Questions and Answers on Plant Atlas 2020
Plant Atlas 2020 is the most in-depth survey of the British and Irish flora ever undertaken. Across the launches for this essential resource, BSBI invited individuals to submit their questions on the work, its findings and its outputs.
Those questions have been collated here to answer Frequently Asked Questions and to give further information on the project. Responses below refer to Britain and Ireland in general, but there is variation at country level (e.g. Scotland has different approaches to both land access and data sharing).
If you have additional questions that you would like to see answered here, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Are the raw records going to be openly published?
The raw data i.e. the individual records underlying the maps will not be released, but the grid square summaries (those used to produce the maps) will be, as will the underlying data behind many of the graphics (i.e. trends, etc.). These will be free to access and download from Natural Environment Research Council’s Environmental Information Data Centre (NERC EIDC).
Please can you explain how the decision was made to treat tree crop species differently to all other crop species?
BSBI records trees and shrubs grown as commercial crops in plantations for the simple reason that they are long-lived and create permanent habitats of wildlife value. Many of these species, including Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine, also regenerate into surrounding habitats to form self-sustaining populations and therefore have the potential to become established in the wild. In comparison, the vast majority of root and vegetable crops are harvested annually and are therefore ecologically benign and unable to establish in the wild, although recorders do record ‘volunteers’ that re-appear in crops in subsequent seasons or occur where seed has been spilled.
What did you include as species - were apomicts included?
We included all flowering plants, conifers, ferns and stoneworts (plant-life aquatic filamentous algae), including many hybrids (both natural and cultivated) and some subspecies and aggregates where the history of recording their component taxa had been confused. We also included some apomictic genera (e.g. eyebrights, whitebeams) but excluded microspecies of dandelions, brambles and hawkweeds.
Are the trend examples for GB only or GB plus Ireland?
There are separate trends for the vast majority of species included in the Atlas for Britain, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England and Wales. Each of the areas also have long and short term trends (long = 1930-2019; short = 1987-2019).
Is occurrence in planted areas, such as wildflower meadows, distinguishable from 'wild' plants in records, and is it important?
Yes, but only if a native plant only occurs as an introduction in a 10 x 10km grid square. At the record-level we do encourage recorders to note for native species if it has been introduced, where known, as this helps us to distinguish the native from introduced ranges on the Plant Atlas 2020 maps. It is therefore really important for us to know this so that we understand where species occur naturally, as this information is vital to their ongoing conservation and for research.
In respect to the botanical heat-maps, if, for example, a bog was privately owned and was not open access to the public would it have any chance of appearing on the heat-maps? i.e. it is unlikely to have associated ad hoc records to indicate the habitat?
Our recorders do not record on private land unless they have been given permission to do so and to make the records available. This means that the heat-maps are incomplete (we can never hope to record everywhere) but working with Natural England, we also provide an interpretative layer that shows which areas have and haven’t been visited, so this can be taken into account when decisions are being made about tree-planting and the need for more in-depth surveys of land that is likely to support open habitats that are likely to be plant-rich.
How much use (if any) was made of airborne LIDAR for the survey, and if used used how useful was it?
As far as we are aware, remote sensing was not used at all by any of the recorders involved in Plant Atlas 2020, although we are aware it can be useful for identifying small habitat features in open landscapes where habitats occur in subtle mosaics (flushes, mires, blanket bog, etc.).
Do you also indicate which species are endemic to the UK/countries in the Atlas?
Yes, this information is included in the species accounts. For example, for Primula scotica, under Biogeography, it says “Endemic”.
The tremendous effort of volunteers must have saved the government a lot of money! Do we know how much and if this is appreciated?
We have not put a cost on the recording effort, which is huge. A very crude calculation, based on ‘recording days’ put the amount of work at around 178,000 recording days.
Can you clarify the ‘non-native species now outnumbering native species’ headline that is being quoted in many of the newspapers?
To be clear, these headlines refer to the number of species recorded during the Plant Atlas 2020 survey and not the abundance of non-natives in the wild. As shown in the British summary report (page 7, Figure 4c), most neophytes are restricted to urban areas and so are generally very scarce in the wider countryside, with a few notable exceptions such as Himalayan Balsam, Pineapple-weed, Field Speedwell, New Zealand Pigmyweed, etc.
What can be done about the increase in invasive non-native species?
