Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland

I have recently re-joined the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland - previously Botanical Society of the British Isles) and strongly recommend that anyone taking a serious interest in the flora of these countries should also be a loyal member (even though my own membership has lapsed for periods since I first joined, almost 40 years ago, when beginning my botany degree at the University of Southampton in 1977).  See: http://www.bsbi.org.uk/

Joining mid-year 2015, I received several publications, so have a lot of reading to catch up on.

Two articles within BSBI News No. 129 (April 2015) caught my eye were - both are complex and serious but RAISE REALLY IMPORTANT ISSUES, so please persevere and read through all my comments:

Save field botany skills from extinction by Paul Ashton, Sarah Taylor, Peter Thomas, Sue Townsend and John Warren

I was especially pleased that the DIRE situation is finally being drawn attention to - though my immediate reaction is, "HANG ON A MINUTE - this situation has actually existed from AT LEAST the early 1980s, shortly after I graduated and was briefly employed surveying for plants in Wales".  One might say, "BETTER LATE THAN NEVER" but a much more concerted, high-profile CAMPAIGN SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN OPERATION FOR DECADES.  Without it, field and herbarium botany will largely cease to be .....

The article originally appeared in 'Times Higher Education on 26/2/15, warning of a serious decline in graduates with sound biological identification skills.  Three of the authors sit on the BSBI's Training & Education Committee (a welcome development from when I first joined the society in the 1980s) which is keen to raise the profile of botany in British & Irish Universities.

The authors state that it is "widely accepted" that the decline of field biology skills has reached crisis point. They pose the question, "So what?"  The skill to identify bugs and flowers is viewed as rather quaint by many (including other scientists). I recollect the President of the University of Southampton student Natural History Society pronounced that what was the use of being able to identify plants and knowing Latin plant names?  In terms of a career/earning a living he was absolutely right, as even 35 years ago, biology had become a laboratory science.  It had come as a surprise to me that hardly any of the students studying biology, zoology or botany at the university were enthusiastic about actual living animals or plants - to me, such an interest would surely have been a major reason for selecting such subjects.  Yet, these students were much SMARTER than me in the sense that the JOBS and CAREERS lay in microbiology or biochemistry - not plant taxonomy or field surveying.  One of the reasons I became a freelance lecturer and began CHADWELL SEEDS in 1984 was that despite being what it would be fair (if immodest and "un-British" as it was the way of my parents generation and those before them to "hide their light under a bushel") to observe that despite being an exceptional field-botanist for my age, it was extremely hard to find regular survey work and what was available generally were summer (at best 6-month) temporary contracts.  These were poorly at best, modestly-paid and what did one do during the winter months? As for positions as a taxonomist in a herbarium, these rarely became available - with numerous, far more experienced unemployed botanists to compete against.

Much to my surprise, the lack of field botanists is according to the article "keeping many people awake at night".  Yet, I have been available to undertake summer survey work (and am an experienced and skilled field botanist, of a higher standard than 30 years) which is the quiet period of the year, but seldom see any posts advertised.  So what is the point of drawing attention to a skills shortage, if no importance is attached to the work, with hardly any funds to allow such field-botanists to earn a living.  In my day, almost all of the cost of a university education was met by a grant (covering tuition fees and living expenses).  Nowadays, when students pay, on the understanding that their studies/degree will lead to a 'graduate' job, earning ABOVE the average wage.   As things stand, I would have to advise any keen young person NOT to attempt to forge a career in field botany!

The valid point is made that without identification skills, how would we recognise pest species threatening the economic future of our islands?  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 foundation.  In India, where competent field-botanists are almost non-existent, I KNOW that they CANNOT reliably identify plants - which has led to FALSE submissions to CITIES, IUCN RED DATA and other conventions and protocols. Yes, 'remarkably' they continue to publish numerous species which they claim are NEW TO SCIENCE (many of which are no such thing).  For example, hundreds if not thousands of articles have been published about supposedly 'Rare, Endangered and Endemic' species from the Western Himalaya, which are NOT rare, let alone endangered and in most case not even endemic!  This situation is farcical.  Will this be Britain and Ireland's fate within a generation or two?  We have always been world-leaders in botany....  What is going on?

