Sunday 30 June 2019

Recording the Lesser Butterfly Orchid: interview with LBO Species Recovery Project Officer Mike Waller

The lovely Lesser Butterfly Orchid is coming into bloom and BSBI and Plantlife are coming together to ask you to record this iconic plant which is in decline across Britain and Ireland. Plantlife has recently appointed a new Project Officer, Mike Waller, to lead on recording and monitoring the Lesser Butterfly Orchid which is classified as Vulnerable on the GB Red List and Endangered on the England Red List. I caught up with Mike to find out what he wants botanists to do – and why it’s so important.

LM: So Mike, you took up your new post in May. Before you tell us about the project and your role, can you tell us a bit about yourself - what were you doing before you joined Plantlife?

MW: Before Plantlife I was a trainee at the Natural History Museum for one year followed by a three-year stint with London Wildlife Trust as one of their Conservation Ecologists. Spending time in the big city taught me a lot about urban ecology the challenges it faces and how wildlife, and particularly plants, are adapting to a rapidly changing environment. Looking further back, I’ve always been a wildlife fanatic but that passion really came into its own when I saw my first bee orchid and ever since then, I’ve been hooked! For the last 18 years I’ve criss-crossed the country in search of our wild orchids; studying them, recording them and photographing them.

LM: Ok so you really know your orchids! Now can you tell us about Plantlife’s project to collate Lesser Butterfly Orchid records?

MW: The project is all about trying to halt and reverse the decline in the Lesser Butterfly Orchid Platanthera bifolia. It’s a Back from the Brink Project being led by Plantlife alongside a wide range of other projects all designed to save our most threatened species from extinction. This delicate little beauty has seen a 75% decline across the British Isles over the last 50 years, enough to place it firmly in the Red Data List ‘Vulnerable’ category. This means we need to act now to save it from extinction.

LM: And what exactly is your role in all this?

MW: As the project officer, my role is to entirely immerse myself in the world of the Lesser Butterfly Orchid and pack as much as I can into the next year, whether it be delivering talks, carrying out monitoring or advising landowners - it all helps towards spreading the word.

LM: So what exactly are the orchid hunters being asked to do – and why?

MW: Well a key aspect of the project is to get a better understanding of how the Lesser Butterfly Orchid is doing right now. The best way to do this to urge anyone and everyone to go out and record this species wherever they find it! We want to know how many plants you find, where you find them and what types of habitat you find them in. All of this information provides vital pieces to the puzzle in understanding what exactly is going on. We can then start to formulate what the drivers of the decline might be and what can be done to help.

LM: LBO distribution across Britain and Ireland is a bit uneven – there are many parts of England with lots of botanists on the ground but as this distribution map suggests, the chances of them finding a LBO are slim. On the other hand, there are lots of records from north-west Scotland where there are fewer botanists around to check if the orchids are still there and how they are doing. Short of moving botanists en masse from the English midlands up to the Hebrides – how do you plan to face that challenge?

MW: We’re aiming to overcome this hurdle by appealing not just to botanists but to the entire general public. Anyone who likes to take the dog for walk or go for stroll can become a recorder – we just need to get the word out using the combined strength of the BSBI, Plantlife and local media to raise awareness of the Lesser Butterfly Orchid. 

This is the essence of citizen science – getting the public to become the scientists and thus massively expanding the potential reach.

LM: And can you remind people how to ID the Lesser Butterfly Orchid and make sure they are not looking at Greater Butterfly Orchid which – as this distribution map shows – is more frequent in southern and central England?

MW: This is often one which can confuse people but once you get to know them, it can be fairly easy. In short, it’s all about the two pollen sacks (called pollinia) which sit in the middle of the flower. The Lesser Butterfly orchid has pollinia which are parallel to each other and very close together (almost touching) whereas the Greater Butterfly Orchid has divergent pollinia which are spaced widely apart. Once you become an ace Butterfly Orchid Zen Master, you’ll be able to tell them apart without checking the pollinia because Greater Butterfly is generally a larger-flowered plant with curved tepals whereas the Lesser has smaller daintier flowers with straighter tepals.

