Botanical Project E (Wales!)


Following on from surveys undertaken along the river Usk in 1981, I was, the following year appointed team-leader of a survey of vegetation along selected 500m stretches of the river Wye and some along the River Severn.  You may well be asking what has a plant survey in Wales got to do with conserving Himalayan flora?  I am using this project, that I have first-hand knowledge of (as is the case for projects C & D), to help explain what is possible (and realistic) to result from surveys in the UK compared with the altogether different situation in the Western Himalaya. The purpose is to show how challenging it is for inexperienced field-botanists to RELIABLY and CONSISTENTLY identify/survey for plants even in the favourable environment the UK provides - with access to numerous guides and detailed floras.  Such quality reference works do not exist for most parts of the Himalaya.  Most local field-botanists in India DO NOT collect reference/voucher pressed specimens (and if they do they are mostly scrappy with almost no accompanying field notes) and even when they do, herbaria are few-and-far-between, with poor quality reference specimens to compare/check with.  AND the terrain and altitude often make undertaking field-work unattractive to all but the most dedicated; some locations and higher altitudes can be dangerous for those lacking in experience and trekking skills.....  So it has been left, as the song goes, to "Mad Dogs and Englishmen.."

After completing my first expedition to the Himalaya (more specifically, the borderlands of Western Tibet) as leader of a botanical survey of the Suru Valley, Ladakh and as leader of my 1983 Kashmir Botanical Expedition, I became aware of some fundamental differences between plant surveys in the UK and those in the Himalaya.  Yet most people I encounter imagine that similar principles apply - they do not.  Thanks to having studied our flora, which is a fraction of the size numerically, occupies much less demanding terrain (yes, we have mountains here but they are not on the scale of those in the Himalaya) and for centuries we have been studying our plants intensively, we have a vastly superior and in-depth understanding of British flora. Britain still boasts (though the numbers are dropping) more botanists amateur and professional (with many of the amateurs of professional standard) per square mile than anywhere on earth.  Our flora has been MUCH better studied than any country or region in the world.  There are more picture-books, guides and floras than anywhere.  It is perhaps easy to imagine the same applies in other countries but it does not.. Certainly, in comparison, the flora of the Himalaya is POORLY studied, particularly the Western Himalaya.  Field-work has been minimal since the 1930s with a lack of international collaboration creating major problems.  Just about every genus and family needs further study and a complete revision/up-date. In isolation, without consulting specialists in the West or Japan, NEW species are announced - some of which I KNOW to be false.

Let us focus on my time in Wales in 1982/3, prior to organising my 1983 expedition to the Himalaya.  I had visited a member of the 1980 University of Southampton Ladakh Expedition, who was working on the ornithological-side of the 1981 survey of the river Usk.  On learning that there would be a survey on a similar basis covering the River Wye the following year, I approached the Curator of the Lysdinam Field Studies Centre, Newbridge-on-Wye, who was to supervise the project.  I was chosen and then within the first week, appointed as team-leader, since I had the most field experience, even though two of the team held Masters degrees in 'Pure & Applied Plant Taxonomy' (one of whom was an outstanding young bryologist, who concentrated on this aspect, as his skills with mosses and liverworts far exceed any of ours).

Whilst I felt even the weaker members of my survey team were of a comparable standard to the field-surveyors employed the previous year on the River Usk, the differences in standards/field skills were considerable.  I think it would be fair to say that our best would have matched any young botanists in the country.  In an effort to bring greater consistency within the team (which was important as the objective was to rank and compare the 'conservation' value of different stretches of river - otherwise the 'scores' would largely depend on who was the recorder, rather than the richness or otherwise of a particular length of river).  So time was spent on familiarising team members on the standard survey procedures and improving field botany skills.

A special effort was made to attain taxonomic and identification consistency between recorders.  A herbarium collection of pressed material was prepared to help individual recorders to improve their familiarity with 'riparian' (riverside) and 'aquatic' flora.  For the duration of the survey each field worker was requested (not everyone complied and one refused to gather a specimen of an orchid he came across - as the colony of the orchid was ample, removing a single specimen for pressing and reference purposes would have done no damage, indeed would have helped the survey) to bring back to the laboratory a specimen of any 'unkown' or previously un-recorded, species, for confirmation of their 'field' identification or DETERMINATION (this means the assigning of a taxonomically accurate name - some species can be difficult to distinguish from closely-related ones).  This meant that for the majority of the field season one day/week was devoted to identification (in addition to many hours in the evenings and week-ends, in an effort to keep up-to-date).  As the season progressed and familiarity with plants in the field increased, with most species either in flower or fruit, time spent working on this aspect decreased. By the end of the summer, the more experienced members of the team could reliably identify almost every species encountered in the field. It was clear that not every recorded fully complied, whilst some were prone to THINK they knew certain species, when they were mistaken.  This was easily exposed in the cases of a recorded claiming that they had seen a species of a particular genus that they 'knew' from a previous survey in the SE of England but had never been found in Wales - they obviously had mistaken it for the similar species which the rest of the team had noted....

A great deal was achieved in improving both individual field skills and the overall standard of recording.  But, it is not possible for relatively un-trained field botanists to gain enough experience and attain a level of proficiency in a few weeks, that might normally take years to develop (there was no reason to believe that the team would not compare favourably with any other group of recently with any other group of recently qualified botanists).  As the prolonged training necessary to achieve the very highest standards was not possible, comparisons were undertaken to gain an indication of the magnitude of inter-recorder differences that remained.  Sites surveyed at the beginning of the field season were re-visited at a later date, and each team member undertook inter-recorder comparisons at two sites.