According to the article it is estimated that each year there are less than 10 UK graduates who are proficient enough in field ID skills to be employable and about half of these are art graduates who are recreational (amateur) field naturalists.  I am surprised at the reference to 'art' graduates, as even my botany degree, with plant ecology and plant taxonomy courses chosen, along with a project which covered a taxonomic assessment of the genus LUPINUS did NOT teach me how to identify plants.  What skills I accumulated stemmed primarily from my 'recreational' interest, learning the names of plants from others, time in the field, background study and belonging to societies such as the BSBI.  Yes, my degree gave me some very basic pointers but no more.  I suspect things were no different at other universities offering biology at that time (with the possible exception of Reading, though as at the time they had an M.Sc. course in 'Pure & Applied Plant Taxonomy').  Having been appointed team leader of a survey of riverside vegetation in Wales in 1982, with two members of the team holding this M.Sc., it was clear my field skills were superior.  The point I am trying to make is, that the ASSUMPTION that ALL (or indeed any) biology students (and related subjects) automatically graduated with field-botany skills was false.  Perhaps botany students WERE taught plant identification skills in generations gone by?   There certainly are not now.  Just as "in the past" there probably was substantial 'botany' content in the equivalent of GCSEs and 'A' levels - nowadays plants barely get a mention.

The authors speculate as to the reasons which may have contributed to the decline in field biology.  They include the rise in molecular biology, the loss of staff competent and comfortable in the field and the general decline of outdoor experience by children.  However, it seems that a key factor is that the skills involved have been distinctly undervalued.

The article says that Educationalists have been guilty of formalising a gross undervaluing of the complexities involved in field biology.  This has occurred through a naïve adherence to an incredibly damaging dogma which has influenced so much of modern educational practise.  The dogma which has been so detrimental is known as BLOOM'S TAXONOMY.

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 frame-work that subsequently has been widely used to classify educational goals.  Apparently, there are now 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 deemed appropriate when writing questions for different levels or years of study.

Apparently, Bloom's creed tells us that the LOWEST levels of cognitive skills involve RECOGNISING, IDENTIFYING, NAMING and MEMORISING.  These abilities are considered INFERIOR to the HIGHER levels such as CRITICALLY ANALYSING, EVALUATING, CRITICISING and REVIEWING.  The authors maintain that this sort of simplistic analysis has resulted in field biology skills being excluded from university degrees time and time again as being too 'simplistic'.  They go on to give an example as to how to distinguish between two closely-related species of GALIUM - IF advocates of BLOOM were set such a task, they might just start to appreciate that ID skills are not so simple after all.

I would go further, it has been DECADES of actual field experience (and time spent in herbaria attempting to identify plants - which often has proven the MOST intellectually demanding and draining tasks I have ever undertaken) that means I am now in a position to 'grasp' things that even those of much higher basic intellect CANNOT see.  They often cannot as they say, "see the wood because of the trees".  My ability to CRITICALLY ANALYSE, EVALUATE, CRITICISE and REVIEW now seems to greatly EXCEED that of those with doctorates - even many Professors!

So much for INFERIOR field botany.....

In the final paragraph, the authors state that "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".  They feel Bloom's taxonomists still need to learn this lesson.  Sometimes what appear to be low cognitive skills are in fact highly complex multifactorial tasks.  They also bemoan that even in primary schools, the 'nature table' is being dismissed as not something to be taken seriously in this technological age.

I am in agreement that if this skill set is not to be totally lost (as is the case in India) WE NEED TO ACT NOW TO OVERCOME THIS INERTIA AND IDENTIFY THAT IDENTIFICATION IS A WORTHY AND NOBLE SET OF COMPLEX SKILLS.... LIKELY TO COMPLEMENT CRITICAL THINKING ELSEWHERE IN THE SYLLABUS.  In fact I would assert INVOLVES critical thinking. But a GREAT DEAL more needs to be done - even though, some, perhaps, many members of the BSBI do not consider it is the role of a their society to a ACTIVELY CAMPAIGN on such issues. They belong, after all, to a 'learned' society (which it is) and aspects of the study of plants are an enjoyable escape for its members into another age, another time, another place.  Even when I am photographing plants next to a busy road (much though I would prefer to be high in the Himalaya away from people on a deserted coast in Britain), I can engross myself, taking pleasure in studying nature - escaping from the hassles and unpleasantness of the real world! 