People can also download this factsheet  or look at these images And if people have ID’d their orchid by looking at the pollinia but they’d like to double-check, they can take a look at my ‘Beginner’s Vegetative Guide to Orchids of the British Isles’.

LM: What exactly happens to the LBO records once they’ve been received by you and the Plantlife team? Do they also go into the BSBI database and will they feed into Atlas 2020?

MW: All the Lesser Butterfly Orchid records will find their way to the database as Plantlife has an active and effective data sharing agreement with the BSBI. Anyone who sends in their records will also be contributing to the much-anticipated Atlas 2020 publication.

LM: Some readers may recognise your name from social media where you often tweet about orchids and share some fabulous photos of them! Can you remind people how they can follow you on social media?

MW: If you want to follow me personally on Twitter then search @Leptochila - the scientific species name for the Narrow-lipped helleborine in case anyone wondered!

LM: And if anybody finds a LBO and takes a photo of this gorgeous plant, we’d love them to share it on social media tagging you and @BSBIbotany and including the hashtag #MyLesserButterflyOrchid. I can’t wait to see those photos!

MW: Absolutely. Let’s flood Twitter with pictures of these beautiful plants!

LM: A little bird tells me that you are working on another orchid book – can you tell us something about that please? 

MW: Myself and Sean Cole (on left) are currently in the final stages of pulling together a new guide book for Princeton University Press. The idea of this book is to provide the public with the most comprehensive identification guide to our 50+ species. Building on previous fantastic guides developed by the likes of Simon Harrap and Derek Ettlinger, we want help people with the identification of orchids at all stages of development – leaf, bud, flower and seed. Progress has been slow but the finishing line is now in sight. The aim is to have the book published by April 2020.

Mike aka speccy 6'4" guy
You can also follow the Britain’s Orchids Twitter account: @Britainsorchids (run by Sean) and Instagram account: @britains_orchids (run by me). Watch this space!

LM: Mike, thank you so much for talking to us about this project and why we should all get involved. And for providing the great photos on this page! 
Any chance that you’ll be able to make it along to this year’s BSBI Exhibition Meeting and offer a poster about the Lesser Butterfly Orchid and how this year’s survey has gone? And there will be lots of orchid lovers present who will be keen to hear more about your forthcoming book!

MW: I’ll definitely be there! Look out for the speccy 6 foot 4 guy lingering around the orchid stalls. It would be great to see you all there in November.

LM: Great, we’ll look forward to seeing you then – and meanwhile let’s all go out and record as many Lesser Butterfly Orchids as we can find!

Thursday 27 June 2019

Aquatic Plant Project launched in Ireland

Lynda (second from right) and participants
BSBI Aquatic Plant Project
Image: M. McCorry
BSBI's Aquatic Plant Project has now started, with an opening training day on 22nd June in Lavistown led by Lynda Weekes. Participants - who included ecological consultants, academics, public authority staff and BSBI members - enjoyed a full day with an aquatic plants ID theme: first, an introductory talk about aquatics, looking at the main taxonomic groups and becoming familiar with the terminology; then a lab session to help people gain hands-on experience looking at fresh specimens; and finally a walk along the banks of the River Nore to look at aquatic plants in situ.

Feedback was very positive, with one participant commenting that the day was pitched really well so that "all levels got something out of it". 

There are lots more sessions planned for the Aquatic Plant Project - coming up next is a run of sessions with aquatics expert Nick Stewart, starting on 29th June. Full details are on this page and you will need to contact Paul Green, County Recorder for Co. Wexford, to find out more and to book a space - contact details are on the webpage. 

