Saturday 31 August 2019

Rowan: in folklore and in Byron's Gin

Rowan: flowers, leaves and fruits
Image: J. Lyon
This month, rowan trees are coming into fruit across Britain and Ireland and both humans and birds are eyeing up those colourful berries! Rowan makes a delicious jelly (often eaten with game), and is also an important food source for birds during winter. But the value of this tree is not confined to the berries: the wood of the rowan tree is hard and heavy and was traditionally used for making wheels, in house-building, as oars, longbows and barrels for herring (the "silver darlings") which were an important food source in Scottish history.

Rowan was also important in folklore. Flora Celtica tells us that during a more superstitious past, hanging sprigs of rowan - on doors, on sailing boats and on cows' tails - was considered one of the most powerful ways of warding off evil and attracting good fortune. Conversely, cutting down a rowan tree was believed to bring bad luck.

According to C18th Scots author John Lightfoot, rowan berries were fermented and distilled to make a "very good" spirit; so it's hardly surprising that when Andy Amphlett, BSBI County Recorder for Banffshire, was working with Sandy Jamieson, Speyside Distillery manager, to choose ingredients for Byron's Gin, they selected rowan as one of those ingredients. 

This is probably a good time to remind you that if you buy a bottle of Byron's Gin to enjoy the delicious mix of ingredients, including rowan, you will also be helping to support the next generation of botanists, because - under the contract BSBI entered into with Speyside Distillery - for every bottle sold, a contribution is made to BSBI's Training programme. Slainte!  

Wednesday 28 August 2019

West Galway: the main recording event for Irish botanists in 2019

Marsh St. John's wort & pipewort:
a common sight in Connemara
Image: J. Conaghan
I wonder if, like me, you were absolutely gutted to miss Ireland's main botanical event of the year? Last year's Mayo recording event was so amazing, I wish I could have gone to this year's 4-day event in Connemara/ West Galway. The Irish botanists are so friendly and helpful, and they always make botanists visiting from Britain feel really welcome! Not sure if the report below, by organiser John Conaghan (County Recorder for West Galway) is just making me feel more depressed that I missed this year's meeting! Next year for sure... Meanwhile, over to John:

"It has been a month since the end of the West Galway (H16) four day recording event, just enough time for the recording dust to settle. It all seems a bit hazy and frantic now. Meeting in the morning, driving to sites, recording, eating, sleeping, repeat…. essentially a botanical version of groundhog day. The meeting was very well attended with a total of 39 people appearing over the four days with anywhere between 16 and 27 people participating each day. In order to maximize coverage we divided into three groups each day, lead by myself, Robert Northridge and Rory Hodd. Although the final tally of records has not yet been compiled it is likely that somewhere in the region of 5500 records were made over the four days.

"The meeting was based in Clifden and the main aim was to increase the post-2000 species numbers in some of the less well recorded hectads in the western half of the vice-county.  As West Galway is a vice-county characterised by extensive areas of blanket bog, heath, bog lakes and coastal habitats visitors were delighted to see a number of species which occur in profusion such as Daboecia cantabrica (St. Daboeoc’s heath), Eriocaulon aquaticum (Pipewort) and Hypericum elodes (Marsh St. John’s wort). 

St. Dabeoc's heath in flower
Image: J. Conaghan
"During the meeting a range of sites were visited and the following account relates to groups in which I was involved. On Thursday we visited Omey Island which is accessible on foot across a sandflat at low tide. Botanical highlights on the island included an encounter with a very large and attractive colony of Eryngium maritimum (Sea holly) and a population of Sesleria caerulea (Blue moor-grass) on blown sand over rocks which turned out to be a new hectad record. On Friday we visited a delightful bog lake north of Carna village which yielded a fine collection of rarer wetland species including Rhynchospora fusca (Brown-beaked sedge), Eriophorum gracile (Slender cotton-grass), Eriocaulon aquaticum (Pipewort), Lobelia dortmanna (Water lobelia) and the very rare Deschampsia setacea (Bog hair-grass).

