BioSCAN Teacher Notes : Checking Out Local Plants and Animals
in Public Spaces and Gardens
The aim of BioSCAN is to support monitoring of neighbourhood wildlife through biodiversity checkpoints centred on the local school. The common objective is to provide schemes for people to implement long-term projects to record seasonal changes. In particular, schemes of work match the varied opportunities, and restrictions of school environments, ranging from the enclosed urban tarmac of the inner city, to the open countryside of a village. A common issue is the long term security of living indicators. In this connection, the most vandal-proof resource is a mowed lawn, which is monitored regularly to maintain its dandelions, buttercups and daisies and sustain a grassland insect population! In many urban schools the only way to grow things is to use containers. Whatever scheme is chosen the common objective is to make records. The basic record is a neighbourhood nature diary. Some of the schemes allow records to be entered into a national database for long term geographical comparisons to be made.
Another specific aim of BioSCAN is to bring the study of the plants and animals in public spaces and gardens into the curriculum. Plants encountered by most people on a day to day basis are in gardens and parks. Very few of our garden favourites are natives of Britain. Yet they contribute to local biodiversity, maybe as 'garden escapes', but also, even if they never set seed, through their support of 'native' animal life as homes and food. Foreign ornamentals, because of their striking colours and shapes are memorable teaching materials, particularly when backed up with information about their place in history, ecological origins, and general principles on growth and reproduction. In this connection, named garden varieties have the advantage of being comparable across the country. Native plants are not neglected, and in the inner cities, weeds of derelict land and cut grass may account for most of a neighbourhood's biodiversity. From this aspect, BioSCAN treats weeds as resources
One of the limiting factors in monitoring wildlife is most people's lack of taxonomic skills. This is overcome with a nature diary for recording things which most people know, either in broad categories of types, such as butterflies, or as individuals, such as hedgehogs. Also, experience has shown that being commonplace does not ensure survival, and keeping an eye on common things is important in the long-term. The comprehensive BioSCAN menu is given in Fig 1.
With the recent search for evidence for global climate change, the consistent keepers of nature diaries have been catapulted into the scientific arena because of their long-running sets of data on such things as, birds visiting gardens, flowering times of plants, and increases in the girth of trees. These show unmistakable trends indicative of local warming for places as far afield as Vermont and Surrey.
Fig 1 The BioSCAN menu
3 Charting the Seasons
A significant contribution can be made over the years by answering questions such as:
- when do the first swallows arrive?
- when do plants flower in our community?;
- what aspects of the local environment could influence the timings?
BioSCAN is a local Welsh expression of the national 'Phenology Network Pilot Scheme' which aims to establish a national network of biological check points to record the annual timings of 'biological firsts'. 'Phenology' is the study of life-cycles. The long-term objective is to gather information about trends in biological processes which are timed by the seasons and provide an early warning of the decline in local wildlife. Already this kind of information is being used to test theories about global warming, and the local impact of atmospheric pollution. The time- commitment can be as little as a once a year check on the girth of a roadside tree, or a regular flower-check during the school lunch break, to a long-term experiment on the influence of pot size, growing medium, and position, on the life-cycles of different ornamental cultivars.
4 The Bigger Picture
Questions about seasonal activities of living things are at the root of biology. In the 17th century these questions initiated accurate field observations to define the annual timing of plant and animal development, and raised questions about why there are differences from year to year, and place to place. Some of the earliest work of this kind took place in the botanical gardens of Upsala University where, over 200 years ago, Linnaeus and his students produced regular seasonal lists of the first appearance of local flowers in field and garden. These were called "Calendars of Flora". This kind of activity led in England to the keeping of nature diaries by countrymen, such as Gilbert White, who was the parish priest in the Hampshire village of Selborne. British calendars tended to emphasise life cycles of birds, and seasonal changes in gardens .
These calendars or diaries not only recorded the sequence of biological change from year to year, but were also the basis of speculations about the underlying biological systems and their controls. For Linnaeus and his followers, an important motivation was knowledge to augment economic gains from the exploitation of natural resources. Amateur naturalists, like White, were motivated by a desire to live in peaceful coexistence with other organisms. These two threads of ecological history are still with us. Globally, they are at the heart of our dilemma to proceed with world development, whilst trying to maintain a sustainable supply of Nature's bounty. Nationally, the need to balance the two forces is expressed in plans for sustainable development and biodiversity- the political response to the 1992 Environment Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
To gain maximum value from annual recording of any biological feature requires a long term commitment on behalf of individuals and groups. Hopefully, this 'hands-on' experience with seasonal and year to year changes in neighbourhood nature will stimulate individuals to interact more widely with their local council's sustainable development, and biodiversity action plans (the Local Agenda 21).
Amenity trees are important local symbols of sustainability. Through their longevity, trees provide continuity between human generations; through their function as ecosystems in their own right, local wildlife depends on them either for food and shelter, or simply as a place to become attached to. Every tree is therefore important, and for most of us, a day to day affinity with nature can only come through an awareness of the scattered trees in our streets, parks and gardens. Indeed, the first step in the government's strategy for sustainability and biodiversity is to increase awareness of the commonplace plants and animals that we pass day by day, but do not see.
'Tree SCAN' can begin with the simple survey form for 'street trees' in SCAN's Key Stage 2 pack. Then, 'Trees Are Like People' provides an identikit to record the character of individual trees, and the timing of important events, such as 'bud-burst', from year to year. Local results may be added to a national SCAN database to make geographical comparisons. There is also support material to integrate practical work on trees, and wood, into a range of subject attainment targets, and to support 'Trees' as a cross-curricular topic, in Key Stages 1 and 2.
