A collaboration of coast and countryside organisations on The Lizard Peninsula

As conservationists we are all well aware of using sound data. The Long Term Monitoring Network being undertaken by Natural England (http://the-lizard.org/index.php/article-archives/conservation-articles/186-the-lizard-vegetation-survey) is a good example of taking the 'long view' of recording vegetation change over an extended period of time.

MonitoringHowever, at a recent gathering of the "great and good" of wildlife recorders on the Lizard, much discussion revolved around the great work of Dr John Hopkins. John, with a team from the University of Bristol, undertook the most comprehensive survey of rare plants on the Lizard in the late 1970s. This extraordinary and comprehensive survey of Lizard botany has provided us with a useful baseline survey with which to measure changes in rare plant populations. Whilst subsequent surveys of the same plants have shown an encouragingly steady increase in population numbers in recent years, the populations are still well below those recorded by John Hopkins 30+ years ago. The reason? Probably the weather.

Land quillwort

Land quillwort (Isoetes histrix) A species more commonly found in the Mediterranean which presumably benefited from the summer drought of the 1970s.

Many of the Lizard rarities, such as land quillwort (Isoetes histrix), are more usually found in the warmer Mediterranean regions of Europe, where the Lizard is at the northern-most limit of their range. By chance, Dr Hopkin's famous surveys were undertaken in the aftermath of the summer droughts on 1975 and 1976 and their associated heath and gorse fires, leaving conditions not dissimilar to the Mediterranean. John was basically recording the flora of a parched, post-drought landscape, where much of the Lizard heaths and coastal grasslands, devoid of scrub and gorse, had been scorched and burnt, providing ideal conditions for these rare specialist plants. It could therefore be argued that his survey, brilliant as it was in every other respect, was atypical and hardly-representative of the actual state of nature in the late 1970s on the Lizard. He happened to visit the Lizard on a 'good year'.

As conservationists, we shouldn't get too hung up that we're unlikely to see the same numbers of rare plants of those halcyon days recorded by Dr John Hopkins all those years ago. His results present us with an aspirational target, but his findings were more than likely a blip, or what we might expect to find under optimal conditions.

As Dr Colin French explains, "For some rare species, like Juncus capitatus (dwarf rush and Juncus pygmeaus (pygmy rush) we can manage the landscape to emulate those optimal conditions – scrub clearance, grazing and controlled short intense fires etc., (http://the-lizard.org/index.php/article-archives/conservation-articles/418-rushes-brought-low-by-teeth-and-blades?)whereas others like Isoetes hystrix (land quillwort), their variable numbers are determined to a greater extent by the vagaries of climate"

Whilst we may never experience the quantities of rare plants seen by Dr Hopkins back in the 1970's, I am confident that the Lizard flora is in good shape. Recent surveys are showing encouraging improvements to vulnerable populations, due largely to a concerted and targeted effort by conservationists and farmers across the Lizard.

Dwarf rush (Juncus capitatus) and Pigmy rush (Juncus pygmaeus); Both species can benefit from targeted habitat management.

Published: Oct 2014

Author:Justin Whitehouse; Lizard Lead Ranger; National Trust