Improve your UK field skills with online ID resources

Image by Oli Haines

During this year’s lockdown and social isolation, many of us have been appreciating how important nature is to our happiness and wellbeing. It has also given us an opportunity to connect with local wildlife and develop or brush up on our identification skills.

While a good field guide is invaluable for this, there are also a huge number of really useful online resources available to help with identifying wild plants and animals. In this article we have listed a few of our favourites, covering plants, butterflies and moths, amphibians, birds, mammals and invertebrates.

We have also included links to ongoing citizen science projects for each; if you’re regularly taking note of the species you find then why not contribute this information to an organisation that can use the data to monitor biodiversity and inform conservation decisions.

At the end of the article you will find a couple of apps that can be used to record, identify and share your general wildlife findings.

Image by Andrew Coombes via Flickr

PLANTS

Identification

Plantlife’s Plant and Fungi Species – Allows you to select the time of year, flower colour and habitat to narrow down your search.

Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) Flora Search – A more in-depth key that allows you to select information relating to the plant’s location, habitat and structure in order to identify your specimen.

Makaques UK/Irish Flora Key – A new interactive key to the flora of the British Isles, this in-depth database includes information on 3221 native and introduced species.

Citizen Science Projects

BSBI New Year Plant Hunt – Start the year with a plant hunt, and help the BSBI to study how our wild and naturalised plants are responding to changes in autumn and winter weather patterns.

National Plant Monitoring Scheme – This habitat-based plant monitoring scheme provides robust and much-needed data on changes in our wild plants and their habitats.

Plantlife Wild Flower Hunt – Record the wildflowers you see while in the town, woodland or countryside and help Plantlife to map wildflowers throughout the country.

Image by peterichman via Flickr

BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS

Identification

Butterfly Conservation’s Identify a Butterfly – Search the database using criteria such as location, size, colour and markings or search using an A-Z list of species names.

UK Butterflies Identification – Includes an extensive database of butterfly photographs, including those of immature life stages.

Butterfly Conservation’s Identify a Moth – Search the database using criteria such as location, size, colour and markings or search using an A-Z list of species names.

UKMoths – A comprehensive database of 2261 moth species found in the British Isles.

Citizen Science Projects

Butterfly Conservation Recording and Monitoring – This Butterfly Conservation page contains details of all of their current volunteer monitoring projects.

National Moth Recording Scheme – Covering over 900 species of macro-moth, this scheme hopes to benefit nature conservation, public understanding and ecological research.

Image by Erik Paterson via Flickr

AMPHIBIANS

Identification

ARG UK Identification Guides – Download a helpful range of ID guides covering amphibians and reptiles, including guides to eggs and larvae.

Citizen Science Projects

National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – Includes a range of different surveys suitable for volunteers.

Amphibian and Reptile Record Pool – The Record Pool allows users to submit UK herpetofauna sightings and makes the data available, locally and nationally, for conservation purposes.

Image by ianpreston via Flickr

BIRDS

Identification

RSPB Identify a Bird – This bird identifier lists 406 species of UK bird and allows you to search the database using a combination of physical and behavioural characteristics.

BTO Bird Identification Videos – This series of videos will help you with identifying some of the trickier species.

Xeno-canto – A comprehensive database of bird sounds from all over the world.

Chirp! Bird Songs UK & Europe – This app will help you to identify and learn bird songs. (Available for iPad and iPhone only).

Citizen Science Projects

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch – Take part in the world’s largest wildlife survey and help the RSPB to find out how our garden birds are doing. Takes place annually in January.

BTO Volunteer Surveys – On this webpage you will find a list of current BTO surveys, schemes and projects, available to suit a wide range of skills and expertise.

Image by John Campbell via Flickr

MAMMALS (including bats and cetaceans)

Identification

Mammal Society Species Hub – Find out more about the UK’s 90 species of mammal, including bats and cetaceans.

Bat Conservation Trust UK Bat Information – Learn about the 18 species of bat found in the UK and download species information sheets for each.

Citizen Science Projects

Mammal Society Record Submissions – Report your mammal sightings on this page or using the Mammal Mapper app.

PTES Living with Mammals Survey – Record your sightings of mammals and help to protect their future.

PTES Water Vole Monitoring Programme – Survey a regular site or report a one-off sighting of a water vole and help protect the UK’s fastest declining mammal.

PTES Mammals on Roads Survey – Submit sightings of any mammals (dead or alive) that you see on the roads.

Image by fen-tastic via Flickr

INVERTEBRATES / BUGS

Identification

Buglife’s Identify a Bug – Handy questionnaire to help you identify and find out more about your invertebrate specimen.

Freshwater Habitats Trust Freshwater Creatures – Learn more about our freshwater creatures (also includes information about aquatic mammals, amphibians, fish and birds).

Citizen Science Projects

Buglife Surveys – Get involved in one of Buglife’s projects, including surveying for wood ant nests and oil beetles and recording invasive species found in pot plants.

UK Glow Worm Survey – Submit your glow worm sightings using this online form.

PTES Great Stag Hunt – Help guide future conservation action for stag beetles by recording your sightings.

Riverfly Partnership Projects – Find out more about all of the Riverfly Partnership’s ongoing monitoring projects. Options are available for a range of skill and experience levels.

Apps

iSpot – Created in collaboration with the Open University and the OpenScience Laboratory, iSpot is a community-based app that allows you to record and share your wildlife sightings and get feedback from other users regarding any identification queries that you might have.

iRecord – This app enables you to get involved with biological recording by contributing your species sightings along with GPS acquired coordinates, descriptions and other information. Data is then made available to National Recording Schemes, Local Record Centres and Vice County Recorders (VCRs) to help with nature conservation, planning, research and education.

Woodland Flowers: an interview with Keith J Kirby

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future is the eighth instalment of the popular British Wildlife Collection. In this insightful and original account, Keith Kirby explores the woodland plants of Britain living in the shade of their bigger relatives. They add so much to woodland’s biodiversity and beauty and tell us stories about the history of woodland, its past management, and how that has changed – not always for the better.

Keith Kirby signing Woodland Flowers

 

Author, Keith Kirby has taken the time to sign limited copies of Woodland Flower and has answered our questions about the book, and the flowers that enhance our woodlands.

 

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I grew up in a village in Essex and spent much of my childhood playing in the fields, along the riverbank and in small woods behind our house. I was interested in natural history but not really a serious naturalist. Sometime in my teens I decided I wanted to be a forester and ended up doing a degree in Agricultural and Forest Sciences in Oxford. That introduced me to ‘ecology’ and led to a doctoral study of the growth of brambles in Wytham Woods. From there I spent a couple of years doing woodland and general habitat surveys before getting a permanent post in 1979 with the Nature Conservancy Council as a woodland ecologist. I stayed in that post (NCC became English Nature, became Natural England) through to 2012, then retired back to Oxford and picked up my plant research interests in Wytham Woods again.

Where did the motivation for this book come from? Are woodland flowers a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?

Much of my work with NCC and its successor bodies involved considering the woodland ground flora: we used them as one indicator of the value of sites, as guides to what was changing in terms of woodland management and the woodland environment more generally; some species such as bramble and bracken could also be a problem when we were trying to get regeneration. There was not then the time to pull the different strands together, so when I was back in Oxford I thought I should give it a go.

Have you noticed any unusual changes within woodland flora this Spring following the lockdown? Has it helped or hindered?

I would not really expect to see a direct effect of lockdown on the plants: often their growth is determined by reserves laid down the previous year and a few months is not very long when you consider that many woodland plants – not just the trees – can live for several decades. There could be indirect effects, for example if less disturbance in woods means that deer produce more fawns, so more hungry mouths to nibble away at the flora in future.

Germander Speedwell, a species that spreads quite quickly into new hedges.

Although adaptable, woodlands are clearly not invincible. What do you think is the greatest threat to woodland ecosystems?

In the longer-term (25-50 yrs) climate change. The micro-climate at ground level in a wood has not changed as much as out in the open because of the sheltering effect of the tree layer, but it will do eventually and this will lead to a re-assortment of which species can thrive in different parts of the country.
In the medium term (10-25 years) I suspect that we are going to see more and more evidence of change from the build-up of nitrogen in forest soils from the emissions from cars, modern farming etc. I am picking up signs that this is happening in Wytham.
The immediate threat – and it affects our ability to deal with the medium and longer-term issues as well – comes from the impact of high numbers of deer in the countryside. They limit tree regeneration and make woodland management more difficult as well having direct effects on the ground flora species themselves. At Wytham we saw during the eighties and nineties a complete shift from a flora of herbs and bramble to grass-dominated cover. That is being reversed – we are fortunate in being able to manage the deer population there – but in many other woods deer numbers are too high. This means for example that it will be difficult to get the regeneration of species such as oak, beech or hazel that will be needed over the next few years to fill the gaps in the canopy left as Ash Dieback progresses.

What single policy change would you like to see to help counter this threat?

Through history trees and woods (and hence the woodland flora) have survived best where they are valued by society: so we need to encourage greater use of wood as a material in buildings, as fuel, as a feedstock for industry; as well as promoting woodland as places for recreation, to help with water management, for carbon sequestration, and as a source of inspiration.

The tricky question of ‘nativeness’ – Oxlip outcompeted by dense Pendulous Sedge patches.

As you note in the book, there’s currently a lot of interest in rewilding. What role do you think rewilding can play in the future of UK woodlands?

From the answer to the previous question it will be obvious that I want to see a lot of woods being managed to provide the materials that society needs; moreover many of our woodland plants can thrive under such conditions – if management is done carefully – as they have done for centuries. Rewilding though also has a great role to play in future conservation alongside actively managed woods (as long as we can get away from the endless debates about the meaning of the term itself). Rewilding leads to different types of woodland structures and composition, a different set of dynamics in the landscape, some of which may be analogous to what may have existed 6,000 years ago, but other combinations will be completely new. New mixtures of woodland plants (and animals) will come to be associated with rewilded treescapes that will also be a response to the changed environmental conditions. Exactly what will emerge unpredictable and there will be interesting challenges ahead for land managers, regulators and conservation advisers – we are not in the UK going to be able to be completely ‘hands-off’ even in the wildest of rewilding.
Rewilding is however one of the reasons why I am cautiously optimistic we can yet pass on a reasonable legacy of woodland flowers.

Now that the book is finished, and after a well-earned rest, are there any plans or works-in-progress that you can tell us about?

My first priority has been to try to catch up on writing-up the results from long-term studies of the flora in Wytham Woods and The Warburg Reserve near Henley. Also once the country has opened up a bit more after Covid-19 I plan to spend time to spend some more time with the wood beneath the trees; so I have been drawing up a list of woods across the country that I want to go and visit again.

Woodland Flowers, published by Bloomsbury is out now. We have a very limited amount of signed stock, available while stocks last.

