Friday 6 December 2013

Take a botanical tour of Berwickshire... from your armchair

Vicia orobus  
If you want to know which plants grow where, there are lots of ways to find out: the BSBI database, county Floras and Rare Plant Registers. But what if you want to virtually zoom in to a particular site and get a bit more detail? Such as "The River Tweed turns south above Mertoun Bridge and near there, at the turn, steep eroding banks provide a habitat of interest". 

Or how about if you want to know which "weeds" have turned up in a county and how this might relate to previous history of a particular site? Then you want a detailed description like this: "Ruderal habitat of great interest was discovered in 2011 on an eroding bank at Dalcove. Here there is a large colony of Hyoscyamus niger with Ballota nigra, Conium maculatum, Echium vulgare, Malva sylvestris and Reseda luteola. All these plants were once used medicinally and their association is strongly suggestive of a link with the mediaeval hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalene that stood near this spot and was destroyed by the English in 1544".

Astragalus danicus at clifftop by 
foot of Dowlaw Dean, 
looking east to St Abb's Head. 
These quotations come from a new publication by former BSBI President and VC Recorder for Berwickshire, Michael Braithwaite. His 440 page Berwickshire BSBI Botanical Site Register 2013, has just been privately published and circulated, but Michael has also decided to make an edited version of this superb publication available free of charge as a pdf. You can now download a Botanical Tour of Berwickshire here.  It brings together all the site descriptions from the Register - these include all the rare or scarce species present in each site.

Michael told me "I believe BSBI is overly obsessed by distribution maps and species accounts. Even the most expansive County Floras are dominated by them, leaving site descriptions as an afterthought. I have now carried out two successive sample surveys of Berwickshire at 1km scale (2km is not fine enough for conservation purposes) with very much detail at finer scales, all with a Site Register in view". 

In the Botanical Tour of Berwickshire, Michael also tells us about the changes he - and fellow botanists - have noticed over time. As Michael has spent 35 field-seasons as Berwickshire's VCR, he can offer us observations such as "The rest of the moor is over-managed grouse moor where the temporary reappearance of Genista anglica in 2002 and Platanthera bifolia in 2000 are but poignant reminders of what might have been".

Luke Gaskell at Vicia orobus site, Wrunklaw
Michael's long history of voluntary service in wildlife conservation and botany includes 25 years service as either Secretary or Chairman of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Tweed Valley branch, so he knows his area. 

And I was intrigued by this comment: "The Blackadder Water is now too eutrophic for most aquatic species and Ranunculus circinatus was last seen there in 1973. However an enigmatic hybrid clone of Ranunculus is still quite frequent whose parents have been repeatedly suggested to be R. circinatus and R. fluitans. No molecular studies have been made to confirm this. This clone is not known elsewhere in Britain or further afield". One for further study, perhaps? 

Michael Braithwaite
Michael graciously acknowledges all the local and visiting BSBI botanists who contributed to the Tour, including VC Recorders of neighbouring counties, like Rod Corner, David McCosh and Luke Gaskell. He also admits "My Site Register is quite elaborate, but the essentials are much more achievable: a map of each site and a short description including a note of some key species present. Every vice-county where there is not an adequate wildlife site system in place should have one!" 

There is a Local Wildlife Site (LWS) system in operation in VC55 and, in my experience, the use of criteria species/axiophytes works extremely well as a way of notifying LWSs. The criteria species are easy for less experienced recorders and conservationists to identify. And I agree strongly with Michael - if you don't have a LWS system in your county, then you really need a Botanical Site Register. 

But if there were such a system in Berwickshire, we might not have gems like "At Petticowick, the north end of the geological fault defining St Abbs Head is reached and Silurian rocks follow northwards. Juncus ambiguus occurs by a seepage on the beach where occasional plants of Puccinellia distans subsp. borealis may be found". You almost feel as if you are there...

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