Earlier this year I signed up to do a Wildflowers Count survey for Plantlife. I'm not an expert botanist but I reckoned I could identify enough of the common wildflowers to make my contribution worthwhile. I would enjoy a gentle stroll in the warm May sunshine (my pack recommended going at this time of year if my survey area had woodland elements), the fieldbanks and hedgerows heady with cow parsley, fidgeting with bees and butterflies.
Cut to reality. I decided to go today. It was the time the handbook suggested, and crucially, my other half - a far better naturalist than I - was available to come with me. We headed off to my given survey square - an area of mixed habitats, including some conifer plantation, mixed woodland and field edge on a breezy rise just north-west of Dunblane. The thermometer was struggling to hit 7C. It was drizzling with rain and a bone-chilling wind was blowing in from the north-east.
Swathed in waterproofs, wellies and woolly hats we combed the 1km length of the survey area - a 2m strip on one side of our chosen route. The plantation at the start of our survey had recently been felled, leaving the track battlescarred with heavy-duty tyre ruts, and many of the plants spattered with ashy-grey mud. After 10 minutes my pencil-holding fingers had begun to burn with cold. It was lucky my husband was there to take over the scribing duties while I pulled my sweater down over my hands to ward off incipient frostbite. But despite the unpromising surroundings, and the fact that due to weeks of arctic weather hardly anything was actually in flower, we managed to identify 26 species of wildflowers, shrubs and trees in this short section. The most exciting plant was the smallest - a couple of tiny fronds of pignut, a small member of the carrot family that indicates that this place had been old grassland long before the conifers arrived.
As we crossed to the arable section of the route a lone yellowhammer started to sing a truncated version of its usual 'bread and no cheese' song. 'A little bit of...', 'a little bit of...' it went, as if had forgotten the lyrics to a half-remembered old favourite. The field margin by the track was a predictable tangle of nettles and cleavers, hogweed and rank grasses, but every so often we would (we = mostly my husband) find a little pearl hiding among the swine. There was a patch of black knapweed, another fine grassland flower that would shine out like a tiny amethyst in late summer. A yellow vetching, winding its cotton-fine stem up through the grass towards the light before it flowered in a few weeks time. Even a single, gnarled hawthorn standing sentinel where once there must have been a proud, dense hedge to keep the beasts in the field. Now the field was a dark, damp desert of earth and field beans, and any wild flowers that once graced it had been consigned to history.
At the end of the track we had amassed 42 species in just one kilometre stretch of very degraded habitat. It seemed a creditable total, but how many would there have been just a few decades ago? The tiny hints of the richer, past life of the land somehow made the current paucity of plants more saddening, more maddening. Arable intensification has sucked the life out of our fields and hedgerows. Collecting the information certainly wasn't the experience I'd expected. I ended up cold, wet, and very depressed. Yet for all that I think - I hope - it was worth the effort . If Plantlife can use the information that we, and hundred of other volunteers, have collected to accurately map the places where our wild plants are found - and lost - we may be better armed to fight for their return.