BBC Wildlife Magazine
CSI Lake District! COVER STORY Why would someone steal a rare plant from Britain’s famous fells?
What does the future hold for Britain’s rare alpine flowers? When a pyramidal bugle was stolen from England’s one and only colony, suspects were as thin on the ground as the plants are.
One blue-sky morning in May 2018, I headed into the fells in search of England’s rarest mountain flower. Pyramidal bugle, Ajuga pyramidalis, only grows on a series of small rock ledges on an out-of-the-way crag in the Lake District. I’m not going to tell you exactly where, for reasons that will become clear.
I’d been asked to go and check on the Ajuga by Jeremy Roberts, master Cumbrian botanist and unofficial guardian of this vulnerable treasure. The task was a privilege, earned by several years of getting to know Jeremy and convincing him that I was a committed and knowledgeable enough naturalist to be admitted into his circle of trust. I’d asked him for directions to find the plants a couple of years previously, but I obviously wasn’t ready and was courteously fobbed off.
At the time, I couldn’t understand why Jeremy was being so cagey. I knew that the Ajuga was incredibly rare, but this wariness seemed disproportionate. Surely no one steals rare plants anymore? Surely that curious Victorian collecting mania that contributed so much to the stripping of our natural heritage died out a generation ago?
With time, I did enough to earn my stripes and received detailed directions and a grid reference, along with a strict directive not to share them. My job was to count the Ajuga plants, record the condition of vegetation surrounding them and take photos.
Trek to the colony
As I left the track and started the scramble up towards the destined crag, my attention was split between the macro and micro. With my head up, peaks against sky formed a scene made to quicken the pulse. But looking down told an altogether different story. For mile after mile, the ground was almost devoid of flowers. Only as I approached the crag that held the fragile Ajuga colony did things start to pick up. Where the ground was less accessible to sheep for grazing, different plants started to appear. The silveryedged leaves of alpine lady’s mantle clung onto rocks and yellow mountain saxifrage picked out the stream edges.
After some searching, I finally found the Ajuga, nestled amid rocky ground either side of the bottom end of a scree-lined gulley. Pyramidal bugle takes its name from its overall shape: tiers of small purple flowers lurk beneath hairy leaves, which become more purple as they rise up towards the plant’s apex. Its hairiness helps it to grow in harsh mountain conditions, and makes the whole plant appear to be in filmstar soft focus. It is a close relative of common bugle, Ajuga reptans, a plant found in many habitats, including gardens, but this upland survivor has a lot more class. It also has the melancholy glamour of rarity – this one Lake District crag being its solitary English station.
To help me with the job at hand, I had brought photos from the previous year’s survey. At first, the colony appeared to be in good shape, the plants thinly scattered around the crag. All was mostly as expected, until I reached the bottom part of the group. Holding up the relevant photo against the lowest of the ledges, I was momentarily confused. Where,
at roughly the same time last year, there had been a large, vigorous plant, there was now only a trowel-sized hole. I stood back to check that I was in the right place, taking in the steep terrain, inaccessible to any grazing animal, and concluded that without doubt a plant had been stolen, complete with roots and soil.
The probability of someone finding pyramidal bugle here by chance is incredibly slim. It grows on near-vertical rocky ground, away from any footpath. Whoever stole this plant must have set out to take it specifically.
To think that anyone with an appreciation of the importance of this flower had stolen it left me dumbfounded.
But this act of environmental vandalism is not the real tragedy in this story. Pyramidal bugle should not be this rare. It is not a species with particularly exacting requirements – it grows widely in mountain regions across Europe, comfortable in grassland, heathland, woodland glades and on crags. The problem in England, I’m afraid, is the heavy-handedness to which we’ve subjected our upland landscapes. Centuries of sheep grazing in the Lake District have had a profound effect on the ecology of the region, removing palatable plant species from accessible areas, leaving them stranded in precarious and lonely refuges on crags. Sheep are selective grazers – they pick out sweeter species and ignore coarser ones. This often means they go straight for the flowers, which explains why huge tracts of the fells are dominated by coarse grasses and rushes.
Because of this tiny colony’s location, any seeds that fall from the parent Ajuga plants can only fall into areas that are grazed. And every year, without fail, the hopefuls that emerge from the seeds are eaten.
Sheep grazing is a feature of many mountainous regions, including the Alps, which are famous for their spectacular botanical diversity and abundance. So, it’s
“You can’t take sheep off the hill to protect a bunch of flowers!”
not the sheep themselves that are the root of the problem in the UK, it is their quantity. The post-war drive for food security, and the resulting subsidies designed to maximise production, have meant that sheep numbers have increased dramatically over the last 70 years – even in large tracts of upland pasture, virtually every inch is grazed.
“You can’t take all the sheep off the hill just to protect a bunch of flowers!” a farmer once told me. With no chance to explain that I had never suggested it, I was left with the familiar feeling of being stereotyped. The debate about upland grazing has become toxic and highly polarised. Environmental writer George Monbiot famously described sheep as “woolly maggots” and a “white plague” on the fells. As you might expect, farmers responded with fury. Many now assume all conservationists hold the same views, and I’ve frequently found myself on the sharp end of this.
Too often, farming and conservation communities see the argument in black and white but there are many shades of grey. Just as we might leave a patch of lawn unmown for a few months to get a miniature explosion of flowers, there can be breaks from grazing on the fells. That doesn’t mean a permanent stop, and it doesn’t have to happen everywhere. Large areas of hill could be rested, or smaller patches where the reduction or removal of livestock grazing might have a particularly striking effect – immediately below a speciesrich crag, for example, or either side of a watercourse. With sensible planning, reasoned debate and compromise, our landscapes are more than capable of producing both food and nature.
The good news is that change is already starting to happen. I know many farmers and landowners that are making more space for nature, not only for nature’s sake, but because it makes good business sense. As Government subsidies are increasingly directed towards supporting the natural environment, this trend will only accelerate.
Back in bloom
No plant illustrates the sorry state of botanical affairs in the English uplands as starkly as pyramidal bugle, but there are many other species that have a similarly precarious toehold on survival.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. At the head of Haweswater reservoir, beneath one of the Lake District mountains’ most important botanical treasure troves, the RSPB, working together with the Alpine Garden Society, United Utilities, Natural England and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has created a 35ha grazing enclosure. Without the nibbling of sheep and deer, plant life is returning at speed. In the areas closest to the crags, early purple orchids and vast carpets of mossy saxifrage have appeared out of nowhere. Devil’s-bit scabious, goldenrod, wood cranesbill and lesser meadow rue now pick out the stream sides where seeds have been washed down from above. In peaty areas, swathes of golden bog asphodel now enliven the wet ground, and hummocks of sphagnum mosses are holding water and locking up carbon. Along with the plants come insects. Hoverflies throng the flowerheads of angelica and butterflies drift past, drunk on nectar.
All any plant is aiming to do is reproduce. To have the chance to grow a flower, to attract a pollinator, to spread its seed doesn’t seem a lot to ask. Who knows, as the number of nature-friendly farmers grows, perhaps the next time England’s last colony of Ajuga pyramidalis is surveyed, we will find a seedling or two that has been able to secure itself a safe spot to grow and flower, making the natural tapestry of the Lake District just that little bit brighter.