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UK Overseas Territories team blog

Kew’s UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) team helps to conserve the unique biodiversity of the 16 far-flung island groups and peninsulas which make up the UKOTs.

We work with partners in-Territory and from other UK biodiversity organisations to develop and implement practical conservation projects which support the UKOTs in implementing the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. This blog follows the conservation activities of the UKOTs team at Kew and overseas. Our welcome blog post gives an overview of the UKOTs Programme.

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Investigating the plants of the Caribbean... on the outskirts of London!

By: Andrew Budden - 15 May 2012
Andrew Budden, one of Kew's volunteer interns, describes how information from preserved specimens of Caribbean plants helps to assess the conservation status of plants native to the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories.
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After completing my degree in Environmental Biology I was lucky enough to be accepted on the Herbarium summer internship where I got the opportunity to get an insight into the work carried out at Kew. I was particularly inspired by a presentation on the UK Overseas Territories. Until then, apart from Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, I had hardly heard of the UK Overseas Territories and their importance on a global scale. During the presentation, we also heard a lot about the problems caused by invasive species in the UKOTs, and I am particularly interested in this field. I was keen to learn more and so in August 2011, when my internship finished, I started volunteer work with the UKOTs team. My work has focussed on the Red Listing of UKOTs species from the Caribbean area. This project has followed on from the successful creation of the UKOTs Online Herbarium and aims to provide conservation status assessments of plant species native to each of the 16 territories.

Delving into the Herbarium

In order to complete a species assessment, a vast amount of groundwork has to be undertaken to ensure that appropriate information has been gathered for each individual species. I have been mostly involved in carrying out the preliminary work for Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands. This entails searching the herbarium to find all the Caribbean specimens for a given species. The species that we are investigating have been prioritised for Red Listing either because they are Caribbean endemics (unique to the area) or because their geographic ranges are poorly understood.

Andrew with specimens of Solanum

Andrew with specimens of Solanum collected in the Caribbean

Filling in the gaps

Once the specimens have been collected, the information written on them has to be entered into the UKOTs Online Herbarium database, but this is a much harder process than it sounds. Many of the herbarium specimens were collected in the 19th century when modern collection protocols hadn’t been developed, meaning that they are often lacking important information such as date, collector and where exactly in the country the specimen was collected. Additionally, many labels are written by hand, often very badly, and deciphering them requires lots of detective work to establish who the collector was or where the specimen was collected from. Over time I have been able to interpret the handwriting better, but even now there are some old collectors who frustrate me with their talent for writing in a style resembling a young child’s scribbles! We also scan the specimens as high resolution images as part of the on-going efforts to make the herbarium specimens readily accessible from our website.

Satellite image of the Caribbean

Andrew is developing a gazetteer of Cuba using a satellite image of the island from Google Earth

Identifying locations

Now that the majority of the specimens from the Caribbean region have been collected, databased and digitised, the focus of my work is switching to creating gazetteers (geographical directories of places with accurate location data) for the non-UKOT nations. Creating these gazetteers requires the use of maps, internet resources and local knowledge to identify locations and ensure that they are correctly plotted. These will allow us to plot the locality data for each specimen onto a map, which is needed to calculate the conservation status of the species using GeoCAT, a tool created by the GIS unit at Kew. Inaccuracies can significantly affect the calculations of Area Of Occupancy and Extent Of Occurrence, two categories which are used in establishing the threat status of species. In the coming months, my fellow intern Alex and I will get the opportunity to see the process through to its conclusion by completing the assessment. We will each specialise in a particular family of plants with a significant presence in the region and flesh out the report by adding in descriptions, habitat information and other details about each species. It will be exciting to gain a better understanding of the taxonomy and characteristics of a given family and will hopefully help to enhance my botanical knowledge.

Native or invasive?

Two of the species that I am hoping to learn more about are Tabebuia heterophylla and T. pallida. They were familiar to me through personal work I had done and are listed on the CABI Invasive Species Compendium. They are native to the Caribbean region and are very similar in both appearance and range, which has led to confusion in telling them apart. There is a high degree of variation in form within these species and this has made it difficult to establish how many species belong to the genus Tabebuia, with anywhere from 25 to 100 species being described. As both species have aggressive, pioneering natures, they have the potential to become invasive if introduced to a new region. However there is uncertainty about their native ranges, with T. heterophylla being recorded as invasive in the Dominican Republic, which is within its native range. I hope that by completing the assessment process I will be able to understand more about the morphology and range of these species.

