A “rush to rewild” the UK’s landscapes could put the rich array of wildflowers found in already-rare meadows at risk, plant experts have warned.
While rewilding, which aims to return land to a more “natural” state, can provide opportunities for the UK’s wild plants, many will still need grazing or other kinds of disturbance such as ploughing or cultivating to thrive.
Wildflower meadows are some of the UK’s most species-rich habitats, but are found on less than 1% of the country’s land area, wildlife charity Plantlife said ahead of National Meadows Day on Saturday.
More than 97% of meadows have been lost since the 1930s and the remaining fragments have poor legal protection, the charity warned.
They also face mounting risks from the abandonment of land and under-grazing, leading to open landscapes 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 reveals that 40% 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%) 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.
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.
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.”
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.