Friday, 27 February 2015

Saving field biology skills from extinction risk.

Sue Townsend and Young Darwins
Image courtesy of Field Studies Council
Regular readers will know that here at BSBI, we are very keen to help you develop botanical identification skills: we tell you about botanical training opportunities, we support initiatives like Young Darwins and we share stories from our in-house training workshops and conferences such as Training the Trainers

A key aim of BSBI's Training & Education (T&E) Committee, chaired by Dr Sarah Whild, is to boost the profile of botany in British universities and raise awareness of any issues of concern. 

Three members of T&E Committee - John Warren, Paul Ashton and Sue Townsend - have just collaborated on an article for the prestigious Times Higher Education called 'Save field biology skills from extinction risk'. 

This article appeared yesterday 26th February 2015 in Times Higher Education we are grateful to them for permission to reprint it here in full:

Save field biology skills from extinction risk.

Learning field identification skills:
 Manchester Metroplitan University
Image courtesy of BSBI's T&E Committee
"It is widely accepted that decline of field biology skills in the UK has reached crisis point. But so what? The ability to identify bugs, flowers and bird songs may be viewed as all rather quaint. The loss of these skills may be considered little different from the loss of other ‘traditional country skills’ such as basket weaving or Morris dancing. However, the lack of field biologists is keeping many people awake at night. Without recorders who can reliably identify bumblebees, how would we know that our pollinators are at risk and thus our future fruit crops in peril? Without records of first flowering dates how would we know of the biological reality of climate change? Without identification skills, how would we recognise pest species threatening the economic future of our islands? 

Students learn microscope skills at University of Leicester
Image: L. Marsh
The legal protection of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest is dependent on these sites containing lists of unusual species, without the ability to confirm the presence of these species much of our conservation policy has no foundations. It is estimated that each year there are fewer than ten UK graduates who are proficient enough in field ID skills to be employable and of these about half are arts graduates who are recreational (amateur) field naturalists. In contrast, a lack of basket weavers leaves us with a regrettable lack of willow baskets, but is hardly a cause for the National Conservation Agencies to call crisis meetings.

Getting started with identifying plants in the field
Image courtesy of BSBI's T&E Committee
There are probably a number of reasons that have contributed to the decline in field biology. These include the rise of molecular biology, the loss of staff competent and comfortable in the field and the general decline of outdoor experience by children. However a key factor has to be that the skills involved have been distinctly unappreciated. In fact we would argue that in educational circles this lack of appreciation goes much deeper. Educationalists have been guilty of formalizing a gross undervaluing of the complexities involved in field biology. This has occurred through a naïve adherence to an incredibly damaging dogma that has influenced so much of modern educational practice. Ironically, this dogma that has been so detrimental of field taxonomy is Bloom’s taxonomy.

Practising field ID skills can be fun!
Image: M. Crittenden
In 1956 a committee of educationalists chaired by Benjamin Bloom proposed a classification system for learning outcomes. The objective of the group was to clarify the language used in the design of curricula and exams. They produced a theoretical framework that subsequently has been widely used to classify educational goals. There now are literally hundreds of textbooks, web pages and training courses that provide guidance on writing exam questions based around Bloom’s taxonomy. These documents frequently include lists of approved learning objective verbs that are deemed appropriate when writing questions for different levels or years of study. 

Residential course in plant identification
Image courtesy of Field Studies Council
Bloom’s creed tells us that the lowest levels of cognitive skills involve recognising, identifying, naming and memorizing. These abilities are considered inferior to the higher levels such as critically analysing, evaluating, criticizing and reviewing. This sort of simplistic analysis had resulted in field biology skills being excluded from university degrees time and time again as being too ‘simplistic’. However, ask those responsible for dropping these courses to distinguish Galium saxatile from Galium sterneri and they might just start to appreciate that ID skills are not as simple after all.

Galium saxatile (Heath Bedstraw)
Image: J. Crellin http://www.floralimages.co.uk/
The Galium example illustrates just why those who blindly follow Bloom’s taxonomy need to learn a little more about biological taxonomy. It is not a trivial task to be able to differentiate between closely related plants. This is not a simple memory test. This is a task that requires critical analysis and many of the other higher skills. It demands developing logical thought processes, reviewing a host of information, and the final answer is usually arrived at on a balance of probability based on evaluating the likely underlying geology of the site where they were found. The fact is identification is not always a low-level learning outcome. 

