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Matthew Oates, National Trust

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Nick Baker, Presenter and Naturalist

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A Flora of Cornwall

By - Colin French

Cornwall probably has more rare native plants than any other county. It also has one of the best-recorded floras anywhere. There were published floras of Cornwall in 1909, 1981 and 1999. This fourth one, the biggest and most comprehensive yet, is based on the computerised records of vascular plants (flowering plants, conifers and ferns) of the past two decades: 2.25 million of them, all gathered by ‘a small team of dedicated volunteers’. The Flora covers 3,018 taxa (species, hybrids and varieties), with 1,200 distribution maps and 1,700 plant photo-images. The scientific names follow the latest revision of Stace, which means that, unfortunately, we are forced to contemplate such DNA-inspired neologisms as Trocdaris, Symphyotrichum, Aegonychon and Hylotelephium. Every species is mapped at monad scale, that is by single kilometre squares. In the case of some rarities, the scale is even finer: by hundred-metre squares. Black dots stand for records ‘after 1999’; red dots ‘before 2000’. This flora includes the Isles of Scilly, even though they received one of their own only three years ago.

The species accounts are prefaced by the customary sections on the physical nature of the Cornish landscape, its habitats, natural and man-made, and its main botanical regions. There are also short explanations of the various conservation designations, of losses and gains, conservation projects, and an account of plant-recording in Cornwall, including the database used. The Flora is in large format (32 × 25cm – too tall for my bookcase), square-bound, and printed on heavy, glossy paper suitable for the colour images on every page. Although the bulk of the text is by Colin French, the long-standing BSBI recorder for West Cornwall, there is a section on brambles by Keith Spurgin and another on drift-nuts (‘disseminules’) by Paul Gainey. A novel feature is the dot-maps of genera or even families, revealing hotspots for the likes of clovers, willowherbs and spike-rushes.

Overall, the Cornish flora seems to have suffered less than that of most English counties. No native species has died out during this 20-year timeframe, while several have been discovered or rediscovered. All the same, Cornwall has suffered. The author estimates that about a third of the county has lost nearly all (90%) of its wildlife. Were it not for the refuges formed by Cornish hedges in agricultural districts, it would be worse still. French notes that tree-planting has ‘invariably destroyed better wildlife habitat’ (are you listening, Prime Minister?). Worse, some of the planting is of eucalyptus, which will present a serious fire risk to moorland in our coming hot, dry summers. And then there are the purely local disasters, like the café built on top of the Shore Dock at Lamorna Cove, or the fence around Sand Crocus, erected by a well-meaning owner, which more or less guaranteed that that very rare plant would be suffocated by tall herbage. Colin French’s personal, rather discordant preface is pessimistic: ‘There must be a better way forward.’ Must there?

In mapping terms, at least, this is among the most detailed county floras. Mapping at a monad scale involves a tremendous effort, both in the field and at the keyboard, and one has to wonder whether it is worth the bother. In some cases it has yielded interesting information, such as the association of Buckshorn Plantain with former mining sites or of Lousewort with granite. But for widespread plants and neophytes it contributes little or nothing, and seems to be another case of the computer tail wagging the recording dog. And despite the fine detail, one is still left wondering whether a particular species is doing well or badly in this fast-changing world. For example, the explosive increase of Greater Quaking-grass, or Greek Sea-spurrey, or Purple Viper’s-bugloss is surely worth more than a few lines each.

I have a few quibbles with the design. Superimposing black and red dots over a coloured geological background tends to obscure both; the latter needed a paler tint. The workaday font and blocky green headings look a bit cheap. Some of the plant images are substandard. And, surprisingly, there is no good overall map of the county. That said, this is a state-of-the-art county flora that reflects great credit on Cornwall’s tight team of field botanists, and on the expertise, dedication and computer know-how of its author.

Reviewed by - Peter Marren
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"British Wildlife is the pulsating heart of the UK nature conservation movement."

Matthew Oates, National Trust

"The most important and informative publication on wildlife of our times"

Michael McCarthy, The Independent

"Packed with readable, thoughtful, up to date articles; written by ecologists and naturalists for ecologists and naturalists"

Nick Baker, Presenter and Naturalist