Monday, 25 January 2021

Record number of wild flowers in bloom at midwinter: did Covid-19 play a part?

Ryan & Charlotte: ready to
start their Hunt! 
The results are in for BSBI’s tenth New Year Plant Hunt, when plant-lovers across Britain and Ireland head out to see what is flowering in their local patch. 1,811 people took part this year – more than ever before – but restrictions around Covid-19 had surprising impacts on the wild flowers they spotted in bloom. They hunted for up to three hours over the New Year period and recorded more species in bloom than ever before. Here’s what they found:

  • 710 different plant species were recorded in bloom across Britain and Ireland compared to 615 last year and 627 in 2019.
  • A total of 21,419 records were submitted: almost 50% more than last year.
  • 1,195 lists were submitted, compared to 798 in 2020 and 712 in 2019.
  • 1,811 people participated, either individually or as part of small family groups and support bubbles – our usual large group Hunts were all cancelled due to Covid-19.
  • Plant hunters joined in from Orkney to Guernsey, from Anglesey to Norfolk, and from Donegal to south west Cork.

Field Pansy blooming in Cornwall
Image: D. Ryan
As expected, the milder south and west of Britain and Ireland had the highest numbers of species in flower – 86 on Jersey. This is less than the 2020 total of 115 species in Swanage and almost half the 2016 top total of 162 species recorded in Berkshire.

Ellen Goddard of BSBI’s Events & Communications Committee has analysed this year’s results and compared them with those from previous years. She said “2021 has been a record-breaking year, with more species recorded in bloom and more lists submitted than ever before, but we are still seeing the same split of native vs non-native plants. We have also seen a change in the way people took part in the Hunt this year: with organised group hunts cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions, people have been going out on their own or in small family groups and support bubbles. This has led to a small increase (c5%) in the number of participants but a marked increase (45-50%) in total lists and records submitted. This is likely to have played a large part in the higher number of species recorded this year, but there was also a higher temperature anomaly than we saw in 2020. So, the Covid-19 restrictions may have influenced how people took part in the Hunt but the warmer weather in the period leading up to the Hunt could also have influenced the total number of species and the number of records we received.”

Three-cornered leek:
an invasive alien
blooming in Leicestershire
2nd January 2021
Image: L. Marsh


The main findings from this year’s data were:

  • 53% of the flowering species reported were of plants which normally flower after midsummer and had managed to carry on flowering. These include ‘Autumn Stragglers’ such as Yarrow, Ragwort and Hogweed. This proportion is very similar to previous years.
  • Only 24% were ‘Springtime Specialists’ like Primrose and Lesser Celandine, so there is no indication of an early spring. This proportion is similar to previous years. 
  • 23% of the records submitted were of species we might reasonably expect to flower at New Year, or species which we cannot easily be categorised as either ‘early’ or ‘late’. These include typical ‘All Year Rounders’ such as Shepherd’s-purse as well as ‘Winter Specialists’ such as Winter Heliotrope.
  • The top four most frequently seen species were Daisy, Groundsel, Dandelion and Annual Meadow-grass – this was identical to last year’s list and all (native) plants that we would expect to be flowering at this time of year.
  • Smooth Sow-thistle moved into fifth position on the Top Twenty list of most frequent plants, replacing Common Chickweed which moved to number 14 on the list.
  • Bramble and Nipplewort entered the Top Twenty replacing Winter Heliotrope and Ivy.

Mirid bug on Common Ragwort: how will
changes to flowering times impact 
on invertebrates and other wildlife?
Image: L. Stinson
36% of species recorded were non-natives (aliens). This includes plants from warmer climates that have escaped from gardens or cultivation, become naturalised in the wild and were able to extend their flowering into the winter months.

As in previous years, urban areas tended to have more non-native species in flower than rural areas, as there are more sheltered and disturbed places with warm microclimates where alien plants can thrive.

Kevin Walker, BSBI Head of Science said “As Ellen’s analysis of the New Year Plant Hunt data shows, our plants are responding to changing weather patterns, with more flowers being recorded during the past decade as we experience autumns and winters with warmer temperatures and fewer frosts. We cannot, however, prove conclusively that more species are flowering nowadays in mid-winter compared to in past years. We can’t say for sure yet what impacts these changes in flowering times will have on associated wildlife - but we can see that weather patterns are changing and our plants, both native and non-native, are responding.”

Friday, 15 January 2021

Now is the time to start looking for orchids: interview with Sean Cole

In September last year, we were delighted to tell you about a new addition to the bookshelves of orchid-lovers across Britain and Ireland. Britain’s Orchids, written by Sean Cole and Mike Waller, published by Princeton University Press/ WildGuides, and featuring BSBI distribution maps, has been selling steadily and the book has attracted very favourable reviews. So you may be wondering why on earth, having interviewed Mike last autumn, I’m now back interviewing Sean! 

