Saturday, 25 February 2017

New BSBI Handbook for Violas: have you ordered your copy yet?

Sweet Violet
Image: Mike Porter
The latest addition to the BSBI Handbooks series is due out in March 2017 but BSBI members can now order Violas of Britain & Ireland (BSBI Handbook No. 17) at a special pre-publication price of £10 per copy (plus £2 postage & packing for Britain & Ireland). 

After 31st March, the book will be available at the full price of £15 so the pre-publication offer represents a saving of one third off!

The authors, Mike Porter and Mike Foley, will be well-known to BSBI members - they have both given many years of service to BSBI, as expert plant referees, on our Publications Committee, and (in Mike Porter's case) as our Plant Records Editor, responsible for the lists of new plant records which appear in New Journal of Botany.  


Heath Dog-violet
Image: Mike Porter
The Handbook deals with 15 species and 11 hybrids of Viola (violets and pansies) and for each one there are species descriptions, illustrated keys, distribution maps, colour photographs, detailed line drawings showing diagnostic characters, notes on habitat requirements and conservation, first records in Britain & Ireland, related facts... if you are a fan of violets and/or pansies, you are going to want this book!

If you are a BSBI member, just head over to the members-only area to order your copy now, and in a few weeks you will have the pleasure of opening up BSBI's latest Handbook and knowing that identifying violets and pansies is about to get a whole lot easier!

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Elm trees on the Isle of Man saved by bad weather!

Dutch Elm at Ballachrink, Isle of Man
Image: M. Coleman
A paper published in the latest issue of New Journal of Botany suggests that thousands of healthy elm trees on the Isle of Man have avoided infection by Dutch elm disease thanks to the island's weather being too cold and windy for the pathogen to take hold. 


The island has an estimated 300,000 elms and only around one per cent of them have been lost to Dutch elm disease since the fungal pathogen was first noticed on the Island in 1992. This is a very different picture from that seen on the British mainland, where the disease has eradicated between 25-75 million trees since the 1970s.

Wych Elm (top), English Elm (below)
Image: M. Coleman
Dr Max Coleman of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was the lead author on the paper and said "The weather appears to be the key to understanding the remarkable survival of these elms thanks to the way it controls dispersal of the beetles that spread disease. Dutch elm disease is a fungus that hitchhikes on the bodies of tiny elm bark beetles and is completely reliant on them to get from tree to tree. These beetles are fairly harmless to the tree on their own. However, when they are covered in spores of the deadly fungus they can potentially infect healthy trees.

“We know the beetles need a temperature of at least 20 degrees to fly and if wind speed exceeds five metres per second flight is inhibited. By analysing local weather data from 1995 to 2015 we found that only one year out of 20 could be regarded as a good year for the beetles and the disease to spread".

The findings of the research have major implications for the future of elms on the Isle of Man. Dr Philippa Tomlinson, BSBI County Recorder for the Isle of Man and of Manx Biodiversity, the partnership organisation that provides a biological records service to the Isle of Man Government, said: "Understanding that the island's elms are likely to be just as vulnerable as elms elsewhere highlights the importance of measures to control Dutch elm disease. Although the cooler and windier conditions experienced on the Isle of Man appear to have kept disease at bay, this cannot be relied upon in the future with the uncertainties of climate change."

Dutch Elm, East Baldwin Valley,
 Isle of Man
Image: M. Coleman
Ian Denholm, Editor-in-Chief of New Journal of Botany, concluded: “Combining research on elm genetics with consideration of beetle ecology has led to a convincing and elegant explanation of why the spread of disease has been constrained in the Isle of Man compared with much of the UK. Such inter-disciplinary studies highlight the extreme importance of understanding how climate affects interactions between organisms as well as its impact on individual species. Elms are a complex group; unambiguous identification of types present also helps ensure the accuracy of BSBI’s database of plant records encompassing the whole of Britain, Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.”.

New Journal of Botany is usually only available to BSBI members and institutional subscribers - it is one of the perks of membership! - but our publishers, Taylor & Francis, have kindly made this paper available to everybody until the end of March. Just click here to read the paper.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Sad news for botanists and birders

Both the birding and botanical worlds are saddened to hear of the sudden and shocking death of Eric Meek. 

Eric Meek and Poa alpina on Ward Hill
Image: Ian Denholm
Eric served for many years as the RSPB’s area manager on Orkney, where he conducted pioneering research on the nature and causes of declines in seabird populations. He was also a highly proficient botanist and a fount of knowledge on the Orkney flora. He and John Crossley (BSBI’s County Recorder for Orkney) co-led a BSBI visit to the islands in 2010, attended by former BSBI President Ian Denholm among others. 

Ian recalls that "one day was earmarked for a visit to the island of Hoy. Despite utterly dismal weather and thick mist, Eric led half the group at a brisk pace over challenging terrain to the summit of Ward Hill, the highest point in the Orkney Islands. 

"Once at the top with scarcely any visibility, he proceeded to cross a small chasm and climb to the top of an isolated pinnacle to check on the status of Orkney’s only known clump of Alpine Meadow-grass, Poa alpina". 

