Monday, 4 December 2017

Interview with incoming BSBI President Chris Metherell

Chris looks at Eyebright specimens
in the Herbarium at Univ Reading
Image: A Culham
Last week we brought you an interview with outgoing BSBI President John Faulkner, who I caught up with at the BSBI Exhibition Meeting. Incoming President Chris Metherell was also at the meeting, ready to take up the reins, and I was able to catch up with him too. Although everybody was keen to talk to our new President, he very kindly made time to be interviewed for News & Views: 

LM: So Chris, are you looking forward to being at the helm of BSBI?

CM: I'm not sure that being the President quite equates with "being at the helm". These days of course the Society is run by its Trustees and the role of the President is quite different to that undertaken before we became a limited company.

LM: Before you tell us about your plans, could you tell us how you first got interested in botany – has it been a lifelong passion?

Chris and Helena Crouch, joint County
Recorder for Somerset, hunting
Eyebrights in the West Country
Image: F. Rumsey
CM: I suppose you could say "lifelong". My first real botanical memory is, aged about 10, going into the local library and asking if they had any books on flowers.This was of course in the days before "picture books" were commonplace, the first real example, by Keble-Martin, was still some years away. After some discussion among the staff, they came up with a rather thick book, with no pictures. "You might find it a bit complicated" they said and handed it over. 

Back home I sat in our front garden and tried to identify the first weed I came to.  I failed comprehensively! I now know that the book was Clapham, Tutin & Warburg and the plant was Euphorbia peplus. Not perhaps an auspicious way to start...

LM: So where did you study and what did you read?

CM: I read geography and geology at University of Reading and then went on to work in professional theatre. The latter gave me a surprising amount of free time and that was, I suppose, when I really started driving around country lanes looking at plants. I even got to Ben Lawers. Retraining as a lawyer in the 1980s unfortunately meant much less spare time to devote to botany.

Chris helps a younger botanist spot
 Eyebrights on Shetland
Image: I. Denholm
LM: So when did you first join BSBI and how did that come about?

CM: I had joined the Wild Flower Society in about 2000 I think.I remember seeing my first sedge on one of their field trips to the New Forest. I didn't even have a hand lens in those days. The BSBI was a natural progression I suppose. I joined in 2002. It's interesting, now, to look back and ask why I joined the Wild Flower Society first. I think it was "Wild Flower Society amateur vs. BSBI professional". 

I strongly feel that as a society we need to be less intimidating. It's not a matter of "dumbing down". People who use that phrase are already denigrating the people who are not as knowledgable or even perhaps as well-educated as themselves. 

Chris & Helena look at West Country Eyebrights
Image: F. Rumsey
LM: As you know, I'm all for us being less intimidating and helping beginners get involved via activities like #wildflowerhour and the New Year Plant Hunt! So you became active in BSBI and then you became County Recorder for North Northumberland – when was that? And is that where you do most of your botanising? 

CM: I think I became the County Recorder in 2006. Recording there was at rather a low ebb (sound familiar?). The previous County Recorder was by then very elderly, and had operated what at the time was probably a commonplace regime of not accepting any records unless backed by a specimen. Unsurprisingly, this rather put off local botanists who thus never did any recording. The sub-text here is, of course, that there were very few records! We've been catching up ever since.

Chris holds up a herbarium sheet
during an Eyebright ID session
 he gave at Univ Leicester in 2014
Image: L. Marsh
However I do manage to get about quite a bit - everywhere from Shetland to Cornwall and many trips to Ireland. I lead regular trips for the Wild Flower Society and so that means I get to choose to go somewhere really interesting every so often. It was the Burren in 2017. 

Favourite memories? Orkney: It's a fantastic place and botanically fascinating. Glen Clova: sitting half way up a cliff in a huge thunderstorm and listening to the thunder rolling round the Glen while discussing the finer points of Carex vaginata which we had just found. I'm very lucky in that my wife is also a very good botanist and leads trips in her own right for the British Pteridological Society. So we spend lots of time botanising together.

LM: Will you still be able to fit in your County Recorder’s duties alongside being President?

CM:Actually I think it will be far less onerous than being the Hon. General Secretary, a role I filled until earlier this year! Sorry Delyth. [LM: Delyth has taken over as Hon Gen Sec!] I rather think of the President as the "front man" for the society. Schmoozing doesn't take nearly as much time as organising. I hope!

Chris leading an Eyebright ID session at the
BSBI Recorders' Conference 2016
Image: S. Townsend
LM: And how are you getting on with recording for Atlas 2020?

CM: Famously I think. Our overall refind rate is just under 85% (set against records for Atlas 2000).I now have a superb team of recorders and the records just keep flowing in.

LM: BSBI News & Views readers will have followed your progress on these pages towards publishing a new BSBI Handbook on Eyebrights. How is that coming along?

CM: Well! The text was finished in April 2016. Unfortunately the line drawings are proving to be a problem. I've set a deadline for publication of March/April 2018. After that, for good scientific reasons, it would be inappropriate to proceed. Hopefully it will come out as planned.

Chris working late over Eyebright specimens in
the Herbarium at Univ Leicester in 2013
Image: L. Marsh
LM: Regular readers will also have noticed that you are a huge supporter of herbaria! You’ve volunteered in your local herbarium and of course there has been a lot of herbarium work involved in research for the Handbook. Do you think you’ll still be able to spend much time in herbaria once you are President?

CM: I hope so! When I was a child I just loved libraries. I now have a house that looks just like one. Libraries and books are my comfort zone. It's a small step from there to a herbarium. They are such a fantastic resource but tragically underused. If there's one thing I would like to achieve whilst President it is to increase herbarium use. If we don't use them we'll lose them. We've lost some already. Watch this space.

Chris (in hat) teaches Sedge ID on a
Field Studies Course at Rhyd-y-Crethau
Image: H. Metherell 
LM: We also know you as a member of BSBI’s Training & Education Committee, so presumably botanical education is a passion – will that shape your Presidency?

CM: There is no better way of really learning about a subject than teaching it. If we don't pass on field botany in an accessible way no-one else will. Education is now on an equal footing with science within the BSBI. Fine words. Now we have to make the words into reality.

LM: Your diary for next year is probably looking quite busy! Are we likely to see you at many BSBI field or indoor meetings

CM: I plan to get to as many indoor meetings as I can. Presidents need to be visible and available and tea breaks at meetings is such a good opportunity to network. I'm not so sure about taking up valuable places on field meetings.

Chris (in checked shirt) at the BSBI Exhibition
 Meeting 2017 where he assumed the presidency.
That's me (LM) in the violet frock poised to
pounce and interview him!
Image: W. Arshad
LM: Thanks for giving us a taste of what we have to look forward to! Can we invite you to come back once you’ve been in post for a while and give us an update?

CM: Of course.

LM: One final question – will you be taking part in the New Year Plant Hunt in January?

CM: Of course. Not many plants flowering in cold North Northumberland at New Year, but I'm looking forward to using the phone app again. Really easy to use and a great idea. When are we going to get one we can use for regular recording instead of having to rely on bits of paper?

LM: And having thrown down that particular gauntlet, our new President went off to talk to exhibitors and speakers at the Exhibition Meeting. But I'll be taking him up on his promise to come back and chat to us again - watch this space!