Sunday 8 August 2021

BSBI Training Grants: Supporting botanists in 2021: Part One

Tutor Mark Duffell and students in the 
meadow at Colemere
When the 2021 round of applications for BSBI Training Grants opened on 1st January, we weren't sure how many plant ID courses would run this year; all of the 2020 grants we'd awarded had to be put on hold, as courses were cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic. So it was a huge relief when the first of 2021's successful applicants started to email us with reports of the training courses that had taken place, and which they had been able to undertake thanks to their BSBI grants.

The first report was sent in by Mike who attended a course in late May - he also provided all the images on this post. Over to Mike to tell us all about getting to grips with 'Stace' aka the Botanists' Bible:

"As a mature student returning to biological recording after a long absence, I was well aware that my plant identification skills were in need of considerable improvement. I am currently on the second year of the Manchester Metropolitan University’s MSc course in (take a deep breath) Biological Recording and Ecological Modelling. The course contains a mix of core and optional units, all taken (Covid-19 permitting) at a Field Studies Council centre – usually Preston Montford near Shrewsbury. The presence of Mark Duffell’s excellent four-day introduction to Using a Flora on the list of optional units was too good an opportunity to miss, so I signed up quickly.

Comparing keys at Preston Montford
Needless to say, the course concentrated on Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles – a book that (along with the previous Clapham, Tutin and Warburg) I have always found challenging. My preference has always been to default to something with pictures – currently David Streeter’s Collins Wild Flower Guide. But now, I felt, was the time to start ‘doing things properly’.

In tackling this daunting tome, Mark Duffell took three main approaches. First, was a general introduction to the key terminology – with a particular focus on flower anatomy and determining the floral formulae for the key UK plant families. Second, was dissection: flower parts were carefully removed and then mounted on a piece of Sellotape, enabling the floral formula to be worked out and the final result attached to a piece of paper for future reference. Finally, we practised constructing simple dichotomous keys for a small group of common species. This, it turns out, is not as simple as it might appear. Working outside at Preston Montford, we were able to attach our keys (and specimens) to a convenient fence.  It was surprising how different the efforts of the various groups were.

An enjoyable feature of the course was the ability to get out of the lab and, armed with lenses, tweezers and Sellotape, to explore some of the wide range of habitats in the vicinity of Preston Montford. The first day saw us in a lowland meadow at Colemere in North Shropshire, where we were able to distinguish Ranunculus bulbosus (Bulbous Buttercup) from the more familiar R. repens and R. acris (Meadow and Creeping Buttercups respectively). A white umbellifer flowering in profusion across the meadow produced a stiffer challenge. Most of us knew that it was Conopodium majus (Pignut), but getting there through the key in Stace was a less than straightforward exercise. This was my first introduction to the stylopodium (a term that unhelpfully does not appear in Stace’s main glossary). Mark’s description of it as a ‘happy beetle’ was pleasingly memorable.

Mark and course participants at Snail Beach
Our next day’s field excursion was to the mysteriously-named Snail Beach, an area of former lead mining south-west of Shrewsbury. Here the target species included several of the Asteraceae, a family that required us to get to grips with some different plant terminology – notably capitula (the terminal heads upon which the many small flowers are borne) and phyllaries (the sepal-like bracts that lie outside the flower-bearing area). The almost ubiquitous Leucanthemum vulgare (Ox-eye Daisy) was a generally easy introduction, although the narrow transparent wings that separate Leucanthemum from the non-native Leucanthemella were hard to pick out in the field. Thus prepared, we entered the (for me) always tricky area of “yellow compositae” (using the old family name), identifying both Pilosella officinarum (Mouse-ear Hawkweed) and Leontodon hispidus (Rough Hawkbit). 

Common rock-rose
The final day’s field trip took us to Llanymynech Rocks, a wildlife reserve straddling the Welsh-English border that is managed by the Montgomeryshire and Shropshire Wildlife Trusts. As well as being a fine viewpoint across the Shropshire landscape, this site includes a range of interesting habitats. Helianthemum nummularium (Common Rock-rose) was in flower on open grassland above an old quarry, while Neottia ovata (Common Twayblade) lurked in the shady woodland. 

Back at base, the course finished off with an identification test (although an additional home-based assignment was also set). When it came to identifying plants under the pressure of a time limit, I admit that Stace was not the first reference book that I reached for. The ability to quickly assign a plant to the correct family, which I suspect most experienced botanists possess, enables the initial Stace keys to be by-passed – whilst bearing in mind that pitfalls may await too hasty a diagnosis. However, when it came to separating out genera within a family, or species within a genus, it was reassuring to know that Stace was close at hand.

Heading home from Llanymynech Rocks
Looking forward I now have more confidence to embark upon surveys of habitats in my own area of the country (Dorset) where I have already been stalking over the grasslands armed with an impressive array of literature. However, despite the presence of some now out-of-date names (a perennial botanical bugbear) my old ‘Field Flora’ (aka ‘Baby Stace’) still represents a more portable document than the shiny new fourth edition!"

Many thanks to Mike for this account - great to hear that a BSBI grant has helped him get to grips with the Botanists' Bible!

1 comment:

  1. Very pleased to hear of a satisfied customer. As the vc recorder for Dorset, I'd be delighted to hear from Mike and offer him help should he need it at a local level. Or perhaps I have already met him, but don't recognise him from the account. Please pass on this message to him.


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