How Britain is failing to protect our most endangered wild plants from extinction

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The Independent Online

Britain is failing to meet its stated objectives designed to protect the nation's most endangered wild plants from going extinct, according to a group of leading botanists.

In four years' time, Britain is supposed to have met 16 different targets designed to safeguard its threatened flora, but the country is on track to meet fewer than one-third of them.

Experts are to meet today at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to work out ways of accelerating the effort to preserve the flowering plants, lichens and mosses most at risk of being lost from the British Isles.

One of the main concerns is that just one in five threatened species of wild flower is currently recognised as a priority for conservation; the true figure, however, is much higher.

One of the targets set for 2010 is that 60 per cent of threatened plants are to be actively conserved rather than just being recognised as conservation priorities, said Sir Peter Crane, the director of Kew Gardens. "We are finding it a challenge to meet these ambitious targets, even here in the UK with a relatively small and well-documented flora," Sir Peter said. "This makes us all the more aware of the greater challenge faced by our counterparts in tropical countries with far greater plant diversity and much more limited resources."

As part of its commitment to the international Convention on Biological Diversity, in 2003 Britain laid down 16 targets for 2010 - the Plant Diversity Challenge.

Species of lichens are especially at risk because so little is known about them. One of the pinhead lichens, Calicium corynellum, for instance is so obscure that it does not even have a common name. This particular species is only known from four churchyards in Northumbria and the Scottish Borders, and it only grows under very special conditions; one colony died when a flagstone was removed to stop water from splashing up.

Another exceptionally rare species is the flamingo moss - named because its stalk and capsule are like the neck and head of a bird. This moss is restricted to living on the waste from old lime works and is known at only seven sites, mainly in South Yorkshire. And another rare species is the tooth fungi, which grow on the roots of trees and cannot survive without this connection. Scientists need to know more about how these woodland organisms are coming under threat.

Mike Fay, the head of genetics at Kew, said today's meeting is a clarion call for experts to pull together to understand some of the immense problems they face in preserving the rarest of our native plants. "We knew in 2003 when the targets were set that they were going to be fairly challenging. Some species are doing well but some are falling right off the edge and we need to know why," he said.

Chris Cheffings, the plants adviser for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, said it is vital to use this opportunity to assess what needs to be done. "We are really falling behind on targets for ensuring that plants are used sustainably, and for conserving threatened plants," he said.

"We will need a wide-ranging commitment if we are going to have things back on track by 2010, and that will mean more than just botanists working together to achieve the targets. We need to step up our efforts to communicate the plight of plants and fungi to all sectors of society."

Victoria Chester, the chief executive of Plantlife International, said: "The significant progress towards achieving the Plant Diversity Challenge targets for plant conservation is due almost entirely to the dedication and expertise of more than 50 voluntary societies, charities and local people.

"Our plant and fungal kingdoms are central to UK biodiversity and are true indicators of the health of our environment," she said.

"The fact that the future of such a fundamental building block of British wildlife rests on the continued goodwill and limited resources of these groups is something that policymakers and funders need to recognise above all else."

'Falling off the edge'

BLUEBELLS

A common site in many woodlands, and one of the "emblematic" plants of the British Isles. They thrive best in cool, damp and shady conditions so have been identified as one of the species that could "fall off the edge" if global warming takes hold.

BROWN GALINGALE

This is a sedge that grows on the edge of ponds, where the water level fluctuates with the seasons. It is threatened by an invasive species, the New Zealand pygmy weed, which was originally introduced by horticulturalists but has now spread rapidly.

BURNT ORCHID

One of the fastest-declining species of flowering plant in Britain. It was once relatively common on the chalk grasslands of England, an apparently stable environment. Botanists don't know why it is disappearing so quickly, and so have little idea about how to preserve it.

LADY'S SLIPPER ORCHID

A rare success story. It was once reduced to a single clump in the wild due to over-collection. A propagation programme has led to successful reintroductions and some of these plants have reached flowering size. Botanists hope they will soon be self-sustaining.

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