Sunday, 21 October 2012

PlantTracker - Invasive Plants go Mobile

A brilliant little mobile phone application was launched earlier this year which lets anyone with a smartphone collect and submit records of any of fourteen of the most invasive plant species across Britain. I gave it a try out recently, and  would thoroughly recommend it to anyone interesting in contributing to efforts to control  the spread of damaging alien plants. No great expertise is needed  - just a willingness to get out and about with your mobile nphone.

Developed at Bristol University, PlantTracker can be downloaded for free and installed on any smartphone or iPhone. Visit the website at to get the phone app. or to view the records already submitted.

Himalayan Balsam now chokes many
UK waterways. (Photo: GBNNSS)
All users need do is simply photograph the plant with their phone, then select one of three keywords to describe the size of the colony. Location coordinates are determined automatically by the phone network, but mobiles with GPS give much greater accuracy. Hit ‘Send’ to upload your record to a mapping website, which appear only after each has been checked by validators. Mine have sometimes appeared in less than 30 minutes! And they're dead accurate on the map.

It's no problem if you're in an area without mobile phone coverage. You can store your pictures and coordinates to be sent later.

Helpfully, the phone app contains a library of information and some great images to aid identification in the field before records are submitted. The species included are:
  • Japanese Knotweed
  • Himalayan Balsam
  • Orange Balsam
  • Water Fern
  • New Zealand Pygmyweed
  • Parrot’s Feather
  • Giant Hogweed
  • Floating Pennywort
  • Creeping Water-primrose
  • Piri-Piri Burr
  • American Skunk Cabbage,
  • Monkey Flower
  • Curly Waterweed
  • Screenshot of the PlantTracker website showing
    all Japanese Knotweed records received.
  • Rhododendron.

The website has its own blog, giving users feedback on developments and achievements. For example, when the project received its first verified record of Floating Pennywort (shown below) from a London park, the Environment Agency alerted the managers of the site where it had been discovered, and control measures were put into effect immediately to eradicate it. As you can see from the photo, it really is a plant with an invasive streak.

The website offers standard mapping as well as  Google’s satellite mapping, but not Streetview, which is a shame. PlantTracker can certainly help local groups working with INNS (Invasive Non-Native Species), and any scheme organisers needing full access to the data can contact the PlantTracker team for this.  Helpfully, users can also upload invasive plant records and photos direct from the website.

Surprisingly, PlantTracker doesn't yet allow recorders to be 'pre-approved' after submitting sufficient records of each species. So every report needs an accompanying photograph. I think this might discourage its use for more intensive local recording of particular species, as taking yet another and then another photograph of Himalayan Balsam is eventually going to be seen as a bit of a pain.

Floating Pennywort Hydrocotyle ranunculoides
(credit: GBNNSS)
My main criticism of PlantTracker is that location coordinates are displayed as Latitude and Longitude, whereas conversion to OSGB grid references would have been very helpful for local recorders. As someone who has operated a Biological Records Centre for over 20 years, I can say from experience that we tended to ignore records provided with Lat/Long unless it was something really special. The effort needed to convert each record is just not worthwhile. But I'd have thought that a little algorithm in the programme itself could have provided that conversion. I did like the feature to display all uploaded records. Now, had it displayed the National Grid Reference and the date, that would have been brilliant. That said, I do hope LatLong informaiotn will also be retained - it's great to be able to cut and paste it straight to Google Maps and be taken to the location.

At the  moment the amount of validated records presented on the online maps is nowhere near the amount of data available to us locally. But that's not the point. The point is that this app will, in time, generate additional records, encourage new recorders, and maybe generate a new wave of volunteers willing to help record and take action to remove these invasive species from our waterways and other habitats.

And if I were to offer one other minor criticism, I'd say it would be nice to be able to zoom in on the results page of the PlantTracker website to an area of interest and then to be able to change the species being mapped, rather than having to start afresh and zoom in all over again for each individual species.

All in all, PlantTracker is a superb and simple phone app. Both it and the related website are incredibly easy to use. No doubt future modifications will make them even more effective. The PlantTracker project is a collaboration between the Environment Agency, the NatureLocator team at Bristol University and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

It can be downloaded free from the iTunes store or Android Market.

