Botanical Recording in Shropshire

Shropshire Flora Group Newsletter 7 - Autumn 1998 - pages 11-15

Sarah Whild & Alex Lockton

 

Until the close of the 18th century most of the botanical records for Shropshire are occasional significant finds, often made by apothecaries and medical doctors such as George Bowles (1604-1672), John Ray (1628-1707), and William Withering (1741-1799), and published in journals and books with a national coverage. It was not until about 1790 that anyone appears to have attempted any systematic recording of the county. The Rev. Edward Williams (1762-1833), minister of Battlefield and Uffington, was the first to do this. Williams was a remarkable scholar and historian who also made drawings of many of the churches of the county, which can been seen in Shrewsbury Library. The fate of his manuscript flora, which Leighton described as listing 715 species of flowering plants, is unknown. We have managed to glean some 819 of his records, largely from Leighton's 1841 Flora and William Phillips's 1877 Filices etc., but these relate to just 288 taxa, so more than half of his records are now lost.

Nevertheless his studies form the baseline data on which the study of Shropshire flora and vegetation is based. It is fortunate, therefore, that he was a skilled and diligent botanist, whose observations are mostly accurate and reliable. He is credited with the first British records of several species, including Red Pondweed, Potamogeton alpinus, and Six-stamened Waterwort, Elatine hexandra. His speciality was water plants, which is especially valuable because of the dramatic decline in wetlands since then. One thing Williams has often been praised for is the detail of his records. His observation of Monk's-hood, Aconitum napellus, for example, reads: "by the side of the brook a few yards above Gossart bridge between Ludlow and Burford, in abundance." What more could one ask for?

The only real failing that Williams had as a recorder is the fact that he never published his Flora. The reason for this is unknown, but possibly had something to do with the cost of such a venture at that time, and the lack of any likely return. It was to be another 30 years before the Botanical Society of London, the forerunner of the BSBI, was founded, so there was no established market for county Floras at that time.

 

Left: a distribution map showing the 819 known records of Edward Williams's in Shropshire (VC40), demonstrating a remarkably wide coverage of the county. He is reputed to have identified 729 species of vascular plant in total. The map shows that he recorded in at least 211 tetrads.

 

The next serious effort to study Shropshire's botany was undertaken by William Allport Leighton (1805-1889). Because it is largely through his Flora of 1841 that we know of Williams's records, it is tempting to lump the two together, as was done in Sinker's Flora, for example. But the two were not contemporary: Williams died the year Leighton returned from Cambridge to start his work on the county's flora, and the two apparently never met.

Leighton was not so restricted by financial means. He "postponed" his ordination for ten years for the preparation of his Flora, during which time he recruited a recording group not unlike our modern equivalent. Edward Elsmere, a farmer from Astley, evidently brought him many specimens for verification and Thomas Bodenham of Shrewsbury was the local secretary of the Botanical Society of London. The recent advent of the Penny Post had enabled botanists to correspond by sending each other herbarium sheets from which to build up personal collections - some of which in later years grew to extravagant proportions. These often fulfilled the role that is currently met by identification guides but, by a curious irony, the most modern identification guides such as Page's Ferns of Britain and Ireland and the recent BSBI Handbook on Dandelions, with their photocopied specimens, now resemble herbarium collections more than the illustrated guides of the last hundred years. This is not the only example of cyclical fashions in botany.

We know very little about the preparation of Leighton's Flora. There is only a brief introductory chapter on methods, recorders, history and the other background information that is now considered essential to such publications. That things were not so very different in those days is revealed in the preface, though, as Leighton comments that "fame and pecuniary profit can scarcely be expected, nor are they looked for in the present instance." And goes on to remark that the study of nature is "a constant resource against the empty haughtiness, the biting sarcasms, or the trickful chicanery of the world and its votaries." It is difficult to imagine what the political and social scene in Shrewsbury would have been like in those days, but Leighton's project would surely have been the subject of considerable interest in intellectual circles.