Herbarium specimen of Tabebuia heterophylla

Herbarium specimen of Tabebuia heterophylla


Developing skills

It has been very enjoyable working with the UKOTs team and everybody has been extremely welcoming and friendly. The work has been hard, but it has been great to feel that I am contributing to plant conservation on a global scale and I have received a lot of advice and encouragement from the UKOTs team about getting employment in this area. I have learnt a vast amount about botany and developed my identification skills, and it has been fascinating delving into the lives and history of many of the collectors. I have discovered many interesting things about the Caribbean region and its geography - I will always remember my amazement when I discovered that Trinidad & Tobago was located just off of the coast of Venezuela, miles from the main Caribbean block of nations where I had always assumed it was! The project has also improved the curation of these specimens, showing up mistakes and issues with the classification of certain species. It has been reassuring to see that even the experts can struggle at times with some of the more confusing species. I believe that the skills that I have learnt while working with the UKOTs team will benefit me in my future career and will hopefully make it easier to get a job in botany.

- Andrew -

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Tags: challenging

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Falklands’ unique plants all in safe storage

By: Richard Lewis - 06 Mar 2012
All thirteen of the Falklands’ unique plant species are now being preserved at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. Botanist Richard Lewis recently managed to track down seed-bearing plants of the silvery buttercup, the thirteenth species, in remote valleys on Weddell Island.
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Richard Lewis, a botanist working for Falklands Conservation and collaborating with Kew’s UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) Team, is spending six months in the Falkland Islands, studying their native and introduced plants, collecting seed and preserved plant specimens. Here he describes the significance of his latest seed collection.

Richard Lewis walking on a mountain

Richard Lewis during fieldwork on Mount Usborne, East Falkland

The thirteenth species – lucky for some!

I was thrilled to find large stands of the silvery buttercup (Hamadryas argentea) in a few remote valleys on Weddell Island. The low levels of grazing in some parts of the Island have allowed this scarce species to thrive along with many other rare plants. I had tried to collect seeds of this species several times before in other parts of the Falklands but always been defeated: once a cold spring had made the plant flower late, another time the plants only had male flowers, so no seeds were set, and a third time some goats had escaped from a nearby farm and eaten all the female flowers – they must be tastier than the male flowers! The buttercup seeds have been carefully dried and sent to the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), where they will join seeds collected previously from the 12 other endemic species, preserved at low temperatures so they will stay alive and viable for decades or even centuries.

Female flowers of silvery buttercup

Female flowers of silvery buttercup (Image: Rebecca Upson, Falklands Conservation)


Male flowers of silvery buttercup

Male flowers of silvery buttercup (Image: Mike Morrison)

Unique plants of the Falkland Islands

The 13 endemic plant species found only in the Falklands include some beautiful and unusual species, such as lady’s slipper (Calceolaria fothergillii) and snake plant (Nassauvia serpens). Unfortunately five of them are considered at risk of extinction. For example two species,Moore's plantain (Plantago moorei) and false plantain (Nastanthus falklandicus) are restricted to the southern coasts of West Falkland, where they are being affected by an invasive plant, mouse-ear hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella), which can grow over and smother them. Keeping seeds carefully preserved at the MSB ensures that should these plants become extinct in the wild, they can still be grown from seed so future generations will still be able to learn about and appreciate the unique natural heritage of the Falklands.

Saving seeds

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) is an ambitious project to preserve the seeds of wild plants from around the world. In 2010, working with partners all around the world, including several of the UKOTs, it met its first objective to save seeds from 10% of all known species of seed-bearing plants. It has now set a new goal to preserve seeds from 25% of known species in safe storage by 2020.

