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Threatened wild flower thrown a lifeline from Westminster

Newbury MP Richard Benyon has offered his support to help save Berkshire’s snake’s-head fritillary.

April 22 2016

Fritillary © Lliam Rooney

Fritillary © Lliam Rooney

Snake’s-head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) is a glamorous purple flower that once grew so abundantly in Berkshire it could be seen growing in its thousands.

But today out of the 22 places where it once thrived only 4 survive. Since the 1930’s it’s declined rapidly across the UK and for two key reasons. Its beauty and abundance meant it was once picked in huge quantities and sold as cut flowers in markets around the UK which played a big part in its demise. In addition to that, changes in farming practice, particularly draining land to grow more crops in the 1950’s has meant the snake’s-head fritillary has disappeared from large swathes of the countryside. It’s become locally extinct in 17 counties and is now recognised as nationally scarce in the UK and endangered in Europe.

The snake’s-head fritillary is one of 20 threatened species that is being adopted by an MP as part of the “Species Champion” Initiative that was launched in Westminster on 1st March 2016. The initiative aims to raise the profile of wildlife in Parliament as well as support local efforts to save endangered flowers, birds and bugs.

"This beautiful wildflower is particularly important to me as something that survives close to my home and my constituency" says Richard Benyon. "Of the 22 places where it once used to grow so abundantly in Berkshire, only 4 survive today. It has all but disappeared from the water meadows of the Lodden and Thames, apart from the famous meadow at Stanford End. The spectacle of it in flower here today is a sad reminder of what we’ve lost. I’ll do all I can to champion its cause and make sure we conserve we conserve this beautiful wild flower in the meadows where it still grows."

Above: Marian Spain, Plantlife Chief Executive, and Richard Benyon, West Berks MP and Species Champion,  enjoying the Snakeshead Fritillaries at Stanford Mill Meadows with land owner Bill Dance

Plantlife’s Chief Executive Marian Spain says – “We are delighted that Richard has agreed to help champion the snake’s-head fritillary. This elegant beauty was a star of traditional wet hay meadows, where it once grew in such abundance that children could pick it to their hearts content. For today’s generation it’s no longer a common sight and many people in other parts of the country would struggle to show a child one growing in the wild."

"Richard is also a trustee at Plantlife and we so pleased to be able to work with him to help ensure that we take the right and the practical actions and policy decisions that are needed to help this enigmatic species thrive again and be enjoyed for generations to come. We are very proud we are helping to conserve snakes head fritillary at Plantlife’s Lugg Meadow reserve in Hereford where over the next few weeks you can see the gorgeous flower growing in its thousands.”

Did you know?

  • Snake’s-head fritillary is unmistakable with its chequered purple, pink or even white bell-like flower. It can be seen nodding on its slender stem in April and May, in traditional hay meadows, particularly ones that are prone to flood in winter.
  • According to folklore, the flower droops because it was present at Christ’s crucifixion and bent its flower in sorrow. The famous checkerboard pattern on the petals gives the plant its name – fritillaria which comes from the Latin work fritillus meaning “dice box”. As well as being well known in Berkshire, the Snakes head fritillary is the County Flower of Oxford, where some of the best-known remaining fritillary fields are found along the flood-meadows of the Thames including Magdalen Meadow in the heart of the University City.
  • Every year Ducklington church in Oxfordshire holds a “Fritillary Sunday” when the public can walk around a field full of this wild flower. Snakes head fritillary were once so abundant here, local children would pick them in their thousands and sell them at Covent Garden Market.