Friday, 19 March 2010

Lloydia Serotina: Life on the Edge

You would think that coming from Lancashire within a short distance of the Wilton quarries and not too far from the Peaks and the Lakes would have resulted in Barbara Jones starting climbing at a tender age. Not so: apart from playground climbing frames and the back yard walls of the terraced houses in Bolton where she grew up, the idea of climbing rocks didn’t even enter her head until she moved down to Surrey to study geography at Kingston and joined the Mountaineering club. 
Her first climb was something of an epic, when she was taken on a ten hour (partial) ascent of Bluebell Cracks on Dinas Mot, with the bewildered Barbara wondering whether all rock climbs took this long!  Undeterred,she tried again the next day and the rest is history as they say. Once hooked the addiction was there for life and since then mountains and climbing have steered work and play. The play part has taken her all over the world with her husband and fellow addict Nigel, from ascents of Himalayan and African Peaks to rock climbing in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Africa, the Middle East . 
The work part began in mountaineering shops in London and Cambridge,progressed to being an instructor in outdoor education centres before finally focusing on conservation and ecology, particularly of mountain environments, which had long been an interest.  Barbara has been working in conservation since the mid 1980s, initially with the Nature Conservancy Council in the Scottish Highlands as a regional conservation officer then transferring down to Wales covering Eryri in a similar role.  Lots of mountains – wonderful!  She is currently CCW’s Upland Ecologist for Wales, involved in many aspects of the ecology,research, conservation and management of the Welsh uplands.  Her main interest is in arctic-alpine vegetation, usually found in the high mountains and latitudes of the world.  Researching for a PhD into the ecology, genetics and conservation of the Snowdon Lily further developed her interest and specialism in arctic-alpine, cliff and montane flora.

She has written conservation notes for many of the North Wales climbing guides and is a specialist adviser to the BMC on access, conservation and environment issues.  Having a foot in both camps, she works to defuse potential conflicts between the recreation and conservation worlds and has organised seminars, given lectures and written articles on issues such as gorge walking, winter climbing, protection of rare mountain habitats and the effects of climate change on our future recreational use of the mountains.  She still climbs whenever possible; climbing on summer evenings after work at Gogarth or in the Pass still being one of the joys of life (well it would be if we ever have a summer again!)

Suddenly, being deposited ten feet back down at the base of the cliff with my handhold still firmly clutched in my right hand was not what I had expected or wanted.  The cliff had shrugged us both off, me and the handhold, to a painful landing. Whilst contemplating my next move, the feeling came upon me that I wasn’t alone. But, who else would be in this remote, seldom visited part of Snowdonia?  Looking around, I slowly became aware of a number of black shapes on the surrounding rocks, high and low, ranged almost in a semi-circle around me.  There must have been eight or nine of them, hunched up and staring intently at this human form sitting on the ground.   Death’s harbingers?  Was this the end or was I being fanciful?  Of course I was.  I’m a scientist and seldom taken to flights of fancy and it only took a second or two to recognise that I was almost surrounded by a group of my great mountain friend, the Raven.   Perhaps they were tired of a diet of dead sheep and small mammals and thought I was soon to be fair game or possibly (and nice to think) they were looking out for me as a potential comrade – after all, I am coming back as a raven or chough in my next life.  It is an eerie feeling to have sixteen eyes all focussed on your every move, so I self-consciously got up and busied myself in limping around my perch on a shelf of land above the valley floor, hoping that they would soon leave their perches and find another potential food source.

Here I am high in the Welsh mountains, not climbing to the summits, but researching the ecology and genetics of one of the rarest plants in Britain, the Snowdon lily.  This is no member of a flowery meadow though.  No locations in a flat meadow landscape or a southern heath for this survivor.  Only the steepest, coldest, most exposed mountain cliffs will do as a habitat for a plant which is so delicate looking that you would think it couldn’t even survive in a greenhouse.  In fact it survives much better on these exposed cliffs than under cultivation and most botanic gardens and gardeners have given up on its domestic possibilities years ago.

