Shropshire's extinct species
Shropshire Botanical Society Newsletter - Autumn 2000 - page 15
Sarah Whild & Alex Lockton
There is some interest at present in the local rates of species extinction, to inform decisions about conservation priorities. In our booklet Rare Plants of Shropshire (1995 and 1997 editions) we listed the taxa considered to be extinct. This was partly to encourage recorders to tell us if they had seen the plants in question - it was not solely intended for conservation purposes. If we wish to study the significance of extinction, then the list must be refined somewhat. For example Mousetail, Myosurus minimus, has only ever been seen once in the county, in 1970. It does not appear to be a native species here. To list it as an extinction, and therefore of conservation importance (possibly even to be reintroduced!) would be misleading.
The following list, therefore, disregards all taxa that we think have not been conclusively recorded as native, and all records that are open to some doubt, giving - as best we can - an account of the true losses to the Shropshire flora. You are welcome to debate our conclusions. It is perhaps a surprisingly short list, and many of the plants on it were only ever very rare in the county.
1. Isoetes lacustris, Quillwort: was lost many years ago from climate warming and eutrophication of the meres.
2. Equisetum hyemale, Rough Horsetail: used to occur in three or four places, but was lost over a century ago. Possibly it was collected to extinction (it was used as a pan-scrub) but then again it may have been planted for that very purpose.
3. Pilularia globulifera, Pillwort: may have been quite widespread in the long distant past, but succumbed to eutrophication and drainage long before the influence of modern agriculture. It was lost in the 1970s from a nature reserve, which should be a lesson to us to look after our protected sites better!
4. Hymenophyllum wilsonii, Wilson's Filmy Fern: may also have been more common than records suggest. Clearance of woodland long ago is the most likely cause of decline, leaving the hills too dry and exposed to support it.
5. Dryopteris oreades, Mountain Male Fern. This has only ever been recorded once, on Titterstone Clee, a site notoriously on the edge of the range for mountain plants. It may still be there, but if so, only just hanging on.
6. Dryopteris aemula, Hay-scented Buckler-fern: like the above, only ever known in one spot. Wiped out 130 years ago by industrial development in Coalbrookdale.
7. Juniperus communis, Juniper: used to occur in several woodlands. Died out 100 years ago, apparently. No-one knows why, but Shropshire is clearly not within its native range.
8. Fumaria purpurea, Purple Ramping-fumitory: died out in the 1920s. It is now largely a coastal species, and it may just be climate change resulting in lower humidity inland that has caused its loss.
9. Stellaria nemorum, Wood Stitchwort: is something of a mystery. Last seen in 1901, apparently, but there is some doubt about the validity of some of the records. Never anything but vanishingly rare.
10. Dianthus armeria, Deptford Pink: was always rare - Leighton never saw a plant of it. Some of the records may be of planted specimens. Died out about 100 years ago.
11. Cardamine impatiens, Narrow-leaved Bitter-cress: this seems to be a real loss, although there is some doubt about many of the records, and also a real chance that it is still around. The cessation of coppicing is undoubtedly the cause of a dramatic decline.
12. Arabis glabra, Tower Mustard: was once quite widespread, but the last confirmed records were over 100 years ago (records in Sinker's Flora are open to some doubt). Cause of decline is not really known but probably loss of marginal heathland habitats.
13. Hornungia petraea, Hutchinsia: a very small number of records, over 150 years ago. If it was there at all, climate change is the most likely culprit - by which we mean the end of the Little Ice Age, not global warming.
14. Subularia aquatica, Awlwort: may have been common, many centuries ago. Was lost about 200 years ago, with amelioration of the climate and eutrophication and succession of Hencott Pool.
15. Pyrola media, Intermediate Wintergreen: another northern species on the very edge of its range in Shropshire. Could still be around, but the climate is no longer favourable.
16. Saxifraga hypnoides, Mossy Saxifrage: was on Titterstone Clee, where it died out about 150 years ago. Climate change again, most likely.
17. Rubus saxatilis, Stone Bramble: is one of the latest of our northern plants to go extinct. A survey of Craig Sychtyn this year failed to relocate it. It once persisted in a few woodlands in the west of the county.
18. Potentilla neumanniana, Spring Cinquefoil: it is not entirely certain that this ever occurred in the county (see Mary McGhie article). But if it did, it was very rare and had gone by about 200 years ago.
19. Trifolium fragiferum, Strawberry Clover: another rather mysterious and very ancient loss of little consequence.
20. Radiola linoides, Allseed: was recorded on several heaths until about 100 years ago. Reason for loss is unknown, but like Fumaria purpurea it is now found mostly near the coast.
21. Erodium maritimum, Sea Stork's-bill: used to occur in a few spots, but was last seen about eighty years ago. Not really an inland plant.
22. Lithospermum arvense, Field Gromwell: one of the few arable weeds that are considered sufficiently native to include in a list of extinctions, although Shropshire is beyond its range. Presumably died out about 100 years ago because people stopped inadvertently planting it with their corn, but it still crops up occasionally.
23. Limosella aquatica, Mudwort: this species may be a real loss to conservation, although it was only ever recorded once before this century, when it appeared in the Severn, having presumably been washed down from Montgomeryshire. Will possibly be found again, if anyone looks for it in a dry summer.
24. Utricularia vulgaris, Greater Bladderwort: this is one of the few plants that has suffered a serious decline to extinction. The cause is eutrophication and drainage for agriculture, of the pre-industrial type. Last seen in 1901.
