Ryeview – May 2004

Protect our native Flora

John Clark writes…

First published: May 2004 – Gazette & Herald

For fifty years farmers have spearheaded a campaign of destruction. Hedgerows, flower meadows, cornfield flowers, water meadows and farmland birds have all been dramatically reduced. All in the name of efficiency. All in the name of cheap food. All in the name of profit. Are farmers the main culprits? Definitely not. This biodestruction has been co-ordinated, encouraged and often paid for by governments of all colours through their agent MAFF.

The first earth summit in Rio 1992 tried to apply the brakes. In 2001 the Labour Government claimed to appreciate the link between food production and the environment. It created DEFRA (the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and set up the Food and Farming Commission. This almost acknowledged that intensive farming was the cause of damage to wildlife and the countryside. The solution however was not to make farming less intensive or more compatible with nature: the solution was to pay for frilly green edges. Agriculture would continue to destroy while field margins would try to salvage some of the environment. This goes under the name of agri-environmental schemes.

The government seems unaware that our native wild flowers are in danger from the ‘solution’. Many roadside verges, field margins or other environmental schemes are being sown with ‘Wild flower mixtures’. At first glance this would appear commendable – the reversal of decades of damage. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, nature (biodiversity) is not that simple. Each individual wildflower has evolved alongside Agriculture over thousands of years. The habitats and the native wild flowers have changed together i.e. local native plants are adapted to local climate and soil. Thus a variant growing in Yorkshire is different from the same kind of flower growing on the south coast. The difference is usually even larger between Britain and the rest of the world. Differences may be so large that they have become separate ‘species’.

This fact combines with several others to put our local native flora at risk.

  • Rules surrounding commercial seed production mitigate against ‘local’ small scale seed production.
  • Commercial agricultural seed production produces relatives of the UK native flora.
  • Most ‘environmental’ schemes do not specify the seed mixture.

All the above puts our native flowers under genetic attack. ‘Wildflower mixtures’ contain agricultural relatives, cultural relatives and continental cousins. Many of these are close enough to cross- pollinate and thus weaken our remaining wild flowers.

In the past this has happened with garden escapes. However there used to be large numbers of wild flowers and few escapees. Very little damage occurred. Now the numbers are reversed – there are few wild flowers and large numbers of ‘aliens’ being sown. This makes the native flora very vulnerable.

The reason for keeping the wide natural genetic range is well understood. Genetic variations are of benefit to scientists, plant breeders, medicine and of course to the millions of people who enjoy our wildlife. The creation of a vast British Garden is not desirable.

How can we stop this Botanic vandalism?

  • The British Government should allow the sowing of wild flowers only under licence.
  • All schemes must use only locally gathered native wild flower seed grown within say 20 miles i.e. local provenance. If this became law local seed collection would become more viable. The government would have to increase its funding for ‘doing it right’.
  • Britain should therefore halt the importing of all ‘wild flower seeds’ – present E.U. rules encourage this!
  • There should also be a review of not only the importing and subsequent sowing of all seeds but also the use of all seeds in agriculture, horticulture, forestry, road verges, amenities and others to ensure the above is not happening in other areas.
  • The whole of seed legislation needs reviewing. In the case of ‘local’ seed some rules may need to be relaxed while others specifying ‘local’ would need to be inserted.

Britain has signed the Biodiversity Convention following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. This is an international commitment to protect our biodiversity. Allowing sown ‘wild flower mixtures’ to attack our native wild flowers is at best against the spirit of that convention and at worst illegal.

Successive governments have presided over a vast loss of biodiversity. Let us hope that the government acts on this issue and for once acts quickly so as to prevent further damage.

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