Investigating heathland west of Clifden
Image: J. Conaghan
"Saturday’s recording target was the lovely Derryclare Wood which is one of the few examples of native Oak woodland in Connemara. Thankfully it was relatively midge-free on the day, a very rare occurrence. In addition to the well-developed woodland flora the track into the woodland provided a good number of rarer non-native species including Mentha requienii (Corsican mint), Epilobium pedunculare (Rockery willowherb) and Juncus planifolius (Broad-leaved rush). The Irish distribution of these alien species is largely restricted to the Connemara region. On the final day a sand dune area at Eyrephort, north-west of Clifden, was visited. Notable species recorded here included Coeloglossum viride (Frog orchid), Asperula cynanchica (Squinancywort) and Trifolium medium (Zig-zag clover). 

"All in all the meeting was a great success and the feverish recording activity has greatly added to knowledge of plant distribution in West Galway. It was also great to meet up and hang out with a large number of people with a similar penchant for plant recording, something which doesn’t happen often enough".

Sigh... that sounds amazing! Keep your eyes peeled for details of next year's BSBI meetings across Britain & Ireland - we'll be posting them here in late November. 

Sunday 25 August 2019

Introducing the Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme

Students identify different plants
during a practical session at the
Gatsby Plant Science Summer School
Image: Joe Higham 
We're delighted to present the first of three guest blogposts about the work of the Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme (GPSEP). 

Over to Emma from the GPSEP team to tell us more: 

"You’re probably familiar with the phenomenon of plant blindness, or ‘the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment’ as it’s been defined. This results in reduced interest in plant conservation and the study of plant biology – which is a big problem, since we know how vitally important plants are for the environment and human health.

"The good news is that there’s a dedicated team working to solve this problem. The Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme (GPSEP) aims to strengthen plant science education in schools, colleges and universities, making a significant difference to the teaching and learning of plant science for students of all ages. Based jointly in the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, GPSEP is a national programme across the whole of the UK –  impressive considering they’re a team of just 6 people!

"The programme is split into two sides. Working closely with schools, colleges and universities, the Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) project advocates for presence of relevant and inspiring contemporary plant science in the school curriculum and develops teaching resources to support this. They support teaching from primary through to post-16, working with teachers and technicians, teacher trainers and trainee teachers. They also send out a half-termly newsletter to over 7000 subscribers.

The GPSEP team plus academic
advisor Celia Knight at the
Gatsby Plant Science Summer School
Image courtesy of
Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme
"One recent project SAPS have worked on is a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called Teaching Biology: Inspiring Students with Plant Science, hosted by online learning platform FutureLearn. This completely free course shows secondary biology teachers how they can use plants to teach practical science and engage their students.

"The Higher Education side of the programme seeks to nurture bright students in post-16 education with an interest in bioscience to become the next generation of leading plant science researchers. One important way they do this is through the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School. This is a unique opportunity for students studying at one of 28 universities across the UK to deepen their knowledge of plant science through talks from leading scientists, careers sessions, eye-opening practicals and thought-provoking discussions with researchers and peers.

SAPS Project Manager Alex Jenkin
gives an engaging talk to school
science teachers & technicians
 at the Association for
Science Education conference
Image: Joe Higham
"The Summer School has been running for 15 years with great success. Former students have gone on to study plant science further and pursue careers in the area. As one student put it, ‘The summer school has changed my perception of plant science in a positive way; having this opportunity has given me the insight I needed to find out where plant science can take me.’ We’d say that’s mission accomplished!

"But all of the above is just touching the surface of what GPSEP do. Across a series of blog posts over the new few months, we’ll be featuring a few of the exciting projects GPSEP are working on to increase awareness of plants, both in SAPs and Higher Education, so watch this space.

"Want to get in touch with the team with ideas, questions or thoughts? They’re always happy to hear from plant enthusiasts – you can find their contact details here".

Thanks to Emma for this introduction to GPSEP's work. It's worth mentioning here that BSBI and the Field Studies Council were so keen to support the excellent GPS Summer School that this year, we put together a useful flyer for participants, setting out resources from both organisations that could help people planing to work with plants. You can view or download a copy here.

Emma will be back next month to tell us a bit more about the MOOC - watch this space! 

Tuesday 20 August 2019

BSBI Training Grants Helping Botanists in 2019: Part Three

Marsh fragrant-orchid in the
swamp at Sweeny Fen
Image: M. Duffell
Earlier this year, botanist Emily applied for - and was awarded - a BSBI training grant to help her attend a course to be held in June at FSC Preston Montford. The course, on Advanced Botanical Identification, would be run by ace trainer Mark Duffell. 

