Thursday, 16 September 2021

British & Irish Botany: issue 3.3 published

Snake's-head fritillary
Image: P. Stroh
We've just pressed 'publish' on the latest issue of British & Irish Botany, BSBI's online, Open Access scientific journal. 

This issue features ten papers, starting with a report by BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker on the lovely Snake's-head Fritillary Fritillaria meleagris. Kevin's blogpost about this iconic plant, as part of our Wildflower of the Month series during lockdown, proved very popular and in this new paper he analyses its occurrence in different habitats and discusses its claim to native status. 

Next up we have a paper by Michael Braithwaite about the discovery of the local flora as reflected in BSBI vice-county datasets. Michael uses Berwickshire, where he was County Recorder for many years, as a case-study and his account makes fascinating reading for all botanical recorders in the run-up to publication in 2022 of our next plant distribution Atlas

Mayweeds on Orkney
Image: J. Crossley

Also in this issue we have a report on Sea Mayweed, Scentless Mayweed and their puzzling  intermediates in Orkney; and Mick Crawley considers the dramatic recent increase in abundance of Rat's-tail Fescue Vulpia myuros as a weed of winter wheat-fields - he reports on a long-term experiment at Silwood Park, Bucks. to discover what extent this increase is due to no-till cultivation, or to herbicide-resistance, or to autumn cultivation coupled with warmer winter weather.  

Authors of BSBI Handbooks have been busy too: Mark Lynes describes three new species of Lady's-mantle Alchemilla from northern Britain, ahead of publication, probably next year, of his long-awaited Alchemilla Handbook; and three new species of Dandelion are described by John Richards in the run-up to publication of his new Field Handbook to British and Irish Dandelions, due out next month. BSBI members should watch out for the special members-only discount offers on both these books.

Hepste Hawkweed
Image: T. Rich

Over to B&IB Editor-in-Chief Ian Denholm to tell us about the four remaining papers in this issue:

"Within the family Polygonaceae, Redshank Persicaria maculosa and Pale Persicaria P. lapathifolia are both common in Britain but subject to confusion through over-reliance on flower colour as a distinguishing feature. Michael Wilcox reviews contrasting taxonomic treatments and provides guidelines for rationalising considerable variation within the Pale Persicaria ‘complex’.

"Tim Rich continues his survey of the status of Britain’s Hawkweeds (genus Hieracium) with a report on Hepste Hawkweed H. apheles - an extremely rare endemic restricted to five plants in a single locality in the Brecon Beacons. This is one of several endemic taxa with a threat status of ‘critically endangered’ according to IUCN criteria, safeguarded to some extent by the deposition of seed in the Millennium Seed Bank.

"Finally, Clive Stace and Duilio Iamonico resolve issues of species typification within the genera Vulpia and Atriplex, respectively".

So, another jam-packed issue with something for everyone. British & Irish Botany is free to read (and free for authors to publish in) and there's no log in required - just head over here to start enjoying the latest issue and then why not browse our archive? We are now accepting submissions for the fourth and final issue of this third volume, due out in December - why not get in touch if you are thinking of contributing?

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Plant monitoring on Mull: September report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

Ro Scott helping Lynne mark out her
NPMS plot on Mull
Image: L. Farrell
Last month BSBI President Lynne Farrell was on South Walney, escaping the heat and looking at coastal plants. 

So where is she this month? On another island? Yep! 

Over to Lynne:

"I’ve been busy both in the field and in the office over the past month. In my vice-county, Mid Ebudes, I have re-recorded my plots on Mull for the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS). 

I set my plots up in 2016, shortly after the Scheme started

Tunbridge Filmy-fern
Image: Jonathan Keefe
The NPMS is one of the major projects to which many BSBI members have been contributing. If you would like to get involved, click here to find out if there is a square near you.

I have also been checking a few of the rarer species localities including the Tunbridge filmy-fern Hymenophyllum tunbrigense. Wilson's filmy-fern H. wilsonii is much more common but there are only a few sites for H. tunbrigense, although both have a similar distribution mainly along the western coasts of Britain and Ireland. 

Tunbridge filmy-fern - yes, the spelling is different in the Latin and common names - was first found in Britain in Tunbridge, Kent, hence the name.

The WILDGuides book Britain’s Ferns by James Merryweather came in useful as the photographs are excellent, so encouraging people wishing to learn more about these attractive species. The only drawback is that the pages are not waterproof. 

The location of the filmy-fern, at
the base of a Birch tree
Image courtesy of L. Farrell
However, the publication has been awarded the Presidents’ Award this year - this is the annual prize awarded by the Presidents of the BSBI and the Wild Flower Society

You can see more about the previous winners here.

James wanted us to see the beauty of this group of plants and to encourage us all to enjoy and easily identify them. Other books provide more detailed text, which complement this volume. 

