24 Apr 2014

Snakeshead fritillaries count investigates if plant has adaptions to climate change

The rare Snakeshead Fritillary flowering plant

The rare Snakeshead Fritillary flowering plant

Open University environmental researchers and volunteers have found that the snakeshead fritillary, a rare plant which grows on the UK's floodplains, has bloomed in droves this year despite almost disappearing in 2013.

Early results from a count today (24 April) at the North Meadow National Nature Reserve in Wiltshire indicate that the snakeshead fritillary, which declined dramatically from nearly 2,000 plants to just five when counted at specific sites by the Floodplain Meadow Partnership last year, has had a revival. The snakeshead fritillary is only found in the wild on floodplain meadows and 80% of the UK’s population of the purple and white flowers can be found at the North Meadow site.

"It looks at the moment as if there are much greater numbers this year," said Emma Rothero of the The Open University, who is working with the Floodplain Meadows Partnership, a project hosted by the OU, to assess this year's count. "Last year the number dropped from almost 2,000 to just five across the areas in which we count. We need to do more research to verify our findings, but it currently looks as if the fritillaries laid dormant, and proved resilient to flooding. They may therefore be able to cope with the increased periods of flooding we may see as a result of climate change. We hope to understand more about the impact of recent flooding after the count.”

Emma continued: “The counts are undertaken by volunteers and researchers. Without the volunteers, the team would not be able to count the numbers that we do. We always need more, so if anyone would like to get involved in our annual fritillary counts, or monthly bumblebee surveys, please get in touch with the project.”

North Meadow is owned and managed by Natural England. Anita Barratt, Reserves Manager, said: “Last year’s floods prevented the normal management regime taking place, and from previous experience we know that not getting the hay off can be detrimental to many herbs and grasses – we are still very concerned about the overall loss of biodiversity, which may take years to recover. Last year the population of the snakeshead fritillary looked devastated, so it was a relief to see them coming back up again this year. Our counts and those of the Floodplain Meadows Partnership are showing us that these particular plants are resilient, and that is great news.”

The Floodplain Meadows Partnership is working to ensure that floodplain managers and policy makers are aware of new research findings and take measures as a result to protect this rare species. To date, the floodplain meadows research team has visited more than 100 sites across England and Wales to gather data and provide advice.

The Floodplain Meadows Partnership members are: The Open University; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; the Environment Agency; Natural England; the Field Studies Council; the Wildlife Trusts; the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The Open University is running a free online course on ecosystems which will run for six weeks from 19 May, on the platform. It is aimed at those new to the subject and will illustrate how individual ecosystems function and the impact of humans on the natural world. For more details visit

Notes to Editors:

All Open University Science MOOCs presented on FutureLearn are produced with the kind support of Dangoor Education.

About The Open University
The Open University (OU) is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than 1.8 million students and has more than 200,000 current students, including more than 15,000 overseas.
The OU is rated in the top five of UK universities for student satisfaction in the National Student Survey, since the survey began in 2005. In 2012/13 it had a 92% satisfaction rating. Over 70% of students are in full-time or part-time employment, and four out of five FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.

In the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008) The Open University was ranked in the top third of UK higher education institutions. More than 50% of OU research was assessed in the RAE as internationally excellent, with 14% as world leading.

Regarded as Britain’s major e-learning institution, the OU is a world leader in developing technology to increase access to education on a global scale. Its vast ‘open content portfolio’ includes free study units on OpenLearn, which received 5.2million unique visitors in 2012/13, and materials on iTunes U, which has recorded more than 60 million downloads. The OU has a 41 year partnership with the BBC which has moved from late-night lectures in the 1970s to prime-time programmes such as Frozen Planet, Bang Goes the Theory, James May’s Big Ideas and The Money Programme.

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