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The return of Britain’s meat-eating plants

Once common around Britain, carnivorous plants have suffered a dramatic decline over the last century. However, a young ecologist is on a mission to bring these dramatic species back.
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When I arrived at what’s left of the Manchester mosses, fragments of the vast expanses of saturated, lowland peatlands that once formed much of the countryside around Manchester, I found I wasn’t alone. I was there to meet Joshua Styles, one of the most inspiring young naturalists of his generation, but instead found two teenage boys smoking weed in a battered VW Polo. We acknowledged one another cagily before they headed back towards town. Few people bother coming out here – at first glance, there’s little to see.

Where to see them:
Visitors to the Highlands and islands of Scotland may be fortunate to stumble across great sundews, as these remote, wild corners of Britain remain a stronghold for carnivorous plants.

In southern England, damp areas of the New Forest support the more commonplace round-leaved sundew.

Styles, however, knows better. He’s got an eye for the overlooked. Even as a young boy growing up in north-west England, Styles was obsessed with plants. Other kids might have focused on football, but Styles simply had to know the name and habits of every wildflower he could find. In 2017, then a 22-year-old ecology graduate, he founded the North West Rare Plants Initiative (NWRPI), an organisation devoted to halting the decline of the rarest plant species in north-west England.

He’s a man on a mission, determined to singlehandedly restore the lost plants of this austere, flat landscape, one by one. Chief among these are some of the most dramatic species to be found anywhere in Britain: carnivorous plants. The Manchester mosses were once home to an array of meat-eating plants that turned the tables on the animal kingdom, spurned a vegetarian lifestyle, and preferred their food freshly served, alive and kicking.

Styles arrived and wasted little time in donning a pair of rubber boots. Where we were heading on foot wasn’t for the ill-prepared – Styles has been reintroducing sundews and bladderworts into a waterlogged wonderland, a recovering landscape of peat bogs and marshes.

There are many carnivorous plants native to the UK, including the great sundew (Credit: Jon Dunn)
There are many carnivorous plants native to the UK, including the great sundew (Credit: Jon Dunn)

I understood his caution. To the untrained eye, bladderworts are easily overlooked except when they raise their glorious lemon-yellow flowers above the water’s surface. Sundews, on the other hand, glisten and quiver on the surface of the mosses and are as arrestingly beautiful as they are strange. For this reason, the precise location of the reintroduction of these plants by Styles is a closely guarded secret. Plant collectors, like the collectors of rare bird eggs, remain a threat to endangered species to this day. Green-winged orchids became extinct in Cheshire when thieves dug up all the plants at their last remaining site in 1980.

Solemnly sworn to secrecy, I followed Styles onto the squelching mosses. “It’s a sad story,” he told me, “Great sundews became locally extinct here 150 years ago, and they’re endangered across England as a whole.”

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The mosses are almost but a memory. Where once there were hundreds of acres of bogs and marshes around Manchester, there’s largely now a uniform patchwork of agricultural fields. It may look bucolic, but the loss of biodiversity that came with the draining of the mosses was colossal. Lowland peatlands have acidic, wet soil that’s deficient in nutrients, but that’s not to say they’re sterile. A host of specialised plants and insects can thrive in these conditions and, where plants and insects abound, other wildlife does too.

“Plants are the fundamental basis of all life on Earth,” Styles said. “We lose them at our peril. One in five indigenous plant species in the UK are under threat of extinction. Every year, on average, one plant species becomes extinct in each county throughout England.”

In the Manchester mosses, chief among those lost plants were a glittering host of sundews, with ruby-red and emerald-green leaves that glistened with tiny, sticky pearls of mucilage, a translucent, sweet substance the plants create at the tips of fine hairs that cover the surface of their leaves. Lured to settle on the leaves, an insect would find itself stuck, unable to fly away from the vegetable glue that entrapped it. The sundews’ leaves slowly curl around their unfortunate prey, releasing enzymes that dissolve the insect, releasing the nutrients within. The ground in which the sundews grow may be nutrient-deficient, but there’s more than one way to feed if you’re a plant who’s evolved a taste for animal prey.

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