So now the course has taken place and Emily has been in touch to tell us about it. Over to Emily:  

"The course was fantastic, we covered yellow composites, sedges, rushes, grasses and aquatic plants. The weekend course included indoor sessions which provided a great re-cap on terminology, particularly for yellow composites, a group I am often scared to tackle. Mark brought a range of specimens for the class to practice keying out using Stace's New Flora of the British Isles

"The Saturday included an excellent field trip to Sweeny Fen, a site which I had heard of but had never visited, so it was a great opportunity and we saw a large variety of sedges, rushes and grasses. In particular I was able to key out a number of  species I have not seen before such as Juncus foliosus and Triglochin palustris. The weekend was focused on practising keying out difficult groups and I have gained confidence to try these on my own. I would now feel capable of attending a course that focused on yellow composites. 

Blunt-flowered rush, angelica &
hemp-agrimony at Sweeny Fen
Image: M. Duffell 
"Mark, as always, was a brilliant tutor and was always calm and very patient, despite me constantly asking questions and for more specimens. Also, the handouts provided during the course will allow me to re-cap the information at home and are small enough for me to take out into the field easily! Importantly, the course was at the right level for me, we quickly covered basics of plant identification but focused on the more difficult groups and was sufficiently challenging. 

"Also, I attended a sedge course with Chris Metherell around two years ago and this course provided an excellent re-cap to sedges. Hopefully, I will be able to reach a level 5 FISC within the next two years and this course has given me some of the skills to do that, it is now up to me to get out on my own and keep practising!

Many thanks to Emily for telling us about the course she was able to attend thanks to a BSBI Training Grant. A reminder that the next round of Training Grant applications opens on 1st January 2020. The application form will be here and the grants are usually all snapped up within a few weeks so be ready to get your application in quickly! 

Tuesday 13 August 2019

British & Irish Botany: issue 3 published

Japanese rose on the Sefton coast
Image: P. Smith
Dr Ian Denholm, Editor-in-Chief of British & Irish Botany, and his trusty minion/ Editorial Assistant (that would be me!) have just pressed "Publish" on the third issue of volume 1 of BSBI's open access, on-line scientific journal. 

Here's Ian's summary of what people can expect to find inside this third issue:

"Does Euphorbia hyberna (Irish Spurge) have any native sites in southwest England? Is Juncus balticus (Baltic Rush) overlooked at inland compared to coastal locations? How potent a threat does Rosa rugosa (Japanese Rose) pose to our native sand-dune ecosystems? 

Llangollen whitebeam
Image: T. Rich
"These and other topics are explored in five articles published in the third issue of British & Irish Botany, two of which are headed up by authors from Ireland and thereby reinforce B&IB as the voice for science done throughout the geographical remit of BSBI. 

"We continue to welcome papers on the distribution, composition and taxonomy of the British and Irish flora, and especially encourage anyone ‘sitting’ on data that might inform how environmental change is impacting our flora to write up these results and submit either a short note of a full-blown research paper. We will make this as painless a process as possible!"

Specimen of Irish Spurge, as
illustrated in Dillenius (1732)
Image courtesy of J. Lucey
Ian is quite right about the "painless" bit. While potential authors can certainly use the online submission system if they choose - and most people are choosing that option because the system is so quick and user-friendly - anyone who is less confident using electronic submission systems can just email us a Word doc and we'll do the rest. 

As well as the three papers mentioned above, we are also delighted in this latest issue to publish a paper on the conservation status of Sorbus cuneifolia, the Llangollen whitebeam, by nine botanists including Tim Rich, author of several BSBI Handbooks including the forthcoming Gentians of Britain & Ireland.

We also have a paper by Declan Quigley about first records of Pangium edule drift endocarps washed up on the shores of Britain and Bermuda, and a review of NW European records. 

So what are you waiting for? Head over to the British & Irish Botany website to view all five papers, or download them to read at your leisure. 

Baltic rush habitat along the River Dulnain
Image: A. Amphlett
There's no cost, you don't even need to be a BSBI member and there's no need to register (unless you'd like to receive an alert each time a new issue is published). 

If you're new to British & Irish Botany, you can still view or download issue 1 (published in February) and issue 2 (published in May). 