So what is the attraction of studying this and other plants of the mountains?  If the cold and wet weather, loose rock, long walks with a heavy load, bruises in unmentionable places are all accompaniments to a life of mountain botany, why do it?  I often have to spend hours suspended from a rope, taking notes with numb, cold fingers and trying not to drop anything down the cliff face as I survey these mountain plants.  Sometimes I arrive at the bottom of the cliff vowing my next research will be into desert ecology.  Why not chose a nice rich meadow with 100’s of species and somewhere comfortable to sit?  Well, I could cite the wonderful plants and superb scenery as rewards after the sheer physical effort of getting to and studying these gems hidden away in our generally botanically impoverished hills.  There is also the satisfaction of learning new things about the biology and ecology of these plants and their environment.  These are all important, but there is more.  I am a scientist, but it is partly the non-scientific part of me which relishes the challenges and the pleasures of studying these plants - the part which is a climber and mountaineer and which identifies with and almost shares the attractions and trials of coping with this environment.  These tough little plants look so fragile, but they cope with and have adapted superbly to their environment, just as I try to cope with and adapt to the mountains in which I work and play.

These plants aren’t there because they can’t grow anywhere else, but because they have adapted to what we consider a hostile environment.  Most of them hug the rocks or the ground to keep out of the wind and have a cushion shape to retain heat and allow slow growth from one year to the next.  The Snowdon lily, however, is a bulbous plant which cheekily pokes its slender stem and grass like leaves up out of cracks in the rock as if challenging the wind and rain to do their best to dislodge it.  The single white flower looks similarly delicate, but this plant occupies some of the most hostile mountain terrain in Britain on north facing, cold, wet cliffs where it has hung on for at least 10,000 years since the last retreat of the glaciers.   This is in contrast to its habitat in many other parts of the world, where it grows on sunny, rolling alpine tundra and copes with bitterly cold conditions during the winter months.

Studying these plants is fascinating and hopefully will eventually help us to understand how to conserve them through the challenges of climate change.  This is a tough challenge for plants growing right on the edge of their range; plants normally adapted to extremes of cold at high altitudes or latitudes.  How will they respond to rising temperatures and possibly increasing wetness?  In the UK the Snowdon lily is only found on a very few high cliff sites in Snowdonia and has nowhere else to go if conditions become too unsuitable.  Should we care?  After all it is found in abundance in many other mountains ranges of the world.  In one gully in Mongolia, I once saw more Snowdon lilies than occur in the whole of Wales – in one gully – how many more of those must there be? 
I think we should care.  On a scientific basis, plants and animals on the edge of their range are often special and can have attributes and adaptations which don’t occur in individuals in the centre of their range.  These differences are the stuff of evolution and if we lose these, then we lose an important part of the variety and diversity of life and of future possibilities.  They are also the pit canaries of modern times – they can give us an early warning that things may not be quite right.  We should also care on a personal basis.  Conservation is important on a individual as well as a global level and the loss of something like the Snowdon lily in Wales would be extremely sad for many people as it is more than an edge-of-range species, it represents something special to them and to their perception of the mountain environment in Snowdonia.

Even the scientific name Lloydia serotina is important in the Welsh context as it is named after the first person to discover it in Wales.  Edward Llwyd, a botanist and polymath discovered this small, bulbous plant growing on high rocks in Snowdonia in 1682 and it was later named after him.  The discovery stimulated interest in the plant in the eighteenth century when a number of intrepid botanists braved the then relatively unknown and challenging Welsh mountains to find it.  Records of botanists nearly losing their lives on the ‘summits where it grows wild’( Salisbury ) or on the cliffs: ‘..others held fast to the other end of the rope, he lowered himself down the face of the cliff and reappeared a few minutes later with a few specimens held in his mouth and more in his hat’ (Jones) show the risks these men were prepared to take to find this rare plant.  Unfortunately, they were not there to record and admire the lily in situ, but to collect for their own personal herbaria.  Records of ‘basketfuls’ being collected still send shivers down my spine, as does the account of a vase full of  Snowdon lily plants decorating the dinner table at the hotel where many of these intrepid explorers lodged!  It is easy to criticise these actions from our 21st century perspective, but these explorers did not know that their activities would contribute to the rarity of the species in Wales.  Indeed plant collecting was all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries, with local guides being employed to take the botanists to the best sites and, if this was not possible, to sell samples of the plants which they had collected themselves!

