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Bringing back the carnivorous great sundew and other rare plants

The great sundew, like other carnivorous plants, holds a grisly fascination for many people. Living in nutrient-poor peat bogs, the sundew supplements its diet by capturing and digesting insects.

The plant's leaves are covered in hairs that ooze a sticky, sweet-smelling fluid. When an insect stumbles onto the leaf, the hairs curl around it and glue it in place. Eventually the whole leaf folds around the plant's prey and enzymes in the oozing fluid dissolve it.

But this once common plant has become rare in England as the wetlands and peat bogs where it grows have also become rare. Many other plants share its fate of being endangered due to habitat loss. One in seven indigenous plant species are under threat of extinction in the UK.

Reintroducing the great sundew to North West England

Botanist Josh Styles has begun a conservation programme to help reintroduce rare plant species, including the great sundew, to his local areas around North West England.

'It's a really sad story about the great sundew,' Josh explains. 'One of its names is the English sundew and formally it was widespread across the country and abundant on the greater Manchester peat bogs. But it went locally extinct about 150 years ago and in England there are now less than 20 sites where you see it.'

In the 1800s when the Manchester ship canal was built, once extensive mossland was drained and fragmented and the peatland converted into agricultural land. Industries then dug up the peat for fuel and compost.

Since the 1980s, various organisations have worked to restore the greater Manchester Mosses, making them habitable again for not only the great sundew but many other mossland plants.

However, even with suitable conditions now in place, a lot of plants will not be able to naturally recolonise, as any remaining plants live too far away.

This is where Josh, and the North West Rare Plant Initiative that he runs, comes in. 'As part of the mossland restorative process I wanted to get involved into reintroducing the species that lived there.'

The great sundew is one of 16 species that Josh is cultivating that grow on peatlands, but there are over 40 plants altogether on the priority list, living in various habitats.

Josh Styles holding a small jar of seeds, standing in front of an extensive patch of bog myrtle on peatland

Josh with some seeds, in front of a patch of bog myrtle @ Joshua Styles

The plant reintroduction process

Plant reintroduction is complex, says Josh. 'A lot of people when they see news reports on plant reintroductions think: "Oh that's great – I'll just plant these species in my local park", but actually it's a very detailed process.'

Josh has to assess whether a prospective site is suitable for plant growth by looking at historical records and vegetation surveys. He then applies for consent from various parties, such as the landowners, to be allowed to plant the species in its new location.

Next, Josh needs to find a donor site and obtain permission from its relevant authorities to take some plants from the site. Then he harvests the plants following the correct biosecurity protocols.

Once harvested, the plant is kept for six months or so in cultivation to ensure it hasn't brought any non-indigenous species with it. Depending on the growth of the plant, it may be longer before it is ready to be transplanted to its new home.

Josh then monitors the reintroduced plants to check they are thriving.

With over 40 target species Josh has a large range of plants at any one time that he is cultivating for reintroduction. 'At my little garden home I have well over 250 pots and other setups so that's quite a lot!'

In the list below, Josh shares five other rare plant reintroductions he is working on.

Five rare plants being reintroduced to North West England

Bog myrtle (Myrica gale)

Unlike the sundew, which captures insects to supplement its diet, bog myrtle has specialised bacteria in its roots that convert nitrogen from the air into usable nutrients.

Although widespread in the uplands and highlands of Scotland, in England it is beginning to decline. Josh is helping to reintroduce this plant to the peat bogs around greater Manchester.

'It's very aromatic and you can allegedly use it as a mosquito repellent,' says Josh. 'I tried it, but it doesn't work against the horseflies!'

Bog myrtle, showing green leaves and little yellow flowers

Bog myrtle @ Joshua Styles

Dune wormwood (Artemisia campestris subsp. Maritima)

A plant that lives in coastal sand dunes, it is very rare in the UK. It is currently only found on one site - in the Crosby dune system on Merseyside. A specially protected species, Josh had to get a licence to take some cuttings. He is growing about 10 plants at his home. 'In my garden all the plants took successfully, so I have more than double the UK wild population!'

Two view of dune wormwood

Dune wormwood @ Joshua Styles

Marsh clubmoss (Lycopodiella inundata)

Nationally scarce, with less than 100 sites in the UK where it can it be seen. It belongs to a group of plants called the lycopods which are among the earliest land plants. Lycopods do not produce flowers but use spores for reproduction. Some species can look pretty crazy,' says Josh, 'But marsh clubmoss is a particularly pretty example.'

 Green fronds of marsh clubmoss growing on wet sand

Marsh clubmoss © Christian Fischer (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio)

A short orchid that grows on grasslands, it is classified as near threatened for Great Britain. In 1980, the very last population of green-winged orchids in Cheshire was dug up by a group of plant thieves. Josh has been able to reintroduce the plant to a secret location in Cheshire.

The purple flowers of the green-winged orchid

Green-winged orchid @ Joshua Styles

Waved fork-moss (Dicranum undulatum)

This moss grows on only two peat bog sites in England. This is Josh's latest project, and he is currently growing samples to reintroduce to the North West peatlands in the next couple of years.

A patch of waved fork-moss, showing green fronds

Waved fork-moss @ Joshua Styles

How can I help support wild plants and other wildlife?

  • Do not buy compost that contains peat as this contributes to the depletion of these wetland habitats. When looking at compost, carefully scan the packaging. Many products will have a graphic showing how much peat they contain. Peat-free composts will be explicitly marked as such. If you can't tell, it probably will contain peat.
  • If you have a lawn, mow it less. If you mow your lawn (or part of it) only once or twice a year in the autumn or winter, this will give plants and insects a chance to complete their whole lifecycle. [See our article How to grow a lawn that's better for wildlife]
  • Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trust, or donate to local wildlife charities.

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