Rare plant brought back from the brink after unusual conservation effort to run a tractor over it

Marsh clubmoss, an endangered plant found on damp heathlands in the UK, has been brought back from the brink thanks to an unusual conservation technique involving running a 5-tonne tractor over it.

Marsh clubmoss is an ancient but highly threatened species which has declined by 85% in recent decades as its habitat has been largely wiped out, leaving only a few sites in Dorset and Hampshire.

The Dorset Heathlands Heart project, which is led by the conservation charity Plantlife, is working to restore the county’s heaths which have been in decline due to development, tree plantations, agriculture and lack of habitat management.

English lowland heaths were once well used for grazing livestock and collecting gorse for firewood, heather for thatch, bracken for bedding and sand and gravel for building.

This activity created trampled trackways, exposed sandy patches and shallow pools which were a haven for wildflowers and other wildlife, and The Dorset Heathlands Heart project is attempting to recreate and connect up patches of habitat for nature.

Marsh clubmoss thrives on bare wet ground created by disturbance such as grazing animals or tracks. The low-growing plant, which only reaches around 8cm tall (3 inches) can get crowded out by other vegetation, but needs a beneficial fungi which is found with existing clubmoss and other plants to help it germinate and grow.

The conservation team made the decision to use the tractor method to stimulate the plant since creating small bare patches surrounded by plants, rather than large “scrapes” of empty ground, is effective for boosting the marsh clubmoss.

Sophie Lake, co-project manager of the Dorset Heathlands Heart project, said: “We knew that many heathland plants benefit from significant disturbance but there was a sharp intake of breath when we took the decision to drive up and down over a beautiful colony of 3,000 plants in a five-tonne tractor brandishing a muck grab for maximum disturbance.”

Fortunately the conservation team’s “calculated risk” paid off rather well as where there were once 3,000 plants there is now a thriving colony of 12,000.

Caroline Kelly, co-project manager, said: “The clubmoss experience has emboldened us in our determination to strategically ‘mess up’ the heaths to restore them to something akin to their former glory.

“The more work we undertake the more we understand and appreciate about how restoring some disturbance is fundamental to heath health.”

Marsh clubmoss is one of 19 scarce and declining species which the Dorset Heathland Heart project is working to protect, including lesser butterfly orchid, chamomile, pillwort and pale dog-violets.

Wildlife including woodlark, sand lizard, heath tiger beetle and the rare Purbeck mason wasp, which is only found in Dorset heathlands in the UK, are also being helped through the scheme.

The project is part of the Back from the Brink campaign to save 20 of England’s most threatened species from extinction.

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. I write about sustainable lifestyle and green living for publications, and I offer content services to planet-friendly businesses. Find out more at Rosamedea.com

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