Britain's rarest flower given round-the-clock police protection

Cahal Milmo,Stian Alexander
Friday 07 May 2010 00:00 BST

It is the sort of police operation reserved for the highest-profile VIPs. Patrols have been stepped up around the subject's place of residence and covert CCTV is being considered. The potential target has also been security tagged to protect against abduction.

What is all the more remarkable is that this treatment, normally kept for visiting dignitaries of a foreign state or perhaps a Cabinet minister, is being rolled out for a single delicate plant on a Lancashire golf course

What makes this specimen so precious is that it is one of the few examples of Britain's rarest flower.

A Lady's Slipper orchid, whose name is inspired by its distinctive shoe-shaped flower, is now the subject of strict security by Lancashire Constabulary after it bloomed on the Silverdale Golf Course in Carnforth – making it the most sought-after plant in Britain for obsessive orchid fanciers.

The plant is strictly protected by law. Even touching one requires a special licence from Natural England. Nevertheless, cuttings from a Lady's Slipper, whose Latin name is Cypripedium calceolus, are so in demand that collectors are prepared to pay up to £5,000 for a flowering example.

Lancashire police confirmed yesterday that they had mounted an extensive operation to protect the Silverdale orchid; police tape surrounds the site and police regularly patrol the golf course on foot. Two attempts have been made in the last six years to steal or damage the plant, and it has now been security marked to ensure that anyone trying to seize a cutting can be identified.

If senior officers deem it suitable, special CCTV cameras will also be deployed around the site in the next few days to relay footage direct to police headquarters, where the orchid can be monitored around the clock.

PC Duncan Thomas, wildlife officer for Lancashire police, said: "We have been monitoring this amazing plant for a number of years and you can't help being impressed, not only by its rarity but by the incredible display when flowering. "Sadly, there are persons who will seek to steal it and we are working to ensure its continued success."

The Silverdale orchid is thought to be one of less than a dozen of the flowers now growing in the wild in Britain.

For decades, the UK population of Cypripedium calceolus, once widespread across northern England but thought to have been picked to extinction by 1917, consisted of a single plant discovered by botanists in the 1930s at a location which remains a closely guarded secret.

Such is the importance of the plant that it has its own panel of botanical experts, the Cypripedium Committee, to discuss how to protect and propagate the species. The plant is now the subject of a programme led by scientists at Kew Gardens in London to plant Lady's Slipper orchids grown from the seed of wild plants at different locations, although numbers remain extremely low.

As a result, the distinctive yellow and purple bloom is highly prized by illegal orchid collectors, who flock to known sites in May and June in the hope of snatching a flowering sample.

The Silverdale orchid was severely damaged in 2004 when a thief attempted to dig up the entire plant, with its roots. A flowering stem was also cut and stolen last year.

PC Tony Marsh, the community beat manager for Silverdalesaid: "The biggest threat is collectors. When flowers were taken last year, we think purely just to press and put in a book, the value was thousands of pounds.

"The Lady Slipper Orchid here is an incredibly important plant. It is iconic to many people who enjoy wildlife in Britain. People travel from all ends of the country on what is almost a pilgrimage to view the plant and are often overcome with emotion at the sight."

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