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In praise of our plant life; Environment Editor Tony Henderson on why it's time that plants stopped being the poor relation.

WHEN it comes to popularity contests, plants are losing out. In TV programmes like David Attenborough's current Life series, the focus is firmly on the animal world.

And that, warns Newcastle University's Dr Anne Borland, could have drastic consequences.

For youngsters, and later undergraduate students, plants take second place to animals.

That has meant that Newcastle University has dropped its plants sciences degree course because of falling numbers of students opting to take the course.

The subject is now taught as part of a general biology degree.

"The worldwide shortage of botanists and plant scientists is a cause for concern," says Dr Borland, Reader in Molecular Plant Physiology and director of the university's Moorbank Botanic Gardens.

Especially as plants form the basis of the food chain, feed most of the world, are crucial to medicine and are enormously important economically. "These days undergraduates want to study zoology and animals. Plants just aren't seen as sexy or attractive," said Dr Borland.

She will be underlining her concerns when she gives Durham Wildlife Trust's annual Tom Dunn memorial lecture on Tuesday.

The 7.30pm public lecture is at Durham Town Hall off the Market Place. Admission is pounds 5. "TV wildlife programmes make animals very appealing to young people , while gardening programmes target an older age group," says Dr Borland.

"There aren't many, if any, TV programmes which make plants relevant or exciting."

Another side of the same coin is the falling number of traditional leek shows in the North East, which many seasoned growers put down to the fact that younger people are simply not interested in raising leeks.

Dr Borland says: "A survey we carried out showed that people did not necessarily think of plants as living things and many could not name an economically important plant, like tea or sugar beet.

"A lot of people don't think of plants as important. They are just there, and they are taken for granted."

Although the growing interest in gardens in school grounds was encouraging, it is a challenge for many teachers to make plants exciting.

The lack of future botanists and plant scientists is worrying when there will be a need to double food production over the next 40-50 years, warns Dr Borland.

With a finite amount of land and threats from climate change, like drought, plants will have to be made much more productive - which will take expertise.

"We hear a lot about animal species at threat from climate change, but not so much about the plants which are threatened, yet they are the base of the food chain," says Dr Borland.

"Plants also create beautiful landscapes, but in the TV programmes they seldom get a mention."

Most people did not realise how sophisticated and complex plants were. "Plants are fascinating. They are living organisms and, for example, can tell the time through internal clocks which are very similar to our own body clocks.

"We have to make plants more interesting to young people so that we have the experts of the future."

Youngsters on the garden butterfly beat - Page 28 RECYCLING RATES ARE SET TO RISE BIG recycling increases are in the pipeline for the North East, it was predicted yesterday.

On Thursday, the latest Government figures showed that the region recycled 31.1% of its household waste in 2008-09, which is the lowest rate in England. The national average was 37.6%.

But in North Tyneside, whose rate was 28.78%, the introduction of new wheelie recycling bins could double the tonnage of material recycled. The bins, which allow cardboard to be recycled and have a separate caddy for glass, have replaced the previous kerbside black box system and have now been delivered to 85,000 homes.

In the first quarter of 2009, recycling rates in North Tyneside were nearly 40%. In County Durham, Sedgefield, Durham City, Wear Valley, and Chester-le-Street, were all below 27%.

But a spokeswoman for Durham county council said the new unitary authority has allowed a more joined-up approach towards recycling. In the first quarter of this financial year, the recycling rate was 34% with the second quarter likely to hit 39%.

Elsewhere, a spokesperson for Northumberland County Council said: "Things are changing quite rapidly now and there have been great improvements in the region."

And a Newcastle City Council spokesman said: "Recycling in Newcastle has come a long way since 2001, when just 3% of the waste was being recycled."


PLEA FOR PLANTS Dr Anne Borland, Reader in Molecular Plant Physiology at Newcastle University.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 7, 2009
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