Friday 11 October 2019

The State of Nature Report for Wales 2019

The State of Nature Report 2019 was released last Friday and unfortunately it again charts continued wildlife declines across the UK with 13% of declines in average species abundance since 1970. There is also a short summary for Wales which is available to view or download from the BSBI Wales webpage.

The vascular plants of Wales do not escape from the general picture outlined in the UK report. Of the 1,467 Wales Red book plant species assessed in the State of Nature report, 38 have been classed as extinct and a further 18% are threatened with extinction within the country.

As nearly nine tenths of Wales is agricultural land, changes in agricultural practice have been a major factor behind the increasing rarity of plant species. If we take just a single important habitat, more than 90% of semi-natural grasslands have been lost in Wales since the 1930s.

However, it is important to remember that many farmers are shouldering the extra burden of conserving the wildlife on their farms and they are carrying out this task on top of a harder working day than most of us could cope with.

As an example, tenant farmers in the Elan Valley have been working with Natural Resources Wales to restore grasslands to wildflower richness. After just 10 years of suitable management (light manure applications and liming) these grasslands were almost as wildflower rich as adjacent SSSI meadows. You can read more about this in a report from Natural Resources Wales

Again, the National Botanic Gardens of Wales has successfully been restoring hay meadows in Waun Las. In June I saw how lovely these meadows have become, with plentiful Greater Butterfly-orchids (Platanthera chlorantha), Eyebright (Euphraisa spp) and Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor). You can read more about this here. An important part of this transformation was the spreading of green hay from nearby meadows by a local farmer.

A Greater Butterfly-orchid from the restored hay meadows at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales
The conclusions for Wales in the report are tempered by fewer robust trends in species abundance than for other countries in the UK. This is because Wales has a smaller human population and fewer people recording wildlife.

This makes the efforts of the volunteers in Wales who record and survey wildlife all the more valuable - including the BSBI's County recorders and their helpers. We would love to get even more people involved next spring. As BSBI's Head of Science Dr Kevin Walker explains here, it's thanks to the "national army of volunteer recorders" that we've been able to provide the "most complete picture ever assembled of the state of Britain's wildlife". So why not join us? Just take a look at our Local Botany page where you can find out what recording activities they have planned. You would be very welcome to attend and we can offer lots of help for anyone wishing to get started in recording our wonderful Welsh wild flowers.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

The National Plant Monitoring Scheme ... time to think about next year!

As the botanical field season draws to a close this is a good time to plan next year's outings. We will still get the odd day of reasonable weather and you could use it to recce a National Plant Monitoring scheme  (NPMS) square for 2020.

The NPMS is a joint citizen science project managed by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, including Plantlife and the BSBI as major partners. The new scheme was launched in 2015 and it has been carefully designed by scientists to provide good quality statistically amenable data with subsequently road tested by volunteers. You really don't have to be a botanical expert to take part - you can choose to survey at the "Wildflower level".

To take part register for a square on the NPMS website National Plant Monitoring Scheme choosing one of the randomly selected squares which you like the look of. (This aspect of the scheme is a bit like the Breeding Bird Survey).

You'll get sent a pack with the survey guidelines, a plant identification guide and a OS map of your chosen square. When a weather window opens, go and take a look at the square, keeping to footpaths or other public access areas. If you still feel happy with the square you'll need to think about which parts of it you will need to gain access to in order to survey the 5 required plots.

Think about covering a range of the NPMS habitats within the square, prioritising ponds and flushes. Remember that if you are surveying in a woodland your plot will be 10x10m in size and not the normal 5x5m or 1x25m size.

Finding out landowner information to acquire access permission can be tricky. You could use it as an excuse for a drink in the local pub or just ask at a nearby farm. Obviously you need to be careful not to be too intrusive here and a letter of introduction is provided with the pack.

Once access permission has been gained you might wish to visit your square again before surveying begins in earnest next May. It is worthwhile spending a bit of time locating exactly where your 5 plots should be.

A GPS is handy for this and it will help you find the plots again via the "find" feature. However if you don't have one of these you could download a GPS app onto your smartphone ( most are free).

