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Distribution of Spiranthes romanzoffiana in L. Conn and Cullin in the West of Ireland in 2021

This has been a very good year for numbers of this species appearing and flowering; most specimens of this Orchid will have been recognised by their flowers. Sometimes, but rarely in Ireland, these displays can be spectacular and in large clusters which simply take your breath away when suddenly they appear at your feet in the wildest of places. It is vital to record Numbers throughout the breeding season, July and August for flowering, and September into the Autumn for producing seed or developing lateral buds (which become independent plants) at the base of most Spiranthes that are studied. Seed reproduction is very variable in Ireland. We often put this down to Summer flooding but this year (2021) there has been no significant flooding until the end of September and, so far, it seems seeding has not occurred widely?

Monitoring, Mapping, Conservation

of Irish Lady’s Tresses in Mayo 2021

WildWest records and celebrates Nature, Habitat, Scenery on the western seaboard of Europe bringing you reports on how our wild communities (plants, animals, insects etc) are surviving in Ireland and other western extremes.
21 October 2021


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Unique Species Conservation and Protection:

The incredible and beautiful landscape of North Mayo is matched by its startling wealth of rare Orchids. Our map (RIGHT) is a summary of a busy Summer’s (2021) work. It has been the most thorough and largest count made in the past 6 years. Why do we record Numbers. The plant we are recording is Spiranthes romanzoffiana shown in much of it’s glory BELOW. Fortuitously, it is a plant that occurs on lake shorelines and in appears in large numbers in a seemingly random  fashion. But, it is not random. It seems that the occurrence of this plant (also known as Irish Lady’s Tresses) is controlled by poorly understood environmental factors which affect us all but are only recently demanding the attention they warrant in terms of Climate Change and the danger that imposes on our Country and our population. This species is spread from North America (where it is common) and travels in the prevailing wind (and the Jet Stream) west to east across the Atlantic. (The Jet stream never goes the other way!). Seeds of Spiranthes are specially adapted with a broad surface area and negligible weight AND no liquid cell contents to suffer under the extreme cold of the upper atmosphere. For some climactic reason Spiranthes is slow to produce seed in Ireland but seems to do so abundantly in North America, particularly Newfoundland and Labrador, which is the closest continental land from Ireland. With what we know now regarding the upper atmosphere, it seems that theses seeds might make that journey (Labrador to Mayo) in a day and other studies show that its seed can withstand upper atmosphere temperatures of -50° C as our friendly Ryanair Pilot informed us where the outside conditions on a simple flight from Dublin to London! So, you see why we are keen to protect this plant and its unknown history in Ireland  — maybe very long? Quite possibly this habit developed on the borders of the European Ice Ages as new land started to be exposed in both North America and Western Europe.

Biodiversity and why do we seek it?

Biodiversity is simply the variety of species of plants and animals that occur in a single area or region. If, like Ireland, the country is enormously diverse then we should naturally have a good variety of species — and we do! Absence of diversity can be highlighted  if we think of the Dust bowl in America or the clearing of natural forest to feed Cattle or grow Palm Oil. In our country traditional farming used to be very varied with even a small holding a range of crop products from Hens and eggs, to Goats and Cheese, to winter fodder from small field of Oats. All these were small marginal activities and that is where the conflict lies in preserving Ireland’s wildlife and sustaining Ireland as a major food exporting Nation. Both are important. Diversity and S. romanzoffiana… This is just one of the many rare and very rare organisms that reflect the evolution of Ireland’s present wild life. It is a beautiful species with an enthralling history which seems to enthral everyone that sees it. People set aside land for it as other people plant oat plots because of the variety of traditional plants that grow there. Spiranthes is an exotic with its main family based in America — like so many Irish families. But it keeps on visiting us every year and is/was fairly widespread and certainly abundant in Loughs Conn and Cullin; we are not up to date with its numbers elsewhere in Ireland (L. Allen, L. Corrib etc) and Scotland. Habitat and steps to keeping it. Spiranthes romanzoffiana does not need special conditions. It is quite happy with the Bed and Board it received here over the past 1000’s of years (a blind assumption). It’s niche here (in Mayo and Leitrim) is lake-shores and it will typically form strings along straight shores and rings around shallow pools. These areas are not agriculture and but nearby cattle will often break through to the shore and do a lot of damage to the environment and this species. A secure shoreline for good water and healthy biodiversity would benefit all our lives. In recent years the numbers of cattle on the shore has increased particularly after August?

