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Bringing beauty back from the brink

Declining native orchid Autumn lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) and other wildflowers begin to thrive again thanks to our work to remove invasive cotoneaster.

February 02 2015

Autumn lady's-tresses © Hans Hillwaert via Wikimedia Commons

Autumn lady's-tresses © Hans Hillwaert via Wikimedia Commons

Since 2012, Plantlife has been battling cotoneaster that’s invaded large areas of pristine natural habitat on Portland. The garden escapee smothers wild flowers but worst hit of all are the rare and intricate lichens and mosses that give Portland its international importance. However, thanks to funding by SITA Trust through the Landfill Communities Fund and with support from Dorset Wildlife Trust, 

Plantlife has cleared large areas and the results speak for themselves, with the return of the white orchid Autumn lady’s-tresses and other native beauties such as Portland spurge (Euphorbia portlandica), bird’s-foot-trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and horseshoe vetch (Hippocrepis comosa). In turn, these flowers will attract the special butterflies of Portland, such as Adonis Blue, which relies on horseshoe vetch and underlines how important wild flowers are for wildlife.

Plantlife’s species recovery expert Tim Wilkins: “In a way this has been a case of beauty and the beast. Portland is renowned for its exceptional biodiversity, especially its wild flowers, lichens, mosses and liverworts. Over 350 species of wild plants have been recorded here, including many that are critically endangered. Yet the beast, cotoneaster, was devouring swathes of this special coastal habitat. Thankfully, through funding from SITA Trust and support of the landowner Portland Stone Firm Ltd we have been able to kill the beast and bring beauty back to an important part of Portland. The reappearance of the wild orchid Autumn Lady’s-Tresses signaled that the cotoneaster removal was working. Now the cleared areas are recovering naturally, with iconic species such as Portland Spurge appearing in good numbers. It’s sobering to think that if we hadn’t stepped in, some wild plants would be facing local extinction.”

Sam Hamer, Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Portland’s Living Landscapes Officer, said “It’s been great to work with Plantlife on this much needed project as part of our whole island approach to tackle the problem. The wildlife of Penn’s Weare has hugely benefited from the clearance of cotoneaster. Both organisations see this invasive plant as the number one threat to biodiversity on Portland and we have successfully tackled it across a range of other sites.”

Did you know? 

  • Cotoneasters arrived in Britain two centuries ago, brought back from China and the Himalayas by plant hunters. Little did they know the trouble it would cause today... Leap-frogging garden fences, there are at least 15 species of non-native cotoneaster wreaking havoc on our landscapes.
  • Portland is in the top 20 of sites in peril due to invasives and is widely recognised as being of exceptional importance for its biodiversity, with over 350 species of wild plants recorded here. It’s one of the richest coastal limestone sites in the UK and is the reason Plantlife has identified Portland as part of the Dorset Coast Important Plant Area – one of only 166 in the UK.
  • Many species of cotoneaster occur in Britain but entire-leaved cotoneaster (Cotoneaster integrifolius) and wall cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) are generally the most invasive on limestone or chalk grassland. These species form ‘carpets’ which smother natural vegetation.
  • Species such as the yellow flower Portland hawkweed (Hieracium portlandicum) and Richardson’s case-bearer (a very rare moth) are thought to be unique to Portland, having not been found anywhere else in the world, and are benefitting from the project.
  • Rare species such as blackwort (Southbya nigrella) have been saved. Portland supports over 90% of the UK population of this species which is particularly vulnerable to encroaching cotoneaster.