Sunday 27 June 2021

Forecast: a Diary of the Lost Seasons: read the interview, enter the competition, buy the book!

A new book published on 24th June examines how the seasons are changing and how, as flowers bloom ever earlier, birds no longer fly south for the winter and reports of flash floods and wildfires fill our news feeds, we are becoming increasingly disconnected from the seasonal milestones of the past.

Author, journalist and weather watcher Joe Shute writes the ‘Weather Watch’ and ‘What to Spot’ columns for the Daily Telegraph. In Forecast, he travels all over Britain to report on the growing gap between our cultural expectations of the changing seasons, shaped by folklore, custom and childhood memories, and what we actually experience nowadays.

LM: Joe, congratulations on the book and many thanks to you and Bloomsbury for sending me an advance copy. It’s a great achievement but I’m not sure whether to be delighted at your beautiful writing or heart-broken at the picture you paint of a world where the seasons are increasingly ‘out of synch’, which could have terrible consequences for our wildlife. Do you think this mixture of delight and regret is likely to be a common reaction among your readers? 

JS: I want Forecast to be a hopeful book and one that inspires readers. Clearly the seasons and weather patterns are changing at what is quite a frightening rate and that is having a real impact on the natural world but as I hope I’ve shown in the book nature is remarkably adaptable as well if we only give it a chance. I’ve given examples such as on Saddleworth Moor, where conservation work to re-wet the peatlands after the worst wildfire in living memory is having a real impact on increasing numbers of threatened wildlife and communities rallying together in the face of increased flooding to hopefully show that there are solutions to what lies ahead of us. 

Joe's column in The Telegraph
about his day with Kevin & the
New Year Plant Hunters 

LM: Yes, that chapter ‘Muirburn’ was really moving and it was great to hear about your return visit on the first anniversary of the fire, and the amazing work being done by Kate Hanley and her team. You also joined one of our New Year Plant Hunts last year, spending the day with our Head of Science Kevin Walker as he – and almost 2000 fellow plant-hunters across Britain and Ireland – went out to see how many wild or naturalised species they could find in bloom. The ‘Budburst’ chapter in your book is a wonderful account of your day plant-hunting with Kevin, it really brings to life what happens at one of our field events! Were you surprised that we are finding hundreds of plants in bloom at New Year: 615 last year and the total went up to 714 this year? What was your take-home message from your day with Kevin and his team in Yorkshire? 

JS: Yes I had a fantastic time with Kevin and the BSBI volunteers and if I recall some lovely mince pies too! I am much more comfortable going bird watching than plant hunting so it was a real privilege to tap into some of the expertise of the BSBI plant hunters and the number of species we did find in bloom was very surprising. Through the New Year Plant Hunt, the BSBI is clearly amassing some very important data on the way the weather is shaping the natural world. I suppose the take-home message was the sheer number of flowers we are likely to see out on even the coldest winter's day - and to not always be scanning the skies for birds!

New Year Plant Hunters in Leicester 
recording their finds
Image: L. Marsh

LM: That’s always a problem for those of us who love all wildlife, not just plants – do we look up or down or risk a crick in the neck trying to do both! Some naturalists become very pessimistic at the thought of all those species that will be negatively impacted by climate change: the migrating birds blown off course by unseasonal winds and the plants that cannot adapt quickly enough, that are not knocked back by frost so have to, as you say so eloquently in the book, “linger on, drawing on whatever energy reserves they can muster and persisting wearily into the spring”. But other wildlife-watchers are more optimistic, pointing to the chance to see Mediterranean birds like the hoopoe in the UK, and the opportunities for colonisation – the bee orchids and southern marsh orchids spreading northwards, for example. Whereabouts do you sit, on balance: are you a glass half-full or half-empty sort of person? 