Galium sterneri (Limestone Bedstraw)
Image: J. Crellin http://www.floralimages.co.uk/
Identification can involve combining many of the cognitive skills regarded as being more worthy. Thus, a field biologist would read a landscape, review the other co-occurring species and then conclude that the specimen from the acid conditions was probably G. saxatile. They may wish to corroborate this by using a hand lens to determine which direction tiny hooks along the leaves point. The fact remains that to the naked eye these two plants look virtually identical. This level of complexity is why taxonomists generally take years to hone their skills, a fact that rather corroborates that it is not a low level cognitive skill.

Using a hand-lens
Image courtesy A. Baker
Real taxonomists know that there are always cases when things are not black and white. Some individuals cannot be condemned to belong to one species or another by rote. Bloom’s taxonomists still need to learn this lesson. Sometimes what appear to be low level cognitive skills are in fact highly complex multifactorial tasks. 

We have already lost a generation of field biologists. Moreover, this lack of serious attention to identification skills has permeated down to primary schools with connotations of the nature table and not something to be taken seriously in this technological age. Thus university students have had this dismissive message reinforced right through their schooling. If the skill set is not to be totally lost we need to act now to overcome this inertia and identify that identification is a worthy and noble set of complex skills that is likely to complement critical thinking elsewhere in the syllabus".

Polishing ID skills at Training the Trainers 2014
Image: P. Gateley
John Warren, Aberystwyth University

Paul Ashton, Edge Hill University

Sarah Taylor & Peter Thomas, Keele University

Sue Townsend, Field Studies Council

If you share the authors' concerns about the teaching of biology field skills in Britain, please share this link to the article with friends and colleagues; you can join the debate by leaving a comment on the THE website or in the comments box below.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Botanical art in the 21st century. Part One: Niki Simpson

Any of you who have used Poland & Clement's Vegetative Key to the British Flora will have seen Niki Simpson's digital artwork. In fact you have probably used her images to help you identify wild plants in the field. So when I noticed that Niki was launching a new website, I asked her to tell us a bit more about her work. And of course to send us a few of her gorgeous images for us to drool over! Click on the images to enlarge them.


Portion of Viola illustration to give an idea of 
enlarging the hidden detail contained in the image
© Niki Simpson
Niki says "Not only is digital technology enabling new botanical research, but it is also changing the way our plants can be described and illustrated - for guides, keys and educational material as well as for botanical research work. I am a botanical illustrator, specifically one that enjoys looking at new ways to depict plants. My botanical images may look similar to conventional illustrations, and indeed much about them is the same, but I have changed the tool I use to create them. By using digital imagery, a whole array of benefits become available, to both the artist and the viewer. Perhaps the main one arises from the use of photographic parts, because not only can photographs bring full realism and instant impact to an illustration, they also contain considerable detail (that would otherwise remain hidden) which, by using digital technology and onscreen viewing, can be easily revealed on enlargement - just as you would take a magnifying glass to a plant or to a voucher specimen.

Illustrations of the corn poppy and field bindweed
viewed on a smart phone and tablet
© Niki Simpson
I created this image (above right) with a virtual magnifying glass, to hint at the hidden depths to these illustrations. But if you look at one of these images on a smart phone or tablet, it is already possible to see this detail without a virtual magnifying glass - a simple pinch and reverse pinch with your fingers will reduce and enlarge such images, and then you can pan around the illustration to explore the detail. On one level, as a botanist or keen plantsperson, you can observe and study the diagnostic features of interest to you, while at another you can just simply have fun moving around the illustration as the fancy takes you, exploring to see what you can find, what parts look like enlarged and perhaps see parts you have never seen before. This and other features of my illustrations will be the subjects of future posts on my website blog.

A selection of digitally created illustrations of the British flora 
© Niki Simpson
My favourite plants are those of our wonderful British flora and I am keen to show anyone who is interested that our supposedly familiar plants may not be as familiar as you think, when you look closely. I have gradually been building up a collection of digital composite illustrations of the British flora and have now illustrated very nearly 50 taxa, and so have tried out this illustrative technique on a wide range of plants - from herbaceous perennials to trees, non-flowering plants to an orchid, monots and dicots, sweet smelling to some not-so-sweet-smelling and even a parasite and an aquatic plant. Many of these can be seen on my website 'British flora - native or naturalised' gallery.

