Thursday 13 January 2022

Changing times: January report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

Happy New Year to you all and I hope that you were able to participate in the New Year Plant Hunt, which ran from 1st to 4th January this year, and is becoming increasingly popular. I am actually thinking that it might be good to do Spring, Summer and Autumn Hunts in the same monad (1km x 1km grid square) so that I can compare the phenology throughout these changing times. 

Although we have seen increased numbers of taxa in flower at New Year for the past two seasons, this year there has been a decrease, at least up here in Cumbria. Storm Arwen, cold and wet conditions in November and December are probably the causes of this, but we will wait for the overall analysis to come out later this month and then we can compare with analyses from previous years.

As an example, last year we recorded 43 species around Arnside but only 16 this year. The normally productive sea front had been well and truly blasted by Arwen, except for Spartina which withstood the winds, and - although it is a fungus and so I did not add to the list of plants - the poisonous Ergot was evident on the grass. However, we did find a few species in sheltered spots including the sweetly-scented Winter Heliotrope Petasites fragrans (image above right). Goldfinches sought refuge in my garden and were feeding on the seed heads, which I had left deliberately for them (image below left). 

There have been many changes and challenges in the past year and, of course, things will continue to change, so we will continue to learn and evolve. Opportunities will be presented and let us try to accept them and move forward again. Sometimes it feels like we are in the ‘murk’ but there is always the chance to emerge from this into the clearer light. 

Recently many of you will have experienced the weather inversions, which provided spectacular views of ‘floating hillsides’ across many parts of Britain and Ireland. Here are a couple of images (below) from Arnside Knott from where you can usually see the sea, but in late December it was totally covered in mist and only the higher ground could be seen rising above. 

Tuesday 4 January 2022

New Year Plant Hunt 2022: Day Four

Glengarriff plant hunters and
some of their finds.
Image: C. Heardman
So, after four days, hunts across Britain and Ireland, and some surprising finds yesterday and on Sunday, the 2022 New Year Plant Hunt draws to a close. It's been great fun but our hard-working volunteers are probably heaving a sigh of relief tonight! Before they all return to their "normal lives", one of them, Hannah Udall, has pulled together a summary of the final day for you.   

Hannah is an Ecology and Environmental Science Undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh and aims to research soil carbon storage in the future. When she is not studying, she loves exploring outdoors, bird-watching and looking for wildflowers and fungi.

Over to Hannah for this evening's blogpost:

Female flowers on Hazel
Image: R. Horton 
"Today was the final day of the New Year Plant Hunt, and plant-hunters were greeted with snow speckled woodlands and intermittent rain. However, the cold weather did not prevent people from going on hunts and making some great observations.

"A common find was the male catkins and the beautiful pink female flowers on hazel trees. A white variety of female hazel flowers was also found in Cambridge by Roger Horton (it had been spotted in previous years by Sabine Eckert).

In northern Ireland, Donna Rainey found ragged-robin Silene flos-cuculi which is always pleasant to witness following its decline in recent years - formerly a fairly common plant, it is now classed as Near Threatened on the England Red List

White hazel catkins
Image: R. Horton
Some plant-hunters enjoyed other facets of nature during their plant hunt. Aaron Martin looked for otter signs along the Water of Leith, Edinburgh, and in Hampshire, Tristan Norton took a bird survey on his plant hunt. Aaron found feverfew Tanacetum parthenium and red campion Silene dioica along the water of Leith and Tristan Norton found field woundwort Stachys arvensis in Lee-on-the-Solent - this is a new record for the site.

A group of botanists from the Glengarriff Nature Reserve in Co. Cork found 36 species yesterday, completing their hunt before the snow and rain we witnessed today! Many of today’s hunts were completed by solo or paired botanists, however a lot of group expeditions have taken place over the course of the hunt. 

It was a cold day today and our plant-hunters fortified themselves with hot drinks. Two botanists were accompanied by canine friends on their hunt: Polly Spencer-Vellacott found six flowering species in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, with the help of her dog Conker the Spaniel and in Kerry, Jessica Hamilton had the company of her two botany dogs!