As Ian’s photo attests, no-one was tempted to follow in Eric's footsteps!

We extend sincere condolences to Eric’s widow Aileen and other family members. He will be hugely missed.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Hurrah for herbaria!

Martin Godfrey has been in touch to tell us what's going on in his local herbarium:

"What can botanists do in those chill, damp, days at the end of winter when they are just twitching to find something in flower – how about a herbarium visit? 

"On 16th February, 18 members of the Litchfield Botanical Society visited the herbarium at the Potteries Museum, Stoke on Trent for a tour and talk about herbaria and their uses. 

"After coffee and a chat we first had a look at the lab and talked about specimen preparation and some of their scientific uses as well as just permanent biological records and ID aids. 

"Then over to the natural history store in the basement where the herbarium is housed – there to look at a few specimens, including a recently found mid-19thC Cypripedium specimen from Cumbria and some Rubus type specimens – leading naturally to a discussion on the values (or otherwise) of collecting and the role of herbaria in taxonomy. 

"Herbaria don’t just contain dried plant material and we looked at spirit based specimens and also documentary material – records, catalogues and botanical correspondence and ephemera to round out our knowledge of local plants.

"Finally a number of the visitors were keen to look at some of the less “obvious” members of the Asteraceae (image on left) – both for their own benefit and to photograph for a training session for beginners at the club".

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

BSBI Training Grants help botanists in 2016: Part Five

Herb Paris seen on the 'Woodland' module
Image: Vanessa Reeves
Following on from last month's post about the sedge ID course which Pete was able to attend last year thanks to a BSBI Training Grant, this month we feature a report by another budding botanist, Vanessa, who also benefited from a Training Grant. 

This one is a little embarrassing for me because, for the first time, the course discussed is one that I tutor for University of Leicester Botanic Garden. Details of the course are here and the report below is printed verbatim - no money or other sweeteners changed hands! 

Over to Vanessa:


"I’ve had an interest in plants for several years which stemmed from working as a Field Ecologist at an ecological consultancy. 

Pepper-saxifrage seen on
the Summer Meadow module
Image: Vanessa Reeves
"I had learnt most of my plant ID from assisting on Phase 1 surveys; however, before I received the BSBI Training Grant, I couldn’t have recognised what family a specimen was from, or the characteristics which make it the species it is. I had tried using keys before, but always struggled with the difficult terminology.

"I was fortunate enough to receive a grant of £200 from the BSBI, which allowed me to take the ‘Botany for Beginners’ course at The University of Leicester Botanic Garden. 

"The course is made up of 7 modules, and you can choose to do as many as you like within the year. The grant allowed me to take 4 of the 7 modules (although I enjoyed them so much I ended up doing 5!).

Yellow-rattle seen on the
Summer Meadow module
Image: Vanessa Reeves
"These modules were ‘Getting Started with Plant Identification’, ‘Spring Woodland Flowers’, ‘Summer Meadow Flowers’, ‘Plants In and By Water’, and ‘Trees, deciduous and evergreen’. 

"The course was led by tutor Louise Marsh, who is incredibly enthusiastic about botany and made the course thoroughly enjoyable.  
          
"Each module took place over a weekend. The Saturday was usually spent in the classroom identifying specimens, as well as occasional walks around the Botanic Garden, and on the Sunday we went on a fieldtrip to places which contained some of the species we had seen in the classroom, as well as many more, including some rarities. 

"One important thing Louise taught us about botany field trips is to never leave your lunch in the car – as you will undoubtedly get carried away by spotting new species and rarely make it back in time!" 

Tubular water-dropwort on the
'Plants in & by water' module
Image: Vanessa Reeves
[LM: this tip was passed on to me by none other than Clive Stace, when I asked the great man one day for advice on how to become a successful field botanist - it's the best advice I've ever had!]

"We often worked in pairs or groups during the course, and used keys to identify specimens. I found working with other botanists was really useful, as it helped to share ideas and tackle the sometimes tricky terminology. 

"Louise shared with us some brilliant mnemonics, rhymes and phrases to help us remember key characteristics of some species.

"I have learnt a huge amount over the course, and am soon hoping to carry out Phase 1 surveys on my own using my new botanical skills. I hope to attend more of the BSBI field meetings and contribute to local recording for Atlas 2020

Some of the species seen during the Trees module
Image: Vanessa Reeves
"I am currently taking the intermediate level course at the Botanic Garden this academic year, ‘Plant Identification Skills’, which follows on from the ‘Botany for Beginners' course’. 

"All in all a big thank you to the BSBI for the Training Grant!"

Many thanks to Vanessa for sharing her experience of the Botany for Beginners course - I'm very glad (and relieved) that she enjoyed it! 

Applications are still being accepted for this year's round of BSBI Training Grants but this may not be the case for much longer and the next round doesn't start until January 2018. So if you are interested in applying, please do so as soon as possible.

Finally, I'm wondering if there's a way we could share those mnemonics for ID more widely - what do people think?

