What is happening to the orchids?

Flanders Moss NNR

Lesser butterfly orchid – Ballangrew meadow
Ballangrew meadow – Flanders Moss NNR
Close-up of a lesser butterfly orchid

Ballangrew meadow is a small area of grassland on the western edge of Flanders that isn’t actual bog but is wet grassland that transitions through fen and into the edge of the peat bog. Many years ago when I started working at Flanders is was hardly grazed at all and so was very overgrown and tussocky. This wasn’t very good for the wildflowers of the grassland as grazing animals thin out the grass and give room for the less rugged flowers to come through. One of the species to benefit was the lesser butterfly orchid. This striking white orchid is declining across the country because it likes grassland managed in a particular unintensive way that is different from modern farming practices. Over the years we change the grazing regime of Ballangrew meadow and the orchids benefited, rising from just a handful to nearly 100 flowering spikes. Another orchid species that did very was the fragrant orchid.

Lesser butterfly orchid
Fragrant orchid – Ballangrew meadow.

But in recent years the orchid numbers have declined dramatically despite there being little change to the grazing regime of the fields. This years monitoring visit found only 4 spikes of lesser butterfly orchids and no fragrant orchids.

Orchid populations often go through boom and bust periods so there is no reason to panic yet but it is worrying. It is obviously time to review the grazing management to see if we can fine tuning the numbers and timing of stock on the meadow. It maybe that we exclude stock for a year to see if no grazing makes a difference. An alternative reason for the loss of orchids is the high red deer population that has built up in the area in recent years. Deer can preferential browse off flower heads so maybe they are eating the orchids? Review management and tweek is the answer.

This problem is typical of managing a nature reserve. You might have a set management prescription written into the management plan but nature is never that straight forward. Changes in weather patterns, dry years, wet years, natural plant cycles, changes in animals populations, natural pest and diseases and foreign invasive species can all change plant and animal populations but are rarely accounted for when you try to write down the way a reserve should be managed. It is one reason why working on nature reserves is endlessly interesting, challenging and satisfying. We will keep you up to date with progress.

Lesser butterfly orchid

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