Thursday 28 May 2015

Big Nature Day: engaging people with botany.

An excellent day at the Natural History Museum last Saturday for Big Nature Day, the NHM's annual get-together, held in the Angela Marmont Centre, where wildlife/nature conservation groups can get together and show the public what we do and why. This year's event tied in with International Day for Biological Diversity.

It was very hectic but fortunately I was working alongside Ryan Clark, known to many of you as the Co-ordinator of this year's New Year Plant Hunt and also the newest addition to BSBI's Meetings & Communications Committee

Ryan is a natural at engaging people with conservation and biodiversity - he is one of those prolific people who "does" invertebrates, newts, mosses and birds as well as botany, although his main passion is probably pollinators

So he and I spent the day talking about wildflowers to a range of people from children to tourists visiting the Museum to members of other conservation organisations. We enjoyed telling everyone about the benefits of BSBI membership and we also had a Plant ID Quiz on our stand. 

The plants in our quiz included three species of Buttercup, so we could tell people how to separate them, and we had examples of medicinal and edible plants: Meadowsweet (where aspirin was first extracted); 
Coltsfoot (used in 'cigarettes' during World War II and also known in herbal medicine as an asthma cure); and 
Common Sorrel (as featured in Salmon with Sorrel Mousse. Yum.).

We also included a species of Hypericum and a sedge to test people's vegetative ID skills. And we exhibited three specimens from the Carrot Family - a live plant of Cow Parsley, augmented by herbarium sheets of Hemlock (the poison which did for Socrates) and Spignel (delicious but rare) - to illustrate the importance of knowing your plants. These three plants look similar, with their feathery or dissected compound leaves, but eating them would have very different effects! 

The winner of our ID Quiz will benefit from a year's free membership of BSBI so he/she can learn even more about how to identify wildflowers, as well as benefiting from all the other advantages of BSBI membership. 

And although we enjoyed seeing NHM staff members having a go at the quiz, we didn't allow them to enter. Fred Rumsey (above on right) and Mark Spencer are also BSBI members and expert botanists so they jolly well ought to know what our plants were (and they did!). 

Fred and Mark's stand (below) had herbarium sheets of orchid specimens - collected back in the pre-Schedule 8 days when there were enough orchids around that it was ok to pick them. How times have changed, and nowadays we all adhere strictly to the BSBI Code of Conduct

Mark and Fred were exhibiting orchid sheets to promote the new Orchid Observers project, which any of you attending the recent BSBI Recorders' Conference will have heard about.     

Ryan and I were both exhausted by the end of the day but it was great fun talking to so many people. Let's hope that a few of the children we spoke to feel inspired to keep on engaging with the natural world. Maybe we'll see some of them joining BSBI at some point in the future. What's that they say about little acorns... 
All images taken by me and Ryan. Click on them to enlarge.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Learning about plant ID with BSBI and partners

BSBI botanists are active in helping people learn more about how to identify wildflowers, and we do this both under the BSBI banner and in conjunction with partners.

Botanist and BSBI member Falgunee Sarker got in touch a few weeks ago to tell me about a training day she was involved in and to ask if I could send her some BSBI leaflets to distribute to those attending the session. I was happy to do this (if you are organising a training session and would like some leaflets, just email me and I'll post you some material). 

Falgunee has now sent the images on this page and says "The Woodland Plants and Flowers Training Day was organised by Heart of Teesdale Landscape Partnership on 9th May 2015. The study day was led by Falgunee Sarker, Elizabeth Elliott and Carole Sobkowiak, members of Darlington and Teesdale Naturalists' Field Club. 

"Twelve people participated in this free event. The course provided basic identification knowledge of flowers, grasses, sedges, rushes and ferns. All the attendants were encouraged to join the BSBI".

Environmental consultant and BSBI member Nick Law is also involved in helping people learn more about identifying wildflowers. He is organising training sessions as part of BSBI's involvement with the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS), which includes delivery of the training element. 

Nick says "I have put together a series of 6 one-day plant identification workshops - the aim is to try and help NPMS volunteers with some of the more difficult groups, so that they can progress from recording at Wildflower Level up to Indicator Level". 

