Conservation of British Native Orchids

Conservation of British Native Orchids – Andrew Bannister

Andrew has spoken to us previously, but none of us really knew about his passion for conservation. His business – Orchid Alchemy was established in 2006, mainly with terrestrial hardy orchids, now he does flasking as well as stocking tropical plants.

In the UK there are 56 orchid species of which 45% are classed as endangered/vulnerable or threatened. The presence of native orchids indicates a healthy natural environment, and where they have declined means that the environment has been altered – often enriched rather than diluted. The ghost orchid – Epipogium aphyllum (literally without leaves) is now considered extinct in the UK as is the Summer Lady’s tresses – Spiranthes aestivalis. The Red Helleborine – Cephalanthera rubra and the yellow Lady’s slipper – Cypripedium calceolus are both on the critically endangered list. 6 other species are on the endangered list including the Lindisfarne Helleborine – Epipactis sancta. Only 2% of UK meadows are now classed as old/natural and remain as orchid rich habitats.

Pressure on governments throughout the EU has led to the Countryside Act (1981) now having 11 species on the protected list – Section 8. Prosecutions can and do happen, with large fines and/or prison sentences. Those protected include the 2 above and also include the Lizard, Fen, Spider, Man, and Military orchids.

Conservation is about preserving these endangered species, artificially reproducing them, and reintroducing them to selected sites in the ‘wild’. This all takes time and effort, not to mention cost, although this is kept to a minimum through volunteers. Cyp. calceolus is the flagship of the conservation exercise, and this started around 20 years ago through Kew as it became obvious that it no longer ‘existed’ in the wild, but an odd plant remained in collections. It is quite common in Sweden, Norway and Finland, but critical in Denmark. Records of the species in the UK were only in limestone areas of Yorkshire as well as a single record in Derbyshire – which was probably a transplant. The UK species has a distinct DNA from the European species, and it has a slow and steady growth rate.

The UK decline starts in 1629 where plants found in woods at Ingleton were collected by a Miss Tunstall and sold through London markets (they probably died relatively quickly through ignorance).

In 1640 an herbarium specimen was established for future reference.

By 1796 the species had gone from the woods at Ingleton.

Up to 1900 it became very rare, and in 1917 it was declared extinct.

In 1930 a single plant was discovered by a Doctor out on a walk. Realising the identity of the plant he debated what to do about it – publicising it would almost certainly result in its collection. His chosen route was actually to do nothing, and this remained the case until 1969 when his age dictated the need to notify someone. Kew were informed, and a special Cypripedium committee was formed for its protection.

In 1971 formal Wardening was introduced during the growing season although no efforts were made to reproduce the species as the precise germination requirements were unknown.

In 1981 the Wildlife and Countryside Act was passed, and legal protection was made.

In 1983 Lord Sainsbury established a fund for orchid Conservation, and calceolus was selected for seed collection, sowing and growing – less easy than it sounds.

In 1991 the Rio Convention committed governments to fund general conservation, and this initially gave some impetus to the calceolus project.

The next 10 years saw hand pollination of the tiny number of plants, and collection of seed pods. How to handle them was a conundrum. When was the best time to harvest and sow – green pod or ripe at the point of splitting (brown pod). Were they sterile or viable, should they be sown in light or dark for germination. Was a cold period required? What medium should they be sown onto, and what nutrition (macro and micro) should they be given. Data had already been collected on the process for tropical orchids, but this may not work for this terrestrial species. Once established in-vitro, when should they be deflasked (dormant or growing), and what into. Splitting the seed into small batches allowed the scenarios to be documented for future efforts – and minor modifications. Analysis showed that nitrates should be avoided and a preference for amino acids was established.

By 2000 several plants had grown well in cultivation, and been transplanted into natural environments in the north eg. places where they had originally been recorded, and in 2004 the first reintroduced plant flowered. Plants were placed in sheep pastures, woods, limestone outcrops etc. It became obvious that it was necessary to avoid bracken as well as Dog’s Mercury both of which would suppress the plants. Cages were placed over the plants to prevent theft and rabbits, but slugs and snails would sometimes eat the research material. Copper rings and grit were used to overcome this issue.

Repeat flowering took place the following year, and in 2008 a natural seedpod occurred. Solitary Andrena bees are the natural pollinators.

By 2009 there were 100 flowers across the sites. By 2011 there were 16 sites, and over 250 flowers were recorded in 2016. Seed pods are now regularly recorded, and left for natural regeneration. Only time will tell whether this can become successful – will the required mycorrhizal fungi be present? NB, all the plants have their DNA recorded, so it will be easier to determine if there is some natural regeneration – as well as protect against theft and resale of the species. Some theft has been recorded despite the protection given to them. The longer-term aim is to have natural regeneration across a minimum of 12 sites. The best location to see these plants is at Kilnsey Park, where it can be seen amongst at least 4 other orchid species. Many sites aren’t publicised and remain well hidden.

The Fen Orchid – Liparis loeselii f. ovata is now the subject of the same process with a biodiversity plan being run from Swansea University, and includes Kew & Orchid Alchemy amongst others. The Fen orchid is found in South Wales (Bristol Channel areas) as well as East Anglia. In 1994 there were several hundred thousand plants, but by 2006 only 151 plants remained. Habitat loss (peat cutting, farming etc.), climate change and stabilisation of sand dunes (with coarse grass) have all contributed to this.

This species now has protection throughout Europe. Its status is classed as “unfavourable – bad & deteriorating”. Var. ovata is small with rounder ovate leaves and fewer flowers, and is the subject of the study/project. There are 2 varieties, and the other is var loeselii which has acute leaves and up to 12 flowers and is less endangered.

At present it isn’t fully known how to sow and germinate the seeds – with the same hurdles as calceolus above. Andrew had 6 seed pods to work with last year, and several permutations have been followed. A little bit of lime added to the agar has so far proved beneficial. At the moment he has 160 protocorms in-vitro, and the next stage is to discover what is best for these to grow on and become established. This will include the nutrients from coconut, banana, potato etc., as has worked for other orchid genuses. Hopefully some will succeed, others will survive, and others may die. Such is the work of the conservationist!

Several questions followed the lecture. Such is the need for the continuation of this desperate project that the Society have decided to make a donation to the project, and we hope for future updates.

Thank you Andrew.