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Gardening craze a threat to our wild flowers

Friday 13 May 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, himself a keen gardener, worries about the threat to our wild flowers from TV's obsession with gardening as a competitive sport

I WAS out fishing a fly this week on a delightful pool on the upper reaches of the River Aire and, as a casting mark under a willow on the far bank, there was a proud clump of marsh marigolds glowing gold in the early morning sun.

Although the fishing was poor - thanks, perhaps, to a bitter northerly wind despite the bright sunshine - such a sight warms the old cockles. But it also brought back sad memories.

A few years ago, I used to fish a similar pool which, earlier in the year - late March or April - had a moss-covered bank absolutely strewn with primroses, thick as the proverbial carpet. Then, one morning, they were all gone - dug up and stolen, no doubt by some keen city gardener who wanted a slice of the Dales in his back yard.

Disappearing Dales fern

Britain's wild flowers have been under threat for half a century, mainly due to the misguided urgings of the old Min. of Ag. cajoling farmers to use more and more artificial fertilisers and herbicides to produce a countryside of monotone grassland - England's green and not-so-pleasant land.

Fortunately, this has now been discredited and efforts are underway (twenty years too late, say some) to put the balance right. Under new CAP rules, farmers will be paid for encouraging wild species in field margins (if, of course, the chaos in the Rural Payments Agency ever gets sorted out).

But as we reported this week (see News, Monday) a new threat is emerging, no doubt encouraged by a plethora of gardening programmes on television which have made this most gentle of hobbies into a competitive sport for young townies keen, not just to keep up with the Joneses, but to out-do them.

And this lot are raiding the countryside to dig up rare plants in such numbers that some are actually threatened with extinction. One of those at risk is the holly fern, which was once common in the limestone rich Yorkshire Dales, but which has now been placed on the official Red List of endangered species.

Now there is nothing new about outsiders raiding the Dales for their gardens. Drystone walls have been plundered for years to make rockeries in the suburbs. Fifteen years ago, things got even worse when they began to attack rare limestone pavements - a virtually unique Dales geological feature - with pick axes for ornamental garden stone.

Now I don't blame people forced to live in our dreary suburbs for wanting to make their places look more like the countryside - that has been the dream of urban Englishman since the Industrial Revolution.

But they should at least have the decency to pay for their pleasures: there are a thousand and one garden centres selling these items and - better still - many of them are offering "artificial" stone made out of concrete so cleverly that it takes an expert to spot the difference.

As for stealing our wild plants, that is totally unforgivable. There are, of course, laws against it - people can be fined many hundreds of pounds or even sent to prison in severe cases - but try as I can, I cannot remember a single case of anyone being taken to court on such a charge.

Country folk spend a lot of time, money and effort in keeping our countryside looking as it does and visiting townies benefit from that for free. But we, too, like our wild flowers - and we would like them to stay put, thank you very much.

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