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future
By: Keith J Kirby
Hardback | August 2020| £29.99 £34.99

In this insightful and original account, Keith Kirby explores the woodland plants of Britain.

 

 

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future is the eighth instalment of the popular British Wildlife Collection.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

The NHBS Guide to UK Seaweed Identification

Seaweeds by Windel Oskay via Flickr

Seaweeds, or marine macroalgae, are plant-like organisms that live in coastal areas, usually attached to rocks or other substrates. They are divided into three taxonomic groups: brown, red and green. Broadly speaking, species fall into the group that most closely matches their colour. However, the groups also differ in more complex structural and biochemical features, such as their photosynthetic pigments and cell structure. While green and red seaweeds are classified in the Kingdom Plantae, which also includes all of the world’s land plants, brown seaweeds belong to the Kingdom Chromista and are more related to algae, diatoms and protozoans.

British and Irish seas are home to more than 600 species of seaweed; this is more than 6% of the known species globally. They are incredibly important ecologically and provide both food and shelter for numerous other creatures. In fact, one of the great pleasures of studying seaweeds is the many other species that you find along the way.

If you find yourself enjoying your seaweed studies, why not contribute to the Natural History Museum’s Big Seaweed Search. It only takes around an hour and will provide valuable data that can be used to research the effects of environmental change on our seashore communities.

When and where to find seaweed

Seaweed is present all year round. At low tide, more of the shore will be exposed which means that you are likely to find a greater range of species. This is also the only time that you are likely to spot a glimpse of those seaweeds that thrive in the lower intertidal zone. Sheltered shores tend to provide a better location for many species, as most cannot survive the battering of the waves in more exposed locations. However, there are a few species that are specially adapted to live on exposed shores so it’s always worth a look there. Similarly, as most species require a firm substrate to anchor to, rocky shores will be home to more seaweeds than sandy or muddy ones.

Ten common species to look for

Brown seaweeds:

Bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus)
Bladderwrack from the Dr. Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr.

ID notes: An olive-brown seaweed that has branching fronds with smooth edges. Paired air-filled bladders run along the length of the fronds on either side of the central rib. 15-100cm in length. The number of bladders present is related to the exposure of the shore; in very exposed places this species may grow without any bladders and will also be much reduced in length.

Distribution: Found on rocky shores between the high and low water line.

Knotted wrack (Ascophylum nodosum)
Knotted wrack from the Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr.

Also known as: Egg wrack

ID notes: This yellow-brown seaweed has long fronds reaching up to two metres in length. Single large air bladders appear at regular intervals along its length.

Distribution: Found on the mid-shore on sheltered rocky coasts. Knotted wrack is very long-lived (up to 15 years) in comparison to other algae; this allows it to become dominant on many sheltered coastlines. When the tide goes out it often forms huge piles.

Spiral wrack (Fucus spiralis)
Spiral wrack from the Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr

Also known as: Twisted wrack

ID notes: Spiral wrack is generally a pale olive-brown and grows up to 40cm. As the name would suggest, fronds are generally (although not always) twisted and have smooth edges and a distinct central rib. When mature, fronds have yellowish, paired swollen tips; these are the reproductive structures.

Distribution: Found high on the rocky shore, just below the high-water mark.

Serrated wrack (Fucus serratus)
Serrated wrack by aka CJ via Flick

Also known as: Toothed wrack or saw wrack

ID notes: This brown seaweed forms branched fronds 50 to 80cm in length. Edges are serrated.

Distribution: Found on sheltered and semi-exposed rocky shores just above the low water mark. Fucus serratus is often the dominant algal species found at this point on the shoreline.

Oarweed (Laminaria digitata)
Oarweed by Leslie Seaton via Flickr

ID notes: Oarweed has dark brown-green fronds that are up to two metres in length and split into long finger-like blades. Attaches to the rock with a claw-like holdfast which allows it to survive in rough subtidal conditions.

Distribution: Grows in dense beds in the lower intertidal and shallow subtidal zones (at a depth of up to 20m). Often all that can be seen of this species are the tops of the fronds during low tide.

Sugar kelp (Saccharina latissimi)
Sugar kelp by brewbooks via Flickr

Also known as: Sea belt

ID notes: Forms long undivided blades that are yellow-brown in colour and have ruffled sides. Grows up to five metres in length.

Distribution: Found on the lower shore and in deep rock pools. Mostly on sheltered shores and can be found up to a depth of 30m.

Green seaweeds:

Sea lettuce (Ulva lactua)
Sea lettuce by seaspicegirls via Flickr

ID notes: Sheet-like light green seaweed which grows up to 25cm in length and 30cm in width. Very delicate and almost translucent; almost like floppy lettuce leaves.

Distribution: Found attached to rocks or floating in rock pools.

Gutweed (Ulva intestinalis)
Gutweed by AuT CRONE via Flickr

Also known as: Grass kelp

ID notes: As the Latin name would suggest, gutweed resembles the intestines of mammals and consists of inflated hollow fronds which have bubbles of air trapped along them. Bright green and grows up to 40cm in length.

Distribution: Occurs in a wide range of intertidal habitats including rockpools and on sand or mud. Can also be found growing on shells or other seaweeds.

Red seaweeds:

Carrageen (Chondrus crispus)
Carrageen from the Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr

Also known as: Irish moss

ID notes: Dark reddish-purple branching seaweed which appears iridescent when submerged. Turns green with exposure to bright sunlight.

Distribution: Rocky shores and estuaries, on rocks and in pools in the lower intertidal and upper subtidal zones.

Purple laver (Porphyra umbilicalis)
Purple laver from the Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr

ID notes: Forms fronds of variable shape which are thin and membranous. Olive to purple-brown in colour and up to two metres in length.

Distribution: Found in the mid to upper shore, generally on mussel-covered rocks. Common on exposed coastlines.

Further reading

A Key to Common Seaweeds
#118696

This laminated guide from the FSC will help you to identify 36 of the most common seaweeds.

 

Seaweeds of Britain & Ireland
#235692

This photographic guide aims to demystify seaweed identification for the non-specialist. Over 235 species are described in detail, with colour photographs, information on habitat, distribution and confusion species.

 

Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew: an Interview With Kate Teltscher

Daringly innovative when it opened in 1848, the Palm House in Kew Gardens remains one of the most beautiful glass buildings in the world today

In Palace of Palms, Kate Teltscher tells the extraordinary story of its creation and of the Victorians’ obsession with the palms that filled it: a story of breathtaking ambition and scientific discovery and, crucially, of the remarkable men whose vision it was.

Cultural historian and author, Kate Teltscher kindly took some time  to answer our questions about her new book.

Can you tell us something about your background and what motivated you to write Palace of Palms?

I’ve visited Kew since my childhood and have always loved the Palm House.  It’s such a magnificent building, and just astounds you, the moment that you enter the Gardens.  It’s so sleek and elegant, and modern-looking.  As soon as you push open the door, the heat hits you, and you’re inside this tropical world.  The architecture and plants combine to form this astonishing spectacle. The whole Gardens are landscaped around the Palm House, and the three long vistas at the back mean that you’re always catching sight of the Palm House as you walk the grounds.  I wanted to find out why the Palm House was at the centre of Kew.  Why was it the first building to be commissioned when Kew became a public institution?  As a cultural historian, I was interested in the story that the Palm House could tell about Britain and botany, about palms and empire.  And then in the course of my research I became fascinated by the characters that I discovered: the ambitious first Director, the self-taught engineer, and the surly yet devoted Curator.

The historical period in your book has been described as ‘The Golden Age of Botany.’ Do you think this description is justified?

The period certainly saw the birth of modern botany and many plant collecting expeditions, but the idea of a ‘golden age’ seems outdated now. The phrase tends to obscure or gild botany’s connection with commerce and empire.  From its very foundation as a public garden, Kew had close links with colonial gardens across the empire. John Lindley, the botanist who wrote a government report on Kew, proposed that the colonies would offer up their natural resources to Britain to aid ‘the mother country in every thing that is useful in the vegetable kingdom’.  Kew was seen as the co-ordinating hub of a network of colonial gardens in India, Australia, the Indian Ocean and the West Indies, that would exchange information and plants across the globe.  Transplanting medicinal plants, economic and food crops across continents, Kew engineered environmental and social change worldwide.

Why were palms so important to the Victorians?

The Victorians inherited the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’ notion that palms were the ‘princes of the vegetable kingdom’.  They were regarded as the noblest of all plants, far surpassing all European vegetation. For the public educator, Charles Knight, they combined ‘the highest imaginable beauty with the utmost imaginable utility’. They provided every necessity of life: food, drink, oil, clothes, shelter, weapons, tools and books.  They were so bountiful that Linnaeus imagined that early humanity had subsisted entirely on palms. As Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal put it: the question is not ‘What do they afford us? But what is there that they do not?’

Your book is full of intrigue, exploration and innovation. During your research was there one fact or event that stood out as been particularly remarkable?

I was particularly struck by the change in status of palm oil between the 1840s and today. Industrial chemists had recently discovered the properties of palm oil that would, in our own time, make it one of the most ubiquitous of vegetable oils.  In the nineteenth century, palm oil was used as axle grease on the railways and, combined with coconut oil, as a constituent of soap and candles. The oil palm grew in the areas of West Africa previously dominated by the slave trade.  The trade in palm oil, it was argued, was the most effective means to combat human trafficking.  In contrast to current fears that palm oil production is a major cause of deforestation and involves child and forced labour, the Victorians viewed palm oil as an ethical product, with unlimited manufacturing possibilities.

How do you envisage the future of the Palm House, the finest surviving Victorian glass and iron building in the world?

I understand from Aimée Felton, the architect who compiled a report on the Palm House, that despite the constant humidity of the interior, the actual structure is in reasonably good shape. These days, I guess, the Palm House does not look so big. Some of the tallest palms can never reach maturity because the Palm House roof is not high enough; they have to be cut down so that they don’t break through the glass. Obviously modern plant houses, like the Eden Project biospheres or the Norman Foster-designed Great Glass House at the National Botanic Garden of Wales may be larger or wider.  But what I find interesting is that these plant houses, like the Palm House, are daring, experimental structures.  The Palm House really functioned as the model for glasshouses across the globe throughout the nineteenth century: in Copenhagen, Adelaide, Brussels, San Francisco, Vienna and New York.  From a contemporary point of view, the Palm House is often seen as a forerunner of twentieth-century modernism.  It offers a perfect union of form and function, with its clean lines and organic shape.  In recent years, the Palm House has provided the inspiration for one of London’s current icons: the London Eye.  I expect that it will go on inspiring architects and engineers for years to come!

Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?

