Rare orchid find on Oronsay

RSPB Volunteers make orchid find on Oronsay

RSPB Scotland volunteers make a rare orchid discovery on the island of Oronsay.

Photograph: RSPB – Mike Peacock

A “significant” discovery of an orchid, named the Irish lady’s-tresses because of its resemblance to plaited hair, has been made on Oronsay. This orchid is rarely seen in the UK yet 160 plants have been found growing on the west coast island.

It’s  thought that the plants were lying dormant underground for many years and just waiting for the right conditions in which to flower.

RSPB volunteer Gill Watts, who found the orchids with her husband Richard, said: “We were surveying for marsh fritillary butterflies when we spotted all these white flowering spikes coming out of the ground.

“We thought at first they might be a more common orchid, but after checking with the RSPB reserve manager we managed to positively identify them.

“They’re amazingly beautiful flowers, with a musky vanilla fragrance. We didn’t quite believe what we’d found at first, because we know they’re so rare.

“And to top it all, we learned that it had been our privilege to make the first ever record of this plant for Oronsay.”

The tidal isle of Oronsay, just off Colonsay, is an RSPB Scotland Nature Reserve. The island is actively farmed to create homes for wildlife, particularly choughs and corncrakes.

The management of the  field where the orchids were discovered was altered a number of years ago to provide good conditions for devil’s-bit scabious. This is the food plant of marsh fritillary butterfly caterpillars, another species in steep decline in the UK. The butterflies have now been breeding on Oronsay for several years and their range has expanded across the island.

Meanwhile, it seems that the good conditions for devil’s-bit scabious have also proved perfect for Irish lady’s-tresses.

Deborah Long, of Plantlife, said: “This year has been an exceptional year for orchids. Plantlife have been working on this species for over 10 years and with new research indicating the extreme fragility of its populations in Scotland, to find a new population on an RSPB reserve inspires hope for the future of the species.

“Given appropriate management, it just shows that Irish lady’s-tresses orchids can come back to their homeland.”

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