Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Sanguisorba officinalis – great burnet

Sanguisorba officinalis

Sanguisorba officinalis L.
Family: Rosaceae

A perennial herbaceous species of meadows and pastures now confined in Northern Ireland to two sites, one each in County Down and County Antrim. Two other sites in Counties Antrim and Londonderry were lost before 1930. This species is very rare in Ireland generally, but is widespread and frequent in England and Wales.

In brief

  • Now known only from two sites
  • Found in meadow (County Antrim) and rough grass along former railway line (County Down)
  • Flowers in June – August
  • Classed as vulnerable in the Irish Red Data Book
  • Considerably reduced in numbers by destruction of habitat and agricultural improvement.

Species description
A rhizomatous herbaceous perennial growing up to between 45cm and 90cm in height, with oblong dark red-purple flower heads and leaves which are subdivided into oval, toothed leaflets.

Life cycle
The plant flowers in the latter half of summer. Little is known of its pollination biology; it appears to be pollinated by Diptera and Lepidoptera. Single-seeded dry fruits are produced which, in traditional hay meadows, would have been dispersed with the hay.

Similar species
The salad burnet, also called lesser burnet (Sanguisorba minor), is a similar plant but much smaller, and with green flower heads. It is an uncommon alien species found in some grass seed mixtures, and rarely persists.

How to see this species
Great burnet can be seen in rough grass by a former railway line at Donaghadee which is now part of Hunt’s Park. At Carnlough it is confined to one small field (Lemnalary ASSI), part of a former meadow or pasture, to the north of the town adjacent to the road. It flowers from June to August. Relevant access permissions should always be sought prior to visiting any sites.

Current status
This plant has a very restricted distribution, being confined to the two sites, one each in Counties Down and Antrim.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • It is rare and has declined, with Northern Ireland being the stronghold for the Irish population
  • It is listed as vulnerable in the Irish Red Data Book.

Both areas of occurrence have been damaged and reduced in extent since the 1930s.

Threats/Causes of decline
This is a species of traditional hay meadows and pasture. The plant was formerly extensive in the parish of Ardclinis, north of Carnlough, but improvement and re-seeding of the pastures and meadows (in the 1960s?) eradicated it from the fields, apart from one small field set aside from the rest.

At Donaghadee, great burnet grew in pasture beside the railway line to the south of the town. It also grew on the railway itself. Abandonment of these pastures and their subsequent destruction by a housing estate in the 1980s has left the plant to survive only on the rough grass along the now closed railway.

The plant probably relied on dispersal of its seeds when the hay was cut to perpetuate and propagate itself. Cutting the vegetation too early will adversely affect the abundance of the species. At Donaghadee this could take the form of ‘tidying up’ the grassy banks beside the old railway.

Conservation of this species

Current action

  • The field at Carnlough is now the Lemnalary ASSI
  • The Donaghadee site is managed by Ards Borough Council
  • Sites are monitored on an ad hoc basis by botanists.

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Maintain the two viable populations of great burnet
  • Establish appropriate management on the two sites.

What you can do
You can help to monitor the health of the two populations by visiting the sites and noting the presence and abundance of the plant. Send any records or observations to either BSBI, c/o Department of Botany, 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

Flora of Northern Ireland

Lemnalary ASSI

Curtis, T.G.F. and McGough, H.N. (1988). The Irish Red Data Book – 1 Vascular Plants. Stationery Office, Dublin.

Hackney, P. (1992). Stewart & Corry’s Flora of the North-east of Ireland, 3rd edn. Institute 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

iNaturalist: Species account : iNaturalist World Species Observations database