UK’S ‘rain of nitrogen’ reaches critical levels
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