Back in the office I have been writing my annual Message from the President for the new BSBI Annual Review, which will be mailed out to members inside the September issue of BSBI News and will be on the website soon after.

I've also been attending a meeting of the Board of Trustees and other Committee meetings, and planning for the BSBI Annual Exhibition Meeting and AGM in November. 

So, a busy month!"

Friday, 27 August 2021

Plant-hunting on Ben Nevis with BSBI Scottish Officer and Team RBGE

View south from the summit of Ben Nevis
Image: J. McIntosh
Jim McIntosh, BSBI Scottish Officer, regularly walks the hills and climbs mountains in pursuit of interesting plant records, but he was recently invited to join a particularly interesting expedition. 

Over to Jim to tell us more: 

"19th August 2021 was the 250th anniversary of the first recorded ascent of Ben Nevis – by botanist James Robertson, who had been commissioned by John Hope, the King’s Botanist and Superintendent of the Botanic Garden, to explore the native plants of Scotland.

"Robertson’s account of the day given in A Naturalist in the Highlands- James Robertson – his life and travels in Scotland 1767-1771 is very brief, and he doesn’t even record what species he saw except that ‘the plants here are similar to those on Ben Awin and Carngarm..’ (Ben Avon & Cairngorm - for which he provides detailed lists in earlier pages). 

"He continues tantalisingly ‘only here, at the west side near the foot I found the M…’ but gives no indication what species ‘M’ is though it must be particularly notable for him not to name it in full! He describes the ‘the third part of the hill towards the top is entirely naked, resembling a heap of stones thrown together confusedly’.

"Fittingly a visit to the summit of Ben Nevis was organised by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) to mark the occasion, and the group included today’s Regius Keeper, Simon Milne, and Director of Science, Prof Peter Hollingsworth, RBGE bryologists and lichenologists, representatives from land-managers the John Muir Trust and Jahama Estates; NatureScot, the Sanger Institute and me!   

Jim & #TeamRBGE colleague pressing specimens
Image: S. Jones (RBGE)
"The idea was to collect specimens for the exciting new Darwin Tree of Life project which aims to sequence the entire genomes of all (70,000) animals, plants & fungi in Britain & Ireland. And we also collected specimens of Alpine Meadow-grass Poa alpina and Mountain Sorrel Oxyria digyna to lodge in the RBGE Herbarium to mark this special occasion. Click on the links to see BSBI distribution maps for those species. 

"We chose to ascend Ben Nevis via the challenging Càrn Mòr Dearg and its famous arête. And, of course, I couldn’t help recording (for Atlas 2040 of course!) as I went along. 

Jim (on left) & colleagues on 
Càrn Mòr Dearg arête
Image: S. Jones

"Also, because Càrn Mòr Dearg itself is one of our top ten highest mountains, at 1220 m, I made a full list of all flowering plant species within 10 m vertical of its summit, while everyone else enjoyed a leisurely lunch as the mist and drizzle gradually cleared. I logged 20 species in total, including many arctic-alpines of more acid substrates as befits a granite ridge.  

"As we scrambled along the ridge, we noticed occasional patches of Moss Campion Silene acaulis, more commonly seen on base rich soils and crags but somehow also happy here. But a highlight was finding Sibbaldia  Sibbaldia procumbens on the ridge and pretty commonly on late snow line areas on the lower plateau of Ben Nevis. 

Simon Milne & Sibbaldia
Image: J. McIntosh
"This is an important species for RBGE, which was co-founded by Robert Sibbald in 1670 and now has Sibbaldia as its emblem. The Regius Keeper duly knelt and paid homage to the diminutive plant.

"After group photos at the perfectly still summit, and short interviews to camera by Simon and Peter, we began the descent, collecting more bryophytes and looking for some of the most exciting flowering plant species. 

"No point in recording here after the comprehensive and thorough North Face Survey involving botanists and climbing guides in 2014-2016, but nice to chance upon Brook Saxifrage Saxifraga rivularis (image below) beside a cairn at the top of one of the gullies.

"Even more exciting was renewing acquaintance with Tufted Saxifrage S. cespitosa nearby – it's one of our rarest and most important arctic-alpines, on Schedule 8 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act (W&CA) 1981 and listed as Endangered on the GB Red List.

[Ed.: Check out the BSBI Code of Conduct for the full lists of plants on Schedules 8&9 of the W&CA and read more about the GB Red List here.] 

"Late in the evening as we descended the main path the sun began to break through wispy clouds, low in the west. 

"We eventually returned to the carpark some 12 hours after starting off on the 20km, 1500m ascent expedition tired, hungry but very happy!"

From left: Neil Bell (RBGE/BBS), Pete Hollingsworth
(RBGE), Stephen Venables (broadcaster/ mountaineer),
Simon Milne (RBGE) & Jim McIntosh (BSBI) - 
on the summit!

Many thanks to Jim for this fascinating account - sounds like a great day! 