Well, you may be thinking of a field guide to orchids as something that you take down from the bookshelves in late spring just as the Early Purple Orchids come into flower, and put away again a few months later just as the Autumn Lady’s-tresses go to seed. But you’d be wrong, as many midwinter plant-hunters have been discovering recently! Before Sean explains why, I asked him to tell us if there is one orchid in particular that he’d like to see this year. 

SC: Well, as regular readers of this blog will probably know from our previous chat in 2014, when my Ghost Orchid paper was published in New Journal of Botany, that it is the only species I’ve yet to see in Britain or Ireland, so until that day, it is always that one! But more realistically, Covid allowing, I am planning trips to Donegal and the Western Isles, two absolutely stunning orchid locations. 

Ghost Orchid at Marlow 1953
Image courtesy of
National Museum, Wales

LM: Ah, the entry in Britain’s Orchids for the Ghost Orchid always gives me a lump in the throat! It shows the BSBI distribution map with one solitary post-2000 dot showing where the Ghost was last recorded, in 2009, and those photos from Buckinghamshire where a few plants were seen in the 1980s… I know you’ve seen the Ghost on the Continent but not (yet) in Britain – maybe 2021 will be the year?

SC: Every year I say that, in a demonstration of hope overcoming experience, but last autumn, and this winter so far, have provided favourable conditions for an appearance of Ghost this year – in the west at least. We have had seemingly continual rain throughout the autumn and winter (after record flooding back in March 2020), and then, from Boxing Day, a hard freeze, which only ended this week. We now have saturated ground. If only we can have rain throughout March and April, then again from August to October, and we might really be talking turkey! I appreciate that if it happens, I may not be very popular for wishing it! 

LM: Blimey Sean that doesn’t sound like much fun for plant hunters! Why would that kind of weather be good for the Ghost? 

SC: There are two things the Ghost likes the most – permanently wet soil and no trampling. Research has proven that heavy footfall ruins populations, as the stolons and underground parts are present so close to the surface, and footfall destroys them in soft soil. So the likelihood is that even if the impossible happens, it won’t be a public event. 

Sean finds and photographs his quarry!
Image M. Waller

LM Ok so that’s for later in the year, weather permitting, but right now – and this is why we are talking today Sean – in the past few weeks people have been posting photos of what they think are orchid rosettes on social media. Many of the c2,000 people who took part in the BSBI New Year Plant Hunt, where people look for plants in bloom at midwinter, also emailed us to enquire if the rosettes they noticed while scanning lawns and road verges might be Bee Orchids. Could your book help them or will they have to wait for the flowers to appear? 

SC: It’s great to see people searching out rosettes as well as flowering examples. It’s pretty much a  new discipline, probably begun by Mike when he wrote the British orchids vegetative ID guide for the NHM back in 2016, building on the approach taken by John Poland’s Vegetative Key to the British Flora. Our intention was always to make Britain’s Orchids a book that you could use all year round, and the rosette section was a key part of that.

Bee orchid rosette, Jan 2021, NHM garden
Image: S Cole
If you think about it, this is the time of year that orchids are easiest to spot, because there is barely any surrounding vegetation to hide them. Luckily, Bee Orchids often grow close to habitation – roadside verges, traffic islands, village greens, sports pitches, industrial estates and gardens - as well as old gravel pits and other man-made habitats. They don’t like competition, so they grow where the ground is bare or the surrounding vegetation doesn't compete.

Finding them in winter can be vital to their survival too: if you know they are present in an area that usually gets mown later on in the year then you can take action promptly, engage landowners, contractors and locals to protect them – and everything else that grows alongside - as well as the invertebrates that rely on the plants.

LM: Good advice Sean and here's the tweet you spotted from one happy person who found Bee Orchid rosettes in their garden the other day! So which other orchid rosettes should people be looking for in the next few months? And which habitats and locations should they be looking in?  

Burnt Orchid
Image: M. Waller
  
SC: Fifteen of our native species can be found during January, with the most obvious being Bee, Early Purple, Pyramidal and Green-winged. But if you are able to visit sites with other Ophrys or Orchis species, they are around too. You could even set yourself the trickiest challenge of all and try to find an overwintering Burnt Orchid!!

LM: If anyone can find an over-wintering Burnt Orchid I’d like to hear about it! So once orchids start coming into bud – I see there are several pages in the book showing what those buds will look like – could you give us an idea of an orchid hunter’s calendar and itinerary through the year? 

