The Lizard, Cornwall

As the most southerly point of the British mainland and largely forged from a rare metamorphic rocks – the jade-green serpentine - it’s not surprising that the Lizard peninsula is home to some of our most threatened plants and a mecca for lovers of wildflowers.

The Lizard peninsula is extraordinary on many levels. It boasts unique heathland vegetation, dominated by an abundance of Cornish Heath (Erica vagans). Astonishingly, nearly half the British native flora can be found here, including fifty five rare and special species such as Twin-headed Clover (Trifolium bocconei) and Wild Chives (Allium schoenoprasum). Rare lichens also abound, including the beautiful Ciliate Strap Lichen (Heterodermia leucomela) and Golden Hair Lichen (Teloschistes flavicans). On the basis of this outstanding botanical inheritance the Lizard is recognised internationally as an Important Plant Area.

However, much of this diversity depends entirely on man’s activities. For over 500 years the heathland was grazed by livestock in summer, gorse and peat were collected for fuel, and serpentine stone was quarried. As a result, a network of deeply-rutted trackways developed as carts, carriages and - more recently - vehicles criss-crossed the heaths. Under certain conditions, these fill with water in winter and dry out in summer, providing a remarkable habitat for specialist plants and animals, particularly ones more used to seasonal pools in Mediterranean climates.

But times have changed. In recent decades, much of the heathland went ungrazed and unmanaged. The trackways went unused and pools became overgrown. Even worse, during the 1980s some tracks were filled in with aggregate, providing an all-weather surface but destroying their rare plants. In an exciting project with the help of our partners, Plantlife aims to restore the Lizards’ precious tracks and pools to their former glory.

Our goals:

- Restore 2km of the most important trackways, excavating the modern aggregate and exposing the ancient surface, allowing the buried seed of special plants to germinate.

- Restore 21 heathland pools, digging out the built-up vegetation and exposing bare peat around their edges so specialist water plants can flourish again.

- Clear two areas of scrub so grazing animals can access wet grass heath, improving conditions for chamomile and other species.

- Monitor the recovery of the animals and plants as they return to the heathland, trackway and pool habitats.

Under threat:

Pygmy Rush (Juncus pygmaeus)

A tiny little rush that grows nowhere else in Britain. It’s an annual, germinating each spring as temperatures rise and water levels drop in the rutted pools that form along tracks and in gateways. Highly endangered and known from just 12 sites, over a thousand plants can appear some years, while in others there are just a few hundred. Photo © Andy Pay.

Three-lobed Water-crowfoot (Ranunculus tripartitus)

This small annual germinates each autumn as pools fill up with water, grows through the winter, flowers in spring and sets seed as pools dry up in summer. Highly endangered in England, it is sometimes called "the world’s rarest water buttercup". It has returned to four sites on the Lizard (so far), thanks to this project. Photo © Trevor Dines/Plantlife.

Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

This fragrant native herb used to be fairly widespread in wet grass heaths in southern Britain, but it is now largely found south of the Thames-Severn estuaries and is vulnerable to extinction. Our work has already led to it returning to the Kynance trackway on the Lizard. Did you know this is the same chamomile we grow in our gardens? Photo © Bob Gibbons/Plantlife


How's it going?

2005

Plantlife undertakes its first trackway restoration work (below, photo © Andy Pay), at the Windmill Farm reserve in partnership with Cornwall Wildlife Trust. Populations of eight scarce and threatened species are restored.

2014

Thanks to funding from SITA Trust and under the guidance of Andy Byfield (Plantlife) and Ray Lawman (Natural England), a 14-ton digger arrives and over two kilometres of trackway are restored. The top layers of heather, purple moor grass and peat are removed to expose the soil beneath.

21 pools are created or restored in a similar way with shallow edges that will dry out in summer. They instantly provide new habitat for amphibians, adders and common lizards.

Scrub is cleared from two areas to improve grazing access, and chamomile quickly responds.

2015 & 2016

Restored trackways, pools and heathy pastures are all surveyed in detail and reveal that:

- 15 key target species have directly benefited from the work

- 32 populations of rarer target species have either reappeared or colonised new territory, including four populations of Pillwort (Pilularia globulifera) and five of Three-lobed Water-crowfoot.

- At least four priority species (Chamomile, Yellow Centaury, Pillwort and Three-lobed Water-crowfoot) can now be considered to have major populations spread across the Lizard.

- The ‘lost’ population of Pygmy Rush (Juncus pygmaeus) has not only been restored to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Windmill Farm reserve, but is now considered one of only two large and reliable populations in Britain, and is increasingly visited by botanists.

Who are we working with?

SITA Trust (funder)

Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland

Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Natural England