We hope you enjoy reading the 16 papers published so far this year as much as Ian and I enjoyed bringing them to you!

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Invasive Aliens: read the interview, enter the competition, buy the book!

A book published last month sets out the history of plant and animal invaders of the British Isles over thousands of years. ‘Invasive Aliens: the plants and animals from over there that are over here’ by Dan Eatherley has notched up some great reviews; it looks at the non-native organisms which “hold up a mirror to our own species”, the defences we mount against them and what the future might hold. 

I interviewed Dan about his new book and we have a competition about alien plants so you have a chance to win your own copy of ‘Invasive Aliens’.

LM: Dan, you have an impressive back-story as a naturalist, writer and environmental consultant. You’ve also worked with Sir David Attenborough as assistant producer on wildlife documentaries for the BBC. So what was it about Invasive Aliens that made you decide to devote a whole book to them?

DE: While TV is great fun and environmental consultancy has its moments, I find writing truly satisfying, because you have the freedom to delve into obscure topics in far greater depth, while still hopefully bringing them to a wider audience. And, you still get to meet fascinating people and visit wonderful new places. My first book (Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World’s Largest Viper), which told the story of a long-forgotten American herpetologist of the early 20th century and saw me snake-hunting in the forests of Trinidad, certainly ticked those boxes. 
For my second book, though, I wanted to write about something a bit closer to home: I had recently become a father and exotic trips weren’t really an option for the foreseeable future. The idea for a book on invasive species in Britain emerged during a chat in 2016 with Myles Archibald at the publishers, William Collins. At first, I wasn’t sure I could write a whole book on them, but as soon as I started researching and talking to people involved in the field I realised I could have written several. The topic is brimming with weird histories, political and philosophical conundrums, and scientific discoveries. My real problem was deciding what not to leave out.

Author Dan Eatherley
Image courtesy of D. Eatherley
LM: We have the same problem on this News blog, there's so much to say about plants and plant-hunters and there's never enough time or space! 
But going back a bit further, I think you started off as a zoology graduate?

DE: Yes, I have always been fascinated by nature so it was the obvious choice. I actually read biology at university, but the modules I took (vertebrates, invertebrates, entomology) turned it into zoology. I wasn’t sure what to do as a career beyond a vague notion of studying wildlife on some exotic island and eventually that led me to work in nature TV in Bristol. 
I’m still not 100% sure what I will do when, or if, I grow up.

LM: Oh I hear that growing up is very over-rated, let's not do that... There’s lots of fascinating stuff about plants in 'Invasive Aliens', so I'm sure it will appeal to BSBI botanists. You also write about catching up with one of our BSBI County Recorders – but please don’t tell people which plants he showed you, that’s one of the competition questions below! Did you know about the BSBI before you started researching the book?

One of many great reviews
of Invasive Aliens: this one
from The Telegraph 
DE: When it comes to plants, I am pretty ignorant – as mentioned, I ended up studying zoology at Uni. Given that most invasive species in Britain are plants, I really depended on input from botanists for this book. I have to confess I wasn’t au fait with BSBI before I started, but it didn’t take long before people were pointing me in your direction! I had a useful early telephone conversation with BSBI's Head of Science, Dr Kevin Walker, who was able to put me in touch with local recorders in Devon and Cornwall. Not long after that I was in the field with experts like Bob Hodgson, Phil Pullen, Roger Smith and Phil Hunt trying to learn the difference between Bilbao fleabane and Canadian fleabane.

LM: Those fleabanes are tricky but you were in very good hands! I like this short video, available on your Twitter feed, where you defuse the whole flora vs fauna question by saying that actually you are more interested in humans and how they’ve moved other species around the planet, whether deliberately or accidentally.

DE: Yes. As I have got older, I have got more and more interested in human history and society. I see today’s complement of non-native plants and animals as reflecting our own extraordinary comings and goings as a species: the migrations of early humans from the continent, the first experiments in agriculture, the arrivals of the Romans, Normans and other conquerors, the British empire’s own expansion, each of these episodes from the past has left its trace in our fauna and flora. So I envisaged 'Invasive Aliens' partly as a new and compelling way to tell the story of our own species. Hopefully readers will agree.

