New year plant hunt gives young, keen, diligent botanists adrenaline spike

Long-term objective is to see how wildflowers are responding to changes in weather patterns and climate

Twitchers are a more intent species, as it were, than mere birdwatchers, but botanists seem to lack their ultimate compulsion. This may be just as well, since a rare plant, ringed suddenly by too many boots, has no means of flying away.

Today’s botanists, however, increasingly young, keen and anoraked, do spike one occasion with adrenaline: the new year plant hunt on January 1st. How many flowering plants could you list in three hours of scouring the local ground?

Even more competitively, who is to claim the First Flower of the Hunt? The really keen, it seems, have it photographed by torchlight shortly after midnight. On New Year’s Day 2019, for example, one Ger Collard from Tralee, Co Kerry, submitted pictures of five plants before 12.30 am.

Collard is a member of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI). Its acronym was adjusted in 2013 from its claim to the whole “British Isles,” such had been the historical weight of visiting experts from next door. Some would have laid a colonial claim to the Burren. But Ireland’s sterling fieldwork for a massive new flora secured us our rightful place


Its latest plant hunt, the ninth, involved 1,714 people, from Shetland to Guernsey, Donegal to Norfolk, west Cork to Kent. Often searching in family groups, they recorded more species in bloom – 615 – than ever before.

The highest totals, predictably, were from the south and west of both islands. Swanage, on the UK south coast, had the longest list of 115. In fourth place came 85 species at Ballycullane, Co Wexford, from experienced Irish recorder Paul Green.

The long-term objective of the hunt is to see how the wildflowers of these islands are responding to changes in weather patterns and climate. In the survey’s brief record, the latest hunt was pretty average. “We can’t yet prove that more species are flowering in mid-winter,” says Dr Kevin Walker, the BSBI’s chief scientist. But the hunt has already shown that, in milder winters, more plants flower because of warmer temperatures and fewer frosts.

On January 25th, a Kerry reader sent Eye on Nature a cheering photograph of lesser celandines in flower, a week or two ahead of normal schedule. But only 24 per cent of the BSBI’s new year flowers were springtime specialists such as celandine and primrose, so there was “no indication of an early spring”.

Indeed, more than half were wayside autumn stragglers such as yarrow, ragwort and hogweed. And the leading species, topped by daisy, groundsel and dandelion, commonly offer mid-winter blooms.

The ready use of common wildflower names, where appropriate, alongside the Latin binomials of Linnaeus, marks the modern informality of botany. It’s true that in papers at Ireland’s spring conference in the National Botanic Gardens, something such as festuca grasses may be salted with Latin names – that’s science. But, more and more, diligent amateurs are joining surveys with professionals, enlivening online websites and blogs, and painlessly absorbing the weighty fistful of Webb’s Irish Flora.

Ireland even has a team known at the Rough Crew, led by Dr Rory Hodd, "ecologist, botanist and montivagant, with a passion for liverworts, mosses and mountains". A montivagant is, indeed, a wanderer over hills and mountains, and Hodd inspires an adventurous troupe of young followers – typically three women and five men – to seek out the plants of rain-soaked ledges on the high, rocky scarps and ravines of the west.

Much of this is pursued on the mountains and islands of Co Mayo, where the rocks themselves are of infinite variety and interest. That is, if one could master enough geology to tell them apart and fit their shapes and stories into the landscape.

An engaging encouragement has been published by Mayo County Council in Reading the Rocks (€15 in local bookshops). A geological audit produced an impressive choice of more than 100 significant sites in Mayo, some of international note, such as the metamorphic rocks of the Mullet Peninsula, 1.75 billion years old.

From these, two geologists at NUI Galway, Dr Ronan Hennessy and Prof Martin Feely selected 21 sites to show the great range of Mayo’s geological story. Many are strikingly photogenic, such as the great sea stack of Dun Briste at the tip of Downpatrick Head. And “there is never the necessity”, the publisher warns, “to hammer, dig or collect samples”.

Carrowniskey Strand, south of Louisburgh, is well featured in the book. It was my own early hunting ground for huge and beautiful pebbles, glacially gathered and rounded in the sea, and Reading the Rocks would have helped me with their story before the great storms that swept so much of them away.

A stubborn obstacle to enjoying books about geology is their unchippable sediment of science-speak. This one has a generous glossary, usefully unpacking the information condensed into single terms. But arriving at, say, “ophiotic melange”, I think I’d still rather scramble through the awns, bracts, corymbs and corollas of botany.