Black market threat to Britain's rarest flowers

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To the untutored eye, the long-stemmed purple plants clustered in a boggy paddock on the Wirral peninsula seemed to be just one more species in an area blessed with many.

To the untutored eye, the long-stemmed purple plants clustered in a boggy paddock on the Wirral peninsula seemed to be just one more species in an area blessed with many.

But the thieves, who came equipped with trowels and pots, knew better. The plant is the southern marsh orchid, orDactylorhiza praetermissa, a variety that cannot be purchased anywhere in Britain. According to the Wildlife Trusts, it has probably been stolen for the black market.

It joins a growing list of plant species dug up to feed an illicit trade, including the Arctic Diapensia lapponica, which has beenstolen in large quantities in Scotland, and the Star-of-Bethlehem lily, or Ornithogalum umbellatum,which has been removed from sites in Wales. The southern marsh orchid was offering its first blooms of the season when more than 12 plants were stolen from a little-known location at Clatterbridge.

"There is no way of knowing what they might be worth," Dr Hilary Ash, 49, a botanist for Wirral Wildlife Trust, said: "Those who took them knew what they had come for. I could see little plots of land - eight inches wide and four inches deep - had been dug up and the flowers had gone."

The penalties for such a theft, laid down in the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, are a maximum fine of £5,000 or a penalty of six months in prison.

The Merseyside Police Wildlife Crime Officer, PC Andy McWilliams, said: "With rare plants like orchids there is always the chance this will happen."

English Nature conservationists are aware of would-be thieves touting for business on the internet, by offering to steal the rarest orchids to order. Ron Porley, a botanist for English Nature, said. "There now seems to be a network of people out there willing to go to great lengths to steal them. The sites are becoming better known, which doesn't help."

Last year, an 80-year-old purple and yellow lady's slipper orchid, estimated to be worth £2,000 on the black market, was dug up from a flowerbed at the Silverdale golf club, near Lancaster. This followed the theft of a two-inch high bog orchid, believed to be worth up to £5,000, from a secret site in a Norfolk nature reserve by wild flower dealers.

Norfolk is considered a hotspot for plant thefts. Criminal gangs there have hired thieves to dig up tons of wild flower bulbs.

But those who have stolen or purchased Wirral's southern marsh orchid face an unpleasant surprise. Like other orchids, the species has a symbiotic relationship with the fungi which grows around it and will rarely grow when replanted. Dr Ash said: "When dug up, the fungus connected to the plant is broken and this means it will almost certainly die. Those individuals who are prepared to part with money for such a plant should be aware of the fact."

Species that attract thieves

* SOUTHERN MARSH ORCHID It is more common than lady's slipper and other orchids, and is a target on Merseyside.

* LADY'S SLIPPER Many are under 24-hour guard, but this didn't prevent the theft of one in Lancashire last year.

* DIAPENSIA LAPPONICA A rare Arctic plant, protected by law, has been stolen in substantial quantities in Scotland.

* SPRING GENTIAN The species is a relic from the ice age and grows in Upper Teesdale, from where it has been stolen.

* KILLARNEY FERN Popular with the Victorian era's fern hunters and now subject to the attention of predatory collectors.

* EAST STAR-OF-BETHLEHEM Takes its name from the flowers' colours. Grows, and has been stolen, in Wales.