Much-loved wildflowers from wild strawberry to ragged robin are in decline as a result of widespread loss of meadows and grasslands, experts have warned.
The “steady, quiet and under-reported decline” of meadows, with 97% eradicated since the 1930s, is one of the biggest tragedies in the history of UK nature conservation, wildlife charity Plantlife said.
As a result, a number of traditional meadow and other grassland flowers which were once widespread are now classed as “near threatened” in England, including harebell, common rockrose, quaking grass and ragged robin.
Steep and steady declines of wild strawberry, field scabious and devil’s-bit scabious are particularly concerning because of the number of insect species which feed off the plants, the charity said.
Wild strawberries are the food plant for 51 species of bugs and butterflies, field scabious provides food for 26, and devil’s-bit scabious sustains 25 species including the marsh fritillary, which relies almost exclusively on the plant.
A healthy wildflower meadow can be home to as many as 140 species of flowers from increasingly rare military, monkey and greater butterfly orchids to key species bird’s-foot trefoil, which provides food for 160 species of insect.
More than 1,370 species of insect eat the most common meadow plants, Plantlife said.
But species-rich grassland, which provides benefits from carbon storage to crop pollination, covers less than 1% of UK land – unlike the bright green, intensively-farmed grassland which covers nearly half of the UK.
Plantlife and the Magnificent Meadows partnership it leads have launched a grasslands action plan, calling for proper protection and large-scale restoration of meadows.
The action plan calls for almost a quarter of the Government’s pledged 25-year target to create half a million hectares (1.2 million acres) of new wildlife-rich habitat to be focused on restoring flower-rich grasslands.
This would create 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of meadows.
There also needs to be explicit protection for remaining wildflower meadows similar to that afforded to ancient woodland.
And a national inventory of species-rich grasslands needs to be established alongside the Ancient Woodland Inventory, Plantlife urged.
Plantlife botanical specialist Dr Trevor Dines said: “The steady, quiet, and under-reported decline of our meadows is one of the biggest tragedies in the history of UK nature conservation; if over 97% of our woodland had been destroyed there’d be a national outcry.
“People tie themselves to trees as the chainsaws arrive, but nobody lies down amongst meadow buttercups in protest at the ploughing up of ancient meadows.
“But the vanishing of our species-rich grassland must be opposed and countered unless we are to slip into a thoroughly nature-depleted landscape where the wild things are lost, and where the only strawberries children know are those boxed in plastic in the supermarket aisles.”
He added: “We mustn’t forget meadows’ special place in our shared social and cultural history, a natural tapestry that is as much a part of our heritage as the works of William Shakespeare and David Hockney.”
Plantlife is also encouraging people to enjoy an event as part of National Meadows Day on Saturday July 7, from learning to scythe like Poldark or go on a wildflower walk or orchid hunt.
A spokesman for the Environment Department (Defra) said: “We have committed to developing a nature recovery network to protect and restore wildlife in our 25 Year Environment Plan.
“We are keen to work with Plantlife and other partners as we develop more detailed plans for expanding and connecting grassland habitats and to explore how we can more effectively share data to strengthen our inventories.”