Being a botanist really can take you to the most amazing places. 

If Jim's account has left you hungry to read more about botanising on Scottish mountains, check out our 4-part 'Botanical Book at Bedtime' by Peter Llewellyn, all about his plant-hunting adventures in the Cairngorms - part one is here.

We'll leave you with an image taken by Jim of the view from the path on the descent - enjoy!

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Call-out for Restharrows

Botanist Mike Wilcox has been looking at Restharrows Ononis spp. and now he has a request - over to Mike:

"Recently, plants seen of Ononis do not fit the description in Stace (2019) for O. repens (on right) and not fully for O. spinosa (below left) even if using Sell & Murrell where O. repens is treated within the subspecies of O. spinosa

"Whether these are hybrids or not is debatable. In relation to the two taxa and putative hybrids, I would be interested in material (fresh) to have a look at in detail, including some anatomical aspects as they are given as two different chromosome numbers in Stace (2019) and looking at aspects such as stomata it might help decide what the two taxa are and or putative hybrids.

"It may be a bit late to start doing this but I will pick it up next year and hopefully see more material from different areas.

"Meanwhile, if you have one or both (or putative hybrids) I would be interested to see some material for a preliminary look at these taxa. Email me at for details of where to send your specimens".

Images courtesy of John Crellin at Floral Images

Friday, 13 August 2021

BSBI Training Grants: Supporting botanists in 2021: Part Two

View of Salisbury from Old Sarum Castle
Image: K. Mason
Following on from Mike's account of the 'Using a Flora' course, which he was able to undertake thanks to a BSBI Training grant, we now present Kevin's account of the course he attended in May:

"My journey in plant identification began when I studied a degree in Animal biology and conservation, and more recently my passion for wildflowers has been fed in my current role as a Wildlife Trainee with the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. My position means I get to spend my days in amazing habitats from floodplain meadows to ancient woodlands. 

Rough chervil with
purple blotching on the stem
Image courtesy of
John Crellin/ Floral Images

The incredible diversity of wildflowers I see each day is both beautiful and daunting, and it seemed that as soon as I got to grips with identifying one species, countless others would spring up around me as the season went on. While I like to attempt identification by myself, I felt attending a course in wildflower ID would give me an edge. Thanks to a training grant from BSBI I was able to book myself onto a course.

The course I had chosen was the ‘Wildflower Identification and Survey - Neutral and Calcareous Grasslands’ course, run by the Species Recovery Trust. We met on a rather wet day at Old Sarum Castle on the edge of Salisbury, the cathedral barely visible through the steady rain. Despite the weather, spirits were high and I was really keen to get out into the grassland with the other attendees. 

Our tutor for the day, Dominic, started us off with some common but important species of grasslands and meadows. While I could already quite confidently identify Trifolium pratense and T. repens (Red and White clover), I learned that you can quickly get an idea of the nutrient levels of a grassland by how much White and Red clover is present – more White clover generally means higher nutrient levels. We soon found Lotus corniculatus (Common bird’s-foot trefoil), another common but important grassland flower, told apart from Lotus pedunculatus (Greater bird’s-foot trefoil) by the latter having a hollow stem.

Image: K. Mason
After we had gone over most of the flowers at Old Sarum Castle, we got back in our cars and made the short trip up the road to Figsbury ring, an Iron age hill fort managed by the National Trust. The entrance track was more suited to a tank than my little car but I eventually made it in one piece. We regrouped in the car park and had a quick look at the surrounding flora. 

The group had spotted a large white umbellifer and had misidentified it as Anthriscus sylvestris (Cow parsley), as had I. Dominic told us that cow parsley would mostly have gone over by the end of June, and that what we had found was actually Chaerophyllum temulum (Rough chervil), identified by the purple spotting on the stems. After a quick brief on the history of the site we walked on to see what we could find.

Immediately it was obvious that the flora was more diverse at Figsbury, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the quality of the chalk grassland present. My eyes were instantly drawn to the orchids – Anacamptis pyramidalis (Pyramidal), Dactylorhiza fuchsii (Common spotted) and Gymnadenia conopsea (Chalk fragrant). Moving on we saw my personal favourite, Hippocrepis comosa (Horseshoe vetch), with bright yellow pea-like flowers arranged in a horseshoe and 4-8 pairs of pinnate leaflets.

Unlike Maria (above), Kevin didn't see
Frog Orchid - let's hope he sees it soon!
Image: L. Marsh

The short sward of the chalk grassland was ideal for spotting small, low-growing wildflowers such as bright pink Thymus polytrichus (Wild thyme) whose leaves had a disappointingly weak scent, and the memorably named Squinancywort  Asperula cynanchica with attractive pale pink, 4 petaled flowers. Earlier on in the day Dominic had shown us how to make a “gun” with the flower head of Plantago lanceolata (Ribwort plantain), which is quite drab as flowers go, so when we saw Plantago media (Hoary plantain) I was impressed by how bright it was with its white flowers and purple filaments.