The MSBP has been working with Falklands Conservation and the Falkland Islands Government since 2004, with the aim of eventually preserving seeds from all the native flowering plants. The seeds of the 13 endemic species join seeds of a further 117 native species, which have been collected by local volunteers and botanists from Kew and Falklands Conservation. Over 80% of the native Falklands flowering plants are now in the MSB, with just 25 species left to collect.

Not only are these seeds saved in case of extinction in the wild, but they are also made available for research and other use. For example, several species which have undergone germination trials or full horticultural protocols are now on display in the Rock Garden and Davies Alpine House at Kew. By displaying these fascinating and unique plants, we hope to highlight the botanical significance of the far-flung UKOTs. Some seeds have also been sent back to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, to be grown at the Stanley Nurseries native plant nursery, which produces plants for habitat restoration projects and for sale to local gardeners. Seeds of some of the rarest species, such as Moore’s plantain, are being used by researchers at Kew to better understand issues affecting conservation, such as possible hybridisation with thrift plantain (Plantago barbata).

- Richard -


Related links


Tags: endangered

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A first flowering for Kew

By: Marcella Corcoran - 17 Feb 2012
With the appearance of a tiny greenish-white flower, Kew’s horticulturists have recorded the first flowering in cultivation of Metastelma anegadense, a plant found only on the low-lying island of Anegada in the Caribbean.
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About Anegada

For over ten years, members of Kew’s UKOTs team have paid regular visits to Anegada, one of the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. Despite its small size, Anegada is home to a variety of plants and animals, notably the Anegada rock iguana, a lizard found nowhere else in the world. Another of the island’s unique species is Metastelma anegadense, a scrambling thin-stemmed plant belonging to the milkweed family, Apocynaceae. It is commonly known as wire wist, reflecting the use of the stems as a natural string.

Metastelma anegadense in flower on Anegada

In its natural habitat Metastelma anegadense twists around both itself and supporting bushes

Collecting the seedlings

During fieldwork on the island in July 2011, Martin Hamilton and Michele Sanchez from Kew collected some tiny wire wist seedlings which had established themselves alongside a path. Rather than see these rarities face death by trampling, the Kew team carefully lifted them and took them back to the J R O’Neal Botanic Garden on Tortola, managed by the BVI National Parks Trust. Several seedlings were potted up at the Garden for cultivation there whilst five were cleaned and placed in pots of sterile perlite for the journey back to the UK to ensure that they did not represent a plant-health risk.

Metastelma seedlings

Metastelma anegadense seedlings on arrival at Kew's Quarantine House

Arriving at Kew

As soon as they arrived in Kew’s new Plant Quarantine Facility, the seedlings were transferred from the sterile growing medium used for transport and grown on in compost. Within six months of their arrival, the first of the wire wist seedlings had grown large enough to begin flowering - the first time that flowers have been recorded for this species outside its native environment.

Kew's first Metastelma flower

The first Metastelma anegadense flower at Kew

Not only is this a major achievement for Kew’s horticulturists, but also enables Kew scientists to study this plant in more detial. Until now, it has never been possible to collect seeds from this plant as their mature fruits split open without warning and the seeds, which are covered with silky hairs, rapidly disperse in the wind. By hand-pollinating the flowers, researchers at Kew will be able to monitor the development of the fruits and discover how long it takes for them to reach maturity. This knowledge will help seed collectors harvesting wire wist fruits from their natural habitat for seed storage at the Millennium Seed Bank.

Metastelma fruits split to release seeds

Metastelma anegadense fruits (photographed on Anegada) split open to release the wind-dispersed seeds

Challenges in the pollination process

But pollinating the flowers is not as easy as it sounds. Firstly they are very tiny, and Michele Sanchez and Noelia Alvarez from Kew’s Great Glasshouses team needed to use a magnifying glass as they began the pollination process. David Goyder, a botanist in Kew's Herbarium who specialises in the family Apocynaceae, explained that the unusual structure of the flowers would make them tricky to pollinate. He pointed out that the receptive part of the stigma (pollen-receptor) is on its lower surface, hidden from view behind the pollen-bearing stamens. And as in orchids, pollen is distributed en masse, not as individual pollen grains. All the pollen within two adjacent pollen sacs is joined together to form a removable pollinarium, which would normally become attached to nectar-feeding insects and be transported from one flower to another.