If you're based in Britain and would like to attend one of these sessions - I'm afraid you will have to travel to Ireland! It's only thanks to funding from Ireland's National Parks and Wildlife Service that BSBI has been able to run these events, and we'd like to thank them very much for this great opportunity. 

Several ID resources for aquatic plants can be found on the BSBI website. On the Identification page, you will find a stonewort key by Nick Stewart and a link to a new 'Vegetative Key to Wetland Plants', developed by John Poland in conjunction with the Freshwater Habitats Trust; the videos page has links to Botany Bill's ID videos for tasselweeds and hornworts as well as Claudia Ferguson-Smyth's Potamogeton epihydrus video; the Plant Crib page has cribs for pondweeds, waterworts, floating water-plantains, yellow water-lilies and more - take a look! And if you've really got the aquatics bug, there are BSBI Handbooks for pondweeds and water-starworts. Lots on offer for the aquatics afficianado!

Tuesday 25 June 2019

BSBI Training Grants Helping Botanists in 2019: Part Two

Last month we told you about the Training Grants BSBI offers to botanists wishing to improve their ID skills and we heard from Ciara about the grass ID course she was able to attend, thanks to a BSBI grant. Now Huw tells us how a BSBI grant allowed him to get to grips with difficult higher plants. 

Over to Huw:

"You can find out a lot about a botanist from their bookshelf. Glance at mine (on right) and you'll see a pristine copy of Stace 3rd edition, a nearly new Poland and a horribly well-thumbed copy of Rose, its spine held together by Sellotape. Some sections are more heavily battered. There are dog ears through the index and illustrated glossary of botanical terms, while the daisy pages have earthy marks, and the book falls open naturally on certain pages such as the key to Geraniums or Clovers.

"My botanical journey is probably unexceptional. I have gradually worked away family by family, learning to recognise the commoner species one by one, sorting out their distinguishing features or habits. But then there are the blocks – whole groups of plants, the sight of which leaves me sighing in anticipation of a meandering journey through a key that ends up, well fruitless. The page in Rose with the umbellifers key – that one falls open too, because the spine is pulling apart. How can you hold your head up as a botanist if you hardly do some of the major families?

"I needed help. A big leap forward, a foothold in the umbellifers. A better handle on the composites would be nice too. As for the grasses, sedges and rushes, well my Species Recovery Trust guide to common species (on left) has lost both its covers.

"Fortunately, I was booked on a three day immersive course in Difficult Higher Plants. I didn't know it but as I was travelling by train for a long weekend at the FSC in Preston Montford, botanists Tim Rich and Mark Duffell were out collecting fresh umbellifers, copious composites and packing a large collection of potted sedges into their cars, not to mention various other plants, but more of that later.

Who's afraid of a big bad crucifer key?
Huw is (no longer) afraid,
 thanks to Mark & Tim's course!
"Now of course I have a lot of respect for all published botanists, but... if I can't navigate through a key, that must be the author's fault, right? I mean how hard can it be to write a decent key. One of our first exercises was to do exactly that. We were split into groups with each being given samples of five umbellifers. The rules were that each group had to write a key, each couplet had to mention at least two contrasting characters to split the species, and we needed to use as few steps as possible. None of the five had fruits, and all had white flowers, so we had to concentrate on vegetative characters. Bracts and bracteoles. Stems and leaves, glabrous or hairy. Hairs adpressed or patent hairs. Part of the trick I guess is knowing what all the words mean. And much of the rest is close and careful observation, and knowing what to look for. The keys we wrote were ok, not great, and probably with too many ands, or with too many ors, or with too many ands and too many ors. And we had only had a small fraction of the umbellifers to sort out. We had learned a bit more respect for the authors on our bookshelves.

