Stinking hawk's-beard is a member of the large family of composites which includes daisies, thistles and dandelions. It is distinguished from its many similar-looking relatives by its drooping buds and characteristic smell resembling bitter almonds, although some people are unable to detect this.
This species appears to behave as an annual in the UK, and is in flower from June to August. It is thought that the plant requires regular disturbance of the soil to maintain its presence at a site. It is also thought that it cannot tolerate too much competition from more vigorous plants.
In Europe it grows widely but is declining in western and central parts, is endangered in the Netherlands and vulnerable and rare in Switzerland and Slovakia. On the continent, it is found on a wider range of habitats, stretching from sandy sea shores to dry meadows and rocky places inland as well as waste places and cultivated land.
Essentially a plant of southern Europe, stinking hawk's-beard is at the northern-most limit of its range in the UK. It is now believed to be extinct in the wild in Britain, last reported from Dungeness in Kent in 1980.
The stinking hawk's-beard has probably never been a common plant in Britain. There are records of it from Somerset, Essex, Middlesex, Berkshire, Suffolk and Bedfordshire although some of these are casual occurrences and do not indicate that the plant was particularly numerous.
At Dungeness in Kent there have been no records since 1980. The reason for this local extinction is unknown but studies of re-introduced plants suggest it may have declined through its habitat becoming less disturbed.
In order to re-establish stinking hawk's-beard in Britain it was important to learn more of the plant's ecology. Studies of European sites where the plant was still found were carried out to determine the habitat requirements and a study of the previous management of Dungeness was undertaken.
English Nature included the stinking hawk's-beard into the Species Recovery Programme and began to plan a series of re-introductions to suitable sites within the plant's known former range. Plants were propagated from seed obtained from Cambridge University.
Plants introduced at the Dungeness site in 1992 initially thrived, but the population then declined to extinction by 2002 as a result of the overgrowth of other vegetation. It has since been established at other sites at Dungeness and Rye.
It is hoped that with further research into the plant's ecology and a better knowledge of the conditions it survives under in the European sites, this will result a successful re-establishment of stinking hawk's-beard as a British plant.
The UK Biodiversity Action Plan for this species is available at UK BAP.
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