Although restoration of appropriate habitat and management are essentials for re-wilding, a herb-rich habitat cannot evolve without seed resource and sadly, this is now lacking in much ground after decades of chemical spraying. Those species which are still widespread and whose seeds are spread on the wind or on animal fur and birds’ feet are likely to colonise suitable ground of their own accord. But most ‘at risk’ species with small isolated populations, and certainly those believed to be locally extinct, will need manual introductions of native and as far as possible local seed or plants. For our rare wildflowers to survive, let alone increase their populations, they will need all the help we can give them. A mere fraction of the resources we poured into getting rid of them would go a long way towards their recovery.

Have any readers further suggestions to help with re-wilding our landscape?

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