As with many other plants in this family, this species is probably self-incompatible. This means that for successful pollination, flowers from different plants need to be open at the same time so pollen can be transferred from one plant to the other. So to produce the next generation of wire wist plants in cultivation, Kew’s horticulturists will have to wait for more plants to flower and then cross pollinate them with ‘surgical’ precision. If successful, the team also wants to collect seed at different stages of ripeness to test the effect of age on germination.

The good news is that both cultivation and seed storage will ensure that this Critically Endangered species can be conserved away from the threat of habitat loss that it faces in some parts of Anegada.

- Marcella -

Related links

Tags: challenging

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Investigating the spread of an invasive tree in the Turks and Caicos Islands

By: Alexandra Davey - 24 Jan 2012
Alexandra Davey, a Conservation Science MSc student from Imperial College, spent two months in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), investigating the spread of an invasive tree, Casuarina equisetifolia, which threatens coastal habitats there.
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About the project

In May and June 2011, I was lucky enough to spend eight weeks in the Turks and Caicos Islands, one of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) in the Caribbean. I worked with the Kew UKOTs team and the TCI Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) carrying out fieldwork for my Masters thesis in Conservation Science. I was studying the invasive tree Casuarina equisetifolia, known in the Caribbean as Australian pine. C. equisetifolia is commonly known as she-oak in its original range in South-East Asia and Australia. In 2009, a previous MSc student, Chloe Hardman, predicted suitable habitat for this species in TCI using the Maxent software which models species distribution based on environmental variables. She found that native species richness was reduced in plots invaded by this tree. Building on this research, I set out to map the current distribution of the species and prioritise areas for its control.

Casuarina growing along coast next to the sea

Casuarina equisetifolia on Bambarra beach, Middle Caicos, stretching as far as the eye can see (Image: Alexandra Davey)

Determining the spread of Casuarina during the last ten years

Using aerial photographs of the islands from 2001 and 2007, in which patches of the invasive tree were clearly visible, I manually digitised the distribution of C. equisetifolia in each of these years using ArcMap GIS (Geographic Information Science) software, developed by ESRI. This allowed me to examine not only the current locations of C. equisetifolia but how its distribution has changed over a six year period.  This invasive tree grows mostly along the northern and eastern coasts, which have the longest expanses of sandy beach, and along roadsides and in settlements. In the six years covered by the photographs the area of land occupied by the species had increased on both North and Middle Caicos.

Using the digitised distributions, I generated presence points in ArcMap. These points were then overlaid on environmental variables, such as distance to roads and elevation, in Maxent to produce a predictive model of suitable habitat for the species. Using digitised presence points avoided the bias often introduced by the difficulty of accessing some areas on the ground. The new model showed a greater area to be suitable for C.equisetifolia than the previous one had. The most important environmental predictor of suitable habitat was distance to the northern coast. On North and Middle Caicos areas close to the north coast are the most disturbed by human activity.

Fieldwork in Important Plant Areas

Encyclia caicensis against a blue sky

TCI endemic orchid Encyclia caicensis growing on Wild Cow Run, an Important Plant Area on Middle Caicos threatened by Casuarina equisetifolia (Image: Sara Green)

I selected two Important Plant Areas (as determined by another MSc student, Sophie Williams, in 2009) for further study and mapped the presence of C. equisetifolia in 2011. I then compared the trees’ distribution with that in 2007 and 2001. This showed the importance of disturbance caused by human activity in determining the spread of the species - land that had been cleared for development was very quickly colonised. On the island of North Caicos the majority of trees established themselves in the last 10 years. This area may be a good site to trial methods of controlling the tree.

Map showing spread of Casuarina equisetifolia

These maps show the spread of the species on Horsestable Beach, Important Plant Area on North Caicos. Red squares show location of Casuarina equisetifolia in 2001, 2007 and 2011. (Image: Alexandra Davey)

Investigating control methods

In the final part of my study I looked at how the level of C. equisetifolia establishment affects native species. I found that native species richness decreased significantly with increasing height of the invasive Casuarina trees. I also performed a small baseline study into the current use of C. equisetifolia in making charcoal. This research contributes to the larger question of whether charcoal production could provide a future control strategy for this invasive species. One possible scheme would entail the funds raised from sale of licences to coppice C. equisetifolia in very heavily infested areas being used to pay for eradication schemes in newly invaded areas. Everyone involved in the study confirmed that Casuarina wood makes very good charcoal.