What the articles misses is that a generation or more of largely non-existent training in plant identification means VERY FEW people (even those in senior positions at botanical gardens) know how to RELIABLY identify plants. People THINK they can identify plants by SIMPLISTICALLY matching with a single photo in a book or by BLINDLY using a key.  I rarely use keys - appreciating that they are artificial and AT BEST narrow down your options, they are NOT full-proof.  THEN the serious and demanding part of checking/confirming whether your specimen REALLY does match the species indicated.  Does it actually make sense?  Frequently, people do not even bother to check. On MANY occasions I have been contacted by someone growing on one of my Himalayan introductions from seed, who pronounces it is a particular species (often only found in China).  I IMMEDIATEDLY cast doubt on their identification, saying it has never been recorded from the Himalaya.  It takes skill and experience to use keys well - very few people possess such skills....

Part of the problem is that people EXPECT plant identification to be quick and easy.  They do not want to hear that in fact one needs to work hard and study to become proficient.

The result is a HIGH proportion of plants being misidentified - whether in the wild or garden.  A REALITY which is NOT recognised.  Perhaps such people are not very good at RECOGNISING, IDENTIFYING, NAMING or MEMORISING sufficient quantities of plants?  But such 'skills' are so simple, not worth 'bothering' with according to BLOOM and his advocates.

THEY ARE THE ONES WHO HAVE GOT IT WRONG and done a great disservice - contributing to the ever-increasing "dumbing-down" within society.

Money talks: developing egalitarian 'citizen science' frameworks in the 21st century Richard Bateman

Until comparatively recently, botanical research in Britain was primarily funded through central government, block grants awarded annually to universities, leading national research institutes, botanic gardens and museums.  But since the 1980s, 'competition', has become the vogue, with 'money' taking centre stage.  Quite rightly the author calls into question the objectivity of 21st Century Science. Indeed, professional scientists are more likely to be judged by the amount of funds (amount of someone else's money) they attract to their host organisation - rather than the quantity (or I would suggest, quality) of their scientific output. Unfortunately, research areas of particular interest to members of the BSBI, such as plant systematics and applied ecology have fared especially badly, compounded by the economic downturn in 2008.

A further, related trend, involves the move to allocating competitive funds in fewer, larger "tranches" to move extensive research 'networks' - on the doubtful premise of enhancing the prospects of the best researchers (whilst reducing the workload on grant administrators).  Increasingly, when arriving at research proposals, members of the said research networks, are being asked to justify the immediate 'societal' impact of the projected outputs of the research.....  The world has changed!  As a general rule, it seems the larger the number of organisations and individuals brought together into a single proposal, the greater the likelihood of obtaining substantial funding - though of course any funds gained must be split amongst the recipients.  In theory, when carefully and inclusively planned, such collaborations should provide considerable benefits to all concerned.

However, Richard emphasises that there is  FUNDAMENTAL difference between a good old-fashioned block grant provided by government compared with a 'modern', one-off targeted grant - whether or not it is provided by governmental or non-governmental organisations.  The funding body is likely to have its own ideas regarding how the grant is spent - all too often, those opinions depend on whether the activity or product can clearly be 'branded' with the name (and often ideals) of the relevant funding body.

For examples involving the collation and provision of biodiversity information, the net result has been numerous 'branded' projects, mostly short-term and often falling well short of the ambitious achievements that were predicted when funds were original sort.  Regrettably, the selection procedures for funding proposals are far more rigorous than any system developed to subsequently assess whether a funded projected has genuinely given value for money.  Thus, responsiveness and transparency do not necessarily translate into efficiency or fairness.

A consequence is that it is much easier to fund a new project than to further develop an existing on.  One can understand the greater 'attractiveness' to produce a NEW biodiversity database (exciting and readily branded) than to add useful volumes of data to an existing database and expand the capacity of the associated IT platform (considered boring, and at best, only available for cosmetic re-branding). It seems there is no overarching review system that any database is valueless until it has been well-populated with QUALITY data.

