Rare orchid discovered off Scotland’s west coast

Around 160 Irish lady's tresses plants were discovered on Olonsay. Picture: Mike Peacock
Around 160 Irish lady's tresses plants were discovered on Olonsay. Picture: Mike Peacock
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A rare orchid has been discovered growing on an island off the west coast of Scotland.

Irish lady’s tresses, named for its resemblance to plaited hair, is thought to grow at very few sites in the UK and Ireland, meaning the discovery by RSPB Scotland volunteers of around 160 plants on Oronsay is a significant find.

Due to its rarity, the reproductive habits of Irish lady’s tresses aren’t well-known, but in this case, they have probably been lying dormant underground for many years, waiting for the right conditions in which to flower.

RSPB volunteer Gill Watts, who found the orchids with her husband Richard, said: “We were actually 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.”

Oronsay, a tidal island just off Colonsay, is an RSPB Scotland nature reserve that is actively farmed to create homes for nature, particularly choughs and corncrakes.

Its seal colony was featured on the BBC programme Hebrides: Life on the Edge.

The management of the particular 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 suffering a 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, the good conditions for Devil’s-bit scabious have also proved just right for Irish lady’s-tresses.

Deborah Long, of conservation charity Plantlife, said: “2013 has been an exceptional year for orchids. And what is more exceptional than a new site for the very rare Irish lady’s-tresses orchid?

“Plantlife have been working on this species for over ten 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.”