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. 

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

NBN Awards 2021

Nominations have opened for the NBN Awards for Wildlife Recording 2021.

These annual NBN Awards celebrate the individuals, the newcomers and the groups of people or whole organisations that are making outstanding contributions to wildlife recording and improving our understanding of the natural world in the UK. They were developed in 2015 by the National Biodiversity Network Trust, in partnership with the National Forum for Biological Recording and the Biological Records Centre.  

There are five categories of awards: 

The five short-listed nominees from each award category will be announced on 5th October and the winners will be announced at a ceremony in November, as part of the National Biodiversity Network's annual conference.

All too often the painstaking work that individual and groups of Wildlife recorders undertake is not publicly recognised. So let's put that right - nominate your unsung heroes!

Nominating someone couldn’t be simpler, just complete our short form explaining how your nominee is making an exceptional contribution in the world of UK wildlife recording. You can even nominate yourself! 

Nominations close on 18th July, so please don’t leave it too late….

Friday, 14 May 2021

Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

This past week, BSBI staff and volunteers on our Comms Team have been contributing to Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year has a focus on nature. They've been taking to social media to share their experience of how connecting with nature can help us all improve our mental health. 

Orchid hunter Leif Bersweden (image on right), who runs the BSBI Instagram account, said: "For me, being surrounded by nature is a restorative, calming experience: paying attention to a daisy in the pavement or the song of a blackbird simply slows me down, keeps me in the moment and acts as a reminder of what's really important in life".

April Webb (image below left) from Plant Alert said: "Nature feeds my curiosity, creativity and soul. It's the slap in the face I need some times to stop and just 'be'. There is always something new to see, to learn, to experience if you stop & just go with nature's pace for a while".

The Mental Health Foundation launched Mental Health Awareness Week 21 years ago and they say they chose nature as the theme for this year's Week because "being in nature is known to be an effective way of tacking mental health problems and of protecting our well-being. This seemed particularly important this year - in the year of a pandemic. 

"Our research has shown that being in nature has been one of the most popular ways the public have tried to sustain good mental health at a challenging time". 

Ciara Dwyer (image below right) from BSBI Events & Comms committee said “Spending time outdoors in nature is a place for me to escape. I can distract myself with wildlife: listening to bird songs, looking at plants on a walk with friends, or going for a run in the local woodland.”

BSBI Fundraising Manager Sarah Woods (image below left) said: "I’ve been lucky to know for a long time that my little soul is happiest in green space – I tend to embarrass my friends with contented sighs as soon as we head out on a walk. The best part for me is that it is accessible in so many forms – from single plants to big adventures, so you can access the dose you need to deal with whatever else life is throwing your way".

Many botanists, plant-lovers and BSBI members who regularly read this blog can vouch for the restorative power of the natural world. 

Being in nature and enjoying our wonderful wild flowers has been a lifelong passion and a source of well-being for lots of us, especially during the past year. 

There is also a growing body of evidence to back up this claim - check out these links: 

  • 2003 paper comparing the restorative effects of walking in a nature reserve compared to an urban environment;
  • 2019 report commissioned by the Wildlife Trusts concludes that 'prescribing nature works - and is excellent value for money' 
  • this US study from 2008 indicates that workers in offices with live plants, and window views of exterior green spaces, felt better about their jobs and the work they performed; 
  • and this paper describes how researchers used fMRI scans to look at the effects on brain activity of viewing a flower - their conclusion was that it "downregulated negative emotions and decreased both elevated blood pressure and cortisol levels".


Ellen Goddard (image on right), who analysed this year's New Year Plant Hunt results, said: "Nature has always been my form of escapism. Whether it be retreating to the countryside or a local woodland, the peace I feel when surrounded by the vibrant colours and sounds of nature always help to clear my mind. Even the smallest plant found in the middle of a city can bring a smile to my face as I think of how something so small is surviving in the most surprising places". 

My own experience (Louise, BSBI Comms Officer) is that the natural world was never as important to me as when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. We spent a lot of time together in those final years walking in our local woods and meadows. His enjoyment of wildflowers, trees and wildlife was as keen as it had been throughout his life and I found that revisiting those woods and meadows helped me get through the painful early months of bereavement. Nature helps us through the difficult times as well as making the good days even better!"

The final word goes to Jodey Peyton (image on left), Chair of BSBI Events & Comms committee, Vice Chair of the National Federation of Biological Recording and, in her day job, an ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology: "Being able to spend time outside in the natural world is incredibly important to me and helps me turn off my internal fret system (especially if it is combined with a nice picnic!). Every walk with flowers, insects (even the nuisance bitey ones!) and birds tweeting is a reminder to me why I work in Ecology and is why I am so proud to be a part of the BSBI! Everyone should have access to and be able spend time in nature. I am incredibly passionate that we all work together to empower ourselves and our neighbours to be able to enjoy and support nature and each other!

Well said Jodey, especially the bit about the picnic - not so sure about the bitey insects though!

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Springing forth: May report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

Last time we heard from BSBI President Lynne Farrell, she was dodging snow flurries to look at violets and blue moor-grass near her Cumbria home. 

So, has spring finally sprung?

"There has been some rain and slightly warmer temperatures since my last blogpost and spring is on its way, even though we have had snow on the hills and hailstorms also recently.

Blossoms are opening including Bird Cherry Prunus padus (image on right), Dandelion fields and verges are bright yellow, and woodland species such as Wood Anemone Anemone nemorosa, Wild Garlic Allium ursinum and Goldilocks Buttercup Ranunculus auricomus are visible. 

Both Alan Leslie, one of our BSBI members and the author of the recent Flora of Cambridgeshire, and Brian Eversham, Chair of Beds., Cambs. & Northants Wildlife Trust (and, of course, a BSBI member) have made detailed studies of Goldilocks Buttercup. 

A native, widespread species that has suddenly appeared following heavy rain is Toothwort Lathraea squamaria (image on left). 

This is parasitic on a range of woody plants, especially Hazel, Ash and Elm but it is not easy to spot due to its pale pink or white colouring and it is often hidden beneath the trees. 

Purple Toothwort Lathraea clandestina is a neophyte, scattered throughout Britain but less common, and mainly found on the roots of Alder, Willow and Poplar in wetter areas. 

Both of these plants are in the family Orobancheae and feature in the new BSBI Handbook on Broomrapes

My copy arrived recently and I'm enjoying reading this new addition to the series of BSBI Handbooks for difficult plants - the illustrations by Chris Thorogood are very colourful. A friend captured the image on the right of me engrossed in the book! 

I also appreciated the members' discount on the cost of this book: a reminder that if you want to benefit from the discount you need to be a BSBI member and you will  need to order your copy before the end of June. 

The contrast of the shining yellow of Cowslip Primula veris and the bright purple of Early Purple Orchid Orchis mascula (image below) stands out well in the meadows. 

The annual count of Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio took place on a National Trust site near here, and even though the numbers were down overall, they had spread to new areas of the fields, which is encouraging news for the site managers".