Tuesday, 20 February 2018

BSBI training and research grants can help change lives!

Meadow vegetation
Image: E. Sullivan
We've featured quite a few accounts on these pages of budding botanists who've benefited from BSBI Training Grants and  one or two who were able to carry out further work thanks to a Plant Study Grant but we don't often hear from people who also received a Science & Research Grant from BSBI

So I hope you enjoy reading this account from Elizabeth Sullivan:

"A less than fulfilling job in local government prompted me to register on some of the modules of the MSc in Conservation Management at Edge Hill University in an attempt to bring about a career change. One of those modules was Field Botany and it didn’t take long for the magic to work. A few days of looking at the fantastic flora of Roudsea Wood, Gaitbarrows and Jack Scout in the Arnside-Silverdale area and I was well and truly hooked. 

Bowland Meadow
Image: E. Sullivan
"A couple of years later and I was starting out on a part-time PhD at Edge Hill looking at long term change in hay meadow vegetation. My field sites were in the Forest of Bowland, tucked away in north-east Lancashire and escaping the attention of visitors to the Dales and the Lakes. 

"Botanists in the north of England may remember the summer of 2012 – it was the one where you realised why you’d invested in that expensive waterproof notebook. The meadows were flooded and a frog found its way into my rucksack, but I continued to squelch my way through botanical surveys because I needed that all important data. My plan was to leave my job behind and work on my PhD full-time but for that I needed funding. 

Field Head Meadow
Image: E. Sullivan
"Thankfully I was able to secure the necessary funding from various sources including a much appreciated training grant and a research grant from the BSBI. My research involved an analysis of how the Bowland meadows and other neutral grasslands in the area had changed since the Nature Conservancy Council did grassland surveys in the 1980s and 1990s. You can read about the first part of my research in the New Journal of Botany

"Whilst neutral grasslands as a whole in this area don’t appear to have changed that much since the NCC surveys I did find some differences. Further analysis showed that the sites managed as hay meadows had seen an increase in annuals, especially Euphrasia species, a reduction in some ‘negative’ meadow species such as Lolium perenne but a marked increase in Ranunculus repens – which lurked in almost every quadrat! 

Hardwick Green
Image: E. Sullivan
"Generally speaking there was still a diverse hay meadow community which is good news for conservation but there did seem to be more grassland generalists such as Trifolium pratense and a reduction in the abundance of key species for this habitat such as Alchemilla glabra. 

"Next I wanted to find out whether the scattered distribution of the few remaining hay meadow sites was affecting their plant populations, and to do this I studied the population genetics of Rhinanthus minor. Having obtained the necessary permissions from farmers and landowners I set out to collect leaf samples in preparation for DNA analysis and a mightily steep learning curve in the lab. 

Eades Meadow
Image: E. Sullivan
"Fortunately the weather was fieldwork friendly and my memories of sampling in species rich meadows in Bowland and in my second study area, Worcestershire, are very happy ones. Bell Sykes and Myttons meadows in Bowland and Eades Meadow in Worcestershire can be accessed (carefully!) by public footpaths and are special places to visit especially in early-mid summer.

"After collecting, drying, extracting and analysing DNA and crunching the numbers on 651 leaves from Rhinanthus minor plants I learned that there are moderate levels of genetic diversity in the meadow populations and there is evidence of genetic connectivity between the sites despite their fragmented distribution. Again this is good news for conservation - and justifies the continued low input agricultural management of these sites. Interestingly, gene flow in the lowland Worcestershire sites was lower than in the upland area of Bowland, and I wonder if this is because of the more intensively managed land use in Worcestershire which may be affecting pollinators.

Rhinanthus minor in meadow vegetation
Image: E. Sullivan
"I will be sharing my results with conservation organisations including Natural England and hope to continue with further botanical research now that my PhD project is complete. I’m very grateful to the BSBI for the grants, the BSBI Handbooks which helped with grass and sedge ID, the maps and information on the website and the opportunity to publish my research in the New Journal of Botany. Now I must remember to renew my subs…."

Many thanks to Elizabeth for sharing her story of how BSBI grants helped her leave her "less than fulfilling" job behind and move into botany. Applications are still open for this year's round of Training Grants, Plant Study Grants, and Science & Research Grants so whatever your skill level, if you want to get more involved in botany check out our Training page for details of grants available and courses you might apply for. Good luck!