Friday, 22 April 2016

The National Plant Monitoring Scheme - A Chore

The National Plant Monitoring Scheme was put together by BSBI and Plantlife to survey designated locations on at least an annual basis.   On a pseudo random basis 1 km squares have been selected throughout the country and volunteers invited to adopt one (or more) of those squares close to home, with a commitment to select 5 5x5m plots 25m linear strips at targeted spots within the square, then survey those plots twice annually.   

It was designed, I think, as a citizen science project, but I think few of my fellow citizens who are not botanists will stay the course.   The documentation is complex, you need a gps device, and it is time consuming (and if the square is dull, a chore).

I did the first of my two surveys today in my square, which is on the western edge of Chipping Norton.  The NPMS was not designed with such a square in mind; most of the square is either arable (with not even a hint of a wild plant) or difficult to access, with scraps of woodland given over to pheasant shooting.    The square is also encroached by urbanisation.   The most interesting scrap of land was what might best be described as set aside, though more probably it is lying fallow awaiting the developers - the kind of scruffy habitat that Mick Crawley, the author of British Aliens would find of some interest.  It does not appear as a habitat in the NPMS guidance.   

I understand that others in north Oxfordshire have struggled for the same reason as me.   Comment about what is at each of the targets within the square might have added an extra dimension to the scheme, giving a snapshot of what the countryside really is like, but it has not been asked for.   A pity.

With some difficulty I did manage to mark out 4 5x5m plots and one 25m linear hedgerow, fairly close to the targets,  recording all the plants in flower and some where I was 100% certain of the leaf id.  Still the total species from the square was a very disappointing 52. Now to fathom out how to send in my data.

If the NPMS survey was the lowlight of the week there were some real highlights.   On Tuesday my wife and I went along to Cothill Fen, just west of Oxford visiting Dry Sandford Pit, Parsonage Moor and Hitchcopse Wood.   Below are some of the pictures from the trip.    
Towards the end of our walk, my wife confirmed that she is a witch with an ability to commune with nature; getting a little worn out from plant hunting her comment was 'that we needed something small and furry'.  Immediately up popped a stoat, wandering nonchalantly towards us, and almost at the same time a brown long eared bat made slow glides past us stopping occasionally on a tree or in the undergrowth.  This is the first time I have ever seen a bat in full daylight.

Dry Sandford Pit
Dry Sandford Pit
Marsh Marigolds
Woodland Flowers in Hitchcopse Wood
Brown Long-eared Bat

Then on Wednesday I went on  BSBI recording mission, organised by Sue, the Vice county Recorder, to Cornbury where access is usually very limited.  In 2 1km squares we recorded around 160 species; mostly in established woodland but with a quarry and a marsh.  Standout for me was an adder basking on the bole of a tree, so deceptive that I was no more than 2 feet away, yet only realised what it was when it wriggled away.   There were three orchids in leaf, common spotted, common twayblade but I could not be certain of a third so it will be back to Cornbury in June!  

Common Twayblade Leaves 
Wild Strawberry

Yesterday I took another look at some pyramidal orchid leaves.   The key in Poland works to a point, but discrimination against Chalk fragrant orchids falls down when the plants are young, because reliance is placed on the persistence of the leaves - leaves of pyramidal begin to die down at flowering.   

Pyramidal orchid leaves
Pyramidal orchid leaves with scale


  1. Are you sure your strawberry isn't Barren Strawberry? Best,

    1. Very much my initial thought because of rthe appearance - petals spread out so the sepals could be seen, but looking closely the petals are obviously quite a bit longer than the sepals and the tooth at the tip of the leaf is longer than the teeth each side. So two out of three! Cannot find anything about hybrids, and they are in a different genus to each other.

  2. Hi Terry,

    Just a couple of clarifications on the NPMS methodology. The design is not 'pseudo-random', but weighted-random. That is to say that the selection of squares was done by randomly drawing squares from the complete set of British and Northern Irish monads, but squares enriched for rarer habitats were given a greater weighting. This is like drawing different coloured marbles from a bag, but having more of some colours than others. This was done to try and enrich the national sample of squares for the more interseting bits of the countryside, but also does not rule out selecting the type of square that you have received.

    You say 'it was designed as a citizen science' project, with the implication that the NPMS is only targeting one type of naturalist. Citizen science is generally defined as any type of volunteer activity contributing to scientific activity, so, even the BSBI recording you refer to further down your post could be (and has been) defined as citizen science. To address the point which I think you are actually intending to make, the scheme was designed to be suitable for a range of different skill levels (hence the three levels of participation, and the broad and fine habitat options); we therefore hope that those who are still learning their plants will find it valuable, and those who are already expert will perhaps have a different recording experience to 'square-bashing' -- as you imply, time will tell whether there is a general appetite for this type of plant recording.

    To clarify a couple of other points, a GPS is not essential for the NPMS (although it is a useful tool, as for any type of natural history or countryside pursuit, and of course, is now widely available on phones); sketch maps and photos can be used to approximate plot (re)location). Regarding the documentation, the methods of plot selection are fairly involved, but, please remember, this step is only necessary once, revisits to plots in future years do not require any of the plot selection tasks of the first year.

    We are sorry that you found the scheme a chore, and found your square uninteresting. Of course, there is little we can do to rememdy that, but I would say that the commitment of two field days a year is a lot less than many other long-running 'structured' monitoring schemes, and, if we are to monitor the countryside at the fine-scales required to detect changes in habitats (which has frequently been argued for the in wake of atlas projects and BSBI Local Change), then unfortunately the less interesting, as well as the superlative, are going to be drawn out of the bag for close inspection.

    Hope to see you in the field at one of Sue's recording days this year!

    All the best,

    Oli Pescott (on behalf of the NPMS)