A Flora of Shropshire follows Williams's methods exactly. Each record is given a location, often by reference to a nearby village or - more often - country house. In general Leighton's localities are more concisely given, but it is usually possible to find the spot on a map to within one kilometre or so. Dates are almost entirely absent, which is a shame, because his various contributors spanned quite a period of time. But in every case a recorder's name is given, which is invaluable in helping to assess the quality of the record and the approximate date. Indeed it is quite apparent that Leighton did not entirely believe every record he listed, marking as he did the confirmed ones with a "mark of admiration" (!).

 

Right: the coverage achieved by Leighton in his 1841 Flora, excluding Williams's records. Note particularly the extra records from the Ludlow area (SO57) mostly sent in by Mary McGhie and Henry Spare, and those from the vicinity of Oswestry (SJ22), where Thomas Salwey and John Dovaston were contributors. The map summarises 3,854 records and brings the total number of species to 862 in 360 tetrads.

 

Even now, 150 years later, Leighton's Flora is a work of considerable interest and relevance. His descriptions and illustrations are useful and many of the plants he describes are still to be found in the same locations. Because there are nearly always sites given with each record, it is possible to analyse the data to study the changes in the vegetation and management of those sites.

It is perhaps inevitable that the production of a major county Flora is followed by a period of relative inactivity. Leighton himself moved on to the study of lichens, and became a national authority in the subject. It was not really until the 1880s that there was a renewal of interest in the recording of vascular plants. William Beckwith (1844-1892) was primarily an ornithologist, but he began publishing "notes on Shropshire plants" in the Journal of Botany in 1881. There was soon a serious revival in botany in the county, and the amalgamation of the Caradoc and the Severn Valley Field Clubs led to the production of a series of annual reports that lasted more than 80 years and form an invaluable resource.

Until this time all biological records assumed roughly the same form: a location was always given (with varying degrees of accuracy), a species, and a recorder's name. Occasionally a determiner's name was given when the species in question was particularly difficult. However, this all changed at the beginning of the 20th century for two reasons. Firstly, there was a much greater number of recorders, and the amount of information received would have been impossible to print in full. Secondly, there was a recognised need to restrict new published records to significant new finds, so that endless duplication was avoided.

The solution that was adopted was to partition the county into 13 botanical divisions, based roughly on the major river catchments. The Caradoc Map was devised in the 1890s and was still in use as late as the 1970s. A fine colour plate is given in the Victoria County History Vol. 1 (Page 1908). In some ways it bears a striking resemblance to English Nature's Natural Areas Plan, which was published a hundred years later - another example of recurring trends, perhaps.

Although the reasons for the adoption of the Caradoc Map are entirely understandable, it had some unfortunate consequences. Species lists were prepared for each of the botanical districts but, without any detailed locations given, a lot of these records are now quite useless. Sometimes they cannot be localised to within 30 km and many of them are given with no recorder's name nor a date.

The crowning achievement of the Caradoc & Severn Valley Field Club was the preparation of a second full Flora of Shropshire, which was largely written by William Hamilton (1842-1910) but not completed before his death. The committee of the Club finished the preparation of the draft, the type was set, and they were ready to forge ahead with the printing when two things happened to stop the project. Firstly, they failed to raise the necessary subscriptions and then, secondly, the war intervened. Quite why it was never printed is a mystery, as the leader of the project and the chairman of the Club was the wealthy businessman James Cosmo Melvill (1845-1929), who had already been rich enough to publish his own Flora of Harrow while still at school in 1864. Perhaps our old acquaintances "sarcasm and trickful chicanery" had some part to play, but who may have been the villain we shall never know.

