Conservation effort sparks revival of Britain's rarest orchids

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A great British orchid revival is under way. There are pockets of resistance - not all our 50 species are flourishing - but from Dover to Hadrian's Wall and beyond, our rarest orchids have not had it so good for decades.

A great British orchid revival is under way. There are pockets of resistance - not all our 50 species are flourishing - but from Dover to Hadrian's Wall and beyond, our rarest orchids have not had it so good for decades.

In Kent the lizard orchid is thriving and spreading its range, and the early spider orchid is growing in thousands on spoil from the Channel Tunnel. In Dorset the early spider blooms in greater numbers than ever; in Berkshire, marsh helleborine almost covers fields where formerly it was absent; and in Buckinghamshire the military orchid, once lost to Britain for decades, is doing well and now also grows in Suffolk and south Oxfordshire. In Cornwall a new continental species has joined us in recent years - one of the tongue orchids, an extraordinary confection featuring a large red flower that looks like the lolling tongue of a child who has overdosed on raspberry ice-lollies. Other species reviving are the monkey and lady orchids.

The resurrection of these rarities is due to a number of factors. Many southern orchids are at the northern edge of their range, and a hotter climate helps them, not least because it encourages the warmth-loving insects that pollinate them. But the main reason is the enormous conservation effort that has been put in by English Nature and county wildlife trusts.

In Kent coppicing and rotating grazing have been crucial in reviving the lady and monkey orchids, and the latter and the lizard have done so well that conservationists have now stopped covering them in wire cages or hand-pollinating them. In Berkshire the clearing of willow scrub from a site near Abingdon has been rewarded by tens of thousands of marsh helleborines; and in Dorset managing a field as a traditional hay meadow has produced a fine crop of green-winged orchids. Even near London at the Lee Valley Country Park, sixspecies, including pyramidal and bee, grow, some in great profusion on sites formerly covered in pulverised fuel ash.

The very rarest species have also benefited from advances in orchid science, a complex business as orchids rely on special fungi in the soil to exist. The Sainsbury Orchid Conservation Project, based at Kew, has learnt how to grow seedlings (in one case on a culture involving pineapple juice) of several of our rarest orchids. One, the lady's slipper orchid, once notoriously down to a single site in Yorkshire, is now at 12 sites with 1,000 plants.

Ian Taylor, botanical adviser to English Nature, says that the next urgent case for such intensive care treatment should be the red helleborine, now down to three sites in Gloucestershire, Hampshire and the Chilterns.

The picture is not all upbeat. Some of our more common orchids are thought to be declining on non-managed sites, and habitat loss and spoiling continues. Orchids hate nutrient-rich soil, of which there is far more these days. But this weekend, as we enter the four-week high season for British orchids, there is at last some good news.

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