Here’s a bit of good news for a change. A few years ago I was walking into town, vaguely looking for fungi, when I spotted something I’d never seen before. A cluster of little translucent greenish yellow stems poking up through the leaf litter around a Goat Willow. I had no idea what this was, so enlisted help. After a fortnight’s pleading, my Other Half came out on a ‘site visit’, and was quite excited by what she saw. With the assistance of other naturalist friends the plant was identified as Yellow Bird’s Nest.
We were told that it was very rare. This is only the third example known in West Yorkshire, and there are only a few isolated clusters in the whole of Northern England. It can apparently appear in profusion and then disappear on a site within a few years, and doesn’t necessarily send flowering spikes up every year. Botanical dignitaries from near and far came to pay their respects, and count the stems. This was quite fun, since some had been possessive and over-secretive about their own finds in the past. Then all went quiet for a time, until someone tipped us off that the site, which is on the edge of the town centre, was about to be developed. Aagh!
Support was enlisted from various conservation bodies, and the Council. The developer commissioned an ecological report, which pointed out that Yellow Birds Nest is a U.K Biodiversity Action Plan priority species, and listed on the U.K. Red List of vascular plants as endangered. This means that it ‘faces a very high risk of extinction in the wild’. There was talk of translocation. But since this is an epiparasitic plant that gets carbon from its host species and uses fungi to extract nutrients from trees, the Goat Willow would have to be moved as well. Eventually everyone realised that this was not feasible.
Various site meetings and dozens of e-mails later, it was agreed that the site boundary could be revised, leaving the Yellow Birds Nest and its companion Willow trees untouched. Phew! Then came several anxious months of monitoring the site. Despite the reassurances we’d received, we turned up one day to find that white felling crosses had been painted on the Goat Willows the YBN depended on. The contractor seemed as surprised by this as we were, and thought that their Tree Removal Contractors must have made a mistake. This was worrying as we’d seen the zeal with which they set about obliterating a couple of hundred trees along the railway track. Someone unpainted the crosses, and the panic was soon over.
The work is nearing completion now, and the Yellow Birds Nest site seems pretty much intact, though its location means that it will still be vulnerable to accidental or intentional damage. We feel protective of this strange little plant, but slightly anxious about whether it will put on another show this year.