If you are surveying in an open field and relying on an app it is harder to refind your plot.  In this case sketching a map of the features is essential. In particular you might want to note features which line up near the skyline on the corner of your plot. You could do this for both axes of the plot if the area is very open and featureless. This is usually so effective you could actually find your plot more quickly this way than trying to follow a shifting arrow on a GPS unit!
Lining up features on the skyline for a plot in a open field

Then with much of the ground work done you will be able to focus on the more enjoyable botanical recording next spring. I was lucky enough to find Marsh-marigolds (Caltha palustris) in my wet woodland plot - scatterings of glossy gold gleaming in the filtered green light. I also found some Wood Horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum) nearby which seems to be only a second record for the hectad. Who knows what you will find?

A few of the Marsh-marigolds in my woodland NPMS plot 

Monday 16 September 2019

Holiday Botany in the Pyrenees

 Holiday Botany is great for gaining new perspectives on our local flora. Plants which seem to have quite restricted niches in the UK often flourish more widely on the continent and rarer plants which you might have to make a special journey to see might even be found on your accommodation's front lawn!

So even though it was in September and billed as a geological outing, I expected the Nature en Occitanie field trip to the summit of Pene Blanque ( 1115m) would also have some botanical interest for me.

We met in Arbas where the large village square was watched over by a donkey sized Pyreneen Mountain dog. From there Delphine Fallour from the Office National de Foret drove us along forest tracks bumping our way upward and saving a good deal of height gain on foot. Once parked in a shade of a turning circle we took smaller tracks through the forest which graded from Fir to Beech and finally to Hazel trees which were festooned with plentiful Lobaria pulmonaria lichen.

The erosion of the limestone had created a cave with a collapsed roof system which we explored carefully. The entrances were bordered with flourishing stands of Touch-me-not Balsam (Impatiens noli tangere) which seems native in parts of North Wales and nooks cradled Pyrenean Saxifrage (Saxifraga umbrosa). This last is established in one locality in Yorkshire.

Descent into the Cave

Touch-me-not Balsam at the Cave entrance
Leaving the cave, we followed the trail further upwards until suddenly we came to a sunlit limestone pavement fringed with softer grasslands which we gratefully relaxed upon for lunch.

Some of the floristic elements here were familiar with Thyme, Common Rock-rose, Yellow-rattle and Squinancywort.
Common Rock Rose

Squinancywort - or Hierba de la esquinancia (ES) Estrangla-can (OC)

Francoise Laigneau's recent book "Decouvrir la Flore des Pyrenees" lists plant names in local languages and cites Squinancywort's Spanish (ES) and Occitan (OC) names as Hierba de la esquinancia and Estrangla-can. The Spanish name seems to be the origin of the English one and means "strangling herb". The Occitan version (Occitan was previously referred to as Languedoc) means "strangle the dog"!

Reinforced by our lunch we then wove our way around the sharp edges of the karstic rock forms, grateful for the shade of the occasional small Ash tree. These reminded me of the Ash trees at the entrance to Craig Benglog where block scree confines them to narrow cracks and gullies.

On the pavement we found several geranium species - Herb Robert, Round-leaved Crane's-bill           (Geranium rotundifolium) & Shining Crane's-bill (Geranium luridium) . We also found Pyreneen plants such as Clinopodium alpinum, a last flower on Teucrium chamaedrys, Allium ericetorum's delicate white flower heads and bushes of Common Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica.

Across the karst 

Clinopodium alpinum

Teucrium chaemaedrys

View from the top!

Friday 9 August 2019

Caerdeon Botanical Residential for Meirionnydd (VC48)

Sunday 28th of July

Martyn Stead, Sally Peacock and I headed for the empty quarter of the Arenigs on Sunday. We were looking at two very unrecorded tetrads on the South East side of Arenig Fawr. We traversed across part of Ffridd y Fawnogg noting typical species such as Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus), some of which bore nearly ripe fruit - not quite ripe enough for a snack though!

Sally found Shoreweed (Litorella uniforme) in the reservoir but it's wave-lashed shores seemed to discourage the development of more fringing vegetation.