Environmental management and hedgerows go together. A good hedge takes longer to create than a stone wall but, once established, it becomes an enduring feature, perpetuating itself year by year, increasing in its diversity. With or without trees, with good management, it becomes the chosen habitat of many species of plants and animals. Its loss, or mismanagement creates a new imbalance in nature. The hedge is not only beautiful in itself, a scene which changes with the
seasons, it has an economic value. For centuries it has played its part in the rural scene, a resource to be husbanded by generation after generation for its fuel, fodder, food and herbal remedies. As an historical record, and as a nature reserve, there is little dispute that the hedgerow provides the best possible statement of the seasonal balance which exists between people and the natural environment.
An 'anthometer' is a collection of easy to grow shrubs and/or perennial garden plants, each flowering at a particular time during the year, and reliably from year to year. Anthometers are used to make year on year biological checks on the local environment which are expressed in year to year variations and trends. The idea is to maintain a 'flower station' analogous, and complementary, to a 'weather station'. The plants may also be used for experiments on factors which affect growth and reproduction, to learn about biogeography, and study gardening as an important cross-cultural expression of human development.
For some city schools, a container-garden is the only option. Setting up an anthometer with plants in pots offers great scope and versatility for integrating recording with experimentation. It is also advantageous to grow plants in containers when making geographical comparisons because the growing medium can be standardised. However, container growing is not simply a matter of thrusting garden plants in pots and expecting them to thrive. As the plants are grown in a limited amount of soil, with their roots confined, they have special requirements. Suitable species must be chosen initially, as some tolerate this restriction better than others. Taking these limitations into account, a calendar of flowering shrubs may be established with potted plants and used to check out flowering times of species, and/or named varieties, from early spring to midsummer. This has to be linked with a long-term management plan to care for the plants, and a database for recording and transmitting results.
(ii) Caring for cranesbills
A flower calendar may be organised with a particular group of perennial plants which thrive in containers. For example, the group of easy to grow, hardy cranesbills (the scientifically defined geraniums: Genus; Geranium), provide opportunities for comparing the seasonal diversity of a successful group of closely related plants which have widely colonised the north and south temperate climatic zones.
(iii) Weed watch
'Weed watch' is a set of procedures to record the local biodiversity bank of air-borne weeds by checking walls, pavements, home gardens for successful colonisation, and keeping an annual patch of bare soil as a germination site. This facility may also be used to select genetic variations for further study, from seedlings of a particular species, such as plants that flower in lawns.
( iv) Cut grass (GrassSCAN)
Cut grass in parks, roadside verges, school playing fields and garden lawns is of limited educational value when approached as a collection of species. 'GrassSCAN' approaches mowed grassland from the opposite direction; as a universally accessible model of ecological management. From this viewpoint, the first task is to determine the management objectives for the patch. The objectives may vary considerably e.g. from maintaining a uniform velvety ornamental grass monoculture to maximising the lawn's species diversity, of say earthworms, or dicots. The next step is to set up a monitoring programme based on indicators by which the success of the management plan may be judged. These indicators, such as 'sward height', a list of the weed species, or the number of daisy flowers, will depend on the management objectives. From another angle, a management plan could be written to run an experiment where a mowed lawn is used to demonstrate an important ecological principle, such as competition between grasses and clover. In all cases the aim is to measure year on year trends and variations of mowed grassland as a managed ecosystem.
This is a variation on a scheme established in 1994 by Mendip District Council to engage local communities in checking out their local biodiversity. The Mendip pack enables individuals or groups to survey a local area for twenty species that were chosen because they indicate habitats of high wildlife value. A fair level of skill is needed for this work, and it does not involve people who live in places where these indicators do not occur. The SCAN nature diary project develops this scheme to draw more unskilled, yet concerned people, into neighbourhood wildlife surveillance, using a wider range of general indicators of local biodiversity, and a more flexible method of diary recording.
This project is part of the National Phenology network co-ordinated by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology to check for trends in the dates of events such as flowering times, arrival of migrating birds and spawning of amphibians.
8 Outline of a Community Biodiversity Action Plan
There are three dimensions to a local biodiversity action plan. One is the community's contribution to the top-down strategy of the county/district council BAP for conserving rare or
characteristic species. The second approach is from the bottom-up where all living things count.- from weeds in the garden to the odd patch of buttercups on a roadside verge. The third way forward is to organise the contributions that families can make to the national climate change network.
The local school is well-placed to take a lead in the bottom-up approach, because it can orientate its work for the national curriculum towards the practical ends of the plan, and its IT capability is valuable in managing data collection and environmental improvements. In outline the community has to:-
1 Select the following habitats:-
- roadside verges;
- places dominated by trees;
- the churchyard;
2 Decide what features you would like to protect, enhance or introduce.
3 List the factors limiting the features you would like to protect, enhance or introduce.
4 Decide what you have to do to remove the most important limiting factors (this is the action plan).
5 Decide what you have to measure in order to check that your action plan is effective (this is the monitoring programme)
To take the third approach you have to join in the National Phenology Network being organised by Tim Sparkes of the Institute of Terrestrial
Ecology at Huntingdon. The special SCAN contributions to this are:-
- Tree SCAN, where every tree in the community is mapped and its times of
leafing, flowering, and leaf-fall are recorded, together with its girth and
general health, are measured each year;
- the SCAN anthometer network, where a selection of perrenial garden plants
is used for making year on year nature diaries of flowering times, fruiting
capacity and pest attack.
· Two free CDs ('Nature Quest' and 'Sustainability for Teachers') are available which contains practical schemes, and an interactive back-up library.
· There is a web-site for updating the schemes, and communicating with all schools in the BioSCAN network to share ideas and help develop the project (www.scan-online.org).
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