Amanda is a nature and environment writer and blogger based in the wilds of suburban south London. She writes mainly about suburban wildflowers, insects and birds on her blog. Her nature writing has appeared in anthologies, on the London Wildlife Trust blog and in Devon Life Magazine. She also blogs on www.freelancenaturewriter.com about her experience of becoming a freelance nature writer after ditching her day job. Twitter: @suburbanwilduk
Here Amanda interviews Josh Styles.
Still only in his early twenties, professional botanist and ecologist Josh Styles has already taken the lead on reintroducing rare plants to the north west of the British Isles and is now running online botany training courses too.
Amanda: I’d be really interested to hear how your interest in botany began.
Josh: I was quite fortunate that we had a garden and at the age of six or seven, I started growing things like sunflowers and fruit and veg. Then one day, I remember watching Gardeners’ World and Monty Don was encouraging people to grow wildflowers. So I begged my mum to buy me some wildflower seeds and dedicated about a metre square to growing them. I’d sit down for hours, watching all of the solitary bees, beetles and butterflies swarming round this tiny, tiny patch whereas the fruit and veg had barely anything. So I got rid of the entire fruit and veg garden and gradually began to grow all kinds of different wildflowers in my garden. I have well over 200 species now. My mum wasn’t delighted – she still thinks it’s a bit of a mess!
So was the wildflower gardening the beginning of becoming a field botanist?
Yes. In my early teens I used all my pocket money to buy different species of wildflower to see how the garden would look and how things would respond to these plants. And from there, I began volunteering with the Cheshire Rangers and the Cheshire Wildlife Trust as well as with the local wildlife site surveyor. I did some stuff with the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) as well. Then I went to university to study for a BSc in Ecology and alongside that balanced three separate jobs and a number of voluntary roles relating to botany.
Did you have school friends who were into plants as well?
No, it was very solitary. If I dared mention wildlife at school it would just be a topic to make fun of really.
How and when did the idea for the North West Rare Plant Initiative (NWRPI) arise?
In my teens one thing I did keep up-to-date with was my county’s Rare Plant Register. And I always remember being so depressed every single year because there was at least one species that had gone from one or two sites to extinct. Then when I graduated from University in 2017, I was really fortunate because I was gifted a two thousand pound scholarship which made me feel like a millionaire momentarily. I decided to use it to develop a conservation programme for rare, declining or extinct species in the north west, like the Green-winged Orchid, Small Cudweed and Great Sundew.
Was the project generally welcomed by stakeholders? Reintroductions can be controversial…
Yes, it was mostly welcomed. There was some criticism initially, but I’d like to think that that was all addressed by the initiative being in line with the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) translocation guidance. Essentially the first steps involve finding a suitable receptor site, carrying out botanical surveys and checking that is sustainably managed. Then the next step is finding a donor site from which to collect donor material in line with the BSBI Code of Conduct. And then of course there’s all the liaising with landowners and statutory organisations and getting their consent for particular things. And for a heck of a lot of my reintroductions, I’ll have to prepare suitably-worded feasibility documents as well. So it’s not a case of digging things up and whacking them somewhere else. There’s a lot of time and effort involved including the time to propagate slower growing plants, like Dyer’s Greenweed and Petty Whin for example. You can see the progress we’ve made on the website.
When you started this initiative were you aware of other plant reintroductions in the UK?
No not really. Reintroductions I’ve heard about tend to be skewed towards animals, like Red Kites and Sand Lizards, and all these species that really are generally pretty inconsequential. Plants are the fundamental basis of all life on earth and it’s been estimated that we’re losing a major drug every two years. So plant extinctions, in my opinion at least, are something we need to be much more concerned about. Plant reintroductions aren’t just about, “This site has lost a rare species let’s put it back”. Some habitats, like peat bogs which I work on a lot, have been so degraded that plant introductions are a critical part of ecosystem restoration. For example there are a few species in the Manchester bogs which form a really important part of these heath-mire communities, things like Bog Rosemary, Wild Cranberry and White Beak-Sedge and those plants have all been lost. So putting plant species back sometimes is a real key part of ecosystem restoration as well.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ll be continuing with the NWRPI of course. As well as that one thing that always irked me was the cost of training courses to improve your knowledge base and skill set. So I’ve started an online training platform called British Botany.
The reason I did that was to both make some money, it’s a commercial enterprise, but also to set up something affordable, so people can pay a few quid for an hour’s worth of training material.
Do you have any suggestions for how people trying to improve their botanical skills could best use their time with the lockdown restrictions?
I would definitely recommend joining the BSBI for anyone who wants to up their plants game. Aside from that, what helped me was just looking through photographic guides and the Collins Wildflower Guide when I was younger. That helped me personally just relating those images to the names.
Many thanks Josh, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.