A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Red Helleborines in Buckinghamshire

Upon first opening my “Britain’s Orchids” book over 10 years ago, there were 3 species in particular that took my breath away. The curious Monkey Orchids that live on the Oxfordshire hillsides, the enigmatic and mysterious Ghost Orchid that only very rarely emerges from the depths of the dark woodland floor, and the exceptionally beautiful and graceful Red Helleborine, restricted to just three sites deep in the heart of our majestic beechwoods.

With large flowers tinted in a delicate shade of rose-pink, these stunning orchids instantly caught my attention, their extreme rarity just as alluring as their beauty. However the tight secrecy surrounding sites and the fact that flowering didn’t occur every year prevented me from seeing them – until now.
Red Helleborine - Buckinghamshire
With just three known sites in recent times, the Hampshire population has sadly now disappeared entirely, with no flowers having been spotted since 2003 and plants last occurring at the site in 2008. The Red Helleborines in Gloucestershire are unfortunately enclosed by a large and very high fence preventing close access to the flowers, and although having increased in number over the last few years, this year just one flowering spike has been seen. Visitors are also not encouraged. This just leaves the Buckinghamshire site as a location where close, but restricted and monitored access can be arranged - permits are required to visit and low key open days led by a warden are organised once or twice a year if the Helleborines flower.

Having managed to obtain a permit and taking a day off work to go on the second (and last) open day of the year, I arrived on site ready to finally see this most wanted of species. With just 3 visitors present on the Friday, our Monday tour had proved exceptionally popular, with record numbers booking on and meaning that we were split into two groups to ensure everyone got a chance to admire the flowers. With a brief tour of the site to enable the first group to take ample photographs, we soon swapped over and were led to the enclosure – impossible to find amongst the maze of trees unless you knew where you were going.
A view of the surrounding countryside before being taken to the enclosure
Like the Gloucestershire population, the Buckinghamshire Red Helleborines are enclosed by several fences, with a large inner fence surrounding the orchids to prevent grazing by deers or trampling by humans. With the decision taken a few years ago to no longer allow entry through the fence, I was extremely glad my dad suggested I take my 400m lens with me – the macro proved useless!

Crowding around the metal wires we peered excitedly under the trees, and there, nestled among the blades of grass was a single Red Helleborine spike. Even more beautiful in person than in any photos, the dainty pink flowers were in an absolutely perfect condition and luckily facing the fence – we couldn’t have asked for a better specimen. Thankfully the fencing had gaps big enough to fit my lens through, and was luckily just far enough away from the orchid for my lens to focus on the petals (the closest focusing distance is 3.6 metres!)
Red Helleborine - Buckinghamshire
Red Helleborine - Buckinghamshire
With no flowering spikes in 2014 and with just a single one this year, the future is looking quite uncertain at this site, with the population having been in decline here for the last 10 years. Following the lead of the Gloucestershire site where flowers increased after controlled management and the thinning of trees, the same seems to have had the opposite effect here in the Chilterns, with far fewer plants since the canopy was opened up. Even though there were several blind spikes nearby, the warden informed us that these were all clones of the same plant – not good for the long term survival of Red Helleborine at this site.

Whilst taking photographs, we noticed a small hoverfly visiting one of the flowers and I managed several shots of it caught in the act searching for nectar. With little known about Red Helleborine pollination, it is opportunities like these that enable us to further our understanding as to the needs of this delicate flower.
Red Helleborine and hoverfly - Buckinghamshire
Hoverfly pollinating Red Helleborine - Buckinghamshire
Platycheirus species of hoverfly - probably albimanus
With everyone satisfied with their views it was time to leave, and as a group we were led back through the trees and back on to the road, leaving the flower to its solitary existence once more.

With the Critically Endangered Red Helleborine on the very edge of its range here in Britain, and having already vanished completely from one of its former sites, it is a holding on to a very precarious existence indeed here in the UK. Several efforts are being made to aid with the conservation of this precious orchid, but with numbers declining, only time will tell how long the population here can cling on for. One thing for sure is that it would be a huge loss to the British countryside if this absolutely beautiful orchid was lost for good, unable to capture imaginations and inspire future generations like it did for me all those years ago. 

1 comment:

  1. Great pictures Have seen them in the Vercors (France) and in Julian Alps/Triglave maountains ( Slovenia) hope they flower next year so I we can visit.


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