Cover & inside cover page from the Vegetative Key
© Niki Simpson
Some BSBI members may have seen other ways of using digital images. In the Vegetative Key I depicted single plant parts, mostly leaves, rather than a whole comprehensive composite plate of a plant. It was a privilege to contribute to this groundbreaking botanical key, and for me, it was also a wonderful opportunity to see my new approach to botanical illustration paired with John's new approach to naming British vascular plants based on vegetative characters. 

 A highlight for me that year was to design a distinctive front cover for the book, by putting together some of the plant parts in an entirely different way.

My underlying interest is in using the power of images to raise awareness of plants - my way of trying to address 'plant blindness'. Images are great for attracting an audience and being largely without text they can be accessible to viewers from all countries, of all ages, and provide interest at many levels, from beginner to botanist. I'm interested in ways to engage a younger audience and I'm also particularly keen to use interactive programming to develop the potential of these images, so that they can engage and inform viewers much further. I feel we are going to need colourful, easily accessible informative images - with parts that move and buttons to press, as well as those that can be taken into the field. 

By this I don't mean 'dumbed down' images, but ones that are fully informative, yet which at the same time are accessible, engaging and even fun to use, for all levels of interest and knowledge. So my goal is to develop these images interactively - which is how I have always envisaged and designed them. An interactive visual British flora would be quite something, but of course that would be a big long term project. But one has to start somewhere, and so for me it will be a starter set. In the meantime, on my list to illustrate this year are Geranium robertianum, Solanum dulcamara, Calluna vulgaris, Euphorbia amygdaloides, Trifolium pratense, Lychnis flos-cuculi and Myrrhis odorata ...."

You can find Niki at: Visual Botany www.visualbotany.co.uk and on Facebook 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Orchids galore!

When journalist and BSBI member Jean Stowe got in touch recently to tell me about an international orchid show being held in London in April, my first thought was - if it's not about British or Irish wild orchids, then News & Views readers may not be interested. 


Orchid Show in the RHS Lawrence Hall.
Image courtesy of  RHS/Sarah Cuttle
But then she mentioned that it would be held at Kew and that Dr Mike Fay was involved, so my ears pricked up. Mike was one of Pete Stroh's co-authors on the recent England Red List which was launched at Kew last September.

And he is a BSBI member (hardly surprising!), an orchid expert and an all-round good egg! So I asked Jean to tell us a bit more about the event and I'm glad I did - check out her note below about the lecture programme. And while you are on the Kew website, why not take a look at their new science strategy, launched just last night.

Over to Jean:


The orchid world comes to London.

The forthcoming European Orchid Show & Conference will be hosted by the Royal Horticultural Society from 8-12th April. For full details visit eoclondon2015.org.uk Booking is open to all, from the website or by telephone (credit card only) 0844 776 67777

Mike Fay (left) with  Tim Rich at the launch of the
England Red List, Jodrell Theatre, Kew, 2014.
Image: BSBI Publicity Team
The lecture programme in London and at Kew has more than 50 speakers covering the latest research on taxonomy, genetics, pollination and mycorrhizae of orchids. BSBI member Mike Fay leads the Orchid Conservation session on 9th April at the Jodrell Laboratory lecture theatre, Kew. Sponsors include The Linnean Society of London.

The show in the RHS Halls in Westminster from 9th-12th April has attracted more than 70 exhibitors representing 12 countries. Educational displays explain research and conservation projects. On all four days there are repotting demonstrations and short lecture sessions on the dais.


A social programme will enable delegates to interact and exchange ideas. There’s a Preview and official opening on Wednesday 8th and The Gala Dinner is at the Royal College of Physicians on Saturday 11th. The college has a medicinal garden with more than 1000 plants including those used as medicines when the College published its first Pharmacopoeia in 1618. The college’s rare books will be on display. Conference tours include behind the scenes visits to see orchid growing at RHS Garden Wisley and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

Thanks Jean. STOP PRESS Ethnobotanist and BSBI member Susanne Masters will also be speaking at the event. Check out the programme for Susanne's talk on edible orchids on 12th April. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Botanical Book at Bedtime: Part Three

Last Sunday's episode of our Botanical Book at Bedtime saw Peter Llewellyn & co looking up towards the summit, shrouded in mist and cloud, where the elusive Diapensia is said to grow, and ended with Peter's comment "Things didn't look too good..." So, what happened next?    

