In 2017 the PGP set out to record the present occurrence of a select group of eight wild plant species, i.e., to compile present-day distribution maps accompanied by information about the circumstances where they grow. By doing this, we hoped:
- to assess whether the flora of the two parishes is becoming more or less diverse, or staying constant;
- to widen interest in our surroundings by inviting anyone to contribute;
- and broadly to assess whether the parish environment has been changing and whether we need to - or can - do anything about it.
The eight species were all grassland species, chosen carefully to be recognisable to non-specialists, informative about environmental change, and broadly representative of the whole flora. Very common and abundant species were excluded because they would overwhelm our capacity to record and anyway would tell us little. Extremely rare species, on the other hand, would be too hard to find and would also tell us only about the one or two places where they survive. We therefore chose species which are or were reasonably frequent.
The eight species were:
- Cowslip and Field scabious, which have a slight (cowslip) or strong (scabious) preference for well-drained, neutral and alkaline soils.
- Bugle, Ragged-robin and Meadowsweet which are associated with poorly-drained, moist (bugle) and wet soils. The latter two are species of marshes.
- Harebell and Tormentil, both herbs of dry, well-drained soils, the latter more of heathy soils, the former with a wider tolerance.
- Yellow rattle, a characteristic annual of hay meadows across a wide range of soils.
All these species were described as common or abundant on the Gloucestershire side of the Wye in Scholbred's Flora of Chepstow, compiled in the early 20th century and published in 1920. W.A.Scholbred was a Chepstow dentist who evidently had the time to range far and wide.
His searches extended as far as the Hudnalls, about which he records specific comments, and from this we know that, 100 years ago, all our eight species were common and widespread. They would not, however, have grown everywhere, for every species has its soil preferences. Thus, for example, one can guess that Field scabious was most frequent on the limestone, whereas Tormentil would have been most frequent on the sandstone.
Between then and now, the 1948 Flora of Gloucestershire provides a general assessment of each species in the Dean district, which includes our parishes, and local records can be extracted from Flora Klickmann's manuscript diary, covering, albeit patchily, the 1920s to the 1940s.
For each of these species we compiled maps and notes. The maps show not only the localities reported by PGP members and other interested people in 2017, but also where the species were recorded in the past. The sources of information about the past included notes made earlier in the 21st century by the PGP and survey records made by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust in the 1990s. A few personal recollections by long-term residents were added, plus the general information extracted from the Flora of Chepstow.
The records we have will be incomplete for each species, and we cannot know by how much. I have looked in the most likely places for species with well-defined habitat preferences, but not on private land where public access is not available
To view the results of the survey for each species, please use the links below:
The PGP flora survey would have been even more revealing if we had recorded other wild flower species of grassland, and perhaps this will be possible in future.
During 2017, I recorded new locations for Pyramidal orchid, Twayblade, Adder's-tongue, Betony, Bistort, Yellow-wort, Salad burnet, Stemless thistle and Zigzag clover, and it was good to hear that Devil's-bit scabious is still growing near Lindors and see that our two national rarities, Tintern spurge and Wood fescue, are still present in the woods.
Nevertheless, one suspects than many others are in decline: to take just the orchids, we know of no sightings in 2017 of Early purple orchid, Green-veined orchid and Autumn lady's-tresses, which were all present until recently.
We can easily claim that any conclusions will be tentative. After all, our maps are to unknown degrees incomplete and the factors that have driven apparent change have not been rigorously researched. However, we will never be sure how complete our knowledge is, and we would need a vast budget to research causes to the standard that would satisfy the editor of a peer-review journal. The saving grace is that such changes have been studied and researched elsewhere, so we can draw on this experience.
So, we must make the best use of what we do know and hope that we will know more in the future. On that basis, I am very sure that there has been a substantial decline in the diversity of the wild flora of our two parishes during the last century, and that it has continued during the last 20 years, despite the best efforts of the PGP and several individual residents.
The forces behind the declines were brought out in the account of cowslips. Intensive farming must have impoverished the flora on the plateau, under-management of grasslands and woodland has depressed the floristic diversity of the woods and the fields elsewhere. Failure to trim hedges and mow road verges will have impoverished the verges. And the general trend to drain wet ground will have caused further loses.
These changes are part of a long-term trend. Until about 1800, the Hudnalls was a mosaic of open woodland and grass-bilberry heath, so our grasslands have been formed out of the available species. During this process, the species that enjoyed hay-making and applications of farmyard manure and basic slag will have prospered, giving us the grassland we still have, and the species of heathlands will have been much reduced and under pressure. Heather and other heaths were part of the local flora 100 years ago, but have long since vanished, but bilberries can still be found on some lane-side banks and there is still a small remnant of the White-climbing fumitory on the Hudnalls Loop.
These long-term and recent changes have happened elsewhere. Apart from nature reserves and a vanished band of traditionally-managed farms, most land has either been cropped intensively or neglected. Attempts by individuals and organisation to arrest or reverse these trends have had limited success and may in time have greater success. However, the time needed is measured in decades or centuries. To take one example, experienced grassland and woodland ecologists can still find differences between habitats that have been in place for centuries and those that have been re-created within the last 200 or more years.
If we wish to maintain the diversity of wild flowers, the best strategy is first to look after the richest habitats then look for chances to build back the flora of other places. This would retain what we have and provide seed to use elsewhere. On this basis, there may be a case for at least identifying 'flora hotspots', then looking for the best opportunities to maintain them. But even this would be difficult: most such hotspots are on private land and the next owner may not be interested.