Once we had ascended the SE ridge of Y Castell, the broad ledges I could safely reach were not particularly species rich, although there was plentiful Luzula sylvatica (Great Wood Rush). We entered the new tetrad at around 660m  and as we crested the top of this slope we found windswept areas rich in Vaccinium vitis-idaea (Cowberry) with the odd patch of Melampyrum pratense (Common Cow-wheat). There were also some significant patches of the Lichen Lasallia pustulata

I scoured a small area of rock carpeting sphagnum until I eventually spotted some Drosera rotundifolia  (Round-leaved sundew), however the wet weather had really set in now so we didn't press on to the summit. This could still be an area worth prospecting in the future though. We took the easier route back via the track and road and this enabled Martyn to add to the list of road-verge species for another tetrad . Meanwhile Sally and I took a last look at a different corner of Ffridd y Fawnogg bog in homage to International Peat bog day. 

Caerdeon Botanical Residential for Meirionnydd ( VC48)

July 27th: Visit to Craig y Benglog with Martyn Stead and Phil Brown.

Craig y Benglog lies next to Allt y Benglog National Nature reserve which comprises an Ash woodland. These trees grow over underlying basic rocks which give them an extra mineral boost. Consequently, Phil Martyn and I felt we might be in for an interesting day in this area. On a previous visit I had found an old trackway leading up the valley so this easy access route quickly led us into the recording area. The day developed as a series of deviations upwards or downwards from this track, either taking in the ledges of the crags above or down to the Afon Eiddon which cuts down into some basic lavas.

 The first excursion upwards to the crags yielded little that was unexpected, so we scrambled down to the river. The river cliffs bordering it soon yielded interesting records of Helianthenum nummularium (Common Rock-rose), a new tetrad record and a plant which has only been recorded in 4 tetrads of VC48, and Sedum forsterianum (Rock Stonecrop) another new tetrad record and only recorded in 10 tetrads. These were accompanied with Origanum vulgare (Wild Majoram) and Sedum telephium (Orpine)
Sedum forsterianum (Rock Stonecrop)

Some of these ledges seem to preserve remnant woodland flora too with Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid) and Primula vulgaris (Primrose), Luzula sylvatica (Great Wood Rush) and Geum rivale (Water avens)
Further progress from rock to rock brought new discoveries. Arabis hirstua (Hairy rock-cress) (another new tetrad record) and Melica nutans which has only been recorded in 2 other tetrads of VC 48 and a new record for the tetrad.
Melica nutans Mountain Melick

Then Phil explored a meander further up the valley whilst Barbara and Martyn wove a way through the boulder scree to the upper crags, soon to be joined by the ever-energetic Phil. Here we found an isolated Populus tremulus (Aspen) at the base of a crag and then Martyn followed some intuition straight to a hidden Oak fern (Gymnocarpon dyropteris) in a scree niche. Meanwhile Phil searched some more crags to find more Melica nutans, Hyacinthoides non scripta (Bluebell) and Cystopteris fragilis (Brittle Bladder Fern)
Martyn Stead demonstrating the site of the Oak Fern
Gymnocarpium dryopteris - the Oak Fern

Overall 156 records were made but the quality of the finds and the landscape made for some great plant hunting. We also paid a visit to the local farmer on the way back, who shared some of the local mining and farming history of the site and was interested in the special plants.

Caerdeon Botanical residential for Meirionnydd (VC48)

Friday 26th July

The Caerdeon residential botanical meeting has become a regular fixture of the Merionnydd Field Naturalists programme. It attracts many botanists of national calibre and there is the added attraction of being able to explore the little visited corners of this great vice-county.

So I joined the meeting with happy anticipation on Friday July 26th at the first botanical rendez-vous of Tanygrisiau, joining up with Sally Peacock, Mags Critterden and Phil Brown

We split into two teams taking either a high route or a low route through the tetrad. I accompanied Phil upon the higher transect and gradually we rambled up slope, bog and crag until we were not far from the summit. En route we found three clubmoss species including Lycopodium clavatum Stag's-horn Clubmoss, a section 7 species in the Environment (Wales) act.  A search of these higher crags surprisingly revealed some Achillea ptarmica or Sneezewort as well as more typical members of crag communities such as Phegopteris connectilus (Beech Fern) and Sedum telephium (Orpine)

Lycopodium clavatum Stag's-horn Clubmoss

 We then headed downwards to a broad shelf scattered with bog pools and islets finding Rhychospora alba  (White-beaked Sedge) and Sparganium fluctuans (Floating Bur-weed)

Bog Asphodel Islets

Sparganium fluctuans, Floating Bur-weed

We then decided to race for the Welsh Highland Railway train at the Dduallt stop, which took us via a large area of Myrica gale ( Bog Mrytle), a pool with Nuphar lutea (Yellow water-lily) and some patches of Hypericum elodea ( Marsh St John's-Wort).