The principal recommendations arising from my work were to restrict development in the southern parts of North and Middle Caicos which as yet remain undisturbed and more or less free from Casuarina. Tight control of unnecessary or premature land clearance prior to development would also help to restrict the spread of the species.

The six months I spent on this project have been an excellent learning experience for me. I am very grateful to all those at Kew who have helped me and feel privileged to have first-hand experience of the work the UKOTs team carries out in the field. I could not have done the project without the support of the TCI DECR and in particular without the help of Bryan Naqqi Manco, Judnel Blaise and Sara Green in the field. Thank you!

- Alexandra -


Related links

Science Directory project page: Invasive Species in the UK Overseas Territories

Science Directory project page: Turks and Caicos Islands Pine Recovery Programme

Find out more about Geographic Information Science (GIS): Kew's GIS Unit

Imperial College MSc Conservation Science theses

Williams, S. (2009) The Identification and Conservation of Important Plant Areas: A case study from the Turks and Caicos Islands (pdf)

Hardman, C. (2009) Invasive plants in the Turks and Caicos Islands (pdf)

Davey, A. (2011) Mapping the distribution and prioritising the control of Casuarina equisetifolia in the Turks and Caicos Islands (pdf)

Tags: at risk

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Sir Joseph Hooker and the UK Overseas Territories

By: Pat Griggs - 09 Dec 2011
On the 100th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest botanists of the Victorian era, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, find out about the unique plants that he encountered on his visits to the UKOTs and how this experience influenced his theories on plant distribution, which he later shared with Charles Darwin.
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Introducing Joseph Hooker

Joseph Hooker was born in 1817 into a botanical family. His father, William Hooker, was the Professor of Botany at Glasgow University and later became the first official director of the Royal Gardens at Kew. Although Joseph Hooker trained in medicine, he was far more enthusiastic about botany. In 1839, at the age of just 22, he joined the HMS Erebus under the captaincy of James Clark Ross, as it set off to map the Antarctic regions. His official role was that of Assistant Surgeon, but he was able to spend a considerable amount of time collecting plant specimens whilst ashore and making detailed records of them during the long voyages between ports. Among the ship's ports of call were the islands of St Helena, Ascension and the Falkland Islands, now three of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs), as well as the South Shetland Islands (part of the British Antarctic Territory).  The plant specimens Joseph Hooker collected during this voyage are held in Kew's Herbarium and those from the UKOTs can be viewed through the UK Overseas Territories Online Herbarium.

Portrait of Joseph Hooker

Joseph Hooker (1817-1911)

St Helena

In June 1840, HMS Erebus anchored off St Helena for the first time and Joseph Hooker was able to travel up to the central mountain ridge of Diana’s Peak, where he was excited to see a tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica, for the first time. He observed that much of the island’s original vegetation had disappeared, either eaten by goats or overwhelmed by plants introduced as crops or ornamentals by settlers and passing ships. Based on his own findings and those of preceding botanists, he calculated that the island was originally home to about 45 unique plant species.

Herbarium specimen of Dryopteris napoleonis

On St Helena, Joseph Hooker collected a specimen of the fern Dryopteris napoleonis which was named after Napoleon Bonaparte who was imprisoned on the island by the British

Falkland Islands

Nearly two years later, after crossing the Antarctic Circle several times, HMS Erebus sought shelter from the Antarctic winter in the Falkland Islands. At first, Joseph Hooker agreed with Charles Darwin that the islands had ‘a desolate and wretched aspect’. Over the six months that he spent on the islands, Hooker revised his opinion of their botanical interest although plant collecting was not easy due to the short days. At the Governor’s request, he listed the potential uses of island plants, ranging from the value of tussac grass (Poa flabellata) in providing grazing for cattle to diddle-dee (Empetrum rubrum) as a potential source of food if grouse were to be introduced. He also recommended further investigation into the healing properties of the balsam bog plant (Bolax gummifera) and that two plants, little cress (Cardamine glacialis) and the local scurvy grass, Oxalis enneaphylla, would provide a remedy for scurvy, an illness resulting from a shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Herbarium specimen of Hamadryas argentea

