Science adventures in orchid conservation
Simon Pugh-Jones, Chris Ashman, Helen Mandley and Callum Swift. Writhlington School, Bath.
Specialised propagation and horticultural facilities at Writhlington Comprehensive School in Bath are providing opportunities for Somerset students and local community groups to become experts in scientific research and conservation aimed at preserving native and tropical orchid species.
Head of Physics, Simon Pugh-Jones, has been growing orchids since he was 13, and has led the transformation of Writhlington into a centre of expertise on orchid research and conservation. 'With the right equipment, students as young as 12 can become adept at growing unusual orchid species,' says Simon. 'At Writhlington, we harness the key raw materials for change - the energy and commitment of young people - to build links with the local community, give people new skills, and help to conserve the biodiversity of orchid species all over the world.'
A Royal Society Partnership Grant helped students develop links with scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - one of the many professional collaborations that characterises the work at Writhlington. This transfer of expertise means that pupils and members of the local community are now adept at culturing orchid seeds in laboratory conditions. Many students are experts in a particular orchid genus and go on to become professional scientists or horticulturalists.
Writhlington School is well placed to undertake ex-situ conservation of many of Britain's 50 native orchid species, as almost half of them grow within a 15-mile radius from the school. The Radstock Native Orchid Project raises native species from seed, and plants propagated by the project are being used for replanting projects, such as the transformation of a local landfill site into a nature reserve.
Though local species may be rare, they are rarely endangered. Greater threats to orchid biodiversity lie a little further afield, in the tropical world. For example, in Sikkim in Northern India, local species are often over-collected and sold as plants for gardens, threatening their existence in the wild. Writhlington is developing links with schools and the Orchid Specialist Group in this region to use its propagation facilities to raise key Sikkim orchid species from seed.
Somerset students will raise the seedlings to a stage where they can be sent back to Sikkim villages. It is planned that schoolchildren in Sikkim will grow on and distribute the plants, reducing the pressure for collecting from wild populations. The project will be self-financing as Writhlington will retain some of the seedlings, and sell the plants that grow from them. Any financial surplus will be sent on to Sikkim to fund the fieldwork and raise local awareness towards conservation issues.
The concept of conservation enterprise - research that pays for itself - has also equipped students with business and enterprise skills, as well as generating a regular and sustainable source of funding for their research. The plants are much in demand, and have featured at No. 10 Downing Street. The school will be supplying orchids for the tropical zone at the Eden Project.