Donkeys could help rare wildflower to grow in Sidmouth

Small-flowered catchfly flowers. Caryophyllaceae annual grass.

Small-flowered catchfly flowers - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Donkeys could play a role in an innovative conservation scheme to reintroduce one of the UK’s rarest farmland wildflowers.

More than 20,000 seeds of the small-flowered catchfly have been sown alongside other wildflowers and grains in plots on farmland at the Sidmouth headquarters of The Donkey Sanctuary. 

It is hoped that the plant will establish and thrive at the sanctuary, providing food for threatened farmland birds such as the skylark, yellowhammer and linnet, which have been recorded on site.

Donkeys at The Donkey Sanctuary

Donkeys at The Donkey Sanctuary - Credit: The Donkey Sanctuary

The seed sowing is part of a strategy to reintroduce small-flowered catchfly to its former range and is part of environment charity Plantlife’s ‘Colour in the Margins’ project which aims to support rare arable plants across the country.

Colour in the Margins falls under the wider Back from the Brink programme, made possible thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which aims to save 20 species from extinction and benefit more than 200 others through 19 projects that span England.

Ruth Angell, The Donkey Sanctuary Ecology and Conservation Manager said: “We are really excited about our involvement with the Colour in the Margins project. It is a great example of making best use of available land and finding ways to support a wider range of wildlife species.

“Increasing biodiversity is essential for an enriched and resilient environment which can support rare species as well as our resident herds of donkeys.”

“It is important to us that our donkeys benefit from different types of activities and experiences. Our donkeys will be able to enjoy a walk with our grooms and benefit from one to one time while they walk over the plots.”

Small-flowered catchfly has vanished from around 70% of its former range, virtually disappearing from northern England by 1950 as a result of agricultural intensification and an increased use of herbicide.

If the plant becomes established at The Donkey Sanctuary, then the charity will consider holding a trial next spring to find out if donkeys can help the germination process. If conditions are considered suitable, donkeys will walk over specially seeded plots, in a process known as treading in. The animals’ footfall may help embed the seed into the ground, potentially helping to boost the chance of successful germination of the wildflower.

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