Small is beautiful – return of the elusive Pygmy rush

Once lost it can take a long time for species to come back to a site. It also takes a lot of many people’s efforts and their time to ensure the habitat conditions are right, that the necessary work is done in the right place and at the right time of year. So, it is with great satisfaction to report that all of these factors have successfully come together at The St Keverne Beacon Picnic Site and that there is now, after a 30 year absence, a small population of one of our nationally most rare and vulnerable species, the Pygmy rush Juncus pygmaeus.

Ray Lawman carrying out emergency habitat management in his Landrover in 1981-82

Pygmy rush was first identified as a new species on The Lizard in June 1872. It only grows where there is little competing tall vegetation and so occurs in open winter wet – summer dry habitats such as cattle-grazed muddy gateways and tracks across the heathlands.

In recent decades some heathlands have not been as actively managed by grazing and winter burning as they used to be and so conditions became less favourable for species such as Pygmy rush. However, little is known about the precise ecological conditions for its growth and so re-creating the right habitat in the right place at the right time of year is a bit of trial and error. St Keverne Parish Councillors Roger Combe and Roger Williams inspecting the start of track works at Pednavounder, January 2014In the late 1970s, it was then known that the heathlands at the Picnic site still supported a good population of the species; the open, muddy trackway habitat the plant requires being well maintained by the grazing and trampling actions of the cattle from the nearby farm. However, grazing ceased when the farm was sold and despite the efforts of Ray Lawman, Senior Site Manager of the nearby National Nature Reserve, who kept some of the old cattle trackways open using his Landrover, eventually even this proved insufficient and the plant was last seen there in 1985 by botanist Andy Byfield, now working for Plantlife. For several decades since then the species was considered lost from the Picnic Site, which, in 1995 was re-notified as part of the East Lizard Heathlands SSSI. In 2005 the site became a component of The Lizard Special Area of Conservation and so the importance of Mediterranean temporary ponds (or muddy trackways as we call them locally !) were recognised at the highest level in Europe. Meanwhile, some of our most eminent local botanists (including Ian Bennallick, David Pearman and Colin French) had been busy recording the Cornish flora and, in recognition of the serious decline of some of our rarest species, advised the partners of Linking the Lizard to target conservation management on those sites most in need of attention. This enhanced effort not only included locations on the NNR but also across the network of SSSIs and wider countryside. This newly brigaded partnership included contributions from staff from NE, NT, Plantlife, volunteers, contractors and of course the landowners themselves.

January 2014. After several years of surveys, designations, agreement and contract discussions, conservation work starts on the ground along an old cattle track at St Keverne Beacon Picnic Site. The digger driver is the late Colin Richards who expertly carried out a great deal of valuable conservation work across The Lizard.

The Picnic Site which, along with the nearby heathland at Pednavounder, is under the care of St Keverne Parish Council who in April 2013 signed up for an Environmental Stewardship Scheme agreement with NE that will cover the cost of annual management of the sites for the next ten years. It is particularly pleasing that the work done in the winter of 2013-14 to expose one of the old cattle trackways has already borne fruit with a grand total of four plants of Pygmy rush appearing this spring. Further work is planned for the coming winters on both sites, not only on the tracks for Pygmy rush but also to control non-native invasive species, scrub on the tumulus and, in the absence of grazing, to carry out some limited controlled burning to maintain a varied structure for the heathland’s specialist flora and fauna.

SUCCESS ! June 2014. After nearly 30 years of absence, ‘instant’ success at the Picnic Site. Taken at ground level this picture of Pygmy rush shows the beauty of the plant but, at only 2-3cm, belies its diminutive size.

Published: Sept 2014 Author: Jeremy Clitherow ( NE, Lead Adviser, Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Team)