Josh's one man mission to safeguard region’s rarest plants

Fiona Finch  turns the spotlight on four green projects which are both celebrating and helping to safeguard our natural resources. In the first article in the series she reports on the work of Josh Styles who is working to safeguard the region's rarest plants.

Tuesday, 29th December 2020, 7:00 am

Young botanist and ecologist Josh Styles discovered a passion for plants at an early age.

The 25-year-old has now embarked on a one man mission to save those which are endangered in the north west.

The ecology graduate from Edge Hill University at Ormskirk is already making his mark in the conservation world.

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Josh Styles pictured holding a jar of seeds from the Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale)

He created the North-West Rare Plant Initiative, a lobbying and rescue group which has an ambitious mission to cultivate and conserve the rarest plant species in the region.

He has also rediscovered some “lost” plants and worked to re-populate chosen areas with key species.

Josh said: “Actually I think it’s most unusual not to love plants. I’ve always been taken by them from a really young age. It started when I was six or seven. I just remember sitting down for hours on end watching all the wild flowers in my garden.”

Josh reports a drastic decline of a range of species across the region - with 40 in particular in need of some tender loving care including the Great Sundew and White Beak Sedge - the latter is also a food source for the large heath butterfly (the Manchester Argus) which is now rare in Lancashire too.

Golden Bog Moss (sphagnum pulchrum) at Winmarleigh Moss (photo: Josh Styles)

The Initiative’s website www.nwrpi.weebly.com makes it clear why there’s a need to value and safeguard declining species.

Although these are sobering statistics it’s not a tale of doom and gloom but a hopeful story as Josh is determined to make a difference, reintroducing plants from 18 species including Bog Rosemary and Bog Myrtle and delighting in discovering unexpected rarities including a new moss found near Garstang and previously unrecorded in England - the Ferruginous Bog Moss, previously only ever recorded in Scotland or Ireland.

As a youngster observing wild flowers he was fascinated too by the insects the flowers attracted. He continued: “Plant are fundamental to all life on earth. They are incredible organisms not only for their beauty and wildlife value but also for their different adaptations and pharmaceutical uses - 40 per cent of pharmaceuticals are plant derived."

He cites how medicine derived from the annual Wormwood plant has saved millions of lives from the ravages of malaria, while the Madagascar Periwinkle has also helped in saving thousands of lives which in the past would have been lost to childhood leukaemia.

Close up of Golden Bog Moss (sphagnum pulchrum) at Winmarleigh Moss (photo: Josh Styles)

Josh fears yet undiscovered drugs will be lost for ever if plant extinction continues at its current rate. He said: “Estimates suggest from certain trends and the decline in plants worldwide we’re losing a major drug every two years all linked to plant extinctions.”

He notes a recent report from Kew Gardens in London which warns of the number of plants at risk of extinction across the world.

Josh attributes this as due in part to agricultural intensification and forestry. “We’ve lost over 97 per cent of our wildlfower meadows and over 94 per cent of our raised peat bogs in England and that’s primarly down to changes in agricultural practice.”

He also notes that plants have extra value in creating habitats for pollinators - essential for crops and also support valuable reserves of crop pest predators such as ladybirds, lacewings and ground beetles.

Golden Bog Moss (sphagnum pulchrum) at Winmarleigh Moss (photo: Josh Styles)

His top plants include Marsh Clubmoss which is endangered and likes wet heathland. He said “It’s a beautiful prehistoric plant that’s sadly declined a lot...I think it’s incredible. They look like little alien Christmas trees - they are really peculiar looking plants. It’s more closely related to ferns. “

Clubmosses are known to have existed 400 million years ago.

Josh added: “My second favourite plant is Lesser Bladderwort. Probably it looks, for the untrained eye, like a piece of inanimate pond sludge however bladderworts are actually some of the most successful predators on the planet. They live in nutrient deficient habitats including peatbogs and they capture aquatic invertebrates in about one ten thousandth of a second.”

Lesser Bladderwort is, he noted: “vulnerable - one step below endangered”. He is proud to report that in 2018 he planted 60 of these aquatic plants in south Lancashire. In 2019 there were about 30,000 and at the last estimate there are now more than 200,000.

While juggling a job as an ecologist, running training courses on botany, and studying for a Masters degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, Josh, from Southport, is keen to get out and about - discovering rare examples of lost plants such as the Golden Bog Moss, discovered again near Garstang. .

It is, he says, a complex process reintroducing plants with inspection of potential receptor sites and feasibility studies required.

He said: “The goal of the North West Rare Plants Initiative is not only to put things back but to reinforce these small isolated populations.”

Although he is keen to spread the word about the need to conserve plants he acknowledges expertise is needed, recalling how he once made a special trip to hand over four rare plants for conservation - and they died within the week. He said: “A lot of the plants I work with are really, really rare. It might not be good for a lot of people to get involved in trying to conserve these plants. There are so few of them left!”

He cites the example of Dune Wormwood on the cusp of extinction with four plants in Crosby andsaid: “That’s it for the whole of the British Isles,.”

But if you do want to help make a difference he suggests two options - one hands on and one financial - volunteer and be guided to help the local Wildlife Trust in its outdoor work and/or donate to environmental groups. He said: “On an individual basis there are two good things - volunteering with the likes of Lancashire Wildlife Trust who are doing an awful lot of horticultural improvement and restoration.”

The other is: “voting with your wallet and giving money to the RSPB, the LWT or whatever, it won’t go amiss.”

For anyone interested in observing wild plants the kit is, he said minimal: “To begin with just a wildflower picture book and an interest in plants will be sufficient. The Collins photographic guide to wildflowers was a favourite in my early teen years. Nowadays I use a little hand lens to help identify certain things.”

Small changes in behaviour can help the environment too. At his rented home he has persuaded the landlord to allow him to let the lawn grass grow long in his garden with a once a year cut in the autumn. He said: “It’s been amazing. It’s been lovely all summer.”

For more of Joshua’s conservation videos see //youtube.com/user/joshual95