Sunday book review – Grassland plants of the British and Irish lowlands by Peter Stroh et al.

I’m no botanist, so for all I know this book could be riddled with awful errors, but it is a lovely, lovely book.

In a 400-page book, 300 of the pages are given over to about 100 species accounts; each with a distribution map, a photograph of the species, a photograph of the habitat and sections on identification, similar species, habitats, biogeography, ecology, threats and management. It’s a serious book, as could be expected from its authors and publisher, but it’s a seriously beautiful book too. Beautifully produced, well-written and with a cover by the incomparable Carry Akroyd (with some birds in it!).

In the summer of 1976, in my gap between school and university I was the summer warden of St Cyrus National Nature Reserve on the Scottish coast north of Montrose. From my caravan home I could walk just a few yards and see Maiden Pinks in the grassland so I’ve looked them up here, and learned more about them. Most years, I travel to Barnack NNR to see Pasqueflowers as a way of welcoming spring back into my life, so I looked them up too and learned more about them. I found it easy to get seduced into reading the next species account, and the next, but then, I have a lot to learn.

But one thing that one learns in the first few scores of pages is that wonderful grasslands are in very short supply and that very many lowland grassland plants have declined dramatically in range in our lifetimes. Of course, I knew this anyway, and I’ve always cared, but this book made me care even more – the pictures help!

Plants are a bit picky aren’t they? These grassland plants suffer from over-management and under-management so it’s no wonder that they are struggling. I’d have liked a little more on the solutions to this plight in this book but that is a minor quibble (from a birder).

The BSBI, publishers of this book, are a rough botanical equivalent of the BTO and I guess that means that Plantlife is the rough botanical equivalent of the RSPB. Why isn’t Plantlife as big and potentially powerful as the RSPB? That’s a question that is sometimes discussed around dinner tables. Plants are beautiful (duh!) but they do have the habit of not being there when you are – there’s no point me going to see Pasqueflowers in July or December and that’s a bit of a drawback, I’d say. But is it the plants or the botanists? Botanists can be a bit nerdy – but then, let’s be fair, so can ornithologists. I don’t know what the reason is, and I don’t think bird-envy helps botanists get their messages across, but plant conservation needs more great advocates (like this one) and better public relations.

This book does a wonderful job. It’s a joy to hold and read but that joy is reduced by the inevitable regret over the sorry tale of loss of beauty that it inevitably has to reveal.

Grassland plants of the British and Irish lowlands: ecology, threats and management by Peter Stroh, Kevin Walker, Stuart Smith, Richard Jefferson, Clare Pinches and Tim Blackstock is published by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. It will be available widely from 1 December but BSBI members can avail themselves of a reduced-price offer and get the book sooner – maybe worth joining?

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.


18 Replies to “Sunday book review – Grassland plants of the British and Irish lowlands by Peter Stroh et al.”

  1. The reason why both the BSBI and Plantlife are not more popular and well supported is that, as humans, we find it easier to project our feelings, our concern and our empathy to things that have a face and move about a bit, like we do. Plants, apparently, make poor television which is why there is so little covergae of them on any seasonWatch, why the saintly Attenborough has only ever done one series on them (Life of Plants) and why Series 2 of ‘Wild Things’ on Channel 4 wasn’t commisioned. There are also few TV botanists – James Wong being the most notable. Plants are accessible, they do tell us stories and their lives can be as complicated and inter-related as the invertebrates on which some of them depend. It is frustrating for us (the author works for Plantlife) but membership numbers are increasing and the new look BSBI is very much more accessible.

    1. Dam it, I didn’t even know a second season of ‘Wild Things’ had been on the cards, really disappointing it wasn’t commissioned, the conservation community could have done more to promote the first series it was an absolute gem. I believe you’re right, but there’s also more inherent interest in plants than many might imagine it just gets supported even less than interest towards things with wings, four or six legs. When I lived on a council estate as a teenager the kid next door once practically dragged me out because he desperately wanted to show me some wild plants he’d found – not a rare bird, hedgehog or even tree, but some small unusual flowers. There was also a friend who grew up on a rough estate in the 1960s who without any prompting from anyone noticed how different the species of plant growing on a piece of rough ground were – the contrast between leaf shapes, stems, flowers, differing shades of green. A boy admitting he was interested in plants was ‘awkward’ so he went away and made a flower press all on his own and kept it and the resulting plant specimens hidden beneath his bed. He always remembers when he went back to the rough ground and found the council had cut all the plants down and rendered that diversity into monotony. He was a smart guy who ended up going to university which was even more unusual for someone from a council estate then than it is now. That anecdote raises a lot of points and questions about public education and society.

    2. “Plants are accessible…”
      Yes, and perhaps that’s why plant lovers and botanists tend to be easy going and non-cliquey people.

  2. I think there are two questions which arise from this – and you’ve posed one of them, about the relative attraction of plants vs birds.

    But the book is specifically about (higher) plants of grasslands, not of woodlands, or heathlands or any other habitats. Why are grasslands (and their plants) not given greater value by society?

    It’s now 7 years since the demise of The Grasslands Trust. People still come up to me and ask why there isn’t a charity dedicated to grasslands. The need is still there, but the support wasn’t there then, and isn’t now.

    In fact funding is much more difficult now for nature NGOs (of all sizes) than it was then. There was a small blip in grassland awareness with Saving our Magnificent Meadows and Coronation Meadows, both I would argue created as a result of the work of The Grasslands Trust – its legacy perhaps. These have now long gone and we’re back to a point where grasslands struggle to maintain a level of awareness in the public eye – illustrated neatly this year by the “pictorial meadows” story being mixed up with the Road Verges story. This only served to confuse many people, including journalists.

