Yes, no mebbe…does the nation care about native plants?

In Autumn every year, Scottish Natural Heritage commissions a public attitude survey about nature [1] . Scotland loves its native plants, doesn’t it?

Scotland’s informal national anthem is ’Flower of Scotland’, Scotland’s national poet had a penchant for wild flowers, his wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r being one of many to feature in his poems, Scotland has a national tree, the Scots pine and, as Hugh MacDiarmid had it, hills that are so much more than nothing but heather. Despite all this, it seems flowers are still not part of Scotland’s natural psyche.

Spear thistle
Spear thistle

When asked what wildlife do you associate most with Scotland, not a single plant, or even tree, was named. I find this hard to believe. Plants define Scotland’s landscapes. Where would machair be without flowers, where would Celtic rainforests be without lichens and bryophytes? Where would the uplands be without heather?

Maybe plants aren’t seen as wildlife? This survey strongly indicates this might be the case: we still not winning the battle of hearts and minds. Plants provide the backdrop but haven’t yet found their way onto centre stage. They remain the wallflowers at the biodiversity ball.

Does this matter? Yes it does.

It is resulting in wild plants being invisible. Plants are not seen as part of wildlife. In 2015, fewer people were concerned about the loss of biodiversity than in 2014. The public is becoming less engaged in biodiversity at home in the garden, fewer people see themselves as green consumers and fewer people are volunteering.

Wild plants are invisible to politicians and policy makers too. Native plant diversity is continuing to decline: in 2007, the Countryside Survey showed significant declines in plant diversity in the best places for plants, as well as in the wider countryside. Even this survey, the only one that monitored long term changes in plant diversity, is no longer funded. This is resulting in an ongoing decline that we can’t see and no longer measure.

And there is the rub. With plants and fungi being invisible to policy makers, there are fewer and fewer resources allocated to them. Funding to the Countryside Survey is being cut and governments across the UK are relying on a new citizen science project [2], run by Plantlife with CEH and BSBI, to assess changes in wild plants. It will take at least 6 years before we have enough data to detect trends, and funding for the survey is only guaranteed until next year. Funding for actual conservation projects is drying up with cuts to SNH grants and no other funders prioritise plant conservation.

The net result will be a continued decline in plant diversity and the concomitant decline in ecosystem diversity, leading to simplified ecosystems. Plantlife’s Vanishing flora report [3], showed the ongoing loss of diversity in plants. Since the 17th century when botanical records began, Scotland has lost 97 native species. And of those left, one in 4 are classified as in danger of extinction.

At Plantlife we want to celebrate our fantastic, life-supporting flora and celebrate our long term love affair with our native plants. But to do that, we need more people to notice them and to value them. That’s the only way we’ll persuade our politicians and policy makers to put resources into plants and fungi conservation. Because if they don’t we’ll continue to be witness to the ongoing loss of native plants across Scotland. That is not a legacy we should be passing on.

Want to help?

With Scottish Environment LINK, Plantlife will be asking all our new MSPs to become Species Champions. Keep an eye on progress here:

Take part in the NPMS to help measure plant diversity across Scotland:




Published by Deborah Long

Having trained as a palaeoecologist, I use knowledge of past environments to find innovative and practical solutions to the environmental issues affecting us all. I am Chief Officer at Scottish Environment LINK, the network for eNGOs working in Scotland, for a sustainable future. For 2 years, I was Programme Director at GROW Observatory, an EU Horizon 2020 project that worked with citizens in 10 countries to gather soil and growing data to share advice and test climate models generated by satellite. Until 2016, I led Plantlife Scotland, working for native plants and their habitats. Before that I headed up the research and arts programme at Kilmartin House museum for archaeology and landscape on the West coast of Scotland.

One thought on “Yes, no mebbe…does the nation care about native plants?

  1. Deborah
    The evidence on plant diversity does seem disappointing and worrying and apparently contrary to societies’ exposure to an increasing number of ‘celebrity nature presenters’ and nature based TV programming plus social media sites apparently promoting biodiversity. Decades of gardening programming too, from Chelsea to the not so humble garden makeover, with plants to the fore, appears to have had little effect on the trends you mention. To influence politicians on any matter it requires the electorate and constituents to shout loudly for change. Are plants the Jeremy Corbyn of the natural world – unthreateningly crumpled, lefty, socially concerned but ultimately unsupportable by the majority?

    Maybe plants need new harder edged champions to take the gloves off and break out of that ‘nice to have Sunday evening slot’ into the 6pm mainstream news. Bacteria seem to have achieved that move. Evolving faster than antibiotics has certainly focused minds, money and political attention – Darwin would be proud. Never mind Brexit – Plantexit is taking us down an even more dangerous road.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: