Thursday 31 December 2015

Countdown to the New Year Plant Hunt

Seen in flower at Glengarriff NR,
Co. Cork, Republic of Ireland
during New Year Plant Hunt 2015
Image: C. Heardman
Courtesy of Glengarriff NR.
The calm before the storm... BSBI's fifth consecutive New Year Plant Hunt kicks off at dawn tomorrow - unless Oisin Duffy decides to repeat his party trick from last year and heads out just after midnight to photograph the first flowering plant of the year! We gave Oisin a prize for sheer nerve.

For normal people, the Hunt kicks off at sunrise tomorrow and Ryan and I will be manning the virtual desks. We'll be responding to enquiries at and receiving the photos and lists you send us there of plants in flower under the New Year Plant Hunt rules. These are very simple and are here, along with a link for our new on-line form to make it even easier for you to submit your records. 

Ryan will be concentrating on processing the data and I'll be helping people who send us their observations via the BSBI Facebook page and the BSBI Twitter account. And I'll be keeping you updated regularly on this News & Views blog! 

Ivy-leaved Toadflax seen by Phoebe
in Brighton & Hove.
New Year Plant Hunt 2015.
Image: P. O'Brien
With so much interest in the New Year Plant Hunt this year, Ryan and I realised that we would have our work cut out for us. But hey presto, this is the BSBI where we all work together to get the job done, so we're delighted to report that we have two rather special helpers.

Dr Ian Denholm has only just stood down as BSBI President and tomorrow he takes over as Editor-in-Chief of New Journal of Botany, but Ian has also offered to do a shift on the New Year Plant Hunt desk. 

He'll be working with Ryan on Saturday afternoon to handle your enquiries and incoming data while I go out Plant Hunting with the VC55 group.

Gorse seen in bloom by Karen in Devon.
New Year Plant Hunt 2015
Image: K. Woolley
BSBI Head of Science Dr Kevin Walker has also stepped up to the plate. Not only has he agreed to take a look at Ryan's analysis of results next week, bringing us his considerable knowledge and experience to help us draw some meaningful conclusions from the first five years of the New Year Plant Hunt, but when he heard that we were going to be really busy, Kevin very kindly offered to roll his sleeves up and man the desks on Sunday so Ryan can have a break. 

Kevin also took a look at last year's results and couldn't resist coming up with a cool graph and a few thoughts. You can read his analysis here.

The man himself has already been out doing a New Year Plant Hunt dry-run with his family so I'll leave the last word to him: 

. out with my 4 year old today and recorded 17 plants in flower! Why not get your kids out to look tomorrow?

Wednesday 30 December 2015

Botanical snippets for December

For the botanist who takes one look out of the window and opts to curl up with a warm laptop instead, here are a few botanical bits and bobs you might want to take a look at:

Spurge-laurel Daphne laureola
Blooming at Dancersend NR,
Bucks., 28/12/2015.
Image: R. Clark
1. New on the BSBI's plant Identification page, this Key to Balsam Poplars by Andy AmphlettBSBI's County Recorder for Banffshire.

2. A fascinating paper here by Quentin Groom et al. - including several BSBI County Recorders - titled 'A benchmark survey of the common plants of south Northumberland and Durham' and here is Quentin's blogpost about the paper.

3. An inspiring blogpost by New Year Plant Hunt Co-ordinator Ryan Clark about his many contributions to biological recording this past year.

4. A date for your diaries, if you'd like to hear a talk on Carnivorous Plants in Winchester on 9th January. The talk is sponsored by the excellent Hants. Flora Group - details on their homepage here

5. Three British Ecological Society Guides to Better Science available free to download here.  

6. If you are concerned about botanical diversity at a global scale, you may be interested in these plans for a new Plant Conservation Nursery. Robbie has also written a note about this project, to be published in the January issue of BSBI News (which is only available to BSBI members, sorry!).

7. Want some further reading? Try this review of five recently-published botany books by the notorious Dr. M. or head over to Summerfield Books' website here

That lot should keep us all entertained until it's time for the New Year Plant Hunt to start! 

What’s flowering right now near where you live?

Image courtesy of Floral Images
One of the best ways to improve your botanical ID skills is to keep a close eye on your local patch and note what you see in flower, even on a quick walk to the shops. And a good way to keep those ID skills sharp over winter is to keep right on looking and recording, because there is nearly always something in flower, especially after a warm autumn such as we’ve enjoyed this year. 

