15 Dec 2020

Plant expert and Chester Zoo partner Joshua Styles hasn’t been slowed by the turbulent year of 2020.

Since 2017 we’ve been partnered with Joshua Styles, a talented and passionate ecologist who has dedicated his life to protecting plant species threatened with extinction in the North West of England, and restoring those that we’ve lost in years past.

Founder of the North West Rare Plant Initiative, Josh is a grassroots conservationist. With his expert knowledge of plant ecology and a cultivation zone in the form of a back garden, at least 23 threatened plant species have benefitted from his work.

But the path to success is not an easy one. Josh must identify species that would benefit the most from his attention, obtain appropriate permissions to sample from existing habitats, successfully cultivate the species in his care, and ultimately identify and carry out a reintroduction that will require years of follow-up monitoring work.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought challenges for conservationists around the world this year, and yet Josh’s achievements have only continued to grow.

The Sefton Coast, a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” (SSSI), is home to a wealth of UK biodiversity ranging from natterjack toads and red squirrels to rare plants including a number of orchids. The site was also once home to small cudweed (Logfia minima) – an unassuming but rare plant found only sparsely in pockets across the UK. For some time the species has been in decline across the British Isles, catching Josh’s watchful eye. Following sampling and cultivation, he reintroduced a number of small cudweed plants on the SSSI in 2019. This year, they are the first of this species to bloom on the site for more than half a century, with the very last record for the whole coast being in 1969.

Over in Greater Manchester, the Manchester Mosslands are a series of highly valuable natural sites under the protection of Lancashire Wildlife Trust, an organisation we’ve been closely linked with for 7 years in protection of the Large heath butterfly. Josh too is closely tied with the Trust, many of his species reintroductions are carried out in these key locations.

Drosera anglica, the great sundew, is one such species. The leaves of the striking plant are coated in tiny tentacles, each tipped with droplets of viscous, sweet-smelling liquid that is irresistible to a passing insect. Once captured, any curious insect is rolled up in the plant’s leaves, smothered and ultimately digested by the enzymes, leaving behind little but an empty exoskeleton. Such fantastic adaptation had been absent from the North West for over 150 years due to habitat destruction, until last year when a reintroduction was made onto the Manchester Mosslands. Surveys this year show the population has quadrupled in size since this first-step, a great sign that the population might be maintained in the years ahead.

A success that stands out above all others however is that of the lesser bladderwort (Utricularia minor). The plant was once commonly found floating freely or attached to the sediment of lakes and ponds across the UK. Like the sundew, it too relies on animal prey for its nutritional needs. Its submerged stem features unique air-filled “bladders” for which the bladderwort is named.

Each bladder is lined with sensitive hairs, triggered easily by a passing aquatic creature. The bladder opens unimaginably quickly – 1/10,000th of a second – suctioning in the surrounding water and its occupants as air is replaced. Enzymes slowly digest any imprisoned victims over the following days. Each plant can consume tens of thousands of animals in one growing season, placing it amongst Earth’s most successful predators.

Few people know and appreciate the lesser bladderwort despite its marvellous adaptation for survival. This plant blindness has led to its decline across the North West as its peat bog habitats have disappeared – only 2% remain today. Back in 2018, Josh introduced a population of 60 plants into pools across the Manchester Mosslands region.

A year later, this population numbered 29,000 individual plants – already a staggering increase. 2020’s monitoring however, yielded a count of approximately 200,000 lesser bladderwort individuals across the sites of the reintroduction – a reestablishment of incredible magnitude.

These triumphs have earned Josh the Liverpool Echo Award for Environmental Champion this year, and placed him amongst finalist of the CIEEM Awards for the categories of ‘Promising Professional’ and ‘Best Practice: Small-scale nature conservation’. There’s no doubt the list of successes will continue to grow as time passes.

Josh’s plans for conservation in upcoming months are grand and diverse. For the Manchester Mosslands species undergoing trail reintroductions this year include the oblong leaf sundew, bog asphodel, and bog-rosemary. Marsh lousewort is cultivating his collection, awaiting a prospective reintroduction to Cheshire next year. So too is dune wormwood, destined for a site at Great Crosby, and greater bladderwort, for which reintroduction sites are being assessed.

Here’s what Josh had to say about this unusual year and his plans for 2021…

“Although this year has definitely proven to be a challenge, I am so so grateful to Chester Zoo and Lancashire Wildlife Trust for their funding and support through these difficult times which helps me continue what I do for plant conservation. What is more is the incredible success surrounding a large proportion of NWRPI this year, which has proven to be both fantastical for the plants and tremendously heart-warming!”

Joshua Styles