In the UK, the Snowdon lily is only found on a few cliffs in Snowdonia; confined by  collecting in the past and  heavy sheep grazing in the present.  These cliffs represent some of the sites in the UK least affected by man.  We have modified and tamed most of the land in one way or another, but generally cliffs are affected only by airborne pollution making them more ‘natural’ than most other places.  So much of our conservation is ‘gardening’ where we manage a habitat for one or more species, but the few mountain plants we have in the UK have so far managed to grow without our intervention.  The challenge is to keep this the case and stop things getting to the state where ‘gardening’ is needed.  What could we do; plant the Snowdon lily further north where it could become the Ben Nevis lily?  A sad thought.

It is abundant in many mountain ranges of the world, such as the European Alps and the Rocky Mountains of North America, where my studies have focussed on how the Welsh plants compare with its more abundant, distant cousins.  Working in the Welsh mountains has its fair share of difficulties, mainly due to cold and wet weather, but research abroad can present challenges of a different sort.  On Vancouver Island I was faced with a bear in the forest just at the beginning of a search on one mountain.  What do you do?  I followed all the text book instructions, I tried to look big (not easy for me), didn’t turn my back and made no threatening movements.  Then what?  After about 10 minutes of this, the bear stood up on its hind legs, took a good look and then ambled off, probably deciding I wasn’t worth the effort.  Neither was my search that day as, despite coping with glaciers, crevasses and bad weather, no lilies were found.   Other challenges threatening to halt survey work include a lightning storm which literally shook the ground on a mountain in Wyoming, Elk eating my samples, a foot of snow obscuring survey plots and food poisoning in the Polish Tatra Mountains.   This may all seem like hard, unpleasant work, but I like to think of it more as a challenge to  visit a distant friend, one who has a fascinating story to tell and I feel privileged to be unravelling that story which has been hidden for all these 1000’s of years in the Welsh mountains.

I am particularly interested  in studying the genetics of these plants.  To most people, including me at one time, genetics is a subject to avoid, seemingly too mathematical and complex.  In recent years, however, it has been used to study the history of evolution and migration of many plants in Britain.  This produces some fascinating results and works like a detective story.  Consider the Snowdon lily.  Why is it only found in Snowdonia in Britain when most alpines are found in greater numbers in Scotland?  Why isn’t it in Scandinavia?  Do our plants relate to their nearest neighbours in France and if so how different are they to them?  Did our plants survive here during the last ice age?  All these questions and more can be addressed by research including genetic methods to give answers which can really help in our attempts at conservation.  I do sometimes feel a little guilty though.  I consider Lloydia (the latin name for the Snowdon lily and one I use affectionately) as my friend and it can occasionally feel intrusive to be dissecting its every secret and studying everything from its sexual habits to its distant ancestry.  However, it doesn’t give in easily and retains some of its mystery  by refusing to allow me to grow it successfully.  I know few plants which are more difficult to grow.  Most botanic gardens have given up and I know of only one specialist nursery in Britain which has been successful in recent years.

