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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 July, 2003, 03:53 GMT 04:53 UK
Emblems of a lost England

By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff

It was said the English countryside used to sparkle - its field margins would swirl with the colour from arable "weeds". Times have certainly changed.

Arable plants, BBC
Our fields are now a monochrome - a very plain, rather bright green
Dr Jill Sutcliffe, English Nature
The "unwelcome" plants that took their chances among the farmers' crops are now in full retreat.

Mechanisation, herbicides and modern techniques of field management mean it is the crop that now chokes the weed and not the other way around.

Traditional arable species have shown perhaps the greatest decline of all British plants in the last 25 years.

Corn marigold, corncockle and cornflower are names which we might all recognise - they are still in the national consciousness; broad-leaved spurge, fingered speedwell and pheasant's eye are perhaps less well known.

But these are all plants now listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Indeed, arable plants constitute one fifth of the wild flora targeted for conservation action in the UK.

Friend or foe?

"The arable plants have a very close link with us, the human species," said Dr Phil Wilson, a conservation consultant who has just produced a guide to arable plants.

"They've been with us since the beginning of agriculture 12,000 years ago. Apart from their simple biodiversity importance, they have historical and archaeological significance as well. They are also very beautiful," he told BBC News Online.

Modern industrial farming techniques have now pushed many arable "weeds" close to extinction.

The brilliant reds, yellows, lilacs and pinks are certainly impressive but they are nicknamed arable weeds for good reason. Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) were said to blunt the reaper's sickle and corncockle (Agrostemma githago) made the bread taste bitter.

When this correspondent mentioned the decline of arable plants to a wheat farmer friend of his, he got the terse reply: "Come into my fields and I'll show you some bloody weeds."

Farming practices were developed to eliminate precisely these types of plants - and they have done it very effectively.

New, vigorous crop varieties and the shift from spring to autumn sowing have befuddled the weeds.

Herbicides knock back those arable plants that persist at the edges of fields and the combine harvester - a marvel of modern technology - can sort grain so efficiently that seed merchants can guarantee a virtually pure product for the following year.

Web of life

"Our fields are now a monochrome - a very plain, rather bright green," said Dr Jill Sutcliffe, the botanical manager at English Nature, the UK Government's nature advisory body.

More efficient seed cleaning
Widespread use of herbicides
More vigorous crop varieties
Mechanisation of all farming
Increase in nitrogen feeds
Major crop rotation changes
More efficient field drainage
Diminishing margins of fields
"And that's not a particularly healthy sign. A healthy countryside should be much more vibrant than that. We've gone a bit too far one way and we need to come back."

When fields were not so big - when they had more hedgerows and other boundaries - the arable weeds would proliferate in that margin where machinery turned.

In these corridors of chaos the insects would thrive and the birds would feast.

Conservation groups have long remarked about the drop-off in farmland birds.

It was not surprising, therefore, that when the most comprehensive survey of British and Irish flora in 40 years was released last September, it found the arable weed species had suffered the greatest misfortune.

European money

"What we need to do is recognise that these plants are part of a rich, biodiverse environment and we should not let species like this just go extinct," said Sir Martin Doughty, Chair of English Nature.

"We've had perverse incentives for farmers to go into intensive agriculture when what we really want is a system of financial support that allows farmers to continue working efficiently but also maintain the environment.

"Hopefully, the mid-term review proposals for the common agricultural policy that came out of the [recent EU agriculture ministers' meeting in Luxembourg] will give us that opportunity."

Lapwing in field   Andy Hay/Rspb-images.com
The success of all organisms in the arable environment is linked
(Image: Andy Hay/RSPB)
This would make it financially worthwhile for farmers to establish areas on their land where arable plants could succeed.

Best practice methods include leaving stubble in the field for as long as possible, perhaps cultivating some margins at different times to the body of the field, and reducing herbicide applications at those boundaries.

"One of the great hopes in reversing this decline and even bringing back some of the extinct species lies in the ability of arable plants to produce seeds that can last in the soil for decades - perhaps more than a hundred years," said Dr Wilson.

Dr Sutcliffe added: "You see this where buildings have been demolished and the soil underneath is disturbed - these flowers that were in the seed bank under the buildings suddenly come up."

The interrupted brome (Bromus interruptus), which is listed in the field guide as extinct, has been seen three times recently on sites of demolished farmhouses.

Arable Plants - A Field Guide, by Phil Wilson and Miles King, is published by English Nature and WildGuides; ISBN: 1-903657-02-4

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26 Jun 03  |  Business
British plant 'bible' published
17 Sep 02  |  Science/Nature
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16 Feb 00  |  Science/Nature
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02 Jul 02  |  Science/Nature

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