We made it to the Dduallt halt with 4 mins to spare but the return trip via steam train gave a Victorian flourish to the day and one which accorded with our accommodation at Caerdeon.
Phil Brown and  Moelwyn Bach

Wales Highland Railway at Tanygrisiau station

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Twixt Prims and Peggles.....

As roadside verges across the county become primrose coloured I have been thinking and looking out for Primulas and their hybrids.

I had an early introduction to these as I attended Great Bardfield primary school and my uniform sweatshirt was emblazoned with one.

Great Bardfield drew Henry Doubleday's attention in 1842 when he described the 2 acre meadow of Bardfield Hall "as a mass of yellow blooms" with Oxslips  (Primula elatior) growing by the thousand. On careful observation he felt they were probably a separate species from the False Oxslip ( now known to be Primula vulgaris x primula veris = P. x polyantha ) which was widespread in England at the time. He carried out cross pollination experiments, and the plants always bred true, so as a further check he sent plants to Charles Darwin who did the same and also crossed Primroses and Cowslips. Darwin's results were set out in a paper published in 1868 and left him in no doubt that the plants from Bardfield represented a separate true species which he referred to as the Bardfield Oxslip -  now Primula elatior

Bardfield Oxslips - now more often known as just Oxslips, have a fairly limited distribution in the UK and are mostly confined to the boulder clay of the Suffolk/Essex border. They are commoner on the continent, where they are also often found in woodland glades.

Oxslip or Primula elatior - here growing on the woodland edge in the Pyrenees

Owing to a decline in Oxslip numbers in and around Bardfield, the primary school became involved in a replanting project in 2002. Unfortunately they are savoured by Roe Deer and so woodland populations are often heavily grazed.

Here in Wales the only Oxslips you are likely to see outside gardens are the hybrids or False Oxslips. As described by Darwin in his experiments these are the result of crosses between Primroses P. vulgaris and Cowslips P. veris. They do vary slightly in form but generally have flowers which fall anywhere around the stem, unlike the Oxslip  P.elatior  which usually has blooms falling on one side only. They also often have an orange centre to each bloom.

Primroses often hybridize with a horticultural primulas leading to a variety of strange colours and forms - a few of which I observed in St Mary's Churchyard Abbeycwmhir last week and are pictured below.

Primrose or Primula vulgaris. 

False Oxslips - the hybrid between Cowslip ( P.veris) and Primrose (P.vulgaris) P. x polyantha. The flowers are falling anywhere round the stem and they have orange centres, as shown below.

The other parent, the Cowslip - also known as Peggles in Essex. ( P. veris)

And a couple of other Primrose hybrids also found at Abbeycwmhir.

Wednesday 13 March 2019

In search of the Purple Saxifrage... Saxifraga oppositifolia on Cadair Idris.

Visitors to the Purple Saxifrage or Tormaen porffor (cym)

Last Saturday I followed the footsteps of many botanists to seek out the Purple Saxifrage growing on Cadair Idris.
I have walked up Cadair many times, mostly from the popular and scenic Minfordd path with its view of Llyn Cau and the Mountain’s cirque of surrounding cliffs.
The hunt for the Purple Saxifrage required a different approach however, over the wide northerly moor, leaping rain swollen streams, pushing up a steep grassy slope, edging my boots for grip and finally arriving at the band of basic igneous rock which hosts the plant.
Purple Saxifrage is one of our earliest flowering mountain plants and Bill Condry (contributor to The Guardian’s Country diary) Dr Dewi Jones and other botanists used to compete in a friendly rivalry to find its earliest flowers.  This link describes a search on the 26th January 1992 .

