Wild asparagus is a plant of coastal dunes and cliff-tops and is endemic to western Europe. Genetic research has indicated that there may be justification for treating this taxon as a separate species from garden asparagus (A. officinalis ssp officinalis), an argument which strengthens the case for greater protection.
In Britain, wild asparagus, which has always been rare, is now known to survive at approximately five sites in western Cornwall, one in Dorset, three in west Glamorgan and one in southern Pembrokeshire. All of these populations are small. It has disappeared from a number of other sites in south-west England and Wales. The plant has also been recorded from dunes and cliff-tops in south-east Ireland and the Channel Isles, where it is rare and declining, the coasts of northern Spain and western France, Belgium (where there are no recent records), The Netherlands and Germany, where its present status is uncertain.
In GB wild asparagus is classified as Vulnerable. It receives general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Current factors causing loss or decline
Erosion of cliff-top habitats due to high levels of trampling by visitors. This is a particularly important factor at one Welsh site, compromising both the survival of mature plants and the recruitment of new individuals to the population.
Lack of grazing or other beneficial management. This is apparent at two of the Welsh sites which have become dominated by dense grass swards.
Gradual loss of genetic variation.
Low levels of seed production. Wild asparagus is dioecious and insect pollinated. A combination of small numbers of plants, sparse flower production, and the naturally low proportion of female plants in many populations results in frequent failure or very low levels of pollination and seed production.
Low levels of recruitment. In addition to low levels of seed production, vegetative spread is very slow.
Invasion of Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis), threatens some of the Cornish populations.
A draft action plan has been produced for the Welsh populations by CCW. Several of the proposals have been implemented and a report on progress has recently been prepared.
Most extant Cornish and all extant Welsh populations are within SSSIs.
English Nature and National Trust teams have modified their management practices in line with those recommended by the CCW study.
A report is currently being prepared for CCW on the current status of wild asparagus in continental Europe.
Action plan objectives and targets
Maintain the population size at all known sites.
Enhance the population size at all known sites with the aim of doubling the wild population at sites with less than 10 plants (c10 sites) by 2008.
Establish two new viable populations at former sites by 2008
Establish an ex-situ programme to protect genetic diversity, create a reserve population and provide experimental material.
Proposed actions with lead agencies
Policy and legislation
If wild asparagus is found to be threatened in Europe (see 5.5.4), reconsider it for protection under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. (ACTION: DETR, JNCC)
Site safeguard and management
Provide mechanisms to ensure that a beneficial management regime is implemented on all extant sites (eg through considering sites for notification as SSSIs, and management agreements on existing SSSIs). On Welsh sites, management should follow proposals set out in the CCW report. (ACTION: CCW, NE)
Ensure that all sites are protected as far as possible from excessive trampling and the activities of rock-climbers. (ACTION: CCW, NE)
Ensure successful completion of the SAC designation for the candidate sites which include sections of the Gower Coast in Wales and the Lizard NNR in Cornwall, both of which support populations of the plant. (ACTION: CCW, DETR, NE, JNCC)
Species management and protection
Conserve the current level of genetic variation by developing a seed-bank for the species at Wakehurst Place (Kew) and perhaps the new Welsh botanic garden. Material collected from the Welsh and English sites should be kept separately and cultivated plants introduced only in the region from which they originated. (ACTION: CCW, NE, RBG Kew).
Continue the ongoing pollination work in Wales and consider a similar project in England if monitoring programmes (see 5.5.2) indicate poor pollination rates are occurring at particular sites. (ACTION: CCW, NE)
If suitable locations can be found, (re)introduce cultivated material at selected Welsh and English sites with the aim of establishing two new viable populations. (ACTION: CCW, NE)
Provide land managers with appropriate advice on the conservation of wild asparagus. (ACTION: CCW, NE)
Future Research and Monitoring
Expand the survey of all extant and historic sites in Wales already carried out for CCW, by undertaking field surveys to establish current population numbers, status and distribution at English sites. Collate this information with field survey work recently carried out and in progress in Wales. (ACTION: CCW, NE, JNCC)
Monitor all extant populations in England and Wales to record data on population health, growth, flowering and fruiting. (ACTION: CCW, NE, JNCC)
Monitor the progress of any newly established populations. (ACTION: CCW, NE, JNCC)
Incorporate relevant findings from the ongoing review of the European status of wild asparagus into revisions of this plan. (ACTION: CCW, NE, JNCC)
Establish a consensus on the taxonomy of wild asparagus through discussion with the relevant experts. (ACTION: CCW, NE, JNCC)
Communications and Publicity
Raise awareness of the importance of this rare taxon. Articles should be written for magazines of relevant local and national conservation groups. (ACTION: CCW, NE)
Links with other action plans
Originally published in: UK Biodiversity Group Tranche 2 Action Plans - Volume I: Vertebrates and vascular plants (June 1998, Tranche 2, Vol I, p129)