Figure 1: Corn Marigold (Euro Green News, n.d)
The UK and Ireland have long been known for their rich flora and wide variety of plant species. The populations of these nations' native plants, however, have been declining recently. The 20- year research project, published in Plant Atlas, provides a description of how local ecosystems are being destroyed by climate change in both countries (Elton, 2023). The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) estimates that native plant populations have decreased by 53% since the 1950s. The findings demonstrated how species ranges have changed since the 1950s, with neophytes, or modern introductions, growing and most native species, archaeophytes, or ancient introductions, falling (Bennett, 2023).
Figure 2: Trend lines of plant species over the years (The Guardian, The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Plant Atlas 2020.)
The Causes of Decline
The UK and Ireland's declining native plant populations are caused by a number of factors. The destruction of ecological habitats is a significant factor. The decline of native plants and the development of the abundance of non-native plants are both caused by habitat loss, nitrogen fertilizers, overfertilization, and reseeding. Several species that once flourished in these places now face the threat of extinction. The reduction of species like heather and harebell has been attributed to changes in farming practices during the 1950s, including nitrogen enrichment, habitat destruction, and changes in grazing pressure. Furthermore, wet fields have been drained, which has resulted in significant losses in plants like devil'sbit scabious, a plant that rare butterflies consume. With a 62% reduction, historically cultivable wildflowers like corn marigold suffered worse than other species. This is a result of traditional grasslands having been over-fertilized or reseeded. In addition, plant populations are negatively impacted by changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, and the frequency and severity of extreme weather events (Horton, 2023).
The Consequences of Decline
“The loss of natural habitats due to modern farming methods over the last 70 years has been an unmitigated disaster for wildflowers and all the species that depend on them including insects, bats and birds. But it’s not too late to stop this catastrophe.”
Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts.
The natural ecosystem is greatly supported by native plants. They support soil health, help animals find food and shelter, and add to the environment's general biodiversity. A decrease in biodiversity brought on by the extinction of these plants may have repercussions on the ecosystem as a whole ("What’s so great about native plants?", 2013.) Many native plants are efficient in storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, especially long-lived trees like oaks and maples. For pollinators including hummingbirds, native bees, butterflies, moths, and bats, native plants serve as a source of nectar. Several creatures can find shelter there in safety. These plants produce native nuts, seeds, and fruits that provide vital nutrition for all kinds of wildlife (Audubon, 2017).
Figure 3: Pollination on plants. (Irish Farmers Journal, n.d)
How to Proceed
The reduction of native plant populations in the UK and Ireland can be addressed in a number of ways. Protecting and restoring natural habitats is one strategy. Limiting urbanization, decreasing deforestation, and promoting sustainable agriculture methods are a few methods. Native plants must remain untouched. While native plants require minimal care and are well suited to the environment, altering the soil, reseeding, or over-fertilizing them would only disrupt their habitat. Promoting renewable energy sources and lowering greenhouse gas emissions can help lessen the consequences of climate change and the negative effects on local plant populations. Moreover, initiatives can be undertaken to encourage the use of native plants in gardening and landscaping, which can aid in the preservation of these species and raise awareness ("Biodiversity-What Can We Do?", 2018).
“There’s lots we can do to reverse these declines, but the most important are to increase the protection plants receive, extend the habitat available to them, and to place their needs at the very heart of nature conservation,” said Kevin Walker, BSBI head of science and co-author of Plant Atlas 2020. “We also need to ensure that our land, water and soil are managed more sustainably so that plants, and the species which rely upon them for food and shelter, can thrive.”