Emphasising fiscal considerations in our nation's science has created a research environment that is more complex and difficult for scientists to navigate.  This has, in turn, 'created' an environment that is more attractive to the increasing number of so-called 'consultancies' to fill the gaps.  They, "in return" for performing supposedly 'essential' organisational and/or advisory roles, are able to feed off the funding streams, that might otherwise pass directly from funding bodies to active researchers.  It also creates as environment in which style CAN triumph over substance - examples of which I readily recognise!

The author then raises, the question, as to just how relevant are such 'big' issues and trends to a predominantly amateur society such as the BSBI?  In his opinion, paramount.  Especially, as an increasingly popular way of DEMONSTRATING the direct relevance to society of a major grant proposal is to involve specialist societies such as the BSBI in the research networks.  He contends that whilst some past initiatives have benefitted the society, in other cases, the BSBI has been 'used' - with other organisations taking much of the credit (and cash) for outputs based on unique, solid data sets, hard-won over long periods by committed and highly motivated members.  Such generosity on the part of the BSBI, whilst acceptable at one time, make no sense any longer. Bateman's thesis is that the BSBI and other like-minded organisations, cannot afford to continue handing over their "crown jewels" in exchange for, at best, a modicum of transient publicity - something I fully endorse. 

He gives examples where substantial awards have been granted, yet the voluntary organisations, whose cooperation is essential for the success of the ventures, were not formally approached to help plan the projects, nor will they receive any financial benefits from these extraordinarily well-funded networks.  The active involvement of such societies as the BSBI was simply "assumed".  One example seemingly views the unparalleled specialist knowledge of organisations as a freely available resource, to be tapped as and when convenient, the other, viewing BSBI members as a colony of self-maintaining laboratory rats.  Bateman rightly considers that neither attitude is particularly helpful.

Even when fully aware of being so blatantly "taken for granted", Batemen, probably correctly, asserts it will be tempting for the BSBI to maintain the society's traditional stance of "benign positivism", continuing to enthusiastically participate in such projects. He warns against this - again, probably correctly, that if it choses to do so, the BSBI will continue be taken for granted for the foreseeable future.

He puts this conundrum well, "in a ubiquitously monetarist environment, those who give their time and other resources for free (which applies to myself much of the time), while others collect substantial rewards on their behalf, will not be respected.  True but the world NEEDS such 'naive' idealism....

Bateman urges that voluntary organisations, today operating as the main repository for specialist expertise in natural history, are automatically viewed as full partners in citizen science and data-sharing enterprises.  The BSBI should place itself high in the food chain, where appropriate, involving other like-minded societies but also exhibiting greater aggression pursuing its laudable aims.  Recent history has taught us that not only cash but also kudos and influence accrue to those who give the strongest leadership.  As he aptly puts it, in today's ultra-competitive and decidedly non-egalitarian funding environment, "Truth and Beauty Butter no Parsnips".....

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The articles within BSBI News No. 128 (January 2015) which caught my eye were:

POTAMOGETON NODOSUS (Loddon Pondweed) in the Jubilee River by Martin Holt

I have never knowingly seen the 'Loddon Pondweed' - which is apparently easily recognised by +/- lanceolate beautifully net-veined submerged leaves, which are quite different from those of any other British species.  This is probably correct, though as one seldom gets close enough to check out submerged leaves of aquatic plants - unless one is attired in waders (or even chest waders) as at times I was surveying for riverside vegetation in Wales in 1983.  But I have never inspected river vegetation this close up in any of the counties where this species is recorded from.  I can find no mention of this species by Druce within Flora of Buckinghamshire (1926) unless he had it under a name I am not aware of?  This is of note as Druce was the person who found it in the UK for the first time (at Loddon, Berkshire in 1893) so would have been the ideal person to locate it in Buckinghamshire at that time.  Maycock & Woods (A Checklist of the plants of Buckinghamshire, 2005) had a record from Taplow & Dorney in 1985.

