A spate of thefts of rare orchids from sites in southern England has worried scientists, who say endangered species may be at risk.
Orchid experts believe the plants, from places such as Sussex and Kent, may have been ‘stolen to order’.
Conservationists at the Sussex Wildlife Trust were dismayed to learn last week that at least 10 burnt-tip orchids were missing from a national nature reserve on Mount Caburn, while in Kent the Hardy Orchid Society reported that 30 spider orchids late had been taken from a site in Folkestone.
Neil Evans, from the Hardy Orchid Society, said: “The theft represents a major loss to the public. They are only found in this country at a few sites in Kent. »
Burnt Orchids and Late Spider Orchids are threatened in Britain, with the former listed as endangered after substantial declines, and the latter assessed as having an estimated population of only a few hundred plants.
These thefts are feared to put pressure on already declining orchid populations, already affected by factors such as agriculture and development, as well as in some cases being pushed by collectors towards local extinction.
“It’s most definitely a risk to the survival of rare species,” Dr Peter Stroh, chief scientist at the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), told the Guardian. “Collecting orchids was a popular pastime for some in the Victorian era, and it actually led to the extinction of a species of orchid in Britain – Spiranthes estivalis (summer lady’s tresses) – and nearly led to the extinction of another, the lady’s slipper orchid, which now occurs at a single native site, although conservation efforts have led to it being established in a number of old sites, at great expense.
“As well as being a particularly selfish act, digging up orchids is also a rather senseless act of vandalism. Orchids have a very strong symbiotic association with specific mycorrhizae (underground fungal ‘roots’), so it is unlikely that stolen plants survive.
“Stealing a plant robs everyone of the opportunity to enjoy it, and also, in the case of very rare species such as the spider orchid, reduces the gene pool and therefore potentially health and long-term future. term of the remaining populations.”
But keeping the sites secret to prevent theft, as some scholars suggest, comes with its own set of problems. Professor Richard Bateman, an orchid specialist associated with Kew Gardens, told the Guardian of an episode where a very rare orchid appeared in a gravel pit near St Albans seven or eight years ago. “Only four people saw it, of which I was one, and I was sworn to secrecy. The consequence was that four years later several tons of gravel were dumped on the orchid and it does not exist anymore.
“Meanwhile, the last surviving orchid of a species at a secret location in Yorkshire is being kept in a metal cage surrounded by wildlife cameras, and even those with impeccable research credentials are not allowed to see.”
Due to the scale and precise nature of the thefts, some believe they could have been stolen “on command” by a professional thief.
Prof Bateman said: ‘What makes this recent series of thefts interesting – it sounds very good to me as they are flown on command for someone who wants to have wild UK examples of this plant. Members of the Hardy Orchid Society can easily grow these species from seed, so anyone ordering these orchids wants examples of this plant that were growing in the wild.
“It’s like the Da Vinci Code, I’m afraid; some foolish people insist on owning the “real Mona Lisa” rather than a copy. »