One of the most important things that gardeners can do to reduce the impact on non-native species is to dispose of garden waste carefully, and certainly not in wild locations (e.g. over garden fences, into/near to streams, etc.), as the species we dispose of are often very aggressive (hence the need to remove them) and can often regenerate from seeds or roots and take a hold in the wild. This includes refraining from emptying contents of ponds or fish-tanks into ponds, rivers or lakes. Also, try not to grow species that are known to be invasive in the wild such as American Skunk-cabbage – you can find out which species are likely to be invasive by consulting websites such as the GB Non-native Species Information Portal where you can find factsheets on the most invasive species.
What about future invasive non-native species?
BSBI work closely with the Non-native Species Secretariat in Britain to help identify future invasive species through ‘horizon scanning’ exercises as well as carrying out risks assessments of species that are already present and could potentially become a problem in the future. The BSBI also alerts the relevant authorities, such as the Environment Agency, when known invasives first appear so that eradication can take place. BSBI is also a partner in the PlantAlert project to collect information on plants that are causing problems in gardens as well as to raise awareness amongst gardeners and the general public about the threats that invasive plants pose once they have escaped into the wild.
Does the Atlas show a decline in the population size as well as a decline in the extent of a species?
Plant Atlas 2020 can only show shifts in ranges at the 10km scale and so population level declines must be quite large to register change at that scale. This highlights the need for monitoring schemes, such as the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS) or the BSBI’s Threatened Plants Project (2008-2013) which assess changes in abundance at the population level.
Is sowing seeds distorting our view of species change? Can BSBI records distinguish these?
Sowing wildflower seed does distort species distributions, but BSBI recorders go to great lengths to distinguish plants growing naturally in the wild from ones that have been sown, planted or accidentally introduced. This is particularly difficult to do for natives that have been widely planted, such as Oak and Beech, but also for many of our grassland wildflowers, due to widespread sowing in seed mixtures. Wildflower seed sowing is a controversial topic amongst botanists but if done correctly it can create habitats that are valuable for wildlife. It needs to be carefully sited so as not to damage or replacing existing habitats of wildlife value. Ultimately it is all about planting the right species in the right places and recording what you’ve done, so that the BSBI can distinguish native from introduced distributions in the future.
What plants should we/shouldn’t we plant in gardens?
Plant native species such as Foxgloves or Scabious if you can or trees such as Rowan. Try not to plant non-natives that can readily escape from your garden to create problems elsewhere. For example, ground cover plants such as Irish Ivy will quickly spread out over the garden fence, as will Bamboos or the variegated garden form of Yellow Archangel. An increasing number of Cotoneaster species are being found in the wild and are being spread by birds eating berries in gardens and excreting the seeds at their roosts. Ultimately, if a species has the potential to become invasive in your garden, you probably don’t want to plant it anyway! There is a lot of information on horticultural websites.
Will the dataset be available for scientific research? I'm thinking of the published PLANTATT dataset, with a published change index for each species in a spreadsheet?
The overall trends shown on the plantatlas2020.org website will be published on the NERC EIDC website mentioned above, and so will be available for research. Over the longer term, there are plans to revise the trait information available in PLANTATT using the information included in Plant Atlas 2020 including phenology, apparency, occupancy etc.
How does the Atlas reflects reductions in relative abundance within a plant’s current range? That is, a species may still occupy a large range but occur at a far lower density than in previous surveys, which is important in terms of conservation priorities.
The Plant Atlas 2020 website includes ‘tetrad frequency’ maps for each species. These display the number of 2 x 2 km squares that a species has been recorded in within each 10 x 10 km grid square across all time periods. They therefore give you some idea of how frequent a species is at a much finer scale. The tetrad distributions are also visible on the zoomable map function on the Plant Atlas website except for very rare species such as Lady’s-slipper or Alpine Woodsia.
Are you worried about so many Councils planting “wild” flowers - which are not really wild?
Yes! In Ireland, some councils are spraying verges with weedkiller first and then using inappropriate mixes including now-extinct archaeophytes such as Corncockle and genotypes of wildflowers that are genetically very different from the native types (e.g. Yarrow). More information here: https://bsbi.org/wildflower-seed-sowing-pros-and-cons
Are there any major differences in findings from Scotland and England and Wales?
What is happening in Scotland is much the same as in England and Wales. The greater extent of upland habitat means there is more concern perhaps associated with deer numbers and overgrazing. Loss of extensive upland habitats to forestry is also greater, though this is shared with Wales and Ireland. The impact of climate change on arctic alpine survivors in Scotland is more of a concern because these are more of a feature on Scotland’s mountains.
