UK’S ‘rain of nitro­gen’ reaches crit­i­cal lev­els

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country -

ANEW study by Plantlife has re­vealed that air pol­lu­tion is not just a pub­lic health is­sue—it’s hav­ing ‘a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact’ on our plants and wildlife, too.

We need to talk about nitro­gen, which is backed by the Na­tional Trust, Wood­land Trust and the RSPB, among oth­ers, shows that 90% of sen­si­tive habi­tats—such as heath­lands, grass­lands and sand dunes—in Eng­land and Wales are suf­fer­ing from the ‘global pools of re­ac­tive nitro­gen in the at­mos­phere’, which, says Plantlife’s Dr Trevor Dines, present ‘a far more im­me­di­ate threat’ than cli­mate change.

That fig­ure is 63% across the UK as a whole, but the prob­lem is world­wide. As the re­port states: ‘Lev­els of re­ac­tive nitro­gen have tripled in Europe and dou­bled glob­ally in the last cen­tury.’

The re­ac­tive nitro­gen comes from trans­port, power sta­tions, farm­ing and in­dus­try emis­sions and the re­sult is that hardy plants such as net­tles are over­pow­er­ing their more rare and en­dan­gered ri­vals, which has a knockon ef­fect for wildlife. The worst-af­fected ar­eas of the UK in­clude East Anglia, due to in­ten­sive agri­cul­ture, and the Bor­ders, Pen­nines and Welsh moun­tains, where there are few sub­stan­tial lo­cal emis­sion sources, but rain­fall is high.

‘We are force-feed­ing the nat­u­ral world a diet of nu­tri­ent-rich junk food and it’s hav­ing a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact,’ ex­plains Dr Dines. ‘Once-di­verse habi­tats are be­com­ing mono- tonous green bad­lands where only the thugs sur­vive and other more del­i­cate plants are be­ing bul­lied out of ex­is­tence.’

Those on the risk list in­clude lichens, mosses, hare­bells, bird’s-foot tre­foil, fungi and or­chids. As this is a threat to our bio­di­ver­sity and ecosys­tems, ex­perts are call­ing for both restora­tive and pre­ven­ta­tive ac­tion, na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

‘It is now vi­tal that landown­ers, in­dus­try and politi­cians come to­gether to ur­gently ad­dress this mount­ing prob­lem,’ con­cludes Dr Dines. ‘The very fab­ric of our coun­try­side is chang­ing un­der this rain of nitro­gen and, if the damage con­tin­ues, it will harm the abil­ity of our most pre­cious wild­flower habi­tats to cope with other pres­sures, such as cli­mate change.’

Lev­els of re­ac­tive nitro­gen have tripled in Europe in the past cen­tury, mean­ing plants like hare­bells and or­chids are un­der threat

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