I’m hoping to work more with Kew, in particular a project to digitise an early record book that documents all the plants that were received and sent out from Kew at the end of the eighteenth century.  Since Kew was the first point of entry for many plants into Britain, and also sent plants to colonial botanic gardens all over the world, this record book is central to our understanding of the circulation of plant species, both nationally and globally. Kew really is a place of infinite riches, for the visitor and historian alike!

Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew
By: Kate Teltscher
Hardback | July 2020| £19.99 £25.00

The extraordinary history of the magnificent Victorian Palace of Palms in the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.

 

Further Reading

Discover more about natural history explorers and their discoveries in our selection of books.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

The NHBS Guide to UK Tree Identification

Trees are a vital part of our ecosystem and essential to all life. Trees offer habitation and food to wildlife, they provide us with oxygen, clean the air, conserve water and stabilise soil. As such, trees are invaluable to our environment and to human well-being. 

In the UK there are at least fifty native tree species, and they come in many different sizes and shapes. All trees have distinct features that can help with identification. In this blog we will focus on 10  common native trees and provide you with the most important things you need to look out for, so you can recognise Oak from Elder or Silver Birch from Ash. 

How to Identify a Tree: 

By looking at the overall features as well as where the tree is growing you can work out what the species is. Below are some key characteristics to look out for when trying to identify a tree :

  • The size and shape of the tree
  • Leaves and needles
  • Flowers and fruit
  • Bark, buds and twigs

10 Common British Trees and How to Identify Them:

1. Oak (Quercus robur)
Oak by Gedomaru via Flickr

Where to find: The ancient, wise oak is one of Britain’s most iconic species, standing tall for hundreds of years, it can be found across the country

How to identify:

The common pedunculate oak is a large deciduous tree growing up to 40m tall, with a grey bark when young and darker brown with fissures as it ages.

Look out for: Its oval to oblong shaped leaves with its familiar deep lobed margins with smooth edges. Oak can be easily identified by its distinctive acorns that hang on long stalks. 

2. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
Ash tree by David Radcliffe via Flickr

Where to find: Ash is a common, widespread tree often found amongst British hedgerows and in many mixed deciduous woods in the UK.

How to identify: 

Ash grows tall, up to 30-40m, the bark is pale brown and fissures as the tree ages.

Look out for: The tree can be recognised by its pinnately compound leaves, usually comprising three to six opposite pairs of light green, oval leaflets. The buds are one of its defining characteristics. The buds are a sooty black with upturned grey shoots. Sadly, ash is also identified by a serious disease called Ash dieback that is a substantial threat to the species. The fungus appears as black blotches on the leaves, and the whole tree appears to be dying back. 

3. Common Lime (Tilia x europaea)
Lime tree by louis.quinzexv via Flickr

Where to find: The sweet smelling lime is native to much of Europe, found scattered across the wild it is more commonly found in parks and along residential streets

How to identify: 

Common lime is a tall, broadleaf tree, and is a natural hybrid between large-leaved and small-leaved limes. 

Look out for: The Common lime has dark green heart-shaped leaves. It is known for its sweet, smelling white-yellow flowers, that hang in clusters of two to five and  develop into round, oval fruits with pointed tips. The common lime can be distinguished from other lime varieties by the twiggy suckers around the base of its trunk. 

4. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Hawthorn by David Lee via Flickr

Where to find: An ancient tree steeped in mythology and folklore, hawthorn is most commonly found growing in hedgerows, woodland and scrub. 

How to identify:

Hawthorn is identified by its dense, thorny foliage, and if left to fully mature can grow to a height of 15m.

Look out for: Shiny lobed leaves, and five petalled, sweet smelling flowers that are similar to cherry blossoms. It is characterised in the winter by its deep red fruits, known as haws.  

5. Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Hazel by Stoutcob via Flickr

Where to find: Used regularly for coppicing, hazel can be found in a range of habitats, including woodlands, gardens and grasslands.

How to identify:

A small shrubby tree, with a small, grey-brown bark, and can reach up to 12m when left to grow. 

Look out for: Leaves are oval, toothed, and have soft hairs on their underside. It is familiar for its long yellow catkins that appear in Spring, and crop of hazelnuts in the winter. 

6. Common Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
Alder via Flickr

Where to find: Common Alder enjoys moist ground and so can be found along riversides, fens and wet woodlands, providing shelter to fish. 

How to identify:

Alder is a deciduous tree that grows to 25m. It is broadly conical in shape, and the bark is dark and fissured.

Look out for: Small cone like fruits and young catkins that harden when pollinated. It can also be recognised by its purple buds and purple twigs with orange markings in winter.  

7. Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Holly by Douglas Cox via Flickr

Where to find: A favourite in Christmas decorations, holly is widespread and found commonly in woodland, scrub and hedgerows. 

How to identify:

The dense, evergreen tree has a smooth bark and dark brown stems. It can grow up to 15m in height. 

Look out for: Holly can be easily identified by its dark, evergreen, shiny leaves that have prickles on the edges, as well as its bright red berries.

8. White Willow (Salix alba)
Willow by Bill Cheesman via Flickr

Where to find: The weeping, romantic willow can be spotted growing in wet ground, for example along riverbanks and around lakes. 

How to identify: 

White willow is a large, fast growing tree growing up to 25m, with an irregular, leaning crown.

Look out for: Willow is distinguished from other trees by its slender, flexible twigs that drape into the water. White willow appears more silvery than other willows due to its pale, oval leaves, that carry silky, white hairs on the underside. In early Spring look out for its long yellow catkins.

9. Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
Silver Birch by Jan Roles via Flickr

Where to find: A pioneer species, silver birch is a popular garden tree, and thrives in moorlands, heathland and dry and sandy soils.

How to identify:

Can be easily recognised by its silvery, paper bark. It has drooping branches and can reach 30m in height. 

Look out for: Its triangular-shaped leaves that grow from hairless leaf stalks. In Spring flowers appear as yellow-brown catkins that hang in groups, once pollinated female catkins thicken and darken to a crimson colour. 

10. Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Elder by Rüdiger Heiß via Flickr

Where to find: Historically known for its magical properties, Elder appears in hedges, scrub, woodland, waste and cultivated ground.

How to identify: 

Elder can be identified by its short greyish-brown trunk, that develops deep creases as it ages. The tree can grow to around 15m.

Look out for: Elder has compound leaves, each leaf divided into five to seven leaflets. In summer Elder is recognised by its creamy, sweet, smelling white flowers that hang in sprays, and later in autumn develop into deep, purple berries. 

Recommended reading and guides:

Collins Tree Guide: The Most Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Europe

#151916

An essential, definitive, fully-illustrated guide to the trees of Britain and non-Mediterranean Europe.

 

 

The Tree Name Trail: A Key to Common Trees

#115887

This 12-page laminated fold-out chart contains a full-colour illustrated key to the leaves, twigs, fruits and seeds of the commonest broadleaved and coniferous trees of Britain and Ireland.

 

 

London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest 

#249755

London is home to an astounding diversity of tree species and this portable book offers a field guide to their identification, as well as suggested walks to see them.

 

RSPB First Book of Trees

#226307

Through beautiful full-page illustration accompanied by key information about each creature, books are designed to encourage young children’s interest in the outside world and the wildlife around them.

 

 

Trees: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Structure

#229286

Roland Ennos sheds new light on trees and their structure by answering questions from the apparently obvious to the obscure but fascinating.

 

Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Trees

#248320

A dendrochronological delight, the beautifully written and illustrated Tree Story reveals the utterly fascinating world of tree-ring research and how it matters to archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history.

 

Winter Trees: A Photographic Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs

#209999

This AIDGAP guide covers 36 of the common broad-leaved deciduous species, or groups of species, that are most likely to be found in the UK, as well as a few rarer trees.

 

 

British wildlife in lockdown

Long-tailed Tit was a new species for Michael Scott’s garden, in north-west Scotland. Michael Scott

This is an extended version of an article, ‘British wildlife in lockdown’, that appears in the June issue of British Wildlife

Amid the enduring difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been heartening to see the resourcefulness, resilience and imagination shown by the naturalist community. To give a taste of this, we asked our British Wildlife contributors how they had spent their time through late March and April, when restrictions were at their tightest. Here we give you the delightfully varied responses that came back. I hope that readers enjoy this snapshot of life in lockdown for the naturalist.

A spectacular spring

The start of lockdown coincided with a most exceptional run of fine spring weather (April was duly confirmed by the Met Office as the sunniest since 1921). While it was somewhat torturous to watch this unfold from the confines of our homes, time outdoors was all the more invigorating for it and the usual spring arrivals and emergences were met with even greater joy than normal.

A number of our regulars have tracked the changes as spring progressed, and Simon Leach has been encouraging local recorders to do the same: ‘I’ve been recording first flowerings since 2008 in the Taunton area, replicating (sort of) a similar exercise undertaken by Walter Watson in the first half of the twentieth century. And this year, constrained by “lockdown”, it seemed like a good idea to “widen the net” to get others in Somerset recording first flowering dates as well.’ By late May more than 35 participants had been drawn to the cause, and their recording from the height of lockdown through to the time of writing, in late May, has highlighted an extraordinarily early spring: Common Dog-violet Viola riviniana, Greater Butterfly-orchid Platanthera chlorantha and Biting Stonecrop Sedum acre, for example, have all had their earliest first flowering dates since Simon started the initiative.

Spring seemed to arrive early farther north, too, as Michael Scott notes: ‘Lockdown in the northwest Highlands is not too different from normal life here, but with few tourists and without the incessant afternoon hum from the rush hours of transatlantic jets. April 17th was a red-letter day. As I ate breakfast, I spotted the first Swallow of the year. Going outside, I heard the first Cuckoo from the adjacent hill. Later, a distinctive off-key scolding from the coastal bay below the house told us that the Common Sandpipers were back, too. They were respectively one, four and two days earlier than we recorded last year, but I suspect that may just reflect more observer effort!’

And it was not just summer migrants and wildflowers that were making early appearances, but also spring invertebrates. David Christie, copy checker for BW, noted the following from his home in Southampton: ‘Among the highlights were the garden’s earliest ever Dark-edged Bee-fly, on 16th March, a pleasant sunny day which also produced a Comma, a Small Tortoiseshell and two Brimstones. On 26th, an astonishing addition was a single male Wood White, unsurprisingly the first ever for the garden — but some 6 weeks too early! I imagine that this, the daintiest of the whites, was bred and released by somebody nearby (several people have released butterflies in the area in previous years). In April Orange-tips became the commonest butterfly, and on 16th of that month a Red-tailed Bumblebee, supposedly a common species but a garden first, turned up; it stayed for several days but had apparently disappeared by the middle of the following week.’

Orange-tip butterfly on Lady’s Smock.

