Gardener, Botanist, Citizen Scientist?


Waiting for the ferry

Most gardeners are good botanists and when interrogated will often reveal a profound knowledge of garden ecology and the wildlife that inhabits their garden and beyond. Many of us take part in all kinds of surveys from garden birds to butterflies and have unbeknowingly been secretly recruited as “citizen scientists”. We have all been citizen scientists long before the PR guru/media nerd, who invented this awful phrase, was let out of kindergarden. Infact amateur naturalists have been pottering way in the countryside since before Gilbert White took holy orders and William Turner became the father of English botany.
It really has taken the men in grey suits rather a long time to realise most of our knowledge on the flora and fauna of the British Isles is based on the work of amateur naturalists. Moreover this army of volunteers can be mobilised to provide a whole host of environmental information for almost nothing. A prospect to make any government accountants heart beat with joy. However, appearances can be deceptive and some of these genteel and mild-mannered amateur ‘ologists, whilst not exactly eco-warriors, can be surprisingly fierce when roused
So as one of the “leaders” of a ragtag gang of assorted ‘ologists (we can only manage a dozen or so on a good day so we don’t count as an army) last week I was on my way to Inverness to “speak truth unto power”. I don’t normally drag my soapbox all the way across Scotland, but sometimes you can’t beat a face to face frank exchange of views and even a little metaphorical table thumping. This was just the opening skirmish, and it will be a hard fought battle, but we are a stubborn and determined bunch and even if we can’t win we will gain major concessions.
So far the only casualty has been my blog which is suffering from neglect and my posts are more erratic than ever. My muse is also grumbling but has been told that she has to exercise her grey matter and put her literary pretensions aside. So my apologies, the periods of AWOL will be more frequent, but I’m still around, reading your posts, visiting your gardens and enjoying your adventures.
If you want to discover more about the “edge of the world ragtag gang” (aka Outer Hebrides Biological Recording) we have a website and a paininthe*book page (I don’t understand social media but apparently we have to have one).


Uncertain Glory of an April Day

which now shows all the beauty of the sun, and by and by a cloud takes all away….
Shakespeare Two Gentlemen of Verona

Charlie's Beach Eriskay

A tropical island, the Caribbean, South Africa, the Mediterranean? No Charlie’s Beach on Eriskay (an island at the south end of South Uist and a ferry ride away from Barra). White shell sand glistens and shimmers, clear turquoise water invites, seals bask, gannets dive and sea eagles languidly move across the bay casually looking for the unwary morsel. Not even a zephyr of wind, only the gentle shush of waves to ripple the senses. When the wind drops, the sky clears and the sun appears I am in paradise once again.
Although a long way from “phew what a scorcher”  Easter Monday was warm enough for an old-fashioned nature ramble and a picnic. The temperature was certainly not tropical, but it was warm enough to amble along without a coat, sit and dream, and eat fruit cake without risking hypothermia.
A change of wind direction often brings clear skies and a respite from the westerly winds and rain which accompany the Atlantic depressions. It heralds the annual outbreak of spring fever as we toil to finish the winter garden maintenance, juggle plants and seedlings, entertain visitors and get the holiday cottage running smoothly. So time to play truant and head for Eriskay. It may seem perverse to drive for 45 minutes with a picnic, all the naturalists’ paraphernalia (cameras, tripods, binoculars, maps, notebooks, and assorted  accoutrements) and the “just-in-case” extra coats, fleeces, hats, gloves, waterproofs, to another island; when we have an equally good beach and wildlife on our doorstep. However, the traditional Bank Holiday expedition to the seaside would not be complete without loading the car with assorted miscellanea and the ritual of making a picnic. So a trip to Eriskay is our version of a “day at the seaside”.
Further south spring has dressed the countryside in verdant green and adorned it with flowers whilst the islands keep Hebridean time, lagging behind at leisurely pace. The first wild flowers: dandelions, daisies, primroses, violets and creeping willow, provide sustenance for the early butterflies and bumblebees, but most of the insects wait for the warmer days of May before emerging. Botanising in the early spring is challenging and often frustrating as identifying plants before the flowers appear is not for the faint hearted novice.

Each year we set ourselves a different challenge and this summer I’m brushing up my botanical skills and teaching myself how to identify ferns. Following in the footsteps of generations of botanists and standing on the shoulders of giants I am devoting my summer rambles to “sekyng of herbes and markynge in what places they do grow” (William Turner 1512-68). The fieldwork for the next botanical atlas of the British Isles has to be completed by 2019 and on South Uist there is a lot of ground to cover by the handful of botanists of the newly formed Uist Botany Group.
A gardener is often a botanist in disguise, so if you would like to get involved in recording wild flowers or just learn more about our native flora visit the Botanical Society of British Isles or Plantlife websites.