Bee Orchid in bloom
Image: K. Walker

JS: I’m a natural optimist so will always prefer the glass half-full approach. There was a recent study which found climate change was impacting on one third of UK birds but we need to be careful to say that this is not always in a negative way. Species like blackcaps, for example, are increasingly over-wintering in the UK while smaller birds such as long-tailed tits, goldcrest and wren are also coping much better in what are increasingly frost-free winters. I’m also a big fan of ring-necked parakeets which have now spread as far north as Glasgow where they are said to be the most northerly flock of parrots in the world. There are of course many native species that are really struggling as a result of climate change and I tried to tell their stories in the book as honestly as I could, but it is not all doom and gloom.

LM: Well I think you nailed it and managed to give us both sides of the story, and there are certainly some plants that are benefiting from the changing climate. Of course, as you point out in the book, a decade’s worth of New Year Plant Hunt data isn’t really “enough to demonstrate the effects of long-term climate change on the flora of Britain” but it’s a start and it builds on the work Richard Fitter started in 1954 and which his son Alastair, one of our trustees, has continued, recording the first flowering dates of plants in their garden: some interesting examples in this video recorded by Alastair. We’re always keen to get more people involved in biological recording so we can build up more data. Do you think reading Forecast might make some people keen to become part of that growing army of citizen scientists?

Joe Shute
Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

JS: I certainly hope so. We are blessed in the UK with such a dedicated army of amateur naturalists whose observations are key in explaining the changing world. Phenology, which is the name for studying the changing seasons through nature, is very labour intensive and relies entirely on the work of volunteers and research such as the New Year Plant Hunt. I'm looking forward to taking part again next year!

LM: It’s a date Joe, we’ll look forward to seeing you at New Year! Meanwhile, all of us at the Botanical Society hope that Forecast will be widely read and will open people’s eyes to how our climate is changing and the impacts on our wildlife. Thanks for talking to us and again, congratulations on the book, it’s superb and deserves to be a great success.

Joe’s publishers, Bloomsbury, are making three free copies of Forecast available to News & Views readers. They will go to the first three people who can answer these questions correctly UPDATE 6th July: all three copies of the book have now been posted to the three winners, so we can now reveal the answers to the competition questions (bolded below):
Q1. Kevin Walker told Joe about the four wildflowers most frequently recorded in bloom during the New Year Plant Hunt – what were they? A: Daisy, groundsel, dandelion and annual meadow-grass.
Q2. Who was the pioneering C18th parson-naturalist who recorded the natural history of his Hampshire parish throughout the year? A: Gilbert White.
Q3. Which is the only British tree named after the month in which it (usually) flowers? A: Hawthorn (may-flower).
Q4. Who was the pioneering meteorologist who first coined the term “forecast” and established what would become the Met Office? Hint: you’ll hear his name every time you listen to the shipping forecast on the BBC, because one of the shipping areas is named after him! A: Robert Fitzroy.

Congratulations to our winners, Alice, Heather and Katy - we hope they enjoy their copies of Forecast. For everyone else, the book is available to buy in all good bookshops and Bloomsbury have very kindly offered BSBI members a discount if they’d like to buy a copy. I imagine many of our members will want copies either for themselves or to give as presents. If you are a BSBI member, just go to the password-protected members-only area of our website (email me if you’ve forgotten your password) and follow the instructions there – you’ll be able to claim 25% off the RRP of £16.99, so you pay only £12.74. 

Friday 18 June 2021

Opening up: June report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

Coralroot in Cumbria
Image: I. Denholm
Last month BSBI President Lynne Farrell she was looking at various kinds of Broomrapes and reading the new BSBI Handbook all about them. So what has she been up to since then?

Lynne tells us:

"Since the middle of May we have been allowed to meet up with a few of our friends, preferably in the open air. Several local groups have held meetings, including the Flora of Cumbria group, which met on Scout Scar in early June to enjoy the specialities of the site. They were just showing as the warmer weather had not quite arrived then. 

"People have also been able to travel further and Ian Denholm, one of our trustees, Editor of British & Irish Botany, one of BSBI's orchid referees and also a past President of BSBI, came up for a few days, when we explored a few of the many interesting local spots. Ian was keen to see some orchids near their geographical limits in Britain, so we obtained permission to visit a private local reserve to see Corallorhiza trifida (Coralroot) where it was first found in 2016. 

