Rescue donkeys are joining the fight to save one of the UK’s rarest farmland wildflowers.
The small-flowered catchfly, found in field margins, has disappeared from 70% of its range with the rise of intensive farming and increased use of herbicides.
The plant, which boasts pinkish-white leaves and is covered in sticky hairs, is now only found in a small number of sites near the coasts of Wales and south-west England.
Now 20,000 seeds of the catchfly have been sown on plots at the headquarters of international, animal welfare charity, the Donkey Sanctuary, near Sidmouth in Devon.
Next spring, the donkeys will be walked over the seeded plots in a process known as “treading in”.
The donkeys hooves help embed the seed into the ground, hopefully boosting the wildflower’s chances of germination.
The seeds have been sown on plots alongside other wildflowers and grains to create a landscape that can support threatened farmland birds such as the skylark, yellowhammer and linnet.
Ruth Angell, ecology and conservation manager at the Donkey Sanctuary, said: “Increasing biodiversity is essential for an enriched and resilient environment which can support rare species as well as our resident herds of donkeys.”
She added: “Our donkeys will be able to enjoy a walk with our grooms and benefit from one-to-one time while they walk over the plots.”
Ms Angell said: “Our team of conservation officers and volunteers work on a range of projects across our sanctuary sites, including woodland, hedge and grassland management to improve habitat for both wildlife and donkeys.”
The effort to save the small-flowered catchfly is part of charity Plantlife’s Colour in the Margins project, which works to support rare field plants across the country.
Colour in the Margins falls within the Back from the Brink programme to save more than 20 threatened species from extinction and boost 200 more through 19 projects across England through support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Cath Shellswell, manager for the Colour in the Margins project at Plantlife, said: “We’re incredibly grateful to partners like the Donkey Sanctuary who are helping these fantastically rare wildflowers come back from the brink of extinction by giving them a helping hand in one of their original regional strongholds.”