There is nothing better than the great outdoors for a day of vegetation surveying. Vegetation surveying can help track environmental change, and can form an integral part of the biodiversity assessment of a site. In addition, the surveyor can make predictions regarding other biodiversity on the site i.e. if you have Elms (Ulmus sp.) on site, you might have a colony of White letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album), which can help make important site specific management decisions. Also, the knowledge of plants has helped entomologists record the host plants of invertebrates, over several centuries, allowing us to calculate that the English Oak (Quercus robur), supports the most species of insect in the UK.
The ability to identify plant species, also allows the surveyor to identify invasive/alien species, that may become emerging problems in the future, or are already a problem, such as Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) and help to track its spread. Such surveying, especially in tropical countries, may also lead to the identification of new species. Plant surveys, may also bring other benefits, such as finding new compounds to be used in medicine, such as,Willows (Salix sp.) for Aspirin and Rosy Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) from Madagascar, for Vinblastine and Vincristine. One can also specialise in your field, either into the monocots (the grasses-palms etc with parallel leaf veins), or the dicots (the usually larger broadleaf herbaceous plants with reticulate leaf veins). The results of vegetation surveys, allow site management decisions to be properly informed, such as managing grazing, the management for a specific species, planning permission or the general changes that might be taking place across the countryside.
The surveying can be done anywhere where there is vegetation, this is usually not an issue in the UK! However, you must plan your surveying, usually creating an aim and objectives. Here are the steps you go through whilst learning to survey and surveying:
- The very first step is to learn the plants families and distributions, the book Flowering Plant Families of the World, by Heywood et al (2007) is a great place to start, or the Wild Flower Key, specific to the UK by Francis Rose. A range of specimens collected in the field, will help in this task and at this point you will feel that surveying is a slow process.
- Once the plant families key features have been learned, it is time to start learning specific species and surveying can begin. A large part of surveying can be done via quadrats, although, they can range in size from a 50cm square for grassland, to a 100 metre square for woodland.
- As the species are learnt, the quadrats can be assessed accordingly; either by the Domin scale (using percentage cover), or the DAFOR scale (see page 8 of the link). Each method assesses each species in a quadrat. . Unfortunately both methods can be rather subjective. The DAFOR scale records each species by its relative abundance; D=dominant, A=abundant, F=frequent, O=ocassional, R=rare. The Domin scale records each species as a number, as a result of percentage cover 10=91-100%, 9=76-90%, 8=51-75%, 7=34-50%, 6=26-33%, 5=11-25%, 4=4-10%, 3= <4% (many individuals), 2=<4% (several individuals), 1=<4% (few individuals). As a result of overlapping vegetation, percentage cover can exceed 100%. Over time, as your identification skills improve and you become an expert at keying out a species, you will become fairly quick at quadrats and be able to progress to more rapid assessments of a site, where transects are walked, for a quick species assembly/abundance assessment, using the Domin scale. On the other hand, you could just count plant abundance, if one, rare species is all you are after.
- In addition, where surveying is being carried out at a specific site, vegetation can also be mapped, either through a transect type walk or quadrats taken at regular intervals from a site grid. The vegetation mapping allows you too work out the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) of the site and uses the Domin scale to do this. The NVC assessment is used in environmental impact assessments, the UK national ecosystem assessment, as a general conservation tool on wildlife reserves to allow the tracking of changes and by ecological consultancies to survey the former.
- Finally, it is important that all uncommon records be submitted to the local recorders office, for national use, so that changes can be seen across the UK, in regards to climate change or invasive species etc. Such an organisation is the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) which visited the university for their conference earlier in the year.
So please put on your wellies (if you’re in the UK) and get outside and survey !