Somerset Wildlife Trust

Work For Us|

Extinct plants brought back for benefit of bees

 30th Jan 2012

Somerset Wildlife Trust and Bristol Zoo are teaming-up with local school children to re-introduce rare West Country plant species to wetland nature reserves in Somerset.

The Flowering for Life Partnership will reintroduce two species of plant where they have gone locally extinct on the Somerset Levels: greater water parsnip and devil's bit scabious. These large, attractive plants are favourites of rare pollinating insects such as shrill and moss carder bees and the ornate brigadier soldierfly. The project is benefitting from the expertise of the Somerset Rare Plants Group, Natural England and the Hawk and Owl Trust within the partnership.

Nationally scarce

The notoriously fussy and difficult to grow greater water parsnip has been classified as ‘nationally scarce’ and is listed on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). Just 50 individual greater water parsnip plants are left on the Somerset Levels. It has declined massively across southern Britain due to the loss of wetland habitats and intensive land management practices. Devils bit scabious has also been a victim of agricultural intensification.

Mark Steer, Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Brue Valley Development Officer said: “These nectar rich plants are very important for our pollinators including bees, but both are very poor dispersers, so even if good habitat is available, they are unlikely to be able to reach it without human assistance.

“Thanks to the Flowering for Life partnership, the fields of Catcott and neighbouring Shapwick Moor will become even more valuable for some of the Somerset Levels' rarest plants and insects.”

Expert help

Greater water parsnip is very difficult to germinate so experts from Bristol Zoo’s horticulture team have been brought in to grow the plants from seed in the Zoo’s nurseries. 

The young plants will then be transferred to Inaura School, whose pupils will grow them on and plant them out. The plants will later be reintroduced to Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Catcott nature reserve and the Hawk and Owl Trust’s adjoining Shapwick Moor reserve. The reintroduction is being carried out in partnership with Natural England and volunteers from the Somerset Rare Plants Group.

Eddie Mole, Head of Horticulture at Bristol Zoo Gardens, explains: “In Somerset the plant has undergone a significant decline in the past 30 years. Current factors causing the decline are thought to include frequent cleaning and over-engineering of ditches; drainage of sites; exposure to prolonged heavy grazing and the dereliction of ditches leading to reed and scrub invasion.

“In a bid to halt its disappearance we have been nurturing these plants from seeds, replicating the damp conditions they love in the wild. Then, once they are more established, we transfer them into the tanks of water as they like to be partially submerged. The plants require constant monitoring so it is quite a big job but this is an important plant conservation project and we are pleased to be playing our part in its survival in Somerset.”

Rare species

Both reintroduction sites contain fields that are being restored as flower-rich hay meadows ­ a habitat that has declined by over 97 per cent.  A survey of both nature reserves highlighted the best areas for reintroductions and also that some of the other fields at Catcott are already amongst the most species rich in the Somerset Levels containing rarities such as marsh stitchwort, marsh pea and milk parsley.

The project has been funded by Biffaward, a multi-million pound environment fund managed by the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (RSWT), which utilises landfill tax credits donated by Biffa Waste Services.

More info

The Flowering for Life partnership is part of the Trust's Brue Valley Living Landscape project.

Greater Water Parsnip

Feeding on the Greater Water Parsnip

Mike Adams with greater water parsnip - portrait web

Mike Adams, from Bristol Zoo Gardens, with the young plants

Devils-bit scabious

Devil's-bit-scabious plant