Skip to content

Rare wetland plant resurrected after over a century

A rare UK wetland plant has been found in Norfolk after more than a century in hiding, report UCL researchers. 

The Grass-poly plant. Photo credit: Rob Peacock

In July a survey team from UCL’s Department of Geography discovered the flowering plant, known as Grass-Poly, at a farmland pond restored by the Norfolk Ponds Project back in February 2020.

Pond restoration in Norfolk’s farmland has involved removing trees and mud from ponds that have been become overgrown through decades of neglect. This work brings the sunlight back into ponds and has been shown to be have many positives for wildlife.

As well as benefitting amphibians, birds and pollinators, the restoration of farm ponds has also been shown to help wetland plants through exposing seeds buried for centuries under a thick layer of leaf matter and mud. Remarkably, UCL research shows that many water-loving plants can come back from seeds that have been dormant for centuries in old ponds.

Just six plants of the rare Grass-Poly were found in July at the edge of an old cattle-watering pond on the Heydon estate in Norfolk, where restoration work involved pulling out large willows resulting in disturbance of the wet soil.

Professor Carl Sayer of UCL’s Pond Restoration Research Group said: “I was out doing surveys and saw the plant at my last pond at the end of the day. I wasn’t certain on what it was, so I sent a photograph to local expert botanist Dr Jo Parmenter of the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society. To our mutual astonishment, she was able to confirm that the mystery plant was Grass-Poly, the first certain record of the species in Norfolk for over a century.”

Grass-Poly (Lythrum hyssopifolia) is a very rare plant listed in Schedule 8 of the British Wildlife and Countryside Act and has been endangered for some time. The last confirmed record for it in Norfolk is for early 1900s. 

Professor Sayer added: “There can be no doubt that it was our restoration work that has brought Grass-Poly back into the land of the living from old buried seeds. I could not be more thrilled to see this species come back to us in Norfolk.”

Grass-Poly is a delicate plant in the Loosestrife family which produces neat pinkish flowers and when found in abundance it can turn a wetland pink. It is a highly specialised plant, thought to have arrived in the UK more than 1,000 years ago. It often grows in moist habitat, such as marshes, clay soils and wet agricultural fields. 

Dr Parmenter commented: “This is a species of bare mud and disturbed wet ground that is flooded in winter, but which dries out in spring. These special habitat requirements undoubtedly explain the rarity of Grass-Poly, as the combination of wetland soil disturbance and sufficient water level fluctuation are uncommon in modern-day farmland. In East Anglia the removal of horse power from farms, reduced cattle numbers and the scrubbing over of farm ponds are likely contributors to its decline.” 

The team are determined to keep Grass-Poly in Norfolk, as UCL researcher Helen Greaves reveals: “As regular disturbance is needed for the survival of Grass-Poly, we have been thinking about how we can maintain our population. We might need to carry out regular winter raking or introduce some cows or maybe a Christmas pantomime horse would suffice if we get stuck! Whatever the method, we are desperately keen to keep the plant alive now it has come back to us.

“We wonder if there are other populations of the plant in Norfolk that have so far been overlooked. Could further pond restorations bring back more plants? Either way, finding this elegant little plant may provide an important and unexpected new focus for our Norfolk Ponds Project.”

Partly funded by Natural England’s District level licensing for great crested newts scheme, the National Trust’s Riverlands project and the Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group, the Norfolk Ponds Project, completed more than 70 pond restorations across East Anglia between autumn 2019 and early 2020 as part of its Big50 project

Working with Natural England and the Freshwater Habitats Trust, the UCL team will soon be publishing a new guide to pond restoration, creation and management, which aims to help landowners and agricultural land managers to better conserve farmland ponds for the benefit of wetland wildlife.

The Grass-poly story was featured as an exclusive on BBC News on the 28th November 2020.

NPP Inspiration Richard Waddingham is honoured in Daily Telegraph

Richard Waddingham, the farmer and landowner who inspired the UCL Pond Restoration Research that provides the scientific basis for our Norfolk Ponds Project, has been honoured in the Daily Telegraph obituaries today. More information about Richard can be found on www.greenthefarm.org and his work is being continued by Richard’s nephew John Waddingham.

Richard receiving his award from the WWT
Richard talking ponds with UCL researcher and NPP Secretary Helen Greaves.
Richard listening to the underwater sounds from his ponds with Tom.

Pond soundscapes

We understand that pond restoration has a dramatic effect on the species richness and biodiversity of farmland ponds and that our research has shown this to be true for aquatic plants, amphibians, fish and insects.

However, perhaps it may be possible to measure these changes in diversity by simply listening to the sounds of a pond?

PhD student, Jack Greenhalgh, is exploring just that.

Underwater sounds from a Norfolk farmland pond during the BIG50

Bioacoustics (the study of sounds produced by animals) has been used in ecosystems such as woodlands, coral reefs and tropical rainforests to observe the acoustic diversity emitted by the fauna present. However, freshwater ecosystems have been largely overlooked in spite of their of accessibility.

Visual representation of an insect sound from a pond

Jack’s research is therefore exploring the unknown underwater soundscapes of ponds before and after restoration. His initial research indicates that restored ponds are a cacophony of underwater life, full of biological information waiting to be deciphered.

Jack Greenhalgh explaining underwater bioacoustics

You can find out more about Jack’s research at the University of Bristol on his webpage.