After a final unsuccessful search for Dactylorhiza viridis (Frog orchid) which are reportedly present at Figsbury Ring, Dominic decided that it would be sensible to finish early and get out of the rain. While a part of me was disappointed to finish the day early, I was also very relieved that I could finally get a little drier. Despite the rain I had a great day out and learned so much from Dominic, and I am already looking for the next plant ID course to attend!"

Thanks Kevin, we're delighted that you were able to enjoy the course!

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Hotting up: August report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

"The weather has certainly hotted up in the past month and some extreme temperatures have been felt all around Britain and Ireland. This might well have attracted people to aquatic habitats and coastal areas. Now, at the beginning of August, a weather front is sweeping in, bringing heavy rain and strong winds, battering down the plants in our gardens and in the wild. 

The last few inclement days have provided me with an excuse to watch the Olympics, and I discovered that seeing the events unfolding live in the early morning was infinitely preferable to watching the review in the evening, so my usual timetable has changed too, and will revert to normal soon.

The hot temperatures and bright sun actually made me retreat to shady areas when outside and the local lime trees, many of which are Small-leaved lime Tilia cordata in Cumbria, are laden with flowers, which the bees appreciate. After a dearth of honey last year, this will be a bumper season.

Pollinators such as hoverflies have been late emerging and now are flying strongly. The large Fritillary butterfly species have benefitted from the warmth and good numbers have been observed allaying concern that many were disappearing in some parts of Britain. Earlier species did not fare well. The butterflies woke up early too in the morning sun so counting and photographing them on my weekly transect walk was challenging. Luckily part of the walk is in the shade.

However, choosing an overcast day with tolerable temperatures, was definitely required for a visit to South Walney island nature reserve to enjoy coastal breezes and plants that love exposed areas. Viper’s Bugloss Echium vulgare catches everyone’s eye due to its abundance and striking colours. The rarer, and poisonous Henbane Hyocyamus niger,  (top right) is also attractive but only to look at. 

Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum is also a coastal species being found at the back of the dunes, often where they are just stabilising, whereas Yellow horned-poppy Glaucium flavum (on right) prefers the shingle banks. Wild pansy Viola tricolor ssp. curtisii (above left) which occurs both in dunes and further inland on heaths, quickly shrivels up in the heat. So I hope you have all survived this hot spell".

Sunday, 8 August 2021

BSBI Training Grants: Supporting botanists in 2021: Part One

Tutor Mark Duffell and students in the 
meadow at Colemere
When the 2021 round of applications for BSBI Training Grants opened on 1st January, we weren't sure how many plant ID courses would run this year; all of the 2020 grants we'd awarded had to be put on hold, as courses were cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic. So it was a huge relief when the first of 2021's successful applicants started to email us with reports of the training courses that had taken place, and which they had been able to undertake thanks to their BSBI grants.

The first report was sent in by Mike who attended a course in late May - he also provided all the images on this post. Over to Mike to tell us all about getting to grips with 'Stace' aka the Botanists' Bible:

"As a mature student returning to biological recording after a long absence, I was well aware that my plant identification skills were in need of considerable improvement. I am currently on the second year of the Manchester Metropolitan University’s MSc course in (take a deep breath) Biological Recording and Ecological Modelling. The course contains a mix of core and optional units, all taken (Covid-19 permitting) at a Field Studies Council centre – usually Preston Montford near Shrewsbury. The presence of Mark Duffell’s excellent four-day introduction to Using a Flora on the list of optional units was too good an opportunity to miss, so I signed up quickly.

Comparing keys at Preston Montford
Needless to say, the course concentrated on Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles – a book that (along with the previous Clapham, Tutin and Warburg) I have always found challenging. My preference has always been to default to something with pictures – currently David Streeter’s Collins Wild Flower Guide. But now, I felt, was the time to start ‘doing things properly’.

In tackling this daunting tome, Mark Duffell took three main approaches. First, was a general introduction to the key terminology – with a particular focus on flower anatomy and determining the floral formulae for the key UK plant families. Second, was dissection: flower parts were carefully removed and then mounted on a piece of Sellotape, enabling the floral formula to be worked out and the final result attached to a piece of paper for future reference. Finally, we practised constructing simple dichotomous keys for a small group of common species. This, it turns out, is not as simple as it might appear. Working outside at Preston Montford, we were able to attach our keys (and specimens) to a convenient fence.  It was surprising how different the efforts of the various groups were.