Treasure hunting in the Wester Ross uplands 
Part 3: The summit of Fraoch-bheinn

Diapensia lapponica
Image: P. Llewellyn
By now there were many more rocky outcrops and the soggy moors had given way to rougher ground with more sharp rocks and fewer bogs. Checking the GPS to see how high we'd climbed was quite encouraging but there was still no sign of the quartz veined bare rock on which our plant was reputed to grow.

The cloud base had moved a little higher but the summit was still looked distant, pale grey and a long way off through the mist and cloud. At this stage I was pleased to have photographed a few mountain plants because it wasn't at all certain we would find this elusive plant and still less certain that it would be in flower.

Eventually the clouds parted and sunshine came through for the first time. The party was strung out over the high hills by now and the experienced walkers plus Bridie the lurcher were likely to be the first on the scene with the botanists behind them and the photographer botanists (me) last of all. 

Diapensia lapponica
Image: P. Llewellyn
As I gathered myself for the final 100 feet or so, I could distinctly hear yelps of pleasure from those already at the top. I hoped they'd found Diapensia but it seemed too much to expect. Surely they couldn't already have found the one rock on which this very rare arctic alpine grew?

As I reached the first plateau at the top it became obvious why there was so much shouting. Clumps of Diapensia were everywhere basking in the summer sunshine. It was at its very best and in full flower. Far from being one clump on a single rock there were hundreds of cushions each with several disproportionately large, creamy yellow flowers compared with the tiny oval leaves of the plant.

It seemed too good to be true so we checked that the flowers had the three lobed fused stigmas which they did although the books didn't seem to mention the very distinctive twin lobed bright yellow anthers. It was indeed Diapensia lapponica growing on bare acid rock most of which had the shiny white crystalline quartz veins accurately described by previous expeditions.

Diapensia lapponica growing on  quartz-veined bare rock
Image: P. Llewellyn
We also wondered whether the short flowering period might be related to how easy it is to knock a whole flower from its stalk. Whole Diapensia flowers very easily fall off just like Speedwell flowers do when knocked only slightly. My camera lens inadvertently knocked quite a few flowers from their cushions.

As we looked around trying to choose the best clump to photograph, it occurred to me that this plant grew on the least nutritious piece of rock in Scotland. Later I discovered that it also grows on top of Mount Washington in the United States where wind speeds of 234 mph have been recorded. It is now believed that some of the nutrients it needs to survive are blown in by wind and trapped in the clumps. If this is true then it probably needs an exposed windy position to survive and may not be able to compete with plants growing even in poor soil. It is a sort of ground dwelling version of a sea anemone.

Kalmia procumbens
Image: P. Llewellyn
We spent some time at the top marvelling at how this famous and inaccessible plant had not only successfully colonised the three or more rocky plateaus on this single mountain ridge but seemed to love it there. As long as this habitat remains the horrible, cold, high, windy and inaccessible place with bare rock and no soil that it is, Diapensia would appear to be in no danger even though this mountain ridge is the only site in Britain.

As we studied the cushions of Diapensia lapponica (Diapensia) it became clearer why this very rare plant could be confused with Kalmia procumbens (Trailing Azalea). Both plants are found well high in hills and for most of year neither will have flowers. The leaves of Diapensia perhaps appeared a bit darker to us but otherwise were very similar to Kalmia procumbens.

Kalmia procumbens growing in the high hills
Image: P. Llewellyn
My reckoning is that there are probably over 1,000 separate Diapensia clumps on the various rocky promontories which make up the summit ridges and plateaus of this mountain. I guess that the reason why the abundance was never mentioned to us by other botanists was that so many have made the ascent only to reach the top in bad weather or after flowering and been only too glad to get back down to civilisation without doing too much exploring of the whole summit.

