Saving the UK’s carnivorous plants from going extinct

14 November 2019

Carnivorous plants tend to be the subjects of horror movies in popular culture, yet they do perform important ecological roles in their niches. Now some experts are hoping to reintroduce some of these plants far and wide across parts of the United Kingdom.

“Most of these plants are rare in the North West [and] some of them have been extinct for the past 150 years,” says Josh Styles, a founder of the North West Rare Plant Initiative. He has taken action to reintroduce insect-eating plants back to England.

Carnivorous plants like sundews have numerous small and long tentacles with sticky glands at the tips. These droplets may look similar to drops of dew sparkling under sunlight; hence the plants’ name. Make no mistake, though: these droplets are fatal traps for careless prey. They act like flypaper by entrapping insects in sticky hairs on their leaves.

In order to attract passing insects, the glands of sundews secrete sweet-smelling nectar. The succulent liquid, however, is mixed with powerful adhesive that can capture insects that fall for the bait set by the plants. The plants then slowly digest the arthropods, absorbing all useful nutrients from them and leaving only the skeletons of the insects behind.

Sundews grow in habitats like wetlands and peat bogs where insects abound. However, due to the massive use of wetlands for agriculture and housing development, these boggy habitats were dug up and drained, causing them to go dry.

These human activities wiped out local carnivorous species, including the English sundew which once flourished in many parts of England. The number of English sundews has declined to such an extent that the plant is listed as near-threatened by the IUCN.

“If we were to do nothing, it is extremely likely that this carnivorous plant would become extinct in England in the very near future, and we’re not prepared to sit back and watch that happen,” says Styles.

With help from Chester Zoo and the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, he has managed to reintroduce the carnivorous plants at Risley Moss, near Birchwood in Warrington, where plots of land have been turned into waterlogged habitats suitable for the plants.

“While species of plants like the sundew, sphagnum moss and cottongrass have returned without much encouragement, they still need our help. And other plants need to be reintroduced after years away from this, their rightful home,” says Mike Longden, the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Mosslands Officer.

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