Search for last colonies of once-common orchid

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The Independent Online

A delicate orchid which was once a common sight in pastures, woodlands and roadsides across Britain has become the subject of a nationwide search to safeguard its remaining strongholds.

The lesser butterfly orchid has declined by more than 33 per cent throughout Britain in the past 40 years, turning it from one of the country's most common wild flowers into one of its rarest.

The ploughing of grassland, draining of fields, the widespread use of chemicals and the cutting of roadside verges have all contributed to the demise of the plant, which gets its name because the flowers resemble the wings of the green-veined white butterfly.

In an attempt to conserve the remaining colonies of the orchid, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has teamed up with the charity Plantlife and the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), to launch a detailed survey to identify areas where the plant, which flowers in June and July, can still be found.

"The lesser butterfly orchid used to be a fairly common sight in fields and on woodland edges," Lynne Farrell, botanist at SNH, said. "I remember seeing it in heathery patches and on roadside verges in Argyll just a few years ago but now it seems to have vanished.

"Anyone can help to protect this rare plant for the future by reporting the locations of where they find it. This will help us to get a better picture of where the orchid still exists so we can target our conservation work in these areas."

The lesser butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia), which has several creamy-white and green flowers on each stem, is among 23 species SNH has made a priority for conservation action, including the capercaillie, red squirrel and white-tailed eagle.

The orchid, which has flowers that emit a powerful and sweet scent at night to attract moths for pollination, is still a fairly common sight on the west coast of Scotland and on the islands.

Suited to wet conditions and a variety of soil types, the orchid is usually found in moist grassland and heathland.

"We are really worried about the lesser butterfly orchid as it seems to be experiencing one of the fastest declines of plant species in Scotland," Jim McIntosh at the BSBI said. "We don't have accurate information about numbers of this orchid in the country, but we do know that records of it within monitored 10-kilometre square areas have declined in the past 40 years.

"People could really help us to build up an understanding of what is happening to this increasingly rare plant."

The survey aims to record any sites where the lesser butterfly orchid is found, including any details about the type of surroundings it is growing in and whether there are any signs of land management, such as grazing.

"For me the lesser butterfly orchid always invokes memories of beautiful open moorland in western Scotland, and the joy of finding such plants while out walking," Trevor Dines of Plantlife said. "While we have been good at saving some of our rarest species, it appears that many widespread plants, like this orchid, have suffered. It would be a tragedy if this loss continued when simple changes to management could save it."