So it was great to hear recently from Monica Frisch in Cambridge who has long been keeping her eyes open during winter! Over to Monica, who has been out winter botanising in the run-up to the New Year Plant Hunt:

"Since I started keeping lists as part of the Wild Flower Society's Winter Months' Hunt for plants in flower during December, January and February, I've discovered just how many plants will continue flowering if the weather is mild, or if they get going early. It gives an objective to a winter walk, and one learns more about which plants flower when. 

White dead-nettle
Image courtesy of Floral Images
"So some, such as goosegrass or stinging nettle can be found, and identified all year round, but only flower for a much shorter period. Others, such as daisies, dandelions, shepherd's purse and white dead-nettle, seem to be in flower in every month of the year.

"On 19th December I went out looking for plants for the first time this month – it has been wet a lot of the time and the short days preclude evening botanising – and have come home after a couple of hours with a list of 25 species. My route was suburban southern Cambridge, about 2 ½ miles round trip from my house, and most of the plants were, as one might expect, weedy species, including all those mentioned above. And all were, I think, species which either flower all the year round or have a long flowering period. None was a spring thing appearing early, though I did see (but not count) winter aconites in flower in one garden!

Fox-and-cubs, Cherry Hinton High St.
Cambridge. 19/12/2015
Image: M. Frisch
"But there was one unexpected, though not rare, plant which always gives me pleasure when I find it: Fox-and-cubs, Pilosella aurantiaca. It is such a glorious colour and I don't come across it that often, though I have found it on previous occasions in suburban areas. This one was growing in a grassy area just off Cherry Hinton High Street.

"Last year's tally for December was 25 species, but not the same 25 species, so I feel I have got off to a good start. In total I recorded 54 species in flower in December 2014, January or February 2015, 12 of which I've found in flower every winter since I started in December 2009. This is less than in 2013-14 when I recorded 68 species – probably because I got out less last year as my mother needed more care following a fall. I shall make an effort to get out more this winter, or at least to look seriously for plants when I do get out, and shall see how this year's list compares".

Monday 28 December 2015

Daffodils in bloom - and how to identify them

Many of you have been in touch recently to report seeing daffodils in bloom already, and this article appeared in The Telegraph the other week - scroll down to see a quote by BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker

We did have one record of Narcissus sp. in flower during last year's New Year Plant Hunt but we are likely to get more this year, so I was thinking how nice it would be to go a little further in our daffodil identifications this year. 

And lo and behold, in came an email from Prof Mick Crawley, which should help us to do exactly that! 

Mick - who only last month wowed his audience at the BSBI Exhibition Meeting with a fascinating talk on Alien Plants and is co-author (with Clive Stace) of the recent 'Aliens' title in the New Naturalist series - is also an expert on the identification of garden plants such as snowdrops and daffodils. He is also the author of the Daffodil Key

Over to Mick:

"It would be great if you could record the daffodils that you find in flower on this year’s New Year Plant Hunt. There are only likely to be four of them, and they are very easy to tell apart.

 The all-yellow, classic early daffodil (top and above) is Narcissus 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation’ (pronounced Rhine-felt). 

This is the one that is in flower every year on New Year’s Day, and every year causes people with short botanical memories to comment on how early the Daffs are this year. 

It is a Division 1 (long trumpet) with yellow petals (the first of the two letters) and yellow trumpet (the second of the two letters). It is described as D1YY.

The white and yellow plant (above) is Narcissus ‘Spring Dawn’. 

Because the trumpet is shorter than the petals, this is classified as Division 2 (rather than its female parent 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation’, above, which is D1), so ‘Spring Dawn’ is D2WY.

Then there are two Division 8 cultivars (the Tazettas).

The yellow and orange (YO) one is Narcissus 'Grand Soleil d'Or' (above and above left). Narcissus 'Grand Soleil d'Or' is D8YO.

The all-white one (WW) is Narcissus ‘Paperwhite’ (on right and below). That's D8WW.

That is all there is to it. Please take photos of any other cultivars you find, and send them to me at I’m happy to try and name them for you".

Mick Crawley, Silwood Park, Ascot

Sunday 27 December 2015

New Year Plant Hunters are hatching their plans.

