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Moss covered tree trunk in Killarney National Park, Co Kerry.

Over half of Ireland’s native plants have declined since the 1950s

A 20-year research project blamed agriculture, climate change and non-native invasive species for the decline.

MORE THAN HALF Ireland’s native plants have declined since the 1950s because of agriculture, climate change and non-native invasive species, a new report has found.

The 20-year research project, titled Plant Atlas 2020 and published by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), also found that non-native plant species now outnumber native ones.

2,500 people in Ireland made 2.85 million plant records as part of the project, which the BSBI said gives a “much more complete picture of Irish plant diversity”.

The report noted that a “botanical visitor to the present day from the 1950s would see vast changes in Ireland”.

For example, “large swathes of dark conifer forest in the uplands having replaced areas of blanket bog and hill pastures”.

Changes in agriculture since the 1950s have negatively impacted other habitats on which wild plants depend, the report said.

Native grassland plants have suffered the most but many lake or wetland plants have also declined, with farming and forestry destroying many habitats on which wild Irish plants depend.

But will 56% of native species have declined in range and abundance or both, there is a marked difference in fortunes for non-native plants which has thrived and increased by 80%.

American Willowherb, a North American species first recorded in Ireland in Co Wicklow in 1958, has experiences one of the most marked increases.

It was “still rare by 1980, but since then has spread explosively” and has the “second most certain increase of all Irish species”, the report said.

However, the bluebell is cited as a native woodland plant that is “holding their own or gaining slightly”.

forest-floor-covered-with-blooming-bluebells-in-tollymore-forest-park-northern-ireland Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The report calls for remaining habitats to be protected and for habitats in poor condition to be restored.

It also calls for the creation of new permanent habitat close to existing high-quality habitats and the strengthening of plant monitoring and research.  

Dr Kevin Walker, BSBI head of science and Plant Atlas 2020 co-author, said: “There are lots we can do to reverse these declines, but the most important are to increase the protection plants receive, extend the habitat available to them, and place their needs at the very heart of nature conservation.

“We also need to ensure that our land, water and soil are managed more sustainably so that plants, and the species which rely upon them for food and shelter, can thrive.”

Plant Atlas 2020 is the most in-depth survey of British and Irish flora ever undertaken, BSBI said.

It contains 30 million plant records of 3,445 species collected by almost 9,000 botanists and builds on two previous surveys conducted during the 20th century.

In total, 53% of Britain’s native plants are in decline, with nine species lost since 1930 and a further 10 species known to have been lost before then.

The researchers also said that 62% of Britain’s ancient arable wildflowers such as corn marigold have declined because traditional grasslands have been reseeded or over-fertilised.

While climate change has helped some species to spread north, such as the bee orchid, it is forcing mountain plants like the snow pearlwort to retreat.

The entire British population of this species now lives only on the snow-capped peaks of Ben Lawers in the Scottish Highlands.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts in the UK, said: “The decline of our beautiful native plants is heart-breaking and has consequences for us all.

“The loss of natural habitats due to modern farming methods over the last 70 years has been an unmitigated disaster for wildflowers and all the species that depend on them including insects, bats and birds. But it’s not too late to stop this catastrophe.

“The UK Government’s new farm environment schemes must do what was originally promised and reverse the decline of nature in our agricultural landscape.

“Also, protection for Local Wildlife Sites needs to be increased, and the promise made by the Government at the recent UN biodiversity summit to halve nutrient pollution by 2030 must be honoured.”

-With additional reporting from Diarmuid Pepper



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