Extinct ‘mountain jewel’ plant back in the wild – in secret location – BBC News

Image source, BBC/Gwyndaf Hughes

  • Author, Georgina Rannard
  • Role, BBC climate and science reporter
  • Reporting from Eryri

A plant that became extinct in the wild has been reintroduced to the British mainland. We can’t tell you the exact location – it’s a secret to keep it safe. It’s just one small plant, but with one in six species in Britain threatened with extinction, you have to start somewhere. We were there when pioneering horticulturist Robbie Blackhall-Miles returned the plant to its native soil.

I first met Robbie at his endangered plant nursery – tucked away in a quiet part of North Wales.

What he keeps there is so valuable that he can’t even get insurance for it.

He asks me to be careful about how much we reveal: there is still a lucrative market for rare and unusual plants, often picked illegally and often fetching thousands of pounds.

“There are only thirty of those trees left in the world,” he says, pointing to a pot.

Image source, BBC/Gwyndaf Hughes

Image caption, Robbie Blackhall-Miles cares for rare plants in his specialist nursery

Around us are containers of seedlings, bags of earth on the ground, plants growing and blooming. Thermometers hang from the roof to check whether the plants are not getting too hot, too cold or too dry.

Robbie is tall and athletic, he talks excitedly. When I started researching this story, Robbie’s name kept appearing in botanical society records; few people in Britain know so much about plants.

Image source, BBC/Gwyndaf Hughes

He started in botany after wanting to save animals as a child and a brief stint as a model. He now works for Plantlife, a conservation charity.

“If you think of British biodiversity as a jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces are very important, but some are missing,” he says.

His aim, in collaboration with the National Trust and Natural Resource Wales, is to restore some of that biodiversity by reintroducing the extinct pink saxifrage – a plant he calls a mountain gem – to Eryri or Snowdonia.

Image source, BBC/Gywndaf Hughes

Image caption, Robbie Blackhall-Miles has cherished the rosy saxifrage for ten years

The last time the pink saxifrage was seen in the wild in Britain was in 1962, somewhere in the Cwm Idwal Nature Reserve in Eryri.

I wanted to see the place – so Robbie and National Trust ranger Rhys Weldon-Roberts took me and my colleague to Cwm Idawl.

We walked along a winding path around the lake to a place called Tyll Du or, ominously in English, Devil’s Kitchen.

Robbie stopped every few steps to point out rare plants that have managed to survive.

Coincidentally, I had walked here before. As I struggled to climb up a crevice between the mountains, I had been completely unaware of the precious species living beneath the boulders.

Image source, BBC/Gwyndaf Hughes

Image caption, Victorian plant collectors came to Cwm Idwal, Eryri to pick plants

The pink saxifrage is listed as extinct, but Robbie, an experienced climber, is still monitored. “I spent six summers looking for him on ropes there, just in case we were wrong,” he says, pointing to steep rock walls.

“The pink saxifrage is about as native as you can get in Britain,” says Robbie, sitting on a rock and serenely looking out over this dramatic landscape.

It is part of a family of mountain plants that flourished when the north of Britain was frozen during the Ice Age. When the glaciers melted, the saxifrages persisted and flourished in the mountainous environment.

But their delicate appearance and beautiful flowers eventually made them a draw for plant collectors – especially Victorians who picked them for private collections.

Then habitat loss and poorly managed grazing in Eryri sounded the final death knell for the plant.

Numbers fell dramatically until they disappeared from the British mainland.

The next part of the story has the quality of folklore: In 1962 a teacher and conservationist named Dick Roberts was in Cwm Idawl on a school trip.

He picked up a piece of a plant that had been washed away along a path and put it in his pocket. Not sure what it was, he took it home and grew it in his garden.

All the pink saxifrage now on the British mainland goes back to that little plant; it has preserved the plant for future generations. About ten years ago Robbie was given a cutting to take care of.

“I feel quite humbled to be working with part of Dick Roberts’ legacy,” he says.

Image source, BBC/Gwyndaf Hughes

Image caption, Robbie described the plant’s flowers as ‘little hands lifting to the sky’

It is very unusual to reintroduce a species with the genetic descendant of the native species.

Related species are usually used; for example, the European beaver was used to bring beavers back to Britain.

But Robbie says, holding it in his hands: “This is from cuttings of cuttings of that original Welsh material.”

In the decades since Dick Roberts was in Eryri, Britain’s wildlife has changed dramatically.

One in six species is threatened with extinction. We have lost 19% of monitored species in the last 30 to 40 years, making Britain one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth.

I invited Julia Jones, professor of conservation at Bangor University, to Cwm Idwal to ask her how much difference bringing back this one little plant can make.

The truth is that this alone will not transform Britain’s wildlife; conservation is enormously complex and requires a lot of other work, including protecting habitats from climate change, pollution and intensive land use.

But Professor Jones says this reintroduction acts as a flagship and “a reminder of how much we have lost”.

Large-scale plant reintroductions are rare; most of the work goes into returning animals. The best known in Britain is probably the beaver or the sea eagle: charismatic species that generally excite people more than plants.

Some scientists talk about ‘plant blindness’ – the idea that people don’t see plants around them as important living things – instead they are more like wallpaper in our natural environment, despite all they do for our ecosystems and their role. in the production of medicines.

Image source, BBC/Gwyndaf Hughes

Image caption, Robbie says planting the pink saxifrage in the wild is the highlight of his career

Finally, a few days ago, the moment that had been ten years in the making had finally arrived.

At a secret location in Eryri, a few people gathered in the rain, including ranger Rhys Weldon-Roberts. He will keep a close eye on the plant, wary of collectors.

“Hopefully there will come a day when this is no longer rare and everyone who visits can appreciate it,” he says.

For Robbie Blackhall-Miles, who will continue to follow the saxifrage, this is a big moment.

Will it survive outdoors after 60 years of cultivation?

He carries crates of the plant from his car.

Since I last saw it, it has transformed: long stems protruding from the dense leaves, ending in a white flower with five petals.

“I love these flowers, they radiate at you,” says Robbie.

After stepping through a river, Robbie squats down and peels away springy grass and soil. Digging, he hits a stone: “That’s okay – Saxifrage means rock breaker in Latin.”

A few minutes later the little mountain jewels are back on their birthplace.

Robbie is visibly emotional. It is the pinnacle of his career to reintroduce something in his own country, in a landscape he loves.

“We have a beautiful word in Welsh adferiad, which means restitution or restoration,” he continues. “I’m absolutely over the moon.”

Additional reporting by Gwyndaf Hughes

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