Thursday 5 May 2016

New population of Near Threatened plant found in Surrey

A new population of a Near Threatened plant has been discovered in Surrey, the identification confirmed by local botanists and media contacts have been alerted - a good news story for a change!

Over to Natural England's Press Officer Ellen Softley to tell us more:

Shepherd's Cress at Thursley NNR
Image: Graham Steven
A rare, tiny and unassuming plant known as Shepherds Cress Teesdalia nudicaulis has been discovered on Thursley National Nature Reserve in Surrey.

Similar in appearance to its common relative, Shepherd’s Purse, Shepherd’s Cress is classified as Near Threatened and close to imminent threat of extinction.  An annual plant of bare and sandy places usually associated with lowland heath, coastal sites, arable margins, mountain scree and disused railway lines, its widespread UK distribution belies the fact that it is undergoing declines across its range. Most colonies are small and isolated and its short-lived seed bank makes it vulnerable to extinction if sites become unsuitable, usually due to competition by more vigorous plants or urbanisation.

James Giles, Reserve Manager for Natural England at Thursley National Nature Reserve said: “I stumbled across the colony by chance while undertaking an invertebrate survey, and immediately told Graham Steven (Natural England Land Management Adviser) who was tickled pink.  He’s been hoping to find the plant at Thursley for years!”

VC55's only population of Shepherd's Cress
 - having a good year. April 2016
Image: Richard Mabbutt
Graham Steven said: “Shepherd’s Cress is very rare in Surrey and Hampshire, so I was over the moon when I heard of James’ discovery!  The habitat at Thursley is ideal for the plant, but this is the first time it has ever been recorded here. I visited the site to confirm its identity and determine the size of the population.  It looks as though it’s confined to a single site at present, even though there is suitable habitat elsewhere.” 

“I also spotted other more widespread plants which were also making their first appearance at Thursley, such as small mouse-ear and spreading meadow grass.  The discovery reflects well on the land management at the Nature Reserve.  Now we know they’re there, we will do what we can to help ensure the population thrives.”

Dr Pete Stroh, Scientific Officer at the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) said:

Shepherd's Cress in close-up
Image: Richard Mabbutt
“Shepherd’s Cress is a lovely white-flowered crucifer of sandy soils that requires periodic small-scale disturbance, bare open ground and lots of sunlight for seedling germination and establishment. Such conditions are, handily, often created by rabbits. The spread of myxomatosis in the latter half of the 20th century was bad news for such a small, ephemeral species. 

"Such is the current fate for many of our threatened and Near Threatened grassland plants, this time due to a lack of cutting or livestock grazing in particular, resulting in rank species-poor grassland and the invasion of scrub. In this context it’s really great to hear of a new location for a wildflower that has experienced such tough times in the recent past.” 

You can read Ellen's press release, with notes for editors, here. Please also check out the England Red List to see why Shepherd's cress is described as Near Threatened in England. See also the BSBI species account for this plant and here is the distribution map showing where the plant has been recorded across Britain and Ireland. The new Surrey population will show up in the next few days as a new dot on the map!

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