Field Madder
Image: S. Harrap

Norfolk Flora Group with their impressive 93 species (including field madder and scentless mayweed) found when they ventured over the border into Suffolk, were ousted from their place at the top of the List of Longest Lists today by David, who found 107 species, including wild strawberry and sun spurge, in Swanage. A list came in today from Simon Leach, who went on a hunt in Taunton and managed to find 88 species, taking the spot of fifth longest list. Another impressive list came through today from the ‘Limerick Sisters’ with a total of 61 species. But there are more lists still coming in so who knows what might happen?

As of this evening, it looks as though 848 taxa have been found in bloom this year (subject to verification by our botanist team) which is a record high compared to the last five years, perhaps reflecting the mild weather we have had recently. Daisy Bellis perennis is still the most common plant observed which is akin to previous years, with dandelion Taraxacum officinale agg. and groundsel Senecio vulgaris following closely behind. White dead-nettle Lamium album was more commonly observed this year in comparison to previous years, superseding species such as shepherd's-purse Capsella bursa-pastoris and common chickweed Stellaria media by over 100 observations. In previous years shepherd’s purse and common chickweed have been more common, with the number of observations being more comparable across the species.

Scentless mayweed
Image: D. Steere

These observations are going to be verified by our botanists over the following days, so the results are not finalised yet. Thank you to everyone who took part in this year’s Plant Hunt. We have been sent some wonderful finds, and we hope you had an enjoyable hunt.

A reminder to all Plant-hunters that even though the plant hunt is over, submissions are still accepted until midnight on Sunday 9th January. If you have some pictures but haven’t had the chance to submit them yet we would love to see them! Just email them to us at

Again, thank you for taking part in the New Year Plant Hunt 2022 and we wish you all the best for the New Year".

Sun spurge
Image: J. Common

Huge thanks to Hannah for this blogpost and to her and all the volunteers for all their help over the past four days: April, Brian, Hannah, Holly, Jo, Laurel, Moira, Paul and Rebecca, have been working behind the scenes processing records, answering enquiries, identifying plants and promoting the Hunt on social media - you are absolute stars. 

Thanks also to two staff members, Fundraising Manager Sarah, who joined BSBI in March so this was her first experience of the Plant Hunt (a bit of a baptism of fire eh Sarah?!) and Database Officer Tom, who created the new recording app and has been ironing out any remaining glitches over the past few days - wonderful work as always Tom! 

And most of all, thanks to all of you who have gone out hunting and submitted (so far) 1,074 surveys comprising 16,713 individual records. Well done!

We start analysing the data next week and plan to publish our analysis and put out a press pack on 24th January - watch this space!

Monday 3 January 2022

New Year Plant Hunt 2022: Day Three

The third day of the 2022 New Year Plant Hunt and the weather is still (generally) being kind to our plant-hunters. 

Almost 1000 people have already taken part in Hunts - compared to last year, more of the 825 surveys submitted were carried out by groups, such as the group pictured on the right, who, led by Ciaran Bruton, went hunting in Merlin Woods, Co. Galway (image by Colin Stanley), although we are still not back to the high proportion of group hunts that we used to enjoy in pre-Covid days.

The tally of species seen in bloom currently stands at 773, an all-time record, beating last year's 714 which itself was an all-time record!

 These figures do still need to be verified and our ID experts are already working their way through the data, rejecting anything we can't be 100% sure of, any plants not strictly in flower etc. 

But with another day of hunting tomorrow, and some recorders still checking their lists before submitting (the deadline is Sunday 9th January), it's looking very likely that this will be the highest ever total of wild and naturalised plants blooming at New Year.

So, with more than 13,000 records submitted so far, what exactly are our hunters finding and are there any themes emerging yet?

There were some very attractive and uncommon finds: Paul Green spotted Round-leaved wintergreen under pines near dunes in Co. Wexford (image above left) and Katherine White saw Harebell in bloom (image on right) in Shropshire; once common across England, Harebell is now classed as Near Threatened on the England Red List. 

As in previous years, southern locations and both coastal and urban habitats are proving species-rich, with the longest lists coming from Suffolk, Bath, Cornwall, Jersey... 

