Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Interview with outgoing BSBI President John Faulkner

John at home in Armagh
Image: G. Faulkner
In December 2015, soon after John Faulkner was elected BSBI President, I interviewed him about what he hoped to achieve during his presidency

Since then John has always found time in his busy schedule to keep News & Views readers updated about what he's been doing - even at Christmas 2015 and 2016

So on 25th November 2017, the final day of his presidency, I managed to catch up with John again at this year's BSBI Annual Exhibition Meeting and Annual General Meeting at the Natural History Museum. It was very busy, with lots of people wanting to talk to the outgoing President, but he very kindly agreed to be interviewed before he handed over the reins:  

John with Lodgepole Pine & Nordmann Fir
Christmas 2015, Charlemont, Co. Armagh
Image: G. Faulkner
LM: John, many thanks for talking to us again, now that you are ready to hand over the presidency to Chris Metherell. So, did you enjoy being at the helm of the leading botanical society in Britain and Ireland?

JF: Immensely! Having lived in Ireland for all but two of my 50 years as a BSBI member, I’ve been exposed to only a fraction of what goes on within our Society. There’s nothing like being at the helm to make you find out how the ship’s community operates. 

So, as well as being enjoyable and meeting many botanists for the first time, acting as President has been a great personal learning exercise. I do now feel much better informed about how BSBI works - and it does so extraordinarily well. 

John presents the 2017 Presidents'
Award to Tom Humphrey;
BSBI Summer Meeting
Image: L. Gravestock
LM: What would you say have been your main challenges as President?

JF: There is no job description for President, and only a few things that you absolutely must do. One of these is to choose, jointly with the President of the Wild Flower Society, the winner of the annual Presidents’ Award. It needs to be done with careful forethought, but it’s not too onerous, and a great pleasure. 

We’ve had really worthy winners in Clive Stace and Mick Crawley for their erudite yet highly readable New Naturalist book on Alien Plants, and now the award has gone to Tom Humphrey for his creative genius in developing the BSBI’s Distribution Database. 

Another obligation is to chair the meetings of BSBI Council. In itself this need not be a particularly burdensome role, but I chose to make it a challenge. The members of Council are a talented and dedicated bunch, but we need to do them justice by making the best possible use of them. Council had been struggling to find its proper role since BSBI became a Trustee-led charity. Developing a shared understanding of Council’s role has been an important project in itself, but it required a thorough look at BSBI’s needs and priorities as a whole.

John in the field talking to
the next generation of BSBI members
Image: G. Faulkner
LM: That sounds like a big task. How did you go about it?  

JF: It’s not something to attempt on your own. The starting point was the Review, initiated originally by the Board of Trustees, but picked up by Council as a forum for members’ interests in the Society. We initiated a consultation of the entire membership, asking for their views on a wide range of topics. 

The response was superb. As you can imagine, ask a bunch of botanists for views, and you get an incredible range of ideas in response. Some were diametrically opposed, but they did give us many pointers. 


John (centre) at a meeting of
 BSBI Publications Committee
Image: L. Marsh
Council then asked a small cross-section of willing members to act as a Review Group, and sift through the replies and convert them into a coherent set of proposals. I doubt whether they knew what they were letting themselves in for! For a start they had a massive amount of material to read. 

They then spent a weekend debating and deciding on the main points for their report, and a few more weeks refining and finalising it. Eventually the fruits of their labours emerged as a report to Council and Trustees entitled A society like no other and containing nearly 50 recommendations, which have been broadly accepted by Council and the Trustees as a basis for moving forward. 

Field meeting at Drumnaph NR, Co. Derry
John on right
Image: D. Rainey
LM:  Sometimes reports are received politely, and then quietly ignored. Is there a risk of that happening to this one?

JF: None whatsoever! We have already started to implement it and have an action plan in place covering all the recommendations.

The key point here is that so many members contributed that there is a strong will to take it forward. The Review Group itself had a deep interest in the success of BSBI, so it was determined that what went into its report would be both ambitious and broadly acceptable. The report reflected the views of members on the one hand and addressed the needs of the Society on the other. Some of its recommendations have been acted upon already. 


John (on right) with his
predecessor (Ian Denholm);
BSBI Summer Meeting 2016
Image: S. Stille
A case in point is the increased effort on fund-raising: our members will be aware of this through the Atlas 2020 Appeal leaflet we sent out with the September Issue of BSBI News. Others are underway: an obvious example is the new-style BSBI News, which members will see for the first time in January 2018. Some of the recommendations are for the future: one which will be of great interest to active recorders is the development of a post-Atlas 2020 recording strategy. All BSBI members can see the report on the members’ section of the website (password required).

LM: You implied that the role of BSBI Council is now better understood. How has this come about? 

