Recently I was lucky enough to hear directly from inspirational botanists Sarah Whild and Sue Townsend how they learnt botany, the birth of the Field Identification Skills Certificate (FISC) and their advice for winter botanising.

Amanda: When did you each start learning about plants? 

Sue: I gained an initial awareness of hedgerow botany from my mother and country walk as a young child growing up in the countryside. In secondary school a trip to Studland [Dorset] and the fritilaries at North Meadow [Wiltshire] opened my eyes to fieldwork and the sheer number of grass species! University brought further keenness to be able to put names to plants leading to a job as a field tutor and one training courses with the late Frankyn Perring on what were then known as the Compositae [Asteraceae] and I was hooked.

Sarah: I started learning wild plants with my mother, who was a keen naturalist. I began with I-Spy books, then went on to collecting and pressing plants. I still have my earliest collections! 

What was there before FISC? How did employers, for example, test field botany competence?

There was nothing standardised. Some employers had their own in house assessment test – usually a selection of plants to identify without keys. Some employers took their candidates to a site to record in the field to test their competence.

We were aware of the Natural History Museum’s Identification Qualification assessments (IdQ).  These used herbarium specimens and fresh specimens in the Museum (and later at Reading University) and cost hundreds of pounds. The award was pass or fail, with a pass mark of 95%.

When did you decide there was a need for a standardised botany assessment?

Through a chat when we were comparing notes and this got formalised at a British Ecological Society (BES) conference in 1996 when we were in a thinking group discussing ecological competence. We drew up a Skills Pyramid, and launched this at a BES workshop in 2001.

Were you aware of examples of similar assessments in other countries?

No. There didn’t appear to be anything that tested not just identification skills, but field competence – this was a weakness of the IdQs too.

How long did the development of the skills pyramid and assessment format take and who/what did you draw on to develop it?

We thought about the elements and considered some “recognition” of easier species was essential as was the ability to key out species so the open book assessment was welcome. We really wanted to test the ability to see species in the field so the field assessment was key.

We were lucky enough to get a grant from Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland to trial a method, with volunteer guinea pigs. Originally we included two lab tests – ten relatively easy identifications done without any identification aids, 20 species from anywhere in the UK, including rare species – then a quadrat survey in the field, with a well-defined two metre quadrat recorded by all candidates. The last part was a larger ‘site’ survey, in the field, and we trialled two other elements, tree identification and an aquatic plant sample.

Marking our guinea pig candidates showed such a strong correlation between the marks on the two lab tests and the quadrat survey that we dropped the latter and kept just the two lab tests and the larger site survey. This still maintained what appeared to be a consistent assessment of the candidates’ field skills, and fewer parts kept it much more simple and effective.

How many FISC assessments have been taken since it started? 

Data was compiled for 2008 through 2017 for a ten year review. During that time 605 candidates took the assessment with levels awarded as shown in the chart below. 

Approximately how many botanists in Britain and Ireland would you estimate are at level 6? Level 7?

This is a difficult one to answer, as Level 6 are the least likely to take a FISC.  Level 7s are untestable, but are likely to be folks like Clive Stace and Alastair Fitter. I’d estimate fewer than a thousand level 6’s in the UK.

Is there anything in the assessment that you’d improve if you had the opportunity to create FISC mark 2?

We had trialled other formats – so this has evolved and we rather like it now and receive very positive feedback.  We held a FISC review in 2017 in order to address this. It was a transparent and inclusive process, consulting with FISC providers, takers, consultancies and  government organisations.  The conclusion was that if it works don’t fix it.  But of course – almost certainly this will not be the case forever and the next review may offer a different approach.  There is no room for complacency as new technologies are constantly available to offer more tools for field identification and we will be looking to further evolve with them.

What do you think are the main benefits of promoting botany identification skills?

Awareness, accuracy, attention to detail and enjoyment.

What advice would you give me and other botanists for improving our field botany skill level over the winter and/or during lockdown?

Sue: My advice over winter is keep looking – join the New Years Day Plant Hunt, read your favourite flora and checkout the facebook groups and actually that applies to lockdown as well. During any lock down, exercise is probably encouraged and what better than a walk with wildflowers.

Sarah: Over the winter, keep looking! Join Facebook groups such as Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland, as the constant drip feed of photos posted, with expert identifications, keeps your skills up, and boosts them. Join #wildflowerhour on Twitter on Sunday evenings – another way to keep your skills up in the darker months. Walk around the block, and choose a different pavement plant each day, as your challenge to identify. Iif you can’t identify it from books, post a picture on a forum. Identify a new one each day, and build up a complete list. Then around New Year, as Sue says, join the New Years Day Plant Hunt – it’s great fun!