Ian examining the coralroot
Image: L. Farrell

"The more usual place to see this species is at Sandscale Haws, a wonderful coastal dune system, but reports from there were not encouraging so we turned inland. Coralroot is a saprophytic herb found in shady, damp Alder and Willow carr on raised mires and lake margins, but it can also be found in dune slacks with Salix repens (Creeping willow). It is easily overlooked and new sites are still being discovered, so keep your eyes open.

"On the only wet and misty day recently, I joined the Butterfly Conservation group at Ormsgill Slag Banks, another coastal site near Barrow. As the name suggests, this is a site of man-made origin, reflecting the previous history of the area, which was a main source of materials for various industries. Now it is being re-colonised by natural vegetation but also has planted species including many Sorbus (Whitebeam) trees and Hippophae rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn), which are more vigorous than we would probably wish to see. 

Eyed Hawkmoth
Image: L. Farrell

"This area is now important as a rescue site for the Cupido minimus (Small Blue butterfly). Due to the cold and misty conditions we did not see a single flying butterfly but found them roosting in Galium album (Hedge Bedstraw), making them much easier to photograph. We were surprised to find a Smerinthus ocellata (Eyed Hawkmoth) in a comatose state resting in the clover. This would be near its northern limit. Nearby we found the gall Taphrina pruni (Pocket Plum) on Prunus spinosa (Blackthorn). 

"Whilst searching for plants it is also good to see species of interest from other groups. As I once said to someone on Mull where I'm BSBI's County Recorder, ‘I’m more than just a botanist’.

Thursday 17 June 2021

Sarah's first field meeting: getting started with plant ID

Last week we brought you a report by Julia Hanmer, BSBI's Chief Executive, of the BSBI online plant families ID workshop she attended on 22nd May and we promised you a report by BSBI Fundraising Manager Sarah Woods of a more conventional ID meeting she attended on the same day. 

Now read on to find out what Sarah made of her day in the field...   

"I had no idea what to expect when I stepped off the train in Cambridge for my first ever BSBI field meeting; but thanks to Jonathan Shanklin’s comprehensive and reassuring advanced emails, and a judicious warning from a friendly soul to prepare for all weathers, I felt I at least had the gear to survive the day without embarrassment on the kit front. Whether I’d know my hogweeds from my horsetails remained to be seen…but as the day was aimed at botanical beginners, I felt reassured that I’d be in safe hands.

"There was plenty of high spirits amongst the participants as we arrived in Trumpington Meadows, it being the first time many of us had been to any such event in over a year. Jonathan was quick to gauge the range of experience of the group, from myself as the true beginner, to some who were keen to learn more about the specific characteristics of local sedges and grasses (“Sedges have edges” is just one of the gems that has stayed with me). The ease with which information and interest was shared amongst the group made the day even more enjoyable; when an expert question was being asked in one quarter, someone was always happy to help me work out whether I was correctly spotting something we’d seen earlier, or if I’d have to key out something new.

"As a complete novice, a couple of features of the meeting stood out in particular; number one being the amount of time it was possible to spend in an area the size of a squash court (image above right). The newly established meadow just beyond the meeting area was Jonathan’s jumping off point for us, demonstrating how the redevelopment of a habitat through sowing could see a progression from domination of one species to slow integration of many, many species. It was fascinating to see the level of detail he was able to recall about individual plants, but also to navigate up close the process of deciding what features of a plant distinguish it from its near neighbours when using a key. I particularly enjoyed the fringing of hairs to either side of the stem of a Veronica chamaedrys (Germander speedwell) – apparently likened to the fringe of Native American hide pants" (images above left and below right).

