Sunday 13 December 2015

BSBI welcomes John Faulkner, our new President

John at Garry Bog, BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
At last month’s Annual General Meeting, BSBI voted in a new President, John Faulkner. 

As outgoing President Ian Denholm would no doubt agree, the workload attached to this voluntary role can be pretty hefty so, before John’s inbox starts filling up with weighty presidential matters, I asked him to offer us an exclusive interview so we can all find out a bit more about our new President.    

LM: John, congratulations on being voted in (unanimously!) as BSBI's new President. You've been in post for a fortnight now and News & Views readers will want to know - how does it feel to be at the helm of the leading botanical society in Britain and Ireland?

John offers ID tips at the Umbra,
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
JF: The President has a responsibility to help BSBI keep moving forwards, and I feel very honoured and somewhat apprehensive to have been asked to take on such a role. So far it has not been a heavy burden, but perhaps this is the honeymoon period! If I have a concern, it would be that my plans to produce a County Flora will suffer.

Photographing Arabis hirsuta at the Umbra
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
Your question does remind me of a similar one that used to be asked in the 1970-80s: “how does it feel to be living in Northern Ireland?” My stock answer, accompanied by a shoulder shrug, was that my cornflakes tasted no different from anywhere else. In other words, daily life went on as usual, despite the bombings and shootings you hear about from the media. 

I think you’d have been justifiably annoyed if I gave you that kind of answer, but in truth the weight of office has not really landed on me yet. 

LM: I'll try asking you that question again in a few months! Before you talk about your plans for the society, could you tell us how you first got interested in botany - has it been a lifelong passion?

John demonstrates the 2m "height" of
culms of Carex x boenninghausiana
Muckross, Killarney, BSBI AGM 2013
Image courtesy J. Faulkner
JF: Funnily enough, I don’t really know the answer to that one, but I recall one incident that led to me becoming interested in wildlife generally. At the age of nine, I was walking with my family in the Peak District, and my sister suddenly stopped me in my tracks to prevent me treading on a caterpillar.
I picked it up and took it home, where an older girl who lived next door identified it as a Northern Eggar. I tried to rear it to an adult moth, but despite failing I was from then on bitten by the moth bug, and naturally gravitated towards biology and other sciences at school. 

LM: So you went on to study at...

JF: I was fortunate to get a place to study at Oxford. The first year was a common grounding for all biologists, but any inclination I might have had to study zoology waned when we were expected to experiment on the nervous system of pithed frogs. 

John and botanists at the Umbra
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
I considered doing Agricultural Science, partly because some of the best botanists in the University were in the Agriculture Department, but eventually settled for Botany, where my academic tutor was “Heff” Warburg of Clapham Tutin & Warburg fame, and a previous President of BSBI (1965-7).

LM: Was that when you first joined BSBI? How did that come about?

JF: After graduating, I stayed on at Oxford to do a DPhil. To stay in Oxford was probably not the wisest decision in scientific career terms, as I had planned to do it under Heff’s supervision, but he had died within a week or two of my finals, and my first year was spent under a temporary supervisor who was not interested in my work. 

Wildflowers are usually encouraged
in John & Gillian's garden, but some
(like this Dandelion) 
need a little restraint!
Image courtesy J. Faulkner
Though I might not have admitted it at the time, the real reason for staying was that my girlfriend was staying in Oxford to do a Dip Ed. As things turned out, however, it was one of the best decisions I have ever taken as we stayed together until she died some 37 years later. 

The DPhil was experimental taxonomic work on sedges. The original concept was hatched when Heff was alive, with advice from Clive Jermy. After a year or so, John Richards arrived in the department and took over my supervision, which was a stroke of luck as he brought a fresh outlook and good advice at a time it was needed. It was early on in my spell as a research student that I joined BSBI.

LM: And then you went to work in Northern Ireland and eventually rose there to become Director of Natural Heritage in the Department of the Environment?

JF: After Oxford, I went to work for the then Ministry of Agriculture for Northern Ireland as a grass breeder and also lectured in Agricultural Genetics at The Queen’s University of Belfast. I was appointed to be scientific assistant to the head of the grass breeding programme, but before I took up the post he had moved on to a more senior post. 

John examines a fern on the Isle of Lewis;
Outer Hebrides Recording Week 2014
Image: L. Marsh
He was not replaced, so I was de facto head of the programme as soon as I started, which necessitated a steep learning curve. The outcome was that I stayed for 16 years, with a role that evolved to encompass amenity grasses and various other crops. Eventually, I moved across Departments into a new post heading up the scientific side of conservation.

John (on left) & Gillian in the bar, Univ Coleraine
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh 
LM: With so many responsibilities, were you able to get out and do much field botany during this period? 

JF: Only to a negligible extent within my official work! During my time as a grass breeder, I was fortunate to live very close to my office, lab and main trial grounds, so there was some spare time for botany, subject to the demands of young children and a large garden. 

Later, that spare time declined as I had a rather long commute into Belfast every day. 

