Signs of life on the spoil heap

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Young's Helleborine is an undistinguished-looking orchid but it is very rare and in need of help.

It is only found in Britain. The total population is believed to number less than 700 plants, scattered among just six known sites. Its preferred habitat is tree- covered spoil heaps found beside old mineral workings.

Strangest of all is the fact that in evolutionary terms, it is brand new - a novel plant species which arose as recently as a few decades ago. Botanists believe it may have begun as a hybrid between two closely related orchids.

Like all of its kind, it relies on a fungus entwined in its roots to break down organic matter in the soil and provide nutrition. But while many orchids have flowers with clever and complex ways of attracting insects then sticking pollen on them, the greeny-white flowers of Young's Helleborine are self-pollinating.

The greatest threat it faces is the bulldozing of the spoil heaps it lives on, either for development or because their contents, once waste, are now useful.

One site in England was destroyed 10 years ago. Bardykes Bing, an old heap on the edge of Glasgow, now holds the biggest known population. But the orchid has no future there; a company has been granted planning permission to dig out the entire tip. It uses the red minerals inside for laying clay tennis courts.

Fortunately, the company is sympathetic. It is giving the plant conservation charity Plantlife and the Scottish Wildlife Trust a three-year stay of execution to see if the orchids can be transplanted.

Young's Helleborine has been placed on a list of 116 rare or fast-declining British plant and animal species for which rescue plans have been proposed. The plan includes finding out whether there are any spoil heaps to which plants at threatened sites like Bardykes Bing could be transplanted. The implementation costs are put at just pounds 3,000 a year.