Peter Marren has enjoyed tracking changes on his local patch in Ramsbury, Wiltshire: ‘The sunniest side of this enforced lockdown is that I have come to appreciate home turf as never before. It helps that this has been the brightest, if not the warmest, April for some time, but this year the beauty of the meadows, woods and downs around Ramsbury has made me gasp, as if seeing it for the first time. I watched while a late spring turned into an early one. Frog spawn, flocculent and chilly, appeared in the ditch outside during the first week in March, and by the second week in April the tadpoles were already well grown. I heard the first Chiffchaff, much later than usual, on March 18th. It was joined in song by a Blackcap by March 25th. I heard the first Willow Warbler on April 5th (they are still doing well here, and have spread from the valley scrub into a belt of trees below the down, planted 15 years ago). The first Orange-tip fluttered into my garden on 9th April. The first singing Reed Warbler began –like a cold engine warming up – on the 10th, I spotted the first Swallow on the 13th and heard a solitary Cuckoo calling from the reedbed on Easter Sunday, 12th April. There was a close tie-in this year with the opening of our two cuckoo flowers, Lady’s Smock Cardamine pratensis and Lords-and-Ladies Arum maculatum. I should perhaps mention that spring usually comes late to Ramsbury. We are in a narrow east-west valley where a cold westerly blows from the Marlborough Downs and puts everything back by about a week.

‘Apart from the perennially exciting arrival of our summer visitors, I find I am looking at the small, easily overlooked things in life. This year I watched the leaves unfurl. Ash has, for once, tied with oak (so perhaps we are in for neither a splash nor a soak). Its feathery leaves push upwards in a shuttlecock from a bush of spent flowers, then angle out stiffly on their long petioles. By contrast, the leaves of oak curl softly from their buds, masked by a screen of yellow-green catkins. For a day or two, the hedgerow oaks take on an almost autumnal hue before they turn spring-green, that delicate, tender green that lifts the heart and makes you feel young again (anyone know any good oak songs?). Baby oak leaves lack the bitter tannins that build up later on. I nibble some straight from the branch – green chewing gum. Isolation makes you do strange things.

‘I’m also looking at bees. The only way I can get close to a bee is with close-up binoculars. Where banks face the sun, and especially when they are sheltered by a hedge, the mining bees are busy, locating their little, barely visible excavations, and vanishing into them bearing heavy loads of bright yellow pollen. Much of it, I note, is taken from Leylandii cones (so let’s hear it for once for that much-maligned conifer). Watching the bees at work are a whole host of parasites. On 31st March there was a brief flurry of oil beetles. Later on, nomad bees and blood bees were swarming about, each intent on laying a single egg inside the mining bee’s chamber. Patrolling bee-flies will do the same. The proper bees do not seem to notice that they are surrounded by malevolent cuckoos. Imagine a troop of hostile visitors raiding your cupboards and your fridge, sleeping in your bed, chasing away the kids. And that’s before the insecticides get you. I am glad I am not a bee. I am glad I live in Ramsbury. The swamp may be muddy yet – for the valley has taken a long time to recover from February’s floods – but it is full of life. Nature is the perfect antidote to despair in this surreal, locked-down spring.’

A number of correspondents noted what an excellent spring it has been for invertebrates, and bees in particular seem to have been popular with those wishing to use their time in lockdown to get to grips with a new group. From Anglesey, James Robertson writes: ‘I sit on a low wall, dangling my legs. After a while a queen Garden Bumblebee heads into a gap at the base of the wall by my feet. I am learning the skill my ornithologist brother tried to teach me many years ago. Then I was having none of it. Plants sat around on their bottoms, I had to search them out, keep on the move. But this year everything is different. Be still and the insects come to you. As so often, the constraints we are under force us to be creative, to learn new tricks and look at the world afresh.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee.

‘As the dominant hominid falls silent, nature booms and buzzes. The exceptional weather puts on a display of insect variety. Wasp Beetles bounce around my garden, flicking their antennae and not looking quite right for the wasps they pretend to be. Red Mason Bees investigate holes in concrete posts and Joanna’s Bee Hotel, a future bee smorgasbord for hungry Blue Tits. She has quickly mastered the identification of Early, Garden, Red-tailed and Buff-tailed Bumblebees.

‘My car windscreen is splattered with insect bodies. This is supposed to be a memory, how it was when we were children. Is this explosion of life a sign of what would happen if we stilled the great machine of our industrious world?’

It was not the abundance of bees but a single unexpected one that provided a highlight for our copy editor, David Hawkins: ‘I was delighted when a rather smart solitary bee appeared in my flat in Bristol, having blundered in through the window. I consulted Falk & Lewington at length, but was perplexed – trying my damnedest to make it an Andrena of some sort, although none of the candidates looked quite right. Plus it had very beautiful mottled dark blue-grey eyes. Then, using a hand lens, I caught sight of a small spike on the underside of the first sternite – this, apparently, is diagnostic of a male Spined Mason Bee Osmia spinulosa. It seemed very curious to encounter it in the middle of the city, but we live near a railway line and some allotments so there may well be suitable habitats there. Most interestingly, as with some other Osmia spp., it nests inside vacant snail shells.’

While lockdown may have produced a new generation of bee enthusiasts, it was perhaps not such a good time to pick up an interest in flies. Alan Stubbs reports that his garden ‘is almost bereft of hoverflies; yesterday I achieved the fourth species for the March–April period and I have never seen more than two of any on a lap of the garden. Flies as a whole are very sparse even now (23rd April), a shame in the lockdown. The current drought does not help, but there is a legacy effect from low populations and drought last year. The excessive winter rains have not been of benefit (and have possibly been a negative factor). Currently it is difficult to know how widespread the doldrums extend, but I suspect areas that have had more rain over the last four to six weeks will have fared a bit better. Reports from London and Warwickshire suggest I am not alone.’

Bringing wildlife to you

While opportunities to go out into the wider countryside were limited, many found ways to bring wildlife to their doorsteps instead. Moth-trapping has seen a surge in popularity, as Paul Waring explains: ‘Moth-trap operators are better placed than many wildlife enthusiasts to cope with lockdown arrangements. Most of us routinely operate a light-trap in our gardens, and some do so on verandas and roof-tops if they have no garden. With a light-trap the moths come to us, from the garden itself, and from beyond it, so we do not need to leave our home to record what is about. The numbers and variety of moths in the catch and the seasonal patterns of occurrence always hold some interest, even in inner city locations. One is sometimes amazed at what turns up. Facebook has been full of people reporting their garden catches, often including photos of the moths, sometimes with lively discussion, throughout the lockdown period.’

This pre-pupal Purple Hairstreak larva was found by chance when the photographer noticed it among empty Hazel nuts that his son had collected. Wren Franklin

The staff at Butterfly Conservation, unable to get out into the field, have also focused on moths in their gardens. Mark Parsons tells of some early highlights: ‘During lockdown the conservation staff at Butterfly Conservation were encouraged to run a moth trap at their homes. At least 28 staff participated, with traps being run from Devon to Cambridgeshire and north to Deeside, as well as in Northern Ireland. Although there were a few cool evenings in the first three weeks, generally conditions were relatively mild and very suitable, and as a result there were a lot of interesting observations. Of the scarcer species there were records of Silver Cloud Egira conspicillaris (Worcestershire), Small Eggar Eriogaster lanestris (Dorset), Marbled Pug Eupithecia irriguata (Devon) and the micro-moth Mompha divisella (Dorset and Glamorgan), with a Light Orange Underwing Boudinotiana notha (Surrey) being seen by day. Other interesting records included high counts of Lunar Marbled Brown Drymonia ruficornis (56) and Frosted Green Polyploca ridens (31), both on 11th April in Surrey. It really is amazing what can be found in gardens!’

A pair of Tawny Owls was captured by camera trap while bathing in the river behind Andrew Branson’s garden. Andrew Branson

BW’s Founding Editor, Andrew Branson, has been making good use of other technologies to monitor goings-on in his garden: ‘So often when we are observing the natural world we are looking at it from a very narrow perspective both in time and in space. We return to our favourite haunts looking for confirmation of the same species – the anxious scanning for returning migrants is a classic expression of this. I am always struck by the way we have a mental search pattern that reinforces what we expect to see. A classic is the way botanists with their stooping gaze on the ground will often fail to record unusual tree species right above them. In lockdown I have been trying to extend my appreciation of garden species by using a webcam to record nocturnal life. I’m lucky enough to have a garden that reaches down to a river, and have been discovering that not only do we have the expected Brown Rats, Mallards and Moorhens making regular nightly visits, but our garden also seems to be on the rounds of an Otter, an American Mink (not so welcome), Hedgehogs (first I’ve seen in the garden for years), Roe Deer, Foxes and Rabbits. Recently, the webcam captured a furtive pair of Tawny Owls having a midnight bath in the river!’

Dave Wilkinson has spent time studying some of the more obscure lifeforms in his pond: ‘Lockdown natural history: in the imagination it is snow leopards and camels as I read George Schaller’s new book Into wild Mongolia, while in reality it’s restricted to the garden and occasional short walks. In February we had a new garden pond dug, with the first water plants going in just before lockdown. With few ponds nearby it quickly attracted birds, hedgehogs and wasps; to drink, wash, or forage along the edge. Water beetles, pond skaters and water boatmen quickly followed. New ponds tend to be prone to algal blooms and ours is no exception. The torrential rains of February washed surrounding soil into the newly dug pond, adding nutrients, then the warm sunny weather of April powered algal photosynthesis – the pond first scummed with ‘blanket weed’, then turned bright green with cyanobacteria and other algae. Without lab access (no plankton net or centrifuge) some ingenuity allowed me to concentrate some plankton to view with a rather basic 50-year-old microscope. With such equipment colonial cyanobacteria – such as Aphanocaspa – were easier to isolate than smaller cells. The floating ‘blanket weed’ quickly vanished, but small patches of filamentous algae are in the shallows, including the green alga Stigeoclanium. Under the microscope these threads have the look of cells-within-cells, with small round green structures within the longer tubular cells. These structures are chloroplasts, the site of photosynthesis with the product stored as starch, staining dark when I added iodine. Back in the depths of geological time these chloroplasts evolved from free-living cyanobacteria; down my microscope I am seeing the history of our emerald planet encapsulated in the green scum of a garden pond.’

And in the terrestrial realm, Roy Watling has also been looking at some smaller organisms in his garden in Edinburgh: ‘Some years previously, when I was recovering from a medical procedure, I had to make time for exercise. I walked around the streets close to my house, gradually increasing the distance each day; I could not resist the temptation to “mycologise” though and began to list all the micro-fungi found on the vascular plant cultivars I saw in each garden. Now I am confined to my own garden because of lockdown I decided to conduct a similar survey, with surprising (to me at least) results. Thus, the tips of shoots of Irish Tutsan Hypericum pseudohenryi hosted the mildew Erysiphe hyperici, which is not uncommon on our native plants, while hidden among the erect branches of the snowberry Symphoriocarps x doorenbosii was another mildew, E. symphoricarpi. These two species are not rare but are poorly recorded in Scotland, and certainly neither has previously been recorded here on these hosts. The true mould Ampelomyces quisqualis, a parasite of a range of mildews, is equally under-recorded, although can be obvious to the keen observer. Also evident in my border was blotching on the shrub Hebe x francisciana: a rather distressing sight caused by the fungus Septoria exotica. On the north facing side of the house where it is moist and shaded, Chaetothyrium babingtonii grows prolifically in a mixed planting of various Rhododendron cultivars and hybrids. This fungus is common and widespread under the right conditions, and although it does not appear to harm the plants it looks very unsightly – thank heavens it only occurs on Rhododendron!’

