Friday 26 May 2023

Flora de Yola

It's been months since I schlepped 40km SE on a Tuesday evening to do Wexford Science Café. It's so easy to get slumped on a sofa after tea. The May meeting, however, billed Paul Green from Ballycullane who has recently published (2022) his compendious Flora of County Wexford. Is there a better way to display the book than next of a clump of cowslips Bainne bó bleachtáin Primula veris in our front yard? eeee but I do love an expert - they can be so obsessive: and so, reader, I went.

I came away with some insight into what it takes to record all the plants in a given area. And 'area' is fractal; you can like Louis Agassiz get up close and personal with all the beetles in your back yard or you can go global like Phoebe Snetsinger clocking off 8,300 different birds before she died in a car-wreck in Madagascar. Green has split the difference: his checklist is the 2,558 monads of Co Wexford. That's larger than the official 2,367 km2 area of the county because of the fringe of monads shared across the county borrrder.  A monad is any 100 hectare 1km x 1km square on the official Ordnance Survey grid which maps the county.  Naturalists also respect tetrads [a block of 4 monads] and hectads [a 10km x 10km region]. The whole island is overlain with a grid of 25 lettered 100km x 100km squares; most of Wexford being in squares S and T. 

Except on the open heath and moorland of the Blackstairs, pretty much every monad in Wexford is traversed by a public road. This is of great benefit to folks whose task involves checking off data on a clip-board containing a species list. Farmers, in general, are hostile suspicious about The Man checking up on their business especially if their own paperwork is perhaps sketchy. This introduces a bias: plants which like gateways and roadside verges are just more likely to be recorded than those which hug river-banks or thrive in the middle of pastures - it's the access innit?

So there I waszzzzz paying attention to the war stories of botanists in search of red-list rarities, when up pops a picture of a small Church of Ireland and its yard - they all look alike but this one was tinkling bells of family familiarity. It turns out that my grandfather's final resting place in Saltmills is the Go To place for orchids especially the green-winged one Anacamptis morio. The botanists have begged the parish not to mow the churchyard in May - when this orchid flowers and sets seed - but the parish is on autopilot for keeping the grass trim - protestants gonna protestant. Heisenberg's observer effect whereby the act of recording something affects its existence should encourage botanists to observe but not intercede but it's right difficult to let nature take its selective course. I gather that some patches of rare plants are reseeded occasionally from seed-banks in the National Botanic Gardens Garraithe Náisiúnta na Lus in Glasnevin. But I don't have a dog in that fight.

There are 850 different species of flowering plant in Ireland. Wexford, like most Irish counties, I guess, sports about 150 species per monad. Obviously, some species will be omnipresent while others will be clinging by their sepals in only one place. Linnaeus decided that the easiest way to definitively ID plant species was by considering the details of their reproductive parts. But flowering may happen at pretty much any [species-specific] time of the year except dead winter. Accordingly, a full survey requires visits in at least Spring, Summer and Fall if not every month. But each monad will occupy the recording angel for 1 to 3 hours, and they must go cross-eyed with the effort after a while. At two monads a day, six days a week, 40 weeks a year, it will take 5½ years to cover each location once. And who pays for petrol, let alone botanist-time? All told such a project, done properly, might cost €500,000 in billable hours and expenses. There is a reason why such Flora projects - which generate data essential to documenting the ecological status quo and thus getting a handle on The Future in a climate changing world - have been traditionally carried out pro bono mundo by vicars who have little to do between Sundays and elders who keep active in body by being engaged in mind.

It is notable that Wexford is, botanically, the best covered County on the island. The vast majority of the work has been carried out by Paul Green and his comrade Paula O'Meara neither of whom are inclined to let mere weather rain upon their parade of data. Hats on! - another lashing shower coming in from the West. Paul Green used to blog about his Wexford project. If there is a second edition of this Flora of County Wexford could someone take a leaf out of Geoffrey Grigson's An Englishman's Flora [bloboprev] and include the Irish names? There are only 800 species on the list! You may start here.

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