Here are the dates and locations of the six workshops and the groups of plants on which they focus:  

Monday 8th June              Reading University, Berkshire                    Grasses
Saturday 13th June           Fearby, North Yorkshire                             Sedges
Wednesday 17th June      Lockington, Derby                                      Grasses
Tuesday 23rd June           Willand, Devon                                           Sedges
Wednesday 15th July       Hockwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk                   Aquatic Plants
Saturday 18th July            Weobley, Herefordshire                             Ferns

You can see more detail on the Training and Events page of the NPMS website and can contact Nick directly for more information. Nick also tells me "In addition to these workshops, over the coming months I will be putting together some 'crib sheets' as additional information to supplement the Species Identification Guide [this is sent out free of charge to people who register for the scheme]. Once the first recording season gets under way we will be reviewing and responding to other training needs as and when they arise". 

Monday 18 May 2015

Speakers announced for BSBI Annual Summer Meeting

Coastline next to the Giant's Causeway: we visit
this site during the ASM
Image: J. Faulkner
We've already heard about some of the amazing locations for excursions we will be visiting during the four days of this year's Annual Summer Meeting, running 12th-16th June.

Now the speakers have been announced and - as always at BSBI's two big meetings of the year, the ASM and AEM - we have some really interesting talks to look forward to. 

Oysterplant Mertensia maritima: we should see
this plant during the ASM
Image: I. Denholm
The main session of talks will be on Saturday morning, 13th June. The session will be chaired by Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington, Emeritus Senior Lecturer in Botany at NUI Galway. 

You can find out more about Micheline here: note her impressive publications list and that she is also Director of the Plant and Ecology Research Unit at NUI Galway. 

She will be introducing four speakers:

1. John Faulkner, Chair of BSBI's Committee for Ireland, County Recorder for Armagh VC H37) and author of the Rare Plant Register and also former Director of Natural Heritage at the organisation now known as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. He will be giving us an introduction to botany in Ulster. 

Giant's Causeway, an ASM site
Image: J. Faulkner
2. Patrick Casement will be offering a talk entitled 'Reflections on the North Coast'. Patrick has a long and impressive pedigree including being former Chair of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, former Chair of the National Trust Regional Committee, and former Chair of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group in Northern Ireland.

Dactylorhiza cf purpurella: Ian
will be on hand for Orchid IDs
Image: J. Faulkner
3. Ian Enlander is the Head of Ornithology and Geology at the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and his talk is called 'The Geological Underground'. 

4. Paul Corbett is Head of the Habitat Survey Team at the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and will be talking to us about 'Vegetation and Habitats'. 

After these talks, we will have lunch and then pile into a coach hired for the purpose and head off for an afternoon in the field at some spectacular sites - details on these are here, here and there is more info to follow in the next few days. 

We should see Geranium pratense but it has a
restricted distribution in N. Ireland
Image: J. Faulkner
We return for the Conference dinner, after which we have more informal after-dinner talks by BSBI President Ian Denholm and also by Lynne Farrell, co-Chair of BSBI Meetings & Communications Committee, co-Editor of the Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain (2005), former Hon Gen Sec of BSBI and County Recorder for Mid-Ebudes (VC 103) aka the Isle of Mull. 

Lynne is also an alumnus (alumna?) of the University of Ulster at Coleraine and will no doubt have some interesting observations on campus life then and now!

If you haven't booked yet for the ASM, head over here for more details, a flyer, a booking form and a secure payment facility. 

Sunday 17 May 2015

Hebridean Recording Extravaganza: Part 4

Viola tricolor on sand dunes
Image: G. Hall
To complete our coverage of this year's recording in the Outer Hebrides, I asked Dr Geoffrey Hall, VC Recorder for Leicestershire (VC55) to send us an account of his week on North Uist and to tell us how botanising in the Outer Hebrides compares with botanising in the English Midlands. Here is Geoffrey's account:

"Disembarking from the ferry at Lochboisdale, the drive to the house we will be staying in for a week crosses moorland, picturesque fishing villages, small settlements of modern houses with ruins of more ancient dwellings nearby and white, sandy beaches of a perfection found only in holiday brochures.  

Some of the team: Stephen, Beth, Mary & Paul (l to r)
Image: G. Hall

"Accompanying Paul this week are Stephen, the recorder for North Ebudes, Mary and David from France and Beth, who’s a student at Kew. We’re soon out recording; the first day’s rain curtailed our efforts, but three hours later we had a respectable species list for some inland grassland, heath and marsh and a good introduction to Hebridean weather.

"Over the following days, recording trips to sand dunes, coastal marshes and heather-clad hills, and boat trip to the uninhabited island of Wiay produce more species lists and a better knowledge of the flora and of the terrain. 

Botanising at Aird a Mhorain
Image: G. Hall
"The most striking feature is the lack of trees; planted conifers and shelter belts for smart hotels contrast with miniature woodlands of Heather, Bog Myrtle, Eared and Creeping Willows with the occasional Rowan sentinel. Here, Willows are a lot easier to identify than the seemingly infinite combinations the lowlands produce, but sedges are more diverse and the jizz of hybrid sundews are not part of my standard botanical experience.