Grass Snake swimming in a pond.

Frances Dipper has been observing the interactions between some more familiar species: ‘The human brain is much better than a computer algorithm at picking out patterns (hence ‘Galaxy Zoo’ – the web-based project that uses citizen scientists to classify distant galaxies based on their shape) so changing from recording fish (and other marine life) to birds and garden wildlife is proving to be a fascinating experience during lockdown. Seashore recording and diving are time-limited, but looking out at a habitat resource (i.e. the bird feeders in my large, wildlife-friendly garden) is not. As a marine biologist learning to be an ornithologist, here are some recent observations. Some Greenfinch Carduelis chloris prefer to spray out sunflower hearts from the feeder and then eat at their leisure on the ground below – memories of rich arable field pickings? Much smaller Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis will hold their ground (perch) on the feeder in the face of Greenfinch bully tactics. Starling Sturnus vulgaris are now adept at clinging on to feeders – perhaps our Cambridge ones are fast learners. Great Tit Parus major will nest in vertical holes, in this case a hollow brick column. There is also a Magpie Pica pica nest in our oak tree. A faithful Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata pair used to nest every year in the same vine until a Magpie raided its nest a few years ago. The best sighting to date? Not a bird but a Grass Snake Natrix natrix swimming across the pond and obviously unaware that Great Crested Newt Triturus cristatus is a protected species! Now how did one of the latter get into my downstairs shower room?’

And the extra time at home allowed Michael Scott the chance to notice garden visitors who might have gone undetected in a normal year: ‘Freedom from urgent deadlines has meant more time to observe how regularly a pair of Yellowhammers come to join the Dunnocks and an occasional fat Bank Vole feeding on the grain that ungrateful Chaffinches and House Sparrows regularly scatter onto the ground from our bird feeders. A small group of Long-tailed Tits in early April was a first for the garden. One was collecting the frayed ends of some garden string, presumably for a nest somewhere in the area.’

David Christie noted some apparent effects of the lockdown itself on the birds in his garden: ‘Perhaps the most notable feature of April–May was that many birds were becoming unusually tame. When I was “tidying” a corner of the garden, an adult female Blackbird walked around my feet, picking up odd items of food; feeding within a few centimetres of my feet, she occasionally looked up at me to check what I was doing! The visiting Stock Doves, too, were tamer than usual. On 24th April, a pair of Blackcaps had begun nest-building just a metre from our back window; although several Blackcaps regularly spend January–April in the area, they have never before nested here (sadly, the pair deserted at the laying stage). By the end of the month, a Blackbird pair with three fledglings showed no fear of humans, nor did a fully independent young Robin.’

Contributors reported some wonderfully serendipitous sightings to have emerged during lockdown. This Buzzard was found and rescued having got itself firmly stuck in a Rabbit hole. Rachel Barron-Clark

And Hugh Raven similarly has been musing on the possible effects of lockdown on the wildlife of his local loch and beyond: ‘Float over the deep belly of our local sealoch and look north, and you spy two rivers as they reach the sea – in plan like the outstretched arms of a mermaid’s purse. Embraced by these limbs is a verdant turf of saltmarsh fringed by a pancake of sandy mud, twice daily exposed when the tide recedes. At this time of year, it’s the haunt of sawbills. Goosanders and mergansers are by nature shy and flighty, but this year they are abundant. With human traffic around the loch and up these rivers – never heavy – a fraction of the norm, having eaten their fill they laze about on foreshore and saltmarsh preening in the spring sunshine. I counted 18 one day in late April. Sawbills are good at fishing. Research from Norway reports “adult goosander on average eat from 310 to 500g fish a day”. At this time of year they’re enjoying the feeding opportunities presented by the smolt run – that evolutionary miracle that sees juvenile salmon pour downstream as maturity, light and temperature tell them to reset their osmotic meter, leave fresh water and start to fatten up in their marine phase.

‘Salmon smolts weigh some 20g, so if they are the main source of food, each duck may eat twenty or more a day. Thousands will disappear down their gullets. The local river is noted for the freshwater pearl mussel – which depends on migratory salmonids to survive. You can get a licence to shoot sawbills, but there’s no appetite for that here. Salmon and pearl mussels, or these beautiful sleek and shiny ducks? Such are the dilemmas of conservation.’

Natural history online

The lockdown experience would surely have been very different had it happened in the not-so-distant past. Social media, and the online world in general, has changed our hobby and helped naturalists to stay connected throughout this period (see Brett Westwood’s column in this issue for more on this topic). Members of the birding community, for example, have been enjoying the rapid sharing of news, and a healthy element of competition, while working on their ‘lockdown lists’.

White-tailed Eagles have provided some excitement during lockdown; many sightings across England involved juveniles from the Isle of Wight reintroduction project, but the pictured individual, seen in Buckinghamshire, was unringed. Dan Forder

Dawn Balmer reports: ‘The movements of the released White-tailed Eagles from the Isle of Wight have been well tracked by the birdwatchers fortunate enough to spot them flying over their gardens (see https://bit.ly/2X5YXlK). I’ve also been amazed how many people have recorded Osprey over their garden, too! Both species seemed to have avoided airspace over our garden, though we were lucky enough to see two Cranes circling overhead on 20th May.

‘The first few nights of April saw a large passage of Common Scoters overland. While not a new phenomenon, it has never been documented so well. Birders stood in gardens and listened in the dark, others set recorders to record overnight – see https://bit.ly/3e5ejhj for a summary. Personally, we sat outside in our garden in Thetford (Norfolk) on the nights of 1st and 2nd April and heard Teal and Wigeon on the 1st, and Wigeon again on the 2nd. We’ve since added Moorhen to our house list – heard one fly over calling at 3.45am, and Dunlin, which flew over calling at 10.30pm one evening! With a bit more time on people’s hands, more have taken up “nocturnal migration” recording.’

Adrian Knowles has been monitoring the Facebook pages of the Essex Field Club, which has produced some notable records through lockdown: ‘Rob Smith posted a picture of the fly Bibio venosus from his daily walk patch, Headley Common in south Essex. Apparently there are only two other records in Essex, both in the north of the county. He has also recorded the mining bee Andrena cineraria from the same site – this species remains a scarce in Essex. There were two records of the ladybird Rhyzobius forestieri, a recent colonist of the UK, including one in someone’s garden. Then, on 10th April, Ed Hardy grabbed a load of wood chip during his morning walk with a view to identifying contents during his lockdown time. His finds included the beetle Rugilus angustatus, which is rare in the county, with a lack of recent records.’

Martin Harvey, David Roy and Helen Roy offer some insight into the effect of lockdown on submissions to iRecord, the online biological recording system maintained by the Biological Records Centre (part of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology): ‘April 2020 proved to be a busy month with over 100,000 records added, up from about 75,000 in April 2019. It’s hard to know how much of this increase is the result of people taking up wildlife recording as an activity while locked down close to home, and how much is due to the combination of overall growth in records arriving at iRecord and the sunny weather that many experienced during April. But there do seem to be some changes in the patterns within these records. Not all biological records state the habitat that they were recorded in, but for those that do there has been a clear shift, with the proportion of records assigned to gardens more or less doubling, and a big fall in the number of records assigned to “wilder” habitats such as woodlands and grasslands. The most frequently recorded species during the month have been typical garden visitors, including butterflies such as Orange-tip and Peacock, the Dark-edged Bee-fly, Hebrew Character moth and Buff-tailed Bumblebee.’

‘Records arriving in iRecord are checked and verified by expert naturalists on behalf of the national recording schemes. An impressive three-fold increase in verification during April 2020 compared to the previous year is testament to the dedication of these people, and no doubt also demonstrates they have been making good use of the time that might have been spent in the field during a different year.

‘What effect these changes will have on the total pool of records available for 2020 remains to be seen, but it will be exciting to consider the ways in which these records can contribute to the long-term analyses that BRC and the recording schemes collaborate on. In the meantime, we hope that as many people as possible have been able to find ways of connecting with nature during these unprecedented circumstances.’

Butterfly Conservation has encouraged people to track species undergoing range expansions; during lockdown, a Comma was reported at Dunnet Head – its most northerly ever location in Britain. Edith Jones

The lockdown has provided an excellent opportunity to fill in gaps in distribution maps and monitor species on the move by encouraging the submission of records. Butterfly Conservation, for example, is asking the public to report on butterflies seen in their gardens, as Caroline Bulman explains: ‘Understanding the changes in patterns of emergence and distribution across the UK is vital to improving our understanding of the impacts of climate change on butterflies and other native wildlife. Wherever you live your observations are even more vital this year and particularly those in northern England and in Scotland, where you can record novel information of species which are spreading northwards, in response to a changing climate. For example, in mid-April we had a report of the most northerly Comma ever recorded in Britain, found in Caithness on the north coast of Scotland! If you’d like to get involved go to https://bit.ly/3bM1gQk to register and download a free smartphone app, or sign up to record butterflies in your garden, on your PC or laptop at https://bit.ly/2WOQ40M where you can also read the results from 2019.’

Paul Waring used the daily exercise walks to further the understanding of moth populations in his local area: ‘During lockdown we have taken the opportunity of beating for caterpillars to start recording the colonisation by moths of a hedgerow of various native broadleaf trees newly planted to screen from view a field of solar panels. We have also carried our pheromone lure for Emperor moths Saturnia pavonia with us every day to see if the large “white hole” for this species shown just south of The Wash in the newly published Atlas of Britain and Ireland’s Larger Moths reflects lack of recording or a genuine absence. Thus far it appears the Emperor really is absent, although this is certainly not the case for many other moth species for which there is a similar white hole.’

For some groups, recording need not be limited to our time outside the house either. Geoff Oxford writes: ‘The British Arachnological Society, working with Jordan Cuff (Cardiff University), has launched two “lockdown” spider surveys that can be completed around the house and garden. One is to record the species, numbers and locations of the three British cellar spiders –the very common Daddy-long-legs Spider Pholcus phalangioides, the much less common Wine Cellar Spider Psilochorus simoni and the rare Marbled Cellar Spider Holocnemus pluchei. The second, newly launched, is to record when clusters of Garden Spider Araneus diadematus spiderlings are first noticed. Details of both surveys can be found on Twitter @BASSurveys and at britishspiders.org.uk. Response so far to the first survey has been good with some 50 people counting a total of over 185 cellar spiders, some in previously unrecorded hectads.

