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Expert issues SOS to save the unsung heroes of the plant world vital for our wildlife

© ShutterstockMushrooms

Here’s a basic fact – wildflowers, plants and fungi are the life support for all Scotland’s wildlife and are fabulously fascinating.

They charm us with their glorious forms, colours, characters and names, and the way in which they transform landscapes. They provide pollen and nectar for invertebrates and micro-organisms, heralding new beginnings and the passing seasons.

And they often astound us with their resilience and ability to thrive in some of the most hostile environments – blooming forth despite thrashings from the elements or paucity of soil nutrients.

Some can eke out their fragile life cycles between rocks and hard places. Indeed, many plants are dependent on those habitats for their survival.

Vital plant communities are often overlooked in favour of the birds and mammals for which Scotland is famous. “Plant blindness” refers to our increasing inability to recognise the magnificent wild flora surrounding us. Yet plants, fungi, mosses and bryophytes are vital to all life.

Worryingly, many are in severe decline, on the brink, struggling due to numerous factors, including habitat loss, soil enrichment, massive grazing pressures and the way we continue our constant obsession with tidiness – mowing, strimming and weedkilling.

As head of Plantlife Scotland, a nature conservation charity that acts for wild plants in the UK as well as internationally, Alistair Whyte knows only too well the challenges plants face.

“Though there is still an issue with over-tidy mentality, it is also good to see many people are concerned, which suggests the problem is coming to the fore – and that has to be positive,” he says. Whyte has been at the forefront of conservation all his working life and took on the role at Plantlife four years ago. He says: “I grew up in rural Angus and have always had a passion for wildlife.”

Though not a trained botanist, as a field naturalist his knowledge is vast and, like the plants he cares so much about, his role is equally diverse. From working with volunteers in the field and liaising with other conservation bodies to save rare Arctic alpines in the Cairngorms, to lobbying politicians and dealing with complex policy and advocacy work, it is a role laden with pressures.

“It can be daunting, but we closely collaborate with numerous other organisations, landowners and farmers to raise the profile of our plants to help protect their future. Working together is increasingly important.

“Farming has a crucial role to play. Many of Scotland’s most important plant and fungi species rely on farming practices to maintain their habitats. Plantlife is calling for public funding to support farmers to help conserve and restore wild plant populations.”

“And with the introduction of new Scottish agriculture legislation, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a better system.”

Numerous environment charities – including members of Scottish Environment LINK – have joined with farmers’ groups to advocate for change. Plantlife is calling on the Scottish Government to replace the farm funding system with one that works for nature, the climate and people.

In 2021, Plantlife launched a strategy to help tackle the climate and biodiversity crises over the next decade. The main aim is to protect and restore plant and fungal diversity while connecting people with nature to improve wellbeing. It aims to work in partnerships to ensure all sectors of society can contribute, while influencing and empowering communities worldwide.

“It may seem a bold ambition, but already work is ongoing with the restoration of wildflower meadows,” Whyte says.

“This work includes taking cuttings of rare species such as twinflower and one-flowered wintergreen and transplanting them elsewhere. These two Caledonian pinewood specialists currently only survive in fragmented habitats. Their isolation makes it impossible for vital pollinators to fly between sites, so these plants cannot repopulate without help.

“Climate change has already had a severe impact. Scotland’s mountains are home to rare Arctic alpine plants, which rely on cold temperatures and snowy conditions to survive. Warmer winters and less snow cover are pushing these species further up the mountains, and they’re running out of space.”

Whyte says: “New research by Stirling University suggests that species such as snow pearlwort could soon become extinct due to climate change.”

Plantlife’s campaigns are many and varied, from restoring Scotland’s unique rainforest on the western seaboard – including managing the overgrazing of sheep and deer to allow areas to naturally regenerate – to the vital removal of the invasive ponticum rhododendron.

Elsewhere, there are constant problems with the spread of Himalayan balsam or the insidious Japanese knotweed on the riparian edge. Volunteers play a vital role in helping with issues like these. “We have to work closely with landowners to remove invasive plants on riverbanks – if we don’t tackle it at a landscape-scale, seed is merely carried downstream only to spread elsewhere,” says Whyte.

Plantlife’s roadside verge campaign continues to gain valuable support. With the tragic loss of more than 97% of traditional species-rich grasslands, verges may be the last strongholds for many wildflowers, particularly those that need nutrient-poor soils.

Where traffic sightlines are unaffected, a different system for managing verges and cutting later in the year is vital for both plants and pollinators, and all the other species that depend on them – bats, birds and mammals. “Changing the way we manage gardens and verges will significantly improve biodiversity, help reduce carbon emissions and costs, and bring benefits for wildlife, us and future generations,” he says.

Plants need a voice, which is why the work of Plantlife is vital.

Laws relating to wildlife include plants, yet are often overlooked and not taken seriously. Digging up and selling native snowdrop or bluebell bulbs, the removal of rare orchids or damaging protected habitat are just a few examples of law-breaking – yet prosecutions are rare. All wildlife is in urgent need of greater protection.

Plants reveal so much – and, like us, they have complex relationships with one another and other wildlife. Take small cow wheat – it has a symbiotic relationship with the wood ant, which is attracted to the sugary liquid in its seed and helps it to disperse.

Yellow rattle – nicknamed “the meadow maker” – is an ecosystem engineer with an extraordinary ability to help return improved grassland to species-rich meadow by parasitising on and weakening dominant grasses, allowing less-dominant species to flourish.

The folklore, medicinal uses and old country names of plants are vast subjects that add to their fascination. Recently, I became aware that every county in Scotland has its own plant. For example, Argyll has the foxglove and Wigtownshire the flag iris.

Plants can be enjoyed and loved by all – the casual observer, honed scientific botanist or mycologist. However, their future depends on us. Whyte remains positive. He says: “Nature is resilient and adaptable – if we give it the space to thrive and recover. We have a huge opportunity to recalibrate our relationship with nature. It’s not too late.”

Personally, I am minded of the words of the great forethinking naturalist Aldo Leopold, who wrote: “Wildflower corners are easy to maintain, but once gone, they are hard to rebuild.”