"The open access to land in Scotland contrasts with the private, fenced-off, policed lowlands. Recording is a lot easier, and the anxiety of being “where you shouldn’t be” rapidly subsides. Deer fences provide a substantial obstacle, and unforeseen bog pools, hidden creeks in saltmarsh and patches of oozing, welly-thieving marsh make the going slow and treacherous at times. 

Neottia cordata on North Uist
Image: G. Hall
"I wonder if you can truly be a Hebridean botanist, if you’ve not found yourself waist-deep in water, or tumbled down a mountain, blown off your feet by the gales. The wind shapes the landscape: the magnificent 2m tall specimen of Verbascum grandiflorum I found in a country park at home wouldn’t manage that height here, although it might manage 2m horizontally!

"In some ways, the flat, open landscapes resemble the vast fields of lowlands agri-business, and both moorlands and islands can be as species-poor, if numbers alone are considered. But I wish I could find a handful of the species I see here back home, and these lands still retain the wildness lost from nearly all of the lowlands. And there is a lot of water – so many pools and creeks and marshes and bogs; it is painful to be reminded how much of the lowlands has been drained for agriculture and recreation and how much wetland habitat has been lost.

Stunning scenery on North Uist
Image: G. Hall
"Planning trips requires much effort; the day’s itinerary can be determined by the prevailing weather, the time of tides, and distance: often, a 2-3 km walk over rough terrain is needed before reaching the desired tetrad, sometimes a 30 min trip by sea: and the wind impedes progress, making walking an effort. It’s a good place to keep fit and I can’t imagine there is a lucrative market for the sale of gym treadmills around here.

Waiting for the return ferry (in Hebridean sunshine!)
Image: G. Hall

 "The company of other botanists is always good, swapping tips, experience and ideas, and Paul’s and Stephen’s skills in vegetative identification are highly developed, although they modestly claim that this is necessary when the recording season is so short. 

"Long days are followed by evenings finishing off the day’s identifications and watching Paul press dandelions, which is much more interesting and informative than watching television. Producers of reality TV shows have missed a trick there".

Thanks to Geoffrey for this account - and you can see a photo of Geoffrey in his usual habitat on the back of the April issue of BSBI News, where he's taking part in the New Year Plant Hunt in VC55!

Saturday 16 May 2015

Which wildflower ID key to use?

If the new botanical season is prompting you to buy a new wildflower ID key, to make it easier to identify any plants that you find, and you are unsure which one to buy, this may help: 

John Poland (on right) signs a copy of his Vegetative Key
Image: L. Marsh  
It's a very useful and objective review by Philip Oswald of BSBI's Publications Committee, originally published in Taxon and reproduced here by kind permission of Rudi Schmid at Taxon

Once you are ready to buy a new key, why not take a look at the website of a dedicated natural history bookseller such as the NHBS or Summerfield Books - the latter has a great range of titles and often has discounted offers on books. 

I see that Poland & Clement's Vegetative Key to the British Flora is currently on special offer at £21.75 (the RRP is £24.99). So there's no reason to struggle with an ID key that you have outgrown!

Friday 15 May 2015

Botanical find of the year? Hebridean recording Part 3

Mibora minima on North Uist
I promised you news of an exciting discovery from this year's Hebridean recording extravaganza and the photos have now come in. 

While out with VC Recorder Paul Smith last week, sharp-eyed Oli Pescott spotted a species which is apparently new for Scotland as a native "wild plant" although it is known as an introduction. 

The team has since been back to take photographs and count how many individuals are in the population. Over to Paul:

"As promised, here are some pictures of our find of the week: Early sand-grass Mibora minima, which is new for Scotland. Around 1,000 plants in quite specific habitat on dunes in the machair, many of them very tiny (about half the height of a 5p coin). 

"It is reputedly the smallest grass in the world (I'm borrowing Stephen Bungard's phrase here - he has also posted about the discovery of Mibora minima on his Skye & Raasay blog). The image on the left shows Stephen in surveying mode. 

Apparently Mibora minima isn't new for Scotland, where it has been known as an introduction in East Lothian (VC82). [Take a look at this map on the BSBI database, showing where this plant grows and how little there is of it in UK]. "But this is probably the first native locality, and a big range extension. I'll write it up in more detail for BSBI News in due course."