Hamilton's Flora was prepared along the same lines as Leighton's, with detailed localities for all but the commonest species. In the intervening years, however, the only existing copy has disappeared, no doubt reflecting the "woes of the world" that Leighton lamented. It was still with us in the 1980s when Charles Sinker extracted many of the records for use in his own Flora, but this is now the only source of these records - a situation reminiscent of the fate of Edward Williams's manuscript a century before. This illustrates the absolute imperative of publication.

 

Right: the accumulated records of the Caradoc & Severn Valley Field Club, spanning over 80 years of field work: 8,078 records are mapped, representing 1,476 species in 513 tetrads.

 

The most recent significant modernisation of the methods of biological recording came in the 1960s, when a number of circumstances brought about new motivations for the study of natural history. At about this time the Nature Conservancy was growing into an organisation that had a real presence within the county; meanwhile the Shropshire Conservation Trust and the Field Studies Council were both coming into being. Charles Sinker was influential in all three and, with the Caradoc & Severn Valley Field Club having been in decline for half a century or so, a new recording group was needed. Sinker made two radical changes to the way in which botanical records were made. Firstly, he adopted the squares of the Ordnance Survey national grid as the recording unit, removing for the first time the need for long and detailed descriptions of localities while retaining something of the accuracy of the pre-Caradoc records. Secondly, the emphasis was now on ecology and conservation rather than taxonomy. Conservation had long been of some interest to the old naturalists, and indeed it was more than half a century since George Potts had attempted to reintroduce Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis, to old sites that had been exploited by the Victorians, but ecology was certainly something new.

In some ways the Flora Group was simply continuing and refining the processes begun nearly 200 years earlier by Edward Williams. There is no doubt that Williams had tried to cover the whole county with his recording, and a remarkable effort was made; but Sinker planned to have even and comprehensive coverage of the county on a scale never before attempted. In practice, this necessitated a number of compromises. As the records were to be handled manually, a scale of importance was devised, whereby common species were recorded in much less detail than rare ones: 10km squares rather than 100m squares. This is a ratio 10,000:1, which demonstrates the efficiency of the method. In practice, most species were recorded to the level of the tetrad, 2km x 2km square, which is useful for mapping but rather unhelpful if you want to look for the original plant again.

Another disadvantage of the Flora Project is also a consequence of the scale of the task. Huge numbers of recorders were recruited and trained, and their records often lack either the name of the recorder or any confirmation of the accuracy of the record. This is again a backward step from Leighton's Flora, in which the more dubious recorders are easily spotted. Finally, there is very little focus on the critical taxa, which is perhaps a consequence of the shift in fashion away from abstract taxonomy. On the whole, though, there is no doubt that the Ecological Flora was a tremendous accomplishment, even more so for its ecology than for its distribution maps.

A recurring theme throughout the history of botanical recording is the pendulum-swing of fashion and practicality. In each period there has been a focus on what is new, interesting and possible, and while this has brought benefits, there has usually been some sort of compromise. At the end of the 20th century we are not immune to these trends. Just as happened after Leighton and Hamilton, there was a loss of energy after Sinker's Flora appeared in 1985. In 1994 Shropshire was described as "data-deficient" by the BSBI in Scarce Plants in Britain and, in essence, this was fair, as most of our records by then were getting on for 20 years old.

 

Left: the coverage achieved during Charles Sinker's flora project, 1973-1984. Although 300 or so common species are excluded from the analysis, a total of 75,283 records are mapped in 977 tetrads, relating to 1,154 species. Note the three tetrads from which there are apparently no records at all - these are intensive agricultural areas with few public footpaths and very few uncommon species; the commoner species, of course, were only recorded by hectad, so they do not show on this map.

 

In recent years the impetus for recording has grown again, spurred on by initiatives such as the BSBI's Atlas 2000 project, the interest generated by Clive Stace's New Flora and other identification guides, and by our own Rare Plants project and the draft Checklist.

In future recording is likely to be something of a synthesis of the various methods and interests of the past, with four factors coming together to make this an interesting time for biological recording:-

1. There is an upsurge of interest in the critical taxa, such as roses and dandelions, and the more difficult groups, such as the charophytes and bryophytes, which has been stimulated by the production of many new identification guides.

