Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A common plant survey of the vice counties of Durham and South Northumberland

Many people remark on the changes that are occurring in the countryside, the disappearance of some species and the spread of others. Yet these anecdotes cannot substitute for hard facts. There are also many suggested causes for all these changes; a warmer climate, different agricultural practises, eutrophication, alien species etc. Botanical observations tend to be biased. For example, people often note the exceptional species but ignore the common ones. So it is difficult to draw conclusions about plant abundance from casual observations. What was needed was a dedicated survey with a clear repeatable methodology.

Common plant species are the mainstay of habitats, they create our woodlands, hedgerows and
The distribution of heather in Durham and
South Northumberland predicted
from the common plant survey data.
meadows; they provide the food for herbivores and pollinators and they create homes for birds and mammals. Changes in the abundance of rare species have little impact on other species, but change in the abundance of common species can have cascading effects on whole ecosystems of which we are a part.

For these reasons volunteer botanists in the north-east of England conducted a four year survey to benchmark the abundance of common plants. Led by the Botanical Societies vice county recorders, John Durkin, John Richards and Quentin Groom they surveying the plants in a randomly selected sample of 1km2 grid squares in the vice counties of Durham and South Northumberland.  They have created a solid foundation that can be used to qualify the abundance of common species and be compare against previous and future studies. The project was conducted over four years and required volunteers to go to all sorts of places. Some people surveyed post-industrial brown-field sites, while other walked for miles across bleak moorland to reach sites high in the hills. Although, these moors are arguable more wild and natural, the industrial wastelands are far more biodiverse.

The results of this survey have just been openly published, contributing an additional 35,000 observations to the 200,000 observations collected by local recorders since the turn of the millennium (http://bdj.pensoft.net/articles.php?id=7318).

Botanical surveying continues in the region despite the end of this project. Volunteers continue to monitor rare plants in the region (https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1480492; http://www.bsbi.org.uk/County_Durham_Rare_Plants_Register_2013.pdf) and are currently working towards the next atlas of Britain and Ireland coordinated by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (http://bsbi.org.uk/).


Good biological conservation in the 21st century will be as much to do with sensitive adaption to change as it is about preserving what we have. Human memory is short and fickle and it is only with benchmark surveys, such as this, that we can hope to understand and manage that change.

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