The fight to save vanishing wildflower meadows

By Magnus Bennett & Zara Weir
BBC Scotland News

  • Published
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There has been a huge decline in Scotland's wildflower meadows over the last 100 years.

As he stands in a wildflower field in Fife surrounded by a riot of colour, Alistair Whyte delivers a grim warning.

He cites statistics suggesting that the UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows over the past 100 years and warns that we could lose the rest.

"It's hard to think of another habitat which has undergone such a catastrophic decline in such a short space of time," he says.

Mr Whyte, who is head of conservation charity Plantlife Scotland, says: "If you find yourself standing in a wildflower meadow today, you'll be standing in one of our most threatened habitats."

Speaking at the Scottish Wildlife Trust's Cullaloe nature reserve, Mr Whyte says: "Here in Scotland, we've suffered as much as anywhere in the UK from this loss, and, if current trends continue, we will lose all of our species-rich lowland meadows by the end of the century."

Experts say the decline of most of these habitats has been hastened by intensive farming practices and building projects.

Image source, MATT PITTS

One of the biggest worries for conservationists is the increasing fragmentation of species-rich grasslands, which makes it harder for pollinators such as bees and butterflies to move through the landscape.

Mr Whyte warns there's a wide range of species "teetering on the edge" that rely on meadows.

He cites the examples of Scottish Primrose, which is only found on the north coast of Scotland and Orkney, and rare orchids which "are really just hanging on".

"There are some species that we are aware of that are reliant on these habitats, and if we lose the habitats, then we lose the species completely," he says.

"Species such as the common blue butterfly, which you might find here, are reliant on wildflowers like bird's foot trefoil.

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Alistair Whyte says many species are "teetering on the edge"

"If we go to the far edges of Scotland, we find things like the great yellow bumblebee, which used to be widespread across the UK when wildflower meadows were much more common than they are now.

"There's a whole very complex eco-system which the wildflower meadows support. If we lose them, then the whole chain unravels and we start to lose everything."

The task facing conservationists is made harder by the difficulty in placing meadows firmly into the public's consciousness.

Fiona Guest, from Scotland's only commercial wildflower seed producer, Scotia Seeds, says people have tended to take meadows for granted.

She says: "There is a phenomenon known as 'plant blindness' - the idea that plants are always a background for other things.

"Meadows, though, are particularly invisible. We see trees more easily but we don't see how a meadow is like a tiny forest, full of different levels of plants, providing food and a home for a wide range of beasties and also, literally knitting the ground together."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Experts say wildflower meadows support a complex eco-system

But all is not lost in the battle to save these vanishing habitats.

Plantlife Scotland has been working closely with NatureScot to find ways of restoring and creating meadows around the country.

The Scottish government agency has already created wildflower meadows at several of its national nature reserves, including St Cyrus, Flanders Moss and Forvie.

It has given Plantlife a grant to put together "a comprehensive evidence base" for grasslands in Scotland, arguing that "if we don't know where our species-rich grasslands are, we can't protect them"

Plantlife will also be playing a key role in the development of an action plan for Scotland's grasslands.

Image source, Matt Pitts

One issue it wants to push is new subsidy support schemes for farmers to help them "manage these places properly" and have them "recognised, protected and restored".

NatureScot botanist Jeanette Hall says a lot of work is going on to create new meadows and restore existing ones.

She says: "Meadows are crucial for Scotland's native plants, bees, hoverflies, wasps and other pollinating insects, as well as for birds such as meadow pipits, skylarks and yellowhammers, small mammals like mice and voles - and they are even good foraging sites for bats.

"Meadows are also important to combat climate change, as the soils of meadows store carbon very effectively."

Members of the public and local authorities are also being urged to play their part in reversing the decline of the habitats.

Plantlife, and other conservation groups, are encouraging people to let a small patch of their gardens grow wild before cutting at the end of the year.

Image caption,
Cullaloe Nature Reserve features a wide range of wildflowers

"What that will do is enable a whole range of wildflowers to flourish, where maybe before you just had grass," says Alistair Whyte.

"Even if you don't have a garden, you can ask your local council to manage the road verges close to where you live in a way which is more friendly for wildlife and for plants.

"You can ask them to cut less, cut later and watch the wildflowers flourish where you live."

He adds: "Road verges have become increasingly important as refuges for some of the species that we used to find in wildflower meadows.

"If they are managed properly, they can be fantastic for wildflowers."

How to create a wildflower meadow in your garden

Image source, Gillian Day
  • Pick a poor patch of ground that hasn't been cultivated recently. Wildflower meadows establish best on unproductive soil
  • Check what sort of soil you have and its pH before you choose which seeds to sow
  • Control weeds by burying any vegetation to a depth of 15-20cm (6 to 8in)
  • Firm and rake the surface to make a seedbed
  • Don't be tempted to add manure or fertiliser as this will encourage "excessive vigour" in the grasses, which then swamp the wildflowers
  • Sow in the autumn, giving the seed time to settle in over winter. If you are on heavy clay, however, it is better to wait until spring
  • Ensure that the seed is scattered evenly.

Source: Scottish Wildlife Trust