Thursday, 15 July 2021

In the meadows and on the verges: July report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

Last month we left BSBI President Lynne Farrell looking at orchids and butterflies - so what has she been up to since then? 

Over to Lynne:

"Following rain and sunshine everything is exhibiting lush growth, including roadside verges, which are not being cut just yet in Cumbria, and hay meadows, which are in the process of being cut. 

"I was called at short notice by the local Wildlife Trust to survey northern hay meadows to record initial monitoring plots as they were due to be cut in two days’ time. 32 one -metre quadrats done in two days - it was just like being back at Monks Wood in my first job as a botanical assistant, surveying chalk and limestone grasslands for the Nature Conservation Review - only 50 years ago!

"These hay meadows are not especially species- rich, but they do have characteristic plants, which are both colourful and beautiful. 

"Some of them are also to be found on the adjacent roadside verges, which can be a source of seed for re-establishing some ‘missing’ species in the meadows if the management has led to a depletion of them. 

Melancholy Thistle Cirsium  heterophyllum (above right), Great Burnet Sanguisorba officinalis and Wood Crane’s-bill Geranium sylvaticum (image on left) are three of these, which are often among botanists’ favourite plants. 

Lynne surveying a quadrat in the hay meadow

"Of course, it is the variety of grasses which also define these wonderful areas. Perennial Rye-grass Lolium  perenne may be present in small quantities, but it is the mixture of several species rather than one being dominant which allows herbs also to share the sward and provide wonderful patches to wander through. 

"I, like many other people, have tried to photograph grasses with varying success but here is one I captured and which represents one of the key elements of richer meadows - Yellow Oat Grass Trisetum flavescens (image below).

"There are quite a few training courses available at the present on grass identification, so please go along and join one to learn about these important constituents of our fields. In addition, there are on-line courses.

"On another aspect, I’ve been receiving enquiries about exactly where to find various orchid species on Mull (part of my vice-county). This is as a result of several recent publications on orchids - always best sellers, as nearly everyone finds them a fascinating group. 

"There are links to various orchid ID books and resources on the BSBI orchid ID page

"Local expert Bryan Yorke is so keen on them that he walks up Hutton Roof limestone escarpment nearly every day of the year recording his beloved Epipactis species and their hybrids in summer and migrating birds in autumn and spring. 

"He produces beautifully-illustrated hand-drawn maps and he also has a well-visited website - well worth a look: https://arnsidesilverdale.blogspot.com/"

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Good practice and bad habits in the pursuit of botanical beauty


Regular readers will know the name Jon Dunn, author of Orchid Summer, and may have come across both him and ecologist  Callum Macgregor on social media. They are both keen plant-hunters and excellent photographers but are growing increasingly upset at the way some botanists are allowing their desire to get a great photograph to take precedence over their concern for the plants themselves. 

Here's an example: the images on the right and below left show the rare X Dactyloglossum viridellum (Northern Marsh x Frog Orchid hybrid) in northern England which got a lot of attention from visitors whilst it was flowering. Someone decided they needed a photo of the whole plant, from ground level upwards, and removed all of the surrounding vegetation to get it. The images are reproduced courtesy of Dr Richard Bate, who was definitely NOT responsible for the damage shown (orchid expert Richard can regularly be found on Twitter offering orchid ID tips, sharing orchid images and calling out examples of the kind of bad practice set out in this blogpost). 

I asked Callum and Jon to put their heads together and come up with some pointers around how we can get the most out of plant photography without causing harm to our wild flowers. 

Over to Callum, who has summarised his and Jon's ideas on this subject: 

"Gardening: as a relative late-comer to botany, I never imagined this word could mean anything other than a green-fingered love of plants.

Now, I’ve come to realise it has a darker meaning - one associated with bad behaviour around our rarest and most beautiful plants.

I’m learning quickly that, like all branches of natural history, some botanists pick up bad habits that can give the hobby a bad name and put the very plants that we so admire at risk. Indeed, some of these are shared with lovers of other groups – butterflies, birds and so on – where issues of disturbance of wildlife by naturalists and photographers are also raised.

I discussed some of the bad habits that newcomers to botany (like me) should be aware of, with Jon Dunn, author of Orchid Summer. Together we came up with some suggestions for how to get the most out of the plants – and your camera – without causing harm. Many of these suggestions reflect the guidance of the BSBI Code of Conduct.

