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Exceptionally rare plant discovered in Thetford

A new discovery of a plant which is found in only one other place in Britain has got conservationists very excited, with the botanical equivalent of twitchers already visiting the Nun’s Bridges area of Thetford to see this extremely rare sight.  Seed from the plant, called Creeping Marshwort, has now been collected for the millennium seed bank at Kew, but there are plenty of the beautiful tiny flowers still blooming for people to enjoy seeing.

First spotted by a volunteer from Thetford Conservation Group, the identity of the plant was checked by the Breckland Flora Group and Plantlife, before being confirmed by experts from The Natural History Museum in London and the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI).  “To have two such important national figures both standing in our new scrape and almost jumping for joy over this find is just fantastic”, said Mark Webster of Thetford Town Council, who carried out the work to mechanically remove layers of topsoil from the site in November last year, “We deliberately didn’t plant any wildflower seed in the newly scraped area as we expected the bare ground to provide a good habitat for wildflowers to colonise naturally, but we could not possibly have hoped for such a brilliant result as this”.  Dr Peter Stroh of the BSBI went further, describing it as “the best wildflower creation project that I’ve ever seen!”  The area will now be managed to protect the Creeping Marshwort as part of the Brecks Fen Edge and Rivers Landscape Partnership Scheme, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Creeping Marshwort (Helosciadium repens) is a critically endangered Schedule 8 plant, which means you need a special licence to even remove a leaf.  There do not seem to have been any reliable records of the species being found in either Norfolk or Suffolk until now.  It is currently only found at in one other area in Britain – a set of meadows in Oxfordshire – so how this significant population of the plant suddenly arrived in Thetford is a mystery, although it seems that dormant seeds must have been waiting buried in the soil, just waiting for a chance to thrive.

Before the scrape was done, the area was dominated with tall weeds such as  nettles and hemlock, although there was also a small patch of Tower Mustard which was retained.  The area was under water in spring 2020 following prolonged rainfall: “We had a lot of jokes that we had created a swimming pool”, Mark remembers, “and a family of ducks even took up residence there at one point!”

“It’s wonderful to have such a rare species in the centre of our town where people can easily see it”, said Councillor Terry Jermy, Chair of Thetford Town Council’s Amenities, Land & Property Committee, “I would like to thank our contractors, staff and especially our volunteers for all their hard work in creating and maintaining this valuable habitat as a green space that everyone can enjoy”.

The Creeping Marshwort can be seen between the earth banks in the triangular area between Nun’s Bridges car park, Nun’s Bridges Road and the avenue of Plane trees.  It is an umbellifer, meaning that its lovely little white flowers look a bit like very tiny, flat versions of the familiar cow parsley that lines country lanes in Spring.  The plant is small, only a few cm across, and very low-growing, but there are several hundred of them, spread all over the scraped area.

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