18 May 2020
A bee enjoying a trefoil flower.
There are signs, in messages flying around the city of people’s concern over “scruffiness” as grass verges and park grasslands remain unmowed, and living things begin to grow. The whole of nature has put on a good show through the lockdown. There seem to be more birds around, vigorously singing. Plants also seem to be going for vigorous growth. That might be me seeing more as I am anchored to my little local area, but I am wondering if all of creation benefits from cleaner air, not just humans.
The drive to tidy and control nature is a very common one in English garden practice. Garden centres have vast quantities of herbicides and pesticides on show. You can wipe out any non-grass species from your lawn with a single application. Our council appears to firmly believe in the tradition of tidiness, or else it sees adopting tidiness is a good way to popularity:
“Liverpool’s public green spaces will soon be getting a much needed trim”.
Is the tradition of keeping the grass tidy something we can really accept or is it a nightmare we should reject? Do wildflowers do anything for us?
1. Do we enjoy their beauty? I would answer that with a resounding yes. Where I live on Menlove Avenue the growing year in the central reservation begins with the flowering of daffodil and snowdrop cultivars. Mowing starts on, I think, a 15 day cycle while they are in flower. Thankfully the mowers work around them, but even as the growing season begins, they reduce the grass to a miniscule height. Flowers that have low growing rosettes of leaves like daisies may survive but get little chance to flower. As soon as the weather turns dry the minimal green covering causes the soil to dry out quickly and in no time we have an unhealthy looking yellowing sward to enjoy. What happened this year with no mowing? A few violets and cuckoo flowers appeared. Hundreds of daisies flowered along with dandelions—constellations of white and yellow stars set against the green grass. My impression is that the dandelions are seen as an especial enemy of tidiness. They have the kind of demon reputation that gets applied to any species that can go toe to toe with man. Grey squirrels morph into “tree rats”, pigeons into “flying rats”, and as for rats, well their very name is a vilification. How would a dandelion be described in a seedsman’s catalogue—rich shining yellow blooms, complex attractive geometric foliage, amazing globular feathered seed heads for the kids to play with?? The daisies and dandelions have died back now, although they will attempt to come again. In their place, although due to be mown down, white clover is growing, the grasses are flowering, black medick is flowering, globe thistles, sow thistles, shepherd’s purse, mouse ear, groundsel are springing up.
I would very much prefer all of those to the struggling scalped rank grass that awaits
2. Do we care about insect survival? There are lots of peer reviewed papers on the decline of insects 1 , but for a shorter read see “Massive Decline in Insects” in Global Farming at https://www.globalagriculture.org/whats-new/news/en/33575.html . The likely extinction of insect species is running at 40% over the next few decades, with the species we rely on to pollinate flowers such as bees, butterflies and moths the worst affected. The drop in the total mass of insects is running at a massive 2.5% per year. Huge numbers of species that we rely on, do themselves rely on insects. Many birds, fishes, reptiles and mammals eat insects or like us rely on plants that require insect pollinators. Mass starvation seems a likely outcome. Quite apart from our efforts to wreck the world through global warming, we face the destruction of the ecosystems that keep us alive. The decline in insects is apparent to anyone who has been driving for 20 years. The days of coming back from a long drive with the windscreen clogged with dead insects are long gone.
Why are they dying out? An obvious starter is pollution in all its forms. The very chemical brews that we love to keep nature under control are extraordinarily destructive. We have replaced the DDT of Silent Spring, by highly persistent chemicals like fipronil and neonicotinoids that sterilise the soil, killing all insect grubs and altering insect behaviour destructively.
A side, but vital issue for the Council -please never use herbicides. They are probably as dangerous to humans as they are to the rest of nature.
A second cause has to be global warming. Very small animals with very little body mass, relative to surface area are extremely sensitive to heating—they have lots of surface to absorb heat, and it is dispersed in little body mass. Certainly, gross
changes in climate are hastening insect extinctions.
A third major problem, and the one that most concerns us here, is loss of habitat.The vast majority of insects are reliant on plants as food and as safe habitat. If we crowd out green space with buildings and roads, room for animals disappears. If we reduce our grasslands to green deserts of scalped grass, where are the flowers for the insects, where are the safe habitats and food supplies?
Are these somebody else’s problem, not yours? Clearly there is a great deal to do to improve the situation in farming practice, but as Plantlife (https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk ) point out Every Flower Counts – the destruction of every one of those daisies, dandelions, nipplewort, bird’s foot trefoils etc. etc. is another blow to the ecosystems we depend on. From this standpoint the drive for tidiness by the Council is almost incomprehensible, although I am learning through the pandemic that many of the actions taken by our government, and other politicians are quite incomprehensible to anyone giving them a little thought.
3. Pathways for wildlife. Imagine you are marooned in a little grassy area; if you go outside you will have no food, will probably be mown down by a car or otherwise killed off. You have to find a mate inside that little area. If food runs out in your little island you just starve. These kinds of pressures face most animals -birds might have a bit of a break in that they can travel a bit more safely. If we want to preserve our wildlife we need to make sure the green areas are joined up and providing healthy levels of cover and food. If we do this, the various species are no longer trapped on islands-long green routes like the old Liverpool Loop Line potentially provide safe ways for all manner of species to find food, mates, and safety across the City as the seasons change.
We have much to do to join up our green areas, but a good start would be to ensure that long connecting road verges in particular are not near dead monocultures but healthy, varied habitats with many flower species and some degree of cover.
So what do the flowers do for us, apart from keep us alive? I would argue that we should preserve the flowers for their beauty alone. There is a mass of evidence that the opportunity to walk through green, growing natural scenery is vital for mental health. The analysis from the Office of National Statistics that 1 in 8 households in Britain do not have access to a garden emphasises the point. Green areas are also vital to us to absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants to reduce global warming and improve air quality. However, on top of these benefits, they are vital for our survival-if the insects go then so does our way of life.
At the very least we should hold off mowing of verges and defined areas of parkland until the early autumn, give the flowers the opportunity to bloom, and the insects to reproduce. Ideally encourage, perhaps as a community activity, the identification of areas where we could sow appropriate species-I would love to see corncockle, snakeshead fritilleries, corn marigold, welsh poppies, yellow rattle growing across our city.
1. Sánchez-Bayoa, F, and,⁎, Kris A.G. Wyckhuy (2019) Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers Biological Conservation, 232, pp.8-27 available at https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0006320718313636?token=2FC2EF284748AD87F18F4B4668AB2ADAC480261EC8FEDB5DCA9F954EFE5A14A73B8AC3241827B9725C44B77061846EAC