Plant Crisis

Habitat destruction and loss of plant life in Britain exemplify global problems

This page sets out the reasons why Plant Life is one of nine learning themes in a Life-Based Learning programme for 5- to 11-year-old children.

This article focuses on the loss of plant life in Britain to exemplify what is happening on a global scale in different ways, all of them impacting on plant life, on the life of the planet and, ultimately, on human life.

Plant destruction is not just about jungle clearances. Here in Britain, as in many temperate climate countries around the world, there are major losses of plant habitats and loss of plant biodiversity.

The importance of plant life to life

Plants are important on a global scale

What sets Earth apart from other planets is its ability to sustain life. Plants are considered a critical resource because of the many ways they support life on Earth. They release oxygen into the atmosphere, absorb carbon dioxide, provide habitat and food for wildlife and humans, and regulate the water cycle,

Green Tumble: How do plants help the environment

Plants are essential for human survival

Plants are essential for human survival: air to breathe, food to eat, water to drink, wood to burn for warmth, wood to use for shelter, clothing to wear and medicines to heal.

The problem

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

UN Report: Nature’s dangerous decline ‘unprecedented’; Species extinction rates ‘accelerating’

Here in Britain there is complacency about our part in looking after the environment in our own backyard. The reality tells a story with much to concern us.

The evidence

The global extinction of plants sets the scene for what is happening in Britain.

One in five plants are estimated to be threatened with extinction.

Kew Report. State of the World’s Plants 2016 [Kew is a leading international organisation into the research of plant life, more popularly known for its Royal Botanic Gardens located in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames.]

Actual plant extinctions

“Almost 600 plant species have been lost from the wild in the last 250 years, according to a comprehensive study.

The number is based on actual extinctions rather than estimates, and is twice that of all bird, mammal and amphibian extinctions combined.”

Plant extinction by Helen Briggs, BBC News: 11/06/2019

Focus on Britain: threatened plant extinction

Around 60% of all UK plant species are in population decline and a quarter of heathland and semi-natural grassland flowering plants are now threatened.

UK Plant Sciences Federation: Current Status and Future Challenges Report [page 13].

Focus on Britain: depletion and extinction of meadow plants

Britain has seen the catastrophic destruction of its once widespread wildflower meadows, as intensive farming has gradually replaced them.

It took around 6,000 years to create the species-rich grassland for which the UK is globally famous

Plant Life: Saving meadows

Today the same species-rich grasslands have all but disappeared:

Wild flower meadows are one of the rarest habitats in the UK and we have lost 97% of our wild flower meadows since the 1930s. Losing our wildflowers has a real impact on the food we eat. Why do meadows matter? ‘British wildflowers are under threat and therefore so are the pollinators they feed.

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew: Why meadows matter

Focus on Britain: wetlands generally

Britain has lost 90 percent of her wetlands over the past 400 years—the low-lying, easily accessible land was ripe for development once it was drained

British Heritage: Discover the wild and wonderful wetlands

Focus on Britain: freshwater wetlands

Wetlands are increasingly scarce throughout the world. Systematic drainage has converted wetlands to arable farming. Nearly half of all the UK’s reedbed has been lost since the end of World War II, while about 40% of wet grassland was lost between 1930 and 1980.

RSPB: Freshwater wetlands

Focus on Britain: heathland

Lowland heathland is a scarce but hugely important wildlife habitat and cultural landscape.

The area that survives today is a small fraction of what existed 100 years ago and is fragmented into thousands of small patches. This puts immense pressure on the rare wildlife that relies on it.

RSPB: Heathland extent and potential

Loss of biodiversity on UK farmland

Across Britain huge swathes of farmland are managed to keep the rich diversity of wild flowers and insect life away from crops. Land farmed for crops is desertification on a grand scale, except, in this case, it is green deserted fields caused by monoculture farming.

“We all know and love William Blake’s reference to the green and pleasant land; the time has come to acknowledge that it may still be green, but much of it, alas, is now a lifeless landscape, pleasant no longer.”

The Guardian News: Britain has lost half its wildlife. Now’s the time to shout about it. Michael McCarthy

With many wild flowers farmed out of the earth, when land is left fallow the rich flora of meadows is not restored. The land is populated by the likes of brambles, nettles, dock leaves, plantain, hedge parsley, ragwort and rosebay willow herbs, all crowding out plant diversity.

Focus on Britain: loss of habitat on plant and animal wildlife

More than one in 10 of the UK’s wildlife species are threatened with extinction and the numbers of the nation’s most endangered creatures have plummeted by two-thirds since 1970, according to a major report.

The abundance of all wildlife has also fallen, with one in six animals, birds, fish and plants having been lost, the State of Nature report found.

Together with historical deforestation and industrialisation, these trends have left the UK “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”, with most of the country having gone past the threshold at which “ecosystems may no longer reliably meet society’s needs”.

The Guardian: One in 10 UK wildlife species faces extinction, major report shows

The answer

Apparently the UK has all the expertise to create sustainable agriculture in balance with plant biodiversity and restore habitat balance to Britain:

The UK is internationally recognised as a leader in the field of plant science, particularly in the area of fundamental research. (The UK is ranked second in the world in global rankings of plant science publication impact.) UK plant science research currently contributes to a diverse range of key industries including agriculture, pharmaceuticals, forestry and industrial biotechnology. The application of plant science knowledge offers unique benefits to the UK economy, international development and trade. (page 5 of the report)

To address the research challenges identified in our survey, it is critical that we produce successive generations of adaptable, diversely skilled plant scientists. (page 18 of the report)

The UK Plant Science Status Report

There are many organisations, outside national curriculum remits, providing resource support for children learning about plants and living sustainably.

For example, EcoFriendlyKids looks to develop in children an understanding and responsibility towards not just plants, but the environment as a whole. This sense of respect for plants and the environment is well illustrated in its Food category by such lessons as Benefits of an Additive Free Diet; Buying Locally Produced Products; Eating in Season; Fair Trade Products; and Fun Ways for Kids to Learn Where Their Food Comes From,

The obstacle

In the current National Curriculum in England, for children aged 5 to 11 there is no effective consideration of the importance and relevance of plant life to humans; there is no integrated and focused exploration of the difficulties plant life is facing from human activity.

The solution

The solution is to raise the profile of plant life education in primary schools.

Presence + Focus + Attention = Results

A life-based curriculum for children aged 5 to 11 gives focus to plant life education as one of nine equal learning themes.

Plant destruction is not just about jungle clearances. Here at home, in Britain, as in many temperate countries around the world, there are major losses of plant habitats and loss of plant biodiversity.

Michael Mac
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