Wednesday, 29 January 2020

New Year Plant Hunt

Earlier this month I took part for the first time in the New Year Plant Hunt (NYPH), run by the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland).

This annual event started in 2012, with two botanists in Cardiff going out to see how many wild plants they could find in flower on New Year's Day, as a bit of post-Christmas fun. The following year a few more teams went out to see what they could find in their areas, and to introduce a bit of friendly competition. Mid-winter is normally a quiet time of year for botanists so the idea took off and the New Year Plant Hunt is now an annual fixture for botanists all over the British Isles, and even further afield (a very similar plant hunt started in the Netherlands in 2014). The rules have become formalised - each team/individual has to record all the species they see in flower, in a wild state (i.e. not in a garden), on a three hour walk, anytime within a four day period around New Year.

The numbers of people involved, and of lists submitted, have increased every year since the beginning - in 2014, the first year for which the data have been kept, 51 lists were submitted and around 70 people were involved. Last year (2019), around 1500 people are thought to have taken part and 712 counts done.

You might think that not very much would be flowering at New Year, and in many places you would be right - in 2019 the average number of species in flower during the NYPH was 19.9 per count. However, across the whole of the UK and Ireland, the total number of different species recorded in flower was a massive 627. 

To my shame, I had not actually heard of the New Year Plant Hunt until last summer when I heard other botanists talking about it during the BSBI's annual summer meeting (see A week full of beautiful plants and great people for my account of that event). When I heard that there was going to be one at South Gare on the 2nd of Jan I decided to go along and see what all the fuss was about. A group seven of us found 35 species in flower, which although it seemed high to me was 6 fewer than the organiser found on his own last year. 

After we finished I decided to do my own one the next day in North Ormesby, where I live and so I went on various local Facebook groups I'm in and invited anyone who was interested to come along.  Not surprisingly perhaps, given the short notice, most people already had plans but one intrepid local resident, Andrea, joined me for the second half of the walk. 
My route for the NYPH 2020 in North Ormesby (5.21 Km (3.24 miles) in total)

The walk took us through most of the major green spaces of North Ormesby as well as though back streets and alleys. Plants can grow in some very surprising places, including on walls and through cracks in pavements and many of the species we recorded were in these sorts of habitats rather than the parks etc..

In total we found 22 species in flower including many of the common weeds that you might know from your gardens - Groundsel, Shepherd's Purse, Daisy, Dandelion, Chickweed, both White and Red Deadnettles and Herb Robert. Some things that you might not think of as flowers are on the list too - shrubs such as Hazel, grasses such as Wall Barley and Annual Meadow-grass and the tiny little Petty Spurge. Their flowers don't have petals as they are not pollinated by insects, but they are still flowers.

As this is the first year that a NYPH has been done in North Ormesby I have nothing to compare my data with, but if South Gare, and indeed the rest of the British Isles is anything to go by, I might well have got a higher count had I done it last year. Although the numbers of people taking part in the survey increased again (798 lists submitted by 1,714 people), both the total number of species and the average number per count went down from last year (615 and 18 respectively). Although the average number of species in flower was 18, counts varied hugely, with the biggest count being 115 from Swanage in Dorset, and the lowest being a big fat zero (apparently 20 brave and patient groups found nothing in flower at all, (but still went out)). A detailed breakdown and discussion of the results from the 2020 New Year Plant Hunt for the whole of the UK and Ireland can be found on the BSBI's website (BSBI New Year Plant Hunt 2020), as can an interactive map showing all the counts that were done (NYPH 2020 Map). 

One interesting finding that successive NYPHs have demonstrated is that far more species are in flower in December and January than the books would have us believe. This may be because botanists in the past didn't go out searching very much in the middle of winter. However, what seems more likely is that it is due to warmer winter and spring temperatures than there were in the past, and in fact several studies have shown this to be the case. While the New Year Plant Hunt is in the large part a bit of fun to give botanists something to do in the middle of winter, it does seem to be confirming some worrying findings from more rigorous scientific studies. In addition I think it has huge potential as an event to get more people interested in wildflowers and nature in general. 

If, having read this you are considering joining in with a New Year Plant Hunt next year check out the BSBI website, or your local nature-related Facebook groups, to see if there's one happening in your area. If you live in or near Middlesbrough, you'd be very welcome to join me of course. In the meantime, you don't have to wait till New Year before starting to learn about wildflowers - just get out there into your local nature reserves, parks and other green spaces (or just your own garden, or that bit of waste ground down the street) and start looking at what you might hitherto have thought of as 'just weeds'. If you have a smart-phone it is very easy to take photos and then there are loads of internet resources, Facebook groups etc to help you identify them. If you want to take a step further, do what I did when I was 17 and buy a cheap wildflower book (or spend a bit more on a good one) and start trying to work out for yourself what is what. Or better still (and more companionable), join a local group which does walks or even identification courses.

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris). A very common member of the daisy family,
related to ragwort, but lacking the  long yellow  'ray-florets' which make
ragwort flowers look like a child's drawing of the sun

Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum). Another common weed.
Despite the name it is unrelated to stinging nettle and is in the
same family as mint and many other culinary herbs

Sticky Groundsel (Senecio viscosus). A less common relative of Groundsel
which has small ray florets, making it look like a miniature version
of Ragwort. The name comes from the sticky hairs that cover
the leaves and stem and give it a grey-green appearance.

Hazel catkins (Corylus avellana). These are the male flowers of the Hazel, which
appear before the leaves. The female flowers are much more inconspicuous,
being tiny and bud-like