SC: Given the uncertainty around travel at the moment, I’d suggest that people stay local and look for new places in their area. The winter rosettes are soon joined by the annual ones, with my local Common Spotted Orchid rosettes first appearing at the end of February last year. I’ve just found out about a site less than a mile from my house with 200 Southern Marsh Orchids, and I’ve lived here for eight years! So there is always something to discover. Look for orchid places and visit at a time of year you wouldn’t usually go – there could be some real surprises. 

LM: Good advice, an opportunity to hunt for orchid sites while staying safe under lockdown. There’s a question that I asked Mike and I’d like to ask you too: You must have visited a lot of locations across Britain and Ireland in the course of your research. Are there any that particularly stand out in your memory? 

SC: For me it is wider areas rather than specific sites (although I have a real soft spot for the Oxfordshire Military Orchid site). County Donegal is so beautiful and full of orchids, it is truly magical. A little-known fact is, it has more species than anywhere else in Ireland. Also, the Scottish machair is mind-blowingly stunning – north west mainland and the Hebrides - full of wildlife, especially orchids of course. 

Dune Helleborine in a
Harrogate planter (close-up)
Image: K. Walker
 
LM: Machair is one of my favourite habitats too! When I interviewed Mike, he also said that while the two of you worked together on many of the sections, you were sole author on the Identifying Epipactis (helleborines) section. It has always fascinated me how Broad-leaved helleborines can grow quite happily in some very urban environments. I’ve seen them in car parks in Glasgow Southside, looking quite happy next to cigarette ends and dog poo – not where you might expect to see orchids! How is it that they can survive so happily in such unexpected places? 

SC: One of my favourite photos in Britain’s Orchids is Isabel Hardman’s photo of a Broad-leaved Helleborine growing out of a drain cover in an urban Glasgow street. This species can grow in almost any soil type, although it prefers calcareous substrates, and it is also tolerant of almost any light or shade conditions. Similarly, the soil doesn’t have to be particularly wet or dry. Whilst little is known about its mycorrhizal host partners, the likelihood is that it uses species that are common and widespread. It is pollinated primarily by common wasps, and has a high pollination success. This has caused problems in places where it has been introduced out of its normal range, as it can out-compete native species. 

LM: I love that there’s still so much to discover about our wild plants! And Dune Helleborines – they seem to be turning up in places that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered to be dunes! How come? 

The Harrogate planter where
Dune Helleborines grow
Image: K. Walker
 
SC: Dune Helleborine is a story unfolding as we watch, and we have much to learn about it. Part of its range expansion is undoubtedly due to increased awareness of its identification – it is a subtle species that looks ostensibly like Broad-leaved Helleborine. But it is spreading into other habitats, primarily man-made ones such as reclaimed or disused gravel pits and spoil heaps. Records on roadside verges, or like Kevin Walker’s planters in urban Harrogate where they presumably arise from seed in soil placed in these locations. Like Broad-Leaved Helleborine, Dune Helleborine isn’t massively fussy about soil conditions, and it also chooses dual pollination methods, so if insects aren’t present, it will self-pollinate – again giving high rate of seed set. One curious thing about this species is that it can flower when very small (i.e. when it’s young) so I wonder if this means populations can get going much more quickly? 

Spread of rosette images from Britain's Orchids

LM: Fascinating stuff! So the moral seems to be that wherever you are and whatever time of year it is, you may find orchids if you just keep your eyes peeled and arm yourself with a suitable book! Sean, is this a good time to remind people of where they can buy a copy of Britain’s Orchids, how much it costs, how many pages, how many colour photos…. Go on, you’ve got five minutes to do the sales pitch! 

SC: The best sales pitch for a book is its readers’ reviews, and so far they have all been very positive. The main reason people seem to like it is that the illustrations by Sarah Stribbling are so stunning; we show all the variation within all the species, side-by-side, we’ve included all the hybrids with their parents on either side, and we show orchids at all stages of development – so if you get to a site too early or late, you can still identify what you see. All in a mere 286 pages and for less than £20! Summerfield Books are still cheapest I believe, but all the natural history booksellers have it.

Ghost Orchid photographed
in beech wood in Germany
Image: S Cole

One recent review pointed out that there are so many orchid books already available, and therefore what was the point of another one coming out. We were well aware of the plethora of existing literature, much of it very good, so knew we had to produce something unique, beautiful and eminently useful, otherwise nobody would bother. The reviewer concluded we had, and that Britain’s Orchids was a necessary addition to the subject, so that was a relief! 