Gardening

X marks the spot!
Monkey Orchid Orchis simia
Image: J. Dunn
 
I think a good rule of thumb for my photographs is that nothing dies in pursuit of them – including the subject and any innocent bystanders. We have both seen some truly shocking examples where it looks like somebody has taken a road roller or a strimmer to the surrounding sward. Jon recalls seeing a well-known nature photographer, who would doubtless prefer to remain nameless, actually bringing out a pair of kitchen scissors from their camera bag in order to cut away surrounding vegetation for a ‘clean’, uncluttered image.

How to get around this:

Pick your angle carefully. If you can’t get a clear view of the flower from a particular direction because of the sward, consider whether you would have better luck from another side. The best photos aren’t always the front-on views!

Incorporate the sward into your photo (image on right): a clean image of a single flower isn’t the only way to compose a beautiful photo. For example, the colour contrast of a purple orchid among yellow cowslips can really make the orchid shine out. Similarly, surrounding vegetation can provide good context of the habitat in which a particular plant is found, or even generate creative ways to highlight the subject.

Bog Orchid
Image: C. Macgregor

Manipulate the sward, rather than cutting/picking it. Gently push blades of grass back from your image, and weigh them down with a light-to-medium weight object. Take your photo, remove the weight, and if you’ve done it right, everything should spring back into place. There are lots of ways to do this, but the simplest and most creative I’ve seen was knitting needles, used to create a triangular funnel through the sward from camera lens to flower. This approach is subtle enough to be used on the background sward as well, if you frame your shot carefully.

For the image on the left, of a Bog Orchid Hammarbya paludosa, I kept the foreground clear by using my pocket tripod on one side and my wallet (positioned very carefully!) on the other.

Learn to use your camera! Be brave, and take the camera out of the ‘full auto’ settings. For plant photography in particular, learn to work with a shallow depth of field (see image below right) in order to focus on your subject, but making vegetation in the foreground and background blurry. It doesn’t have to be moved or removed – to some extent the camera can do that for you. Plants are particularly well-suited to experimenting with camera settings until you get the perfect shot, because you can be sure they won’t run or fly away…

A shallow depth of field
picks this Bog Orchid 
Hammarbya paludosa out
from the sward.
Image: J. Dunn

Related to the last point, practice! Before you find yourself in the field confronted by the orchid of your dreams, know what works and what doesn’t by practicing on plants in your garden or the local park. An hour or two of practicing will help you to understand your camera, and get much better photos to take home when it really matters.

Edit things out. If a particularly annoying bit of vegetation can’t be moved or avoided, get busy in Photoshop once you’re home. If your photos are just for personal use there’s no issue with this, and even if you want to enter competitions, many now allow it (for example, the Hardy Orchid Society competition permits “limited manipulation to remove distracting items”).

Trampling

Of course, before even considering taking a photo, you first need to locate and approach a plant. Damage often occurs at this stage as people wander off paths and through sensitive habitats. This doesn’t just apply to photographers, but anybody who wants a closer look at a plant.

Stay on paths where possible. In the butterfly world, some argue that damage to host-plants from trampling is one of the greatest modern threats to populations. Whilst this may be true at certain highly-visited sites (think Large Blues at Daneway Banks, for example), it’s worth remembering that a little disturbance can be a good thing: many sites are preserved by grazing with large animals! Some sites are truly off-road and have no footpaths to follow. Nevertheless, if there is a path, it makes sense to use it, especially if you aren’t familiar with a site. This will prevent you from accidentally treading on something special.

Try to avoid lying down to take your images or to examine small plants, especially if the surrounding area contains other plants. We’ve all done it, but it’s to be avoided if at all possible. Vegetation can be crushed or uprooted, and may not flower and set seed, or may be killed entirely. Look at the damage (below left) that Jon found in front of three Bog Orchid  Hammarbya paludosa plants in Shetland last year – there were crushed orchids amongst the flattened area of vegetation, and torn off and uprooted moss and other plants that had presumably got in the way of the lens of the photographer in question.

Crush damage to the Shetland Bog Orchid
 site - the picturesque group of three
plants is circled (top right)
Image: J. Dunn

And NEVER EVER step over a fence or barrier intended to protect plants from people. At the end of the day, a nature reserve is just that; a reserve for nature, not a zoo or botanical garden. Remember it is a privilege to view rare and beautiful plants: not a right. Often these barriers will protect the densest part of the population, and scattered individuals can be found outside the fence if you cast your eyes about.