How are the trends in plants due to climate change determined?
The trends included in Plant Atlas 2020 are attributed to the most likely drivers based on habitat associations, the expert opinions of field botanists who know the species (many of whom wrote the species accounts on the website) as well as findings from more detailed studies, such as the work Sarah Watts has been undertaking on snow-patch species on Ben Lawers in Scotland. Further detailed research is therefore needed to prove causation and the precise scale and detail of how key drivers are altering the abundance and composition of our flora.
As well as changes in distribution due to climate change, presumably there are also changes in phenology?
We are sure there have been phenological changes due to climate change and this is something that we would like to investigate further using the Plant Atlas 2020 data, as preliminary work on the apparency graphs included on the website (under ‘Phenology’) for different time periods does show that the ‘peaks’ of records for some species have changed over time. Further research is needed!
Do aquatic plants show the same or worse trends to terrestrial plants, given for example problems with invasives in those habitats?
The multispecies trend for standing waters, rivers and canals in the British summary report does show an overall decline, especially since the late 20th century (see page 23). We suspect the main driver has been pollution and eutrophication from diffuse sources (agricultural, airborne) with increased disturbance and turbidity due to recreation/boats and invasive species adding pressures to that. It is worth noting that the trends for aquatics are subject to an inherent bias due to more comprehensive surveys of aquatic habitats in the 1990s (e.g. the Scottish Loch survey) which may have influenced the trends for many species and by association the overall multispecies trends.
The same can be said for Ireland, run-off of suspended solids and nutrients have radically changed lake flora over the last three decades or more. Some apparent increases, e.g. in Najas flexilis, are due to more intensive survey work: it is known to have been lost at many previously recorded sites.
Have you noticed any regions or parts of regions which have experienced particular gains in species distributions?
As yet we have not had a chance to analyse the data at less than country-level, but we are keen to do this if there is interest (and funding) from the conservation agencies or other organisations.
What was the trend that you discovered but least expected to see?
The slowing or possibly even recovery of the relative frequency of some (often grassland) species during recent decades, although these results may have been influenced by seed sowing.
Is there any evidence of improvements, or at least reduced decline rates, since the last Atlas (2002), compared to the first (1962)?
Yes, there is. The rates of decline for some natives have slowed in recent decades but we have not yet fully investigated the extent to which this is widespread. We are sure this will reflect improved conservation measures, such as agri-environment schemes, but also possibly the sowing of native species as part of wildlife-friendly schemes.
How many "new" neophytes have been found since the last Atlas?
We have not quantified this in detail, but suspect there are hundreds. We have covered an extra 1,000 non-natives this time; many of them were known at the time of the last Atlas but they were excluded due to space. We have to bear in mind that the interest in recording non-natives has increased since the 1990s, largely due to more being included in Floras, and so this increase has to be seen against this backdrop.
It was great to see recently that Forestry Scotland (the forestry government agency in Scotland) has been removing self seeded Sitka outside plantations in the West Highlands. Does the BSBI want to see a ban on the planting of Sitka spruce?
It is good to know that Forestry Scotland are dealing with this invasive species on their estate. Our worries are around the vast areas of private forestry where Sitka has been planted - where we assume private landowners are under no obligation to control it, or indeed would be able to if it has spread onto neighbouring estates/land. No, we are not suggesting that Sitka Spruce should not be planted. We recognise that it is the most important commercial forestry tree, and vital to timber production in Britain and Ireland. What we would like to see, however, is care taken when planting this species (either commercially or for tree-planting targets) to ensure that this does not occur on open habitats that are important for wildlife (plants, bryophytes, waders, etc.) as well as for carbon storage (e.g. mires, bogs, wet heath). In addition we are concerned as to the extent to which it is regenerating into these habitats, thereby ‘drying out’ important wetlands and impacting native biodiversity. Research is urgently needed to establish the extent to which natural regeneration is occurring and its impact.
The Ellenberg ecological indicator values are not available on the Plant Atlas 2020 website unlike its predecessor (Online New Atlas). Is there a reason behind this and where can we now find them?
We did not include the Ellenberg indicator values for light, moisture, reaction, fertility and salinity as they are freely available elsewhere as part of the Plantatt traits base which can be downloaded for free from the Biological Records Centre website here. We are hoping that one of the outputs from Plant Atlas 2020 will be to work with UKCEH to produce a revised version of Plantatt that covers the vast majority of Plant Atlas 2020 taxa and includes new information such as phenology, apparency, updated climate data, etc.
