Tuesday 14 February 2023

British & Irish Botany: issue 5.1 published

Eric Greenwood recording
Dipsacus laciniatus at Bidston Marsh
on the Wirral Peninsula
Image: B. D. Greenwood
We've just published the first issue of volume 5 of British & Irish Botany, our Open Access online scientific journal: another varied feast of contributions, encompassing vegetation dynamics, dispersal ecology, botanical history, ethnobotany and systematics.

The latest issue kicks off with two papers about the plants of particular habitats. First, the late Michael Prosser et al. discuss how phytosociology informs the conservation of species-rich meadows in hydrologically dynamic habitats, and how an example from British floodplains could help inform the debate around this subject in a wider European context. Following Michael's death, the paper has been completed by Michael's co-authors, Hilary Wallace and David Gowing, and is published as a tribute to one of Britain's most assiduous and most able phytosociologists.

Then we have a final paper from the late Eric Greenwood, who sadly died late last year, having just submitted his comprehensive analysis of changes to the coastal flora of the Wirral peninsula on Merseyside. Eric's wife Barbara worked with us to bring this paper to publication and we extend to her our thanks and our condolences. Eric had been an active BSBI member for 59 years and was made an Honorary Member in recognition of his many years of service to the Society. His obituary will be published in a future issue of BSBI News and on our obituaries webpage

Centaurea debauxii
Image: C. Skilbeck
Our next two papers focus on seeds and their dispersal: the first record from a NW European shore of the seed of the pan-tropical Yellow Water Pea; and a discussion on achene dispersal in British and Irish Knapweeds Centaurea.

British & Irish Botany also publishes papers on subjects such as historical botany and uses of plants by humans, and we have two examples for you in this latest issue: Chris Preston and David Pearman discuss C17th botanist Edward Lhwyd and the plants listed from Glamorgan in Camden's 'Britannia', while Michael Braithwaite considers whether the distribution patterns of plants used by humans as food can provide us with any clues as to whether those plants are native or introducedFind out more about the subjects covered in the journal on this page

Broad-leaved Helleborine
recorded in Northumberland; 
note the purple discolouration to the pedicel
Image: J. Richards

We close this issue with a paper proposing a botanical name for a well-known Hylotelephium (Sedum) and a note postulating that pedicel colour does not separate Dune Helleborine from Lindisfarne Helleborine. 

We hope that all our readers will find something of interest in this latest issue and would encourage submissions; here are the submission guidelines and if you are unsure whether or not your manuscript meets our criteria, you can always contact the Editorial Team at bib@bsbi.org for an informal chat. 

Meanwhile, we hope that you enjoy reading British & Irish Botany 5.1.

Monday 13 February 2023

Interview with Matt Harding, BSBI Scotland Officer

Matt at Lees Hill, Stirling
Image courtesy of M. Harding
In December Jim McIntosh, BSBI’s long-standing Scotland Officer, retired and the hunt was on to find a replacement. Those were very big shoes to fill but after a long and rigorous interview process, we appointed Matt Harding to join BSBI's small staff team. Matt has hit the ground running, but I managed to catch up with him recently for this interview:

LM: So Matt, welcome to the BSBI staff team! Some readers will already know your name as BSBI’s joint County Recorder for Stirlingshire. When did you join Philip Sansum in that role?

MH: I joined Phil as joint County Recorder for Stirlingshire in 2018. I began recording regularly in Stirlingshire for the Atlas 2020 project and was blown away by how much botanical exploring there was still to do, even in a relatively accessible vice-county. Perhaps botanists have tended to drive through Stirlingshire, drawn by the montane delights of Ben Lawers and other famous botanical hotspots to the north!

Matt at a BSBI field meeting in Ullapool, 2014
Image courtesy of M. Harding

Becoming a joint County Recorder, using the BSBI Distribution Database to help target my recording, and working on the Plant Atlas 2020 project was a great journey in itself. Since 2020, I’ve begun work on the first Rare Plant Register for the vice-county, which has been a fantastic way to get to know the area better, and has turned up all kinds of exciting local records and new species. 

I’ve also started a local botany group, sharing a seasonal newsletter summing up recording activities to our BSBI Stirlingshire webpage, and am hoping to get a programme of regular meets up and running in 2023.

LM: Sounds like you're really getting to grips with the plants of your vice-county - a perfect grounding for a Country Officer! So could you tell us a bit about yourself, Matt? When did you first get interested in botany/ ecology? 