Use a tripod and remote shutter to reduce the need to approach a plant set back from a path. Most modern DSLRs allow you to connect them to a smartphone, with full control over settings and even touch-screen autofocus targetting. Lower the tripod into position carefully at arms’ length, step back and experiment with depth of field, shutter speed and focal positions to your heart’s content from a distance.

Self-heal Prunella vulgaris
Image: J. Dunn
If you have a telephoto or zoom lens in your kit, don’t leave it at home! You can let the lens cover the distance so you don’t have to. Jon has taken wildflower images using a 500mm lens that he’d normally use for bird photography. Check out the image on the right  - Jon used a long lens to create an interesting effect in his photograph of Self-heal Prunella vulgaris. As with experimenting with camera settings, think out of the box when it comes to the equipment itself. Of course, the same applies to binoculars; there are even reasonably-priced models on the market that are specifically designed for magnifying small subjects over short focal distances.

Sometimes plants will be protected individually with wire cages. In some circumstances it can be OK to lift these cages to take pictures (if you’re unsure, check with the reserve warden or site manager first). But if you do so, make sure you replace the cages carefully and securely once you’re finished.

Just because you’re not in a nature reserve doesn’t mean you can do as you please! Nature reserves are special places, but we should all extend the same level of care and due diligence to our behavior wherever we are in the countryside, be it on a footpath or bridleway, in public access woodland or common ground, or on a roadside verge.

Sharing information

Botany can be a surprisingly sociable hobby, both in the field and online. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the success of #WildFlowerHour on Twitter – more than 30,000 followers and counting! These kinds of interactions will doubtless be particularly important in this spring of social distancing. But it’s important to apply the same care and attention when back home, sharing the fruits of your labour, as you did in the field.

Oversharing

We all love to share our sightings, and (for those with cameras) our photos, on the internet. But if something you post online could lead a total stranger to the exact location of a rare or vulnerable flower without your knowledge or consent, consider whether you should be posting it at all, or if you could disguise the location better. I found as many as four rare orchid species during the summer of 2019 in officially non-publicised (but publicly accessible) locations, using only information openly posted online by enthusiasts. There were other leads to plants on private land that I decided not to follow up – but a more unscrupulous person might have chosen differently.

Butterbur Petasites hybridus 
Image: C. Macgregor 
One way in which you might be publishing such information without even realizing it is through metadata. ‘Meta what?’, we hear you ask. Metadata describe the properties of a photo, including the make and model of camera, the camera settings used, the date and time at which a photo was taken, and for most mobile phones and many new or high-end cameras, the GPS coordinates. On a digital image, they are known as the Exchangeable Image File Format, or EXIF data. So, if you post your photos online in such a way that the EXIF data can be obtained, you might unwittingly provide an exact fix for the location where you photographed that rare orchid!

In the first instance, you can consider switching this off in your phone and/or camera – ensuring your images aren’t tagged in that way.

If you do want the EXIF data – perhaps for your own records – make sure to remove it from your image before you post it online. Norton has a good page that explains how… https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-how-to-how-to-remove-gps-and-other-metadata-locations-from-photos.html

Does that sound overly paranoid in a Big Brother kind of way? Well, maybe. But consider that every year we hear about orchids (and other wildflowers) being dug up from the wild by persons unknown. Similar things go on in the worlds of butterflying and birding (with collectors still chasing down specimens and eggs of rare species). Until this finally stops being the case, it makes sense to not make a wildlife criminal’s life easy.    

…but also undersharing

Whilst bearing all of the above in mind, also consider that it’s possible to hold information too closely. Over-suppression of information can lead to unintended consequences. If you find a new location for something interesting, rare or protected, we suggest sending a record to your BSBI County Recorder and making sure the landowner/land manager knows about it, even if you tell nobody else.

A great example of why this matters played out over Twitter back in February 2020. A tree-planting project, led by the Woodland Trust, very unfortunately led to planting taking place on a species-rich meadow in Cumbria. Botanists, locally and nationally, were outraged, and the farmer was reported to be “sad and frustrated”, having “had literally no idea that site was important for flowers”. Similarly, the Woodland Trust pointed out that their assessment of the site – which used online data sets of plant records – had not highlighted its importance. Fortunately, action was taken to remove the trees and mitigate the damage.