An enjoyable feature of the course was the ability to get out of the lab and, armed with lenses, tweezers and Sellotape, to explore some of the wide range of habitats in the vicinity of Preston Montford. The first day saw us in a lowland meadow at Colemere in North Shropshire, where we were able to distinguish Ranunculus bulbosus (Bulbous Buttercup) from the more familiar R. repens and R. acris (Meadow and Creeping Buttercups respectively). A white umbellifer flowering in profusion across the meadow produced a stiffer challenge. Most of us knew that it was Conopodium majus (Pignut), but getting there through the key in Stace was a less than straightforward exercise. This was my first introduction to the stylopodium (a term that unhelpfully does not appear in Stace’s main glossary). Mark’s description of it as a ‘happy beetle’ was pleasingly memorable.

Mark and course participants at Snail Beach
Our next day’s field excursion was to the mysteriously-named Snail Beach, an area of former lead mining south-west of Shrewsbury. Here the target species included several of the Asteraceae, a family that required us to get to grips with some different plant terminology – notably capitula (the terminal heads upon which the many small flowers are borne) and phyllaries (the sepal-like bracts that lie outside the flower-bearing area). The almost ubiquitous Leucanthemum vulgare (Ox-eye Daisy) was a generally easy introduction, although the narrow transparent wings that separate Leucanthemum from the non-native Leucanthemella were hard to pick out in the field. Thus prepared, we entered the (for me) always tricky area of “yellow compositae” (using the old family name), identifying both Pilosella officinarum (Mouse-ear Hawkweed) and Leontodon hispidus (Rough Hawkbit). 

Common rock-rose
The final day’s field trip took us to Llanymynech Rocks, a wildlife reserve straddling the Welsh-English border that is managed by the Montgomeryshire and Shropshire Wildlife Trusts. As well as being a fine viewpoint across the Shropshire landscape, this site includes a range of interesting habitats. Helianthemum nummularium (Common Rock-rose) was in flower on open grassland above an old quarry, while Neottia ovata (Common Twayblade) lurked in the shady woodland. 

Back at base, the course finished off with an identification test (although an additional home-based assignment was also set). When it came to identifying plants under the pressure of a time limit, I admit that Stace was not the first reference book that I reached for. The ability to quickly assign a plant to the correct family, which I suspect most experienced botanists possess, enables the initial Stace keys to be by-passed – whilst bearing in mind that pitfalls may await too hasty a diagnosis. However, when it came to separating out genera within a family, or species within a genus, it was reassuring to know that Stace was close at hand.

Heading home from Llanymynech Rocks
Looking forward I now have more confidence to embark upon surveys of habitats in my own area of the country (Dorset) where I have already been stalking over the grasslands armed with an impressive array of literature. However, despite the presence of some now out-of-date names (a perennial botanical bugbear) my old ‘Field Flora’ (aka ‘Baby Stace’) still represents a more portable document than the shiny new fourth edition!"

Many thanks to Mike for this account - great to hear that a BSBI grant has helped him get to grips with the Botanists' Bible!

Monday, 26 July 2021

British & Irish Botany: issue 3.2 published

Betula pubescens var. fragrans
Image: A. Amphlett
The latest issue of British & Irish Botany, BSBI's online Open Access scientific journal, has just been published - you can read it here and it's our biggest issue ever! This issue is coming to you a little later than planned but the upside is that we have 12 papers for you to enjoy.

The issue opens with a detailed account by County Recorder Andy Amphlett of the identification and taxonomy of birches Betula spp. in Britain and Ireland. One of the many advantages of publishing online is that we are not restricted by page numbers and we believe that this detailed and amply-illustrated paper will be of great value in resolving some of the obstacles to confident birch identification.

Dune Gentian
Image: T. Rich
Chris Preston looks at the history of Slender Speedwell Veronica filiformis in Britain and Ireland since the C19th, David Welch describes a new microspecies of bramble Rubus longiflorus from northeast Scotland and Julian Shaw from the Royal Horticultural Society investigates Dutch Iris Iris x hollandica. 

Two subspecies in the Gentian family that are endemic to Britain - Dune Gentian Gentianella amarella subsp. occidentalis and English Centaury Centaurium tenuiflorum subsp. anglicum - are the subject of papers exploring their distribution, ecology and conservation status. Tim Rich continues his series of updates on the distribution and status of rare hawkweeds including one, Hieracium fulvocaesium, whose global occurrence in 2017 was restricted to just three individual plants on a single rock in the extreme north of Scotland!

Orchidophile and former BSBI Treasurer Terry Swainbank reports on a long-term study of the dynamics of Narrow-lipped and Broad-leaved Helleborines, and on the use of morphometrics to distinguish the putative hybrid between these species. 

Epipactis x stephensonii, the
putative orchid hybrid
Image: T. Swainbank
Michael Braithwaite and Luke Gaskell investigate the composition of arable weed communities of the Scottish Borders, and Phil Smith presents data amassed over 15 years on habitat, floristic and vegetation change on pioneer sand-dune and dune-slack systems on the Sefton Coast.