Field trip to find difficult higher plants
"Having examined half a dozen vegetative characters that might help you ID an umbellifer, it was time for Tim Rich to introduce a multi-access key (based on a Bradford Botany Group key, by B. Byrne 1989, BSBINews: 52:13-15). It required 5 floral/fruiting characters and 4 vegetative. For instance, umbels with: White flowers, Bracteoles present, Long Fruits, not Winged, and without Hairs. Coupled with plants with: Lowest leaves twice pinnate or ternate, No fibres at stem base, Stems glabrous or with spreading hairs not adpressed, Biennial or Perennial. That gives you a string of nine characters each represented by letters. Looking up the character sequence in a table either takes you to a single species, or in this case to one of three. Hmmm. Well nobody said the umbellifers were going to be easy. Reading on, hollow stem and strongly aromatic gives you Myrrhis odorata (Sweet Cicely). Stem with purple blotches and stem swollen below nodes then splits Chaerophyllum temulum (Rough Chervil) from Anthriscus sylvestris (Cow Parsley). This felt like progress. Life was entering a new phase in which while all Cow Parsleys are Umbellifers, not all Umbellifers are Cow Parsley.

"Next up were the composites. There were 14 of us on the course and we were badly outnumbered by the bunches of freshly picked specimens. This time there was a linear key by Tim Rich – first question – disc florets only, ray florets only or both. The next part was a bit more destructive. Pull the petals off. Are there scales in the receptacle? This is an achene. A what? An achene. Are the hairs feathery? How may rows of involucral bracts? Are they even or irregular? Broken down into steps, it was all manageable. And there were some neat shortcuts. I had never seen the yellow glandular hairs on the involucres of Sonchus arvensis (Perennial Sow thistle) before. It is nice when you only need one character. I just wished it happened more often. And that is one page in Rose (on right) that will be getting a little less wear.

"Being able to compare similar species side-by-side is so helpful and perhaps even more so for the sedges. That said, confronted with four plant pots each containing a different species within the Carex flava agg. group (the yellow sedges), I was still struggling to do more than see they were different.

"There was more. We dabbled with fumitories, dipped into grasses, wrestled with rushes and were absorbed by Sorbus. It was a difficult plant course after all and ultimately that takes you to hybridisation and apomictic species. Tim is an authority on many things including Sorbus (whitebeams)and we were treated to a glimpse of its complexity, as well as anecodotal stories about rare Taraxacum (Dandelion) and Hieracium (Hawkweed) microspecies. I think I'll stick to agg.

"I left the course with a folder full of keys and a head full of insights. Oh, and an assignment to complete as the course is also a module for the three year part-time MSc in Biological Recording and Environmental Monitoring with Manchester Metropolitan University, based largely around a handful of residential weekends at Preston Montford. We had been shown how to press plants and the assignment asked us to collect 12 specimens from a difficult group, to identify them, press them and write a key. I wanted to do a family I didn't know as studying them would inevitably involve learning them. I had been thinking of the composites or umbellifers but after Tim and Mark's practicals, I had made sufficient progress that I wanted to take on something less familiar. I chose the Polygonaceae and got to grips with Docks and Knotweeds and Bistorts. 

"I hugely enjoyed both the assignment and the course and learned huge amounts from both. Thank you Tim and Mark. I was also fortunate that the cost of the course was partly offset by being awarded a £250 BSBI Training Grant, one of a number that are awarded early each calendar year to help students meet the costs of botanical studies. Thank you BSBI. I promise to use my Stace (on left) more often".

Huge thanks to Huw for sharing his story and well done Mark and Tim for running what was obviously an excellent course!

Thursday 20 June 2019

Downy birch: an ingredient in Byron's Gin

Downy birch
Image courtesy of J. Crellin/ Floral Images
Downy birch is one of the ingredients in Byron's Gin but it isn't the only species of birch which grows in Britain and Ireland. There are two widely-planted, alien species - Himalayan birch and paper-bark birch; there's dwarf birch, native and found mostly in northern Scotland; and there's the native silver birch, common across Britain and Ireland. Silver and downy birch can be separated based on leaf width and positioning of teeth using the Atkinson Discriminant Function - there was a paper about this in New Journal of Botany (available to BSBI members via our password-protected members-only area) and it's also explained on page 315 of Stace's New Flora of the British Isles 4th ed.

