July 2013. After a slow start to spring it was no surprise that our wild flowers were a few weeks behind this year. However, with the arrival of summer, and some long-awaited sunshine towards the end of June, we were rewarded with some fantastic displays with many plants flowering more profusely than normal.
It was a bumper year at Glencairn Meadow on Strathspey where we (Stewart Taylor and I) counted close to 4500 flowering spikes of lesser butterfly-orchid. A scarce plant in the Cairngorms National Park, lesser butterfly-orchid is more common in the northwest of Scotland where it typically occurs in small groups of rarely more than fifty flowering spikes. We were impressed back in 2010, with a count of 2800, but this year’s total was mind-blowing placing this population by far the largest recorded in Scotland.
Not to go unmentioned is the nationally scarce small white orchid, a steadfast companion of lesser butterfly-orchid, which too appeared in larger numbers than ever seen before at Glencairn with a total of 1500 flowering spikes. Keeping them company were thousands of fragrant orchids – far too many to count. With all of those orchids around, it was quite a challenge to walk across the field without stepping on them!
This spectacle did not go unnoticed. Two days spent in the field saw many passers-by stop to admire and photograph the orchids emphasising just what a special site it is. It has been managed in a similar way for more than fifty years and, unlike many other similar sites, it has escaped agricultural improvement. The orchids depend upon a well-timed grazing regime to maintain the short and open vegetation they need whilst allowing them the opportunity to flower and set seed.
It has been a fascinating process keeping an eye on this site over the past four field seasons. Perhaps most interesting has been the dramatic variation in numbers of lesser butterfly-orchid from year to year. Drawing conclusions about the status of this population based on counts from 2010 and 2011 alone might have suggested that it was in decline. However, after another ‘quiet’ year in 2012, it bounced back in 2013 with the highest numbers recorded yet.
This insight could only be gained via long-term monitoring and serves to highlight the importance of such activities in providing a sound understanding of our rare species. If you would like to get involved with monitoring a local rare plant site, why not sign up to Plantlife’s Flora Guardian Scheme.