Finally, be aware of the influence you can have on newcomers to botany by being a friendly and helpful contact! Consider sharing information privately to people you think are trustworthy, or perhaps even offering to accompany them to a site yourself if you aren’t yet entirely sure of their credentials. Sadly, with Covid-19 and the necessity to follow restrictions around social distancing and small groups, that hasn't always been possible recently, but even during lockdown, I've managed to find new things within walking (and jogging) distance of my house. The image above left shows a patch of Butterbur that I never knew existed, but I found and photographed them during lockdown within a mile of my front door.

So, if you can help somebody else to experience the joy of plants (without putting yourself or others at risk), why not make that your good deed for the day?"

Huge thanks to Jon and Callum for this extremely helpful blogpost. I hope everyone will find their tips useful and please spread this blogpost far and wide, so that scenes like the below (captured by a distressed botanist, horrified at such destruction in the name of plant photography) of a broken and discarded Pyramidal Orchid, soon become a thing of the past. Don't forget to download your free copy of the BSBI Code of Conduct and enter your photographs - taken with care - in this year's BSBI Photographic Competition.



Sunday, 27 June 2021

Forecast: a Diary of the Lost Seasons: read the interview, enter the competition, buy the book!

A new book published on 24th June examines how the seasons are changing and how, as flowers bloom ever earlier, birds no longer fly south for the winter and reports of flash floods and wildfires fill our news feeds, we are becoming increasingly disconnected from the seasonal milestones of the past.

Author, journalist and weather watcher Joe Shute writes the ‘Weather Watch’ and ‘What to Spot’ columns for the Daily Telegraph. In Forecast, he travels all over Britain to report on the growing gap between our cultural expectations of the changing seasons, shaped by folklore, custom and childhood memories, and what we actually experience nowadays.

LM: Joe, congratulations on the book and many thanks to you and Bloomsbury for sending me an advance copy. It’s a great achievement but I’m not sure whether to be delighted at your beautiful writing or heart-broken at the picture you paint of a world where the seasons are increasingly ‘out of synch’, which could have terrible consequences for our wildlife. Do you think this mixture of delight and regret is likely to be a common reaction among your readers? 

JS: I want Forecast to be a hopeful book and one that inspires readers. Clearly the seasons and weather patterns are changing at what is quite a frightening rate and that is having a real impact on the natural world but as I hope I’ve shown in the book nature is remarkably adaptable as well if we only give it a chance. I’ve given examples such as on Saddleworth Moor, where conservation work to re-wet the peatlands after the worst wildfire in living memory is having a real impact on increasing numbers of threatened wildlife and communities rallying together in the face of increased flooding to hopefully show that there are solutions to what lies ahead of us. 

Joe's column in The Telegraph
about his day with Kevin & the
New Year Plant Hunters 

LM: Yes, that chapter ‘Muirburn’ was really moving and it was great to hear about your return visit on the first anniversary of the fire, and the amazing work being done by Kate Hanley and her team. You also joined one of our New Year Plant Hunts last year, spending the day with our Head of Science Kevin Walker as he – and almost 2000 fellow plant-hunters across Britain and Ireland – went out to see how many wild or naturalised species they could find in bloom. The ‘Budburst’ chapter in your book is a wonderful account of your day plant-hunting with Kevin, it really brings to life what happens at one of our field events! Were you surprised that we are finding hundreds of plants in bloom at New Year: 615 last year and the total went up to 714 this year? What was your take-home message from your day with Kevin and his team in Yorkshire? 

JS: Yes I had a fantastic time with Kevin and the BSBI volunteers and if I recall some lovely mince pies too! I am much more comfortable going bird watching than plant hunting so it was a real privilege to tap into some of the expertise of the BSBI plant hunters and the number of species we did find in bloom was very surprising. Through the New Year Plant Hunt, the BSBI is clearly amassing some very important data on the way the weather is shaping the natural world. I suppose the take-home message was the sheer number of flowers we are likely to see out on even the coldest winter's day - and to not always be scanning the skies for birds!

