Yorkshire Wildlife Trust works to save wetland wildlife

Volunteers ensure the survival of rare wetland plants and animals. JOHN CAVE of Yorkshire Derwent Catchment Partnership Reports

The morning is unusually hot and humid, the country in the final throes of late summer.

A spade digs into the ground, creating an opening less than half a foot wide.

A tall, slender green plant is lowered into place, its umbrella-shaped flower head crowning the top of this otherwise unassuming plant.

A firm boot leans against the dark ground and the first large water parsnip plant in hundreds of years is sent back to an internationally important wetland reserve.

A group of volunteers from several different groups, including the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Yorkshire Water and Natural England, have arrived at the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Wheldrake Ings Nature Reserve near York in a bid to save a rare species from the areas wet.

The large water parsnip is native to the United Kingdom and was once a widespread and dominant species in wetlands in England and Northern Ireland.

However, populations have declined to 50% of their former range in the past 40 years due to habitat loss and changes in wetland management.

Water parsnip now only occurs in a small number of isolated pockets of wetlands in England and is listed as ‘endangered’ on the Red List of Vascular Plants for England, meaning that it is vulnerable to extinction.

In response to this marked decline, several organizations have attempted to reintroduce the plant to areas where it is locally extinct with varying success; in many cases, populations do not become established and locally disappear again within one to three years.

This is a fact of which the volunteers are fully aware, and great care is taken with each plant.

Individual plants have been meticulously nurtured from seed. Last autumn, seeds were selected to be hand-propagated and turned into mature plants by dedicated volunteers at Yorkshire Water’s Tophill Low Nature Reserve in East Yorkshire.

Favorable transplant sites within the Wheldrake Ings Wetland Reserve have been carefully selected to promote success.

It’s not just one plant that’s important here, it’s the whole wetland ecosystem. Our wetlands have shrunk by 90% over the last century and are at the center of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Wilder Wetland campaign.

Healthy wetlands are extremely important for wildlife, providing refuge for species that have been pushed to the brink, including iconic species such as bitterns, marsh harriers and water voles.

They are also hugely important in our fight against climate change, being our planet’s most efficient carbon sinks and providing flood protection by naturally storing huge amounts of water and slowly releasing it.

A few weeks earlier, volunteers had come together to transplant another important plant: tansy.

Unlike the water parsnip, tansy plants are widely abundant across much of the UK. Their attention-grabbing bright yellow flowers often lead them to be confused with groundsel, another common plant in our countryside.

However, tansy plants are essential to the survival of the highly endangered tansy beetle. Nicknamed the “Jewel of York”, the tiny beetle – a quarter the size of a 1 pence coin – is a spectacular sight, with an unmistakable iridescent green body.

Until 2014 the last remaining UK population of tansy was thought to be on the River Ouse in York, until a small population was discovered in Cambridgeshire Fens, another pocket of wetland habitat of national importance.

Small populations are vulnerable, especially to unpredictable weather events associated with climate change. Summer flooding of the beetle population could be catastrophic and lead to local extinction.

As a result, under the direction of the Tansy Beetle Action Group, volunteers are creating new habitat for the tansy in the Derwent catchment.

It is hoped that one day the watershed will be able to support an expanded population of tansy, thereby protecting this endangered species for future generations.

The conservation of these rare species has been made possible through funding from the Yorkshire Water Biodiversity Enhancement Fund and through collaboration between a number of organizations and their dedicated volunteer groups, including Natural England, Yorkshire Water and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

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