Are the species accounts in the Online Atlas from Atlas 2000 or Atlas 2020?
We used all the species accounts in the 2002 New Atlas but these were extensively edited and updated to take account of the new information gathered during the Plant Atlas 2020 project. We also produced around 100 new accounts for the species not covered in the previous Atlas, mainly non-native species, but also new natives such as Botrychium nordicum, Carex salina, Serapias lingua and Stenogrammitis myosuroides.
How can the public best engage with this online PlantAtlas 2020 and what are the potential benefits of doing so?
The Plant Atlas 2020 website is a fantastic way to find out more about the wildflowers you care about, what’s present in your local area, how it’s doing, see photos and information about when it’s flowering and in leaf. Type the name of your favourite plant into Plant Atlas 2020 (on the ‘Atlas’ tab, in the search box) to find out more. As you learn more about your local plants through Plant Atlas, you can help foster a love of wild plants and share information on the plants you find locally, which will help ensure our wild plants thrive and are valued.
Very interested to see the various multi-species indicators in the summary report, but these don't seem to have any trend values associated with them, i.e. how much each indicator has changed by over time. Are these available somewhere else please?
All the trend information, including the multispecies habitat trends included in the summary reports, will be deposited along with the summary distribution data on the EIDC in due course.
Will there be online tutorials covering how to use the online Atlas?
That is a good point and something I am sure we can do quite easily given some of the editors know it inside out. A simple video guide to what is there and how to see it could be added to the Plant Atlas 2020 web page. Such training for e.g. the county Biodiversity Officers in Ireland was discussed at the Irish launch.
How can we engage more people to train others in botanical skills?
Training more people in identifying and recording our wild plants is vitally important for the future of our wild flora. We’re delighted we have a growing membership (9% a year) and many of our members are keen to pass on their expertise as well as learning new skills themselves. We offer several ways for people to develop their botanical skills from joining the many field meetings the BSBI runs each year, signing up for a variety of training courses and many online learning opportunities. And we encourage those involved to consider becoming trainers themselves.
What major changes do you predict will be reported two decades hence in Atlas 2040?
The future of our flora depends on the extent to which we all implement the actions for nature recovery that Julia outlined in her talk, namely strengthening protection for plants, creating more space for nature, managing land, water and soil more sustainably and raising awareness of the importance for plants for humans and wildlife. If we do all that then hopefully BSBI will be reporting improvements in the fortunes of our native flora in 20 years’ time, especially in the farmed landscapes, where the opportunities for nature recovery are greatest through targeted land management and conservation interventions such as the new Environmental Land Management Scheme in England and similar schemes elsewhere. In addition, if we can make significant progress towards Net Zero carbon targets then hopefully we’ll also see a reversal of the fortunes of some of our rarest montane species that are their climatic limits in Britain and Ireland, and are declining due to our warming climate.
What's BSBI's next survey/recording project now the Atlas has finished?
We already have a fantastic project that botanists of all abilities can take part in across the UK - the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS) which is a partnership between BSBI, JNCC, Plantlife and UKCEH. This started in 2015 and aims to monitor changes in the abundance of indicator species within semi-natural habitats on an annual basis within fixed plots. England, Scotland and Ireland all have projects focused on relocating populations of rare species and there is also a project focused on aquatic species in Ireland. For those interested in phenology there is also the New Year Plant Hunt, a really fun project for the winter months, which takes place annually across the whole of Britain and Ireland.
What plans are there to revise lists of nationally rare and nationally scarce species in line with Atlas 2020?
When are BSBI producing the next Atlas?
At present we have no plans to produce another Atlas. It is incredibly time consuming for recorders and for the analysis and presentation of the results. We will, though, continue to record the distribution of Britain and Ireland’s plants and maintain an up-to-date database to guide conservation and land use management decision-making, as well undertaking other monitoring and surveillance to help better understand changes to our flora and what we can do about it.
What response to the Atlas publication would you like to see from the conservation sector?
We hope that Plant Atlas 2020 provides a compelling 21st century evidence-base for the conservation sector to use to improve the protection, restoration and recovery of wild plants. We hope our partners will use the results to lobby governments and other major decision-makers and landowners over specific issues, to provide the evidence needed to implement/guide conservation interventions, for research into the reasons for how and why our flora has and is changing and to raise awareness of the importance of our flora and the need for its recovery in the decades ahead.