a Conservation Plan for Spiranthes and the land strips it needs…

Approach: This is very much a proposal sharing what we know and hoping to work with other people who work or enjoy our countryside. The role of the farmer/landowner/rural dweller will be paramount in this regard and distant theoretical environmental planners will be important in so much as they know a particular place and have worked over many years to protect its diversity and sustain farm living. Plant Needs: Of course, we are talking about S. romanzoffiana here but in protecting its habitat we also protect very valuable traditional shores with which this species is associated. Some of these littoral meadows or shoreline strips are simply beautiful when undisturbed and in full flower in Summer. Many ‘herbs, found among them are perennial continual flowers with a long season. They carpet the shore even if they have been damaged earlier. Spiranthes is different. It is a perennial (multi year plant) but it only produces one stalk per year and if that is damaged that is the end of it’s season and possible may lead to a death of its tuber. So the main need for this plant is year round protection from damage. (Why year round? See Below.) Type of shoreline required: This is an area we are trying to record more closely every year. It is clear what they don’t want. A bouldery shore will rarely contain specimens unless the boulders are of recent origin. The shores of L. Conn can very enormously. One year the east shore has large numbers of plants present, a couple of years later they are gone. This is not any action of man; it simply reflects the weather.  A suitable shore will be sandy with grass or shore weed, Royal Ferns, Bog Myrtle, Alders at the back. Typically a ‘Spiranthes shore ‘will be flat or with a very gentle slope (< 1:10) and may have small ponds or wet area. If the shore is steep it implies wave action from deep water off shore leading to boulderisation and loss of orchids. Soil Need: This is complicated. A flat shore with soft/sharp sand and a low cover of grass or shore weed seems ideal, especially with the occasional bush to shelter the emerging plant. The pH of the shore has not been determined but there are both sandy shores and limestone areas both of which seem to support Spiranthes. This species can also establish itself in low-lying grass fields either by submergence or wind-blown seed. There are many factors to be considered in establishing a safe area for this species in years to come!
  A1: This is the shore where many specimens were found in 2016 linearly placed all along the extensive shore of this broad bay. The larger specimens in the long grass (ABOVE) probably date from an earlier seed settlement event when the water level was considerably higher. These are mature plants as shown by their stronger growth and earlier emergence.
Model C: Lagoon habitat…                     Study Area C on Map This is The Lagoon that we first visited in Tolans Bay, Crossmolina, in 2016. It was a paradise for Spiranthes seedlings with many ponds and rivulets controlling the ingress of water from L. Conn. The entrance at Summer levels is often dried up and the water is retained in a very narrow channel between raised banks of up to 0.5m. Invariably this means that water is always present in the large area where Spiranthes grow. These can be the edge of channels, on secure banks, or in drier areas further from the lake where the orchids will be surrounded by dense vegetation and harder to find. This site has been fenced and the ownership is unclear but it has provided an ideal reserve for the establishment of a large colony of orchids and for the production and release of seeds on a local basis. In Summer and Autumn increased rain will flood the site and any seeds produced can leave through the single outlet to the lake. There are 3 lagoons here, a closed permanent pond with no regular access to L. Conn, the lagoon above, and a dry lagoon to the east. It is only the central lagoon that has the right mix of conditions to foster a good number of Spiranthes each year. We first came across this location from observing aerial images and observing the natural scrub and pool habitat. The site is largely flat with water entering from the lake through a small channel (bigger when the lake level is high). As lake water drops this lagoon remains wet and channels and pools normally contain some water.
Model B: Protected shore…           Study Area B on Map The Spiranthes seem to appear in a random fashion and the shoreline is much steeper than in either A or C. This shore is not protected from the weather; it is protected from grazing! It is a horseshoe bay of about 50 m. width with much established vegetation and a slope much steeper than the 1:10 ratio normally deemed suitable for seed settlement. No tidy line of new seedlings here; instead a large crop of very fine specimens scattered over much of the slope in grass or sheltered by bushes. We would suspect that this colony has been building up over many years and, as far as we know, there is no definitive maximum lifespan known for this species. But established specimens with a mature root and mycorrhizal system will grow much more strongly in the early summer than new specimens emerging for the first time from an immature root. The important protection here is from grazing. This whole area (south east of Pontoon Bridge) is lightly grazed by horses and cattle and the landowner is interested in these plants. However, it is the geology that secures this small local colony. The large boulders in the background are replicated on this side of the bay and along with dense bushes makes this area hard to enter for the local cattle. No conservation is needed!