New Year Plant Hunters in Leicester 
recording their finds
Image: L. Marsh

LM: That’s always a problem for those of us who love all wildlife, not just plants – do we look up or down or risk a crick in the neck trying to do both! Some naturalists become very pessimistic at the thought of all those species that will be negatively impacted by climate change: the migrating birds blown off course by unseasonal winds and the plants that cannot adapt quickly enough, that are not knocked back by frost so have to, as you say so eloquently in the book, “linger on, drawing on whatever energy reserves they can muster and persisting wearily into the spring”. But other wildlife-watchers are more optimistic, pointing to the chance to see Mediterranean birds like the hoopoe in the UK, and the opportunities for colonisation – the bee orchids and southern marsh orchids spreading northwards, for example. Whereabouts do you sit, on balance: are you a glass half-full or half-empty sort of person? 

Bee Orchid in bloom
Image: K. Walker

JS: I’m a natural optimist so will always prefer the glass half-full approach. There was a recent study which found climate change was impacting on one third of UK birds but we need to be careful to say that this is not always in a negative way. Species like blackcaps, for example, are increasingly over-wintering in the UK while smaller birds such as long-tailed tits, goldcrest and wren are also coping much better in what are increasingly frost-free winters. I’m also a big fan of ring-necked parakeets which have now spread as far north as Glasgow where they are said to be the most northerly flock of parrots in the world. There are of course many native species that are really struggling as a result of climate change and I tried to tell their stories in the book as honestly as I could, but it is not all doom and gloom.

LM: Well I think you nailed it and managed to give us both sides of the story, and there are certainly some plants that are benefiting from the changing climate. Of course, as you point out in the book, a decade’s worth of New Year Plant Hunt data isn’t really “enough to demonstrate the effects of long-term climate change on the flora of Britain” but it’s a start and it builds on the work Richard Fitter started in 1954 and which his son Alastair, one of our trustees, has continued, recording the first flowering dates of plants in their garden: some interesting examples in this video recorded by Alastair. We’re always keen to get more people involved in biological recording so we can build up more data. Do you think reading Forecast might make some people keen to become part of that growing army of citizen scientists?

Joe Shute
Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

JS: I certainly hope so. We are blessed in the UK with such a dedicated army of amateur naturalists whose observations are key in explaining the changing world. Phenology, which is the name for studying the changing seasons through nature, is very labour intensive and relies entirely on the work of volunteers and research such as the New Year Plant Hunt. I'm looking forward to taking part again next year!

LM: It’s a date Joe, we’ll look forward to seeing you at New Year! Meanwhile, all of us at the Botanical Society hope that Forecast will be widely read and will open people’s eyes to how our climate is changing and the impacts on our wildlife. Thanks for talking to us and again, congratulations on the book, it’s superb and deserves to be a great success.

Joe’s publishers, Bloomsbury, are making three free copies of Forecast available to News & Views readers. They will go to the first three people who can answer these questions correctly UPDATE 6th July: all three copies of the book have now been posted to the three winners, so we can now reveal the answers to the competition questions (bolded below):
Q1. Kevin Walker told Joe about the four wildflowers most frequently recorded in bloom during the New Year Plant Hunt – what were they? A: Daisy, groundsel, dandelion and annual meadow-grass.
Q2. Who was the pioneering C18th parson-naturalist who recorded the natural history of his Hampshire parish throughout the year? A: Gilbert White.
Q3. Which is the only British tree named after the month in which it (usually) flowers? A: Hawthorn (may-flower).
Q4. Who was the pioneering meteorologist who first coined the term “forecast” and established what would become the Met Office? Hint: you’ll hear his name every time you listen to the shipping forecast on the BBC, because one of the shipping areas is named after him! A: Robert Fitzroy.

Congratulations to our winners, Alice, Heather and Katy - we hope they enjoy their copies of Forecast. For everyone else, the book is available to buy in all good bookshops and Bloomsbury have very kindly offered BSBI members a discount if they’d like to buy a copy. I imagine many of our members will want copies either for themselves or to give as presents. If you are a BSBI member, just go to the password-protected members-only area of our website (email me if you’ve forgotten your password) and follow the instructions there – you’ll be able to claim 25% off the RRP of £16.99, so you pay only £12.74. 

Friday, 18 June 2021

Opening up: June report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

Coralroot in Cumbria
Image: I. Denholm
Last month BSBI President Lynne Farrell she was looking at various kinds of Broomrapes and reading the new BSBI Handbook all about them. So what has she been up to since then?

Lynne tells us:

"Since the middle of May we have been allowed to meet up with a few of our friends, preferably in the open air. Several local groups have held meetings, including the Flora of Cumbria group, which met on Scout Scar in early June to enjoy the specialities of the site. They were just showing as the warmer weather had not quite arrived then. 