Martin was contracted between 2003 and 2012, to undertake a botanical monitoring programme on the Jubilee River for the Environment Agency - which is an artificial bypass channel constructed between Maidenhead and Old Windsor to provide flood protection for Maidenhead.  Of course water has to go somewhere, with the residents of Datchet being unimpressed a few years ago, when they bore the brunt of flooding instead!  His article concentrated on the most interesting record from the Jubilee river - which is a RED LIST species with only three previously known EXTANT sites in Britain (though the new RED LIST has 5 sites).  I note that 'Flora of the British Isles' had records from Somerset, Gloucester, Wilts, Dorset, Oxford, Bucks and Berks.

In Britain, Loddon Pondweed occurs in calcareous, somewhat eutrophic lowland rivers with moderate flows, notably occurring below weirs, where the water is turbulent and thus well-oxygenated.  It is thought to be extinct in the Thames as a result of an increase in river traffic or eutrophication.

Martin only found a single colony in the Jubilee river, in a 'classic' location below a weir and only in the final year of his surveying.  The size of the population suggests it had been there for some time.  He wonders if he had simply missed it in the previous years or maybe, having done the surveys earlier, it might have been entirely submerged.  After all, he only found it using a grapnel.  From a distance, he had assumed it was a non-native.  It must be recognised that even experienced field surveyors are mortal and do not spot every single species, especially as some are much more or less recognisable during different months of the year.  So yes, on close inspection, 'Loddon Pondweed' is very distinctive but one needs to get to that point!  Martin describes it as having coriaceous floating (to somewhat emergent) leaves, contrasting with the long-petiolate translucent submerged leaves. Another important consideration, is that plants and populations of this (and no doubt other species) fluctuate in size from year-to-year - and thus how 'detectable' it is in the field.

The most important question Martin had, was how did the pondweed get into the Jubilee River?  Was it genuine natural spread or did someone put it there? Regardless of the answer, he makes the pertinent point that someone put the river there, so it cannot be considered a truly natural occurrence...

It seems quite conceivable that the plant arrived 'naturally' - it is known to spread vegetatively by turions (detachable winter bud by means of which many water plants perennate) - after all the Loddon, a potential source of these propagules is upstream from the divergence of the Thames and Jubilee.  You might question the likelihood of POTAMOGETON NODOSUS being 'unofficially' introduced.  Well, I undertook a survey of vegetation in a woodland near Stevenage just after graduating.  Miraculously, a mature specimen of 'Green Hellebore' (HELLEBORUS  VIRIDIS) appeared beside the pond - not previously known from the site.  It was suspected that someone had dug up a specimen from a known location of it just a few kms away. At the time I was surprised, a little shocked and strongly disapproved of this conduct - if this is what happened.

Recorder bias in the distribution of vascular plants and charophytes in Surrey          by Brian Pitkin

Brian observed that in any botanical survey, there is an inevitable degree of recording bias - stemming from several possible factors or a combination of two or more, including geographical bias as well as individual recorder's identification abilities and skills.  He correctly states that it is often said that the distribution of plants reflects the distribution of botanists, being particularly true for the more critical taxa and for small areas. He also makes the crucial point that unless the extent of recording bias is known, any conclusions drawn from the data may be misleading.

Using Surrey Botanical Society's Mapmate data (as at 9/2014) an analysis of numbers of records and taxa recorded per unit area by the most active members was undertaken to test whether the distribution of recorders showed geographical bias.  The society currently has 120 members; records of 12 of these (representing almost half of the records) were selected for analysis.  Only records submitted by recording solo were utilised.

The conclusion was that the distribution of plants did indeed reflect the distribution of botanists.  Brian felt that the proven geographical bias did not impact to any significant extent due to the large number of recorders.

Worthy though this analysis was, the bigger, more important question, not addressed,  are the significant differences between recorders.  It may be assumed that ALL recorders/members of this or any other society/biology graduate, automatically have the skills to recognise ALL common plant species in the UK, there only areas of weakness being the more 'difficult-to-identify' taxa.  That is just not the case!  UNLESS ADDITIONAL TRAINING IS GIVEN, MORE CONSISTENT RECORDING, WILL NOT BE ACHIEVED.  UNLESS STANDARDS ARE MORE CONSISTENT, VALID COMPARISONS BETWEEN INDIVIDUAL RECORDS AND RECORDING AS A WHOLE, CANNOT BE MADE AND FEW MEANINGFUL CONCLUSIONS CAN BE DRAWN.