‘The lockdown has not seen arachnologists locking away their equipment. Initiated by Richard Wilson and Chris Cathrine, naturalists nationwide have taken to surveying their garden lawns in a two-minute sample using modified garden blow-vacs. Early results include a new spider for Yorkshire, Cryptachaea blattea. The survey has led to informed discussion via Twitter @britishspiders and #lockdownsuckschallenge, creating a forum for promoting more widely spider biodiversity in gardens. Lockdown has seen an unprecedented surge in interest in arachnids more generally; we have been inundated on Twitter.’

Examination of old material produced a record of Caloplaca aractina (the grey lichen) from Muck, in the Inner Hebrides – a remarkable range extension for a species previously thought to be restricted to The Lizard, in Cornwall. John Douglass

Lichenologists, too, have been getting better acquainted with their home patches, with some excellent results – Sandy Coppins reports: ‘Lichens lend themselves to “local looking” perhaps more than several other wildlife groups. BLS Twitter suggested recording lichens on your doorstep, window sill or garden, etc. But after your initial ten lichens seen on your patio slabs, where to go next? Heather Paul, in Forres, says “I amused my neighbour by going down on my knees on the pavement outside to look at Lecanora muralis which of course I have never recorded here.” While in North Wales, Dave Lamacraft on a gentle potter to look at some nearby trees, “with a view to better learning some common things in ‘normal habitats’ for a change”, was surprised to find Ramalina lacera almost straight away swiftly followed by Schismatomma graphidioides – both pretty rare in Wales!

‘But perhaps the most surprisingly fruitful and fascinating lichen results from the lockdown came from not stepping out the door: John Douglass, in South Lanarkshire, for example, writes “I was sorting through some old boxes of specimens… and came across some C[aloplaca] aractina collected from a coastal rock face on Muck (2012). I have checked it against my collections from the Lizard and the spores etc. check out good for this species.” Apart from John’s Muck revelation, C. aractina is confined in the British Isles to coastal rocks at The Lizard, in Cornwall, so this find is a lovely disjunct extension.’

To conclude

As for the BW editorial team, while we have each been left slightly envious of those people with gardens we made the most of our daily exercise walks.

Female Hairy-footed Flower Bee. Catherine Mitson

Catherine Mitson, BW‘s Assistant Editor, reports: ‘Except in times of flooding, the Exwick spillway is a popular route for runners and cyclists alike. To one side, however, is a less frequently visited footpath that follows the natural flow of the River Exe. Here, the shrubs and trees grow a little more wild, and the tall bank to the right muffles the sound of passers-by. I can now enjoy the soundtrack of my walk, featuring the nasal ‘dzwee’ of Greenfinches, the chattering of Blackcaps, melodic Song Thrushes, and the drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker. This was the first time I had been here, despite living so close – a direct consequence of the lockdown. I now visit this small stretch almost every day and have seen the unmistakable flash of a Kingfisher, a Dipper on two occasions, and, looking up, there are often noisy Long-tailed Tits hopping around in the branches. During the last week of April, House and Sand Martins have arrived and are now regularly seen zipping across the river as the evening sets in. The first few sunny weeks of lockdown stirred many insects; of the butterflies I have spotted so far my personal favourites include Orange-tip, Common Blue, Peacock, Comma and Brimstone. My first Dark-edged Bee-fly of the year is always a personal highlight, but this was topped as I happened across a Hairy-footed Flower Bee nesting site in a cob wall less than five minutes from my house. These strange times have certainly opened my eyes to what lies just beyond my doorstep.’

Angular Crab found on Teignmouth beach. Guy Freeman

For myself (Guy Freeman), the lockdown highlights have come from strolls along my local beach here in Teignmouth which, naturally, have been timed to coincide with the best tides. The shore – mostly expanses of brick-red sand – does not look the most inspiring from a rock-pooling perspective, but I always enjoy the challenge of searching for life in these damp deserts. The walks during lockdown have been among the most productive I have had here, with favourite finds including some of the more weird and wonderful sand-dwelling specialists – the Angular Crab, which looks too exotic for these shores, and the more common but equally bizarre Masked Crab.

Many thanks to all the contributors to this piece who responded so enthusiastically to our initial call for submissions.

The contributors featured here write regularly for British Wildlife – the magazine for the modern naturalist

You can subscribe to British Wildlife here

The NHBS Guide to UK Wild Flower Identification

 

Germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys). Image by L Wilkes

Plants and fungi are not only beautiful and interesting to study, but they also provide the building blocks on which all of our other wildlife (and ourselves) depend. Monitoring their abundance and diversity is key to understanding the health of our habitats. Plus, there are numerous studies that suggest that being around plants has benefits for our mental wellbeing, including improved concentration and memory as well as a better overall mood.

Spring and early summer are the perfect time to study your local plants as many will be in flower at this time, making them much easier to identify. (For other times of the year, a guide such as the Vegetative Key to the British Flora is invaluable – but it may take a bit of practice. For beginners, we suggest starting during the flowering season).

In this article we’ve featured a number of wild flowers that you’re likely to find, either in your garden or when out walking. These are separated into Town and Country/Woodland, but bear in mind that there will be some overlap, so it’s worth looking at both lists. Chances are that you’ll also find a few species that aren’t included here – you can find lots more information on the Plantlife website, including ways to submit your findings to their records. Or why not check out one of our wild flower ID guides listed at the bottom of the post?

Town

Here you will find nine of the most common species that you’re likely to encounter in urban areas. Pay particular attention to parks, waste ground and walls, and don’t forget to check the pavement cracks too.

LOOK OUT FOR:

 

Image by Catherine Singleton via Flickr

1. Daisy – Bellis Perennis
Flowers March-October.
Easily recognisable flower with a yellow centre and numerous white petals. Abundant in short grass such as parks and garden lawns.

 

 

Image by Far Closer via Flickr

2. Silverweed – Potentilla anserina
Flowers May-August.
Common on bare or well-walked ground such as the sides of tracks. Easy to recognise due to the silver-white underside of leaves.

 

 

Image by Siaron James via Flickr

3. Bramble – Rubus fructicosus
Flowers May-October.
Very abundant on waste ground as well as on heaths and in hedgerows and woodland. Thorny shrub with white or pale pink flowers.

 

 

Image by Judy Gallagher via Flickr

4. Scarlet Pimpernel – Anagallis arvensis
Flowers April-October.
Commonly found in gardens as well as arable fields, dunes, cliffs and heathland. Low growing and sprawling. Flowers are red with a purplish base.

 

 

 

 

Image by cazstar via Flickr

5. Rosebay Willowherb – Chamerion angustifolium
Flowers June-September.
Abundant on disturbed ground, verges and railways. Produces tall spires of purplish flowers. Often found in dense stands.

 

 

Image by Franco Folini via Flickr

 

6. Ivy-Leaved Toadflax – Cymbalaria mularis
Flowers May-September.
Often found on old walls and in pavement cracks. A straggly plant with ivy-like leaves and small lilac flowers with a yellow spot.

 

Image by Dean Morley via Flickr

7. Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) – Buddleja davidii
Flowers June-October.
Likes dry, disturbed places such as waste ground, railways, walls and roofs. Long sprays of purple, white or lilac flowers; a favourite of butterflies.

 

Image by Melanie Shaw via Flickr

8. Feverfew – Tanacetum parthenium
Flowers July-September.
Found in walls, pavement cracks and on waste ground. Flowers similar to a daisy but with shorter, broader petals. Aromatic leaves.

 

 

Image by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr

9. White Clover – Trifolium repens
Flowers May-September.
Found in most types of grassland as well as on waste/disturbed ground. Globular clusters of flowers on long stalks; usually off-white or pale pink. The leaflets usually have a pale chevron shape near the base.

 

 

Country/Woodland

This list features nine species commonly found in the countryside and wooded areas. Hunt along the hedgerows and meadows as well as on river banks and in woodland clearings.

look out for:

Image by saydelah via Flickr

1. Cow Parsley – Anthriscus Sylvestris
Flowers late April-June.
Extremely common during May on roadside verges and in woodland rides and clearings. White flowers radiate out from the stem on spokes. Fern-like leaves.

Image from Lawn Health via Flickr

2. Germander speedwell – Veronica chamaedrys
Flowers March-July.
Common in grass and roadside verges. Bright blue flower with a white eye on a sprawling stem. Leaves oval and toothed.

 

Image by Amanda Slater via Flickr

3. Meadowsweet –Filipendula ulmaria
Flowers June-Sept.
Likes damp ground such as roadside ditches and wet woodland. Long stems with clusters of cream, fuzzy flowers which smell of honey or almonds.

 

Image by Melissa McMasters via Flickr

4. Herb Robert – Geranium robertianum
Flowers April-October.
Likes banks, woods, gardens and walls. Purple flowers with lighter stripes on petals. Whole plant may sometimes turn red.

 

Image by Siaron James via Flickr

5. Bugle – Ajuga reptans
Flowers April-June.
Common in damp deciduous woodland and other shady places as well as unmanaged grassland. Forms long stems with rosettes of green-purplish leaves and blue flowers marked with white.

 

 

 

Image by muffinn via Flickr

6. Red Campion – Silene dioica
Flowers April-October.
Likes hedgerows and woodland clearings. Five-petalled pink/red flowers on long stems with opposite leaves.

 

Image by johndal via Flickr

7. Greater Stitchwort – Stellaria holostea
Flowers late March-June.
Common in hedges and verges as well as in woodland. White flowers with five petals, split halfway to the base. Sprawling with narrow leaves.

Image by johndal via Flickr

 

8. Yellow pimpernel – Lysimachia nemorum
Flowers May-September.
Fairly common in moist, shady woodland (deciduous). Low growing/sprawling with yellow star-shaped flowers.

Image by Katja Schulz via Flickr

 

9. Lesser Celandine – Ficaria verna
Flowers February-May.
Likes slightly damp soil in woods, fields and churchyards. Yellow flowers on long stalks and glossy heart-shaped leaves.

 

Further reading:

The Wild Flower Key: How to Identify Wild Flowers, Trees and Shrubs in Britain and Ireland
#143162

 

 

 

 

Collins Wild Flower Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
#225655

 

 

 

 

Harrap’s Wild Flowers: A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland
#245027

 

 

 

 

Guide to Flowers of Walks and Waysides
#236523

 

 

 

 

 

Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families
#229143

 

 

 

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
#198409

Please note that this book is currently out of print – however, second-hand books may be available online.