LM Well having read the book (huge thanks for sending me a copy) I certainly agree, it's a great read! 
Dan, I wonder if you’ve seen this new project called Plant Alert, where we ask people to keep a close eye on alien plants in their gardens and report any which have the potential to become invasive in future? The idea is to spot tomorrow’s Himalayan Balsam, today!

DE: It sounds like a fantastic initiative and a brilliant way to engage people on the topic.

LM: We hope it will be! Thanks for talking to us Dan and many thanks to your publishers, Harper Collins, for making six copies of ‘Invasive Aliens’ available to the first six people who can answer the questions below correctly – that includes the tricky tie-break! 

1. BSBI distribution maps show the spread over time of thousands of wild or naturalised plants. Which notorious invasive alien, introduced into Britain in 1825 and first recorded in the wild in 1886, is shown in the map on the right (click on it to enlarge it)? 

2. Which invasive aquatic plant, which reached these shores from the USA via the horticultural industry, can spread by up to 20cm each day? Here’s another clue: it first arrived here in the 1980s and by 2017, it was recorded in more than 1000 sites, including along the Rivers Cam and the Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire? 

Dan in the studio
Image courtesy of D. Eatherley
3. In ‘Invasive Aliens’, Dan tells us about a group of “unwanted hitch-hikers” shown to him by Roger Smith, BSBI County Recorder for South Devon. They are associated with Britain’s industrial heritage and originate from as far afield as Chile, Cape Town and New South Wales. What is this group of plants called? 

4. As Dan explains, “It wasn’t all one-way traffic!” Which common grass, originating in Europe and sometimes called ‘flea darts’, has become a serious problem for Australian livestock farmers? 

5. Alien plants – whether or not they are invasive (most aren’t and we have a few very invasive native plants too!) - are categorised as either:
  • archaeophytes (arrived here before the 1500s), or 
  • neophytes (since the 1500s). 

So, which British county holds the record for the most neophytes? And – a tie-breaker question – how many neophytes have been recorded there? 

If you think you know the answers to these competition questions, please send them to me before 31st August. The first six correct entries will win a copy of 'Invasive Aliens'. Good luck!

Thursday 1 August 2019

BSBI Sedges Workshop, Mugdock

Following hot on the heels of the recent very successful Grass ID Workshop in Stirling, last week beginner botanists in Scotland enjoyed a very successful Sedge ID workshop in Mugdock. Over to organiser Faith Anstey to tell us more:

"Twenty-two people participated in this workshop for sedge beginners at Mugdock Country Park education room on Saturday 20 July. Most were young and working as full-time ecologists and most were from west-central Scotland, although there was a handful from Fife & the Lothians and one from Yorkshire. Only five were already BSBI members but there were quite a few Plantlife members. Four BSBI members – three of them County Recorders – acted as group tutors and another as receptionist!

"The format was a mixture of formal teaching, practical sessions in small tutored groups, and fieldwork. Tutors brought in collections of rushes, woodrushes and sedges. Our first practical session looked at the differences between rushes (and woodrushes) and sedges.  The second looked at the differences between true sedges and sedge allies and finally we examined pre-collected specimens Carex species. 

"In the afternoon we looked at sedges in the field. The workshop focused on the 21 common sedge species of which 15 or so were actually seen on the day (of which 12 were seen in the field in total). One of the tutors, Michael Philip, suggested that we round the day off by having an informal competition to see how many of 16 collected sedge specimens people could identify. BSBI Scottish Officer Jim McIntosh gave a short talk on how participants could develop their interest in sedges and the benefits of BSBI membership.

"The accompanying booklet – really a resumé of the course itself – was handed out to participants to consolidate what they had learned. Evaluations showed that participants enjoyed their day and felt their aims (mostly simply to improve skills) were well fulfilled. Although one or two people were almost out of their depth, and one or two knew most of it already, almost all felt that the course was pitched at the right level for them – thanks to the individual approach made possible by tutors of small groups. All rated the leaders knowledgeable (in a couple of cases slightly overwhelmingly so!) approachable, helpful, enthusiastic and similar words of praise..."

I'm not surprised at these words of praise! Who better to learn from than some of BSBI's amazing County Recorders? That's why our local group network is so popular with people starting out in plant ID - a chance to look at wild plants in your local area with the people who know most about those local sites and the plants they support.