"People have also been able to travel further and Ian Denholm, one of our trustees, Editor of British & Irish Botany, one of BSBI's orchid referees and also a past President of BSBI, came up for a few days, when we explored a few of the many interesting local spots. Ian was keen to see some orchids near their geographical limits in Britain, so we obtained permission to visit a private local reserve to see Corallorhiza trifida (Coralroot) where it was first found in 2016. 

Ian examining the coralroot
Image: L. Farrell

"The more usual place to see this species is at Sandscale Haws, a wonderful coastal dune system, but reports from there were not encouraging so we turned inland. Coralroot is a saprophytic herb found in shady, damp Alder and Willow carr on raised mires and lake margins, but it can also be found in dune slacks with Salix repens (Creeping willow). It is easily overlooked and new sites are still being discovered, so keep your eyes open.

"On the only wet and misty day recently, I joined the Butterfly Conservation group at Ormsgill Slag Banks, another coastal site near Barrow. As the name suggests, this is a site of man-made origin, reflecting the previous history of the area, which was a main source of materials for various industries. Now it is being re-colonised by natural vegetation but also has planted species including many Sorbus (Whitebeam) trees and Hippophae rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn), which are more vigorous than we would probably wish to see. 

Eyed Hawkmoth
Image: L. Farrell

"This area is now important as a rescue site for the Cupido minimus (Small Blue butterfly). Due to the cold and misty conditions we did not see a single flying butterfly but found them roosting in Galium album (Hedge Bedstraw), making them much easier to photograph. We were surprised to find a Smerinthus ocellata (Eyed Hawkmoth) in a comatose state resting in the clover. This would be near its northern limit. Nearby we found the gall Taphrina pruni (Pocket Plum) on Prunus spinosa (Blackthorn). 

"Whilst searching for plants it is also good to see species of interest from other groups. As I once said to someone on Mull where I'm BSBI's County Recorder, ‘I’m more than just a botanist’.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Sarah's first field meeting: getting started with plant ID

Last week we brought you a report by Julia Hanmer, BSBI's Chief Executive, of the BSBI online plant families ID workshop she attended on 22nd May and we promised you a report by BSBI Fundraising Manager Sarah Woods of a more conventional ID meeting she attended on the same day. 

Now read on to find out what Sarah made of her day in the field...   

"I had no idea what to expect when I stepped off the train in Cambridge for my first ever BSBI field meeting; but thanks to Jonathan Shanklin’s comprehensive and reassuring advanced emails, and a judicious warning from a friendly soul to prepare for all weathers, I felt I at least had the gear to survive the day without embarrassment on the kit front. Whether I’d know my hogweeds from my horsetails remained to be seen…but as the day was aimed at botanical beginners, I felt reassured that I’d be in safe hands.

"There was plenty of high spirits amongst the participants as we arrived in Trumpington Meadows, it being the first time many of us had been to any such event in over a year. Jonathan was quick to gauge the range of experience of the group, from myself as the true beginner, to some who were keen to learn more about the specific characteristics of local sedges and grasses (“Sedges have edges” is just one of the gems that has stayed with me). The ease with which information and interest was shared amongst the group made the day even more enjoyable; when an expert question was being asked in one quarter, someone was always happy to help me work out whether I was correctly spotting something we’d seen earlier, or if I’d have to key out something new.

"As a complete novice, a couple of features of the meeting stood out in particular; number one being the amount of time it was possible to spend in an area the size of a squash court (image above right). The newly established meadow just beyond the meeting area was Jonathan’s jumping off point for us, demonstrating how the redevelopment of a habitat through sowing could see a progression from domination of one species to slow integration of many, many species. It was fascinating to see the level of detail he was able to recall about individual plants, but also to navigate up close the process of deciding what features of a plant distinguish it from its near neighbours when using a key. I particularly enjoyed the fringing of hairs to either side of the stem of a Veronica chamaedrys (Germander speedwell) – apparently likened to the fringe of Native American hide pants" (images above left and below right).

LM: There are lots of mnemonics and visual comparisons used by botanists to remind themselves - and each other - of what a particular plant looks like and how to distinguish it from all the other plants that look superficially similar. So at this point, reading Sarah's report, I just had to send her a link to the Speedwell ID sheet commissioned by Rebecca Wheeler and prepared for Wild Flower Hour by Moira O’Donnell. Moira looks at the fruits of speedwells and IDs them due to their similarity to…  a part of the anatomy usually encased by pants… oh, take a look at the ID sheet so you can see for yourselves! 