For me it had been one of the hardest climbs and as I looked back at the abundant flowers of this extraordinary rarity I realised I'd probably never make the ascent again. All we had to do now was re-trace our steps and contemplate some boasting to botanical friends who hadn't yet made the trip and of course, to the Inverness Naturalists".

Anyone who has ever been up a mountain will smile at "All we had to do was re-trace our steps" - or is Peter just toying with us? Was it really that straightforward? Peter is sending the final episode through in time for next Sunday's Botanical Book at Bedtime. Will it just read "Made it safely to the pub - have you noticed how good a pie and a pint taste after a day on the hill?" Or did they stumble across anything else of interest during the descent? We'll all find out next Sunday evening! 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

BSBI Species Accounts 1-22

Camomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Image: B. Gibbons
Have you seen what Pete and Kevin have just gone and done?

If you don't know BSBI's Head of Science Dr Kevin Walker and our Scientific Officer Dr Pete Stroh, you may imagine slightly remote and forbidding chaps in lab coats peering down microscopes who hold forth intermittently on BSBI research projects. 

If you do know them, you will be cackling right now at any suggestion of Pete & Kevin as remote or forbidding, and are probably picturing Kev monitoring plants and trialling survey methods in the field, planning great scientific projects and activities for BSBI members to get involved in, writing articles for publications like British Wildlife and New Journal of Botany, tapping into local contacts and local Floras to build a clearer picture about the current state of our wild flowers, and working alongside colleagues in agencies and partner organisations to help shape government policy on nature conservation in Britain & Ireland... 


Basil Thyme (Clinopodium acinos)
Image: P. Stroh
Or you may be smiling, thinking of a shy, modest and slightly nervous Pete, after two years of work leading a team of top British botanists, about to unveil the England Red List to an assembly of scientists and journalists at Kew last year. As soon as he started talking about plants, any shyness evaporated, and both Pete's presentation, and the England Red List itself, proved a resounding success!

So, what have Pete and Kevin done now? This. They've produced 22 brand new in-depth Species Accounts of British plants. Each one is illustrated by gorgeous images, many taken by Pete and Kevin, some by old friends like Lliam Rooney and Bob Gibbons. Each Species Account tells you how to ID the plant, whereabouts it grows in the wild, what kind of conditions it likes, which other plants it grows with, any threats it's currently facing and how we can manage its habitat effectively. 


Fine-leaved Sandwort (Minuartia hybrida)
Image: L. Rooney
My favourite thing here is seeing the various conservation statuses for these plants. As well as being a useful practical tool, they help paint a picture of how a plant is doing (literally) on the ground! So, although the beautifully-named Melancholy Thistle Cirsium heterophyllum is still widespread across Scotland and northern England, and is assessed as being of Least Concern in Britain, the Species Account points out that it is Endangered in Wales and Near Threatened in England. Or how about the tiny but elegant Fine-leaved Sandwort Minuartia hybrida, found mostly on open, chalky substrates in Southern England, extinct in Scotland, a neophyte in Ireland and Wales; this species has suffered substantial declines, so is assessed as Endangered in Great Britain.

These 22 species are just the start - Pete and Kevin plan to publish 80 Species Accounts this year. And how much is BSBI charging you for these amazing resources? Nothing - they are all available here as pdfs for you to download free of charge any time you like. Shall I pass on your thanks to Pete and Kevin and leave you to get on with reading these fabulous Species Accounts? Just try not to drool too much over the images, it's very bad for your keyboard...

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Botanical Book at Bedtime: Part Two

Last week, in Part One of our Botanical Book at Bedtime, Peter Llewellyn told us about the plan he and his friends hatched to try and find the elusive Diapensia lapponica. It grows on one particularly inaccessible mountaintop and when we left our intrepid team last week, they were about to start the ascent. And just beginning to realise how difficult this particular plant hunt was going to be. 

So, if you're all sitting comfortably, then Peter will begin the next installment...  

Treasure hunting in the Wester Ross uplands.
Part 2: The Ascent

Huperzia selago (Fir Clubmoss)
Image: P. Llewellyn
"We had details of where to start and how to approach the climb from someone who had successfully done the trip a few years before. This included the essential GPS references for the plant. Sometimes GPS references are dismissed as new-fangled nonsense by those who prefer traditional methods of navigation, but we felt we needed every little bit of help we could get. Moreover we were aware that only a short while before our attempt, the Inverness Naturalists group had failed to find Diapensia when armed with maps, compasses, correct grid references but no GPS.

