Where have all the Primroses gone?

The extremely wet winter has washed up large amounts of mud onto country roads. It remains in roads after the water drains away. Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris and Lords-and-ladies, Arum maculatum seem to be the main early beneficiaries to grow after the downpours above. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Primroses, Primula vulgaris, are appearing in the hedgerows. They are a common springtime flower whose annual reappearance is all too easy to take for granted. The Prim of its name does not suggest prim, but rather Prime. Primroses are our first roses of the year. It niggles at me that they are not as abundant as I remember in childhood. I remember a time when you could pick a bunch of Primroses and leave lots behind without leaving any discernible impression. Primroses may not be on the UK’s protected plant species list, but if you were to pick a bunch now you would seriously deplete a local hedgerow display.

Primrose, Primula vulgaris
© Karen Netto (Andrews)

There may be an understandable suspicion that my childhood nostalgia could be misleading me. I have confirmed their relative decline with local botanists. In the past, I didn’t have to venture too far on my legs or bike to find hedgebanks full of Primroses. Returning to my native Somerset after years of living in London means that the reductions have struck me more profoundly than a gradual decline might have before my very eyes. When standing in a familiar site, my memory transports me back in time. I can point to where the Primroses used to be. In the West Country, we expect to find Primroses well beyond the confines of woodland habitats.

The Woodland Trust’s Nature’s Calendar invites citizen scientists to record their first sightings of particular springtime species. Strangely, the humble Primrose is not included among them. National botanical recording locates a plant within a square and moves on. There is a natural tendency to focus on rarer plants. It strikes me that the same forces that are making some local plants rare, endangered or extinct are reducing the numbers of common plants too. Where have all the Primroses gone?

A Very, Very Wet Winter

Met Office figures show that the UK had the wettest February on record in February 2020 and the 5th wettest winter. In the 3 months from November 2019 to January 2020, the South West had the highest rainfall at 420mm of all English regions. It came second only to the North West of England with 1,228mm in the year from February 2019 to January 2020.

We were mercifully spared the heartbreaking flooding of other parts of the country in Somerset. There were a number of storm and flood warnings in place. Local perceptions seem to be that dredging, better drainage and flood management spared us.

There is disbelief that building work is still being carried out on flood plains despite the declared Climate Emergency. Generally, local flood plains held the water as they are meant to do. There was some localised flooding, but there was not a repetition of the devastating floods of 2014. At that time, local people felt aggrieved that experts hadn’t listened to them about the benefits of dredging on the Somerset Levels. It was a different story this time. Nonetheless, the frequent, heavy downpours have had an effect on local fields and hedgerows. I have already noticed some effects. I don’t yet know what the lasting effects will be on local wildflowers as the year progresses.

Scientific Data and Anecdotal Evidence

My botanical studies have taught me to observe habitats more closely. Anecdotal evidence is not trusted by scientists. Data rules. I rue the day that my childhood pressed flower collection was thrown out in preparation for a house move. It might have provided some verification of my memories. It might even have been possible to analyse the chemicals present in specimens. A recently published study discussed the presence of nitrogen and potassium in farming. These are facts that I do not possess. I have memories and emotions distrusted by scientists. And yet, if we want to make others notice the disappearance of rare and common wild flowers and raise a call for action, facts are rarely enough. Emotions sway the argument, as Greta Thunberg is ably demonstrating on the climate emergency.

I share with you my photographic evidence on what is happening to hedgerows in my local area, so that you may draw your own conclusions.

References and Further Reading

Countrysideinfo.co.uk (2011): Primrose, Primula vulgaris. Devon Biodiversity Action Plan. Last accessed 10 March 2020.

Legislation.gov.uk (2011): Schedule 8. Plants which are protected. Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Revised 2011. Last accessed 10 March 2020

Mann, Christina (2016): Flooding in the Somerset Levels, 2014. Oxford University Press 2016 GeoActive Series 27, Issue 2, January 2016. Last accessed 10 March 2020

Met Office (2020): Record breaking rainfall. Press Office. 2 March 2020. Last accessed 10 March 2020

National Resources Hydrology Team (2020): Weekly rainfall and river flow summary. Weekly bulletin 12 to 18 February 2020. Environment Agency. Last accessed 10 March 2020.

Ridding, Lucy E. et al. (2020): Long-term change in calcareous grassland over 3 time periods between 1970 and 2016. Plant Ecology. 5 March 2020. Springer. Last accessed 10 March 2020.

Soil Association (2015): Runaway Maize. Subsidized Soil Destruction. June 2015. Last accessed 10 March 2020

Woodland Trust (2020): Nature’s Calendar. Help us track the effects of weather and climate change on wildlife near you. Last accessed 10 March 2020.

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