Extensive survey reveals plants species have fallen by a third since 1972.
Action is needed to reverse an alarming decline in many of Britain’s best loved woodland flowers including the primrose.
The most extensive ecological survey ever carried out in Britain found the number of plant species had declined by more than a third since they were first surveyed in 1971.
The study – Long term ecological change in British woodland (1971-2001) – recorded the number of plant species in 1,648 native woods across England, Scotland and Wales.
Characteristic woodland plants like yellow archangel and sanicle fared worst, with 56 of the 72 species becoming significantly less common.
Fifteen species of tree and shrub also showed a decline, along with a general fall in tree seedlings. However, holly bucked the trend by spreading abundantly in many woods.
Jim Knight, Biodiversity and Forestry Minister, said the report did not indicate a single cause for the decline in woodland flowers.
Instead the reasons included:
- woods becoming more shady due to ageing trees and inadequate woodland management;
- increased levels of nutrients in woodland soils due to atmospheric pollution and agricultural fertilizers, possibly accentuated by less acidic soils;
- the effects of climate change, with each species responding differently;
- increased grazing pressure from deer in lowland woods.
The survey did show that soils were recovering from the impact of acid rain, which was a major concern in the 1980s.
Mr Knight said a number of Government policies and programmes were addressing some of the problems. The new policy for ancient woodlands in England would help by promoting sensitive management and preventing problems such as shading. “Measures like creating buffer strips on farmland around woods, or adding to the woodland area, could help reduce the spread of nutrients into the wood from adjacent farmland and increase the habitat available for woodland species,” said Mr Knight. “However, while some plants may benefit from opening up woods, it could also enable some weedy species such as nettle and cleavers to become abundant – so careful, balanced management is essential.” Other agri-environment schemes and Forestry Commission initiatives, including a reduction in the number of non-native trees and controlling livestock grazing in woodland, would also help to preserse the decline.
Mr Knight said partnerships like the Deer Initiative, a Government-funded independent Body that helps set up and develop local deer management groups and educates people about managing wild deer populations were also achieving significant improvements in woodlands.
In the North-East work is already under way to help improve woodland habitats through the North-East Community Forests Tree Nursery and the Community Forest Woodland Wildflower Project.
The tree nursery, near Sedgefield, is gearing up to meet the growing demand for locally grown trees. It supplies them direct to the Great North Forest and the Tees Forest as well as other organisations.
This year it will produce more than 250,000 trees and has recently supplied 50,000 trees to Durham County Council for its Mineral Valleys project.
The nursery is also used as a training facility for young people and adults with special needs.
The woodland wildflower project ran from 2001 to 2004 as the result of a partnership between England’s 12 community forests, other organisations and businesses and thousands of volunteers who introduced wildflowers to local woodlands. Staff from the Tees and Great North community forests worked with local communities and volunteers to collect seeds from more than 20 donor woodland sites, which are then sown into recently planted woodland areas or grown for planting out as wildflower plugs.