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Caring for God’s Acre: biological recording in burial grounds

The churchyard, St. Mary's, Whitton, Shropshire
In this guest blogpost, Andrea from the national charity Caring for God’s Acre tells us more about plans for a new project to to encourage and support biological recording in burial grounds. 

If you've ever botanised in a churchyard or green burial ground, you will know that, when sensitively managed, such sites can support many species. Over to Andrea to tell us more: 
   
"Caring for God’s Acre is the national charity dedicated to conservation within burial grounds. We encourage and support communities to protect and enhance the wildlife value of these unique sites and also to preserve the built environment within them.

Westall Park Green Burial Ground
"There are about 20,000 burial sites within the UK ranging from quarter of an acre to over 140 acres. They are more valuable for biodiversity than their size suggests due to their longevity and continuity of management. The oldest sites may have been enclosed for over a thousand years and most have never been exposed to either intensive management or widespread chemical use.  

The Beautiful Burial Ground Project 

St. John the Baptist Church,
Hope Bagot, Shropshire
"We have been working in burial grounds for nearly 20 years and feel the need to address a large issue. Burial grounds are surprisingly under-recorded and even when they are surveyed, records usually go into national systems that are not site specific. 

"This means that the managers of these sites rarely have access to species data that could inform their decisions and help them interpret the importance of the site to the wider community.

"We plan to address this by literally putting burial grounds on the map. We plan to create a bespoke database and work with NBN on an interactive map where:
  • individual burial sites can be located,
  • records can be linked to a particular site,
  • information is validated and easily accessed by all.
Longden Rd. Cemetery, Shrewsbury: designated
 a Local Wildlife Site after local recording
groups undertook surveys in 2016
"Funded training sessions and travel expenses for recorders, initiatives such as ‘the Year of the Burial Ground’ and guides to existing identification resources are just some of the ideas within our application to the Heritage Lottery Fund. 

"We have passed the first stage of the application process and would value your input in order to shape the project as it develops.

"If you have 2 minutes to spare, we would love to hear your views."

Many thanks to Andrea for telling us more about this new project. You can also email or phone her on 01588 673041 if you have ideas or would like more information about the Beautiful Burial Ground Project.

Friday, 27 January 2017

New Year Plant Hunt 2017: the first of the prizewinners

Seeds in the vaults of the Millennium Seed Bank
Image: L. Jennings
In recent years we have started the tradition of awarding prizes to New Year Plant Hunt recorders - the prize is a chance to tell people about your Hunt and/or to share your three botanical wishes for the year ahead.

This year, several people spent up to three hours hunting in their local patch and found absolutely nothing. But records of absence are just as valuable as records of presence so we are delighted to offer recorders who found nothing in bloom, the consolation of a BSBI Valiant Effort Award. First up is Laura:

Group from Kew assessing 
Prunus avium seeds for collection
Image: L. Jennings
"Many thanks to BSBI for granting me the chance to share my three botanical wishes for 2017 as a prize for achieving a score of zero in the New Year Plant Hunt. I went plant hunting on New Year’s day around the National Trust’s Ankerwyke site, which is a mix of woodland and grazed grassland next to the River Thames, and most notable for the incredible, 2500-year-old Ankerwyke yew tree.

Plants are my day job as well, as I’m a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. My work is part of the huge, global, Millennium Seed BankPartnership which is aiming to collect seeds from 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020. The many seed banks around the world are an ex situ insurance against extinction for wild plant species, and they are complementary to in situ conservation work in species’ natural habitat. Both types of conservation are becoming more important than ever with so many plant species in danger of extinction. My job is to identify the herbarium vouchers which are collected along with the seeds to species. We need to make sure that the seeds stored in the seed bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex are linked to the current, accepted name for that species, otherwise they are just a load of very attractive seeds in jars.

Herb Paris Paris quadrifolia 
at a perfect stage of ripeness
Image: L. Jennings
So, I would like my first botanical wish to be connected to my work: I wish for a successful field season for us and our partners all over the globe, to find and safely bank seeds from as many species from our target species lists as possible. It’s a huge amount of effort to make a single quality collection, so good luck to all the seed collectors out there, I hope that the weather is kind to you and the plants are at the perfect stage of natural dispersal!

My second wish would be for a complete cure for plant blindness, the cognitive biases that cause many people to ignore plants. As reported by Balding and Williams in 2016, for many people plants are a blurry green backdrop to the furred or feathered creatures they’d rather focus on. However, plants are the vital life support for most land-based ecosystems, and deserve more attention, and more funding for their conservation.

My third wish would be for BSBI to ask their members to look out for a rare UK chalk grassland plant, the fringed gentian, Gentianopsis ciliata. Personally, I’ve only ever seen herbarium specimens, as it was last recorded in Buckinghamshire in the late 1980s. The team at the Millennium Seed Bank would very much like to collect seed from a UK population, because we have almost completely banked the UK Flora and just the very difficult to impossible species remain. I don’t have any photos of this species, but there are some excellent ones here.