If you are interested in contributing to efforts to control invasive species in your area, contact your local Wildlife Trust, Biological Records Centre, National Park Authority, or check out the GBNNS website for information on the increasing number of formal 'Local Action Groups' being set up around the country to try to control these alien invaders. 
This is an expanded version of an article written for Derbyshire Biodiversity Newsletter Vol 8 Issue 2 

This review was based on the Android version of PlantTracker ver 1.2.1 running on an HTC Desire HD

Nov 7th: Since this review was posted, I've had contact with Dave Kilbey from the team at PlantTracker. He tells me that OSGB grid references will be added in an update next spring (do keep the Lat/Long display on the database, too, guys). The pre-approving of recorders for particularly common species may be made more obvious - it does actually happen at the moment behind the scenes, but users don't know see it. A pat on the back for being appreciated as a competent recorder would go down well with most users, I'm sure.  I've even suggested that there could also be opportunities for getting greater involvement from the userbase by making the app a bit more like Foursquare, for examle. Users of PlantTracker could win 'badges' for becoming an 'approved' recorder, or for submitting set numbers of records, or for reporting more than one species, or for recording in a certain number of regions, whether they be countries, counties or 10km squares. Perhaps it's a case of 'watch this space'

Friday, 19 October 2012

Climber - a mountain poem


We came down off that hill in darkness, the three of us, 
carrying our burdens upon our backs
 and in our hearts. 

We started out in joyous mood that morning, 
exalted by the day’s beginning; 
by mountains to be climbed and miles walked, 
called by sharp frosts and brilliant sun 
to the very top of this frozen world. 

Our world; a world of naked rock, 
of snow and calling ravens. 
Our world; a world of gaily painted ropes, 
of boots and clanking axes. 
Our world; a world of white and black, 
of welcome and betrayal. 

 And so it was we journeyed upwards into this kingdom, 
our lives connected by purpose and by rope, 
each step freeing us from those cities in which we worked. 

 Upwards we journeyed, at times moving together, 
at times living alone. 
Knowing we are watched, we watched only for ourselves 
and trusted in our fellows. 

And below our feet: 
that infinity;
the valley floor so distant, 
yet always just a slip away. 

 A slip? What term is this? 
A careless move, a moment's inattention? 
One slip
and this welcome world turns traitor to invaders. 

 And so it happened when least expected. 
One man, content in his existence and his challenge, 
knowing he was safe, was unsafe. 

A slip? Who can say? 
Who amongst us can say what happened 
or comprehend the fact that one of us is dead? 
A slip indeed, held at last by rope 
but with life’s thread already broken. 

 We came down off that hill in darkness, the three of us, 
carrying our burdens upon our backs
 and in our hearts.

N Moyes 1987

These words were dedicated to Steve Caswell who died in 1994 in a tragic mountaineering accident in the shadow of Mont Blanc long after I wrote these words. They are also dedicated to his wife, Pam, who managed to survive that incident, but whose life and those of her family were forever changed by it. She passed away peacefully in September 2012 and was cremated today. Appreciating the importance of helicopter rescue, Pam used to raise money for her local service, the Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance to which you can donate here. Childcare commitments mean I couldn't attend her funeral service, so have donated the equivalent of my travel costs to this Air Ambulance Service instead. 

 The poem - if you can call it that - was inspired by my own deep love of the mountains, and especially by the steep, snow-filled gullies of Glencoe in Scotland where I learnt to ice-climb. (The photo used is unrelated to the people or places referred to above.)

Monday, 15 October 2012

A Tale with a Sting

Wasp-killing traps on sale at The Eden Project
A visit to the Eden Project rounded off a superb two week family holiday in Cornwall recently. It was a wonderful day out,  and the organisation is clearly doing  a brilliant job in getting across its conservation and environmental messages.

Brilliant that is, except in one respect. . .

I was saddened to discover on my way out through their enormous shop area that The Eden Project finds it acceptable to generate income by promoting the elimination of wasps. Two separate displays of these pretty glass wasp-drowning traps were on sale to visitors.

