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On a cliff edge

One of the UK’s rarest wildflowers is saved

March 15 2016

Yellow whitlowgrass, which grows only on the South Gower cliffs, has been saved thanks to Plantlife’s work to remove invasive non-native cotoneaster, fast-growing shrubs that cause havoc for wild plants and wildlife.  

Since 2013, Plantlife has been battling invasive cotoneaster that’s invaded large areas of pristine natural habitat on Gower. The garden escapee had smothered the fragile wild flowers, and almost wiped out the rare and intricate lichens, liverworts and mosses that give Gower its international importance. However, thanks to funding from Biffa Award, and the landowner National Trust, Plantlife has now cleared nearly 10 hectares of cotoneaster at Foxhole and the results speak for themselves.

Above: Yellow Whitlowgrass - one of Britain's rarest wildflowers - growing on the cliffs of the Gower

Back from the brink:

  • Yellow Whitlowgrass (Draba aizoides) - this dainty yellow flower is one of the rarest wildflowers in Britain but now thanks to the control of cotoneaster and improved surveying it is known at more locations than previously thought. 
  • Juniper (Juniperus communis) - these much loved, ancient bushes, which once supplied berries for gin, are declining so rapidly they could become extinct in parts of the UK in the next 50 years if urgent action isn’t taken. Their future at Foxhole is now more secure.
  • Basil-thyme (Clinopodium acinos) - hasn’t been found at this location for nearly 40 years but Plantlife experts discovered the pretty violet flower, just a few feet away from invading cotoneaster!
  • Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) - the work has also improved the limestone grassland habitat, making it more attractive to rare chough that breed nearby. The birds can now forage for invertebrates in the open turf.

Well chough-ed: the project has been helping rare wildlife - such this chough, photographed in Pembrokeshire by David Evans - as well as wildflowers

Plantlife’s Colin Cheesman: “The rare and threatened yellow Whitlowgrass was stuck between a rock and a hard place. It relies on the Gower’s rocky slopes where it flowers in the cracks and crevices but this was becoming engulfed with invasive cotoneaster which it simply can’t compete with and as a result was pushed to near extinction. Thankfully, through funding from Biffa Award and working with the landowners, the National Trust, we have been able to remove the cotoneaster and bring beauty and colour back to this important part of Gower. It’s sobering to think that if we hadn’t stepped in, some wild plants would be facing local extinction but it’s essential we continue our work and ensure that this area is kept cotoneaster free.”

Did you know? 

  • Gower 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 700 species of wild plants recorded here. It’s also home to an amazing range of wildlife including Choughs, Adders and rare Brown-banded Carder Bee. It’s one of a small number of precious limestone grassland sites in the UK and is the reason Plantlife has identified Gower as an Important Plant Area – There are only 166 in the UK.
  • 85 species of cotoneaster are grown in Britain, many of which were brought back from China and the Himalayas by plant hunters two centuries ago. Little did they know the trouble they would cause today, many of them leaping over the garden fence and spreading through bird-sown seed.
  • The project recorded seven species of invasive cotoneaster at Foxhole – far more than normal. Entire-leaved cotoneaster (Cotoneaster integrifolius) and wall cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) – the two most prevalent at the site - are generally the most invasive on limestone or chalk grassland. These species form dense spreading ‘carpets’ which smother natural vegetation. 

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