Skip navigation
1

And so dear reader, here it is, my first ever blog post. Until last week I thought there was more chance of me giving birth than ever blogging but when I was asked I thought well why not, it might be educational, for me and for you. As one of two fish curators here at the Museum it’s one of my jobs to enhance our already massive collection of fish specimens, and when the opportunity arose to do some collecting on the Isles of Scilly I leapt at the chance like a randy salmon. I hope, if you bear with me, I can give you an idea of what it's like to carry out field work for the Museum and also with any luck tell you a little bit about some of the fishes found on and around the islands.

 

James-maclaine-pufferfish-copyright-natural-history-museum.jpgMe with one of the Museum's fish specimens in storage.

 

If (like me until recently) you are not familiar with the location of the Isles of Scilly, then I can now enlighten you. They are, I think, the most south-westerly part of the UK and lie about 30 miles to the west of Land's End, out in the Atlantic where relatively warm oceanic currents ensure that the climate is generally very mild compared to the rest of the country. This also means that they are potentially very interesting in terms of marine life. The last big collections of Scilly fishes that the Museum acquired were made in the 1970s and it's possible that things may have changed since then. The islands are likely to be one of the first ports of call for any species migrating north as oceanic temperatures rise.

 

I have compiled a list of all the fish species the Museum currently has from that locality (26 in total) and the aim of the trip will be to collect anything not already on that list, especially anything that has never been recorded before in any literature as being found on Scilly. However, it would still nice to get fresh specimens of those already listed as these can now be used for DNA analysis or for exchange with other museums. I particularly want to see clingfish, which are found, as the name suggests, clinging to boulders in rock-pools. What would be really exciting is to see a seahorse but as these are very special and protected I'm not permitted to interfere with them in any way so don't expect any pictures. We (me and my various assistants) are highly motivated and have small handnets, a 25m seine net and five fishing rods so nothing will escape us.

 

The main way of getting to the islands is on a boat called the Scillonian. I have to confess to being slightly nervous about this as I had a bad experience on a boat a few years ago from which I still bear the mental scars. On a really good day the trip takes about two and half hours and the passengers can expect to see whales, dolphins, ocean sunfish and basking sharks frolicking alongside the boat. On a bad day things aren't so jolly. I just Googled "scillonian vomit" and got 6,110 results, the first of which is titled "Scillonian Pukefest" and apparently the boat is also known as the "Vomit Rocket". Ah, how bad can it be? It'll be fine I'm sure when we sail on Tuesday.

 

Ok, that's it for now. Hopefully next time there will be some nice pictures of dolphins from the boat and fishes from the islands. Until the next time ...

0

We have settled in to island life on the Isles of Scilly. Our digs for the next two weeks are an old bunker in the south western corner of St Mary’s with a wonderful view across to St Agnes. It is quiet and beautiful and we are surround by the spectacular atlantic ocean.

 

scilly-day-1-image-1.jpg

The view out onto the Atlantic Ocean

 

Our trip is part of a project led by Mark Spencer, Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Natural History Museum. The Isles of Scilly are a unique and stunning environment and they contain common and rare and (in some cases) invasive species - Mark’s work here aims to enrich the Museum's collection of British and European plants and animals with recent material.

 

This will fill gaps in our collections and make sure they cover a continuous span of time right up to the present day. Often, we don’t know how a collection will be used in future and they can play a key role in research. By keeping a collection like the one at the Museum, we have access to the information locked inside the specimens which could be used to answer questions on environmental change and other, similarly huge issues in the future.

 

The rest of the science team are arriving later in the week so, as an introduction to the island (and to find something to eat), Mark led us on a foraging tour of St Mary’s.

 

scilly-day-1-image-2.jpg

Mark Spencer looking for plants on St. Mary's to cook for supper

 

We found a whole host of amazing (and delicious) species, more than enough for supper. It should be said that we found a lot more edible species that we didn’t collect. It is important to understand a plant's role in the ecosystem and environment and some plants were too rare, or delicate to collect. Mark has an excellent knowledge of the local flora and it is important to really understand an area before harvesting anything from the wild as well as having permission for anything you want to collect.

 

 

I think it is safe to say if you’re in doubt, leave it in the ground. Not only does this protect the environment but also saves any potential poisoning (so don't try this at home unless you know what you are doing!). We passed lots of species that are absolutely deadly including whole fields of hemlock water dropwort, which is exceptionally poisonous.

 

scilly-day-1-image-3.jpg

The exceptionally poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) - not part of our supper later in the day!

 

Having said that, when in the company of an expert like Mark, the natural world explodes with interest and intrigue. Every plant has story and history and a whole world of edible possibilities is opened up.

 

scilly-day-1-image-4.jpgThe basis of our supper, all harvested from the wild.

 

Later in the day we cooked up our foraged plants - finding things that are good, or interesting, to eat is always great fun and the meal at the end of the day was blooming delicious.