LM: There are lots of mnemonics and visual comparisons used by botanists to remind themselves - and each other - of what a particular plant looks like and how to distinguish it from all the other plants that look superficially similar. So at this point, reading Sarah's report, I just had to send her a link to the Speedwell ID sheet commissioned by Rebecca Wheeler and prepared for Wild Flower Hour by Moira O’Donnell. Moira looks at the fruits of speedwells and IDs them due to their similarity to…  a part of the anatomy usually encased by pants… oh, take a look at the ID sheet so you can see for yourselves! 

Back to Sarah’s account:

"The second feature that became apparent was the wealth of inherited data and knowledge that such work draws upon – it was brilliant to have supplied for us the species data for the site and to watch Jonathan perform his recording duties as we began to travel through the site. This window into the activities of an expert, and the process of recording, made the day all the more aspirational for a naïve but keen newbie!

"A number of discussions over the course of the day helped me put my own purpose and goal for the day into perspective, as we moved from looking at the different habitats of pools (apparently formerly favourite bathing spots of Lord Byron), to a riverbank and some woodland. Whilst more experienced botanists can be more self-directed and independent on a field meeting, said Jonathan, beginners asked the most unnerving questions of the expert, and rather than seeing a plant for the hundredth time, would be looking at it with the freshest eyes (better than my first birdwatching experience in Canada, when I diligently asked what the large black bird was, only to be told ‘a crow’…).

"Also expounded was the notion that ‘everyone looks with different eyes’, something I had not previously appreciated. We learnt that not only will two individuals view a plant differently  (regardless of the plant’s own peculiarities), which can make one key-writer’s description further from your own experience, but that even your own eyes will perceive colour different to each other. As each of us recognises patterns in different ways, bringing our own idiosyncrasies to not just the process of identification, but also to noticing the plants within their habitat in the first place.

"This was demonstrated most simply when we moved along to a patch of protected conservation area to look for Adder’s-tongue ferns (image on right). Even as a novice, the promise of seeing these in the flesh had been a source of excitement in Jonathan’s preparatory emails. Previously, I’d seen a few of these bizarre-looking green structures popping up on Instagram and Twitter. We waded cautiously into the area that they were known to be, and everyone began crouching very close to the moss and scrub. Suddenly, one of the group had found one – if a little nibbled. It was tiny; I couldn’t believe the shiny, robust looking plant I’d seen given the full focus of multiple photos was this diminutive! And then we couldn’t move for seeing them. As our eyes adjusted to the tone of green we were looking to pick out, an entire ecosystem came into view. Suddenly, one of our group had also discovered a spot-marked orchid rosette. And then, towards the edge of the area, I saw something equally green, but (to my naïve eyes) definitely not an Adder’s-tongue. It took a couple of “Um…Jonathan?”’s for me to work up the voice to get his attention, but I was rewarded by being told I’d found a Common Twayblade (image below left). Luckily this seemed to get everyone excited! Fair to say, when Jonathan later updated us to say this is only the second record of a Common Twayblade in the wider Cambridge City area, my understanding of the plant hunter’s thrill of the chase became well and truly established.

"Heading home at the end of a great day’s introduction to botany in the field, I reflected that my brain felt a little like it’d been subject to a fascinating tour in Japanese or something similar – a little shell-shocked by the amount of information, and the number of new terms, ideas and features that had been shown to exist in locations I thought I knew well. But Jonathan’s care to integrate all the interests of the group, whilst bringing out all that was on offer in the site, made the experience feel far from formulaic or like a classroom. It was fantastic to meet others who had different experiences of engaging in plant identification, and to be able to look to them as a model of what can be learnt through some trial, error and enthusiasm. And, perhaps best of all, how this knowledge can then be passed on to the next new cohort of budding botanists who will ask the hardest questions and see with the freshest eyes".

So, Sarah's first day of field botany left her "a little shell-shocked" but obviously chuffed to bits that she'd notched up only the second record for Cambridge city of a Common Twayblade! Proof that even when you are just starting out in field botany, if you keep your eyes peeled you can make new discoveries and spot plants that even the more experienced botanists had overlooked. My guess is that once she has checked out the resources and ID tips on our orchid ID and fern ID pages, tried all the suggestions on our 'Getting Started' page and looked at the series of Moira O'Donnell's ID sheets on our plant ID for beginners page, those new discoveries will start coming thick and fast - and fingers crossed she'll keep us updated about her botanical progress.

