Vegetation and the plant community make up the largest part of an ecosystem. Flora has important roles in modifying environmental factors as well as providing an essential food and energy source for animals. Knowing what vegetation is present in a specific area, and the changes to this over a period of time is important to support understanding and decision making which directly effects ecosystems. Our knowledge and understanding of some - often animal - species in the UK is well developed due to the regular monitoring of some specific species, such as bats, which can influence evidence-based decision making. This can be anything from local or national initiatives, to international policy aimed at addressing existential threats to animal species. Given that plants are key ecosystem service providers, it is perhaps surprising that there is relatively little information about many species of vegetation.
The role of plants in a healthy ecosystem
Ecosystem services are seen as the variety of benefits gained by humankind from the natural environment. They include the provision of products such as food, or wood for fuel. Regulation of the environment is another form of ecosystem services, for example by providing the correct situation to allow for pollination of plants by bees. Collecting data over an extended period relating to vegetation species will result in more informed environmental decisions to be made to help protect species.
Surveys help us learn more
The collection of information takes place with the monitoring of vegetation through the use of surveys. Monitoring involves repeated measurements, usually of the same locations (sample units), to assess changes in arrangement, structure and condition over time. These can be at a different scale, such as one square metre or one kilometre. This is known as vegetation dynamics and may also allow the investigation of the processes that influence vegetation change. The continued use of well-designed monitoring information allows comparisons to take place to establish if management or policy objectives are being achieved. This is done by assessing changes which can result in better effective management actions to be developed.
Much of the data currently available is and has been, gathered in different ways by members of the public - often volunteers and students - which can create some problems! Historically the data from one monitoring survey has not always used the same criteria as the data collected in another. This makes it very difficult to compare the information like-for-like, and this, in turn, makes it difficult for any reliable trends to be established with true confidence.
A new way of working – get involved!
To address this lack of reliable data a new scheme was launched in the UK in 2015. The National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS) aims to overcome some of the earlier lack of consistency in vegetation monitoring. This scheme invites members of the public to get involved.
The figure above is that of an imaginary plant with its parts labelled. This will be useful when trying to identify species – but do remember that their size and shapes vary so it can take a while to identify these on different species. Using this along with a plant key will help you to identify plants when you are out and about.
Where to start...
Plant keys are available in both printed and digital formats. There are numerous printed books available, such as:
Alternatively, you can opt for an online version (that could be printed out) – such as the Species Identification Guide provided by the National Plant Monitoring Scheme
There is a range of both free and priced apps, such as Plant Identification or What's that flower?. Hopefully, you will be able to find a format that works for you!
Do remember do not dig up wild plants, even for species that are not rare it is illegal to do so without the landowner’s permission.
Having read about vegetation surveying and perhaps having had a go you may like to take this further by volunteering for the National Plant Monitoring Scheme allowing you to be part of this large project to collect useable data across the UK.