Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Hypochaeris glabra – smooth catís-ear


Distribution map

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Hypochaeris glabra L.
Family: Asteraceae

An inconspicuous annual of open, summer-parched nutrient-poor dune grassland and sandy cultivated fields; first found in Ireland at Magilligan in 1900. Most of the UKís populations of this plant are in the southern half of England, especially East Anglia, where it is principally a weed of sandy arable fields. It has shown a decline in Great Britain, probably because of nutrient-enrichment of cultivated soils.

In brief

  • Confined in Ireland to the north coast of County Antrim and coast of County Londonderry

  • Found in sand dunes and sandy fields near the sea

  • Best seen on sunny days in July or August before midday (when its flowers close up)

  • Not seen recently at many of its former sites and threatened by reclamation and changes in grassland management.

Species description
This is an annual, normally growing up to about 20cm, with a basal rosette of almost hairless wavy-edged or indented leaves and one or more slender, branched or unbranched, flower stalks. The flower heads open only in full sun in the morning, always closing in the afternoon. Each head is about 1.5cm in diameter when open, superficially like a small dandelion head.

Life cycle
Smooth catís-ear is an annual which flowers from May to September. It is pollinated by insects. The ripe one-seeded fruits (achenes) are small and brown and are attached to a feathery Ďparachuteí called a pappus, like that of a dandelion, and are wind-dispersed. Hybrids with common catís-ear (H. radicata) have been reported from Great Britain and continental Europe when the plants grow together, but the hybrids are short-lived and of low fertility. There are no reports of hybrids from Ireland.

Similar species
The most closely-related species is common catís-ear, Hypochoeris radicata, but that is a much more robust and bristly-hairy plant with large flower heads and could not be mistaken for smooth catís-ear. The only species that might be mistaken for smooth catís-ear is lesser hawkbit, Leontodon saxatilis, which can inhabit similar habitats, but it can be readily distinguished by its hairier leaves, the hairs being forked (unforked in smooth catís-ear), and the always unbranched flower stalks (often branched in smooth catís-ear).

How to see this species
This plant is known from dunes at Whitepark Bay in County Antrim and Portstewart, Grangemore, the Bann estuary, Castlerock and Magilligan. It is also known from sandy fields just above the shore on the western side of Magilligan flats at Ballymulholland, where it was seen in 2003. There are old reports from sandy arable fields near Portstewart dunes, and a fairly recent report from a sand pit at Tully near Ballykelly in County Londonderry. It has not been seen recently at some of its dune sites such as Whitepark, but there are 1980sí and 1990sí reports from others.

It is a somewhat difficult species to spot. Ideally, searches should be made during July and August and on the morning of a sunny day, otherwise the flower heads will be closed and the plant will be even more inconspicuous than usual. In sandy fields it is best looked for in areas of bare ground or open vegetation.

Current status
Restricted to the north coast of Northern Ireland from the Magilligan area east to Whitepark Bay. Protected under the Wildlife Order (NI), 1985.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • The entire Irish population lies within Northern Ireland

  • Rare and declining.

Listed in the Irish Red Data Book (1988) as possibly extinct because the compilers were unaware of recent records.

Threats/Causes of decline
Threats include local destruction of the sand dune habitat, nutrient enrichment of cultivated sandy fields and closing of formerly Ďopení vegetation either as part of natural dune vegetation dynamics or under-grazing.

Conservation of this species

Current action

  • Some sites designated as ASSIs

  • Two sites (Whitepark and Portstewart dunes) managed by National Trust

  • Some sites included within three Special Areas of Conservation – Magilligan SAC, Bann Estuary SAC and North Antrim Coast SAC

  • Northern Ireland Habitat Action Plan for Coastal Sand Dunes

  • Monitored on an ad hoc basis by individual botanists.

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Produce a definitive catalogue of sites where smooth catís-ear is still present

  • Maintain the number of viable populations

  • Maintain the range of the species

  • Establish appropriate management on appropriate historic sites

  • If refound on former sites, ensure that the population is maintained.

What you can do
Records of the sites where this species still grows are important. Send any records to either The Botanical Society of the British Isles, c/o Botany Department, National Museums Northern Ireland, 153 Bangor Road, Cultra, Co. Down, BT18 0EU or to CEDaR, National Museums Northern Ireland, 153 Bangor Road, Cultra, Co. Down, BT18 0EU, Tel: 028 9039 5256, [at]

Further information

Northern Ireland Habitat Action Plan for Coastal Sand Dunes March 2005

Flora of Northern Ireland

Hackney, P. (1992). Stewart and Corryís Flora of the North-east of Ireland, 3rd edn. Inst. Of Irish Studies, Belfast.

Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. and Dines, T.D. (2002). New Atlas of the British & Irish Flora. Oxford University Press/DEFRA

Text written by:
Paul Hackney