Species flowering in Co. Cork during 
New Year Plant Hunt 2015
Image courtesy of Glengarriff NR.
Across Britain and Ireland, and on social media platforms, plans are being hatched for local New Year Plant Hunts, when people head out to record what is in flower during the New Year holiday (1st-4th January). Last year's results are here - 368 species were recorded across Britain & Ireland and the weather has been milder this year so we may get more this time around.

You can take part in the New Year Plant Hunt on your own or with friends and family, in your local patch or while staying with relatives, and you can record for up to three hours. 

A few groups of plant-hunters are planning to head out en masse and are checking out local tearooms with decent cakes - you are allowed to "stop the clock" if you need refreshments! 

Some people are also wondering about local pubs for that essential post-Plant Hunt debrief and to look again at any tricky specimens. At least that's what Gail and members of the Warrington Plant Group told me. And anyone heading out with Oisin, Mairead and new BSBI President John Faulkner to record in the Newry/Ring of Gullion area of Northern Ireland is promised a 'warm drink' at the end of their New Year Plant Hunt. 

Viola odorata flowering by The Thames,
Boxing Day 2015.
Image: M. Robinson
The theme of New Year Plant Hunters rewarding themselves or others with food and drink escalates into full-scale botanical bribery in the English Midlands, with ace botanist Brian "Eagle-eyes" Laney being courted by several local groups to join their Plant Hunts. He plans to join Alyson's North Northants group for one of the four days of the Hunt but John and Monika in Warks. are running their first Plant Hunt in the county and are luring Brian over there with a bare-faced promise of wild flowers and cake. 

In 2013, Brian joined the Leics group on their New Year Plant Hunt, finding Geranium rotundifolium, new to the county. I was there and confirm that we all celebrated our new county record and its finder by heading off for tea and cake! But no one county should monopolise one of our top field botanists and this year he is also casting his eyes over to Shropshire, where Sarah and the Shropshire Botany Group will be out recording for the New Year Plant Hunt. Sarah's hospitality is legendary - there are even rumours of sherry and mince pies - but I'm sure Brian will be making his decision based on the wildflowers he might see. Of course he will.

Strawberry Tree in bloom in Co. Kerry,
New Year Plant Hunt 2015
Image: R. Hodd
Lots of people plan to head out on their own Plant Hunting - it's great fun with company but it's also a very good opportunity (excuse?) to get a few hours to yourself outdoors away from the social whirl and/or housework. Don't forget to tell your loved ones that you need to nip off for a few hours to help BSBI with vital research on how wild plants are responding to recent weather conditions and wider climatic patterns ;-)

Jerry will be heading out on his own in Notts on 1st January, and then plans to join the Leics Plant Hunters when they go out. Reuben in Norfolk is considering a solo Plant Hunt but may also want to join this Plant Hunt led by author and botanist Simon Harrap

Tim Rich with Smooth Hawksbeard
Cardiff area, December 2015
Taxonomist Sandy Knapp (Natural History Museum) tweeted "Is anybody doing the #NewYearPlantHunt in London?" so you can tweet right back at her if you are also out hunting in London. 
Botanists will be out Plant Hunting in DevonSkipton, YorkSussex and Uckfield, while George and Kate on Guernsey are going for their third Plant Hunt and Tim Rich, New Year Plant Hunt co-founder, will be out hunting for the fifth year in the Cardiff area. 

New Year Plant Hunts are also planned in Edinburgh and Co. Durham while over in the Republic of Ireland botanists are talking about the best dates for Plant Hunts in Dublin and Counties Kerry, Galway and Cork. For more details, contact BSBI Irish Officer Maria Long

With a week to go before New Year's Day, when the Plant Hunt starts, you still have time to arrange something locally. If you do, why not email me and Ryan here and tell us your plans? We can also help spread the word about local Plant Hunts via social media and on this News & Views blog.

Friday 25 December 2015

Merry Christmas botanists!

BSBI President John Faulkner sends seasonal greetings to all botanists! 

Our Christmas present to you all - prompted by John's recent trip to buy a Christmas tree - is this reminder of how to tell which genus your tree belongs to. And a wince-inducing mnemonic to help you remember which is which.

John Faulkner with Lodgepole Pine & Nordmann Fir
Image courtesy of J. Faulkner
Trees courtesy of Benny Martin & Son,
Charlemont, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland.  
The tree on the left of the photo is a Lodgepole pine Pinus contorta. The genus Pinus has needle-like leaves in clusters of 2, 3 or 5. 