    Grasslands, and their flowers, continue to be a Cinderella in the conservation world (aside from the fact that they don’t even get to the ball). Once again they are under threat from an unlikely quarter – climate action, in the form of mindless tree-planting. Every time there’s a big tree-planting campaign, grasslands are damaged and destroyed, especially urban grasslands, which are the ones people beyond the conservation bubble are likely to visit and appreciate.

    If you’re thinking about doing your bit for the climate by planting some trees, please think carefully before you plant. You might be destroying a valuable wildlife habitat (that’s invisible in the winter).

    1. The continued survival of some of these grassland wild flowers and also some of the arable weeds we admire is also a question that needs to be considered in relation to ideas about re-wilding. Without careful management many would be unlikely to persist.

    2. There was a sunny gap in the local wood we did a great deal of conservation work in we wanted to be kept open so that it would create a bit of habitat diversity, a good spot for invertebrates and smaller flowering plants. The council ecologist ignored us and promptly filled in the gap with loads of trees, all in conspicuous plastic tubes, which as expected were taken off and thrown around (the wood is situated between two council estates). Banging in as many trees as possible is the name of the game. The standard tree planting exercise is woeful, they aren’t even very good for creating woodland – instead of assisting natural regeneration you have a very high number of highly protected trees in a very small space. In a few years you end up with an extremely dingy plantation with no ground flora, loads of disintegrating plastic and ‘trees’ which are so spindly they don’t even provide enough support for birds’ nests. There desperately needs to be change so that people know there’s an awful lot more to woodland than trees, otherwise we just end up with woody parks which effectively is all that many of our existing ‘woodlands’ are. With public tree plantings spaces should be left, woodland plants brought in as well as rather more native tree species than usual. Likewise the shrubs and climbers – dog and guelder rose, elder, honeysuckle even the maligned ivy to help stop it being maligned. Habitat piles should be created among the planted trees, dead wood brought in, maybe even some logs planted upright so we have some standing dead wood all be it rather short. More effort than banging in trees with plastic tubes, but in terms of conservation value and public education we’d get one hell of a lot more out of it, much more scope for engaging children in ecology and conservation that’s for sure. A bit of scrub (and ponds) in meadows and grassy spaces in woodland – moving towards genuine habitat mosaics as at Knepp?

  3. Birds aren’t always there either! Migration etc., though it’s true there’s a fairly big winter gaps for most plants, at least until you learn to appreciate (and identify) trees in winter.

        1. Dam right!!!! I sometimes wonder if he wasn’t abducted and replaced with a look a like to discredit the conservation movement. I saw him talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2003 and wasn’t impressed at all. Ludicrous comments about wind turbines killing red kites left, right and centre and the story of how he was a boy and a gamekeeper showed him a nest with chicks and told the young David that if it wasn’t for his efforts it wouldn’t exist – Bellamy swallowed it hook, line and sinker and has been a flag waver for them since. I don’t like the way CC has become the forefront environmental issue, or the way CC campaigning has been done, but I’ve never questioned the actual science. Bellamy has went to ridiculous lengths to rubbish the actual concept and I can’t help thinking he now has sunk down to being a contrarian just to keep being in the limelight. Along with David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell he was one of my three childhood heroes so this is very sad and I suspect many others feel the same. His ‘Bellamy’s Ireland’ converted me from thinking peat bogs were uninteresting to realising how utterly fascinating they are. Nobody interweaved appreciating the natural world with how to protect it as well as he did. We need the old Bellamy back.

          1. Les – Bellamy wrote the Foreword for Birds and Forestry (my 1989 book with Roderick Leslie) and I’ve just re-read that piece. It’s pretty good and at the time we felt very privileged to have him write it.

  4. At long last someone talking sense – well done Miles. He classes them correctly too as plants – not weeds, ICI classed them as arable weeds.

    No arable plants – no insects and seeds – hence no birds – no connectivity.

    When you get planks like Packham championing the planting of more conifers on terrestrial television, you know the incompetence of our conservation system is very much alive and kicking. You need to open your eyes folks to what these buffoons are saying and writing.

    Yep, there’s money to be made in planting the countryside with plastic tubes – filled with dead trees, there’s no money in thinning them, so you get a uniformed height of sterile land, you might as well place a concrete block 30ft high over the whole field.

    How do I know this? – Well we have cleared felled nearly 30 acres of this crap, the farm now has heathland on what was once I presume arable fields which were planted with conifers so close that not even fungi grew.

    If your vision is to plant the British Isles with cheap timber – then it is nothing more than conservation vandalism.

  5. I’ve always had a passing interest in plants or more specifically plants in flower even when I was a child but Les is right it was seen as a bit odd. Since then I’ve spent a life time looking at wildlife, mainly birds but all the other wildlife too, still crap at Identifying fungi but it doesn’t stop you trying. I’ve just been looking through a lot of pictures I’ve taken over the years on a small Swedish island ( Skokholm sized) and there are lots of higher plants, mosses, fungi and lichen photos as well as birds.
    Many if not most of the places I looked at flowers as a child and young adult are now gone to improved grass or other hopeless habitats, some is even covered in housing. Even those of us with a passing interest need to show more awareness and take a more robust stance on protecting the ones we have left.

  6. It is so important to look at wildlife holistically. Plants support insects and in turn they support birds and so on. The whole thing is an integrated network so we must try to abolish from our minds this rather artificial division, The decline of farmland birds is strongly linked to the loss of wild flowers for example. So birders need to take much more interest in wild flowers and vice versa.

  7. Mark, does the book include any points on sowing “wildflower meadows” etc?

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