Comparison of 3 Distinct Settlement Models:

Spiranthes romanzoffiana is carried by the wind so it can land anywhere but seems to be mainly associated with large bodies of water where it can drift gently ashore in calm weather. We have heard of reports of it occurring in Bogs but have never (yet) come across this habitat; it is probably not a viable option!

Response to Environmental

change…the ecology of survival!

A 2021 

B 2021


Model A: Undisturbed natural habitat — at risk!

Photo A1: This is an image of the gently curving western shore of L. Conn north of Massbrook. It has been an intriguing part of the investigation of the ecology and migration of Spiranthes in Mayo. This photograph is from 2016. A fine grassy strip (including Shore Weed) was peppered with young emerging ‘Spiranthes seedlings’ marking a year, some time previously, when the lake was low and seeds washed ashore on fine silty substrate enabling some of these seeds to colonise and form a perfect ribbon along the shore in later years. In 2017 the number of shoreline plants had diminished somewhat and mature plants were present higher up the shore in long grass and bushes  (Photo A2) signifying that they had established root system and could survive Winter storms. In 2021, however, even these had largely been lost — all due to shoreline change! The shore is now largely stony with large boulders and little sand visible. (Photo A 2021 BELOW) It is barer as grasses and herbs cannot find a substrate to call their home. Consequently this stretch of coastline that had been rich in Irish Lady’s Tresses is now largely devoid of them with only 3 detected up as far as Massbrook Point. This change is a sign of climate change with rapid erosion — causing change to the nature of this shoreline with consequent loss of the vast majority of Spiranthes that used to occur there. However, at the other side of the lake,they are back in large numbers! Is this just random variation or has climate change, wind and rain patterns, played a major part in this re-location of biodiversity? The Risks and Risk Assessment: There has been a major loss in population here from hundreds to single digits. But it is clear that this is not due to major human intrusion — the change is demonstrably natural! i.e. the fine sandy shore has been turned into a coarse stony shore unhelpful to the orchid for two reasons: I. The shore line slope remains the same (ideal) but it is now composed of large pebbles, cobbles and boulders with no surface soil and any sand is much coarser. II. Such a substrate will block orchid settlement by absence of mycorrhiza and no fine soft seeding soil. Also stones and boulders blocking emergent stems of established plants. It is clear that the loss of Spiranthes is due to the destruction of habitat which in this case is entirely natural due to weather effects of global warming with increasing rain and storms in Winter affecting the shore in a manner different to a previous time. This may naturally revert again! Are these changes significant or part of a cycle? Future Consequences! This is part of the natural change that all rare and common plants are exposed to. All we can hope for is a return to the status this species enjoyed here 5 years ago. BUT we do not know whether that soft sandy shore or the present rocky and stony shore is the norm in the long term for this part of L. Conn. No measures can be put in place to bring back these ideal conditions but orchids and orchid seed can move and this is what has happened this year. The west shore (of L. Conn) has been decimated but the east shore has had a great resurgence in numbers over what has been seen in recent years. YOU WIN SOME, YOU LOSE SOME?

Model B: Undisturbed naturally sheltered habitat — no Risk!

