Fen Orchid: the Smallest of Things, the Greatest of Things

Colin Cheesman

Colin Cheesman

Head of Plantlife Cymru

30th July 2018


Fen orchid

We are well used to having volunteers helping us out in monitoring our two nature reserves and counting the orchids. Indeed we have just celebrated 20 years of doing so. So I thought it would be interesting to join in the annual count of fen orchid (Liparis loselii) at Kenfig National Nature Reserve.

Although fen orchid is one species there are essentially two distinct populations in the UK, one of which resides in the fens of East Anglia and to which our beloved East of England Conservation Manager, Tim is the guardian and whilst the other population is found in the dampish wet slacks in the dunes of Kenfig.

Wet slacks are not describing the trousers you had on after a sudden downpour of rain occurred but rather flat areas in the dune systems where the water table is high enough to support a unique almost marshy flora. They can and often do look like shallow pools in the winter but dry out as the water table falls in the summer to reveal their glory.

The first day of the count saw around 12 people turn up at the Kenfig Visitor Centre including a good proportion of Natural Resoures Wales (NRW) staff. Whilst the warden, Dave Carrington, took a few down in the pick-up the rest of us tramped over to the dunes. The technique is simply to walk very, very slowly eyes cast downwards and often to spend considerable amounts on time on your hands and knees. The blessed things are small being only 60-120mm high and were already starting to ‘go over’ in the prolonged intense heat we have been experiencing. This is no help as their distinct yellow green flowers can be picked out once you have your eye in! The search also includes potential areas in the slacks and not just where they are already known to occur so it can be a bit frustrating for the surveyors when they find nothing. When orchids are found they are marked by a cane and staff from NRW then use GPS to plot the location and to record numbers.

We eventually ended up in a slack where there were four circular ‘fresh’ scrapes which were made about 4–5 years ago with the support of NRW. They are each about 10m in diameter and about 50mm below the existing ground level. Following their creation, Dave has scattered orchid seed from elsewhere in each of the scrapes each year and so he and I undertook to survey these scrapes. Their creation raises concerns because there is a strong association with a filamentous fungi in the ground and there is a fear that scraping could destroy the population of the fungi.

The first scrape produced just one orchid. But in the second I came across a group of 20 orchids much to the delight of Dave and Clive Hur-ford from NRW. Such was the jubilation there was even mention that it should be named Cheesman’s scrape!

All told, the survey takes nearly three days and there was just too much work beckoning from the office for me to spend more than a day searching the slacks of Kenfig.

As some of you will know Kenfig once had tens of thousands of fen orchids and the population declined to just 40 plants as the dunes became increasingly vegetated and stabilised. Thanks to the work of Plantlife, Bridgend County Borough Council (the current lessors of the reserve) and NRW numbers have now entered the early thousands.

Lets hope they continue to grow, in every sense of the word. With your support, we’ll be there making sure they do.


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