The tree on the right of the photo is a Nordmann Fir Abies nordmanniana

It's fairly straightforward to separate Abies from Pinus, because Abies has leaves arranged singly along the twig, rather than in clusters.

But Abies can easily be confused with Picea, which also has leaves arranged singly along the twig - and Norway Spruce Picea abies is a very popular choice for a Christmas tree. Maybe this is why they had all sold out when John headed out to buy one! Twitter botanist Lophophanes tells us that Abies keeps its needles better than Picea but is more expensive to grow.

A good way to separate Abies and Picea is to stroke your tree, especially the twigs. You should be able to get away with such behaviour on Christmas Day! Do your twigs have peg-like projections or are they smooth to the touch?

Picea has Pegs Poking out. Abies 'Asn't Any At All.

After that low point, your day can only improve - have a great Christmas and remember to stroke a tree!

Thursday 24 December 2015

Last-minute Christmas present for a botanist!

Kevin Walker at the launch of  the
England Red List, RBG Kew, 2014
Image: L. Marsh
If you are visiting plant-loving friends or family members over Christmas, and are stuck for a last-minute present, try sitting them down with a cup of tea and this link while you go and do the washing-up for them. They will be able to enjoy a new batch of Species Accounts courtesy of the BSBI Science Team and you will accrue brownie points. 

Obviously, when you come to go through the Species Accounts yourself, you should allow several hours for this, as there 80 already published (and 10 more in the pipeline) and they all make fascinating reading for anyone interested in nature conservation. But at this stage, you may wish to reclassify them from 'gift' to 'essential research which precludes my doing any washing-up right now'.

Kevin's work does have certain advantages -
the views and the company can be amazing!
Image courtesy of K. Walker
The Science Team is behind some great resources for botanists, conservationists and academics - last year's England Red List is another example - so I asked BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker how the Species Accounts came about. Here's what he said: 

"I was always frustrated by the lack of accessible accounts for British species. The Biological Floras in the Journal of Ecology are excellent but these only cover a small number of species and are widely available. They’re also very academic and often don’t answer the questions we want answered. 

"So we trialled some accounts on the website. These generated a lot of interest which led to funding for us to produce more detailed accounts for a suite of threatened species. 

Antennaria dioica growing in profusion
on The Burren, Co. Clare, RoI
Image: K. Walker
"This proved that the demand was there and so we’ve been working away on them ever since and this year we finally managed to set up a webpage where anyone can access them for free. What we aim to do is cover species which are not well known but for which there is lots of useful information scattered amongst the literature. 

"Take Antennaria dioica for example. This is a species that is always nice to see but probably not a species that would generate much interest in the north and west. However, A. dioica (Mountain Everlasting) is vanishingly rare in much of England and Wales and appears to be declining for unknown reasons - Gentianella campestris (Field Gentian) is another example. It has a fascinating ecology that has attracted eminent ecologists such as Turesson. 

Kevin in the field with David Pearman,
BSBI President 1995-8
Image courtesy K. Walker
"As most botanists know, it’s a dioecious species with a predilection for short-turf on extremely nutrient-poor soils. That is not a good combination in the lowlands of England, where its populations have become smaller and more fragmented, except in a few places where large meta-populations have managed to survive with both male and female plants (e.g. on dunes in Cornwall). These insights have come from discussions with BSBI recorders and a review of the literature".

Some interesting thoughts from Kevin - something for us to mull over if festivities start to flag! Just before he headed home to spend Christmas with his family, I asked Kevin if he would come back in the New Year and do a full interview for us, telling us all about the Science Team and some of the projects they are involved in. He agreed and then, talking of New Year, I had to ask if our Head of Science would be taking part in the New Year Plant Hunt

Kevin said: "Yes, with the family in the woods around my village. We did a recce at the weekend and found at least three unexpected plants in flower and if this warm weather continues I’m sure we’ll have something to record!"

Tuesday 22 December 2015

What Ian did next...

Ian in the Herbarium at Univ Leicester -
holding the 'Botanists' Bible' by Clive Stace,
a fellow former BSBI President
Image: L. Marsh
Sorry these pages have been a bit quiet over the past week, but maybe I can make amends - I have some exclusive news for you!

When Ian Denholm stood down as President last month, making way for John Faulkner, the question on everyone's lips was: what will Ian do next? 

