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Annual Sea-Purslane 
A story of  brinkmanship
I well recall that autumn day in 1987, when Simon Leach arrived back at the office after a day surveying and said he thought he had found Atriplex pedunculata in south Essex (well, he actually said Halimione pedunculata, in those dark days pre-Stace). Incomprehension gave way to disbelief as I recalled the story of its extinction in Britain in 1937 and the absence of any previous Essex records. Surveys of its former sites from Lincolnshire to Sussex were hurriedly organised, but drew a blank - we had the only British population hiding in a salt marsh backwater near Southend.

Annual monitoring of the population demonstrated its fluctuating nature - between 400 and 4000 plants - as befits an annual species, causing us some concern that all our eggs were in one rather small basket. So a local translocation, to a safe site behind the MOD fence at Foulness, was in order - insurance against calamity. The new population thrived initially until that fateful visit in 1993, when we turned up to find an islander had unknowingly bulldozed the ‘safe’ site to improve it for wildfowl. Still, we could rely on the native site.....until we were greeted by a sward of rapidly-invading sea couch and a pitifully small remnant population of Atriplex.

An on-site, executive decision - prepare a suitable seed bed by ripping out turves by hand, and move some seeds to their new home. We waited anxiously for the next year. Just in time - the original population indeed went extinct, and it survived only in our spur-of-the-moment  translocation. A Species Recovery Plan was prepared urgently; plants and seeds were moved to further safe sites at Foulness, this time making sure the MOD and islanders were fully aware of its location. But it was not yet truly back from the brink - the risk of catastrophic sea wall failure was all too apparent. 

Spreading the risk is the best insurance: seeds were lodged with Kew, others were grown in garden situations. Re-stocking parts of its former range began, with variable success, and now plans are well advanced for about five wild populations to greet the new Millennium. But it remains a BAP Species of Conservation Concern, and one which owes its survival more to luck than judgement. A better example of the need for forethought and planning to guide projects under BAP is hard to imagine.

 Reproduced from
Biodiversity News
with permission
Dr Chris Gibson
Senior Conservation Officer
English Nature, Colchester