We need to talk about Nitrogen

Nitrogen in the air is one of the greatest threats to our wild plants, lichens and fungi, yet few people have even heard about it.  Plantlife’s new report, We need to talk about Nitrogen, is released today and raises the alarm about its devastating impacts.

Zigzag harebells at Box Hill, Surrey. Over two thirds of our wild flowers, plants like harebell and betony require only low or medium levels of nitrogen. ©National Trust Images/A Wright

Plantlife’s new report has initiated the long overdue conversation about a neglected environmental issue which is having a significant impact on our habitats and wildlife: atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition.

In the 2016 State of Nature Report the major driver of species loss was identified as the intensification of agricultural practice over the last 50 years. Farming, transport and power stations are major sources of atmospheric N.  In the last century vast amounts of reactive nitrogen have been emitted into the atmosphere, deriving primarily from agricultural intensification (ammonia) and burning fossil fuels (nitrogen oxides).

This over accumulation in the atmosphere has led to the nitrogen deposition as a pollutant, either from the air (dry deposition) or precipitated (wet deposition).

What does this mean for our wildlife?

In affected areas, species that thrive in nitrogen-rich conditions (such as nettles and cow parsley) increase in abundance and nitrogen sensitive species don’t fare well. This leads to homogenisation of habitats, with the potential to reduce the abundance and diversity of other wildlife such as fungi, insects and birds.

Cow parsley. Only robust species, such as nettle, cleavers and cow parsley thrive in nutrient enriched soils. ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

National Trust is a major owner and manager of habitats such as heaths, sand dunes and grasslands on thin soils with low natural fertility that may be harmed by deposition of atmospheric nitrogen.

We’re concerned that the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change-induced longer growing seasons, warmer temperatures and increased CO2, plus the fertilising effect of nitrogen pollution will harm these habitats and the wildlife they support.

What next?

On our own land, we have the opportunity, through our Playing our part strategy, to work with our land managers and tenant farmers to improve the condition and increase the size of our wildlife habitats, making more of them and linking them up.  We’re also exploring how we can work with partners, at a landscape-scale to restore a healthy and beautiful natural environment.

Plantlife are calling for six actions – ranging from government strategies to tackle the impacts of nitrogen emissions; effective monitoring and management of affected areas, and practical support for land managers to reduce emissions; through to greater public awareness of the problem.

Find out more

Read Plantlife’s report and take a look at what they’re calling for on their website.

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One thought on “We need to talk about Nitrogen

  1. It’s great to see that NT are leading change here. I’m a trust member and I’ve just started adapting my garden to improve it’s biodiversity having been inspired by your garden. You’re inspiring on a macro and a micro scale!

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