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Working together to bring our most threatened species ‘Back from the Brink’

Volunteer botanical surveyors getting to grips with arable plants on a Training Day at West Pentire, Cornwall (c) Plantlife

‘Back from the Brink’ was an ambitious nationwide partnership project which aimed to transform the fortunes of some of England’s most threatened wild plants, fungi and animals by increasing their numbers and placing them firmly back on the road to recovery.

Running between 2017 and 2021, it was led by Natural England in collaboration with Rethink Nature, which is a partnership of seven conservation charities including Plantlife. The organisations came together to pool expertise and develop new ways of working, while also inspiring the nation to discover, value and act for our most endangered species.

Pheasant's eye (c) Cath Shelswell

In total, 19 conservation initiatives took place, and left a lasting legacy by improving the conservation status and prospects of 96 priority species. Here are some of the highlights from projects which Plantlife either led or supported.

Dorset’s Heathland Heart

This hugely successful initiative saw 10 partners and members of the public join forces with the shared aim of saving 19 rare species by revitalising their heathland habitats.

Over 400 patches of microhabitat were created at 13 different sites to give species with niche requirements the opportunity to thrive. Increases in the population of Marsh Clubmoss, Yellow Centaury, Pale Dog-violet, Pennyroyal, Lesser Butterfly-orchid and Southern Damselfly have since been recorded, while species such as Purbeck Mason Wasp and Heath Tiger Beetle have now begun using the new habitats.

The project also captured the imagination of the public, with nearly 6,000 people taking part in face-to-face and online training events to help them learn more about the Dorset Heaths, the species that depend on them and how to contribute to their conservation.

Together with local landowners, these volunteers will play an important role in the ongoing preservation of the microhabitats by monitoring the population of target species so that sites can continue to be managed in a way which brings the greatest benefits.

Colour in the Margins

Rare arable plants have been successfully reintroduced at 69 sites across England thanks to a project designed to save threatened habitats and the species which depend on them.

Colour in the Margins saw partners, led by Plantlife, work with a wide range of organisations and volunteers to establish new arable wildflower plots with seed supplied by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew Millennium Seed Bank.

We also offered advice and training to more than 150 farmers to help them finetune their management techniques so that 13 target species could benefit.

Small-flowered catchfly Silene gallica (c) Cath Shelswell
Fiveheads RA survey 30.06.18 (c) Plantlife

Ancients of the Future

This pioneering project has helped to ensure that England’s best ancient tree and deadwood sites are managed more effectively for several special plants, insects and animals.

Partners focussed on saving 28 highly-threatened species and worked across 20 sites to create stump cavities and deadwood boxes to provide our rarest wildlife with new homes. We also used haloing to remove encroaching saplings so that 134 older trees could become future ‘ancient’ trees and continue providing valuable habitats for years to come.

Three species of threatened lichens were also expertly translocated and 66 trees inoculated with a threatened fungi species to enable it to spread.

Cornish Path-moss

More than 500 square metres of new habitat were created for Cornish Path-moss on the edge of Bodmin Moor to help this ultra-rare plant to flourish.

Plantlife worked closely with local experts, including ecologists and archaeologists, to help safeguard the future of this exceptionally rare species, which is only found at three sites worldwide.

Following surveys, monitoring and investigation, we now know much more about the population dynamics of the plant and have been able to draw up management protocols to help it to thrive in the future.

Lesser Butterfly-orchid

We worked hand-in-hand with the Devon and Cornwall Wildlife Trusts to trial different management techniques with the aim of reversing the decline of the rare Lesser Butterfly-orchid.

More than 30 volunteers helped us to carry out conservation work so that we could better understand the ecology and needs of a plant which has lost 75% of its range in England. This work is already having a positive impact, with orchids recently discovered in a new part of the site.

The knowledge gained during the project will also be used to shape future conservation work.

Shifting Sands

The future of rare species such as Field Wormwood and the Wormwood Moonshiner Beetle have been secured thanks to a project led by Natural England to preserve and protect the unique Brecks, which span Norfolk and Suffolk.

Field Wormwood habitat was restored at four locations while numbers of the Wormwood Moonshiner, which is only found on Field Wormwood, have increased significantly.

In addition, the 75 Prostrate Perennial Knawel we reintroduced at seven locations have thrived, with numbers increasing to 201 plants within just 20 months. This has helped create flourishing forest corridors abundant with flowers and insects.

Back from the Brink was supported by eight funders,
including the National Lottery Heritage Fund and People’s Postcode Lottery.

Image credits: Header image & image 3 - Plantlife, images 2 & 4 - Cath Shelswell

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