Birch sap, tapped from the trunk of the tree when the sap is rising in spring, is a traditional drink which has become fashionable again in recent years. It can either be drunk fresh or fermented into wine. Flora Celtica tells us that birch sap was long thought to help prevent baldness and Queen Victoria used to drink it to help prevent hair thinning. Birch also appears in C18th recipes as a flavouring for beer. 

Although it is one of the least durable timber species, birch has also been used for building furniture, making farm implements and even in house-building. It has been used in tanning, for charcoal, as besom brooms, for making arrows ad baskets, as a dye plant, as fuel in the distillation of whisky and for the smoking of herring and hams. Pieces of twisted birch bark were even used as candle substitutes in the Highlands in the C18th. 

We're not quite sure which part of the downy birch tree is used in Byron's Gin - bark, wood, sap - because the exact recipe is a closely-guarded secret. We do know that the gin tastes rather good and a contribution from every bottle sold goes towards BSBI's programme of training grants which help botanists sharpen their ID skills. Thank you, downy birch!

Wednesday 19 June 2019

NBN Awards for Wildlife Recording 2019: nominations open

Nominations have opened for the NBN Awards for Wildlife Recording 2019 Developed in 2015 by the National Biodiversity Network Trust, the National Forum for Biological  Recording and the Biological Records Centre, these annual Awards celebrate the individuals, the newcomers and the groups of people or organisations that are making outstanding contributions to Wildlife recording and improving our understanding of the natural world in the UK.

There are five categories of awards:
  •  NBN Award for wildlife recording - terrestrial (open to individuals 21 years +)
  •  NBN Award for wildlife recording - marine (open to individuals 21 years +)
  •  NBN Group Award (no age restrictions)
  •  NBN Young Person’s Award (open to individuals aged 11-20)
  •  NBN Newcomer Award (open to individuals 21 years +)
The five short-listed nominees from each award category will be announced on 1 October and the winners will be announced at a special ceremony on 13 November, as part of the National Biodiversity Network's annual conference in Nottingham.

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 fill in this 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 11 August, so please don’t leave it too late….

Sunday 9 June 2019

Xylella: understanding more about a potential threat

Spittle on cleavers Galium aparine
Image: Alan Stewart, Univ. Sussex
There have been reports in the media recently about Xylella fastidiosa, a plant pathogen which has been described by the European Commission as “one of the most dangerous plant bacteria worldwide, causing a variety of diseases, with huge economic impact for agriculture, public gardens and the environment.”

Xylella is not present in the UK and for many years the bacterium was restricted to the Americas where it caused serious disease outbreaks in crops such as citrus, coffee, grapevine and peach. 

However in 2013, Xylella was identified in diseased olive trees in the south of Italy and has gone on to kill millions of trees. 

Spittle on lavender
Image: Alan Stewart, Univ. Sussex
The disease is transmitted by insects such as leaf-hoppers and frog-hoppers/ spittlebugs - which do occur in the UK - so if Xylella-infected plants were imported into this country, it could be spread by these insects with very serious consequences. That's why our colleagues at the John Innes Centre are leading on research into Xylella, with a project called BRIGIT - you can find out more about the project here

Chris Pollard of Forest Research said "“Botanists submitting records of spittle seen whilst out recording plants would be fantastic to help us better understand how these insect vectors behave.”

Here are the sites to use for recording the spittle and potential Xylella infections:

To record spittle or froghoppers on plants:
General info on plants that might be affected by Xylella, including pictures of symptoms:

Submitting records of spittle is quick and easy to do and will help researchers develop a better understanding of the factors that contribute to the likelihood of Xylella being introduced and spread in the UK.