Promoting global wetlands

During UCL Pond Restoration Week in September, we were thrilled to be joined by the Associated Press who followed us through a day’s work, and are using the footage to promote the importance of wetlands at a global scale.

The Associated Press write that most 90% of the world’s wetlands disappeared over the past three centuries, according to the Ramsar Convention, an organization formed around a 1971 treaty to protect wetlands. The loss rate has accelerated since the 1970s, with wetlands now disappearing three times faster than the world’s forests, the group says.

Every type of naturally occurring wetland has suffered — from ponds, freshwater swamps and coastal marshes, to fens, bogs and other peatlands.

The consequences can be profound:

* Roughly 5,000 wetland-dependent species threatened with extinction, including mammals, birds and amphibians, according to Ramsar.

* Fewer natural storage areas to hold back torrential rains means more severe floods in many parts of the world, including the U.S. heartland, as seen this summer.

* Draining wetlands, such as in Indonesia to make way for palm oil plantations, can release huge amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change.

Dr Polly is peddling to support the BIG 50!

Whilst the UCL Pond Restoration Research Group and NPP volunteers are working on Pond 10 of the #BIG50 project today, we will be being supported by one intrepid adventurer who is raising money for our project and raising awareness of the huge number of ponds in the Norfolk countryside.

Below, Dr Polly Ashford, explains why she is taking on this feat of cycling over 100 miles and visiting over 50 ponds in one day…

What’s a farm pond and why should I care?

Norfolk’s ponds were originally dug as clay or marl (lime) pits, and there are thousands of them. Unfortunately many have become overgrown or filled in. Healthy farm ponds are fantastic for biodiversity, supporting a range of species from aquatic plants and invertebrates to pollinators and farmland birds.

Polly is already on her first pond today! Please support her at Just Giving!

What you are raising cash for?

Each pond takes about a day to restore (removing vegetation, sediment etc, and surveying). Much of this work is carried out by volunteers and students. I’d encourage people to support the project in any way possible, but specifically for this year’s #Big50 restoration, I’d like to raise a bit of cash to pay for special chainsaw fuel, which contains less harmful hydrocarbons than regular petrol. The exhaust fumes are much cleaner so the health risks are dramatically reduced, and it is more environmentally friendly. I’ve also got a vested interest here, as my partner Andy will be doing a lot of chainsawing!

Polly’s partner Andy has been working tirelessly as a chainsaw volunteer all week!

How much is Polly going to suffer for my cash?

I will be cycling a route around Norfolk that takes in a minimum of 50 ponds in one day, which will mean approximately 100 miles. I’ll stop at each pond to photograph it as proof (@DrPollyAshford on Twitter), and to show the different sizes/shapes/states of Norfolk’s ponds. I will be very surprised if I’m on the bike for less than 12 hours, and I’ve never cycled this far in one go before, so yes, suffering is guaranteed!

Please encourage Polly not to regret this madness by pledging a bit of money on her Just Giving page.

UCL Pond Week Kicks Off with Grasshopper Pond!

The BIG 50 UCL pond week commenced today with scrub clearnence at a mammoth pond in Hindolveston, Norfolk.
After a heavy downpour to start the day, a huge team of enthusiastic UCL staff and students, old and new, joined long-time local supporters of the Norfolk Ponds Project to clear the vegetation around Grasshopper Pond: a huge horseshoe shaped pond in the Norfolk farmland.

After an introduction and H & S tool talk, the chainsaw team began removing the willow that has encroached the pond over the years, uncovering grasshoppers, frogs and shieldbugs along the way!

After day one the trees and scrub are removed from most of the pond basin and perimeter and we are keen for the digger to join us tomorrow!

Check out our pond clearance progress on Day One of UCL Pond Week

The pond restoration process in pictures

Watch the process of a pond restoration from UCL pond week 2016

In 2016, the UCL Pond Restoration week was held at Heydon, North Norfolk. We had the opportunity to work on some fantastic ponds in gorgeous weather! We produced a short video of our time-lapse footage of one of the restorations and we include it here so that you can see what it is like to volunteer on a pond restoration.

The

Volunteers remove the scrub so that the digger can access the pond.
The digger scrapes away the leaf litter at the bottom of the dry pond basin.
Just after finishing, water begins to fill the pond.

In year one post-restoration, the pond begins to colonise in late summer. By year two there are submerged macrophytes across the bottom of the pond and emergent plants have recolonised on the shallowest slope. The photo below was not taken from the same angle but you can spot the curved branch of the same tree in both photos!

Two years on and the pond retains vital water all through the hot summer of 2018. The willows stumps have regrown providing early flowers for flying insects and the emergent plants have recolonised from the seedbank.

“Our strength is in our Partnership”

Our Norfolk Ponds Project partnership were all truly delighted to have won the CIEEM NGO Impact Award 2019. The Awards were held in the Merchant Taylor’s Hall in the City of London on the 27th June and NPP Secretary, Helen Greaves, was honoured to collect the award on behalf of the NPP.

This recognition has reaffirmed our believe that our strength lies in our partnership working and we hope that the “BIG 50” project will not only demonstrate that but also be the start of bigger and better things to come.

Restoration success

On the left, the pond before digging; on the right, the pond two years later.

Prior to restoration in 2014, Beckett’s Farm pond was so heavily overgrown it was hard to even get inside to survey.

Once inside, only a few dark inches of water remained. The willow was removed to reduce the amount of water lost through evapotraspiration and two years on the pond was buzzing with dragonflies and damselflies.