Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Lady's Slipper Orchids 26th May 2018

The Lady's Slipper Orchid is very, very rare. Currently there is only one place in Britain that is publicised, where you can go to see it, and that is Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve which is near Morecambe Bay in north Lancashire.

Gait Barrows NNR lies in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is one of Britain's most important limestone landscapes and is home to a large variety of interesting and often rare plants and wildlife. 

The Lady's Slipper Orchid is possibly the jewel in the crown of Gait Barrows NNR and many people come to see this rarest of all Britain's wildflowers. The Lady's Slipper Orchid likes to grow in open woodland on calcareous soils and such a habitat is provided at Gait Barrows.

Although very rare in Britain the Lady's Slipper Orchid has a widespread distribution, ranging from Europe east through Asia all the way to the Pacific. It is declining in mainland Europe and is now a protected plant in many European countries.

In Britain it was formerly quite widely distributed, although thinly spread, across northern England particularly in limestone areas in the Yorkshire Dales. However the Victorian mania for collecting and the plant's exotic appearance resulted in gardeners and collectors virtually extirpating it from its natural haunts. Even as early as 1888 eminent botanists were concerned about its future and in 1917 it was declared extinct in Britain. However, in 1930 a single plant, which somehow had evaded the specimen hunters and collectors was re-discovered and this plant was forthwith protected by a select number of dedicated amateurs and its location kept top secret. Sadly not secret enough, as a plant thief idiotically cut the plant in half, generously leaving one half in the ground for posterity whilst making off with the other half! The single plant survived this outrageous assault and struggled on for another thirty years, still protected by its faithful guardians, until more formal site protection could be put in place. In 1983 a large donation from Sir Robert and Lady Salisbury resulted in the founding of The Sainsbury Orchid Conservation Project at Kew and the future of this wonderful orchid became a lot more secure.

Seed collected from the one remaining plant was grown under laboratory conditions and after some difficulty in ascertaining the right conditions to germinate the seed, since 1989 seedlings have been introduced to sixteen suitable sites where it had formerly grown. It is still to this day a highly endangered species with many re-introduced plants succumbing to natural depredations from slugs, voles, rabbits, deer, fungi and bacteria as well as drought and encroaching vegetation. Yet by 2003 the re-introduction programme had resulted in establishing a population of hundreds of this orchid, at mainly secret sites, through Natural England's National Species Recovery Programme and Gait Barrows is now home to a thriving population of these orchids and where you can freely go and see them growing naturally.

I was driving home from seeing Wally the Walrus in Caithness and a short detour from the M6 near Carnforth would bring me to Gait Barrows, and although tired and keen to get home, I made the short diversion off the Motorway as it was too good an opportunity to pass up. 

I had waited a year to see these orchids, as last year I miscalculated the time to go and see them and found I was too late. The directions to the reserve were none too precise and no one I asked, once on the country lanes I assumed led to the reserve, knew of it but eventually I found a discreetly hidden  sign in a hedge and a gate which you could open and then drive down a short track to a small car park.

I duly did this but then had no idea where to go to find the orchids.There were half a dozen cars in the car park but no sign of anyone to ask. I consulted a map I had downloaded from the Gait Barrows web site and ascertained I needed to take something called The Yew Trail, on which the orchids were to be found. But where exactly?

I commenced walking the trail and thankfully soon encountered some people coming the other way who knew exactly where to go and gave me precise directions. It was not far and following a narrow track through some bushes and trees off to my right I came out onto an open area comprising the remains of some limestone pavement, and found the Lady's Slipper Orchids growing in some grass between the limestone and some bushes, their large striking heads nodding gently in the wind.

I was not disappointed with my first ever sight of a Lady's Slipper Orchid as these superb orchids were in absolutely peak condition. Fortuitously I had come at exactly the right time to see them at their very best. They are large, from 30-50cms tall, very beautiful and quite distinctive. I can well understand why they were so sought after and collected in those now distant and more unenlightened times. The flowers look almost too exotic to be wild, more like something cultivated and to be found in a Garden Centre, but wild they are and still extremely rare, so I felt privileged to see them. The bract is large and stands erect and slightly twisted behind the flower and like the similarly twisted and pointed petals is a reddish brown, almost maroon colour. The name comes from the large, pale yellow slipper like pouch or clog that protrudes from the bract and petals.

There was a warm and reviving wind blowing through the trees and bushes and tired from my seven hour car journey from northern Scotland I sat on a handy bench and enjoyed the sun and this pleasant little area of Gait Barrows NNR.

I would have preferred to spend a day here just exploring the reserve but I needed to be heading for home, another four hours of Motorway nightmare away. There was just time to walk down a nearby track looking for Duke of Burgundy butterflies, although I found no sign of them but I did come across a woodpile across which ran, back and fore, under and over the piled logs, several Wasp Beetles. Looking extremely smart in their yellow and black colours they scuttled about, busily inspecting the logs and were yet another first for me.

So all in all not a bad couple of days. Such a contrast from the huge Walrus on Friday to the tiny Wasp Beetle on Saturday with the very rare Lady's Slipper Orchid in between.

There is so much to enjoy in the natural world apart from birds and here were three prime examples.

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