We'll all look forward to reading more about this find of the week (of the year, surely?) in the next issue of BSBI News. The image on the right - which I suspect will also appear in BSBI News - shows how tiny the plant is, so Oli deserves a huge round of applause for spotting it!

In the meantime, another of the Hebridean recording team has sent me an account of his week on North Uist, contrasting it with his home county in the English Midlands where he is VC Recorder. 

Watch this space!

Thursday 14 May 2015

Botanical snippets for May

1. Lots of botanists are gearing up for Monday's international 'Fascination of Plants Day'. Dr M is running this event at University of Reading, in Oxford there is an event at Harcourt Arboretum and in Liverpool, the World Museum, University of Liverpool and Ness Gardens are joining forces to put on this event. Find out more about events around the country for FoPD here.

2. Cambridge Botanic Garden is also holding its third annual Festival of Plants on Saturday, again under the FoPD banner.

3. Thanks to Kath Pryce for spotting the letter (above right) in Country Life magazine. A reader enquires if her collections of pressed wildflowers from the 1950s could be put to any use today. I wonder if Country Life would like to run an article on herbaria

Embedded image permalink4. The new Flora of Derbyshire has just been launched to great fanfare. Many congratulations to authors Alan Willmot, BSBI Recorder for Derbyshire (VC57), and to Nick Moyes. The image on the left shows Dr Willmot at the launch earlier this evening.

5. And finally, a BSBI member who is selling her 15 acre smallholding in Aberdeenshire has been in touch. She tells us she has planted many wildflowers on the site such as Scottish primrose, trees including junipers and old varieties of apple, and has created wildlife habitats. She is only selling up due to ill-health and hopes that a plant-lover may be interested in buying the property and keeping the gardens going.  If interested, email me and I can put you in touch with the owner so you can find out more.  

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Outer Hebrides Recording Extravaganza 2015: Part Two

Alison and Oli looking for Erophila
More reports coming in from Paul Smith and his merry band of botanists on North Uist. The other day they were up a hill looking at Wild Garlic and now they are exploring a different and distinctively Hebridean habitat, the machair.  

Paul says "We've spent a few days on the sand dunes looking at little annuals on the machair, including Erophila and Saxifraga tridactylites

Cerastium semidecandrum
"Oli [Pescott] has also been doing a start turn finding things, and has turned up good believable Cerastium semidecandrum, a bit doubtfully known from vc110 beforehand."

Oli has been working so hard as one of the key players behind the new National Plant Monitoring Scheme, so it's great to hear that he's getting a bit of a break away from his computer and his day job at CEH. It's always good to get out in the field! 

Paul has also tipped me off about a really exciting discovery made by Oli, so I'll be posting that in a few days, along with pictures. Watch this space! 

Trying very hard not to be jealous about the lovely scenery they are seeing while botanising...

Paul photographing Cerastium semidecandrum

Monday 11 May 2015

Outer Hebrides Recording Extravaganza 2015: Part One

This year's recording has already started on North Uist, with Paul Smith (VC Recorder for the Outer Hebrides and also Chair of Records & Research Committee) and his trusty team of botanists hard at work a little earlier than in previous years

They have already enjoyed the usual Hebridean mixture of glorious sunshine and horizontal rain -  which, in the Western Isles, often occur on the same day! 

Paul said "We've been busy with Taraxacum (following on from the impetus of John Richards' Hampshire Taraxacum weekend, which was great) - the photo on the right shows Oli [Pescott] and me processing the day's catch (which takes significant effort in the evenings). 

"There are lots of section Erythrosperma on the sand dunes which look rather pretty, as well as some rather chunky species close to habitation. But they're in pretty good condition at this end of the country (although they are all over in Hampshire now).

"We also had a trip to Eaval, the biggest hill on North Uist (but not very big - only 347m), refinding some of the old records for Salix herbacea (on the summit) and Allium ursinum (on the north side below the cliffs). Allium ursinum is uncommon in vc110, and has a funny distribution - this population is an outlier from others in the Uists. But there are still some old records that need refinding for Eaval."

The pic on the left shows Paul on Eaval with Allium ursinum and if you click here you can see its distribution map. Click here to see the map for Salix herbacea.

Saturday 9 May 2015

Patterns of Flora on Raasay, off the Isle of Skye

Pyrola rotundifolia
Image: S. Bungard
Many thanks to Dr Stephen Bungard, County Recorder for North Ebudes (that's the Isle of Skye to most of us!) He has been in touch to tell us about a project he is involved in which brings together art and botany on the lovely island of Raasay off the east coast of Skye. Raasay is home to Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean who can be heard here reciting his poem 'Hallaig' set to music by Martyn Bennett. The video includes images from the Isle of Raasay. 

