One man’s sting is another’s nettle soup
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