The Broads, Norfolk

Deep in the heart of the Norfolk Broads and surrounded by towering reeds, a tiny orchid finds a delicate foothold in the fens. One of our rarest flowers, you can count the number of Fen Orchid (Liparis loeselii) sites on one hand. But we’re gradually unlocking the secrets of its life and bringing it back from the very edge of extinction.

In England, Fen Orchid grows amongst tall fen vegetation dominated by Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and Great Fen-sedge (Cladium mariscus). These grow on areas of peat that have been cut for fuel in the past and, as the tall vegetation grows back, the right conditions are created for the Fen Orchid.

It is a transient habitat though. Without the cutting of peat or cutting of reeds, thicker vegetation develops and the peat becomes dryer, so the orchids die out. This lack of management – along with drainage and scrub encroachment - accounts for the loss of Fen Orchid in England. At one time, it was known from at least 30 sites across Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and south to Kent. Now, it is known from just 3, all in a small area of the Norfolk Broads Important Plant Area (a dune form of Fen Orchid is known from south Wales that we’re also working to rescue).

After many years of work, we’re beginning to understand the complex and delicate life cycle of this special orchid. Working with site owners and land managers, we’re reinstating the fen management it needs and even embarking on an exciting programme of reintroduction to bring this remarkable plant back to some of its former sites.

Our goals:

  • Undertake, with partners, a detailed trial to examine the effect of different fen cutting regimes (i.e. periods of time between cutting) on Fen Orchid.
  • Use the knowledge gained from the trial to change how we manage other sites for Fen Orchid.
  • Trial the translocation of Fen Orchid plants to perfect the process and ensure plants survive.
  • Translocate plants on sites within the Broads catchment and beyond to form the core of a restored population at each site.
  • Monitor all known Fen Orchid populations for five years to assess the success and effectiveness of management and translocation.

Under threat:

Fen Orchid (Liparis loeselii)

Unlike its bright and blousy cousins this is an understated orchid, but it has a delicate beauty and charm all of its own. It flowers in June and July, reaching only 1 to 6 inches (3-15cm) high. It is one of only two British orchids to form pseudobulbs – swollen stems that are more characteristic of tropical orchids growing on trees.

Marsh Lousewort (Pedicularis palustris)

This annual is related to Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) and is also a hemi-parasite (both species are in the Broomrape family). It germinates in spring and its roots tap into those of reeds, rushes and sedges growing nearby, suppressing their growth and helping to create favourable conditions for Fen Orchid. It has been lost from many parts of England and is now regarded as vulnerable to extinction. Photo (c) Hans Hillewaert under Creative Commons Licence.

Marsh Stitchwort (Stellaria palustris)

Looking like a large version of Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), this perennial has distinctive waxy-blue (glaucous) leaves and stems. Growing in fens, marshes and ditches, it able to colonise old peat diggings and often occurs in the same habitat as Fen Orchid. It has been lost from many parts of England and is now regarded as vulnerable to extinction. Photo (c) G Canar under Creative Commons Licence.

How's it going?

Up to 2009

Mowing of fen vegetation is an established management practise at several sites and is introduced to others. Some populations remain stable, some fluctuate, while others increase. Its clear that a better understanding of this species response to mowing is needed.

2012 - 2016

A detailed 5-year experiment is undertaken, with the RSPB, to assess how Fen Orchid responds to different fen-cutting regimes. Eighty plots receive one of five different cutting intervals, on either a 1-, 2-, 3-, 4- or 8-year rotation. The vegetation is cut with brushcutter and raked off by hand.

At the end of the project in 2016, it’s still too early to say which regime is best, but it’s clear that some cutting is essential as plants increase from 940 plants to 6078. As well as this, the detailed monitoring reveals for the first time that three things are important in Fen Orchid ecology:

  • Fen Orchids grow as epiphytes on clumps of brown mosses, especially Pointed Spear-moss (Calliergonella cuspidata). They’re a bit like tropical orchids, actually growing upon the moss, which probably helps regulate moisture levels.
  • Disturbance of the peat allows large numbers of Marsh Lousewort (Pedicularis palustris) to grow. Just like Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) in a wildflower meadow, these hemi-parasites suppress the growth of larger reeds and sedges, encouraging the open conditions needed by Fen Orchid.
  • There a marked correlation between Fen Orchid plants and animal trackways through the site, indicating the role of animals in dispersing vegetative buds produced by the plants.

2016

Thanks to campaigning by Plantlife and others, Catfield Fen, an important fenland site supporting Fen Orchid and Swallowtail butterflies, is saved from further abstraction of water for commercial purposes.

As part of our work to perfect methods to translocate Fen Orchids, Tim Pankhurst takes several plants home and babysits them for the night. After being put back in their original homes, the plants not only all flower in the summer but some actually increase in size from lateral buds. This success paves the way for translocations to new sites next year.

It is estimated that 12,000 Fen Orchid plants grow 2016, twice as many as in 2015 and more than has ever been recorded in England before. This is down to getting the management right at two sites. We are now working with managers at other sites to improve conditions for the orchid.

Who are we working with?