There was once a plant. Not showy like many of our garden flowers, but nevertheless pretty enough that, back in the day when it grew abundantly through the wheat fields on our local downland, bunches of it used to be gathered and taken to Covent Garden Market, where flower vendors would sell it under the name ‘Red Morocco’. Native to Southern Europe, it was introduced to our shores in the Iron Age as a seed contaminant of grain. And although, like many in the Ranunculaceae (the buttercup family), it was mildly poisonous to humans and livestock, it seldom set enough seed or produced enough vegetation to cause any harm.
The plant, whose common name was Pheasant’s Eye, was one of a suite of species which had evolved in tandem with human beings, and specifically our ever-growing skill in food cultivation. Like the grains with which it grew, it had adapted to survive in disturbed environments, giving it a competitive advantage as the agricultural era ushered in an age of land clearance. Arable weeds of this sort, like shepherd’s needle, corncockle, cornflower and many more, did well up until the twentieth century when their luck ran out in spectacular fashion. Seed-sorting techniques foiled their means of distribution, limiting them to isolated populations, while a new generation of selective herbicides further decimated their numbers. Pheasant’s eye disappeared from our fields, a catastrophic decline of at least 92%, persisting on only in a handful of field margins in Southern England.
One of those locations was local, a lovely arable margin bordered by hedge and woodland, near where the Wayfarer’s Walk leaves the Itchen Valley on its way north. On the marginal land by the hedge grew a number of declining species of sunny field margins, including dwarf spurge, rye brome, and the longest-standing population of Pheasant’s eye in Hampshire (plants rarely grow in isolation – they have associates, parasites, consumers, symbiotes – most of the time the presence of a rarity is an indicator of an unusual ecosystem). That was until early October this year when the hedge was grubbed up and the margin put under the plough, part of an amalgamation of two fields. pheasant’s eye seeds persist in the seed bank for many a year, so we may not have seen the last of it, but unless the landowner has a massive change of heart and works actively to bring it back from the brink, we have just lived through an extinction on our doorstep.
Indeed, the time is coming soon when the only way you’ll be able to experience this once-abundant plant is by visiting an arable reserve like Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm, in which it and other rarities are actively conserved in a semi-wild floral theme park.
The extinction of a large mammal is news-worthy, but real extinction is more often a tortuously slow thinning and fading from the world. The downland stone curlews, ring ouzels and golden plovers beloved of Gilbert White have been largely replaced locally by a monoculture of pheasants. The Pheasant’s eye by a monoculture of wheat. Each loss is a barely perceptible impoverishment of our natural and cultural heritage, plotted slowly enough that each generation becomes used to a baseline that their forebears would have considered impossibly degraded. “There’s no birdsong anymore” say our elders, while those of us born after the twin scourges of DDT and organophosphates hear plenty.
But compared to elsewhere, there is still much to celebrate. The richness of our local flora and fauna is for many the reason we live here at the headwaters of the Itchen and the base of the South Downs. It doesn’t just render our vistas beautiful, it – to put it crassly – gives our homes value. This is not a suburban wasteland, yet. In Alresford, nature, like watercress and kindness to strangers, should be one of the things that we, as a community, take pride in doing well. Having seen how powerful a little bit of civic pride in one’s surroundings can be in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
areas of Menorca, I’d like to see the issue of local biodiversity become every bit as important to our Town Councillors as speed limits and road verges, and as crucial to each of us as rubbish removal and street lighting.
The pheasant’s eye is gone, its legal protection under the NERC act powerless to save it from a landowner’s whim. There may be rocky times for conservation ahead with the changes to legislation that could follow Brexit, but we still have eels, kingfishers, otters and hedgehogs, green-flowered helleborines in the willow carr and whorl-grass on the stream sides, and the most effective protection we can give them as individuals will be if enough of us commit to improving our ecological literacy, and actively search out situations in which we can make a difference. Short of renaming the place where it once grew Morocco Down, that would be the best memorial I could imagine to the little red flower that used to grow in the fields around our town.
Written by Pete Flood