Rachel Saunders, Principal Ecologist in our Norwich Office goes out on the Norfolk Broads in search of the rare Fen Orchid.
Norfolk can lay claim to many a national treasure; Stephen Fry, Sir John Mills, Delia Smith and Alan Partridge, to name but a few. But Norfolk has as rich a natural heritage as it does a cultural one. The county is also home to one of the UK’s rarest and most elegant of orchids; the fen orchid. This diminutive species is found in just three locations in The Broads and, outside of Norfolk, only from the dune slacks of South Wales. The Norfolk population is also morphologically distinct from that in Wales, possessing more flowers and acute oblong-elliptical leaves as opposed to the oval form of the Welsh population.
The Broads are a manmade feature of the Norfolk countryside, formed as a result of medieval peat cutting. Following cessation of this practice in the 14th Century, the natural processes of fenland succession, from open water to scrub and eventually woodland, have been at work, resulting in the decline and disappearance of the orchid from many of its previous sites.
On account of its rarity, the species is legally protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) and, given its threatened status across Europe and its listing on Annex II of the EC Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC), it is also listed under Schedule 5 of The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 (as amended).
The fen orchid flowers in June and July and, having never seen one before, I felt it was my duty as an ecologist to spend a warm, summer’s day wandering round Upton Broads and Marshes, one of the best sites in the county to see the yellow-green flower spikes in all their glory. This nature reserve, managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, has an impressive mix of habitat including alder carr woodland, fen, reedbed, and grazing marsh. In addition to the fen orchid, a further nine nationally scarce or rare plant species occur here, including marsh fern, marsh pea, cowbane and fen pondweed.
A Swallowtail Butterfly spotted on the search (Photos: Richard Saunders)
A gentle amble through the reedbeds and alder carr woodland soon led us to an area with several flower spikes, each carefully marked out with a bamboo cane to prevent inadvertent trampling. The ground underfoot quaked and oozed water with every step as we carefully picked our way towards one of them. Several photos later, we retreated and continued a pleasant walk around the rest of the reserve in the company of Norfolk hawkers and swallowtail butterflies, two other Norfolk specialities which are on the wing at this time.
The fen orchid is certainly not the most showy of the UK’s orchids, nor is it the tallest or most fragranced. But it has an understated beauty which is well worth conserving. Efforts are being made to ensure it continues to thrive in East Anglia through appropriate habitat management, reintroduction programmes and research into the relationship between the plant and the mycorrhizal fungi necessary for its germination from seed.