LM: Phew! But to be even-handed, I’ll just remind readers that the Orchid ID page on the BSBI website has links to some free ID tips and resources as well as suggestions of some of the other orchid books on the market. If you have questions about orchids, you can contact both Mike and Sean via social media and share your orchid photos with them. You can also follow the Britain’s Orchids Twitter account or email them direct at britainsorchids@gmail.com

Many thanks for talking to me Sean and will you promise me something please? If one day you find a Ghost Orchid in Britain, will you come back and tell us all about it? 

SC: Believe me, I will be telling EVERYONE about that!! But you might have to come to me, as I may be in an old folks’ home by then.

LM: Deal! 

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Midwinter report from BSBI President

Lynne spots a frozen primrose on the bank
November and December saw BSBI President Lynne Farrell looking at fungi after several very busy weeks attending – albeit virtually - BSBI’s autumn programme of big events such as the Annual Exhibition Meeting where she welcomed delegates. As 2020 drew to a close, Christmas saw her making mince pies for her neighbours and praising the efforts of NHS workers

So how did our President welcome in the New Year? She and almost 2000 other plant-lovers kicked off 2021 by taking part in BSBI’s New Year Plant Hunt

Over to Lynne to tell us more: 

“We just managed to fit in the New Year Plant Hunt before we were locked down again on the 5th of January. Over the four days of the Hunt, more than 1,100 lists were made, over 21,000 records contributed and more than 700 different species observed

"Clearly people were enjoying being out and about, even though some of us had to abandon one day owing to snowfall and not being able to see any plants in flower. Some people wished for proper winter conditions and this year they arrived. It may help control parasites on both plants and insects, but that remains to be seen later on.

Lynne's friend Sue photographing
a fern she spotted
“In Cumbria, where I live, there were 43 participants, who found 109 species, for example. I strayed into North Lancashire, three miles away, on New Year’s Day and recorded 48 species including a frozen primrose (photo above). On the 2nd of January I had to give up due to snow, which is unusual on the coast here at Arnside, and the next day I found 34 species around the village, fewer than in 2019. Frost and cold temperatures had ‘zapped’ several species.

“In the New Year’s Honours List two long-standing BSBI members were honoured: Oxfordshire botanist Dr Judy Webb was awarded the British Empire Medal, while Dr Steph Tyler, Chair of the Committee for Wales and joint County Recorder for Monmouthshire, was awarded OBE. Congratulations to Judy and Steph”.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

New Year Plant Hunt 2021 Days Three & Four

Flowers spotted by Rebecca Wheeler
Image: R. Wheeler
As the sun set on the final day of the 2021 New Year Plant Hunt, records of wild and naturalised plants spotted in bloom continued to flood in from across Britain and Ireland. 

Volunteers who have been working in shifts on the help desk were doing a superb job processing those records. 

More than 1,100 lists have been submitted so far, comprising more than 19,000 unique records, and a total of 690 species had been recorded. 

All those totals are higher than in any of the previous ten years of the Hunt, and we expect that more records will be submitted before the deadline of midnight on Friday 8th January.

Gorse blooming in the snow
in central Scotland
Image: Barry @scyrene 
 The total number of species may go down or up once the verification process is complete.

As the Results map shows, plant hunters were out across these islands, from North Ronaldsay where just one species, Daisy, was recorded in bloom to Jersey where there are no restrictions on meeting up in large groups and a total of 86 species was recorded, including coastal species such as Thrift, Sea Campion, Rock Samphire and Sea-purslane. 

That total will go down to 83 once three inadvertently added ferns are removed: ferns do not have flowers so cannot be included. 

At Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, John and Sally notched up 25 species including Navelwort, a plant with a distinctly western distribution, while a list of 40 species from Hastings included plants such as Deptford Pink, Seaside Daisy and Rosemary

Rory's "dandelion with notions"
Image: R. Hodd
None of those species would be likely to be seen in bloom in central Scotland where icy weather stopped play for Lesley in Edinburgh and Barry found that only three of the 20-30 species he was seeing before Christmas had survived recent snow and ice; Windy Hollow Farm had also endured "very frosty" weather and not even Herb-Robert, usually a reliable New Year bloomer on the farm, was spotted this year. 

Recorders across England - in Shropshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire also reported much less Herb-Robert in bloom during this year's Hunt. 

In Fort William, BSBI Scottish Officer Jim McIntosh reported "about a third as many species in flower" compared to last year, while across the Irish Sea, Simeon hunted at White Park Bay near Coleraine in Northern Ireland - a location made famous by Game of Thrones - and notched up 19 species

In southwest Ireland, Jean found 28 species in bloom near Kinsale and Rory found 36 species in Killarney National Park, the same location where in 2019, he found Europe's newest, rarest fern. One of those 36 species was, Rory tells us, "a dandelion with notions!"  

