Friday 24 April 2020

Notes from lockdown 1: Paul finds solace in his local woods

Lesser celandine by the stream
Image: P. A. Ashton
Regular News & Views readers will have encountered the name Paul Ashton before. Paul  is Head of Biology (and Professor of Botany) at Edge Hill University, who very kindly hosted  BSBI's Annual Exhibition Meeting in 2018. Paul is also a long-standing member of two of  BSBI’s standing committees - Publications and Training & Education. Paul was a co-author on this influential paper about field ID skills for the prestigious Times Higher Education and has also published in New Journal of Botany and contributed to Botanical University Challenge

Paul researches into aspects of plant ecology, with recent work including studies on grassland restoration and meadow connectivity and earlier work including research into sedge taxonomy and describing a sedge species new to the British Isles. Research notwithstanding, Paul views his primary role in life as being to inspire the next generation of botanists. Recent blooms from the Edge Hill hothouse include Dr. Elizabeth Sullivan, Jennifer Clayton-Brown and Josh Styles. This TV programme shows some of the devious methods used in the education work.

Dog's mercury flowersImage: P. A. Ashton
So, how is Paul coping under lockdown? We asked him to tell us what he's been up to and of course he started by reassuring us that no animals or plants were harmed in the writing of this guest blogpost! Paul also assured us that he has followed the government guidelines on COVID-19 to the letter and is fully behind BSBI's response to the crisis. The site visit Paul describes below was made during his daily one hour release period for permitted exercise.

Over to Paul: 

"Spring is a season to look forward to. The warmer temperatures and longer days mean that plant life starts to emerge. With this comes the emergence of the botanists, renewing acquaintances with favourite locations and exploring new ones. Or rather, it does in a typical year. However, 2020 is far from typical and if we aren’t going to feel that this spring is taken from us then we are going to have to explore our local patches more deeply than previously and to appreciate the common more fully than before. This is my attempt to do that.

Path, stream, Lesser celandine & Wood Anemone
Image: P. A. Ashton
"Within a short walk of where I live in south west Lancashire I am fortunate to have an ancient woodland. It isn’t a particularly remarkable woodland, it doesn’t house any rare vascular plant species nor any unusual communities and it is unlikely to ever be a candidate for SSSI status. It is my local woodland though and it is going to be the site I will come to know better than any other during these strange times.

"It has the rough shape of a triangle barely 2km long north to south and with the base at the south about 500m wide. It occupies a steep sided valley with a stream at the base. On the west it is bordered by houses and fields, to the east and north by farmland and to the south by rough grassland. It is typical of the ancient woodlands in this part of Britain. The valleys, or cloughs as they are known locally, probably escaped the plough due to the sheer steepness of their sides. 

Common dog-violet
Image: P. A. Ashton
"However, it hasn’t escaped other human influence. The north end once held a dam to power a mill, the eastern side merged into a park that surrounded the now long-gone stately pile and the south end contained a pit until 1961. While the current use is not so commercially exploited as in the past it does function as a site for recreation; whether that be as a child’s playground, for coming of age activities, dog-walking, or in 2020, as a local botanist’s paradise.

"The trees largely retain their winter skeletal form, but the ground flora has emerged. A significant sign that winter is finally receding and that collective hunching of the shoulders that typifies that season is being gently relaxed. The white and yellow stars provided by Anemone nemorosa (Wood Anemone) and Ficaria verna (Lesser Celandine) respectively occupy large swathes of the valley. I’m not the first to be struck by these plants, John Clare praised the former in his ‘Wood-Anemonie‘ poem,

Great wood-rush
Image: P. A. Ashton
‘How beautiful through april time and may
The woods look, filled with wild anemonie’

while Wordsworth was so enamoured of his Lesser Celandine that it was the focus of three of his poems, in the last the plant features as a reflection of the vicissitudes of human life.

‘There is a Flower, the lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold an rain;
And the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, 't is out again!’

"Much more understated in its display and consequently less celebrated in poetry is Chrysosplenium oppositifolium (Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage) is abundant in the damper parts of the valley. The edge of an old mine sough that emerges in the wood hosts a few flowers of Viola riviniana (Common Dog-violet) while elsewhere there are localised patches of flowering Mercurialis perennis (Dog’s Mercury) and Luzula sylvatica (Great Wood-rush). The presence of these two, albeit in different locations, reveal the variety in soil characteristics within the wood.

Colony of Dog's Mercury
Image: P. A. Ashton
"Almost imperceptibly the wood is shifting as the days progress. The trees are beginning to come into leaf and the ground flora is changing. This is my field location this year. I hope my time here will engender a deeper understanding of its flora. This account will hopefully help share some of this understanding".

Many thanks to Paul for telling us how he's coping with life under lockdown as spring unfolds. If you are also managing to find solace in nature during your one hour per day permitted exercise, we'd like to hear from you, but please do ensure that you follow the guidelines on social distancing and minimal time spent away from home. Alternatively, you can explore the wild plants in your garden and record them for BSBI's Garden Wildflower Hunt or check out  the other activities on this list

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed Paul's description of the ground flora in the ancient wood near to where he lives in south west Lancashire. A very similar flora is in flower at this time of the year in the woods along Kenly Water, about 4 miles southwest of St Andrews, Fife. It's always a delight to visit these woods, but particularly in May and June.


Please leave a comment!