Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, David Jamieson from the City of Edinburgh Council describes the current state of Scotland's wildflower meadows and discusses the role that local authorities can play in their conservation.
Number 12: Create new wildflower meadows and link these to road verges and existing meadows in every local authority in Scotland to form ‘nectar networks’ for pollinators
Not sure if you have heard, but something like 97% of our wildflower meadows have disappeared over the last 75 years. If we changed that to read “97% of Brazil’s rainforest has disappeared over the last 75 years” then there would be protests, marches and international calls for conservation action. But rarely is an influential voice raised in anger over this distressing statistic. If you aren’t a member of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Plantlife or the RSPB, or a reader of the Guardian, chances are it has passed you by. Intensive agriculture is of course the culprit, along with its usual co-accused – urban sprawl and pesticides. But this is not a victimless crime, because of the loss of this nectar and seed rich habitat farmland birds have declined by 54% since the 1970s, butterflies by 41%, bee populations continue to tumble, and over a thousand species are in danger of extinction from our shores.
Fortunately, Scotland’s towns and cities have an abundance of parks and public green spaces, an inheritance from far sighted city leaders, philanthropists and planners who clearly recognised that people need to connect regularly with nature if they are to have healthy and rich lives. Even today, as the urban envelope widens ever-further, planners and developers are mindful of the desire for residents to exercise, relax and take pleasure in an attractive green environment. Traditionally, local authorities have sought to make their parks and other green spaces neat and tidy in-line with the aesthetic of the day, but in recent years that aesthetic has swung towards acceptance and even demand for a more naturalistic look in many places.
Biodiversity is no longer the domain of ecologists, but an increasingly sought after element of people’s use and enjoyment of the outdoors. Thousands of trees and flowering bulbs get planted every winter by communities keen to do their bit for nature, nest and roost boxes get added daily to trees and structures, small meadow areas get sown for bees and other pollinators, and even bugs and beasties now have a network of urban hotels they can call home.
Like many local authorities, the City of Edinburgh recognises both the plight of the bumblebee and the call of nature. We have biodiversity action plans, open space strategies and even an Edinburgh Living Landscape initiative, but what we have most of is land. Consequently, over the last two years we have worked with communities across the capital to turn much of our green desert into either wildflower meadow, or at least a close facsimile to it. So that around one-tenth of our park, housing estate, school playing field and roadside verge grass is no longer cut 16 times each spring and summer, but is allowed to “naturalise” until needing a single cut when autumn arrives.
Don’t get me wrong, not everyone likes it in this “messy” state, so visually important areas are supplemented with wildflowers or even re-sown as “pictorial” meadows so that they exhibit colour and interest from March through to September. On-going surveys by Edinburgh University have shown that these meadows are especially important for bee species, particularly when dandelions and other early flowering “weeds” are in bloom around March, April and May. Meadows containing common species such as wild carrot, hawkbit, buttercup, common poppy, black knapweed, and corn marigold are also valuable nectar sources for spring flying pollinators.
Now, if every Scottish authority, backed up by other major landowners of public space such as Transport Scotland and Network Rail, followed Edinburgh’s lead we could create “nectar networks” throughout our towns and cities and even between our urban communities. Although all efforts to create wildflower meadows are to be welcomed, only by acting at this landscape scale can we hope to redress our 97% wildflower loss and put in place robust habitat for those birds, bees and bugs that once flourished in our farmlands. So, if your Council is still fixated by a lawn and lollipop tree mentality, why not suggest that they find their inner-naturalist and look for areas of green space that can be naturalised without any impact on other recreational uses … it may even save them money! By working together towards this common goal we can significantly improve biodiversity where most people live, work and play simply by changing the way we maintain our urban parks and gardens. It’s a win-win for both wildlife and humans.
Let us know your thoughts by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.
David Jamieson is a chartered Ecologist & Environmental Manager, responsible for managing Edinburgh’s public parks and greenspaces.