We knew he would continue as Co-Chair of Meetings & Communications Committee and as a BSBI trustee, but would that be enough? Maybe he was champing at the bit to get back to the huge orchid backlog which must have built up while he was busy being presidential? Ian is BSBI's co-Referee (with Prof Richard Bateman) for Orchids. Or maybe Ian was looking forward to a quiet life lecturing at University of Herts. and getting some jobs done in the garden?

Well, he's going to do all of the above but Ian is also taking on a new challenge. As of 1st January, he takes over from Richard Gornall as Editor-in-Chief of New Journal of Botany

Ian and Richard in the Herbarium Library at UoL
Image: L. Marsh
To prepare for taking on this new role, Ian and I attended a recent Round Table session for journal editors, run by Taylor & Francis, and he has also been up to the Editorial Office in Leicester to spend time with Richard and find out more about the Editor-in-Chief's role. Ian has published extensively but this will be the first time he will have taken on the editorship of a scientific journal. 

A reminder here that Richard (who was BSBI President from 2005 to 2008) was involved in New Journal of Botany from its inception, both as a key member of BSBI's Publications Committee and as the journal's first Editor-in-Chief since it was launched in 2011. 

Richard shows Ian how to use Editorial Manager,
the journal's electronic submission system
Image: L. Marsh
As Editorial Assistant during that time, I've had the privilege of helping Richard as he worked to establish a successor to our much-loved Watsonia which would meet the needs of the C21st botanist in north-west Europe. I've learned a huge amount watching him build up the journal and after five years New Journal of Botany is thriving, and was recently accepted for indexing by Scopus - another feather in Richard's cap and the result of a great deal of hard work over time by him and the brilliant team at Maney, our former publisher. 

We are already forging a closer working relationship with our new publisher, Taylor & Francis, and looking forward to the new opportunities they can offer us. And so Richard decided this was a good time to hand over the reins to a worthy successor, who had this to say about his predecessor: 

The handing over of the reins: Ian & Richard check
paperwork and try to ignore me taking photos!
Image: L. Marsh
“BSBI is indebted to Richard for his hard work and inspirational leadership of New Journal of Botany. Establishing a new journal in a highly competitive marketplace is far from a trivial task. I look forward to working with staff at Taylor & Francis in order to take full advantage of the latest technologies for enabling authors to maximise the reach and impact of their articles. I’m delighted that Louise is retaining her role as Editorial Assistant, and between us we will strive to make the experience of publishing in New Journal of Botany as positive and painless as possible.”

I'm delighted too and look forward to working with Ian and helping him build on Richard's excellent achievements. Lots of hard work ahead and Ian has big shoes to step into on the 1st January - much as John Faulkner did when he stepped into Ian's presidential shoes a few weeks ago. I think we're really lucky to have such talented people in the society! 

Richard (seen here with Zhuoxin in the Alps)
will have more time to devote to his beloved
Saxifrages! This one is S. aizoides
Image courtesy of R. Gornall
Oh and just in case you were wondering how much of your BSBI membership subscription was going to line the pockets of BSBI Presidents or Editors-in-Chief of New Journal of Botany for all their hard work... The answer is absolutely nothing. 

Both posts are honorary and the holders put in long hours of unpaid service for one reason alone. They want to do all they can to promote the study, understanding and enjoyment of the wild plants of Britain and Ireland - and those just happen to be the aims of the BSBI!

Sunday 13 December 2015

BSBI welcomes John Faulkner, our new President

John at Garry Bog, BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
At last month’s Annual General Meeting, BSBI voted in a new President, John Faulkner. 

As outgoing President Ian Denholm would no doubt agree, the workload attached to this voluntary role can be pretty hefty so, before John’s inbox starts filling up with weighty presidential matters, I asked him to offer us an exclusive interview so we can all find out a bit more about our new President.    

LM: John, congratulations on being voted in (unanimously!) as BSBI's new President. You've been in post for a fortnight now and News & Views readers will want to know - how does it feel to be at the helm of the leading botanical society in Britain and Ireland?

John offers ID tips at the Umbra,
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
JF: The President has a responsibility to help BSBI keep moving forwards, and I feel very honoured and somewhat apprehensive to have been asked to take on such a role. So far it has not been a heavy burden, but perhaps this is the honeymoon period! If I have a concern, it would be that my plans to produce a County Flora will suffer.

Photographing Arabis hirsuta at the Umbra
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
Your question does remind me of a similar one that used to be asked in the 1970-80s: “how does it feel to be living in Northern Ireland?” My stock answer, accompanied by a shoulder shrug, was that my cornflakes tasted no different from anywhere else. In other words, daily life went on as usual, despite the bombings and shootings you hear about from the media. 