Mountain Flowers: An interview with Michael Scott

Between book writing, Michael Scott spends a lot of each year as a speaker on cruise ships - here he is exploring the Kakum National Park in Ghana.
Between book writing, Michael Scott spends a lot of each year as a speaker on cruise ships – here he is exploring the Kakum National Park in Ghana.

Michael Scott is a nature writer and cruise ship speaker who has had an interest in botany since his undergraduate studies at Aberdeen University. His latest book, Mountain Flowers, is an extensive and engrossing survey of Britain’s montane flora. Michael expands on the story of Diapensia (see below) in the August 2016 issue of British Wildlife.

Tell us about the book and who might find it interesting.
I suppose it’s aimed mostly at people who already have some general interest in the wild flowers of Britain. Perhaps they already know something about the flora of lowland areas but don’t quite know where to begin seeking out the more elusive species that grow at higher altitudes in the British mountains. The book describes the key places to visit and some of the characteristic species at each site. It also describes the ecological requirements of each species, and I’d really hope that will encourage people to explore more widely in the mountains and hopefully make new discoveries there.

Many of the mountain areas of Britain are stunningly beautiful, and I would be thrilled if people who love mountains were also encouraged to read the book and discover more about these wonderful wild areas and about the colourful plants that grow beneath their feet as they hike the fells or ‘bag their Munros’. I’ve tried to select photos for the book that are as attractive and compelling as possible to inspire readers to explore and investigate – or just to act as a wonderful souvenir of holidays in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands or wherever.

Mountain Flowers

I best sum up my objective for the book at the end of chapter one: “If I can persuade a few… hillwalkers to slow their relentless pace, to look around them as they climb, to venture off the beaten path and explore an interesting-looking crag or delve into the watery runnels that seep from the tops – in other words, to enjoy seeing a hill, rather than just conquering it – then this book will have been truly worthwhile.”

How did you first become interested in botany?
I grew up near Edinburgh Zoo and from an early age spent all my spare time in the zoo getting to know the animals. By the age of 8, I’d decided I wanted to be a zoologist when I grew up – which I thought meant going around the world looking at zoos! That enthusiasm never waned, and I went to Aberdeen University to study zoology. In first year we also had to study botany, and I found that new and fascinating. I knew that plants lay at the foot of all food chains, and therefore that plants were key to how the natural world worked, so I switched over to doing my degree in botany. I was lucky that the university had a field station at Bettyhill on the north coast of Scotland, and some of the first plants I got to know there were montane species growing at unusually low altitudes in the relative sub-arctic climate of the far north. Then, in Honours year, we had an amazing field trip to Obergurgl in the Alps, and I have been hooked on mountain flowers ever since.

You are now lucky enough to spend a lot of your time as a quest speaker on cruise ships around the world; how might you go about getting passengers interested in Britain’s mountain flowers?
It’s funny that you should ask that, because I’m just about to go off on a cruise to Nova Scotia in Canada, and on one of the four days when we sail back across the Atlantic to Liverpool I’m planning a talk called The Lure of Mountain Flowers. I think I’m going to start that with the story of a birdwatcher called Charles Tebbutt, who is best known for his book on the birds of (distinctly unmountainous!) Huntingdonshire. In July 1951, he was walking on a rugged hillside in Inverness-shire, when he spotted a plant at his feet that he didn’t recognise. He collected a few samples of the flowers and leaves, which he sent to various botanic gardens and he was promptly told, with some excitement, that he had discovered a rather handsome flower called Diapensia* which had never previously been recorded in Britain.

Diapensia on its remote hillside in the west Highlands of Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott
Diapensia on its remote hillside in the west Highlands of Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott

That may be 60 years ago now, but I think it shows that there might still be exciting discoveries to be made in the British mountains – and that you don’t need to be a professional botanist to make them! I’ll then go on to a series of beautiful scenic photographs, just to remind folk how beautiful our mountains are, then I’ll show some of our most attractive mountain plants to prove just how much they add to the allure of the hills. That will lead into the mystery stories behind these plants: I’ll speculate why Diapensia is still only known from that single, rather unremarkable hillside and what that might have to do with Norwegian commandos. I’ll tell the story of two attractive little plants that cling to survival in Snowdonia, and why a relative of the garden pinks is known from only two very different sites, one a crag in Lake District and the other a hillside of shattered rocks in Angus. There are plenty of ‘ripping yarns’ from mountain botany to interest cruise ship passengers – and I hope they will also inspire readers of my book.

(* Incidentally, I apologise to any keen botanists reading this who, like me, know many plants better by their scientific names. As in the book, I’m not quoting scientific names here because I don’t want to scare off readers who aren’t botanists – and those of us who are botanists probably have plenty of books in which we can check the scientific names if we need them).

What distinguishes a mountain flower and how many such species occur in Britain?
That’s a really good question. Many of them are species which also grow in the Alpine regions of central Europe or in the Arctic regions of the far north, so they are categorised broadly as ‘arctic-alpines’ – a term that will be familiar to most gardeners. But Britain lies in a special position off the west coast of Europe and its climate is tempered by winds that come off the Atlantic. As a result, many alpine species grow here at dramatically lower altitudes than where they occur in the Alps, and some arctic species also grow here, far south of their normal latitudes. Several species meet on the mountain cliffs of the Lake District or the southern Highlands of Scotland that grow together nowhere else in the world (which makes these especially important conservation sites in an international perspective). I also list in the book several species that grow in Britain at their northernmost or their southernmost sites in the world.

So, although I could define a mountain plant as one that grows typically above, say, 1,500 feet, that doesn’t always work in Britain because many of these come down almost to sea-level on the wind-battered north coast of Scotland or on the Western and Northern Isles – and that’s what makes British mountain botanising so intriguing. In fact, I almost reverse the argument in the book. I have selected 152 species that I regard as typically montane, then, for the purposes of the book, I define mountains as places where these plants grow – and these range from unexpected places like The Lizard in Cornwall, right up to the island of Unst in Shetland.

Tell us more about the unique conditions in the UK and their effect on mountain flower distribution.
The important thing to recognise is that many of our montane species have been clinging to survival on remote mountain ledges since just after the end of the last Ice Age. They survive there because of the chance juxtaposition of the right kind of rock and soil and a local microclimate that mimics the conditions to which they are adapted elsewhere in the high mountains of Europe or the high Arctic. It is vitally important that we try to understand why they survive there and continue to monitor their populations, because these are the plants that will give us the first warning of changes that are likely to happen on a much bigger scale in the Alps and the Arctic because of climate change. They are vital “miners’ canaries” for what lies ahead – plus I think Britain would be infinitely the poorer were we to lose them from our hills.

Page detail from Mountain Flowers
Page detail from Mountain Flowers

How have 21st century developments in botanical research affected our understanding of mountain flower ecology?
Hmm… In the strictest sense of botanical research, the latest genetic studies have sometimes made life a bit more difficult, especially for ageing botanists like me! It has changed our understanding of the relationships between species which in turn has led to a lot of changes in scientific names and how species fit into our concepts of plant families. It has also shown that one or two of what we thought were good mountain species are actually just variants of much commoner species, highly adapted to the mountain environment.

What has increased hugely over the 60 years since the last major account of British mountain flowers was published is our knowledge of the distribution of our mountain flowers, thanks to the hard work of hundreds of botanists in recording schemes masterminded by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI). The BSBI published increasingly comprehensive atlases showing the distribution of our native plants in 1962 and in 2002, and recorders are now hard at work gathering data for the next Atlas 2020 project, due to be completed in three years’ time, while, all round the country, enthusiastic botanists have compiled and published detailed accounts of the plants of their local counties or areas. I was given privileged access to the BSBI’s online databases in compiling the information in my book, and I am hugely grateful for that.

What I now want is for readers to prove me wrong! From the BSBI databases, I have tried to note the northernmost and the southernmost sites from where the key montane species have been recorded, and the highest and lowest altitudes at which they have been found, but I am sure keen readers could find new records beyond these extremes – and report them, I hope, to their local botanical recorder. I have reported on sites from which certain species appear to have died out, and I would be thrilled if that encouraged readers to go out and re-find the plants there.

What is the biggest conservation threat to mountain flowers in the UK?
I imagine most informed readers of the NHBS newsletter would expect me to say climate change was the biggest threat to mountain plants, and, in the long term, there is no doubt that climate change is a huge threat. But, as I have tried to show in the book, the impact of climate change on the mountain environment in the short to middle term is difficult to predict with any certainty and may not immediately be as disastrous as we fear.
What is beyond doubt is that, if we are to give montane plants any chance of adapting to the changes ahead, we need to get much better at managing our hills and mountains. Overgrazing by red deer is a huge problem across most of Scotland. The regular burning of moorland areas that are managed for the sport shooting of red grouse or to produce a ‘spring bite’ for sheep tends to encourage a few resilient species at the expense of many other, more delicate plants. Yet some mountain habitats also benefit from restricted amounts of grazing, and if continuing financial challenges lead to further declines of extensive sheep farming in the uplands that could become a big problem too. The challenge lies in getting the right balance between these conflicting priorities – and I’m afraid the decision by the people of England and Wales to leave the European Union (the EU has been a huge help in establishing conservation priorities in Britain) is not going to make that any easier.

Tell us about some specific species you find particularly interesting and that feature in the book.

Alpine Sowthistle of (legal) Scottish origin, growing in the author's garden in Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott
Alpine Sowthistle of (legal) Scottish origin, growing in the author’s garden in Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott

In the book I have selected 18 species, most of which are rarities, whose distribution and survival particularly intrigues me. I call them “Three-star Mountain Enigmas” for reasons I explain in the book and I give an extended account of each of them. For some of these species, I hope to shed insight, based on the scientific researches of dedicated mountain botanists; for others, I can only pose questions, in the hope of inspiring someone to find an answer. And there are plenty of puzzles in our mountains. Why, for example, is Alpine Rockcress found only in a single corrie in Scotland, when it grows almost as a weed in disturbed ground in the Alps and Arctic? Why (and how) is Iceland Purslane dispersed all the way from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego, yet in Britain it only grows on gravelly slopes on the Isles of Skye and Mull?

In the book, I suggest that Alpine Sowthistle is restricted to tiny populations on just four remote cliffs in the eastern Highlands of Scotland because humans have almost completely destroyed the mountain woods in which it once grew (and where it still flourishes in the Alps and Scandinavia), and I show how the 2001 outbreak of Foot-and-mouth Disease revealed how Marsh Saxifrage and Alpine Foxtail grass are actually much commoner than we ever realised.

For someone interested in a bit of amateur research, where are some of the best spots for finding mountain flowers?
I’d always say that the best place to start is the montane site that is nearest to home, whether that’s the Brecon Beacons, the Peak District, the Pentland Hills or wherever – they’re all covered in the book. Then you can make regular visits through the spring and summer to find each of the local species in full flower and follow them through the season to catch them in seed too (there are some species which you can only identify with certainty if you can find their fruits as well as their flowers) – although I should add that, by the time you read this, it is probably a bit late in the year already for mountain plants, so buy the book and start planning for next year!