As in previous years, New Year Plant hunters of all ages and skill levels enjoyed the Hunt: Hobie's mum told us that Hobie "really enjoyed photographing his finds and logging them into the app" (image on left).

Sweet violet
Image: J. Fenely
Taking part in the Hunt helped lots of people strengthen their plant ID skills, with the help of some of the wild flower ID resources available on the BSBI website. Crib sheets for violets, strawberries, buttercups and speedwells, commissioned by Rebecca Wheeler for Wild Flower Hour and produced by Moira O'Donnell, proved invaluable for first time plant hunters such as John Feneley. 

John spotted a violet in bloom and the rounded tips to the sepals, seen clearly in his photograph, confirmed it as sweet violet. 

We were delighted that Moira, Rebecca and Leif from the Wild Flower Hour team joined the New Year Plant Hunt support team this year. Over the four days of the Hunt, Rebecca tweeted encouraging participation, thanking hunters and also told us about her own Hunt; Moira put in multiple shifts on the help desk answering enquiries and inputting data; while Leif's video and Instagram posts helped spread the word about the Hunt to new audiences, as did our article for BBC Wildlife

Treacle mustard
Image: I. Senior
 Joshua Ajowele, who also joined the support team this year, produced a short video encouraging people to join the Hunt and over the course of the four days he retweeted plant hunters and tweeted thanks, encouragement and reminders of how to take part. 

He also found time to do a hunt of his own and notched up 17 species in less than an hour in Reading, where he has been studying for a MSc in Plant Diversity. Great work Joshua! 

As in previous years, urban sites and allotments often yielded interesting Plant Hunt records:  Ian Senior found the deliciously named Treacle Mustard on a local allotment in Norwich while Alex Prendergast spotted Pleasant's Eye blooming on a Norfolk allotment. 

Plant Alert intern April Webb has spent a lot of time on allotments this year - read about her research here - and she managed to fit in several Hunts in Warwickshire, including one on an allotment site, in between shifts on the help desk. 

Pheasant's Eye
Image: A. Prendergast
She was joined on the Plant Hunt support team this year by Isobel Girvan from Sussex Wildlife Trust and plant hunter Conchita tweeted how grateful she was for Isobel's help.  

Leif told you on Day Two about the Hunts carried out by Ryan, a regular on the Plant Hunt support team, and his partner Charlotte: by the end of Day Four they had notched up four Hunts together (including one by torchlight - image below!) and Charlotte notched up a fifth one on her own while Ryan was back on the help desk. 

Great work from both of them and from support team regulars Ciara and Ellen

Technical problems with the app this year caused problems for recorders for which we can only apologise - they also caused a lot more work for the support team and especially for BSBI Database Officer Tom Humphrey

Without the 13 volunteers who worked alongside Tom and other staff members behind the scenes, the Hunt could not have gone ahead and we owe them all our thanks, but we would also like to say a huge THANK YOU to all of you who took part! 

So to end, a reminder to please submit all records before the deadline - midnight on Friday 8th January - so Ellen can start work on the analysis. 

We will share her analysis here and on the New Year Plant Hunt webpage later this month but for now we'll leave you with this collage (below) by Dan Ryan of the plants he spotted during his Hunt in Cornwall. 

Thanks again everyone!



Sunday, 3 January 2021

New Year Plant Hunt 2021: Day Two

Gorse in Killin, Scotland
Image: S. Watts
Day One of the BSBI New Year Plant Hunt got off to a roaring start and now, for a summary of Day Two, I'm handing over to the Orchid Hunter himself, Mr (soon to be Dr) Leif Bersweden! Leif is a highly-valued member of the BSBI Comms Team, the Wild Flower Hour Team and he runs the BSBI Instagram account. He is also a jolly good botanist and a keen New Year Plant Hunter. Take it away Leif...

"Day two of the 2021 New Year Plant Hunt has seen some fantastic records flooding in from around the country. We have now reached the halfway point for this year’s hunt and, so far, we have received an amazing 458 lists and 7873 individual records covering nearly 500 different species!

As they did yesterday, botanists up and down the country have been out and about hunting down daisies and dandelions, crane’s-bills and spurges for day 2 of the hunt, all the while doing an excellent job of keeping Covid-safe and totting up some impressive lists of plants in flower.

There were more records of the usual suspects of course, with the commonest species recorded including daisy, groundsel, dandelion, annual meadow-grass, shepherd’s-purse and smooth sow-thistle, to name a few. Gorse is another, which was found flowering everywhere from Dunnet Forest near John o’Groats to Exmouth in Devon today. Sarah Watts came across a rather nice example in Killin, Scotland.