I think you’d have been justifiably annoyed if I gave you that kind of answer, but in truth the weight of office has not really landed on me yet. 

LM: I'll try asking you that question again in a few months! Before you talk about your plans for the society, could you tell us how you first got interested in botany - has it been a lifelong passion?

John demonstrates the 2m "height" of
culms of Carex x boenninghausiana
Muckross, Killarney, BSBI AGM 2013
Image courtesy J. Faulkner
JF: Funnily enough, I don’t really know the answer to that one, but I recall one incident that led to me becoming interested in wildlife generally. At the age of nine, I was walking with my family in the Peak District, and my sister suddenly stopped me in my tracks to prevent me treading on a caterpillar.
I picked it up and took it home, where an older girl who lived next door identified it as a Northern Eggar. I tried to rear it to an adult moth, but despite failing I was from then on bitten by the moth bug, and naturally gravitated towards biology and other sciences at school. 

LM: So you went on to study at...

JF: I was fortunate to get a place to study at Oxford. The first year was a common grounding for all biologists, but any inclination I might have had to study zoology waned when we were expected to experiment on the nervous system of pithed frogs. 

John and botanists at the Umbra
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
I considered doing Agricultural Science, partly because some of the best botanists in the University were in the Agriculture Department, but eventually settled for Botany, where my academic tutor was “Heff” Warburg of Clapham Tutin & Warburg fame, and a previous President of BSBI (1965-7).

LM: Was that when you first joined BSBI? How did that come about?

JF: After graduating, I stayed on at Oxford to do a DPhil. To stay in Oxford was probably not the wisest decision in scientific career terms, as I had planned to do it under Heff’s supervision, but he had died within a week or two of my finals, and my first year was spent under a temporary supervisor who was not interested in my work. 

Wildflowers are usually encouraged
in John & Gillian's garden, but some
(like this Dandelion) 
need a little restraint!
Image courtesy J. Faulkner
Though I might not have admitted it at the time, the real reason for staying was that my girlfriend was staying in Oxford to do a Dip Ed. As things turned out, however, it was one of the best decisions I have ever taken as we stayed together until she died some 37 years later. 

The DPhil was experimental taxonomic work on sedges. The original concept was hatched when Heff was alive, with advice from Clive Jermy. After a year or so, John Richards arrived in the department and took over my supervision, which was a stroke of luck as he brought a fresh outlook and good advice at a time it was needed. It was early on in my spell as a research student that I joined BSBI.

LM: And then you went to work in Northern Ireland and eventually rose there to become Director of Natural Heritage in the Department of the Environment?

JF: After Oxford, I went to work for the then Ministry of Agriculture for Northern Ireland as a grass breeder and also lectured in Agricultural Genetics at The Queen’s University of Belfast. I was appointed to be scientific assistant to the head of the grass breeding programme, but before I took up the post he had moved on to a more senior post. 

John examines a fern on the Isle of Lewis;
Outer Hebrides Recording Week 2014
Image: L. Marsh
He was not replaced, so I was de facto head of the programme as soon as I started, which necessitated a steep learning curve. The outcome was that I stayed for 16 years, with a role that evolved to encompass amenity grasses and various other crops. Eventually, I moved across Departments into a new post heading up the scientific side of conservation.

John (on left) & Gillian in the bar, Univ Coleraine
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh 
LM: With so many responsibilities, were you able to get out and do much field botany during this period? 

JF: Only to a negligible extent within my official work! During my time as a grass breeder, I was fortunate to live very close to my office, lab and main trial grounds, so there was some spare time for botany, subject to the demands of young children and a large garden. 

Later, that spare time declined as I had a rather long commute into Belfast every day. 

LM: Did you have any chance to travel further afield or did you focus on your local patch?

JF: I have not done much serious plant recording outside my local VC and other counties in Ulster, but have always enjoyed dabbling with the flora of wherever I happen to be. 

John grapnelling for Pondweeds;
Outer Hebrides Recording Week 2014
Image: L. Marsh
My favourite area to visit is the North-west of Scotland, especially the Outer Hebrides where I first went on a family holiday in 1950, and have since returned at least 20 times. 

At one time or another, I have visited every continent apart from Antarctica. Several years ago, I went on a wonderful organised trip to Yunnan in South-west China in 2007, where we were travelling in the footsteps of some of the renowned plant hunters of earlier generations. 

