Made in Britain

Many weird and wonderful species live only in Britain and Ireland. Stuart Blackman picks his top 10. 


Made in Britain article spread

Many weird and wonderful species live only in Britain and Ireland. Stuart Blackman introduces his top 10. 

Compared with some other archipelagos, Britain and Ireland are rather lacking when it comes to endemic species (those found nowhere else in the world).
Being isolated from mainland Europe for only a few thousand years has given evolution precious little time to work its magic, so we cannot compete with Madagascar and its lemurs, the Galápagos Islands and their giant tortoises, or New Guinea and its birds of paradise.
Yet our islands are home to perhaps 300 endemics, including trees, orchids, insects, spiders, liverworts, ferns, fungi, worms and a single bird. All have a story to tell, though most remain virtually unknown outside specialist circles.
Here is a selection that should make anyone proud to be British.
1. Scottish primrose Primula scotica
Forget the Scottish thistle, which is found across much of Europe and Asia, the Scottish primrose is the real flower of Scotland. From May to August, the species’ delicate flowers add polka dots of colour to the coastal grasslands of Caithness, Sutherland and the Orkneys. Standing only 5cm tall, this diminutive plant requires turf cropped short by cattle, sheep or rabbits if it is not to be shaded out by its more vigorous competitors.
2. Celtic woodlouse Metatrichoniscoides celticus
Thanks to Britain’s long tradition of amateur naturalism, our wildlife is probably better documented than that of any other country. Of course, it’s not unprecedented for species thought endemic to turn up elsewhere. But some are less likely than others, such as the Celtic woodlouse, discovered on the Glamorgan coast during a national woodlouse recording scheme in 1981. Just 2mm long, living only under heavy boulders above the high-tide mark, and identifiable by the shape of the male’s genitalia, it’s all too easy to miss.
3. Lindisfarne helleborine Epipactis sancta
Believed to grow only on Northumberland’s Holy Island, the Lindisfarne helleborine is the subject of much debate about whether it’s a fully fledged species, or simply a variety of the dune helleborine E. dunensis. The latter is also endemic, but is itself possibly only a variety of the non-endemic narrow-lipped helleborine E. leptochila. The latest research, using modern genetic techniques, suggests that E. sancta is, indeed, a proper species, but I expect that this one will run and run. A less contentious endemic orchid is Young’s helleborine E. youngiana, which is found at only six sites in Scotland and northern England.
4. Interrupted brome Bromus interruptus
Discovered in 1849, interrupted brome was thought to be an introduced species because it was spreading rapidly through England as an agricultural weed. However, it was soon recognised as an entirely new species – the result of sudden, major genetic change. Developments in farming ended the plant’s spread, and it was last seen in the wild in 1972. It survives only because a botanist germinated some seeds on his windowsill, and it has now been reintroduced to England. The species has also been exported to the Netherlands, where it now grows wild.
5. Ivell’s sea anemone  Edwardsia ivelli
Ivell’s sea anemone is one of several endemic species thought to have gone extinct in recent years. It was only ever known from a brackish lagoon in West Sussex, but since 1983 surveys have failed to find it. Others feared lost include Jennings’ ribbon worm Prostoma jenningsi, the Scottish moss Tortella limosella and the stonewort Chara muscosa.
6. Radyr hawkweed Hieracium radyrense
Very little is known about many of our endemic species, despite their significance to global conservation. Some, such as the Radyr hawkweed, even lack special protection. No more than 25 plants survive in one south Wales village, some in private gardens. According to the National Museum Wales, “Neither the species nor the sites have any legal protection, and it could be under significant threat of survival in the long term from inappropriate gardening.”
7. Brookwood’s liverwort Lophocolea brookwoodiana
If interrupted brome has not been strictly endemic to the UK since its transportation to the Netherlands, Brookwood’s liverwort is an introduced species that has never been seen in its native range, wherever that is. Discovered in Woking in 2004, it was recognised as a member of a group known only from the southern hemisphere. Until its origins are established, you could call it a non-native endemic!
8. Irish whitebeam Sorbus hibernica
This is one of about 15 species of tree of the genus Sorbus (whitebeams, rowans and their relatives) endemic to Britain and Ireland. Others include the Arran service tree (about 300 individuals, on the island of Arran), Ley’s whitebeam (about 20, in the Brecon Beacons) and Wilmott’s whitebeam (about 40, in the Avon Gorge in Bristol). The genus has given rise to so many endemics because its members readily cross to form stable hybrids, enabling new species to appear in a single generation.
9. Lundy cabbage Coincya wrightii
This species is confined to sea cliffs on the south-east corner of the tiny island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel. It has bounced back from just a few hundred plants in the 1970s, and now numbers in the several thousands. It is also the exclusive foodplant of a tiny endemic insect. The larvae of the Lundy cabbage flea beetle Psylliodes luridipennis bore into the cabbage’s stems, and the adults feed on its leaves.
10. Scottish crossbill Loxia scotica
The Scottish crossbill is the only vertebrate species endemic to these islands, where it is confined to Scots pine woodland. However, there is also a handful of endemic subspecies, including the Skomer vole, St Kilda wren and red grouse. The Scottish crossbill was long considered to be a subspecies of either the common or parrot crossbill, but since 2006 it has been regarded as a full species on the basis of genetic and behavioural differences and a distinct Scottish accent to its call.
For more information on British biodiversity, click here


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