Monday 25 September 2017

BSBI's Threatened Plants Project: interview with Kevin Walker

Copy of the "TPP book" on Pete's desk
Image: P. Stroh
The Threatened Plants Project (TPP) was a five-year survey of the fortunes of 50 British wild flowers which the BSBI Science Team had reason to suspect might be in decline. The New Atlas of the British and Irish flora, published in 2002, showed that many had declined dramatically in distribution since the 1960s and consequently they were categorised as “threatened” in the Red Data Book for Great Britain published in 2005.

Between 2008 and 2013, more than 800 volunteers (mostly BSBI members) headed out to look for the target species at known locations (selected at random) and report back on the size and habitats of populations as well as management regimes and perceived threats. 

Once the data were received by the Science Team (which comprised BSBI Head of Science Dr Kevin Walker, BSBI Scientific Officer Dr Pete Stroh and BSBI Projects Officer Bob Ellis), they started work on processing thousands of TPP monitoring forms and analysing what it all meant. This was no mean feat, as the TPP was actually one of the most extensive sample-based surveys ever undertaken.

Kevin out recording in the field
Image: P. Stroh
Now that Threatened Plants in Britain and Ireland is about to be published, I asked lead author Kevin to tell us a little more about the project and what we have learned from it about our wild flowers.

LM: So Kevin, it must have been a monumental task processing and analysing so much data! We've all been following your progress via the BSBI Science and News pages. I bet you heaved a huge sigh of relief when you finally sent the text off to the publishers! 

KW: It was a huge task to analyse this amazing dataset and yes it was great to finally get it off to the printers but we did the easy bit really; it was the volunteers who did all the hard work, visiting thousands of populations, often in remote locations in all weathers. They deserve all the credit, because if it wasn’t for them there would be no book to publish.  

The Musk Orchid section in the "TPP book"
Image: P. Stroh 
LM: Agreed, three cheers for our amazing volunteers! But how did you decide which species to target?

KW: This was actually one of the most difficult bits of the whole project as we wanted to include species that were genuinely threatened as well as species we suspected might not be as threatened as their declines suggested, possibly because they were inconspicuous or occurred in remoter areas. We also wanted to make sure there was something for everyone to survey, from Cornwall to Shetland to County Clare. No mean feat in 50 species!

LM: And can you remind us what those 800+ recorders had to look out for, once they were out in the field? 

Kevin recording Alopecurus ovatus
Image: P. Stroh
KW: Prior to survey we randomly selected known populations for recorders to revisit – this meant that we weren’t biasing the survey to the best or most accessible sites. Recorders then visited the sites armed with a 100m or better grid ref and searched for the target noting the size and extent of the population where found as well as management, signs of regeneration, habitat (National Vegetation Community where known), associated species from within a quadrat and also any perceived threats to the plant on the site. The latter was recorded whether or not the target species was refound.

LM: So once people had recorded all that lot and sent you their forms - how did you process everything? 

KW: These data were digitised into a database.

Gentianella campestris
Image: Jeremy Roberts
LM: That sounds like another big job! Ok so what would you say are the key findings from the project?

KW: One of the main findings was the extent to which lack of management is now threatening plant species across a wide range of habitats. This is in marked contrast to the 1960s and 1970s when habitat loss was the key threat to most populations. These losses have largely been driven by changing economics of farming and in particular the decline in livestock production relative to arable and other ‘low intensity’ traditional practices such as coppicing. This has resulted in the cessation of management on many sites including nature reserves and SSSIs. Marginal lands have therefore become increasingly neglected whereas roadside verges have become less suitable for many species due to eutrophication and inappropriate cutting regimes.  

LM: Could you give us a couple of examples of that please?

KW: Field Gentian Gentianella campestris is a good example of a suite of species that have declined due to lack of management; this is a short-lived species of grasslands and heaths that doesn’t build-up a seedbank and has very limited dispersal ability. It is also a very poor competitor. It therefore disappears very quickly if grazing ceases and cannot recover even if management is restored. Heath Cudweed Gnaphalium sylvaticum has probably suffered a similar fate in the uplands.

Gnaphalium sylvaticum
Image: Mark Gurney
LM: So what - if anything - can be done about this?

KW: The absolute key is to ensure that surviving populations are managed appropriately, either through agri-environment schemes or by working directly with land owners. This will be essential for the future survival of plants confined to roadside verges for example. We also need to start to link up sites through habitat creation and management so that dispersal can occur, as well as reducing the amounts of nitrogen that are currently being deposited either from the air or agriculture. Introducing species should be seen as a last resort and only when conditions are right. And finally, we need to keep monitoring our threatened plants because without the amazing evidence collected by projects such as TPP we really have no idea of what is happening to them and why.

LM: Kevin, thank you so much for talking to us about the TPP, and of course for all the hard work that you, Bob and Pete have put into this project! We've only been able to scratch the surface in this interview so I'm sure lots of people will want to buy the TPP book once it's published next month. 

The back cover of Threatened Plants
in Britain and Ireland:
 many thanks
to the sponsors who helped
fund printing costs
Image: P. Stroh
The dedicated webpage for the TPP book is here and has links for people wishing to buy a copy but BSBI members can save money by taking advantage of the pre-publication offer: click here to land on the members-only area of the BSBI website (you'll need to have your password to hand) and you will save £5 on the cost of the TPP book.

If you haven't yet joined BSBI, why not check out this page? It lists all the benefits of BSBI membership and there's a secure payment option, making it very quick and easy for you to become a BSBI member and start getting involved

October really is the ideal month in which to join BSBI if you haven't already! The pre-publication offer on the TPP book runs until the end of October and of course if you join BSBI after 1st October, you get three "free" months and then your subscription starts in January and runs until the end of 2018. 

Don't worry that you've missed out on taking part in the TPP - we have lots of other great projects to which you can contribute once you are a BSBI member!  

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