Last week I went on a grass identification course run by the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS).
This is a habitat-based plant monitoring scheme designed by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), Plantlife and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).
The aim is to collect data to provide an annual indication of changes in plant abundance and diversity, to match the information already gathered on changes in bird, butterfly and bat populations.
Volunteers are allocated a 1km square to visit and record indicator species. This is not just for experienced botanists, as volunteers only have to record 25 to 30 indicator species per habitat. These are distinctive species specially selected to allow NPMS to monitor changes over time.
The need to know my grasses
With my interest in grasses I feel I should be able to identify every grass head at first sight. But I can’t – because there are so many different species and varieties.
So off I drove to Upperthong Village Hall, just outside Holmfirth in Yorkshire, to meet senior ecologist Nick Law, who works for FPCR Environment and Design, and is also associate tutor for Manchester Metropolitan University and the Field Studies Council.
The beginning was easy – how to recognise a grass from sedges and rushes. Then we had to start identifying different grasses!
Botanical terms I hadn’t even thought of since A level biology and first year botany at Seale Hayne, suddenly came to the fore. Ligules, auricles, culms, spikelets, lemmas, glumes, panicles, racemes and many more!
It is essential to have a good reference book – and the one of my choice was Grasses by Hubbard 3rd Edition printed in 1984. But this has to be used with a key produced by Dr Ken Adams of the University of East London, based on the spikelets (the flowers) and the ligules (the little piece of membrane at the back of the leaf joint).
And then we were off, with a hand lens and a pin to tackle the seven or eight grasses Nick had foraged around his home the previous day.
There was marsh foxtail, crested dogstail, wood melick, fern grass, hairy oat-grass, squirrel fescue and purple stem cat’s tail!
A far cry from perennial ryegrasses and timothy’s and fescues I see and write about everyday. And really after the first two or three – quite challenging.
The key jumps from section to section, depending on whether the head is or isn’t a panicle, or a flowering stem culminating in a bunch of several finger-like clusters of stalkless spikelets!
Sometimes we went too far down one branch of the key and had to retrace our steps carefully to find out where we had gone wrong.
Once we had got so far we were given page numbers to look at Hubbard – where we would find a few pages of similar grasses, with useful diagrams and text going into minute botanical detail – like whether the ovaries were hairless or not!
So can I identify the grasses I see along my morning dog walks now?
Well not straight off – but I know I could if I picked a few heads and brought them home and dissected the flowers.
I have ordered my own copy of Hubbard and a hand lens – so as soon as they arrive, I’ll be off gathering as many flower heads as I can!