So a bumper issue, and don't forget that we welcome submissions from keen botanists with work of relevance to the British & Irish flora. You don't need to be a BSBI member, or an expert or a professional botanist. You don't need to have published a scientific paper before, in fact we are very keen to offer a platform to early career botanists, helping them with copy-editing and guiding them through the process from submission to publication. 

Head over to the British & Irish Botany website to read the latest issue, browse the archives and use the search facility to check out the subjects and species we've covered in the last few years; then take a look at the Submissions page and consider sending us a manuscript!

You can also contact Editor-in-Chief Ian Denholm at if you'd like to discuss an idea for a submission.  

Thursday, 15 July 2021

In the meadows and on the verges: July report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

Last month we left BSBI President Lynne Farrell looking at orchids and butterflies - so what has she been up to since then? 

Over to Lynne:

"Following rain and sunshine everything is exhibiting lush growth, including roadside verges, which are not being cut just yet in Cumbria, and hay meadows, which are in the process of being cut. 

"I was called at short notice by the local Wildlife Trust to survey northern hay meadows to record initial monitoring plots as they were due to be cut in two days’ time. 32 one -metre quadrats done in two days - it was just like being back at Monks Wood in my first job as a botanical assistant, surveying chalk and limestone grasslands for the Nature Conservation Review - only 50 years ago!

"These hay meadows are not especially species- rich, but they do have characteristic plants, which are both colourful and beautiful. 

"Some of them are also to be found on the adjacent roadside verges, which can be a source of seed for re-establishing some ‘missing’ species in the meadows if the management has led to a depletion of them. 

Melancholy Thistle Cirsium  heterophyllum (above right), Great Burnet Sanguisorba officinalis and Wood Crane’s-bill Geranium sylvaticum (image on left) are three of these, which are often among botanists’ favourite plants. 

Lynne surveying a quadrat in the hay meadow

"Of course, it is the variety of grasses which also define these wonderful areas. Perennial Rye-grass Lolium  perenne may be present in small quantities, but it is the mixture of several species rather than one being dominant which allows herbs also to share the sward and provide wonderful patches to wander through. 

"I, like many other people, have tried to photograph grasses with varying success but here is one I captured and which represents one of the key elements of richer meadows - Yellow Oat Grass Trisetum flavescens (image below).

"There are quite a few training courses available at the present on grass identification, so please go along and join one to learn about these important constituents of our fields. In addition, there are on-line courses.

"On another aspect, I’ve been receiving enquiries about exactly where to find various orchid species on Mull (part of my vice-county). This is as a result of several recent publications on orchids - always best sellers, as nearly everyone finds them a fascinating group. 

"There are links to various orchid ID books and resources on the BSBI orchid ID page

"Local expert Bryan Yorke is so keen on them that he walks up Hutton Roof limestone escarpment nearly every day of the year recording his beloved Epipactis species and their hybrids in summer and migrating birds in autumn and spring. 

"He produces beautifully-illustrated hand-drawn maps and he also has a well-visited website - well worth a look:"

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Good practice and bad habits in the pursuit of botanical beauty

Regular readers will know the name Jon Dunn, author of Orchid Summer, and may have come across both him and ecologist  Callum Macgregor on social media. They are both keen plant-hunters and excellent photographers but are growing increasingly upset at the way some botanists are allowing their desire to get a great photograph to take precedence over their concern for the plants themselves. 

Here's an example: the images on the right and below left show the rare X Dactyloglossum viridellum (Northern Marsh x Frog Orchid hybrid) in northern England which got a lot of attention from visitors whilst it was flowering. Someone decided they needed a photo of the whole plant, from ground level upwards, and removed all of the surrounding vegetation to get it. The images are reproduced courtesy of Dr Richard Bate, who was definitely NOT responsible for the damage shown (orchid expert Richard can regularly be found on Twitter offering orchid ID tips, sharing orchid images and calling out examples of the kind of bad practice set out in this blogpost). 

I asked Callum and Jon to put their heads together and come up with some pointers around how we can get the most out of plant photography without causing harm to our wild flowers. 

Over to Callum, who has summarised his and Jon's ideas on this subject: 

"Gardening: as a relative late-comer to botany, I never imagined this word could mean anything other than a green-fingered love of plants.

Now, I’ve come to realise it has a darker meaning - one associated with bad behaviour around our rarest and most beautiful plants.

I’m learning quickly that, like all branches of natural history, some botanists pick up bad habits that can give the hobby a bad name and put the very plants that we so admire at risk. Indeed, some of these are shared with lovers of other groups – butterflies, birds and so on – where issues of disturbance of wildlife by naturalists and photographers are also raised.

I discussed some of the bad habits that newcomers to botany (like me) should be aware of, with Jon Dunn, author of Orchid Summer. Together we came up with some suggestions for how to get the most out of the plants – and your camera – without causing harm. Many of these suggestions reflect the guidance of the BSBI Code of Conduct.