Matt and Lizard Orchids on Jersey
Image courtesy of M. Harding
MH: With a dad who was a keen hillwalker and fell-runner, and a mum who was a biology teacher and amateur botanist since her teenage years, I was always going to be a keen naturalist! I graduated from a childhood love of dinosaurs to a passion for birding, which my poor parents supported despite pre-dawn starts and the dreaded LBJs (little brown jobs) – not without some justified grumbling, at least in my dad’s case! We spent many of our holidays in Scotland, where all our interests intersected with mountains, birds and flora galore. One of my earliest botanical memories is lying in a bog somewhere near Achiltibuie looking at sundews with my mum.

LM: Ooh that sounds fabulous! So what happened as you grew up, and kept developing your interest in the natural world and building up your skills? 

MH: After university I worked for the RSPB on short-term survey contracts for a few years, did a Masters in Environmental Philosophy and trained as a secondary school science teacher. In 2011 I moved to Scotland to join a renewable energy consultancy and became an ecological consultant, and this gave me the opportunity to develop my botanical skills. After a few years I set up as an independent ecologist, and have been traipsing around Scotland for the last eight years doing habitat surveys, hunting for mammal poo and sitting on hillsides in all weathers watching birds (or not, as the case may be).

Matt and members of the HWDT survey team,
cetacean surveying in the Hebrides
Image courtesy of the Hebridean Whale &
Dolphin Trust

LM: I bet you spotted some great plants while you were hunting for poo and looking out for birds, and not just in Scotland: I gather that you love climbing, mountaineering and trekking in fabulous places such as Greenland and the Canadian Rockies, as well as in Scotland’s mountain ranges? You must have seen some amazing plants and other wildlife in your travels?

MH: Yes, mountaineering has taken me to some terrific places and given me some wonderful experiences. Although I must confess that I’ve not always been on the lookout for plants at the same time, being a bit preoccupied with clinging on! One trip that really stands out was an expedition to East Greenland – landing on a glacier in a ski-plane, digging tents out in a four-day snowstorm, going to the loo on skis… 

Top of the world Matt?
Aonach Eagach Ridge Traverse, 2013
Image: Steve Sharland
I was there for nearly a month and recall seeing three species – a magical moment when several Ivory Gulls appeared from nowhere to check out our camp, a small unidentified passerine flitting around a cliff face (those LBJs again), and one lichen. Not the most productive trip from a botanical perspective!

LM: Hmm, so far we've had mammal poo, trips to the loo and lots of birds... but what about the plants Matt?!

MH: Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m particularly keen on montane flora, and really enjoy searching out plants in the Scottish mountains. After getting very excited about seeing Tufted Saxifrage Saxifraga cespitosa on the North Face of Ben Nevis, I was amused to find it growing in pavement cracks in north-west Iceland, with Alpine Bartsia Bartsia alpina also at road level there!

Matt debates the wisdon of climbing
The Chasm, Glencoe
Image: Tim Elsom

LM: I think that finding plants that are rare, or restricted to certain habitats, in one region, but behave quite differently in another, is one of the delights of field botany, as many participants in BSBI field meetings across Britain and Ireland have discovered! And those Ben Nevis plants are quite something, as your predecessor Jim reported in 2021.  

MH: My partner Liz is also a keen traveller, although generally drawn to warmer climates than I! Some of our standout moments include seeing baobabs and the spiny forests in Madagascar (complete with lemurs and incredible birds), exploring the fynbos around Table Mountain in South Africa, coming face-to-face with an Ethiopian Wolf in the remarkable Afroalpine landscape in Ethiopia, and being dazzled by hummingbirds in Costa Rica. But nothing comes close to re-finding Great Lettuce Lactuca virosa in Stirlingshire after 125 years (obviously).

Baobabs in Madagascar, 2014
Image courtsey of M. Harding

LM: Ah, now you're talking! Great Lettuce may not raise many eyebrows if you're based in eastern England, as this BSBI distribution map shows, but to anybody in Wales, Ireland or much of Scotland, coming face-to-face with Great Lettuce would be very exciting! And arguably less scary than an Ethiopian Wolf...   

What were you doing immediately before you joined us, Matt? 

MH: I was working on a range of projects across Scotland, including native woodland creation schemes and renewable energy developments, doing ecological surveys. However, after eleven years the appeal of getting up at 2am and traipsing around looking for Black Grouse every spring was on the wane, and since becoming a dad long stints away from home were starting to be less attractive. I spent a couple of brilliant days with the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Cumbernauld Living Landscapes Project, leading botanical walks for their terrific volunteer group, and began to wonder whether there was a job out there that combined botanical recording, engaging with other people who were passionate about the natural world around them, and helping to train the next generation of naturalists. And just then, Jim announced his impending retirement…

LM: So, perfect timing and a perfect opportunity for you to transfer the skills and experience you’ve built up as an ecologist to your new role at BSBI. What are your priorities for the next few months?