2. Ecology is by no means out of fashion, either, as the recent publication of the National Vegetation Classification has provided a framework within which to study this subject.

3. The advent of the personal computer has enabled us to simultaneously collect both detailed information and large numbers of records - a combination that was simply impossible in the days when the data were managed by hand.

4. Conservation now provides a widely accepted purpose for biological recording. There are dozens of nature reserves throughout the county, over 100 SSSIs, 700 County Wildlife Sites and many other areas of interest. For all of these there is funding and manpower but less often the scientific expertise to manage for conservation, so the skills of the naturalist are in unprecedented demand.

Although this is an innovative period for the study of natural history, some of the familiar trends of the past are still with us. The Natural Areas may well go the way of the Botanical Divisions, if good science is not applied to them; and there are serious debates about the best way to collect records. In recent years some of the most ambitious and costly recording projects have been marred by design faults which render the data useless. The Flora Group is by no means immune to mistakes - we have enough tetrad recording cards to last 50 years, but they are now made obsolete by the computer. In five years of answering enquiries we have never been asked what tetrad something is in, which illustrates that this is not a unit for field survey but should simply be a way of compiling records for mapping. Although it served well for Sinker's Flora, the tetrad system is now redundant and must be phased out.

Earlier this year the Flora Group held a recording day which explored the methods and ideas behind biological recording. This is a subject which we shall continue to experiment with, and the Flora Group intends to remain a field-based recording society above all else. The important thing will be to combine the three traditional types of recording - the even coverage of the distribution mappers; the site-specific records of the apothecaries and more latterly the conservationists; and the scattered discoveries of the taxonomists.

 

Left: "bad" records in the Victoria County History. Not only are they unusable, they are also misleading: was Holly really absent from Divisions 2 and 6? Fortunately many of the records in the VCH give more detail than this.

 

The secret to a successful recording project is to make it interesting. Individual recorders can specialise in a particular area - whether taxonomic, ecological or geographical - and accomplish worthwhile studies. In this newsletter in recent years we have attempted to report on the range of such studies being undertaken at present, and there are clearly many other interesting lines of research available. In this issue there are reports of successful site management to restore populations of Frog Orchids and dozens of first county records by many people - not just trained botanists. The opportunities are literally endless, and there is worthwhile work for everyone, from beginners to experts.

If any members would like to discuss how, where and what to record, then please feel free to do so. We have a leaflet setting out some of the basic ideas of biological recording, which is available free to members.

 

References

Dudman, A.A. & Richards, A.J. 1997. Dandelions of Great Britain and Ireland. Botanical Society of the British Isles, London.

Leighton, W.A. 1841. A Flora of Shropshire. John van Voorst, London & John Davies, Shrewsbury.

Lockton, A.J. & Whild, S.J. 1995. Rare Plants of Shropshire 2nd edition. Shropshire Flora Group, Shrewsbury.

Page, C.N. 1997. The Ferns of Britain and Ireland, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Page, W. 1908. The Victoria History of Shropshire Vol. 1. Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., London.

Phillips, W. 1877 - 1878. The Filices, Lycopodiaceae, Marsiliaceae, and Equisetaceae of Shropshire. Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society 1: 153-158.

Rodwell, J.S. (ed) 1991-1995. British Plant Communities Vol. 1-4. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Sinker, C.A., Packham, J.R., Trueman, I.C., Oswald, P.H., Perring, F.H. & Prestwood, W.V. 1985. Ecological Flora of the Shropshire Region. Shropshire Trust for Nature Conservation, Shrewsbury.

Stace, C.A. 1997. New Flora of the British Isles, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press.

Stewart, A., Pearman, D.A., & Preston, C.D. 1994. Scarce Plants in Britain. JNCC, Peterborough.

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