“Have you lost something?”

It's a question I hear surprisingly often in this job and it isn’t hard to see why.
Imagine walking your dog through the sand dunes and you come across a group of people on their hands and knees with their faces close to the ground. It isn’t a group of people collectively looking for lost contact lenses as we once joked with a member of the public, you have in fact stumbled across a group of volunteers searching for one of the rarest and smallest plants in the UK… Petalwort.

Resembling a small lettuce and measuring only a few millimetres in diameter it often goes unnoticed, but not here on the Sefton Coast. Every year as summer comes to a close, small groups of volunteers go in search of the attractive liverwort to discover potential new populations! However, that is far easier said than done...

Petalwort is a very particular little plant, favouring sparsely vegetated, damp calcareous sand – the likes of which is often found in dune slacks. Unfortunately, few of these slacks still exist as many have faced rapid successional change dominated by species of scrub which change the composition of the sand. This means that the numbers of Petalwort are in rapid decline.
Between 1997 and 2013 individual Petalwort plants (thalli) dropped from 7,900 to just 100, and at the start of the project only 30 of those could still be found. In a rapidly changing environment, it was incredibly likely that Petalwort would become locally extinct within the next few years.

It is incredibly fortunate that Back from the Brink and with it - Gems in the Dunes, started when it did.
One of the first things we did as a project was to recruit volunteers and train them in the identification and survey technique for Petalwort and other mosses and liverworts.
Over the following few months we conducted several surveys along the coast with mixed results. Searches of previous known locations showed that many had been lost, but in others there were some individuals still clinging on. There were even some successes, a population which had apparently disappeared some 15 years ago was actually rediscovered about 2 meters further along the path, and small populations of Petalwort were found in newly formed dune slacks!
The greatest success came just before Christmas last year on one of our group volunteer survey sessions. Within a series of dune slacks we found Petalwort present in every single one, and in one particular slack a population of around 1500 individuals. In total, over 2,000 individuals were counted last year and not only that, sexual reproduction between male and female plants was also recorded for the first time on the coast in several years!

And now, one year on from our very first surveys we are preparing to do it all again.
It is likely there will have been some losses but we are also optimistic for some more successes. A huge area of suitable habitat wasn’t even surveyed last year and we can only hope that it has been colonised!

If you would like to get involved with surveying for this rare plant, Gems in the Dunes will be re-running a training day on Thursday 1st November with Bryologist, Dr Des Callaghan.
To book on or to get involved with some of our upcoming survey sessions then email the team at gems-in-the-dunes@arc-trust.org.


See you there!


Andrew Hampson

Project Officer, Gems in the Dunes


Would you like to help these incredible species? There are numerous ways in which you can:

  • Why not volunteer for Back from the Brink? Check out our events page for opportunities near you.
  • Help us to spread the word of this species, and the others we will be helping over the next 3 years, by sharing our message across our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages. Follow us: @naturebftb.
  • Finally - help support the work we do across England by donating. Our impact will be greater with your help.


2 thoughts on ““Have you lost something?”

  1. Hi. I follow you on twitter. I realise that your work covers England only. Do you know of any similar projects in Scotland?
    Thanks, Susan.
    PS I’ll still follow you notwithstanding: very much value the work that you do and enjoy the posts.

    1. Hi Susan,

      Thank you for your support in our work!
      There are several projects that work on species specific management but BftB is the first of it’s kind.
      However, we hope that we shall be used as a case study so that places such as Scotland can use us as a base to start similar projects of their own – fingers crossed!


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