A Botanical Legacy – The Jo Dunn Archive

Craig Blackwell's photo of Jo on Otmoor

article written by Ellen Lee, TVERC Data Manager

What does a busy retirement’s worth of botanizing look like? Thanks to The Wychwood Flora Group, who in 2020 donated Jo Dunn’s archive of botanical treasure to TVERC to look after, we now know the answer to this question; 2 large storage boxes jammed with box files, cardboard and plastic folders! Who knew what “gold dust” it might contain?

Sadly, Jo died of Covid-19 just two days after her 100th birthday in May 2020. By all accounts, she had a lifelong interest in nature, plants in particular. It was a passion that failed to be dimmed either by a stint in the Timber Corps (a branch of the Women’s Land Army in WWII) in the Lake District where conditions were basic and the winters cold, or by DDT poisoning in the early 1960s which saw her convalescing for several months in Majorca.

On retirement, she moved to Charlbury in West Oxfordshire and turned her acute observational skills and meticulous recording to the local flora and started filling those two large storage boxes. She was a co-founder of the Cotswold Rare Plant Group, the forerunner of today’s Wychwood Flora Group.

Perhaps her major contribution to Botanical recording in Oxfordshire was her friendship with Rosemary FitzGerald whose family owned the land where Jo found the highly threatened downy woundwort (Stachys germanica) growing during a walk in 1983. This discovery led to a programme of monitoring and conservation that continues today and it was also instrumental in getting the area (a green lane) designated as a SSSI. The other product of the friendship was the publication The Flora of Ditchley – Wild Flowers of a an Oxfordshire Estate (1993). For this, Jo spent 7 years combing the huge Ditchley Estate with a passionate enthusiasm.

Her activities were by no means restricted to the area around Charlbury and she contributed to many other projects and recorded plants with most of Oxfordshire’s other botanists who remember her modesty, generosity, eye for detail and determination to make sure that every uncertainty was checked with an authority.

So just what was in those boxes? Although we would have loved to delve into them ourselves, the TVERC data team just didn’t have the time and so we asked Nick Barber, a long term TVERC volunteer, member of The Wychwood Flora Group and veteran of other churchyard and road verge record digitization projects to see what he could find. The task was somewhat complicated by the fact that some of Jo’s records were already in our database, and some were already lodged with the BSBI and were therefore among the records supplied to TVERC by them. However, undaunted, Nick got stuck in!

Once in possession of the archive he immediately reported to me that he thought it would be a year’s worth of work, but somehow he completed the task in four months (100 working hours).

Here is how he described the task:

"Inside the files were letters; postcards; journal reprints; handwritten site lists; VC23 record cards; photographs; newspaper articles; hand-drawn location maps and rare plant reports bearing the names of Jo Dunn and many other well-known botanists who had completed fieldwork in Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
I tackled the job one folder at a time by first visually scanning through and assessing the folder contents, then transferring the records to the standard format data entry sheet. Some folders were crammed with interesting information but few actual records; some were crammed with recording cards with hundreds of records.
Over 15000 individual plant records of 907 individual taxa were entered. Records came from 96 tetrads with from 1 to a maximum of 1564 records per tetrad.  The two maximum record counts happened to be for tetrads on my doorstep – SP22W (Sarsden) with 1564 and SP32C (Sarsgrove Wood) with 872.  Also, scattered through the documents were 211 records from other plant and animal groups plus 129 historical plant records dating from 1730 to 1946."

So, thanks to this gargantuan effort, on 24th Feb this year I imported a grand total of 15,171 new records from Jo and fellow botanists into the TVERC database. Over 400 of these records were for protected and notable species. In addition to the actual species records, Nick found and scanned many carefully drawn maps of the locations of rare plant populations and of the habitats present at sites she visited. These too are a valuable source of information that we can now access in machine readable form. Many of the maps cover sites that are designated as Local Wildlife Sites and which TVERC monitor on a rolling basis. It’s wonderful that we can now see how sites have changed over time.

I leave you then with two images. The first I have Craig Blackwell to thank for providing and granting permission to reproduce. It is of Jo sitting in the SSSI meadow at Otmoor on the occasion of her 90th birthday, enjoying the botanical riches that surround her. The second is one of her detailed site drawings, of the North Leigh Roman Villa.

Finally, I’d like not only to than Nick Barber for his hard work and persistence, but also to Brenda Betteridge from The Wychwood Flora Group who allowed me to use material from the obituary she wrote for Jo which was published by the BSBI. It was fascinating, and gave me (I only met her once) a much more complete picture of the woman behind the records.

Posted: April 8, 2022