Thursday 10 June 2021

Online course to learn plant family ID

On 22nd May, we tried out a completely new kind of plant ID session - an online workshop aimed at helping beginner botanists get started with identifying some of the more common plant families. 

Around 50 participants signed up for the course. The £15 full fee (a discount was available to students) covered the cost of sending each participant a copy of Faith Anstey's excellent book, a Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families. The course was based on Faith's user-friendly approach to teaching plant families and how to use the kinds of keys found in many plant ID guides. 

One of Faith's pre-Covid workshops

BSBI's new Chief Executive, Julia Hanmer, decided to sign up for the course, to see how it worked and to refresh her plant ID skills. Since the Covid lockdown, we are hearing from more and more people who studied botany years ago and are now looking to brush up those ID skills and reconnect with the plant world and nature conservation, so online refresher courses are likely to become increasingly important – but do they really work?

Julia received her copy of Faith's book through the post a few days before the course so at 10a.m. on the day, she was all set for two hours of botanical training. Julia told me "I really enjoyed the course. It was well structured and presented and great fun to do. There were three short interactive sessions led by Aileen, punctuated by breaks, where we were given tasks to do on our own, IDing plants using Faith's book and then coming back together to look at how we had done. It all worked well online, with Aileen teaching and Jim McIntosh, BSBI Scottish Officer, facilitating and answering the many brilliant questions posed by participants, through Zoom’s Q&A facility.”

Great to hear that the format worked so well! What about Faith's book? Julia said "Yes I love the diagrams that feature on almost every page of the book, showing for example the different kinds of flower structures (image on right), or what 'whorled leaves' look like. I also liked the way Faith’s pocket guide has a glossary of plant terms and uses straightforward language wherever possible, e.g. she talks about flowers having either radial symmetry (slice them in half anywhere you like and the two halves would be identical) or else mirror symmetry (where there's only one place to slice them if you want two identical halves). Many beginner botanists will find that easier to understand and remember than 'zygomorphic vs actinomorphic' as used in Stace's ID keys."

Faith has certainly been building a reputation in recent years for helpful workshops and user-friendly booklets that help demystify how we identify plants including grasses, sedges and rushes, and those tricky yellow composites aka dandelion lookalikes. If you missed out on this online workshop, you can order all Faith's booklets from her website.

Jim McIntosh said “Faith’s Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families is a great way into the sometimes confusing world of wildflower ID! A total of 46 people participated on the day, and Aileen, our tutor, guided students clearly and concisely through naming plant parts, how to use the booklet to identify common plant families (e.g. the Rose family, image on left)  and how to use books like Collins Wild Flower Guide to pinpoint the species. We used the breaks to give students short exercises and asked them to photograph five flowering plants and identify their families, and the species, as (optional) homework. Participants were able to ask questions at any time during the session and we had a bit of fun with an interactive online poll. The session was recorded and you can watch the video here on the Training playlist on our BSBI YouTube channel”.

Another of Faith's pre-Covid workshops

Julia said that "Getting out and practising after an online course certainly helped consolidate our learning. The whole workshop really made me think about the different ways we ID plants - it's so easy to play 'plant snap' and try to match our plant to a picture in a book, rather than keying it out properly, but picture-matching is not always reliable - much better to learn how to do the job properly, and this online workshop was a huge step in the right direction" 

So, a vote of confidence from Julia but how does an online workshop compare against a more conventional beginner ID session in the field? We'll soon have a chance to find out because on the same day that Julia was attending the online workshop, BSBI's new Fundraising Manager Sarah Woods was attending a field meeting for beginners in Cambridgeshire with County Recorder Jonathan Shanklin. She has promised to send a short report so watch this space!