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Scientists begin huge eco study

Published: 12th May 2006

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The Harebell is among flowers under threat. Photo courtesy of the Weed Science Society of America.

BIODIVERSITY of our planet is being increasingly degraded by human activity – but to what extent and at what speed?

Scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University are taking part in the widest study yet of the impacts of nitrogen emissions from transport, industry and agriculture on plant species loss in Western Europe.

Over the next three years, MMU and partner institutions will set out to determine the time factor of species loss and its relationship to environmental factors man-made and otherwise.

Nancy Dise, Professor of Environmental Science at MMU, contributed to a recent study of 68 sites in the UK, which showed that over the last 40-50 years the diversity of meadows has been reduced by about 25% in areas receiving only average levels of nitrogen in rain and snow*.

100s of test sites

Taking this research forward, Professor Dise and a team of leading ecologists, bio-geochemists and atmospheric chemists aim to find out how serious the problem is in a much larger European study involving seven countries and hundreds of test sites.

Nitrogen is a fertiliser and the more there is in the atmosphere the faster the weedy plants grow, often at the expense of slower-growing flowering plants such as heather, eyebright, ribwort, harebell and orchids, some of which are rare and becoming rarer.

Professor Dise said: “These plants are certainly not as widespread as they should be, and this reverberates in the natural community, impacting on insects that rely on those plants and, in turn on birds.

Planet's life-support system

“As biodiversity is lost, we are chipping away at the life-support system of the planet. We do not know how much of this damage ecosystems can tolerate before they begin to lose functions like clean water, removal of contaminants and storage of carbon and other greenhouse gases.”

Researchers will look at numbers of species and soil chemistry at 50 sites in France, Holland and Germany, plus others in Belgium, Spain and Ireland. Sites of different ‘vulnerability’ including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) will be catalogued to compare effects in contrasting grassland systems.

Results should, they say, help with future predictions of plant biodiversity and crucially provide a steer on the rate of depletion of species.

Chemical, human and physical influences will be considered in relation to the changing diversity of each site.

Insidious effects

Added Professor Dise: “We will be going to some of the wildest and most beautiful parts of Europe, because unfortunately, this is happening in places that people really care about.”

“Pollution is not just an urban problem but is being felt places you might least expect, places that don’t look polluted and where the effects are slow but insidious.”

The €750k project is being funded through the European Science Foundation and is the EU body’s largest research project this year in the field of biodiversity.

Research partners

It is being run under the name BEGIN (Biodiversity of European Grasslands – the Impact of Atmospheric Nitrogen Deposition) and led by Dr David Gowling at the Open University. Partners are the University of Bordeaux, the University of Utrecht and the University of Bremen.

MMU acts as the central quality control laboratory and will coordinate all chemical soil tests.

ends

*Areas that receive higher amounts of nitrogen, such as those downwind from intensively-farmed countryside, showed even higher losses of biodiversity.