More Plants Please
I watch the wonderful Wild Isles with mixed emotions. I was very lucky to meet David Attenborough back in the noughties when we sold some wildflower seed packets to raise money for Butterfly Conservation - one of the many wildlife charities he supports. He not only chatted animatedly but also wrote a note to thank us. What a lovely man.
He was as on message then about the desperate state of nature in the UK as he is now, and about the importance of native plants in particular. Depressing and belated, yes, but it's fantastic to see this message getting across to people.
It's Big, Grey and Wrinkly
The impending publication of the catchily named Botanical Society for Britain and Ireland's UK Plant Atlas amplifies both these points.* It's an important and ambitious piece of reearch, which shows in stark numbers the catastrophic recent decline of our native flora.
Banging on about the connection between this and the collapse in insect and other animal numbers has generally never appealed to commercial concerns, which are keener to sell gardeners plastic grass, chemicals and hand cream. Developers aren't even putting solar panels on new builds, let alone landscaping them properly. Is biodiversity net gain ("BNG") really going to help? We're involved in a couple of really good schemes, but without effective oversight there will be a race to the bottom. There's already evidence of people cheating the system by trashing sites before they're surveyed.
On a landscape scale there's the elephantine connection with our craving for cheap food, of course. Let's just say here that society - not least the government - still seems in denial about the damage this has caused/is causing. It's a massively inconvenient truth.
No Magic Bullet
Our understanding of the importance of plants has also suffered from the excitement about rewilding too. Beavers, yes - a helpful keystone species. And I like the idea of lynx re-introduction, for example. This kind of thing isn't going to be the magic bullet some peeps suggest, though. As part of a more general rebalancing it has value and comes with attractive PR, sure, but these are species which either largely or totally disappeared from the UK hundreds of years before the crisis we're in now.
More broadly, the effects of agricultural abandonment on biodiversity are still being debated. It's complicated, but they apparently vary a good deal. What does seem increasingly certain, however, is that it takes restoration efforts and many years to bring back biodiversity to the levels you would see in a reference ecosystem.
It's Not Simple
At the risk of stating the blinding obvious, our native wildlife depends on our native plants. It's not just butterflies and moths which are dependent on them, but perhaps they're the most obvious species. The Brown Hairstreak has no chance hereabouts as the Blackthorn hedges they'd lay their eggs on are flailed to oblivion. No Buckthorn, no Yellow Brimstones.
Who would have guessed, though, the story behind the psychadelically coloured Six-Spot Burnet moth? Its food plant is Birdsfoot trefoil, a source of cyanide, so it advertises itself as a nasty tasting snack. And from the show on Sunday, who knew dormice harvested nectar from honeysuckle to feed their young? You couldn't possibly guess at the kind of complex relationships our wildlife has with our native fauna.
Oh For An Ent
This is one reason why climate change is such a threat to biodiversity. Plants can't up and move to escape it. We can substitute failing native species with more drought resistant non-natives, but they're just not going to do what our ecosystems need them to do.
Our imaginations are such feeble things that it's difficult to grasp the magnitude of what's going on. Climate change and biodiversity loss aren't things which happen once in a generation, or once every couple of hundred years. I've been catching up on our family history recently, and managed to track one strand of posh folk back to before the Norman conquest. According to my records, there are 33 generations of them over the last 1000 years. What we face now would be completely alien to all of them.
We're at a massively significant moment which we can rationally appreciate, yet many of us still seem utterly indifferent or reluctant to do anything at all about it. Even in our own back gardens. Our efforts to tackle this crisis - such as they are - are clumsy, badly resourced, and often badly informed.
Come on People!
Folk bang on about woodland cover in the UK, for example, which isn't quite the point. The number of trees here isn't so much the problem - it's the terrible state of the woodlands we have. We treat them nearly as badly as we treat another key asset, our hedges, and that's saying something. How often do I come across thousands of recently planted trees half dead from want of care, woodland with no understory or stygian plantations of Sitka? Don't get me started on hedge management; how stupid, stupid, stupid are we about this, and what an easy win this could be.
And what about grassland? Everyone talks about 97% of our wildflower meadows being lost. This is the same figure I was parroting 20 years ago. Just looking at our own customers, there must be literally thousands of acres of new and restored meadows created over the intervening years, but as fast as they're made others are lost. Existing meadows - some hundreds of years old - are mostly unprotected. Others disappear not under concrete, trees or the plough, but, like hedges, due to poor management.
Look at the state of our waterways; even a high profile case like this is a fiasco. Wetlands? We're still burning grouse moors, and extracting peat for horticultural use as it's "phased out".
Education, Education, Education
The most successful habitat creation projects I've seen over the last 15 years have involved the careful restoration of flora. The excellent Bumblebee Conservation Trust have even measured the impact of their grassland restoration projects on bumblebee numbers and diversity as it's so obvious, even after a short period. Careful creation/restoration and management of landscape features like meadows, woodlands, orchards, ponds and hedgerows brings massive and palpable gains.
Everyone - particularly funders - needs to understand that successful "renaturing" projects need ongoing care. Schemes like ELMS or BNG need oversight on the ground. It's not just a question of throwing some seed down, having a planting day, reintroducing some photogenic megafauna, or just waiting to see what happens when you do nothing at all.
Our efforts to try to help often need to be so much better directed. They should be about achieving actual results rather than feelgood factor. Why are people still sowing non native "meadow" seed across the countryside? How many times do I see tree planting schemes on rare unimproved grassland or peat bog? Why plant inappropriate species and sizes of trees? Our failure to understand or inform about this kind of thing, through subsidy or directly, is incredible. People need more reliable evidence based advice about what they should be doing, and then they need to follow it.
More Plants Please
There's a desperate shortage of UK origin plant material - seeds and plants - to start to replace some of what we've lost. We need more production and more small scale growers and harvesters, who can connect with and supply local projects and communities. We must keep planting and sowing rarer native species as appropriate. There's a tendency to stick with the more easily grown and hence available species as they're cheaper.
We do need to try and build more resilience into our landscape as the climate worsens, but let's supplement these native plants with wildlife friendly drought resistant non-natives, not give up on them.
Times are Changing
We can't look to politicians to sort all this out. Even if you trusted them to - and frankly I don't - this is completely beyond them. We need to flood money and resources into education and research, while trying to effect massive societal change.
I feel much less eccentric now holding these kinds of views than I did when I met Sir David, but - weirdly - I still feel like an oddity. Why aren't we ALL worrying about this stuff? Attitudes are changing, but not fast or dramatically enough.
*We've also helped fund this, by the way - it's depressingly difficult to find money for this kind of project.