This site is on the north shore of L. Cullin. It is one of a series of small south facing isolated bays which are popular with S. romanzoffiana. This whole north shore is traversed by cattle and horses in varying numbers. But, if you look at the image above, and the map at the top of this page, you will see clear headlands jutting out between several small bays. These headlands are frequently formed by roche moutonée and/or large erratics of up to 4m. high piled on top of one another since the Ice Age. It is rough ground, hard enough for humans to traverse, and nigh impossible for livestock. The orchids inhabit the ‘sweet spots’ in these rough areas. The gentler grasslands and marshes to the north of the shore are lightly grazed by livestock; some Spiranthes still occur widely dispersed under Bog Myrtle where the cattle and horses miss them. But, most of our records from this area come from the shoreline and islands which livestock rarely visit. With the good will of local farmers both the rare orchid and the low-level grazing can continue with no alteration needed to the habitat. It is great to have such a natural location that so easily caters for the needs of both farming and the encouragement and survival of Mayo’s rarest flowering plant. The Risks and Risk Assessment: It seems that little action need be taken and that this population can survive indefinitely if this coast is left unaltered — and altering the coast would probably be economically unjustifiable with so much other good grazing land nearby! These secure sites are surrounded by other very fertile areas ideal for this species to expand into — except for the presence of grazing animals. As years go by it may be practical to replace the income coming from this location with an income for stewarding the incredible biodiversity that exists in these small forgotten areas? Despite the very large numbers recorded this year in the two lakes, it would be great to further increase the resource in this location for everyone’s benefit. Natural protection and Future Consequences? Luckily S. romanzoffiana is widespread around these lakes, both as growing plants and as seed. The widespread dispersal of seed is evidenced by the fact that this plant will seemingly appear in any suitable area. What defines suitable areas..? I. Stable protected shore. No traffic or heavy grazing. II. Perfect substrate. Seeds will not germinate on bare rock! III. Suitable ‘soil’ where seeds and symbiotic mycorrhiza can bed down. IV. Rock barriers or dense thickets to screen sites from grazing or people. These 4 factors seem to delineate where we will find Spiranthes; they are all present in the area described above. Thankfully, many other places exist with similar ideal properties — another site is crucially lacking in one where areas of bare rock (visible or lightly buried) hinder orchids from colonising. i.e the Sandy Bay shore running due north for 600m!

Model C: Natural habitat disturbed by Man!

Damage to ‘The Lagoon’ For many years the site (ABOVE) has been undisturbed but in 2021 large parts of the area were cleared; channels and ponds eliminated, and orchids only surviving in the margins where this clearance has not taken place. Machinery has been used to level the shore and thus destroying the Spiranthes habitat. We don’t know of any reason for this work but may just be a need to ‘tidy up the countryside!’ Formerly ungrazed, the site is now wide open from the west to invasion by cattle, other livestock and deer. The damaged strip is behind the fence shown Below and as far as the Alder copse on the lake shore. The sole entry from L. Conn, formerly bordered by 2 islands with large Alder bushes, was from the narrow bay shown Top Left and the rest of the foreshore was protected by trees.
Study Area C
Study Area B
Study Areas: Three Study Areas are indicated on the Map. These refer to observations in the Conservation Plan for S. romanzoffiana outlined (Below) in terms of vulnerability or security of each area and possible protection measures required to keep Conn/Cullin a prime area for this species.
Study Area A

Detailed Comparisons of these 3 locations

— as they are now!

B: Unaffected: NO Response needed: Our rare orchid is thriving here simply because.. I. The Habitat is naturally secure. The Bay in question (Study Area B on Map above) is bordered by dense woodland and boulders to the north, water and inaccessible islets to the south, Roche moutonée (glacial bedrock features) and large erratics (huge detached sharp faced former sections of bedrock) dumped to the east and west and form the promontories between each little bay. II. The Photos (ABOVE and BELOW RIGHT) show the complete protection from grazing afforded by these barriers allowing lush natural vegetation to thrive. Yes, Cattle and livestock do roam this headland but they never seem to enter these natural defended sites.
A: Habitat NOT directly disturbed by Man… …but affected by climate change that can subtly erode our biodiversity and quickly (while we are sleeping) take away much of what we cherish about our wild Ireland, leaving us with a barren (possibly wealthier) countryside. It is analogous to the Rye Grass fields replacing the traditional Flower Meadow that puts at risk our traditional wildernesses and beautiful countryside that so many visitors to Ireland always appreciate. We, for one, think that such variety (or biodiversity) is well worth cherishing and we would bet that a Country rich in Diversity but with a sensitive and appropriate agriculture industry may well be as wealthy as any — and a lot more healthy and beautiful? Summarising Site A… TOP Photos 2016/17 (Study Area A on Map) For the past 5 years we have trudged the middle west shore of L. Conn; it was one of the first areas we found Spiranthes in large numbers but also they were aligned following natural properties of wind, soil, and water! At the top of this section a fine grassy type shoreline covered all the flat fertile lakeside edge. The shore was typically an even yellow green fuzz with (2016) numerous Spiranthes present. Photo ABOVE 2021 (Same area…) Over the past several years numbers of this orchid have declined remarkably all along this shore to single digit numbers. WHY? We suspect changing weather patterns leading to removal of clay material and leaving the shore line completely covered with coarse grit and boulders of many sizes — and, we suspect, this is a hostile environment for S. romanzoffiana seedlings! THERE is little we can do about this — except look for other sites.