There was plenty to see in Scotland aside from gorse, with records ranging from large bittercress near Galloway Forest Park in the south west to welted thistle in Dunfermline and wild pansies on the edge of the Caingorms National Park. Further north, in Inverness, common knapweed and common fumitory were among the species to make an appearance.

Ireland has put on a good show too. Hairy tare, winter heliotrope and thyme-leaved speedwell were three of 43 species found on a hunt in Bandon, Co. Cork. Paul Green found 55 species flowering in Wexford, with highlights like grey field-speedwell, keel-fruited cornsalad and water-cress. The latter was also found in Co. Laois by Martine Brennan (on left), one of nearly 40 species on her list. Lady’s Island in the south east featured the richly-coloured flowers of common-ramping fumitory.

Botanists in Wales produced various records for green field-speedwell, for example in Caergeiliog on the Isle of Anglesey and another on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. Bristly oxtongue, field madder and wild strawberry were hiding out in the Taff valley, but didn’t escape the gaze of keen plant hunters. Cardiff was home to self-heal and Himalayan balsam, while there was water chickweed flowering on Anglesey.

On the opposite side of the country, in the east of England, we’ve had records for sticky mouse-ear, wild clary and fern-grass in Wells-next-the-sea, Norfolk; and Jersey cudweed and wild carrot were recorded in Wivenhoe, Essex. Just like yesterday, we have more records of water bent, Jersey cudweed and narrow-leaved ragwort, three species that have been expanding their ranges in recent years. Cow parsley has featured on many lists, photographed here by Mike Hoit (on right) in Norwich.

In the Midlands, Steven Wright found the golden flowers of marsh marigold (below right) at Ashlawn Cutting nature reserve in Warwickshire, one of several semi-aquatic species recorded today. Elsewhere Leamington Spa provided botanists with cut-leaved dead-nettle, black medick and dwarf mallow. Fern-leaved beggarticks (below left) was discovered naturalised in a pavement crack in Leicester by our very own BSBI Communications Officer Louise Marsh and BSBI County Recorder Geoffrey Hall – only the second record for this plant in vice-county 55

Highlights in the south included bugloss which was recorded in Dorking, Surrey; a harebell in the Chilterns, Buckinghamshire; and meadowsweet in Bridgwater, Somerset. We also had records of burnet-saxifrage near Cheddar in Somerset and in Kent.

There have been many hunts occurring around the coast today, particularly in the south of England where we’ve had thrift and hawkweed oxtongue pop up in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex; sea radish in Browndown Common & Alver Valley, Hampshire; rock samphire at Highcliffe, Hampshire;. Plant hunters in Pagham, Sussex found lesser hawkbit and musk stork’s-bill. Another coastal hunt to note took place on the Isle of Arran, where both sheep’s-bit and sea mayweed were found flowering in Whiting Bay.

In the north of England, Dan Brown found spurge laurel in flower at Nosterfield nature reserve, while plant hunters in Manchester were rewarded with red bartsia and wall lettuce. James Common, on his second hunt in two days, found naturalised Mediterranean spurge on a snowy road verge in Gosforth, Northumberland.

Records of spring favourites have been coming in too: primroses have been found on lots of hunts, including from the Isle of Mull and Gwaelod-y-garth in Wales. Lesser celandines have been spotted blooming in Bath and in Wexford, Ireland. In Essex there have been sightings of garlic mustard, while dogwood is blooming in Gloucestershire and wayfaring-tree in Surrey. In Cambridgeshire, among other places, there have been early dog-violets in flower.

Urban areas have featured across the country with some of today’s longest lists. Ian went for a wander around Morden Park and Cemetery in south London and totted up 64 species in flower, including small nettle, ox-eye daisy and white melilot. Redhill in Surrey was the location for Caroline who managed 61 species, while Stephen found 57 species in flower in Bridgwater, Somerset. In Peterborough, Sarah and Peter found hemlock, small-flowered crane’s-bill and henbit dead-nettle which contributed to their list of 53 species.

It’s not all about the little plants either – there are trees flowering at the moment too, so don’t forget to check them! Hazel, for example (on left), has featured on many lists today. The hanging male catkins are quick to catch the eye in winter, but have a closer look and see if you can locate the sea-anemone-like female flowers – they look so exotic! Charlotte Rankin came across both while on her second hunt of the year, accompanied by Ryan Clark who is one of a group of wonderful volunteers working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure the hunt runs as smoothly as possible.

