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It might not be much to look at, but this tiny specimen is one of Cumbria’s rarest plants. There are only four places in the county where you can find spring quillwort - a small aquatic plant closely related to the fern family. Now, in what is believed to be a world first, ecologists are preparing to re-home one of these colonies in a new pool created as part of a project to remove a reservoir and restore a Millom valley.
Project manager Carl Sanders, of water company United Utilities, said "This quillwort was rescued last year as part of a project to dismantle Baystone Bank reservoir and restore the upper part of Whicham Valley. Now it is time for it to go to its new home. We hope it likes it."
Unused 130-year-old Baystone Bank reservoir had outlived its use as a source of drinking water and no longer complied with modern safety standards, and so it was dismantled last year and the valley restored to exactly what it had been before the dam was built.
"Although removing the reservoir was the right thing to do, surveys showed us that spring quillwort was present and would be left homeless. We had to make sure that species which had come to rely on it were disrupted as little as possible,” added Carl.
Several hundred quillwort plants were rescued when the reservoir was drained and for the last year they been living in temporary accommodation at a specialist facility at the Freshwater Biological Association near Windermere while we custom built them a brand new home.
"A new pool has been created within the former reservoir which means the quillwort can hopefully carry on enjoying clean natural Whicham Valley water. Daubenton’s bats, which regularly foraged over the former reservoir, will also be able to make use of it," said Carl.
Experts at the Freshwater Biological Association, who have been looking after the plant since November 2010, believe it’s the first time anyone has ever attempted to keep spring quillwort in artificial conditions.
Scientific projects officer Louise Lavictoire said: "We didn’t find any evidence from the literature that people have kept spring quillwort like this before so we had no information about what was possible. We kept the plants in trays in tanks supplied with low flows of fresh water from Windermere. We had some algal growth within the tanks so had to keep cleaning the spring quillwort but it’s looking green and healthy and is ready to go back home.”
Specialists from Kendal-based firm Marshall Ecology are now waiting for a run of dry weather to return the quillwort to Baystone Bank. It’s not something most passers-by would even know is there, but its progress and hopeful re-establishment will be monitored.
Meanwhile the removal of the dam means that salmon and sea trout will be able re-colonise historic spawning areas in the upper reaches of Whicham Beck which they have been unable to reach since the dam was constructed.