The dedication of volunteers across the UK is creating an impressive resource on plant communities, thereby assisting scientific investigations into changes to our countryside.
The National Plant Monitoring Scheme, run by a partnership of organisations including the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, relies on hundreds of people across the country – including walkers, amateur wildlife enthusiasts and mountaineers – recording the different wildflowers they see in their local area. It oversees the UK’s biggest wild plant survey, taking place from the Spring Equinox – which this year is March 20 – to the end of September.
Although the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS) was only set up four years ago, the early records collected by members of the public are already helping to improve scientists’ understanding of the environmental pressures on plants and habitats.
The annual survey covers about 30 types of habitat found in the UK, from woodland and hedgerows to blanket bog, flushes, heathland and streams, plus more than 400 species of wildflowers.
Dr Oli Pescott, an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), says: “The National Plant Monitoring Scheme helps us to detect pressures on habitats and may also allow us to understand how these vary across time and space.
“Early findings are already providing much-needed data on the abundance of wild plants at local levels. We very much hope that, over time, the NPMS will allow us to understand more about how our wild flora is changing in response to pressures such as nitrogen pollution and invasive species.”
Just five species make up almost half the records collected in surveyed woodlands in the annual surveys to date: nettle, bramble, cleavers, hogweed and cow parsley. These are the dominant species in our woodland habitats and can spread in areas where there is a high level of nitrogen pollution and a lack of land management. Such plants could outcompete once common native beauties such as early dog-violet and marsh marigold which are now much less frequently recorded, causing changes in the balance of our woodland flora.
Early findings are already providing much-needed data on the abundance of wild plants at local levels - Dr Oliver Pescott of CEH
Meanwhile, the highly invasive, non-native Himalayan Balsam is reported more frequently than native wild flowers such as bugle, ramsons and woodruff. Each plant produces about 2,500 seeds and due to its impressive trigger mechanism, it can fling seeds a considerable distance. The rapid spread and density of the species means its plants form dense thickets, shading out native species.
Bluebells are the most frequently-seen wildflower in the woodlands surveyed, while other iconic native woodland species regularly spotted include greater stitchwort and yellow archangel. Some of the UK’s top pollinator food species were also recorded, including honeysuckle, ivy and red campion.
Out of all habitats surveyed by the NPMS, woodlands are the most frequently visited, thanks in part to support from landowners like the National Trust and Forestry Commission. Volunteers therefore have access to previously unchartered land, across large, sometimes wild and isolated areas of the UK.
Data from NPMS – a partnership comprising CEH, the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI), the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Plantlife – are published annually and are increasingly used in ecological research. As data accumulate, they will contribute to government’s understanding of how our countryside is faring and will highlight why certain habitats and species are threatened with decline. According to research by Plantlife, more than 95 per cent of the UK’s broadleaved woodlands are affected by excessive nitrogen deposition.
Dr Kevin Walker, BSBI's Head of Science, says: "The National Plant Monitoring Scheme is a fantastic opportunity to develop botanical and field recording skills while contributing valuable data. It's a great way for people to get involved in citizen science and learn more about our wildflowers".
For more information on the National Plant Monitoring Scheme and to get involved, visit https://www.npms.org.uk