25. Campanula glomerata, Clustered Bellflower: used to occur on Wenlock Edge and in the Oswestry area, but was always quite rare. The industrialisation of farming, woodland and quarrying leave it no habitat. It would be good to see it return, as the National Trust expands its ownership and management of the Edge. Last seen in the 1930s, probably.
26. Lobelia dortmanna, Water Lobelia: once quite common in meres and upland pools. Gone by the 1920s, partly because of climate change and eutrophication.
27. Antennaria dioica, Mountain Everlasting: has been recorded in just two places, possibly not even within the county. Climate change is implicated.
28. Chamaemelum nobile, Chamomile: was on the very edge of its range in Shropshire, but was known in a few sites some 200 years ago. There are a few scattered records until 1961. The usual reason given for its decline is the cessation of grazing on common land.
29. Damasonium alisma, Starfruit: may well have been common, once, but was gone by the mid-19th century. Reasons not known, but probably loss of 'untidy' marginal habitats.
30. Scheuchzeria palustris, Rannoch-rush: very much a northern species, surviving here presumably since the last Ice Age. Climate change spelled its inevitable doom, but botanical collecting certainly hastened its demise over 100 years ago.
31. Potamogeton coloratus, Fen Pondweed: last seen in 1882.
32. Potamogeton lucens, Shining Pondweed: last seen in 1979.
33. Potamogeton gramineus, Various-leaved Pondweed: last seen in 1885.
34. Juncus compressus, Round-fruited Rush: was known in one place by the Severn for many years, and died out about 70 years ago, possibly as a result of erosion.
35. Blysmus compressus, Flat-sedge: was known in one locality at the base of the Wenlock Edge, where agricultural improvements 100 years ago wiped out its habitat.
36. Carex diandra, Lesser Tussock-sedge: if the records are correct, it was fairly widespread and then died out from habitats that are still there, for no known reason. Last seen 50 years ago. A complete mystery.
37. Carex distans, Distant Sedge: may have occurred in a few places, or may have been incorrectly recorded. Like C. diandra, a mystery - it would be dangerous to read too much into its apparent loss, but equally, it could be significant. Last seen over 100 years ago.
38. Carex limosa, Bog-sedge: this is a recent and real loss. It was once in quite a few peat bogs, but seems now to have gone. Last seen in 1982. The causes of damage and destruction of lowland bogs are numerous.
39. Deschampsia setacea, Bog Hair-grass: Similar reasons to the above species - loss and degradation of lowland peat bogs, together with eutrophication and abandonment of common land; last recorded in 1894.
40. Bromopsis benekenii, Lesser Hairy-brome: apparently lost about 100 years ago, presumably because of a cessation of coppicing; but never common in the county.
41. Hordeum secalinum, Meadow Barley: Probably never common in the county, but destruction of old grassland is the main reason for loss; last recorded in 1978.
42. Cephalanthera damasonium, White Helleborine, has never really been confirmed for the county, but has been recorded several times. Causes for loss might include cessation of coppicing and conifer planting.
43. Cephalanthera longifolia, Narrow-leaved Helleborine: died out a century ago, partly because of coniferisation and the cessation of coppicing.
44. Epipogium aphyllum, Ghost Orchid: was recorded in just one location, 100 years ago.
45. Listera cordata, Lesser Twayblade: is another northern species, under stress from climate change. Changes in heathland management may have contributed to its loss.
46. Pseudorchis albida, Small-white Orchid: last seen 150 years ago. Probably occurred in small limestone quarries, which are no longer used.
47. Dactylorhiza purpurella, Northern Marsh-orchid: was last recorded just 15 years ago. Agricultural intensification and drainage are probably responsible for its loss.
48. Orchis ustulata, Burnt Orchid. Both this species and the following have probably disappeared as a result of small limestone fields being improved and associated small limestone quarries being abandoned. Last seen a century ago.
49. Ophrys insectifera, Fly Orchid: last seen 50 years ago. See above for causes.
It is scientifically unsound to assume that all plants no longer recorded are "extinctions" and therefore representative of damage to the environment. In 400 years of recording, many species have been seen only occasionally, or even just once, and in fact there has been a steady increase in the number of both native and introduced species recorded throughout that time. What we really want to know is what "damage" really has occurred, and - most particularly - whether we can do anything about it. The list above suggests that the best conservation action would be to manage nature reserves like Brown Moss properly, because there are many species still present in them that are very rare in the county indeed. We cannot do very much about the climate warming, which it has been doing, on-and-off, for 14,000 years.
Some interesting opportunities may arise, however. The cessation of coppicing occurs several times as a possible cause for loss of species. It is impossible to imagine this management regime coming back into fashion for various purposes. Small-scale lime quarrying may have been responsible for creating strongly basic soils that used to support a variety of species. Perhaps this activity could also be reintroduced in appropriate areas; or it might be possible to influence the way large quarries are managed. The one conservation action that stands out as potentially really effective is the restoration of low-nutrient water bodies, such as peat bogs and the meres. This would require a large-scale influence on agricultural practises within their catchments, and is a process that English Nature has already identified as important.
One thing that we can be grateful for is that Shropshire has so far been relatively unaffected by the recent fashion for reintroducing extinct species, that has become such common practice in many parts of Britain. At best that is nothing but gardening, but at worst it is little more than vandalism of real wildlife habitats. Hopefully this article will have provided some information that can be used to make scientifically valid judgements about conservation priorities in the county.