The project is organised by ATLAS Arts, and is called Patterns of Flora: Mapping Seven Raasay Habitats. It is being launched with a weekend of activities taking place during the weekend of 6th - 7th June. Stephen collaborated with organisers to identify the seven habitats and will also be offering guided botanical walks during the weekend. The project also features the work of ceramicist Frances Priest.

Ophioglossum azoricum
Image: S. Bungard
More details about the project can be found here, Stephen's website is here, his blog about the plants he sees on Skye, Raasay and the Small Isles is here, and you can see Stephen's Flora of Raasay and Rona here

For images and more information on the plants of Skye, Carl Farmer's website is here and this blog by BSBI Treasurer Terry Swainbank focuses on the wildlife he sees on his croft on Skye.  

Friday 8 May 2015

Watercolours and photographs of wildflowers

Viper's Bugloss at Burham, Kent
Image: D. Steere
Paintings and photos of plants can be very helpful for botanists keen to improve their ID skills, as well as being beautiful in their own right. So, many thanks to both Cambridge botanist Monica Frisch, who sent the details below about an art exhibition in Cambridge, and also to Kent-based wildlife enthusiast and amateur photographer David Steere, whose images can be seen both on Twitter and on his wildlife blog. He kindly provided the images of Viper's Bugloss which grace this page. 

Monica said "A wonderful exhibition of botanical art has just opened at Clare Hall in Cambridge, with a focus on the special plants of the Breckland. As botanists know, the Breckland, an area of dry sandy heath in East Anglia, is one of the richest botanical hotspots in the UK with an assemblage of specialist plants not found elsewhere in the UK. 

Echium vulgare var, albiflora from Dungeness, Kent
Image: D. Steere
"Many are very tiny and easily overlooked, while others may be larger but very rare. A group of East Anglian artists have been working for the past three years to paint the wild flowers of the Breckland. Some of their paintings are now on display at Clare Hall until 24th June 2015.

"Most are watercolours, of great beauty and accuracy, showing the details of the plants, such as the hairs on Viper's Bugloss or the individual flowers of Military Orchid. 

"The advantage of paintings over photographs is that all the extraneous clutter of leaves, grass and other plants can be omitted, allowing the individual plant to stand out and be admired in all its glory. 

Viper's Bugloss from Larch Wood, Detling, Kent
Image: D. Steere
"While the paintings of the Breckland plants are not for sale, because it is hoped that the collection will be published, the exhibition also contains many other equally attractive botanical paintings. 

"At the opening on 7th May, John Parker, former Director of Cambridge Botanic Garden, gave a brief introduction to the Breckland and explained how valuable high quality botanical art is to the scientific understanding of plants. 

"Brief botanical notes accompany all the pictures. If you are anywhere near Cambridge it is well worth visiting. The Clare Hall Gallery is open daily from 9am to 6pm and the Iceni Botanical Artists exhibition is on until 24th June 2015".

Thanks again to Monica and to David. If you know of any exhibitions of botanical art, whether paintings or photographs, please email me at so I can share them here. 

Wednesday 6 May 2015

New resource for heathland managers

Boldrewood Heath, New Forest
Image: C. Chatters
Martin Rand, VC Recorder for South Hampshire, has been in touch to tell us about a new resource which he describes a "terrific piece of work" which will "strike a chord with many BSBI members". 

The work in question is a report called 'Our Heaths: a summary of the evidence which informs the management of heathlands for wildlife' and you can download it free of charge from the website of Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust here.

Pilularia globulifera
Image: C. Chatters
The author is Clive Chatters, Head of Conservation (Policy and Evidence) at the Trust. Clive told me "the purpose of this report is to meet the needs of those who want to have a deeper understanding of why we manage heaths, particularly why we graze them". 

Crab Tree Bog, New Forest
Image: C. Chatters
As the report points out, species such as Pilularia globulifera require well-illuminated, bare open heathland habitats and if these scrub over, the species will be negatively impacted. That's why grazing (at the right pressure and at the right times) is so important.

A quick look through shows that the names Pearman and Rackham and Rose are cited and the references, which extend over 7 pages, show that this is a serious piece of work, hence Martin's enthusiasm. Nicely written too - there is a great quote from Francis Rose in there, on the subject of grazing: "The JCB is this interglacial's woolly mammoth" and Clive notes Rose's influence on the Trust's management of heathlands.

If you are actively involved in heathland management, why not take a look at the report and leave a comment below, letting us know what you think?