The vascular plant Red Data List for Great Britain: a summary of the amendments in years 8 and 9 (2013-14) of the annual amendments process; Additions to the Waiting List - ANGELICA ARCHANGELICA ('Garden Angelica') and ORNITHOGALUM UMBELLATUM subsp. CAMPESTRE ('Star-of-Bethlehem) by Simon Leach and Kevin Walker

These two species caught my eye.  I am familiar with a variety of ANGELICA ARCHANGELICA from the Western Himalaya - under the name ARCHANGELICA  OFFICINALIS var. HIMALAICA; it is common by streams and seepages in Kashmir.  It also represented one of the earliest plant records for Buckinghamshire (from Gerard's Herbal of 1597) - where it was growing by a moat in the parish of Iver, Buckighamshire. Druce (Flora of Buckinghamshire, 1926) considered it very rare or extinct; as Druce was such an exceptionally active and observant field botanist, such a large a prominent umbelifer would not have been missed by him.  According to Gerard, its root was a singular remedy against poison and the plague and all infections by evil and corrupt air (which is how it was thought at that time that plague was spread); all you had to do was take a piece of root and hold it in your mouth or chew it, it definitely drive away the pestilential air'.  The stems, candied, were a favourite sweetmeat or etiolated, were eaten in a similar fashion to celery.

Apparently, ANGELICA  ARCHANGELICA ('Garden Angelica) has been put on the WAITING LIST within the VASCULAR PLANT RED DATA LIST for Great Britain.  This was not previously assessed. It may have claims to be an archaeophyte (present before 1492 [Voyages of Chirstopher Columbus) or native rather than a neophyte (present since 1492) in the extreme north of Scotland.  It is a species known to have been in cultivation for a very long time, certainly since the late 16th century. Its occurrences in the wild are generally considered relics of cultivation but in the faroe islands it is also found as a native on sea cliffs. As its seeds float and can remain viable for at least a year, it is possible that strand-line plants, at least in Shetland, could be natural colonists arriving as a result of long-distance seed dispersal?

As for ORNITHOGALUM UMBELLATUM subspecies CAMPESTRE ('Star-of-Bethlehem' currently on the WAITING LIST, is also a NEOPHYTE (known since 1492) and so can be removed to the PARKING LIST.

I came across (for the first time) this plant on a grassy bank outside a station in Berkshire.  Flora of the British Isles (which makes no mention of subspecies CAMPESTRE) considered it to be native in E.England, elsewhere naturalised.

Help required for new book: Winter key to trees and shrubs  John Poland

I am particularly interested to hear that John (author of 'The Vegetative Key to the British Flora' with Eric Clement) is nearing completion of his latest book.  This will include photos and line drawings covering over 340 taxa including all native, naturalised and widely planted deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers.

New online interactive flora: 'Ecological flora of the central Chilterns' Tony Marshall

Records, extending back over a hundred years, of all wildlife and plants have been compiled from many sources for a typical 100km. square part of central Buckinghamshire Chilterns.  The first part of the project is to make these rich data publicly available.  These consist of a comprehensive description of all the plants ever found.  They are available in discrete sections; 14 of the projected 47 sections are already available, as free downloads at: www.prestwoodnature.org/chilternsflora.html.

Obituary Notes - Dr N.T.Holmes BSBI member since 1978 and for many years a referee for several genera of aquatic plants

I briefly met Nigel who had a role monitoring the SURVEY OF RIVERSIDE VEGETATION of the UPPER WYE and UPPER SEVERN catchments, I was team-leader of in the 1980s.  As the report had not been completed, he managed to raise £1000 to cover my costs for a month, to complete the task.

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The articles within BSBI News No. 127 (September 2014) which caught my eye were:

OBITUARY NOTES - Mary Briggs (1923-2014)

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