Thursday, 4 July 2013

Counting Orchids in North Wales

Posted by Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife Cymru Conservation Manager

Last Saturday we held a little event in partnership with
the North Wales Wildlife Trust (NWWT) in the village hall at Clynnog Fawr, just below our Caeau Tan y Bwlch reserve in Gwynedd. The idea was to raise the profile of the reserve amongst the local community. I gave a talk about meadows in general, looking at their sad demise and the species we’ve lost, such as Globeflower, as a result. As Caeau Tan y Bwlch is the Coronation Meadow for Gwynedd I showed some slides from the launch of this project at Highgrove and went on to illustrate the botanical interest at the reserve. Rob Booth from NWWT then gave a talk about management of the reserve, which was followed by tea, cake and sandwiches. We had a great turn-out from the local community, many of whom didn’t know about the reserve. There were also Plantlife members, NWWT members, and we made a few new members too.

In the afternoon, we made our way up to the “fields below the mountain pass” (the translation of the reserve name) for the annual count of Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha), the main feature of the reserve. Rob and I were not quite sure how to organise so many volunteers – 26 in total – we’d never had so many before! We started out with a tour of the fields, where I pointed out the main flowers to be found. There were Meadow Buttercups, Heath Spotted Orchids, Yellow Rattle, Northern Marsh Orchid, Eyebrights of various types and Lady’s-mantle. I love the latin name for this last one, Alchemilla, as it means “little alchemist” and was named for the pure water that collects in the leaves, used by alchemists in their attempts to turn base metals into gold.  We also looked at meadow grasses such as Crested Dog’s-tail, Yorkshire Fog and Sweet Vernal Grass, which gives hay its sweet scent.

For the orchid count I organised everyone along the edge of each field an equal distance apart and, with a rather military approach, got them all to “sweep” the meadow in one line, tallying up orchids as they went. It’s always slightly hap-hazard, with some parts of the line getting ahead of the others and some people veering off towards their neighbours. It’s amazing how territorial people get about the orchids they’re meant to count and good-natured arguments always break out.

After a lot of counting and tallying-up, and a bit of bickering, we reached a grand total of 1,982 Greater Butterfly Orchids in all – 450 more than last year. 

I love the way it varies each year. There are eight fields with Butterfly Orchids and each has a different character; some have shorter grass and more orchids, others are damper with more marsh orchids, others have longer grass and fewer flowers. Two fields had more than twice as many Butterfly orchids than last year, another had nearly half as many. The reasons are inexplicable, the wonderful mystery of orchids. 

It was a great day and a big success, especially in getting the local community more involved at the reserve. We need to tackle bracken encroachment within some of the fields, so hopefully we can get some more volunteers to help out with this too.