One man’s sting is an­other’s net­tle soup

Country Life Every Week - - Country Life -

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nod­ding vi­o­let grows, Quite over-canopied with lus­cious wood­bine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglan­tine

For how much longer might we take for granted the same wild flora that Shake­speare knew? A re­port re­leased by the cam­paign­ing con­ser­va­tion char­ity Plantlife sug­gests there is yet an­other en­vi­ron­men­tal threat with which to keep our­selves awake at night: at­mo­spheric nitro­gen—‘the “ele­phant in the room” of na­ture con­ser­va­tion,’ it says.

The sub­ject poses co­nun­drums for all of us who cher­ish Bri­tain’s uniquely var­ied land­scapes. It con­cludes that more than twothirds of our wild flow­ers are threat­ened by in­creased soil fertility from air­borne pol­lu­tion; hun­grier plants such as net­tles, cleavers and hem­lock could take over from more del­i­cate things such as hare­bells.

Cer­tainly, one per­son’s meat is an­other’s poi­son. Al­though deadly hem­lock fa­mously fin­ished off Socrates, a va­ri­ety of in­sects can graze its flow­ers. Net­tles sting vi­ciously, but feed nu­mer­ous crea­tures, in­clud­ing lar­vae of pea­cock, red ad­mi­ral and small tor­toise­shell but­ter­flies. Cling­ing cleavers, or stick­y­weed, isn't easy to love as it tena­ciously hooks onto cloth­ing and pet fur, but ad­her­ents of the now pop­u­lar coun­try­side pas­time of for­ag­ing seek it out, along with net­tles, as a nu­tri­tious cooked veg­etable.

‘Trans­port, power sta­tions, in­dus­try, farm fer­tilis­ers and live­stock are all ma­jor sources of nitro­gen ox­ides and am­mo­nia emis­sions,’ ad­vises the re­port. ‘De­posited di­rectly from the air and in rain, the nitro­gen en­riches the soil, cre­ates acidic con­di­tions and causes di­rect damage to frag­ile ecosys­tems.’

This isn’t new; the con­cept of ‘acid rain’ has been ob­served since the 1850s and acted upon here for the past half-cen­tury. Euro­pean lev­els of at­mo­spheric re­ac­tive nitro­gen ap­pear to have tripled in the past 100 years, but, since 1990, there have been sub­stan­tial falls in emis­sions, which are fore­cast to con­tinue de­creas­ing. Am­mo­nia emis­sions are largely un­changed and pre­dicted to re­main sta­ble. This is not a sig­nal for com­pla­cency, but it shows that ef­forts to re­duce their im­pacts have been work­ing.

re­ports such as Plantlife’s con­firm how del­i­cate our trea­sured coun­try­side habi­tats re­ally are, but, cru­cially, a Brex­ited Bri­tain must con­tinue to en­force what the strong arm (and hand­outs) of EU law achieved in the past two decades.

All habi­tats are sus­cep­ti­ble to changes in min­eral lev­els and al­ways were; their as­so­ci­ated flo­ras also ebb and flow as land­scape evolves ac­cord­ing to Na­ture’s own cy­cles.

The greater dan­ger is that, with a Gov­ern­ment fo­cused on build­ing over the coun­try­side to house, fur­nish and trans­port an in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion, pol­lu­tion of many kinds will also in­crease and flora and fauna will struggle to sur­vive.

Care­ful stew­ard­ship of our unique land­scapes must con­tinue and be pri­ori­tised, so that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions still know, first hand, that ‘daisies pied and vi­o­lets blue/ And lady-smocks all sil­ver-white/and cuck­oobuds of yel­low hue/do paint the mead­ows with delight’.

Pine­hurst II, Pine­hurst Road, Farn­bor­ough Busi­ness Park, Farn­bor­ough, Hamp­shire GU14 7BF Tele­phone 01252 555072 www.coun­trylife.co.uk

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