"Wildflower Diversity in the Hedgerows and Verges
of the Woodbury Salterton Area - Then and Now"
Impressions from Joanna Ward - former local resident
As a native of Woodbury Salterton, I grew up with the privilege of having the countryside on my doorstep. Having an interest in the natural world, I took notice of the plants that were growing around the lanes at different times of the year and learned how to identify them. In this way, the broad diversity of flora surrounding me became an intimate part of my life.
I was born in 1965, the year of the publication of The Concise British Flora in Colour. As a child, I watched the same succession of wildflowers bloom by the wayside year in and year out in a seasonal rhythm - familiar faces that would accompany me on any local walk or bike ride.
Among the first to come out in spring were bold gold celandines, followed soon by delicate primroses and the mysterious cuckoo pint. There were pretty blue speedwells, starry stitchwort with the seed heads you could pop; red campion, herb robert, and Jack-by-the-hedge. If you were lucky, dog violets could be found hiding in the bank. We used to pick small bunches of these seasonal tokens to take home and enjoy without any fear of undermining their viability. There were less common flowers, too, such as milkmaid (lady’s smock) and the majestic early purple orchid with its spotty leaves. The first appearance of the latter in spring was always an event worthy of comment in our household. Not having visited the village in spring for many years, I don’t know to what extent any of these flowers still exist.
In summer, the waysides unfurled their full glory of colour and texture which promised the excitement of botanical discovery. Here were found: meadowsweet with its sweet perfume, the ubiquitous cow parsley, willowherb, yarrow, toadflax, scarlet pimpernel, vetch, St Johns wort, mallow, hemp agrimony, cranesbill, tormentil, field scabious, comfrey, common spotted orchid and many more, spontaneously interwoven by the hand of nature.
I came to associate particular flowers with certain locations in the village. Sanctuary Lane boasted wild strawberries which I can remember picking with my mother as a pre-schooler when we went out on her bike. Their flavour was vastly superior to commercial strawberries! There were clumps of primroses up Dog Lane and kingcups under the bridge by Brooklands Farm. Dog rose intertwined with honeysuckle through the hedge along Honey Lane.
Over the years, our well-thumbed family copy of Keble Martin’s glorious book has been a constant companion in identifying many of these floral finds. Its beautiful botanical drawings help distinguish one species from another whilst capturing the essential nature of the plant.
In 1990, I emigrated from the UK and now live in New Zealand – but still make regular trips ‘home’. On my visits, I notice what plants are still growing in the place where I grew up, and draw comparisons between then and now. Whilst the short, seasonally-biased and infrequent nature of my visits makes such comparisons somewhat superficial, there are some definite differences between now and then, which have been becoming more and more obvious in recent years. Some of these observations are alarmingly in tune with those made across Britain as a whole.
Probably the most striking difference that I notice of now compared to then is the lack of species diversityaround the lanes and hedgerows. In general, local flora seems to be trending increasingly towards the predominance of a few species rather than the intertwining of many. I first noted this in my diary during a 2015 visit, although changes had probably begun well before this.
Hand in hand with less floral biodiversity, I notice less abundanceof individual flower types than there was in the late 1980’s for example. Where are the tall roadside stands of meadowsweet and red campion I used to cycle past as a teenager? There seem to be fewer tall spires of rosebay willowherb and foxglove standing pink and purple along the verge. These two are good sources of nectar for the honey bee and bumble bee respectively.
Some species that used to be commonplace seem to now be strangely hard to find at all: for example, bush vetch – and, indeed, other members of the same family such as common, tufted, spring, kidney and horseshoe vetches and meadow vetchling. Where are they? A 2018 report by the wildflower conservation charity Plantlife stated that the floral richness of our verges has declined by 20% since 1990, and listed several plants which are thought to have been badly affected by nitrogen pollution from sources such as car exhausts. One of these was tufted vetch.
Many wildflowers are adapted to survive on poor soils, and additional nitrogen from car exhausts or fertiliser run-off from farmland offers them no advantage. Invasive species, however, such as nettles, brambles and rough grasses, readily cash in on this resouce and overgrow the more delicate wildflowers. Vetches are members of the pea family (legumes), and can fix their own nitrogen from nodules on their roots. Therefore, they do not need additional nitrogen in order to grow better. It could be, then, that soil over-enrichment has played a part in their demise.
Plantlife has also identified several other species which are now on the 'Near Threatened' list in England. These include ragged robin, wild strawberry, field scabious and tormentil. All of these were present in Woodbury parish in 2011, according to the wildflower survey done by Elliott and Wickenden. This survey lists over 200 wildflower species found in the parish, including many under pressure in England as a whole. Examples are: white campion, bugle, knapweed, red clover and tufted vetch. The study has been the only official attempt that I am aware of to document wildflowers in the area, and provides a valuable baseline against which to track future changes. I hope it will stimulate more concerted action at a local level aimed at wildflower preservation.
Of equally great concern as the threat of extinction of some of these beautiful flowers is the fact that many of them are important food plants for invertebrates. Insects such as honey bees, bumble bees, butteflies and moths depend upon them for nectar. An article in the Journal Nature(2016) found that a lesser diversity of wildflowers is mirrored by a loss of pollenating insects. In turn, a loss of pollenators would undermine the reproductive success of wildflowers, forming a vicious cycle of decline. Butterflies in the area used be an engaging flutter of diversity - orange tip, brimstone, tortoiseshell, peacock and many more. Now, my butterfly observations seem to be dominated by hedge browns (gatekeepers). Whether this may be due to climate change, comparative food plant abundance or a range of factors is hard to say.
On my visit in 2018, the sinister encroachment of hogweed, an invasive species, was obvious on many verges. Also, there seemed a greater than usual amount of hedge bedstaw (not to be confused with the yellow lady’s bedstraw). Whether this plant has become invasive in the area might be worth looking at. In addition, many verges are much more overgrown than they used to be 20 or 30 years ago, with coarse grasses and scrub.
These are symptoms of an ecosystem out of balance. Pollution is certainly a prime suspect as a causitive factor. However, a cacophany of other factors is also likely to have played a part including climate change, poor verge management and habitat loss. Unfortunately, the difficulty lies in proving causal connections in order to bring about change. More data on pollution-levels and their effect on wildflowers would be useful in this regard.
The observations I have presented here are purely subjective, anecdotal and seen through a limited lens. However, the ‘snapshot’ quality of my perspective makes the juxtaposition of then and now even more stark – and depressing. Furthermore, the extent to which these observations correlate with more widespread changes is disturbing. If such changes can happen in the short space of one lifetime then that does not bode well for the future.
This celebration of Keble Martin’s legacy is timely in drawing attention to the critically important issue of wildflower biodiversity both within the local area and nationally. Wildflowers are part of the interconnected web of life, the ecosystem. As such, the ecological implications of their loss are huge.
His Concise British Flora in Colour is much more than just an ID guide. It is a repository of knowledge, a historical-ecological document of what flower species were present in Britain at a certain moment of time, painstakingly assembled through personal experience and skill. It provides a guideline and inspiration for future generations - and I hope also a spur for conservation, lest these beloved wayside companions are lost for good.
Joanna Ward (BSc Hons) was born and grew up in Woodbury Salterton, Devon. Since 1994 she has lived in the village of Warrington on the south island of New Zealand. She is married with two sons and works in the Zoology Department of the University of Otago as a molecular biology technician.