One in Five British Wild Plants Threatened With Extinction

LONDON, UK, May 13, 2005 (ENS) - For the first time, all the wild plants in Great Britain have been assessed for how close they are to extinction, not just those that already had been identified as rare. The results released on Monday, show many species that have never before been included on any threat list are in rapid decline. Of the 1,756 species of plants studied, 345 species - 19.6 percent - are currently threatened with extinction.

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Found only in the southern British Isles, the 23 species of eyebright have been used to treat eye disorders. Eyebright is now classed as Endangered. (Photo by Bon Gibbons courtesy JNCC)
The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain is the result of two years of work by a partnership coordinated by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), a government agency, and including the Biological Records Centre, the Botanical Society for the British Isles, the Countryside Council for Wales, English Nature, the Natural History Museum, Plantlife, the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, and Scottish Natural Heritage.

Using the IUCN-World Conservation Union criteria and classifications for threatened species the scientists have produced a completely revised list of the status of Britain's threatened wild plants, ranging from the extreme case of Extinct, through Critically Endangered, Vulnerable, to the category of plants of Least Concern.

One new addition to the Critically Endangered category, the corn buttercup, Ranunculus arvensis, has personal meaning for Chris Cheffings, plants adviser at the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and co-editor of the Red Data List.

"My parent's farm was one of the last sites in Lincolnshire for corn buttercup," she said. "Alas, that has now all gone. I grew up seeing purple milk-vetch on the roadsides. This is now, by and large, gone. Seeing these species being Red Listed has made this publication much more personally relevant and shocking, as it is no longer filled with just those rare plants that you never saw anyway."

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Introduced into Britain in Roman times, the corn buttercup has been in steep decline for the past 30 years. (Photo by Bon Gibbons courtesy JNCC)
For the first time, all species that are native or were introduced to Great Britain before 1500 AD were analyzed. This means that all species have been treated equally, and there are many new additions to the list as a result, the JNCC said.

Hybrids are included in recognition of the essential role they play in plant evolution.

Species in groups that are traditionally very difficult to identify - such as the more than 230 species of Dandelion in Britain - have been included in the analysis, due to improved knowledge of their distributions, the scientists said.

The general pattern has been that the diversity of the British countryside is being constantly degraded, and as habitats are fragmented, the associated plants are lost.

As a trend, the Red Data List shows upland plants are declining due to overgrazing. Arable plants have almost disappeared in large parts of the country.

Plants of unimproved grassland are disappearing. Many are only hanging on in small fragments such as roadsides, and these are under severe pressure.

"As a nation, we have been very successful at looking after our rarest species, but very bad at preventing widespread species suffering severe declines," the JNCC said. "It is clear that we must focus our future efforts on halting and reversing the loss of previously common and familiar species."

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The field gentian, Gentianella campestris, was once commonly seen across the British Isles. It is now classed as Vulnerable. (Photo by Bon Gibbons courtesy JNCC)
The Unlucky 13 - a list within the Red List - shows a range of plants new to the threatened list. It includes , and the Endangered Euphrasia anglica - Eyebright that is found nowhere else in the world. It also includes the field gentian, which got its picture on the cover of the new Vascular Plant Red Data List.

Simon Leach, botanical adviser at English Nature, said, "This new Red List tells us about what's been happening to our plants over the last 40-odd years, and the extent to which so many once commonplace species have now declined, to the point where they are now threatened."

"We've been rather good at stopping rare plants from becoming extinct," said Leach, "but less good, perhaps, at stopping common plants from becoming less common."

The scientists call achieving that goal "a massive challenge" that can only happen "through changing the policies for countryside management."

"We are hoping that agri-environment schemes and other landscape-scale initiatives will help to arrest and reverse the decline of many of these declining species," said Leach. "The new Red List points to those that need the most urgent action."

The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain is online at: http://www.jncc.gov.uk/page-3354