Back to Sarah’s account:

"The second feature that became apparent was the wealth of inherited data and knowledge that such work draws upon – it was brilliant to have supplied for us the species data for the site and to watch Jonathan perform his recording duties as we began to travel through the site. This window into the activities of an expert, and the process of recording, made the day all the more aspirational for a naïve but keen newbie!

"A number of discussions over the course of the day helped me put my own purpose and goal for the day into perspective, as we moved from looking at the different habitats of pools (apparently formerly favourite bathing spots of Lord Byron), to a riverbank and some woodland. Whilst more experienced botanists can be more self-directed and independent on a field meeting, said Jonathan, beginners asked the most unnerving questions of the expert, and rather than seeing a plant for the hundredth time, would be looking at it with the freshest eyes (better than my first birdwatching experience in Canada, when I diligently asked what the large black bird was, only to be told ‘a crow’…).

"Also expounded was the notion that ‘everyone looks with different eyes’, something I had not previously appreciated. We learnt that not only will two individuals view a plant differently  (regardless of the plant’s own peculiarities), which can make one key-writer’s description further from your own experience, but that even your own eyes will perceive colour different to each other. As each of us recognises patterns in different ways, bringing our own idiosyncrasies to not just the process of identification, but also to noticing the plants within their habitat in the first place.

"This was demonstrated most simply when we moved along to a patch of protected conservation area to look for Adder’s-tongue ferns (image on right). Even as a novice, the promise of seeing these in the flesh had been a source of excitement in Jonathan’s preparatory emails. Previously, I’d seen a few of these bizarre-looking green structures popping up on Instagram and Twitter. We waded cautiously into the area that they were known to be, and everyone began crouching very close to the moss and scrub. Suddenly, one of the group had found one – if a little nibbled. It was tiny; I couldn’t believe the shiny, robust looking plant I’d seen given the full focus of multiple photos was this diminutive! And then we couldn’t move for seeing them. As our eyes adjusted to the tone of green we were looking to pick out, an entire ecosystem came into view. Suddenly, one of our group had also discovered a spot-marked orchid rosette. And then, towards the edge of the area, I saw something equally green, but (to my naïve eyes) definitely not an Adder’s-tongue. It took a couple of “Um…Jonathan?”’s for me to work up the voice to get his attention, but I was rewarded by being told I’d found a Common Twayblade (image below left). Luckily this seemed to get everyone excited! Fair to say, when Jonathan later updated us to say this is only the second record of a Common Twayblade in the wider Cambridge City area, my understanding of the plant hunter’s thrill of the chase became well and truly established.

"Heading home at the end of a great day’s introduction to botany in the field, I reflected that my brain felt a little like it’d been subject to a fascinating tour in Japanese or something similar – a little shell-shocked by the amount of information, and the number of new terms, ideas and features that had been shown to exist in locations I thought I knew well. But Jonathan’s care to integrate all the interests of the group, whilst bringing out all that was on offer in the site, made the experience feel far from formulaic or like a classroom. It was fantastic to meet others who had different experiences of engaging in plant identification, and to be able to look to them as a model of what can be learnt through some trial, error and enthusiasm. And, perhaps best of all, how this knowledge can then be passed on to the next new cohort of budding botanists who will ask the hardest questions and see with the freshest eyes".

So, Sarah's first day of field botany left her "a little shell-shocked" but obviously chuffed to bits that she'd notched up only the second record for Cambridge city of a Common Twayblade! Proof that even when you are just starting out in field botany, if you keep your eyes peeled you can make new discoveries and spot plants that even the more experienced botanists had overlooked. My guess is that once she has checked out the resources and ID tips on our orchid ID and fern ID pages, tried all the suggestions on our 'Getting Started' page and looked at the series of Moira O'Donnell's ID sheets on our plant ID for beginners page, those new discoveries will start coming thick and fast - and fingers crossed she'll keep us updated about her botanical progress.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Online course to learn plant family ID

On 22nd May, we tried out a completely new kind of plant ID session - an online workshop aimed at helping beginner botanists get started with identifying some of the more common plant families. 

