Category Archives: Back from the Brink

Back From the Brink – Lesser Butterfly Orchid

Lesser Butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia) (Photo by Bjorn S)

Dear Readers, the Lesser Butterfly Orchid is a delicately-beautiful plant, with a flowering spike that can grow to 30 cms high and contain up to 25 individual greenish cream flowers. At night, the blooms are heavily scented, and are pollinated by hawk moths.

It is a remarkably tolerant plant. In some places, it lives in acidic bogs, yet you can also find it forests and grassland. What is certain is that the plant has disappeared from 75% of its former range, and that there are a variety of causes. Drainage and an excess of nutrients from agricultural run-off seem to damage the plant, and as grassland reverts to scrub, bracken and brambles overshadow it. Furthermore, the orchid has a close relationship with a symbiotic fungus, especially in its early years, and the fungus can be destroyed by fungicides or by too much nitrogen and phosphate. Like many orchids, the Lesser Butterfly Orchid grows and reproduces slowly, and simply can’t compete with many of the more vigorous plants. Finally, although the plant can survive some light grazing, it can’t cope with being heavily munched upon every year.

All of these factors will also affect other grassland plants, so helping the orchid to survive will also benefit many other specialist species.

So, what to do? The charity Plantlife joined forces with the Cornwall and Devon Wildlife Trusts, to cut back bracken and to survey sites for where the orchid was already present. To help any endangered organism, people have to first recognise it, and then appreciate it, and so a number of plant walks were held and an art event, where people were encouraged to paint and write about the plant. I loved this image by Alex Hyde.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid by Alex Hyde

Local landowners were also invited to collaborate on land management techniques to encourage the orchid, and it sounds as if many were happy to oblige.

Orchids always seem so exotic and otherworldly, but there are 52 wild orchid species in the UK. Whenever I go to Austria, I am amazed to see many species of orchid not only growing on grass verges and in fields but growing in profusion. Clearly they are doing something right, as there is an abundance of plant and invertebrate life that we have lost. Maybe one day we’ll be better able to look after our fields, not just for whatever is feeding on them or growing in them for our consumption, but for the whole of the community of plants and animals that surround us. Until then, these projects are helping to educate a whole new generation of landowners and members of the public about plants and animals that might not have noticed before. Knowing that something is there, and starting to understand it, is key to caring about it.

By © Hans Hillewaert


Good News from Dartmoor

Blue Ground Beetle (Carabus intricatus) (Photo by Bernard Dupont at

Dear Readers, the world is so full of gloom and doom these days that on Friday I plan to post something a little more optimistic. One thing that really cheers me up is the number of people involved in small scale projects, be it monitoring the wildlife on a local ‘patch’, making their gardens more friendly for wildlife, or working to preserve or renovate habitats that have become damaged or overgrown.

The Blue Ground Beetle (Carabus intricatus) is Britain’s largest ground beetle (up to 38 mm long), and very splendid it is too. There are other, smaller, commoner ground beetles which have a more violet sheen to their elytra (wing cases), but as its name suggests, this species is very definitely blue. It is largely nocturnal and makes its home in damp deciduous ancient woodlands, where it lives by eating slugs – it grabs them with its fearsome jaws and injects them with digestive juices, before sucking out their insides.

It was previously known from only 13 sites in Cornwall, Devon and South Wales, and is most often spotted at night as it runs up and down a mossy tree trunk, looking for prey. But staff at Buglife (the invertebrate conservation charity), local naturalists and local volunteers have been searching possible sites for the beetle at night, quite often in the rain, and have found them at two new sites on Dartmoor.

While this might not sound very exciting, it means that the beetle is more widespread than was thought. Plus, once a site is known, it can be protected. Knowledge is so important, and invertebrates are a very understudied group, plus the taxonomic knowledge to identify species is becoming rarer and rarer – you could argue that taxonomists themselves are becoming an endangered species. But if we don’t know what is living at a site, it becomes very difficult to advocate for it, and we will have no idea about the distribution or rarity of particular species. This is an argument for better natural history education, for citizen science, and for funding, particularly of small, specialist charities like Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Society who are both doing such useful work on such tight budgets. I look forward to the launch of the new Natural History GCSE course that’s being launched in 2025 – hopefully, it will inspire a whole new generation of naturalists, ecologists and taxonomists.