X marks the spot!
Monkey Orchid Orchis simia
Image: J. Dunn
I think a good rule of thumb for my photographs is that nothing dies in pursuit of them – including the subject and any innocent bystanders. We have both seen some truly shocking examples where it looks like somebody has taken a road roller or a strimmer to the surrounding sward. Jon recalls seeing a well-known nature photographer, who would doubtless prefer to remain nameless, actually bringing out a pair of kitchen scissors from their camera bag in order to cut away surrounding vegetation for a ‘clean’, uncluttered image.

How to get around this:

Pick your angle carefully. If you can’t get a clear view of the flower from a particular direction because of the sward, consider whether you would have better luck from another side. The best photos aren’t always the front-on views!

Incorporate the sward into your photo (image on right): a clean image of a single flower isn’t the only way to compose a beautiful photo. For example, the colour contrast of a purple orchid among yellow cowslips can really make the orchid shine out. Similarly, surrounding vegetation can provide good context of the habitat in which a particular plant is found, or even generate creative ways to highlight the subject.

Bog Orchid
Image: C. Macgregor

Manipulate the sward, rather than cutting/picking it. Gently push blades of grass back from your image, and weigh them down with a light-to-medium weight object. Take your photo, remove the weight, and if you’ve done it right, everything should spring back into place. There are lots of ways to do this, but the simplest and most creative I’ve seen was knitting needles, used to create a triangular funnel through the sward from camera lens to flower. This approach is subtle enough to be used on the background sward as well, if you frame your shot carefully.

For the image on the left, of a Bog Orchid Hammarbya paludosa, I kept the foreground clear by using my pocket tripod on one side and my wallet (positioned very carefully!) on the other.

Learn to use your camera! Be brave, and take the camera out of the ‘full auto’ settings. For plant photography in particular, learn to work with a shallow depth of field (see image below right) in order to focus on your subject, but making vegetation in the foreground and background blurry. It doesn’t have to be moved or removed – to some extent the camera can do that for you. Plants are particularly well-suited to experimenting with camera settings until you get the perfect shot, because you can be sure they won’t run or fly away…

A shallow depth of field
picks this Bog Orchid 
Hammarbya paludosa out
from the sward.
Image: J. Dunn

Related to the last point, practice! Before you find yourself in the field confronted by the orchid of your dreams, know what works and what doesn’t by practicing on plants in your garden or the local park. An hour or two of practicing will help you to understand your camera, and get much better photos to take home when it really matters.

Edit things out. If a particularly annoying bit of vegetation can’t be moved or avoided, get busy in Photoshop once you’re home. If your photos are just for personal use there’s no issue with this, and even if you want to enter competitions, many now allow it (for example, the Hardy Orchid Society competition permits “limited manipulation to remove distracting items”).


Of course, before even considering taking a photo, you first need to locate and approach a plant. Damage often occurs at this stage as people wander off paths and through sensitive habitats. This doesn’t just apply to photographers, but anybody who wants a closer look at a plant.

Stay on paths where possible. In the butterfly world, some argue that damage to host-plants from trampling is one of the greatest modern threats to populations. Whilst this may be true at certain highly-visited sites (think Large Blues at Daneway Banks, for example), it’s worth remembering that a little disturbance can be a good thing: many sites are preserved by grazing with large animals! Some sites are truly off-road and have no footpaths to follow. Nevertheless, if there is a path, it makes sense to use it, especially if you aren’t familiar with a site. This will prevent you from accidentally treading on something special.

Try to avoid lying down to take your images or to examine small plants, especially if the surrounding area contains other plants. We’ve all done it, but it’s to be avoided if at all possible. Vegetation can be crushed or uprooted, and may not flower and set seed, or may be killed entirely. Look at the damage (below left) that Jon found in front of three Bog Orchid  Hammarbya paludosa plants in Shetland last year – there were crushed orchids amongst the flattened area of vegetation, and torn off and uprooted moss and other plants that had presumably got in the way of the lens of the photographer in question.

Crush damage to the Shetland Bog Orchid
 site - the picturesque group of three
plants is circled (top right)
Image: J. Dunn

And NEVER EVER step over a fence or barrier intended to protect plants from people. At the end of the day, a nature reserve is just that; a reserve for nature, not a zoo or botanical garden. Remember it is a privilege to view rare and beautiful plants: not a right. Often these barriers will protect the densest part of the population, and scattered individuals can be found outside the fence if you cast your eyes about.

Use a tripod and remote shutter to reduce the need to approach a plant set back from a path. Most modern DSLRs allow you to connect them to a smartphone, with full control over settings and even touch-screen autofocus targetting. Lower the tripod into position carefully at arms’ length, step back and experiment with depth of field, shutter speed and focal positions to your heart’s content from a distance.