Around 50 participants signed up for the course. The £15 full fee (a discount was available to students) covered the cost of sending each participant a copy of Faith Anstey's excellent book, a Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families. The course was based on Faith's user-friendly approach to teaching plant families and how to use the kinds of keys found in many plant ID guides. 

One of Faith's pre-Covid workshops

BSBI's new Chief Executive, Julia Hanmer, decided to sign up for the course, to see how it worked and to refresh her plant ID skills. Since the Covid lockdown, we are hearing from more and more people who studied botany years ago and are now looking to brush up those ID skills and reconnect with the plant world and nature conservation, so online refresher courses are likely to become increasingly important – but do they really work?

Julia received her copy of Faith's book through the post a few days before the course so at 10a.m. on the day, she was all set for two hours of botanical training. Julia told me "I really enjoyed the course. It was well structured and presented and great fun to do. There were three short interactive sessions led by Aileen, punctuated by breaks, where we were given tasks to do on our own, IDing plants using Faith's book and then coming back together to look at how we had done. It all worked well online, with Aileen teaching and Jim McIntosh, BSBI Scottish Officer, facilitating and answering the many brilliant questions posed by participants, through Zoom’s Q&A facility.”

Great to hear that the format worked so well! What about Faith's book? Julia said "Yes I love the diagrams that feature on almost every page of the book, showing for example the different kinds of flower structures (image on right), or what 'whorled leaves' look like. I also liked the way Faith’s pocket guide has a glossary of plant terms and uses straightforward language wherever possible, e.g. she talks about flowers having either radial symmetry (slice them in half anywhere you like and the two halves would be identical) or else mirror symmetry (where there's only one place to slice them if you want two identical halves). Many beginner botanists will find that easier to understand and remember than 'zygomorphic vs actinomorphic' as used in Stace's ID keys."

Faith has certainly been building a reputation in recent years for helpful workshops and user-friendly booklets that help demystify how we identify plants including grasses, sedges and rushes, and those tricky yellow composites aka dandelion lookalikes. If you missed out on this online workshop, you can order all Faith's booklets from her website.

Jim McIntosh said “Faith’s Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families is a great way into the sometimes confusing world of wildflower ID! A total of 46 people participated on the day, and Aileen, our tutor, guided students clearly and concisely through naming plant parts, how to use the booklet to identify common plant families (e.g. the Rose family, image on left)  and how to use books like Collins Wild Flower Guide to pinpoint the species. We used the breaks to give students short exercises and asked them to photograph five flowering plants and identify their families, and the species, as (optional) homework. Participants were able to ask questions at any time during the session and we had a bit of fun with an interactive online poll. The session was recorded and you can watch the video here on the Training playlist on our BSBI YouTube channel”.

Another of Faith's pre-Covid workshops

Julia said that "Getting out and practising after an online course certainly helped consolidate our learning. The whole workshop really made me think about the different ways we ID plants - it's so easy to play 'plant snap' and try to match our plant to a picture in a book, rather than keying it out properly, but picture-matching is not always reliable - much better to learn how to do the job properly, and this online workshop was a huge step in the right direction" 

So, a vote of confidence from Julia but how does an online workshop compare against a more conventional beginner ID session in the field? We'll soon have a chance to find out because on the same day that Julia was attending the online workshop, BSBI's new Fundraising Manager Sarah Woods was attending a field meeting for beginners in Cambridgeshire with County Recorder Jonathan Shanklin. She has promised to send a short report so watch this space!

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Free wildlife ID sheets connecting the next generation to nature this summer

Our friends at the Field Studies Council have come up with another brilliant way of helping young people connect to nature this summer - and BSBI is right beside them, cheering them on!

Their plan is to post thousands of free field wildlife ID guides this July.  They're looking for people in England aged 16-25, and those working with this age group,  to register by 10th June 2021 to receive their two free ID guides. 

There's a choice of six pairs of guides to choose from and of course we are particularly pleased at the plant pair which contains a guide to trees and one to wildflowers. 

Each wildlife ID guide is a colourful and water-resistant fold out chart filled with drawings or photos created by enthusiasts and experts. 

Follow this link to find out more and here's the link to register for the two free guides.

If you know of anyone aged 16-25 who would appreciate these guides, why not send them a link to this blogpost? Be sure to do it before the deadline, 5pm on 10th June! 

And if those first two guides whet their appetite, they will find lots more here

Huge thanks to our friends at the Field Studies Council for all the great work they do to connect the next generation to nature.