Response to



ecology of


Study Area A on Map



A2: The main occurrence in 2017 was bigger plants in front of Myrtle and Alder bushes with a variable distance from the water suggesting a series of settlement episodes.
Massbrook Shore, July 2017 
Model A: Drifting ashore…
The Site as we first saw it, undisturbed with a variety of plants and bushes.
ABOVE: A dramatic change is shown. All this area was formerly wet and green and sheltered. In the foreground a raised shore supported a wall of Alder trees which effectively protected this habitat from being destroyed. The sand area is new to us and all the channels and little ponds in the middle distance have been flattened and the abundant bushes that grew around each pond have disappeared. To protect this land the ‘lake barrage’ would need to be re-instated, and to save the habitat and the orchids, natural regeneration should be allowed to take place — with some careful management. This could restore this place to the superb Spiranthes nursery that it formerly was. C: Habitat and Plants jeopardised: The Lagoon is the only site seen this year where clearance and destruction of habitat took place. Otherwise, natural forces and weather, and releasing livestock onto land sensitive to S. romanzoffiana have taken their toll. However, this activity may not have been intended to harm a protected species. Unfortunately the Wildlife rights of rare species and habitats are not as well known as they should be and innocent mistakes can often be remedied and bettered through sincere dialogue. The Risks and Risk Assessment: The damage is, at present, severe and does impose a small threat to the survival of the species here but NOT on a widespread basis over L. Conn and L. Cullin. Spiranthes has a great ability to recover or even thrive in adversity and will re-emerge from land that has been altered. This can be due to roots buried in the soil or seed landing on exposed suitable terrain. It seems that little further action need be taken, apart from what is outlined above and, following a complaint to the NPWS, work might be done in re-securing the shoreline . This would enable the orchids to re- colonise their old haunt fairly quickly.

C 2021

Overview   of destruction of habitat. All this area was formerly covered with water, scrub, trees and a coastal barrier.

A Conservation Project?

It is difficult to know what to do. S. romanzoffiana is an enigma though becoming less enigmatic every year! Is it worth conserving: Yes, we think so! Why? It is rare, beautiful, and Ireland has a unique role in its conservation in Europe.

The Core ingredient of conservation.

1. Getting people’s support. It is little known. 2. It is worth doing to make a stand against Biodiversity loss. 3. A Report like this has even amazed ourselves — they are so abundant! 4. To have a natural heritage for following generations. Lose them and they won’t come back!

C 2021

ABOVE The foreground here shows healthy habitat but, unfortunately, this was not normally the Spiranthes bearing zone. It remains the same as it always was. The middle section of the shoreline has been flattened with the many medium Alders pulled down and pushed to either side of the cleared zone. The pyres of wood can be seen on either side. No Spiranthes remained in the flattened area but a few (12) were found either side of the damaged strip and the lagoon is now very exposed.
ABOVE: A close up of rocks and trees and beautiful Spiranthes at this Natural site…
BELOW Site B, Showing lush vegetation around the Orchids with no sign of grazing or animal dung…
Can this site be enhanced.. Yes, we believe so. In a time of changing climate and weather based changes to our landscape and natural seasons, it is incumbent on us to respond to these changes. Globally S. romanzoffiana can act as a bellwether warning us of the demise of frosty Winters and the onset of warmer Summers. This will naturally cause a northerly movement in the distribution of this species in Europe (Ireland and Scotland) and may even pose a threat to its survival. Ireland is losing species at an alarming rate. Any effort and resources available should be directed even further towards stabilising our climate for all humanity. Ireland is a fortunate country but other places all around the World are showing signs of a forthcoming disaster. OUR DECLINING BIODIVERSITY INDICATES PROBLEMS AHEAD!