LM: Did you have any chance to travel further afield or did you focus on your local patch?

JF: I have not done much serious plant recording outside my local VC and other counties in Ulster, but have always enjoyed dabbling with the flora of wherever I happen to be. 

John grapnelling for Pondweeds;
Outer Hebrides Recording Week 2014
Image: L. Marsh
My favourite area to visit is the North-west of Scotland, especially the Outer Hebrides where I first went on a family holiday in 1950, and have since returned at least 20 times. 

At one time or another, I have visited every continent apart from Antarctica. Several years ago, I went on a wonderful organised trip to Yunnan in South-west China in 2007, where we were travelling in the footsteps of some of the renowned plant hunters of earlier generations. 

Most of my travelling, however, has been done in circumstances where I had to take into account the interests of those I was with, rather than focus exclusively on plants. My second wife, Gillian, is very tolerant, but there are limits to how much I can expect her to put up with on holiday. 

Dave Riley and Ian Denholm join John
in a botanical huddle!
The Umbra, BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: O. Duffy
LM: When did you become a Vice-County Recorder (VCR) and - the big question for any VCR right now - how are you getting on with recording for Atlas 2020?

JF: I took on the VCR role in Co. Armagh (H37) in 1991. Apart from my predecessor, Norah Dawson, I was the only other BSBI member resident in the county. The demands of work at that time meant that I was able to act in little more than a caretaker role at first. 

In any case, there were parts of the county where you would have been be a little reluctant to go nosing around in search of plants in case you were suspected of something far less innocent. 

Since retiring in 2005, however, I have been able to record most of the county quite thoroughly, mostly on my own, but also often in the company of Ian McNeill, the Co. Tyrone recorder. 

Mairead, Maria, John, Donncha & Oisin
at Binevenagh, BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
My chief remaining gaps are not geographical but taxonomic, ie the genera for which my ID skills are inadequate, and there are probably more of those than I care to admit!

LM: In recent years you have also taken on the role of Chair of the Committee for Ireland and you have been a driving force behind some very successful meetings and conferences - botany really seems to be flourishing in Ireland

JF: Most of the credit must go to Maria Long. Since her appointment as part-time Irish Officer in 2012, there has been a marked increase in activity, and several high-profile events such as conferences and recording weeks. The BSBI’s Annual Summer Meeting has been held in Ireland in two of the last 5 years, and there has been an Irish Species Project underway for the last 2 years. 

John at Whitepark Bay, Northern Irish coast;
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
Recording for Atlas 2020 is pressing ahead, though of course there is still a great deal to do in many counties. Perhaps the most heartening thing of all is that we are seeing a new generation of Irish botanists taking part in our activities. No doubt Maria’s – and your – activities with social media have played an important part here.

LM: Yes, it’s great to see so many young Irish botanists interacting with Maria on Facebook and Twitter - I agree, she does an amazing job! So, the big question: What are the main issues you'd like to focus on during your presidency?

JF: It’s a fair question, but before I commit myself too firmly, it will be important for me to hear what others have to say and not charge in with too many preconceptions.  So I will be in listening mode for the next few months. 

John at Binevenagh
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
That said, it seems inescapable that two issues will feature very prominently. One is Atlas 2020. We must make sure that this is the best Atlas yet, building on the strengths of its predecessors and so far as possible overcoming their weaknesses. 

The other is that most mundane of all issues – money. When I joined the Society in 1967, all the officers were voluntary and members’ subscriptions covered nearly three quarters of its official expenditure. That is a model we have left behind long ago as it no longer works for a Society of our size and output. We depend on our very dedicated team of staff, but need to be constantly seeking out funds in order to maintain and strengthen our position.

The role of the President is not closely defined and we will be making one significant change. My predecessor, Ian Denholm, chaired not only the Council of BSBI but also its Board of Trustees, which is its top decision-taking body

Hannah, Ian & John consider a sedge;
The Umbra, BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
Although as President I shall be attending the Board meetings, I will not be chairing them, and at the moment I don’t know who will, as the Board members will elect their chairperson at the next meeting. 

This will, I hope, place me in a stronger position to act as a channel of communication and advice between the Board on the one hand and the Council and all the other elements within BSBI on the other.

Ian has done a superb job of steering BSBI through its early years under the new structure, and we all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. My own experience has been that he was a constant source of support during my spell chairing the Committee for Ireland, and I am sure there will be many others who could make similar observations. I am delighted that he is staying on as a member of the Board. 

John & Micheline lead botanists home from
Whitepark Bay; BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
LM: Thanks for answering all these questions, John. Can I invite you to come back in a few months and give us an update? And one final question for you: will our new President be taking part in this year’s New Year Plant Hunt?

JF: Yes, definitely. I am working with some local partners on a project to raise awareness of the flora of the Ring of Gullion area in South Armagh. One of our planned activities is a New Year Plant Hunt. It is an ideal opportunity as the project – for reasons beyond our control – has to be completed between September and March. Let’s hope the country isn’t blanketed with snow!

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