Self-heal Prunella vulgaris
Image: J. Dunn
If you have a telephoto or zoom lens in your kit, don’t leave it at home! You can let the lens cover the distance so you don’t have to. Jon has taken wildflower images using a 500mm lens that he’d normally use for bird photography. Check out the image on the right  - Jon used a long lens to create an interesting effect in his photograph of Self-heal Prunella vulgaris. As with experimenting with camera settings, think out of the box when it comes to the equipment itself. Of course, the same applies to binoculars; there are even reasonably-priced models on the market that are specifically designed for magnifying small subjects over short focal distances.

Sometimes plants will be protected individually with wire cages. In some circumstances it can be OK to lift these cages to take pictures (if you’re unsure, check with the reserve warden or site manager first). But if you do so, make sure you replace the cages carefully and securely once you’re finished.

Just because you’re not in a nature reserve doesn’t mean you can do as you please! Nature reserves are special places, but we should all extend the same level of care and due diligence to our behavior wherever we are in the countryside, be it on a footpath or bridleway, in public access woodland or common ground, or on a roadside verge.

Sharing information

Botany can be a surprisingly sociable hobby, both in the field and online. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the success of #WildFlowerHour on Twitter – more than 30,000 followers and counting! These kinds of interactions will doubtless be particularly important in this spring of social distancing. But it’s important to apply the same care and attention when back home, sharing the fruits of your labour, as you did in the field.


We all love to share our sightings, and (for those with cameras) our photos, on the internet. But if something you post online could lead a total stranger to the exact location of a rare or vulnerable flower without your knowledge or consent, consider whether you should be posting it at all, or if you could disguise the location better. I found as many as four rare orchid species during the summer of 2019 in officially non-publicised (but publicly accessible) locations, using only information openly posted online by enthusiasts. There were other leads to plants on private land that I decided not to follow up – but a more unscrupulous person might have chosen differently.

Butterbur Petasites hybridus 
Image: C. Macgregor 
One way in which you might be publishing such information without even realizing it is through metadata. ‘Meta what?’, we hear you ask. Metadata describe the properties of a photo, including the make and model of camera, the camera settings used, the date and time at which a photo was taken, and for most mobile phones and many new or high-end cameras, the GPS coordinates. On a digital image, they are known as the Exchangeable Image File Format, or EXIF data. So, if you post your photos online in such a way that the EXIF data can be obtained, you might unwittingly provide an exact fix for the location where you photographed that rare orchid!

In the first instance, you can consider switching this off in your phone and/or camera – ensuring your images aren’t tagged in that way.

If you do want the EXIF data – perhaps for your own records – make sure to remove it from your image before you post it online. Norton has a good page that explains how…

Does that sound overly paranoid in a Big Brother kind of way? Well, maybe. But consider that every year we hear about orchids (and other wildflowers) being dug up from the wild by persons unknown. Similar things go on in the worlds of butterflying and birding (with collectors still chasing down specimens and eggs of rare species). Until this finally stops being the case, it makes sense to not make a wildlife criminal’s life easy.    

…but also undersharing

Whilst bearing all of the above in mind, also consider that it’s possible to hold information too closely. Over-suppression of information can lead to unintended consequences. If you find a new location for something interesting, rare or protected, we suggest sending a record to your BSBI County Recorder and making sure the landowner/land manager knows about it, even if you tell nobody else.

A great example of why this matters played out over Twitter back in February 2020. A tree-planting project, led by the Woodland Trust, very unfortunately led to planting taking place on a species-rich meadow in Cumbria. Botanists, locally and nationally, were outraged, and the farmer was reported to be “sad and frustrated”, having “had literally no idea that site was important for flowers”. Similarly, the Woodland Trust pointed out that their assessment of the site – which used online data sets of plant records – had not highlighted its importance. Fortunately, action was taken to remove the trees and mitigate the damage.

Finally, be aware of the influence you can have on newcomers to botany by being a friendly and helpful contact! Consider sharing information privately to people you think are trustworthy, or perhaps even offering to accompany them to a site yourself if you aren’t yet entirely sure of their credentials. Sadly, with Covid-19 and the necessity to follow restrictions around social distancing and small groups, that hasn't always been possible recently, but even during lockdown, I've managed to find new things within walking (and jogging) distance of my house. The image above left shows a patch of Butterbur that I never knew existed, but I found and photographed them during lockdown within a mile of my front door.

So, if you can help somebody else to experience the joy of plants (without putting yourself or others at risk), why not make that your good deed for the day?"

Huge thanks to Jon and Callum for this extremely helpful blogpost. I hope everyone will find their tips useful and please spread this blogpost far and wide, so that scenes like the below (captured by a distressed botanist, horrified at such destruction in the name of plant photography) of a broken and discarded Pyramidal Orchid, soon become a thing of the past. Don't forget to download your free copy of the BSBI Code of Conduct and enter your photographs - taken with care - in this year's BSBI Photographic Competition.