Isn't it nice when killing insects can be done in such an attractive and delicate way? Maybe people find these little glass traps attractive; personally, I find it repugnant that such items were being sold there. It completely undermines the ecological message this organisation is promoting. Search their online shop for words like slug, insecticide, killer, pest, or trap and  you'll find nothing else being sold to destroy wildlife in your garden. So why these wasp traps? Is it because they're pretty, and they sell well? Or maybe they just didn't think it through.

An unconvincing justification for
you to buy one of The Eden Project's
pretty glass wasp-killing traps.
I don't worry that hardware stores and garden centres sell insect-killing products, but not an organisation that promotes the ethics and importance of conservation. So come on, Eden Project - follow the example of The National Trust and take these horrid things off your shelves for good, and do it as quickly as you can.

When large organisation with conservation ethics at their  heart get something wrong, it’s heartening to know that just the tiniest of nudges can sometimes get them to rectify their mistakes.
Let's hope The Eden Project will do this.

Twitter saves wasps from death by drowning
In 2011 a single tweet of mine set in motion a change of heart at The National Trust. I had become frustrated with seeing these same colourful wasp traps being sold in every National Trust property I visited. It seemed wrong, and something had to be done.

So I tweeted my concerns to @NationalTrust and received a helpful, but understandably naive reply from their Social Media Team. My response back then elicited an email address for the twitter team. So I set out my arguments to them as to why I felt an organisation like the NT, so closely allied to conservation of the environment, should not be seen to be promoting Victorian-style wasp traps as an acceptable means of pest control in its shops. I pointed out that everything else they sell, say, and do promotes garden wildlife and conservation, so why were these pretty glass ornamental killers being sold? As any social media team should do, they forwarded my concerns upwards for consideration within the organisation, and to their specialist on nature and wildlife, Matthew Oates.

Meanwhile I tweeted to @Buzz_dont_tweet  (aka the charity 'Buglife') which  soon got their CEO,  Matt Shardlow, writing to Helen Meech, the Assistant Director of External Affairs at The National Trust.

Pretty soon the National Trust contacted us to say they'd reviewed their position and had agreed not to order these horrid traps in future. They didn't remove their existing stock, but I'm pleased to say that during the 2012 season I visited a number of National Trust outlets and looked carefully for wasp traps on sale. Not one could be found, though sometimes the shop staff apologised and expressed a hope they'd be back in stock soon.   They won't!

Will the managers at The Eden Project follow the lead of The National Trust and remove wasp traps from sale?  Here's the tweet I sent them this morning

@edenproject As an environmental organisation, how do you justify the sale of wasp-killing traps? Whose decision is it?

I hope to report back on their response soon.

Native wasps are integral parts of our fauna. They play a valuable role in pest control in our gardens, and it’s only for a few short weeks in autumn that they can come into conflict with humans. If they come close to you, don't flap, don't panic, and simply move a hand slowly near them to get them to move. If they come to a picnic, just leave a little bit of meat or sugary food on one side and enjoy watching them go about their business. Call a qualified pest control officer if you have a large wasp nest near your property causing you genuine problems. Remember, the colonies all die off in winter - only the queen survives through to the next year.
If you really want a trap from The Eden Project, my kids were delighted when we came away with this instead.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Derbyshire - a geological poem

Today is National Poetry Day, so it seemed appropriate to dig out a few words I penned some years ago to sum up the the geology of our wonderful county. It was intended for use in the 'On The Rock's geology gallery that I was working on at Derby Museum & Art Gallery. In the end it was never utilsed. So here it is  - 23 years on.

Bleak northern moors of heathered grit,
sheer edge of climber's play;
green barren land of woven wall
and dale of Limestone Way.

In lowland south lies farm and wood
on rolling, marl-rich ground;
where rivers flow by valley side
are town and city found.

On eastern flank black coal is hid,
layered in shale and sand;
that dirty jewel of modern times,
hewn out by human hand.

Much quarried once, and still today,
for stones hard won and fought,
rock-wrenching mines of industry
this county's treasure sought.

Grey lime, dark grit and basalt black,
red marl and pebbled land;
all make these scenes of Derbyshire,
slow-carved by Nature's hand.