The poppy still flourishes, but other familiar plants are getting rare or have already disappeared
No shortage of poppies in a field in Touraine, but cornflowers and corncockle are less often seen. (Photography: Alamy)
Some wild flowers have already vanished from the French countryside. Pheasant’s eye, cornflower, corncockle and Venus’s looking glass are getting rare. The environment ministry is preparing a plan to preserve these plants, whose life cycle is closely linked to the harvest.
“All over Europe the situation is the same, with these species in serious decline,” says Amélie Coantic, at the ministry’s wildlife department. “Out of 102 varieties identified in France, 52 are under threat and seven have already disappeared.”
For thousands of years they flourished beside wheat and rye and other cereals, but they have not been able to withstand intensive farming. Although they are hardly competitive with the main crop, they have long been treated as weeds.
“Widespread use of herbicides was a turning point,” says Frédéric Coulon, an agricultural engineer at Solagro, an organisation advocating sustainable farming. “To achieve the largest possible yields, farmers increased seed density and prevented these species from growing.”
With changes in crop cycles, specialised seeds, deep ploughing and land with poor productivity being set aside, wild flowers have been driven to the edges of fields, where they struggle to survive. In the Paris area, a third of them have disappeared already and another third is threatened with extinction. The poppy is still abundant all over France, but corncockle and darnel, among others, are in a precarious situation.
Botanists started being worried in the 1960s, because the flowers are a good indication of biodiversity on farmland, and they provide food for many pollinating insects. “In the long term losing these pollinators will damage farming itself, because even cereals need to be pollinated,” Coulon said.
The plants also nourish wild birds and help combat crop pests by attracting ladybirds and syrphids, which feed on aphids, acting as a natural pesticide and reducing the need for chemicals.
“We need to draw attention to the biological value of these plants, so that their disappearance is no longer the exclusive concern of naturalists,” says Serge Largier, head of the Pyrenees Botanical Conservatory (CBN). “That way farmers may learn to cultivate their land as an ecosystem in its own right, not just an expanse of monoculture.”
France’s national plan for 2012-16 will include an overall inventory and the introduction of agro-ecological zones which must provide strips for wild flowers. “We may consider encouraging reseeding or setting aside more land as fallow,” says Coantic. The specialists believe that to save these species the use of herbicides and fertilisers will have to be reduced, with a return to shallow ploughed furrows.
This article originally appeared in Le Monde
Author: Céline Blampain
Source: The Guardian