These years of work and play in mountains all over the world see me see-sawing in my approach to conservation in the Welsh hills.   Often when I return from a trip abroad, particularly if I’ve been doing some fieldwork in the European Alps or the Rocky Mountains in the USA, for the first few days I see the British hills in a different perspective.   They seem depauperate, over managed and subdued.    The ice ages removed much of our flora and our island status has cut us off from most immigration of new plant species from the continent.  This has combined with years of heavy sheep grazing in the uplands which has removed much of the remaining interest (except on the inaccessible cliffs) leaving range after range of ‘bare’ hills with only isolated islands of a more natural vegetation.  Look at many of the hills of Wales, the Lake District or the Pennines; several of our treasured landscapes are far from natural and as an ecologist I sometimes despair at the lack of trees, scrub, heath and specialist mountain plants.  Despair quickly turns to delight, however, when I do find a copse of stunted hawthorn high on a hill or a clump of Saxifrages growing out of a rock outcrop.  The little we have becomes even more precious and makes me even more determined to protect them and increase their numbers.

I don’t consider that we have ‘wilderness’ in Britain any longer.  Some places are wilder than others and the term wilderness can be relative – what is a managed agricultural environment to one can be wild and untamed to another.  Wales still has a few wild places where you could imagine the imprint of man to be absent, but the trouble with being an ecologist is that you know how much more natural the land could be. For me, conserving arctic-alpine or mountain plants is an attempt to restore some of the essential wildness which is so absent in Britain in the 21st century.  The physical and intellectual challenges of how to do this can be daunting, not only is there the whole issue of European and British agricultural policies to deal with, but also the more prosaic matter of getting to the plants.  In many of the bigger mountain ranges of the world, access to study mountain plants can be relatively easy.  Many grow within metres of the road as in the Alps, or are accessible by telepherique or just a short walk along a wonderful alpine path.  No such advantages in Wales, however.  We may have a train to our highest mountain, but that doesn’t help if the plants are on any mountain other than Snowdon.

When I first arrived in the Rocky Mountains, I tried not to stand on any Lloydia plants, being conditioned into working with its rarity.  If you have ever tried to avoid standing on buttercups in a buttercup meadow, you will know how difficult that is.  The amusement of the local botanists together with the sheer impossibility of avoiding the 1,000s of Lloydia plants soon saw me crushing it underfoot with the best of them.  We won’t ever achieve this abundance in Wales;  the environment is not suitable for it to grow in profusion in our mountain grasslands, even if grazing was greatly reduced.  It will always be a rock dweller here, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was abundant enough so that people could see it easily without needing ropes?  Or would it?  Perhaps we need our rarities?  Perhaps we like the feeling that this is something special and to make it more commonplace would destroy its mystique and its attraction ?  If we could guarantee that it would remain rare but not decline further, that could be an option, but such rarity can presage extinction, even if it is just a local extinction, so we do need to keep up our conservation efforts, even if it just means running to stand still.

Ravens often accompany me in my work in the Welsh mountains, their throaty cronk piercing the mist while they wheel around keeping an eye on their domain.  The collective term for a group of ravens is an Unkindness of ravens.  I think that a little harsh for a bird which is more aloof than unkind. The raven is large, robust and at ease in the ruggedness of the Welsh mountains, whereas the Snowdon lily looks delicate and fragile, seemingly completely unsuited to its mountain setting.   However, both are superbly adapted to the cold and shaded heights, whilst we struggle to cope with this environment even for a short time.

A botanist friend who died many years ago once said that as mountain botanists in Wales we spend our lives in the shadows, seeking out the hidden gems in the cool, north facing, shaded environment which they favour.   We are nowhere near as adapted to this environment as are the Snowdon lily or the raven, but perhaps our intrusions into their world can help to ensure that they continue to enjoy life in the Welsh mountains and that their environment is improved enough to encourage them to increase in numbers and for the plants to spread out of their cliff refuges and continue to delight us for another 10,000 years.

Barbara Jones©


Jones, D.   1996   The Botanists and Guides of Snowdonia.  Gwasg Carreg Gwalch.

Salisbury, R.A.  1812   Transactions of the Horticulture

First published as  Lloydia Serotina :Life on the Edge  by Barbara Jones;  from 'In Her Element' Women and the Landscape - An Anthology.  Edited by Jane MacNamee and published by Honno Press,Aberystwyth in 2008.

Thanks to Barbara and The Honno Press for permission to republish this work. All photos Barbara Jones collection©