Sites supporting arable plants (archaeophytes, and sometimes disparagingly called 'arable weeds') are also yielding good lists, e.g. Simon Harrap's group who recorded 63 species in Norfolk including Dwarf Spurge (image below left, taken by Simon), Common Fumitory and Cornfield Knotgrass. Cornflower was recorded in South Lincs. as was Corn Marigold which appeared on several lists.

Several journalists have contacted us in recent days asking if any of the New Year Plant Hunt results suggest that spring is coming early, or if they provide evidence of climate change.

Well, spring doesn't seem to be arriving early - while there are a few records of primrose and lesser celandine, and the oddities we've mentioned in recent days, such as Hawthorn blooming in West Dulwich, or Bulbous Buttercup flowering in Dorset, the majority of species recorded seem to be, as in previous years, either all-year-rounders or else the 'autumn stragglers' that have kept on flowering in the absence of hard frosts. 

Some of those 'stragglers' are surprising, such as the naturalised Red-hot poker recorded and photographed in Kent by Dave Steere (image below right) - this garden plant is usually associated with late summer. 

Not all the spring flowering plants blooming early are necessarily welcome. The three-cornered leek recorded and photographed by James Faulconbridge on the Isles of Scilly (image below left) can prove very invasive and outcompete our more traditional spring flowers such as violets and cowslips. Its seeds are attractive to ants who help to disperse the plants. Introduced into cultivation in Britain and Ireland on 1759, it was first recorded "in the wild" in 1849.

These days, it is actually an offence under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act to plant three-cornered leek, or otherwise cause it to grow, in the wild. The BSBI Code of Conduct, which you can download free of charge here, lists all the plants covered by this legislation.

Narrow-leaved ragwort, recorded and photographed in bloom in Norfolk by Alex Prendergast (image at the foot of this page), does seem to be linked to a changing climate. 

Our records show that this plant, which originates from south Africa and was first recorded 'in the wild' in 1836, has been on the increase in recent years and seems to be moving northwards. 

Water bent, which is showing up in multiple lists this year (as it did during last year's New Year Plant Hunt) is another recent arrival which is increasing and spreading northwards. 

Our team of volunteers on the Support Desk are sorting through the data and are on the look-out for any other recent arrivals showing signs of increasing, spreading northwards and confounding expectations by managing to bloom in midwinter. 

They will be here again tomorrow, waiting to receive and process your records so if you haven't done a Hunt yet - or even if you have - we hope you'll get out there and take part in the final day of this year's Hunt. Then once the data are all in, we'll start the really hard-core analysis. Watch this space! 

Sunday 2 January 2022

New Year Plant Hunt 2022: Day Two

Common Stork's-bill
in Northants.
Image: B. Laney
One of the nicest things about the New Year Plant Hunt is that it offers an opportunity for botanists to volunteer to help out on the Support Desk: answering enquiries, inputting data and offering plant ID advice. This year we have 11 people on the Team: three BSBI staff members, three County Recorders, two members of our Events & Comms committee who have served before on the Support Desk and we also have three brand new volunteers who got in touch to offer their services. 

Tonight one of those volunteers, Holly Sayer, has provided the following summary of the day's finds. Holly is a Field Botanical Surveyor for Aberystwyth University and runs an Agroforestry consultancy business with her partner. She lives on the coast of West Wales and in her spare time is usually river swimming, hiking or growing food. She is also active on Instagram.

Over to Holly for this evening's blogpost:

"Day 2 of the 2022 New Year Plant Hunt and with almost 500 surveys sent in so far, it seems that the unsettled weather hasn’t put a stop to plant hunters across Britain and Ireland getting outside and sending in their records. I suspect many have followed Debbie Alston's example and put the #stoptheclock to good use, ducking into a pub or café to avoid the rain.

Daisy in Nevern Churchyard,
West Wales
Image: H. Sayer
"The New Year Plant Hunt gathers records on flowering plants to contribute to our understanding of how changes in weather patterns are affecting both wild and naturalised flora in Britain and Ireland. As if by coincidence, the first day of Plant Hunt was held on a record-breaking mild New Year’s Day, with the fourth day predicting Arctic winds and snow in some areas across Britain and Ireland.

