Surveying rare plants and safeguarding native trees

Megan Shersby meets Anna Saltmarsh, a botanist volunteering for a number of conservation charities and citizen science projects.

Anna Saltmarsh. © Kevin Sawford

For the past four years, Anna Saltmarsh has collected seeds: “I do sometimes find myself having to explain why my home is temporarily full of bags brimming with nuts or sticky berries, in some cases accompanied by a large sign saying ‘Poisonous – do not eat!’” she exclaims.

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Anna volunteers for the UK National Tree Seed Project (UKNTSP) through Suffolk Wildlife Trust. The scheme was launched in 2013 to collect and store high-quality and genetically diverse seed from native trees and shrubs throughout the UK.

Her work involves identifying suitable populations of target species, including hazel and crab apple, and less-familiar species such as wild service tree and small-leaved lime. By working with other volunteers and landowners, she gathers seeds at the point of natural dispersal and sends them to the Millennium Seed Bank at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to support conservation and research.

“With 10 target species on our list to collect either for the first time, or to re-collect due to limited success in previous years, 2019 was our busiest year yet,” says Anna. “We aim to collect around 10,000 seeds from a population of each target species, ideally sampled from at least 15 individual mother plants [female parents of the seeds being collected].”

Anna previously worked for Kew and the Zoological Society of London. She returned to her native Suffolk from London in 2017 after being diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time as she needed to undergo treatment and recover: “I have taken the chance to gain a deeper understanding of the county’s landscapes and wildlife while spending more time doing the things I love most,” she says.

Anna’s passion for flora doesn’t stop at seed collecting. She is also a Breckland Flora Group volunteer – set up by Plantlife, Natural England and Forestry England in 2016, the group carries out targeted recording of the district’s rare and scarce plants. “Brecks heathlands are a floristically unique habitat,” she says. “Much of it was turned over to plantation forestry and agriculture in the 20th century.”

Anna regularly visits locations within King’s Forest, her allocated recording site, to search for and assess the population size and health of species, including mossy stonecrop, sickle medick and native grape hyacinth.

“Volunteering provides me the opportunity to learn, a sociable network and a sense of identity,” says Anna. “It is a privilege that I am enjoying while I can.”


This article originally appeared in BBC Wildlife. Take a look inside the current issue and find out how to subscribe.

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Main image: Anna Saltmarsh. © Kevin Sawford