For those unfamiliar with hand held GPS equipment you should know that there is only a little screen with information about your height and a 10 figure grid reference which, with skill, you can relate directly to your OS map. Unlike the ones in a car, no soothing voice tells you to turn left at the Diphasiastrum alpinum (Alpine clubmoss), keep straight on for 400 metres past the Minuartia sedoides (Cyphel), then left by the large rock which looks like Mick Jagger's nose. Good job too, because we didn’t find either of those two plants or anything resembling ageing rock stars

Fraoch Bheinn: the ascent
Image: P. Llewellyn
We had carefully printed out the detailed ascent guidance given to us by a successful expedition. This was totally ignored by our leader who decided to invent his own way up. We started at the splendid Glenfinnan railway viaduct, over a stile and straight into a bog.

At first there was a slight track and a few interesting plants such as Vacciumium vitis-idaea (Cowberry), Huperzia selago (Fir Clubmoss) and Vaccinium uliginosum (Bog Bilberry) here and there, but very shortly the path disappeared and we started the main ascent over tussocks of tripping grass, through boot-clogging mires and ankle-twisting rocks. While the view towards Glenfinnan was impressive, the clouds at the summit seemed to remain in place. Fortunately a slight breeze helped what was becoming, for me anyway, quite a tough climb.

Vaccinium uliginosum (Bog Bilberry)
Image: P. Llewellyn
Those of you who climb to summits of high mountains will be aware that it is the difference in height which counts when estimating the energy expenditure. Quite a few mountains such as Ben Lawers or Cairngorm which are nearly 4,000 feet or more have car parks at around 1,000 feet or higher so the actual ascent isn't as bad as it first sounds.

The ascent of this particular mountain however starts at sea level and ends at 2,815 feet, and so the total climb is greater than that required for many Munros. Being led by a walker rather than a botanist is a blessing and a curse. Experienced hill walkers read maps well, can find the route easier than we novices but they gallop up hills and look disdainfully down at those who are pretending to look at the flowers while really gasping for breath.

Bridie the Lurcher made us feel even more inferior. At every new crag she would bound easily to the top striking a pose for any passing artist who happened by with paints and easel. One unexpected reward - for me anyway - was the sight, circling overhead, of the first Golden Eagle I've ever seen. This was a reminder that this is good bird country and a birder had first found what we were now looking for. 


Vacciumium vitis-idaea (Cowberry)
Image: P. Llewellyn
As usual we were treated to at least twenty five false peaks before a large grey one, towering over the others began to be discernible through mist. That, our leader told us, was our destination. Using my finely honed judgment based on years of getting lost and wet, I estimated it was about 40 miles away.

We took lunch near a rock and contemplated forming an SAS branch of the BSBI dedicated to finding the most tiring way of seeking plants which might not be there anyway. Incidentally have you noticed how utterly delicious cheese and tomato sandwiches are when you've climbed 2,000 feet? 

Looking up, we could see that the cloud base was definitely higher, which was encouraging, but the peak still appeared to be in mist or cloud, which is exactly where Diapensia was supposed to be. In which case the flowers wouldn't be open.

Things didn't look too good..."

And at that point, we have to leave our intrepid treasure-hunters for another week. Will the weather close in and drive them back down the mountain? Will they give up and head for the nearest pub, like sensible people? Should the Mountain Rescue Team be lacing their boots up and zipping their waterproof jackets? 

Tune in next week for the third part of our Botanical Book at Bedtime.

BSBI Field Meetings Programme now out

BSBI national field meeting to Rutland Water (VC55) 2012
Image: M. Crittenden
A reminder that BSBI's annual programme of Field Meetings is now available. Click here to see the list. Meetings are coded R (for recording meetings), G (for general meetings) and T/E (for training/educational meetings). 

You don't always have to be a BSBI member to attend one of our meetings, but many organisers give preference to BSBI members - check with the leader if you are in any doubt. 

If you are interested in attending a meeting, you will need to book quickly - meetings fill up quickly. Martin Rand has already been in touch to say that his Taraxacum workshop in April is now fully booked, but you can email Martin and ask him to put your name on the reserve list.