And finally, botanists are well-known for crawling around on hands and knees to look for plants and this was very much the case today too. A passing stranger was worried that BSBI Comms Team/ New Year Plant Hunt/ Wild Flower Hour volunteer Moira O’Donnell had lost something while she was out botanising; Dan Ryan in Cornwall faced enquiries about whether he was okay; and I (Leif) was questioned by a security guard while crouched down having a look at some gallant soldier growing out of the pavement in London!

Many of you have been out in the rain and snow today (I would say hats off to you, but it’s probably better to keep them on), so a big thank you for braving the elements to get those records. Stay safe, and we all look forward to seeing what day 3 brings!"

Friday, 1 January 2021

New Year Plant Hunt 2021: Day One

Ragwort blooming on New Year's Day 2021
in mid-Laois, Republic of Ireland
Image: M. Brennan
 
The tenth New Year Plant Hunt kicked off today and it was a very different affair to the previous nine! 

No group Hunts; no gangs of botanists proceeding very slowly along city streets, pointing at pavement cracks, dropping to their knees and attracting bemused glances from passers-by; no comfort stops in the pub or rowdy communal lunches after a morning Hunt... 

We weren't sure how many people would even take part in the Hunt in this strangest of years!

Daisy blooming through the snow in Buxton
Image: J. Mortin

But here we are approaching midnight on Day One and the Results page shows that more than 200 lists have been received, almost twice as many as on Day One of the 2020 Hunt

A similar number of species have been recorded in bloom (344 compared to 327 last time) but some botanists in northern England reported very nasty weather which forced them to curtail their hunts for safety's sake. 

This was, of course, the right thing to do. The 2021 New Year Plant Hunt is all about staying safe and protecting oneself from both Covid and treacherous icy conditions underfoot.

Once again the first flower of the Hunt was recorded by Ger Scollard in SW Ireland - he recorded Herb-Robert in bloom at 00.07 on New year's Day! Many more records throughout the day of the usual suspects - Daisy, Groundsel, Dandelion and Annual Meadow-grass - once again appeared at the top of the list of most frequently-recorded species

White dead-nettle, one of the 
New Year Plant Hunt "usual suspects"
Image: S. Harrap
The longest list so far is also from the Republic of Ireland - Paul Green, BSBI Ireland Officer and County Recorder for Co. Wexford, was out in his local area - Irish botanists must not stray more than 5km from home - and recorded species 72 species in bloom, many of them natives such as Common Centaury, Water Figwort and Scarlet Pimpernel, with a couple of garden escapes such as Snapdragon and Garden Pansy. 

Up in Heaton in Northumbria, James and partner Matthew also recorded Snapdragon and Mexican Fleabane on a list of 41 species in bloom while a few miles away, naturalist Ryan Clark (who has been a key member of the team behind the New Year Plant Hunt since 2015) and partner Charlotte notched up 40 species in Gateshead before Ryan headed home to put in four hours on the help desk, assisting first-time Hunters with their lists. Great work as always Ryan!

Ryan & Charlotte with
warm hats & handlenses
- essential kit for botanists
(some would add cake & gin
to that list!)
In Norfolk, Simon and Anne Harrap recorded 50 species in flower including Annual Knawel, which you don't see every day - they just pipped Jo and Bob (current and former Secretaries of BSBI's Science & Data committee) in nearby Hemsby, who had 47 species. 

Chris Preston's list from Cambridge - following the same route he has walked every year since 2016 - was of 57 species in bloom, his highest ever total, and included Mediterranean Nettle, recorded in bloom outside the Isaac Newton pub. 

Last winter, Chris turned his observations on the species he recorded during his New Year Plant Hunts 2016 to 2019 into a paper for British & Irish Botany called 'The phenology of an urban street flora: a transect study'.

On the other side of the country, no list from north Wales has yet exceeded 30 species, probably reflecting bad weather there, and further west still, 20 species were recorded by Ciaran in Galway and 30 by Darren in Kerry

Mediterranean nettle in Cambridge
Image: C. D. Preston
Unsurprisingly, we saw some long lists from the south: 48 species on Alderney, 71 from Hayling Island and in Midhurst, Plant Hunt co-founder Tim Rich and his mum recorded 39 species in bloom, but in the north of Scotland it was much harder to find as many species in bloom: 7 species recorded in Caithness and only three over in Tobermory, although Ian notched up 31 species in Moray, but Sarah reported that snow stopped play on Ben Lawers and she came home empty-handed. Short lists and nil records are also valuable - several people have emailed us with the grid references of locations where they hunted and found nothing. 

Ellen Goddard and BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker will be analysing the Plant Hunt data this year: they will be checking Met Office data and looking at how list lengths correlate with temperature anomalies for November and December 2020, to help us better understand how our wild and naturalised plants are responding to changes in autumn and winter weather patterns. 