I can see a danger of decision-makers responding to the Atlas by saying “Not another vehicle for special-pleading by a single interest group! Plants should join the queue behind birds, fungi, butterflies and moths, dragonflies and damselflies, beetles and all the rest.” Can I make a plea that BSBI leads on coordination with advocates for other species groups to provide integrated advice to decision-makers?
We agree. We need to recover all our wildlife, although would argue that plants (along with fungi) are the foundation on which all our efforts to conserve wildlife should be built. We therefore agree with Plantlife that the needs of plants should be put at the heart of all conservation activities. We can’t expect farmland birds, moths or butterflies to show recovery until we have recovered the habitats and most of those are built out of plants! But we need to work better together to make sure that this happens.
We are, as it happens, having a joint field meeting in June with the Royal Entomological Society. Such meetings enable people to learn from specialist practitioners about management to maximise biodiversity benefits.
Next steps? Record at county level at 1km or less? Record data on changes in numbers of plants in colonies? Do we know enough to know what to do next..?
There are so many questions that Plant Atlas 2020 has raised and so it is now up to the entire community interested in plants, from researchers through to field recorders, to take the data and start to address some of the vital questions you raise about the ecology of these species and how they operate in the wild.
How are the BSBI promoting the use of the Atlas by both government organisations such as DEFRA and Natural England and also independent organisations such as environmental consultants?
The BSBI has agreements with all the country conservation agencies under which access to and use of BSBI data by their staff and at an organisational level forms a central part. For example, in partnership with Natural England we have developed ‘botanical heat-maps’ that are being used to help guide decisions over tree-planting and we are hoping to extend this so that the data can be used to help target conservation actions as part of agri-environment scheme delivery.
Will you be looking at the Atlas 2020 data to examine key drivers of change in the countryside, for example the impacts of nitrogen deposition, undergrazing and spring droughts?
We would love to do this work but it will require time, collaboration and also funding. If anyone is interested in working with BSBI on any of these issues please do get in touch.
How does and can BSBI work with other NGOs and organisations to strengthen its reach and influence to get the message across about the importance of our plants and how they should be protected and restored?
This is something we aspire to do in our strategy. Now that Plant Atlas 2020 is published, BSBI will want to ensure that our partner NGOs understand the key findings and work with us. That’s already started with Woodland Trust on heat-maps. We need to ensure the other species' NGOs in all the relevant jurisdictions have the key findings about what is needed for native plants going forward and why that would be good for their interests.
What hopes are there that the governments will look at the Atlas website, let alone understand the implications?
It is up to us to push this data and its interpretation to key policy makers. We will do so where we think we can have the best impact. The heat-maps are an example of where we are going to them and saying we have a tool to help you help our wild plant populations and hence the bigger drive to halt biodiversity decline. We need to identify where our data can help them with policy objectives.
How can we meaningfully get better protection of old, plant-rich habitat? Where I live the importance of this is still not fully recognised.
Having high quality botanical surveys is a good place to start as these can then be identified and flagged in the local planning process and potentially designated as Local Nature Reserves or County Wildlife Sites assuming they do not qualify as SSSIs. But obviously that data needs to be made available to decision-makers and that is why we are working hard with partners on things like the ‘heat-maps’ which highlight where these important plant-rich habitats survive.
Are there any plans to update the schedule 9 invasive plant list in light of the findings of the 2020 Atlas?
This s a question for Defra and the Non-native Species Secretariat (APHA), but yes, we will be flagging ‘new’ problem species that Plant Atlas 2020 has shown to be spreading and potentially causing problems for native flora.
Do you think there would be value in a future critical supplement to the Atlas and what changes to recording would be needed before that could happen?
A critical supplement is long overdue, but as you suggest, it would require a separate project that initially identified the taxa to be covered and provide guidance on what and how to record as obviously the majority would need critical determination, collections of specimens, etc. This would all need coordinating and funding, but it certainly should be on the list of future projects that the BSBI considers as it develops its plans for science, survey and monitoring over the next year.
Will you be producing guidance on how to record planted occurrences (e.g. as a result of wildflower sowing) to help recorders?. This could introduces geographic inconsistencies, which could affect trend analysis.
The BSBI has produced guidance on how to deal with planted occurrences of native species here. We plan to produce more general guidance on this topic over the next year and will ensure that this is communicated to recorders.