A cushion of Purple Saxifrage on Cadair Idris in early March

Once seen, you understand the draw this plant exerted. It is a real showman, trailing over bare rocks with barely noticeable leaves threaded crosswise down a thread like stem. But the flowers are vividly purple, open mouthed and almost obscuring the rest of the plant. It belongs in the Mountains but looks to be transplanted out of a Chelsea show garden rockery.
Its lovely flowers are by no means its most remarkable aspect however. It holds the record for the highest flowering plant in France (and perhaps Western Europe) having recently been found growing and flowering at 4070m on the Bare des Ecrin in the Alps.
At such altitudes oxygen is thin, frost a daily occurrence and moisture negligible. When the sun shines, the ultra violet light will give you a serious burn in half an hour. Amongst the plant’s many adaptations to this are an ability to plug it’s own stomata or breathing pores to restrict moisture loss under the Sun’s glare. It excretes liquid rich in calcium carbonate which crystallises blocking the openings. I was lucky enough to observe this on Saturday on the Cadair plants, probably owing to the warm weather at the end of February.
Limestone crystals on the tips of the Purple Saxifrage leaves.

My effort to reach the plants pale somewhat when compared with the French Alpinists, Paul Guilleman, Andre Salvader and Pierre Gaspard in 1878 though. They were making a third ascent of the Meije in the Alps when they found Purple Saxifrage at 3700m. Realising they would scarcely be believed, as the find overturned the botanical knowledge of the period, they endeavoured to take a sample. This involved Paul standing on Gaspard’s shoulders on the edge of a drop of hundreds of meters. A demonstration of extreme botany for an extremely alpine plant – but perhaps not suitable for everyone!
In Wales, Purple Saxifrage can be found in the Brecon Beacons and in Snowdonia with Cwm Idwal and Cadair probably being the most accessible sites. Ben Lawers is a great place to see it in Scotland. 

Mining Cottages on the North side of Cadair Idris

Thursday 14 February 2019

An early gleam of Spring.

An early gleam of Spring; The Radnor Lily or Early Star of Bethlehem; Gagea bohemica.

Seren gynnar Bethlehem (Cym)  

It seems appropriate to start my term on the Welsh Officer blog with a post about a local herald of spring; the Radnor Lily (Early Star of Bethlehem) or Gagea bohemica.

Gagea bohemica as photographed by the author on Febraury 6th this year. 

John Crellin (VCR for Brecknockshire) organised a visit to Stanner Rocks on the 6th of February  especially to see this flower . We were guided by Andy Shaw, a local botanist who has surveyed the plants there regularly.

Andy gave us an enthusiastic introduction to the history of botany in the area, mentioning the groups of Victorian botanists that used to alight from an old train station less than 100m away, spending their days collecting and botanising in the vicinity. Their attention was drawn by the unusual summer flora  which included Spiked Speedwell (Veronica spicata), Sticky Catchfly (Lychnis viscaria). This had prospered on the rock owing to the thin well drained soils which were somewhat alkaline owing to the underlying igneous rock mass. In consequence, several of the species which flourished on the warmer south facing slope were usually associated with the Mediterranean.

Yet despite all this activity the Radnor Lily remained unnoticed. Its thin, wiry crocus like leaves were hard to pick out amongst the grasses and the botanists were Summer migrants. 

The leaves of Gagea bohemicus are not too difficult to find in February but die back quickly as spring advances.

The years rolled by, the small train station closed, and Stanner rocks became a Site of Special Scientific interest in 1954 owing to those summer flowers. Later the designation was changed to make part of the area a National Nature reserve.

Due to the designation, surveys were commissioned to study the mosses and liverworts of the site. R Kemp, a moss specialist, carried these out during the winter of 1965. On returning to the lab, he noticed amongst his samples some curious wiry crocus like leaves, which he thought might belong to the closely related Snowdon Lily Gagea seratina . In April 1974 Ray Woods went to search the area to find a better specimen and noticed that the leaves of the plant were not hairy like those of the Snowdon Lily. Suspecting Gagea bohemica he went back the following January and found a flower.. and so the identity of the mystery plant was finally confirmed. It has never been found anywhere else in the British Isles. 

Subsequent counts have found as many as 1,000 plants on Stanner rocks, but only a very few of these plants flower at all. This may be because conditions on the rock are not quite right for this Mediterranean plant, and it may also explain why Stanner rocks is its only UK site.

The area where the Lily grows is fenced off and visits can be made through Natural Resources Wales (NRW). If you do arrange a visit, be prepared for a steep climb and to peer over rock ledges. 

If you wish to see the summer flowers, Andy Shaw will be leading another BSBI visit on Saturday 1st of June. See for more information. Please book a place with Andrew Jones on