Feverfew blooming in the Mecca
Bingo carpark, Chesterfield
Image: M. Lacey
Some of the plants recorded in bloom today do seem to indicate the effects of a changing climate. In Derbyshire, Mick Lacey recorded Water Bent, Annual Mercury and Jersey Cudweed. Rebecca, doing her first ever New Year Plant Hunt, also recorded the Jersey Cudweed in London and there were records too of Narrow-leaved Ragwort. Take a look at the BSBI distribution maps for all these species and see how their distribution has changed in the last 20 years or so. 

One of Mick's sites for interesting plants was the Mecca Bingo carpark in Chesterfield while in Uckfield in Sussex, New Year Plant Hunt regular Wendy Tagg found the by-pass near the Fire Station to be "the gift that keeps on giving". 

Chickweed growing through artificial turf
Image: W. Tagg
Urban botanists are definitely finding some fascinating species in some of the most unexpected places in their local areas. To what extent this is due to the urban heat-island effect and to what extent it's down to opportunities for alien plants to escape from city and suburban gardens, remains to be seen. 

We missed seeing a photo of Wendy's usual lunch-time pit-stop (a still-life of wine-glass, plant ID book and handlens!) but she notched up an impressive list, 46 species including fennel, a couple of fumitories and, perhaps my favourite find of the day, a chickweed plant growing through artificial turf. As Wendy says, "nature always finds a way".

So, what will Day Two bring?

Thursday, 31 December 2020

2020: BSBI members rose to the challenges of lockdown

Melancholy thistle & associates, Ben Lawers
Image: Sarah Watts
As this strangest of years draws to a close, it's a good time to look back on everything that BSBI members achieved in 2020. The year started with our ninth New Year Plant Hunt which attracted a record number of participants: 1,714. In late March, just as the botanical season was about to start... well you all know what happened. 

Probably a good job that 2019 was our final year to go out recording for Atlas 2020 - this year was always meant to be the year when plant records were checked and uploaded and by the end of March, around six million records had been added to our Distribution Database, taking the total to more than 48 million*. Find out more about all our members' achievements up to the end of March in our Annual Review

A fortnight after lockdown started, we launched our Garden Wildflower Hunt so that botanists could hunt for plants and collect valuable data while following Government restrictions to stay at home. By the end of April, our wonderful members and supporters had submitted more than 9,000 records of wildflowers in gardens.  

Sporangia of Europe's newest fern
Image: R. Hodd

From May onwards we started offering online training webinars and supporting webpages on the identification of dandelions, ferns, grasses, aquatics and stoneworts and we set up a BSBI YouTube channel to share videos of the webinars. The YouTube channel also proved handy later in the year when we moved our Scottish Botanists' Conference and Annual Exhibition Meeting online and then made all the talks available via YouTube. We were fortunate to receive funding from NPWS, CeDAR and the Heritage Lottery Fund to make all these projects and activities possible. 

Our scientific journal, British & Irish Botany, went from strength to strength with four issues throughout the year including a paper on Europe's newest fern, which attracted international media interest. We also made sample issues of our membership newsletter available to non-members and December saw the launch of a new mid-monthly eNewsletter - more than 1000 people signed up to receive the first issue. In all these ways we are meeting the goals laid out in our new Strategy for 2021-4.    

Only one new BSBI Handbook was published in 2020 but there are ten currently in the pipeline, with two due for publication early in 2021 and as always, there will be large discounts for BSBI members, as there were for Britain's Orchids which featured BSBI distribution maps.

We were also contributors once again to RBG Kew's report on the State of the World's Plants & Fungi - Kevin Walker, BSBI Head of Science, and Pete Stroh, Scientific Officer for England, were co-authors on this paper which included BSBI plant data.

As 2020 draws to a close we are delighted to report that membership has continued to grow, with 3,260 members as of today, and the contributions of two long-standing BSBI members have been acknowledged in the New Year Honours list: Oxfordshire botanist/ ecologist Dr Judy Webb is awarded the British Empire Medal and Dr Steph Tyler, Chair of BSBI Committee for Wales, is awarded OBE. Congratulations to both of them.  

Who knows what challenges we will face in 2021 but we do know how we will be starting the year - our tenth New Year Plant Hunt kicks off at one minute past midnight on New Year's Day and we hope that you will be able to take part, as long as you can do so while following Government guidance and staying safe. Plant records are important but the safety and health of our botanists is even more important, so please look after yourselves and have a very Happy New Year!

* By midnight on 31st December 2020, the total number of plant records in our Database had risen to 49,265,649 - well done everyone!