JF: One of the recommendations was to write a succinct description of Council’s role and make it available to all. The review process itself has demonstrated how Council can draw together members’ views, and that has made defining its role that much easier. It has also helped to crystallise ideas about the relationship between the Trustees, Council, and Committees. We are working on a draft description of this relationship which of course needs to be fully compatible with BSBI's charitable status. As soon as we have a final version, we will share it with all our members via the members-only area of the BSBI website.

John (on right) with David Morris, County Recorder
for Oxfordshire; BSBI Summer Meeting 2017
Image: P. Spencer-Vellacott
LM:  And you’ve attended a lot of BSBI events!

JF: One of the privileges of being President is that you are entitled – but not necessarily expected – to attend meetings of all BSBI’s committees, and its Board. I did set myself the goal of attending each of them at least once during my two year period of office. 

Happily I did eventually fulfil that aim, as well as going to the Annual Summer Meetings in 2016 and 2017, both Annual Exhibition Meetings/ AGMs, and all of the Council meetings. That amounts to quite a lot, especially when you take into consideration that all except the Committee for Ireland entailed crossing the Irish Sea. Fortunately, some were sufficiently close together in time that one crossing covered two meetings. I would really like to have gone on more field meetings in Great Britain, but with the exception of the Summer Meetings and one trip to the Hebrides, this proved impractical.

John and Dave Riley examining willows;
Drumnaph NR, Co. Derry
Image: S. Spratt
LM: And were you still able to get out much in your local patch and do any recording for Atlas 2020? I know you were at the Drumnaph meeting in Derry and the Five Island Bioblitz last year, and in September this year you gave a talk at the BSBI Ireland Autumn Meeting.

JF: Yes and no! Thanks to the BSBI Database (DDb), I can look up this question in the “my county” section of the DDb and get an approximate figure for how many records immediately.  It is unusual for anyone else to record in my vice-county (H37 - Armagh), so the total number of records for the year closely reflects my own efforts. The 2016 total for H37 was only slightly down on the previous three years. This year’s figure, however, is under a thousand. It looks as though I hardly ventured outside the front door! 

My MapMate, however, tells a different story. What actually happened in 2017 was that I recorded in counties other than my own, as I felt they were in much greater need of recording for Atlas purposes. MapMate tells me that my total of records for the year was only slightly below my all-time best, and that 75% of them were from Co. Louth, the adjoining county to the south.

John looks in vain for open flowers on
 a Hairy Tare; St. Patrick's Church, Dundalk;
New Year Plant Hunt 2017
Image: G. Faulkner
LM: As you have been away so much, is your wife, Gillian, hoping to see more of you next year?

Certainly, I am hoping to see more of her. Although she is not a botanist, Gillian does often come with me on whole-day excursions, like those in Co. Louth. We did a New Year Plant Hunt together in Dundalk this year. That was an ideal way of involving her, as she can contribute by finding any flower without necessarily knowing what it is. (Come to think of it, I didn’t know our first flower of that day either. It was a rather forlorn Hawkweed Hieracium growing on walls around Dundalk Station, later confirmed by expert referee David McCosh as H. grandidens.)

John at home in Armagh
Image: G. Faulkner 
For slightly different reasons, we both prefer that I don’t often botanise alone. Joint overnight trips, however, have been difficult this year because we had various sick animals that needed daily attention, so she has not been on the weekend recording meetings further afield. I am very much hoping she’ll be able to come on some of the exciting meetings planned for the West of Ireland next year. They are always good fun, with plenty of good habitats and the prospect of some lovely plants and fine scenery too. Most importantly, the company is of the very best. I’d recommend them to anyone. 

LM  So now you're ready to hand over the reins to Chris Metherell – do you have any words of advice for Chris as he assumes the presidency? 

JF: No – Chris knows BSBI much better than I do and it would be superfluous for me to offer advice. One suggestion however: I had hoped to do more to project the image of BSBI on a wider stage. Much of my activity has been focused internally. I feel BSBI would benefit from being more externally orientated. We need to make ourselves better known, perhaps as ”the BTO of botany”.  

John in his garden in Armagh
Image: G. Faulkner 
LM: John, I’m sure the members will want to thank you for all the hard work you’ve put in over the last two years as President, and for which of course you’ve received no financial recompense at all – such is the lot of a BSBI President! And now – glutton for punishment that you are – you have agreed to become a BSBI trustee, subject to the membership voting you in later today at the AGM [update: they did so, unanimously!] So you’ll be giving up even more of your time in service to BSBI! 

LM: One final question before you go: will you be going out on a New Year Plant Hunt in January?

JF: Yes, it’s a great way to start a new season. Maybe there will be 6” of snow in England to give us a competitive edge! 

LM: Well, we hope you enjoy getting back out in the field next year and doing a bit more actual botany – we look forward to hearing what you find! Thanks for talking to us today John and thanks again for all your hard work as President.

And with that readers I let John carry on enjoying the Exhibition Meeting and went to catch up with Chris Metherell, our incoming President. I'll be sharing my interview with Chris on these pages in the next few days.