WILDLIFE experts are urging gardeners not to buy moss for hanging baskets unless they know where it came from.

It follows the revelation in The Northern Echo that more than 50 bags of sphagnum moss was stolen from a nature reserve at Waskerley, near Consett last week.

The site is home to the caterpillars of County Durham’s rarest butterfly, the small pearl-bordered fritillary, which lives on the marsh violet which grows among the moss

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Anne Porter, Heart of Durham Project Officer at Durham Wildlife Trust, said: “We were alarmed to discover that several sites across the area in the County where there are still small pearls had been raided and sphagnum moss removed.

“No permissions had been given, so whoever is doing this is breaking the law, but stopping them is incredibly difficult.

“What we are urging the public to do is to not buy sphagnum moss for gardening, or ready made hanging baskets including it, unless they can be sure that the moss was grown for that purpose or collected legally from sites that are not environmentally sensitive”.

The trust recently released 40 small pearl caterpillars into the wild in the River Browney valley in Durham in a bid to boost numbers.

Ms Porter said: “The release of small pearl caterpillars is the culmination of thousands of hours of work and dedication by volunteers and professionals, but all this can be undone in one hanging basket where the sphagnum has been harvested illegally for commercial use.’’