Joseph Hooker collected this specimen of silvery buttercup from the Falkland Islands and named it Hamadryas argentea

South Shetland Islands and Ascension

From the Falkland Islands, HMS Erebus sailed south, calling at the South Shetland Islands and Cockburn Island, where Hooker listed just 19 species of plant, all of them mosses, algae and lichens, and including two previously unknown moss species. After visiting St Helena again during its return from the Antarctic, the ship stopped at Ascension. In his journal, Joseph Hooker recorded that ‘St Helena has been well designated a barren rock, but it is a paradise compared with Ascension, which ... presented a black conical mass of volcanic matter’.

However, he still discovered plants of interest: ‘I found here and there a little purslane, a minute grass and a Euphorbia. The green peak yielded only one small indigenous shrub and 9 ferns’. He also noted that the garrison of soldiers on the island subsisted on a ‘scanty supply of tepid water, preserved in tanks, and salt meats and ship’s biscuits, varied with turtle’. His recommendations for introductions of fruit trees and other crop plants were implemented by the Admiralty, to provide fresh food and improve water supplies. Hooker did, however, express his concern that the plant introductions would prove harmful to the island’s native vegetation ‘especially to the rich carpet of ferns that clothed the top of the mountain when I visited it’.

Euphorbia origanoides on Ascension

This euphorbia (Euphorbia origanoides) was one of the few plants Joseph Hooker saw growing on Ascension's barren volcanic surface

Unique island plants

His visits to these remote islands influenced Hooker’s thinking on global plant distribution, which he discussed at length with Charles Darwin in the course of their correspondence prior to the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In a presentation to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1866, just after he had become Director of Kew, Hooker considered the links between island floras and those of their nearest continents. Of St Helena’s 45 unique species, he noted that many of them belonged to unique genera and had no obvious close relatives in Africa or South America. He stated: ‘The botany of St. Helena is thus most interesting; it resembles none other in the peculiarity of its indigenous vegetation, in the great rarity of the plants of other countries, or in the number of species that have actually disappeared within the memory of living men.’ 

In Joseph Hooker's footsteps

Hooker’s concerns about the threats to native island plants from invasive exotic species have proved well founded. Following on from a project looking at South Atlantic Invasive Species, Kew’s UKOTs team continues to work with conservationists in St Helena, the Falklands and Ascension to monitor their indigenous plants and evaluate the risks from introduced species. We are working with our UKOTs partners to ensure that UKOTs native plants are held in safe storage as seeds in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank or can be propagated in native species nurseries for possible return to their natural habitats when conditions permit. 

- Pat -


Related links

Find out more about Sir Joseph Hooker's expeditions and scientific activities at the exhibition 'Joseph Hooker: Naturalist, Traveller and More' in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

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UKOTs blog team sitting around the table

UKOTs bloggers (left to right): Sara Bárrios, Pat Griggs, Colin Clubbe, Marcella Corcoran, Tom Heller, Martin Hamilton.

Using modern plant specimens collected in the field and historic specimens held in Kew’s Herbarium, together with detailed habitat descriptions and other field information, we are documenting the plant diversity of the UKOTs. We are making this information accessible via the UKOTs Online Herbarium. This resource, together with the field research, enables us to undertake conservation assessments, produce Red Lists of threatened species, and rank potentially invasive species – all of which underpin the development of management plans to protect the UKOTs’ plant heritage.

The UKOTs bloggers are:

  • Colin Clubbe (Head of UKOTs and Conservation Training)
  • Martin Hamilton (UKOTs Programme Co-ordinator)
  • Marcella Corcoran (UKOTs Programme Officer – Horticultural Liaison)
  • Sara Bárrios (UKOTs Programme Officer – GSPC Targets 1&2 OTEP Project)
  • Pat Griggs (UKOTs Public Engagement Officer)
  • Tom Heller (UKOTs Millennium Seed Bank Officer)  

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