Once you have got to know the commoner montane species for your local patch, you can perhaps plan a holiday further afield to one of the real mountain hotspots, like Snowdonia or Upper Teesdale, the Breadalbane hills of Perthshire or the Cairngorm Mountains of Inverness-shire. One spot that I particularly recommend in the book is the area around the Glenshee Ski Area, south of Braemar in Aberdeenshire. The A93 road from Blairgowrie to Braemar rises here to 670m (around 2,200 feet), so montane species grow right beside the car park, but the area is already so well-used by skiers that you needn’t worry too much about damaging the vegetation – and there are some really special plants for plant explorers to find.

The slopes of the Glenshee Ski Area south of Braemar on the Perthshire/Aberdeenshire boundary are one of the most accessible sites to see a good range of Britain's montane flora. Photo: Michael Scott
The slopes of the Glenshee Ski Area south of Braemar on the Perthshire/Aberdeenshire boundary are one of the most accessible sites to see a good range of Britain’s montane flora. Photo: Michael Scott

It is currently the school summer holiday period – any tips for getting kids interested in botany?
Another great question. Kids like action, and it’s the perfect time of year to show plants in action. Find the different kinds of fruits that plants produce and see how they are dispersed. Find the winged fruits (called samaras) of a sycamore tree or the ‘keys’ of an ash tree and work out how they spread. Who can get their fruit to travel furthest? Find some dandelion ‘clocks’. Don’t just see how may blows it takes to remove all the seeds from the ‘clock’; instead try to follow one of the seeds on its little parachute and find out how far it travels. If you can find a patch of Rosebay Willowherb, investigate how it spreads its seeds. If a riverside near you has been invaded by Himalayan Balsam (aka Policeman’s Helmet); see if you can work out how its explosive fruits have made it a successful ‘Alien Invader’ (in this case from India, not from Outer Space). How do the wild relatives of garden peas and strawberries spread – and what about potatoes? If you want to get really yucky, you might want to ask kids why they think tomato plants sometimes start growing beside sewage treatment plants!

If you have a boggy area nearby, see if you can find Common Butterwort growing there and investigate how its sticky leaves trap little insects which the plant then dissolves and absorbs to get the nutrients it needs to grow. Even better, see if you can find Common Sundew whose leaves are covered in red hairs which curve over to trap little insects caught by the sticky surface of the leaves. Then go online to discover how Venus Flytraps, Pitcher Plants and other insectivorous plants trap their prey – there are some great websites aimed at youngsters about these plants.

Mountain Flowers is available from NHBS

Mountain Flowers

Planning a Fungal Foray

The Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina) occurs in both deciduous and coniferous woodlands and is commonly associated with beech. Image by – C_G –, via Flickr Creative Commons (CC by 2.0).

What are fungi and why do they matter?

It has been estimated that the kingdom of Fungi consists of more than five million species ranging from single-celled microorganisms up to the largest living organism on the planet. Fungi are a crucial part of the food web in many habitats and play a vital role in many commercial activities, including the production of pharmaceuticals and food products.

Most fungi grow as microscopic filaments called hyphae which extend to form a large network or mycelium. The part we observe above ground, the mushroom or toadstool, is the fruiting body whose purpose it is to spread spores. These fruiting bodies are only produced when conditions are favourable which means that, at most times, we are largely unaware of the mass of fungal life that is living beneath our feet and in our surroundings.

Where and when to look for fungi

The best time to look for fungi in the UK is during late summer, autumn and early winter, when the relatively mild yet damp weather provides ideal conditions for the production of fruiting bodies. Both deciduous and coniferous forests can host an impressive range and number of fungal types. Meadows, parks and moorland are also great places to look.

What you need to find and identify fungi

Conducting a fungal foray is a wonderful pastime, not least because there is very little equipment you really need. A stout pair of shoes and sharp pair of eyes will go a long way – but if you would like to maximise the chance of identifying your finds, then a few additional things may come in handy.

• Basket or box – Traditional fungi collecting baskets are flat bottomed and woven from willow. However, any sturdy box, tub or crate will do so long as it is relatively easy to carry and will prevent your collection from being squashed.
• Paper bags – Useful for storing individual specimens. Don’t use plastic bags if you can help it as they are not breathable and your fungi will become sweaty and slimy.
• Penknife – For lifting specimens from the ground whilst keeping the stem and root intact.
• Hand lens – A lens with 10x magnification is useful for looking at the finer details of your fungi. Try the Opticron 23mm 10x lens which has a robust stainless steel case and a loop for attaching a lanyard.
• Pencil and paper – For making notes of what you find and where it was spotted.
• Field guide – A field guide will help you to identify the fungi that you find. Useful both in the field and for when you get back to your home or classroom. For a small fold-out guide try the FSC Fungi Name Trail. Or for a more comprehensive book take a look at the beautifully illustrated Collins Fungi Guide by Stefan Buczacki or the wonderful photographic guide, Mushrooms, by Roger Phillips.
• Microscope – When used with the Microstand Adapter, the Opticron Gallery Scope can be used for looking at specimens at a greater magnification while you are out and about. When back at home you can also make slides of spores and look at them through a higher powered microscope (x400 – x1000 magnification) – the shape will be a useful aid to identification.
• Camera – For specimens that you want to leave in situ, taking some photographs will be a useful way to aid your identification efforts. A photo of a mushroom you have collected can also help remind you of the habitat and conditions where it was picked.

The Fungi Name-Trail: A Key to Commoner Fungi

Collins Fungi Guide: The Most Complete Field Guide to the Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain & Ireland

Mushrooms

 

 

 

 

 

What are the key identifying features of fungi?

When collecting or spotting fungi it is useful to make as many notes as you can, as this will improve your chances of identifying your specimen. Try to get information about as many of the following as possible. (Diagrams to help you with terminology and typical types of mushroom morphology can be found in most field guides).

• Date and location
• Habitat – On the ground, on dead/living wood, in leaf litter
• Situation – Was the specimen solitary or growing in a group. If found in a group, were individuals spread out, in a circle, crowded together?
• Cap – Colour, texture, size and smell
• Gills – Colour, size, type (i.e. crowded, spaced)
• Stem – Length, diameter, texture, colour. Does it have a ring or a shaggy appearance?
• Root – Shape, presence of volva
• Spores – The colour and shape of the spore is a key identification characteristic. Spore colour can be easily studied by making a spore print as described below.

How to make a spore print

Spore colour varies significantly between different species of mushroom, and this colour is another identifying feature which will help you to determine which fungi you are looking at. Making a spore print of a fungi that has gills or pores is a very simple process and can be easily accomplished with very basic equipment.

First you will need to remove the stem as close to the cap as possible using a sharp knife. Place the cap, gill/pore side down onto a piece of paper and leave it to sit undisturbed overnight covered with an upturned glass or bowl. When you remove the cap from the paper you should see a pattern of spores where they have dropped onto the paper. Try using different coloured paper or using a piece which is half black and half white to see which shows the spores best. To preserve your print you can coat it with artists spray or even hairspray.

Where to go to learn more

Many local wildlife groups or country parks run public fungi walks during the autumn. Why not check out local events in your area to see if there is anything happening? The British Mycological Society also has a network of recording groups around the country which consist of volunteers that are working hard to share their knowledge and improve awareness of mycology and conservation.

Please take care if you are picking fungi to eat. Many edible species are easily mistaken for inedible or poisonous ones. Consult an expert if you are in any doubt.

 

Anne Bebbington on botanical illustration and her new book, Understanding the Flowering Plants

Dr. Anne Bebbington trained as a botanist and worked for over 30 years for the Field Studies Council and as an environmental educator. Also an outstanding botanical illustrator, her career has traced a path between the two complementary fields, and she is a past President of the Institute of Analytical Plant Illustration.  Her new book is a testament to this dual expertise.

What came first for you, botany or illustration – and how have the two interwoven throughout your career?

From an early age natural history, drawing and painting were always my favourite occupations. At university I was lucky to be able to study both botany and zoology and found that drawing the plants and animals we studied was for me the best way of describing and understanding them. After specializing in plant ecology I joined the Field Studies Council. As well as teaching environmental studies at all levels from primary pupils to undergraduates, I tutored many wild flower courses for adults both in Britain and further afield in Europe, Canada and Australia. My interest and expertise in illustration always formed an important part of my work, particularly in producing handouts and identification aids, and running short botanical illustration courses. In retirement I work as a freelance natural history illustrator but also continue to share my enthusiasm for plants running workshops and giving talks to both natural history groups and garden clubs.

You are a founder member and past President of the Institute for Analytical Plant Illustration. Tell us more about this organization?

The Institute of Analytical Plant Illustration (IAPI) promotes interest in the diversity and understanding of plants through illustration. It was founded in 2004 by the late Michael Hickey, an excellent teacher, botanist and skilled analytical illustrator. Its aim is to encourage and facilitate collaboration between botanists and artists by organizing talks, running workshops and field meetings, and setting up projects which members can contribute to.

In 2010, with IAPI support, I got together with Mary Brewin, a skilled artist, to provide a course of ten workshops combining botanical tuition with an opportunity to develop and practice appropriate illustration techniques. We hoped it would help members to:

  • gain a better understanding of plants to inform their practice of the art of botanical illustration.
  • develop and refine illustration techniques appropriate to different botanical subjects.
  • encourage enthusiastic beginners to gain botanical knowledge and some basic art skills.

This course was very successful and raised great interest and in the last four years has resulted in the running of further courses and workshops both for IAPI and other groups and organizations.

What is the place of botanical illustration in scientific research?

Botanical illustration both in the form of photography but also drawings and painting is integral to all aspects of scientific research.

Are there any botanical subjects that you are particularly inspired to work from?

I am particularly interested in the way that plants interact with their environment and how the intricacy of their structure plays a part in their success and survival. I frequently work with my husband, a zoologist and photographer, investigating the interactions between plants and animals, particularly insects. Close observation and drawing plants out in the field is also something I really enjoy.

What are you currently engaged with in terms of your botanical illustration career?

I am currently looking at the detailed internal structure of flowers in relation to their pollination mechanisms by producing illustrations in the form of half flowers.

It’s a beautiful book and a wonderful resource for botanical information – who is the book written for?

The book should be accessible to anyone, even those with little or no scientific background. It was written for:

  • botanical artists and photographers  who wish to gain a better understanding of the Flowering Plants to inform their practice of the art of botanical illustration.
  • anyone who works with or just enjoys plants and wants to know more about them.

Understanding the Flowering Plants: A Practical Guide for Botanical Illustrators is published by Crowood Press and is available now.

Available now