This living fossil is in fact a type of fern, belonging to a strange relict family of plants which dominated the earth millions of years ago.
Rarity: It occurs on just under 70 heathland sites across England, but at many of these exists at perilously low numbers.
Cause of decline: Loss of heathland overall, but also a decline in the specific type of habitat, wet heathland with periodically disturbed soils, on which it relies.
Marsh Clubmoss has an endangered conservation status, and is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild - with only one stronghold left - in the New Forest.
It is still suffering severe declines in many populations outside this area, and has a complicated ecology which often makes its conservation challenging.
It is a living relic from when a totally unique group of plants - the Lycophytes, used to dominate the planet.
Over 400 million years ago, in the Silurian and Carboniferous periods they were the dominant vegetation form on the planet, and would have been the first plants our vertebrate ancestors saw as they emerged from the water to colonise the land.
Unlike the angiosperms Marsh Clubmoss lack flowers, and instead reproduce using spores, borne from structures called sporangia. They were the trail blazers of the plant family - the first species to start capturing Carbon dioxide in industrial quantities, and as fossil evidence suggests, the first species to harness the power of fungi and establish symbiotic mycorrhizal relationships.
Nowadays most members of this family are extinct, and the remaining ones tend to occur in habitats close to their original ones, on windswept mountain tops, damp heaths and bog edges. They do not cope well with excessive competition from vascular plants, nor with pollution or agricultural improvement to land.
As such Marsh Clubmoss now occupies a fraction of its former range, and in England is confined to wet heaths and bogs, often in increasingly isolated sites. While some large populations still occur, many of the sites in the southeast have been dying out in the last two decades, and many other sites need drastic work in order to maintain populations of this plant and other species reliant on damp bare ground and early successional habitats.
Marsh Clubmoss Species Report 2020
This work forms part of The Species Recovery Trust's national programme to monitor and enhance Marsh Clubmoss across England and Wales:
Marsh Clubmoss currently occurs at 3 extant sites within the Lake District National Park with an additional extinct site on Wan Fell SSSI. All the extant sites are considered to be under no immediate threat, are under suitable management and appear to offer good opportunities for the expansion of populations
With a 10 year plan (2020-2030) this project aims to:
Monitor the sites on a 5-year basis. Widen search radius to look for additional sub-sites.
Ensure habitat is being maintained
Survey the historic sites at Wan Fell to try and re-locate plants and see if habitat can be enhanced