"New Year Plant Hunt findings over the years show that flowering plants are a combination of both ‘autumn stragglers’ (approx. half the species), early blooming spring flowers (a quarter of species) and all year-rounders or ‘weed species’. Here on the coast of West Wales, we have yet to see a frost this winter season. As these record high temperatures become more common place during winter it will be interesting to see how records of flowering plants change and whether these trends continue.

"At the time of writing, the humble Daisy Bellis perennis has been recorded 196 times, starting to close in on the previous years’ final count of 579. The other usual suspects, Dandelion Taraxacum officinale and Groundsel Senecio vulgaris are currently holding onto the top slots of 2nd and 3rd most recorded in the lists so far. Last year these species had the most recorded numbers ever, so it’ll be interesting to see if recorders can top this effort.

Self-heal blooming in Cornwall
Image: D. Ryan

"Meanwhile, there have been plenty of interesting plants that do not generally make it into the top 20 list, from Barren Strawberry Potentilla sterilis and Common Stork's-bill Erodium cicutarium in Northamptonshire to Self-heal Prunella vulgaris in Cornwall to Common Centaury Centaurium erythraea on the Atlantic shore in Connemara, as well as a putative Coral Spurge Euphorbia coralliodes found by James Common and the Natural History Society of Northumbria at Walker Riverside.

"This year so far records have been sent in from as far north as Dunnet on Scotland's North-east coast and as far south as Fauvic on Jersey, from urban Dublin and from the rural heights of the Brecon Beacons. The New Year Plant Hunt accepts records from cities and countryside and is open to all, from botany experts finding rarities and setting records and those new to the world of wild flowers with little experience in ID-ing. See a plant that you’re not sure about? Take a snap and tweet it using the hashtag #WildFlowerID: the twitter community is filled with friendly experts happy to help.

Fool’s parsley, foolin’ no one
image: David B

"Today a beautiful, easily mistaken and aptly named, fool’s parsley Aethusa cynapium was confirmed on twitter, using a photo that had captured the bracteoles and more rounded fruits of the A. cynapium, which help to distinguish it from cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris.

"Currently, the list of longest lists shows 'Bath NYPH by Helena & Fred' to be in the lead with a whopping 92 flowering plants found, including arable edge favourites, cornflower Centuarea cyanus and corn marigold Glebionis segetum. In 2020, the top of the list of longest lists had identified 115 flowering species, so there’s still a chance that Helena and Fred might be moved from the top spot (not that it’s a competition!).  

Hawthorn, West Dulwich 2/1/2022
Image: P. Hedge
"‘What if I find nothing?’ you might be asking, well that’s just as useful and sending in this data is important to building an accurate picture of Britain and Ireland’s flora. With two days left of the New Year’s Plant Hunt there’s still time for you to get outside and add to the 332 surveys, 488 species and 4818 records that have been sent in so far, whether you find something blooming, or you happen to find nothing at all".

Huge thanks to Holly for this account of Day Two of the New Year Plant Hunt, and for all the help she has been providing on the Support Desk, including during yesterday's problems with the recording app - thankfully it was working well today! 

I'd just like to end with my favourite find from today, although I'm not sure whether to be surprised by it, or shocked and worried. Hawthorn - whose alternative name of May blossom indicates when it usually flowers - was recorded in bloom in West Dulwich by Pennie Hedge and the photo is reproduced here with her permission. It's probably too soon to re-name it January blossom, but still... strange times we live in!   

So, we're now halfway through the New Year Plant Hunt and as Holly says, there are forecasts of colder weather on the way. What effect will this have on the wild flowers we are seeing in bloom? Watch this space and we'll report back tomorrow evening.

Saturday 1 January 2022

New Year Plant Hunt 2022: Day One

The 2022 New Year Plant Hunt (NYPH) kicked off today and by 10pm, thousands of records of wild and naturalised plant species in bloom were displaying on the Results page of the NYPH website and almost 400 different species had been recorded (some awaiting verification).

Hundreds of people had been out recording across Britain and Ireland, from the Isle of Skye to Kent, from Guernsey to Tyneside, from Donegal to Co. Cork and from Dublin to Killarney. Their aim: to add to the body of evidence about how our wild and naturalised plants are responding to changes in autumn and winter weather patterns. This was, after all, the warmest New Year's Day on record, according to the Met Office, and there has been speculation in the media (citing evidence from previous New Year Plant Hunts) about how this might affect our wildlife.

