Rare Orchids Guarded at U.K. Golf Tournament

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
July 17, 2003

Marshals at Royal St George's in southern England will have their work cut out this week. As well as keeping an eye on crowds coming to see the world's top golfers compete for the Open golf championship, they must protect one of the U.K.'s rarest plants.

Listed as endangered in the World Conservation Union's Red Data Book, over 90 percent of Britain's lizard orchids live at Royal St George's Golf Club, near Sandwich, in Kent. The country's biggest and most spectacular native orchid, it features in a hole-by-hole wildlife guide to this year's Open.

Produced for some 150,000 visitors expected at the four-day event, the booklet highlights the club's importance as a haven for many threatened plants and animals.

These include nine types of orchid, a parasitic flower down to just a few sites nationally, and a moth found only in the Sandwich area. And while Tiger Woods searches for "birdies" and "eagles" to boost his title challenge, spectators should also watch for hen harriers, skylarks, and short-eared owls.

Such species thrive here thanks to the sand-dune grasslands that define Royal St George's as a traditional coastal "links" course. Its species-rich habitat is considered internationally important, and has survived beside the championship course for well over a century.

But with this week's Open threatening to disturb the club's most celebrated resident, marshals are to guard the main lizard orchid hotspots. Some areas will also be roped off, based on maps drawn up by Kent Wildlife Trust.

Peter Forrest, the trust's Sandwich-area warden, said: "Lizard orchid numbers vary from year to year. The most ever recorded was nearly 5,000, and the lowest 300. Usually they average between 1,500 to 3,000, representing over 90 percent of the U.K.'s total population.

"There is potential for conflict. There may be some collateral damage, with the odd lizard orchid getting trodden on or hit by a ball, but the last time the championship was held here, in 1993, the wildlife suffered no lasting harm."

Flower Marshals

"There will be large numbers of marshals on duty, making sure people stay off the most sensitive areas," Forrest said. "They shouldn't have too many problems as golf crowds are generally well behaved."

In fact, botanists suspect visitors to Royal St George's have helped to establish new lizard orchid colonies in southern England.

Peter Carey, from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Cambridgeshire, said: "The species has spread to golf courses so far apart it seems likely golfers carried them there from Royal St George's. The seeds are extremely small and can stick to moisture on clothing by surface tension alone."

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