The North-West Rare Plant Initiative, a guest blog by Joshua Styles

The concept of island biogeography was first laid out by MacArther & Wilson (1967) in a book entitled ‘The Theory of Island Biogeography’. The concept was relatively simple in its key principles; that ‘islands’ that are small are capable of supporting fewer species than larger ‘islands’, and that the further away these ‘islands’ are from each other, then the less likely it is that a species is able to re-colonise once it becomes extinct.

Since the industrial revolution and Second World War, semi-natural habitats including our flower-rich meadows, heathlands, mosslands and woodlands have been lost, predominantly due to agriculture and forestry. This has left many of our plants in a rather awful predicament; huge expanses of our once flower-rich habitats have been lost, and remaining flower-rich places are in generally very isolated and small pockets of our countryside. In this case, the concept of island biogeography could be said to apply; isolated and small floristically-rich islands are both prone to extinction events, and things that are extinct, are unlikely to re-colonise. The sheer level of habitat loss that has occurred over the past century, and rate at which our flower-rich habitats are still being lost, has meant that one in three wildflowers in Britain are under threat of extinction. Additionally, per county, on average one-two species goes extinct every year in England!

Growing up as a child, one of the most infuriating memories I had each year, was to look at my county’s rare plant register which gives information on the very rarest plants in the county. Almost every year there were new extinctions; it has always been a devastating prospect that the rare, and even some of the more common plant species, could be utterly gone from the region when I am an old man…given the often immense distances other sites are where the species is present, it often will not re-colonise and will be extinct for good.

I now have over 15 years botanical cultivation and recording experience, and this same devastating prospect was the rationale for the beginnings of an initiative for my region (north-west England), the North-West Rare Plant Initiative; to put back & reinforce species on suitable sites that are on the very cusp of extinction in the region.

The North-West Rare Plant Initiative (NWRPI): aims & objectives

The NWRPI is an initiative that I formalised in August 2017 operating across Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire and South Cumbria. There are just under

50 target species for my initiative for which I want to reintroduce and reinforce throughout the region; this isn’t a quick process and involves lots of steps including suitability assessment, consideration of biosecurity concerns, feasibility, etc. (to view an overview of the reintroduction protocol I follow, see www.nwrpi.weebly.com). Additional to my aims involving reintroducing and reinforcing species, the NWRPI aims also to work with landowners of sites with these rare species, to incorporate more favourable management practices. It also aims to establish a national network of propagators for target species to assist in cultivation effort and to act as back-up in the very worst scenarios.

Priority Species

Although extinctions of plants at a regional level doesn’t necessarily equate to extinction at a national level, it is often a precursor to such; thus, conservation at a regional level is of paramount importance, in addition to looking at species in a national context. As well as conserving rare plants because we need to maintain a level of biodiversity, plants offer us a lot…They are the fundamental basis of all life on earth; they give us food, building materials, medicine and are shown to improve aspects of our mental health. Aside from these qualities and products plants offer, they’re just downright AMAZING…

An example of one of the species I am cultivating is Oblong-Leaved Sundew (Drosera intermedia). It is one of the more spectacular things I grow and is a carnivorous plant in the family Droseraceae. It grows on very wet, acid, nutrient-deficient peat bogs and wet heaths throughout Britain and Ireland & has fantastic tentacle-like structures with terminal mucus-producing glands. Once small invertebrates land on these mucus-covered tentacles, the plant is able to digest the organism and absorb the nitrogen content which is otherwise unavailable in the nutrient deficient peat bogs. Oblong-Leaved Sundew has unfortunately declined substantially in the region due to these peat bogs being formerly drained for forestry and excavated for peat; it now exists in often very isolated pockets of wet heath and peat bog that remain across the North-West region.

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Olong-Leaved Sundew courtesy of Steven Barlow.

Into the not-so-distant future!

Within the next year of my initiative, a lot of prospective reintroductions are planned many thanks to the assistance provided by funding from individual donors and Chester Zoo. An example of one up-and-coming introduction would be the introduction of Sheep’s-Bit (Jasione montana) onto Freshfield Dune Heath, Sefton Coast. This fantastic place is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is currently under the management of Lancashire Wildlife Trust, dominated by expanses of acid heathland and grassland. Sheep’s Bit is a species doing rather poorly in the region given its poor ability to disperse and loss of heathland and acid grassland; so bad in fact, that in 2017, the entire S. Lancashire population was down to two individual plants. Following 2017 sampling of seed from Cheshire and North Wales and permission granted by the trust, I now have a substantial number of plants ready for introduction onto Freshfield Dune Heath, close to where it had recently disappeared from.

On a final note, it should be noted that all species introductions are well justified by a stringent protocol and with the permission of relevant landowners and statutory bodies. It is important not to take any rare plant or plant things onto nature reserves. All sampling and introductions are done in strict accordance with IUCN guidelines and the BSBI code of conduct.

 

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