Enduring sub-optimal birding conditions
Image courtsey of M. Harding

MH: Firstly, getting to know the amazing network of volunteers we have here in Scotland! One of the few positives to come out of the national lockdown was that we are all so much better at meeting up with each other virtually, and it would be great to use the technology to chat to as many County Recorders as possible over the next few months, to find out more about their vice-counties and the brilliant work they do.

Secondly, the Atlas! After so much effort over so many years, I’m sure that everyone is just as excited as I am to finally see the result of this phenomenal project. The main Plant Atlas 2020 launch event will be online on 8th March, but we will be holding a face-to-face Scotland launch event on the evening of 9th March at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, to promote the Atlas to policy-makers and journalists and to make sure they understand about the huge contribution of all our members and supporters who worked so hard to bring this remarkable project to fruition. 

Matt and the Maidenhair Ferns,
southern England, 2019
Image courtesy of M. Harding


LM: Yes, that is absolutely key in all our promotions around the Atlas, flagging the thousands of recorders who went out in all weathers to collect the millions of records that fed into the Atlas. Without them, there would be no Atlas to promote! After the Atlas is well and truly launched, what will your next focus be?

MH: 2023 will be the third and final year of the Scotland HectAd Rare Plants Project (SHARPP for short), and another priority for me will be encouraging recorders to search out populations of these special and threatened species that managed to slip through the net of Atlas 2020 recording. I caught the SHARPP bug last year when hunting down old Stirlingshire records, and a trip up Ben Lomond had me punching the air when I spotted a population of Hoary Whitlowgrass Draba incana tucked away in a deep cleft, last recorded in 1968! Inevitably some searches end in disappointment, but one of the strengths of the project is that null recording is built in. In some ways it is as important to know that a rare plant population has been lost as it is to re-find it.

LM: I couldn't agree more! And I know you are also passionate about botanical training and have worked with the amazing Faith Anstey on her plant family ID courses, so is that something you plan to do more of?

MH: Absolutely! The Scottish field meetings programme is looking great for 2023 – we are truly fortunate to have so many botanists willing to reach out and share their knowledge and experience with others. I’ve joined Faith on some of her plant ID courses as a tutor in the past, and hope to again, and I know just what great work she and the other members of the BSBI Scotland Outreach Committee do to support and train people taking the first/next steps in their botanical careers.

Matt with the BSBI Stirlingshire Saltmarsh Team
Image: Roy Sexton

LM: I agree, I'm one of Faith's biggest fans, her books are a great way to get started with plant ID. What about longer term? What goals would you like to have achieved by the end of the year? 

MH: On the subject of botanical training, I’m really looking forward to working with Chantal Helm, the BSBI’s new Training Coordinator, to help support and develop the Identiplant course here in Scotland, and hopefully in time the Field Identification Skills Certificate as well.

LM: Great, I'm planning to interview Chantal very soon, so readers will be able to find out more about her and her plans. What else? 

MH: We currently have Rare Plant Registers for a little under half of Scottish vice-counties, but I’ve been excited to discover that several recorders have been working away at them, and am really looking forward to seeing the results. Helping recorders to get started with projects like Vice-county Checklists or Rare Plant Registers is something I’d like to prioritise over the longer term, and I know from personal experience that it is a great way to get to know your vice-county better. If you’re thinking about taking on one of these projects then please get in touch.

LM: Great, sounds like you are going to be really busy! Is there anything else? 

Selfie taken while bog restoration
monitoring in central Scotland, 2022
Image courtesy of M. Harding 

MH: Yes! The Scottish Botanists’ Conference is a super day that brings together the Scottish botanical community. The standard has been set phenomenally high in previous years, and I’m looking forward to taking it on and, hopefully, delivering a great event this November!

LM: Really, really busy... Jim set that particular bar very high indeed, so you have your work cut out for you there Mr Harding! But you'll have the wonderful Committee for Scotland and all your colleagues ready to help you! Meanwhile, if people have questions about the Conference, about Scotland’s wild flowers, or if they are thinking of tackling a Rare Plant Register, can they email you? And follow you on social media?

MH: Of course, I’d be delighted to hear from them! You can email me at matt.harding@bsbi.org, and follow me on Twitter at @BSBIScotland.

LM: Well good luck Matt, keep us posted on how you’re getting on and once again – welcome to the BSBI staff team!

MH: Thanks!