Opinion: Naturalists are your friends

Among the many names in the obituary columns of 2019, that of Marjorie Blamey probably caused little interest, unless you know one of the wildflower books she illustrated.

In my case, that book was Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe, and I owe it and her a great debt.

Once you need to identify wildflowers in the field, plant families, keys and, above all, good illustrations are vital. Marjorie’s work is excellent and painstaking, and though I bought a new edition long ago, my well-thumbed first copy of Wild Flowers is still in the back of my car.

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From an early career as an actor and photographer, after the Second World War, Marjorie and her husband took up dairy farming in Cornwall. She was in her late 40s when someone looking for an illustrator for his new book spotted her flower paintings at the county show. So a new career was born.

Later, when Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe became a best seller, the Blameys sold the farm and Marjorie became a full-time illustrator.

She toured in a motor caravan that doubled as a studio, with her husband as librarian of a collection that, by her death, aged 101, had grown to 10,000 flower paintings.

Get hold of a naturalist now, and start recording. They don’t care what your wheat crop looks like, and they won’t shop you to the Environment Agency either

Wildflower books divide the botanising world – despite the number of Wild Flowers fans, just as many swear loyalty to The Wildflower Key by Francis Rose. Think Liverpool and Everton.

But when a local botanist, wielding her dog-eared copy of The Wildflower Key, showed me the minute difference between two species of poppy in a field earlier this year, I was beaten.

Not that there was any victory celebration; naturalists are generally an unassuming lot. Many of them shun the mercenary world of professional conservation; they are more likely to be doctors, teachers or lawyers, waiting for retirement to devote themselves entirely to botanising, bird watching and bug hunting.

With their enthusiasm and knowledge, naturalists are indispensable to conservation organisations, and farmers need them too. (I’ll dismiss instantly the notion that if something rare is found on your farm, designation and red tape will follow. Natural England doesn’t have the resources to keep up with current designated sites, let alone create more.)

No, naturalists are your friends. All they want is a bit of land to look around, preferably known to be interesting, though that’s not essential. Most farmland wildlife is massively under-recorded – look at how much was found when naturalists did a “bioblitz” recording day on NFU president Minette Batters’ farm.

That’s why, when it comes to signing up for Countryside Stewardship, you’re stuffed if your farm is just white space on the Maigic website. You might know you have a flock of Lesser Whatsitsnames, or that field is a wildflower meadow, but if Clipboard Man hasn’t had prior notice, too bad.

In the coming world of Environmental Land Management, knowing what your land harbours will be vital, so find out what natural capital you have in the bank. If you’re going to be paid by results, how will you know where you’ve got to, if you don’t know where you started?

So get hold of a naturalist now, and start recording. They don’t care what your wheat crop looks like, and they won’t shop you to the Environment Agency either. But if they’re botanists, just ask if they are Rose or Blamey people.

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