Most of my travelling, however, has been done in circumstances where I had to take into account the interests of those I was with, rather than focus exclusively on plants. My second wife, Gillian, is very tolerant, but there are limits to how much I can expect her to put up with on holiday. 

Dave Riley and Ian Denholm join John
in a botanical huddle!
The Umbra, BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: O. Duffy
LM: When did you become a Vice-County Recorder (VCR) and - the big question for any VCR right now - how are you getting on with recording for Atlas 2020?

JF: I took on the VCR role in Co. Armagh (H37) in 1991. Apart from my predecessor, Norah Dawson, I was the only other BSBI member resident in the county. The demands of work at that time meant that I was able to act in little more than a caretaker role at first. 

In any case, there were parts of the county where you would have been be a little reluctant to go nosing around in search of plants in case you were suspected of something far less innocent. 

Since retiring in 2005, however, I have been able to record most of the county quite thoroughly, mostly on my own, but also often in the company of Ian McNeill, the Co. Tyrone recorder. 

Mairead, Maria, John, Donncha & Oisin
at Binevenagh, BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
My chief remaining gaps are not geographical but taxonomic, ie the genera for which my ID skills are inadequate, and there are probably more of those than I care to admit!

LM: In recent years you have also taken on the role of Chair of the Committee for Ireland and you have been a driving force behind some very successful meetings and conferences - botany really seems to be flourishing in Ireland

JF: Most of the credit must go to Maria Long. Since her appointment as part-time Irish Officer in 2012, there has been a marked increase in activity, and several high-profile events such as conferences and recording weeks. The BSBI’s Annual Summer Meeting has been held in Ireland in two of the last 5 years, and there has been an Irish Species Project underway for the last 2 years. 

John at Whitepark Bay, Northern Irish coast;
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
Recording for Atlas 2020 is pressing ahead, though of course there is still a great deal to do in many counties. Perhaps the most heartening thing of all is that we are seeing a new generation of Irish botanists taking part in our activities. No doubt Maria’s – and your – activities with social media have played an important part here.

LM: Yes, it’s great to see so many young Irish botanists interacting with Maria on Facebook and Twitter - I agree, she does an amazing job! So, the big question: What are the main issues you'd like to focus on during your presidency?

JF: It’s a fair question, but before I commit myself too firmly, it will be important for me to hear what others have to say and not charge in with too many preconceptions.  So I will be in listening mode for the next few months. 

John at Binevenagh
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
That said, it seems inescapable that two issues will feature very prominently. One is Atlas 2020. We must make sure that this is the best Atlas yet, building on the strengths of its predecessors and so far as possible overcoming their weaknesses. 

The other is that most mundane of all issues – money. When I joined the Society in 1967, all the officers were voluntary and members’ subscriptions covered nearly three quarters of its official expenditure. That is a model we have left behind long ago as it no longer works for a Society of our size and output. We depend on our very dedicated team of staff, but need to be constantly seeking out funds in order to maintain and strengthen our position.

The role of the President is not closely defined and we will be making one significant change. My predecessor, Ian Denholm, chaired not only the Council of BSBI but also its Board of Trustees, which is its top decision-taking body

Hannah, Ian & John consider a sedge;
The Umbra, BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
Although as President I shall be attending the Board meetings, I will not be chairing them, and at the moment I don’t know who will, as the Board members will elect their chairperson at the next meeting. 

This will, I hope, place me in a stronger position to act as a channel of communication and advice between the Board on the one hand and the Council and all the other elements within BSBI on the other.

Ian has done a superb job of steering BSBI through its early years under the new structure, and we all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. My own experience has been that he was a constant source of support during my spell chairing the Committee for Ireland, and I am sure there will be many others who could make similar observations. I am delighted that he is staying on as a member of the Board. 

John & Micheline lead botanists home from
Whitepark Bay; BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
LM: Thanks for answering all these questions, John. Can I invite you to come back in a few months and give us an update? And one final question for you: will our new President be taking part in this year’s New Year Plant Hunt?

JF: Yes, definitely. I am working with some local partners on a project to raise awareness of the flora of the Ring of Gullion area in South Armagh. One of our planned activities is a New Year Plant Hunt. It is an ideal opportunity as the project – for reasons beyond our control – has to be completed between September and March. Let’s hope the country isn’t blanketed with snow!