“Persist onward” – the 97-year-old horseback-riding botanist fighting to protect England’s natural wildflowers.
Margaret Bradshaw crouches on all fours on Widdybank Fell in Teesdale, being drenched by sheets of horizontal rain. The 97-year-old botanist mumbles the names of arcane plants as she scours the damp ground.
This section of the highlands appears to be a barren terrain, largely populated by sheep, but it conceals valuable plant life that has existed here for over 10,000 years. A few of these plants are exclusive to this region and – prior to Bradshaw’s arrival – were not documented.
Bradshaw is the primary caretaker of some of the most uncommon flowers in the country. For seventy years, she has been intensely researching the distinctive arctic-alpine plant life in Teesdale, located in northern England.
During the appropriate time of year, these blooms resemble precious gemstones, but currently they appear as clusters of small foliage. Despite this, Bradshaw remains enthusiastic and uses hand gestures to describe the plants, as if conducting an unseen musical performance.
Once abundant throughout Britain, now only fragments of these species remain, with 28 facing the threat of extinction.
Bradshaw, who has recently written a comprehensive 288-page book on the topic, proudly declares that every aspect of Teesdale is one-of-a-kind.
The book “Teesdale’s Special Flora: Places, Plants and People” was released in February as a part of the Princeton Wild Guides series. The unique combination of alpine-arctic flowers and southern European species found in the Teesdale region is highly praised, as it is not found anywhere else in Britain.
However, the distinct characteristics of this area are currently in jeopardy. Bradshaw has been documenting the existence of uncommon plants in this location since the 1950s and has observed significant decreases. Her findings were the initial evidence of this issue and highlight the necessity to take action.
Bradshaw was first introduced to Teesdale during her time as a student at Leeds University nearly eight decades ago. The area left a lasting impression on her, as she was aware of its unique plant life. Despite never having visited before, she relocated to Teesdale and pursued a doctorate in botany at Durham University.
After living in Devon for 20 years starting in 1980, she went back to Teesdale and observed a significant decrease in plant population. On average, there has been a 54% decline in plant abundance since the 1960s. Some species, like the dwarf milkwort, have almost disappeared with a 98% decrease, while others like the hoary whitlow-grass have completely vanished with only one recorded plant remaining. The data collected by her indicates that these alarming declines are ongoing.
Bradshaw views the decrease in numbers as a loss of British culture. She believes that if iconic landmarks like Stonehenge and Durham Cathedral were deteriorating, there would be efforts to preserve them because people would not want to see them disappear. However, the decline of these flowers, which have been around for much longer, is not receiving the same level of attention despite their beauty.
One of the main causes for the decrease in these plants is a unique factor – a lack of sheep. By 2000, the number of sheep on the fells had dropped by 50%, as it was commonly believed that the highlands were being “overgrazed”. According to Bradshaw, although some upland regions may be suffering from excessive grazing, limiting grazing in Teesdale has had a disastrous impact. The longer grass now blocks sunlight from reaching the fragile flowers, hindering their growth.
Due to her research and collaboration with farmers who use the land for grazing, along with Natural England, which oversees it, there has been an increase in the number of sheep and a more strategic approach to grazing times. As a result, some plant species have shown signs of recovery.
However, there is still the question of other influences to consider, such as the impact of artificial fertilizers, the presence of rabbits affecting grazing, and the climate crisis. Bradshaw acknowledges that more data is needed to fully understand the effects of climate change on these factors. She also expresses concern that all efforts may be in vain due to the current climate crisis.
Bradshaw is dedicated to resolving these puzzles and serves as an example of how to thrive in your nineties. At the age of 93, she established the Teesdale Special Flora Research and Conservation Trust to document uncommon plants and recruit individuals to carry on her work in the coming years. Despite being an avid horseback rider, at 95 she embarked on a 55-mile (88km) horse trek across Teesdale and raised nearly £10,000 for the trust. When asked about the key to living a long life, she simply advises, “Just keep moving forward. Don’t become complacent and watch TV all day.”
She doesn’t have much time for fooling around. In reply to multiple questions she doesn’t want to answer, she tells me to “Read my book.” She also has opinions about my driving (“too fast!”) and sharply silences me when I ask a question while she’s focused on something else. She describes her brain as being like railway tracks with small spaces that need to be filled in, which can be time-consuming.
Bradshaw’s impact can be seen through the many botanists she has educated and motivated. She believes that in order to protect Teesdale, it is crucial to get others to care about it. However, this requires a thorough understanding of the region, as there are still large areas that have not been thoroughly surveyed. Mapping these areas is a slow and repetitive process, with botanists examining plants within each 10-meter by 10-meter grid. Experts estimate that at least 10,000 more grid surveys need to be completed. As Bradshaw acknowledges her age and the need for others to continue her work, she hopes to inspire more people to contribute to the records, although some may not believe she won’t be around forever.
She is already starting to become somewhat of a legend. Online sources have falsely claimed that she is the oldest debut author and that she only learned to ride at the age of 93. She dismisses this as untrue, using her preferred phrase once again. In reality, she has been riding since the young age of five and has been eager to publish her book well before reaching 100. Unfortunately, if things continue at this pace, the delicate environment that she has been carefully watching over may also become a thing of legend.
Although Bradshaw has worked hard to protect and preserve this land, its future remains uncertain. The closing words of her book reflect the ongoing loss she faces. She states, “This collection of plant species is our legacy, belonging to both you and me. Despite my efforts, I have been unable to stop its decline. Now, it is in your hands.”
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