Speaker: Mike Dilger
Reporter: Sue Gale
Mike Dilger is known to many of us through his 18years of wildlife films seen on the One Show. His aim over the years has been to reach a wide audience and to convert them to an interest in wildlife, and he has covered all sorts of topics and species. The Covid restrictions were a mixed blessing for a free-lance worker like Mike, making income uncertain but giving him time at home with family and time to visit the nearby Chew Valley Lakes. One thing he became aware of was what he called ‘plant blindness’, both his own and that of other naturalists.
People often just don’t notice plants. So, he decided to have a big botanical year in 2021, in which he would try to see 1000 species of plant. This required a lot of research, into habitats and the species he might expect to find, and a lot of journey planning. Mike saw the 1000 plants, and he estimates that about 500 of them were close to his home in the Mendips. The resultant book was called ‘1000 Shades of Green’, plus 12 Plants to Die For.
He took us through the 12 plants he especially loved, and the stories attached to their discovery, which in some cases were far from straightforward. Coltsfoot was his first plant – a lover of brown-field sites that can be frustratingly hard to access! Persistence paid. The more beautiful Early Star of Bethlehem was found on a cliff edge in Stanner Rocks in the Welsh Borders, and demonstrated that even botany can be precarious! The lovely Pasque Flower grows on thin limestone soils in the Cotswolds, in grassland that has had no fertiliser added for centuries. The Mendips are also limestone, and include the famous Cheddar Gorge, where Mike tracked down the lovely blue Purple Gromwell. It took some hours to find this small plant, as it was growing amidst a host of flowering Bluebells. The Lizard Peninsula has Serpentine rock, a Mediterranean climate, and Choughs! The latter are doing well in Cornwall, and were included to keep us birders happy. The plant he was looking for here was a small fluffy-headed clover, the Long-headed Clover, one of 9 or 10 species of clover found around here.
Mike’s next plant brought him to our part of the world, to Breckland. This area is home to many plants found little or nowhere else, such as a small red stonecrop, and the Perennial Knawel which had been extinct but was reintroduced. It is much rarer than the Annual Knawel, also found there. I am probably not the only one in the audience who made a mental note to
pay more attention to the Breckland flora in future. Further north, in Teesdale, Mike found the Spring Gentian around Cow Green Reservoir. Then in the Teesdale Assemblage, an area of metamorphic limestone through which water percolates he found the very rare Teesdale Sandwort. Even further north, in the Cairngorms, the One-flowered Wintergreen can be found in one or two sites in Speyside. It’s another very rare plant, with sterile flowers which probably don’t help!
Mike also made the case for conservation of arable weeds. They are much reduced because of the use of pesticides in farming, a cause of the loss of much valuable diversity. He was especially taken with Ground-pine, a tiny plant that smells like a little pine tree. Alpine plants are at risk of extinction in the UK because of the warming climate. The cold alpine habitats are rapidly being lost and the specialist plants are out-competed by the more sturdy plants moving in as it becomes warmer. So, finding the Norwegian Mugwort (an Artemisia species) found on top of 3 mountains north of Ullapool was a triumph. Then he encountered the Starfruit, an aquatic plant that was thought lost, but has recently reappeared from the seedbank.
Finally, Mike’s 1000th plant was the Goldilocks Aster, found on a cliff face at Uphill Hill Local Nature Reserve. Interestingly most of these favourite plants were very small, mostly they were rare and so hard to find, and many had hairy leaves! It was fascinating to trace Mike’s journey to complete his quest, and he introduced many of us to the field of botany.
Many thanks to Mike for an entertaining evening.
Please feel free to read through our reports from our monthly indoor / online meetings.