So, what did our plant hunters find?

There were some surprises but also many of the usual NYPH suspects: 

Sarah Watts, Chair of the Mountain Woodland Action Group, found Gorse, always near the top of the the list of Plant Hunt most frequently recorded species, blooming at the head of Loch Tay (image above right); 

in Cambridge, Roger Horton spotted White dead-nettle (currently at number 6 on the list of most frequently recorded Plant hunt species) and one plant had a bee nestled inside one of the flowers: a reminder of how important wild flowers can be for pollinators and other wildlife in midwinter (image on left); 

and in Kerry, photographer and horticulturist Marc Cruise and his son found 21 species in bloom, including Common Field Speedwell, another Plant Hunt regular (image below right), currently at number 10 on the list of most frequently recorded Plant Hunt species.   

Also in Kerry: Strawberry Tree, the subject of a recent and very well-received paper in British & Irish Botany, was blooming merrily by Lough Leane near Killarney, as it does most years. 

Jessica Hamilton and her team braved some very blustery weather to record 28 species in bloom, including that Strawberry Tree and a surprising Ivy Broomrape (image below left). 

If you want to know more about these fascinating parasitic plants, check out this interview with national expert Chris Thorogood, co-author of the BSBI Handbook on Broomrapes of Britain & Ireland

Some plant hunters went out alone, or with family or friends - thanks to recent uncertainties around what would or wouldn't be possible at New Year, we didn't see nearly as many group hunts as we used to, pre-Covid. 

But there were some group hunts across the country, such as in Northumberland, where James Common and his team (image at end of blogpost) logged an impressive 56 species in Heaton, using Simon Harrap's Wild Flowers to check their findings. Simon will be leading his own hunt on the Bayfield Estate tomorrow morning (details here if you want to join him).

In Norfolk, the 'Cromer Dream Team' notched up 78 species in bloom - they are currently sitting at the top of the 'List of Longest Lists'. What is their secret? I can divulge that they were fuelled by not one but two cakes today: top botanist Jo Parmenter shared a picture this morning of the delicious-looking chocolate & apricot brioche she had baked to sustain her hunters and later she let slip mention of a Victoria sponge as well... the message seems to be, if you want to get ahead with plant recording, get a cake or two! 

But it's equally important for plant hunters to let us know if they found nothing at all. Author and horticulturalist Lin Hawthorne, and Wild Flower Hour leader Rebecca Wheeler, each ventured out into inhospitable upland habitats (one in Yorkshire, one in Lancashire) and found nothing flowering. This is valuable evidence: if any wildflowers had been in bloom, these ladies would have found them. It's just as important for us to know what isn't flowering, and where, as it is for us to receive long lists like the Cromer list.

Richard Moyse went out hunting in Kent, and was delighted to find Field Woundwort (image below right) in bloom - not a plant you see every day. And Miles King was gob-smacked to find both Burnet-saxifrage and Bulbous Buttercup flowering in Dorset - definitely not species you would expect to find blooming at New Year. 

So, well done to all our plant hunters, especially because, sadly, things didn't go entirely smoothly today. Our new recording app - which was subjected to extensive road-testing and tweaking throughout December by volunteers across Britain and Ireland - did not perform as well as we'd hoped. If it had, we'd probably see many more records on the Results map tonight

And the server which hosts the main BSBI website as well as the New Year Plant Hunt micro-site also found itself a little overwhelmed by all the traffic. Today was also, as is traditional, the day that applications opened for BSBI grants to attend training courses and carry out plant study and research, so lots of people were visiting our websites. At several points throughout the day, our server did the IT equivalent of going back to bed with a couple of aspirins and a hot-water bottle, but by the end of the day things seemed to be pretty much back to normal, thanks to sterling work by our tech guru Tom Humphrey.

Huge thanks to all of you for bearing with us and fingers crossed things go more smoothly tech-wise tomorrow! If you fancy having a go at a Plant Hunt in your own area tomorrow, this page has all the links you need: to the recording app, to the guidance on how to use the app, info on what to record and for how long, how to get help if you need it... good luck!