‘Rewilding’ areas of land is a danger to Britain’s rich habitats and puts wildflower meadows at risk

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Rewilding could spell disaster for wildflowers, the charity Plantlife warned, as larger plants and trees would take root and overpower the smaller flowers. Unless land is occasionally grazed, ploughed or cultivated wildflowers will not thrive, the charity claims


The ‘rush to rewild’ the British countryside could put precious wildflower meadows at risk, plant experts have warned.

Rewilding aims to return land to a more natural state – by allowing nature to take its course.

But that could spell disaster for wildflowers, the charity Plantlife warned, as larger plants and trees would take root and overpower the smaller flowers. 

Unless land is occasionally grazed, ploughed or cultivated wildflowers will not thrive, the charity claims.

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Rewilding could spell disaster for wildflowers, the charity Plantlife warned, as larger plants and trees would take root and overpower the smaller flowers. Unless land is occasionally grazed, ploughed or cultivated wildflowers will not thrive, the charity claims

WHAT IS REWILDING?  

Rewilding aims to return land to a more natural state – by allowing nature to take its course.

Activists and plans call for rewilding to be encouraged in order to save essential areas and species.  

One site, called Rewilding Europe, calls it giving nature a ‘helping hand’. 

Their site reads: ‘We can give it a helping hand by creating the right conditions – by removing dykes and dams to free up rivers, by stopping active management of wildlife populations, by allowing natural forest regeneration, and by reintroducing species that have disappeared as a result of man’s actions.

‘Then we should step back and let nature manage itself.’

Plans include introducing long-gone or valuable keystone species to a region and preserving natural order. 

Wildflower meadows are some of the UK’s most species-rich habitats, but are found on less than 1 per cent of the country’s land area.

More than 97 per cent of meadows have been lost since the 1930s – with many lost to agriculture.

The remaining fragments have poor legal protection, the charity warned.

Abandoned meadows that are not occasionally mowed or grazed will end up changing from grassland to scrub and eventually to woodland as taller plants out-compete smaller ones for light.

Grazing and disturbance by livestock trampling on the ground, or ploughing, cultivating, hay cutting and even scrub clearance or coppicing in woodlands ‘re-set the ecological clock’ on this process.

This allows smaller, more delicate species to thrive in open ground full of sunlight, Plantlife’s Dr Trevor Dines said.

Research by Plantlife released in time for National Meadows Day this weekend reveals that 40 per cent of more than 1,500 wild plant species analysed would decline within a decade if the land they grow on is entirely abandoned.

Some 127 species 16 per cent would be in decline within three years.

Three quarters of the country’s most threatened species, including burnt-tip orchid, pasqueflower and crested cow-wheat would decline or disappear within three years if all management and grazing is removed, the experts warn.

Some of the first to go if land is abandoned are species that live in cultivated arable land such as cornflowers which will vanish very quickly without the soil being disturbed, Dr Dines said, while meadow plants would follow.

Of meadows, he said: ‘In the rush to rewild, that most species-rich habitat in Britain, these open areas flooded with sunlight, are the ones that are most likely to disappear.

And he said: ‘Because they are so rare in the landscape, they are a little Noah’s Ark of biodiversity.’ If they are lost, it will mean losing ‘precious little landscapes’ from which other areas could be reseeded and restored.

The 'rush to rewild' the British countryside could put precious wildflower meadows at risk, plant experts have warned. Rewilding aims to return land to a more natural state - by allowing nature to take its course

The ‘rush to rewild’ the British countryside could put precious wildflower meadows at risk, plant experts have warned. Rewilding aims to return land to a more natural state – by allowing nature to take its course

More than 97 per cent of meadows have been lost since the 1930s - with many lost to agriculture. The remaining fragments have poor legal protection, the charity Plantlife warned

More than 97 per cent of meadows have been lost since the 1930s – with many lost to agriculture. The remaining fragments have poor legal protection, the charity Plantlife warned

Abandoned meadows that are not occasionally mowed or grazed will end up changing from grassland to scrub and eventually to woodland as taller plants out-compete smaller ones for light

Abandoned meadows that are not occasionally mowed or grazed will end up changing from grassland to scrub and eventually to woodland as taller plants out-compete smaller ones for light

But he also warned too much interference was as damaging as abandonment, with intensively managed farmland supporting just 85 species of plants.

Plantlife said rewilding could create a mosaic of habitats that is ideal for plants and animals such as insects which move from the shelter of woodland and scrub into open sunny meadows to feed, pollinate flowers and lay their eggs.

Rewilding has high profile backers – and is increasingly seen as a way of helping wildlife as well as restoring the environment.

The head of government conservation agency Natural England, Tony Juniper, told MPs earlier this year he would like to see around 1 per cent of the UK to be rewilded ‘as an experiment’.

But Dr Dines said: ‘Any rewilding scenario should ideally deliver enough grazing and disturbance to support all these species.

‘Plants may appear rooted to the spot but they are actually always on the move and thrive best when engaged in the wider hustle and bustle wrought by a degree of light management and grazing.

Plantlife said rewilding could create a mosaic of habitats that is ideal for plants and animals such as insects which move from the shelter of woodland and scrub into open sunny meadows to feed, pollinate flowers and lay their eggs

Plantlife said rewilding could create a mosaic of habitats that is ideal for plants and animals such as insects which move from the shelter of woodland and scrub into open sunny meadows to feed, pollinate flowers and lay their eggs

Rewilding has high profile backers - and is increasingly seen as a way of helping wildlife as well as restoring the environment but Plantlife is also calling for better legal protection for meadows and spearheading a drive to restore 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of species-rich grassland by 2043

Rewilding has high profile backers – and is increasingly seen as a way of helping wildlife as well as restoring the environment but Plantlife is also calling for better legal protection for meadows and spearheading a drive to restore 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of species-rich grassland by 2043

And while some of the rewilding focus has been on bringing back larger animals, from beavers to the Eurasian lynx, Dr Dines said there should be a ‘roots up as well as a tooth down approach’ to the issue.

‘The dramatic impact that reintroducing charismatic animals into the landscape can have has occupied much of the rewilding debate, but the reintroduction of some keystone plant species can be just as spectacular.’ 

He pointed to the semi-parasitic yellow rattle as a ‘meadow maker’ which limits dense grass growth and allows wildflowers such as lesser butterfly orchids to flourish.

Plantlife is also calling for better legal protection for meadows and spearheading a drive to restore 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of species-rich grassland by 2043. 



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