August 26, 2008

Putting Helleborines on the Map

By Laura Davis

WE HOLD on tight to the sides of the Land Rover as it heads off the track, lurching from side to side like an elephant with an inner- ear infection. When it stops, on the top of a particularly steep dune, the conservation team leaps out and heads across the dunes, fanning out towards the distance in search of their quarry.

"Found one!" comes the cry a few minutes later, and when we catch up with the two women they are kneeling on the ground to examine their discovery. "They don't generally like getting their feet wet," reveals Pauline Michell, an environmental consultant.

"They tend to be up away from the slacks."

She talks as if she is referring to tiny creatures - something cute perhaps, with spiky fur and delicate toes.

But the specimens Pauline is describing on this occasion are dune helleborines, an exceptionally rare type of orchid with a name that's wonderful to roll around the tongue.

Although there are thousands of them growing wild along the Sefton coastline, this is the only place in the world they are known to survive today. For this reason, Merseyside Bio Bank, an environmental records office, is co-ordinating a survey of the dune helleborine and another type of orchid, the green-flowered helleborine, which is also of conservation importance.

More than 30 volunteers have spent the past two months combing the dunes for the flowers, which they then mark on a chart.

The results will be compared with those from a survey carried out in 1992 to see how well the population is surviving.

"We want to find out what conditions they like. We know that they are not usually found outside of the sand dune system - you don't see them when you're walking down the road - but we need more information and the survey will give us that," explains Pauline, who works for West Lancs-based environmental consultancy Coast and Country Ecology.

"The coastline is managed to make sure there is a range of different habitats that suit the wildlife and plants that are there.

For example, they use sheep here to eat the scrub if it seems there is too much.

"The aim is to maintain biodiversity in this area. There are other species, including insects, which would rely on these helleborines. Plants are at the bottom of the food chain, so, the more floral diversity there is in the area, the better."

Maintaining the environment of the Sefton Coastline, stretching from Crosby to Southport, is made more complicated by the number of different landowners involved.

The area of dunes we are standing on is owned by Natural England, formerly English Nature, and is a 500-hectare National Conservation Area. The coastline at Formby is mainly owned and managed by the National Trust, but there are also private landowners, including Formby Golf Club.

Local people have a strong sense of pride in the conservation area, Pauline says, which helped when calling for volunteers.

Helen Greaves, Merseyside Bio Bank community liaison coordinator, adds: "They range from students who want some experience in botany to retired people who enjoy strolling through the dunes.

"Everyone who has volunteered seems to have known a bit about the area, but won't have had any experience in doing something like this before.

"We've held training sessions to teach them what to look out for and how to work the GPS."

Volunteers have tended to work in pairs, each one being allocated a specific section of the coastline.

Once they have identified a helleborine, they fill in a form giving details of the conditions in which it was found and, using a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit, the Ordnance Survey grid reference.

This information will be placed on a map of the coastline.

They flower earlier in the summer so finding them without their distinctive blooms can be tricky and volunteers have been shown how not to confuse other plants, such as less rare types of helleborine, rosebay willow herb and evening primroses.

"They tend to grow in the dry parts of the dunes," says Pauline, "but some have been found in more unusual places.

"I was on the National Trust site the other day and a green flowered helleborine was growing out of the base of a signpost, just where it goes into the ground.

"It was all on its own, right where people walk past."

If the affection people have for these little plants is anything to go by, their future is secure.

LEARN more about the helleborines from Pauline Michell and Helen Greaves at www.

Some have been found in unusual places.

One was growing out of the base of a signpost

How to tell your dune helleborines from your green-flowered variety

DUNE Helleborine (epipactis dunensis) Leaves: Longer, narrower; paler or yellowish green; two ranks up the stem; held at 45 degrees above horizontal.

Flowers: Earlier; Open; horizontal or upright; drooping as capsules ripen, lip pinkish-white with green tip.

Capsules: More parallel sided.

GREEN-FLOWERED Helleborine (epipactis phyllanthes) Leaves: Shorter, broader; brighter green; spirally arranged up stem; held horizontally.

Flowers: Later; often nearly or completely closed; drooping.

Capsules: More pear-shaped.

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