Tuesday 30 January 2024

Interview with BSBI President Micheline Sheehy Skeffington: Part One

BSBI President Micheline Sheehy Skeffington
BSBI has welcomed female members since its inception in 1836, although this hasn’t always been reflected in the choice of President – there have only been three women Presidents so far: Mary Briggs, from 1998 to 2000; Lynne Farrell, from 2019 to 2022 – here is the interview with Lynne, whose monthly blogposts helped botanists stay in touch while we couldn’t meet in person because of the lockdowns; and then in November 2022, Lynne handed over to Micheline Sheehy Skeffington.

Micheline is both the third female BSBI President and the second from the Republic of Ireland (David Webb was the first, from 1989 to 1991). At the 2023 British & Irish Botanical Conference, Micheline delivered the keynote presentation on ‘Ireland’s Lusitanian Flora – mining, smuggling, pilgrimages and the Ericaceae’. If you were unable to attend the Conference, you can watch this video of Micheline’s presentation.

Micheline's presentation at the
2023 British & Irish Botanical Conference
Image: J. Common 

I caught up with Micheline to find out more about her back story and to hear what she’s been up to in her first year at the helm of the leading botanical society in Britain and Ireland. Here is the first instalment of my interview with our President.

LM: So Micheline, before you tell us about your Presidency, could we go right back to the beginning and ask how you first got interested in botany – has it been a lifelong passion? How did you get started?

MSS: Well I grew up in a converted gardener’s cottage and garden behind a big house and grounds. So as kids, myself and my brothers were always sent outdoors, where we climbed trees and explored hidden corners. I always retained that enjoyment of being outdoors. We were also members of the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club and would go on outings exploring the habitats, flora and fauna of County Dublin.

LM: That sounds like the ideal childhood for a future BSBI President! How about indoors, at school and later at university?

Micheline in a tree after canoeing on Lough Derg
Image: N. Scott

MSS: Yes, I enjoyed science in school and studied Natural Science in Trinity College Dublin (TCD), where I was lucky to be able to study Geography/ Geology, as well as Botany and Zoology. In the final years, Botany seemed to offer the more interesting courses, so I chose that as my main subject. My fourth-year project was on the contribution of the lichen Peltigera polydactyla to sand dune nitrogen budgets on N Bull Island, Dublin Bay.

In my final year, I became interested in studying in France, since my mother was French. I won a bursary and spent a year in Montpellier studying plant ecology and living for a while in the Camargue, working on lagoonal flora alongside the flamingos. With friends, I explored the countryside around Montpellier and learned the local flora -and birdlife. At some point, I realised I wanted to do more for conservation and that I probably needed a PhD for that. So, I returned to TCD to take up my last years as a TCD Scholar and continued my interest in coastal systems with the study of nitrogen budgets in salt marsh plants, publishing several papers and enjoying giving talks at conferences.

LM: Ok so that’s you back in Ireland, studying and you mentioned the legendary Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club earlier – so did you get involved with them again?

Screenshot of a
Dublin Naturalists' Field Club
walkabout, inner north Dublin, 1981:
as reported in the Irish Times 
MSS: Yes, when I returned from Montpellier in autumn 1977, I met up with some Field Club members who encouraged me to join their committee, which I did. Not long after, while planning future field excursions, we realised that the on-going petrol crisis could seriously affect our ability to travel outside the city. Maura Scannell, Head of the National Herbarium at Glasnevin, suggested we work on the flora of inner Dublin. This caught our imagination and a small group came together, dividing the inner city, conveniently bounded by its two canals, into 14 districts overseen by a range of botanists, notably Jonathan Shackleton, a classmate of mine in TCD and later one-time County Recorder for Cavan; Peter Wyse Jackson, now President of the Missouri Botanical Garden; John Parnell, TCD lecturer in plant taxonomy; and contributions from Maura Scannell, Paddy Reilly, Declan Doogue, John Akeroyd and many more. It was great fun and eventually Peter and I put all the data together and the Flora of Inner Dublin was published in 1984. I’ve never lost my interest in ruderals and wasteland since those heady days when the latter were a blight on Dublin’s streetscape for all but us keen botanists.

Micheline plant recording in
Connemara National Park,
September 2016
LM: Ah that explains why you are always so great at flying the flag for urban botany and the so-called weeds that turn up on our city streets! So, you were out with the Field Club members, publishing the Flora, still working towards your PhD… were you also job-hunting?

MSS: As postgrads, we regularly scoured the pages of the New Scientist for jobs and, having travelled throughout Europe on interrail, I was keen to explore even wider, applying for jobs inter alia in Wales, Mauritania and Zambia, as well as in Ireland. Incredibly, in 1980, I landed a lectureship in plant ecology in the Botany Department of then-named University College Galway (UCG). Luckily, academia was less pressurised then and I spent two summers analysing my data and writing up my PhD, awarded in early 1983. The next week I was taking my colleague Michael O’Connell’s palaeoecology and bryology courses as well as mine, while he took a year’s sabbatical! On his return, I promptly handed him my lecture notes and took up my side of the exchange, choosing to go to Indonesia for a year. I was very lucky to be able to do this, as neither of us had to raise funds for our respective sabbaticals.

Having attended famous French tropical botanist Francis Hallé’s lectures in Montpellier, I was bitten by the bug to see tropical rainforest first-hand. Based in the SE Asian Regional Centre for Tropical Biology in Bogor, Java, I chose to work on the programme to find sustainable ways of using the rattan Calamus manan, prized for its high-quality cane for furniture. This took me with the team to Kalimantan in Borneo and to Sumatra, learning even then of the tragic destruction of the rainforest by timber loggers. Tropical rainforest is an incredibly rich, fascinating and valuable habitat. The clearing out of the rattan vine by local villagers was but a small part of that destruction. On returning to Ireland in 1985, I vowed to raise awareness as best I could about our role in the west in using unsustainable tropical timbers. Sadly now, the ubiquitous palm oil is playing equal havoc, with seas of oil palms replacing the diverse canopies of the rainforest. 

LM: It certainly is. For any readers who aren’t up to speed with how palm oil is contributing to deforestation, this page on the World Wildlife Fund website will be very useful. 

Micheline, you’ve had such a fascinating life in botany and conservation, and travelled so widely! Here we are still in 1985, you’re back in Ireland, a passionate conservationist and there’s a huge but ultimately successful struggle ahead of you – one so important that you recently published a book all about it! Let’s pause here and pick up on the next instalment in a few days – watch this space, readers!

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