Getting started

HomeLearningGetting started

Starting out in the study of bryophytes can be a lonely business. Your friends and family may have problems understanding the attraction of these jewels of the plant kingdom. Fortunately, help is at hand from the British Bryological Society, which will welcome you as a member and support you along the way.

Essentials 

  • A good hand lens is absolutely essential to look at bryophytes in the field. x10 is a useful magnification for scanning a specimen but x20 is best for looking at detail. Good quality hand lenses are available from the BBS librarian as well as from reputable suppliers of ecological survey products.
  • You will need at least one basic identification book to help you to identify what you find. We recommend our own publication, Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: A Field Guide. Visit the Field Guide page for details about the book and how to order it. You might also like to try our  Mosses and Liverworts of Towns and Gardens  leaflet. Many top BBS bryologists started out with E.V. Watson’s British Mosses and Liverworts. Still in print (3rd edition), it remains one of the best identification guides for beginners and introduces relatively simple microscope-based keys. There is a list of useful books that cover the bryophytes of Britain and Ireland on the books page.
  • A microscope. There are two main types of microscope that are used for bryological study:
  • The high power (compound) microscope is essential for looking at leaf cells and other microscopic details. Many species cannot be identified without such a microscope. The magnification of this type is usually in the range of x40 to x400, and specimens are examined on a glass slide under a cover slip. You will also need two pairs of fine-tipped dissecting forceps to enable you to remove leaves from stems for examination. The BBS librarian can provide you with these. Choosing a microscope can be daunting, with so many different makes and models now available. Before you commit, do some research. In particular, try to find out what other experienced bryologists are using and request potential suppliers for a demonstration. People generally need better microscopes as they progress, so it usually pays to get the best model you can afford, even if it seems a little over-specified at first.
  • A dissecting (stereo) microscope is also desirable and is used in conjunction with the compound microscope. This uses lower magnifications, usually in the range of x10 to x40, and is used to examine whole specimens and to prepare slides. The image seen is three dimensional, so manipulation and dissection of plants becomes a great deal easier.
  • BBS Membership. This entitles you to receive our twice-yearly Field Bryology, which is packed full of interesting articles and information and its scientific sister, the Journal of Bryology. Membership also permits you to attend organised BBS field and indoor meetings and workshops, and gives you access to our panel of expert referees who can help with identification questions. Find out more about the benefits of membership.

Now start bryologising

To begin with, the number of different species can seem bewildering, and there is no substitute for going out in the field with someone more experienced to begin learning how to identify them. There are a number of ways to meet up with fellow bryologists:

  • Attend a BBS local group field meeting. Local groups are run by BBS Regional Recorders and/or other experienced bryologists and are a great way to see many of your local species first-hand. Is there a local group in your area? Find out under Events (select the Local meetings category).
  • Attend a national BBS meeting. Every year there are organised field meetings in different parts of Britain and Ireland. These often focus on collecting records but they attract all levels of interest and expertise and are great places to meet other bryologists and gain some valuable experience. Details of forthcoming meetings are given under Events (select the National meetings category).
  • Attend a training course. Providers of bryophyte courses include the Field Studies Council and the Species Recovery Trust. From time to time the BBS also runs courses, taught by its own experts, covering topics at a range of levels. This is an excellent way of learning quickly with like-minded people. You will find a list of course providers in the Resources section, but remember that there may be other course providers that we’re not aware of, so do ask around.

Where to find bryophytes

Bryophytes can be found almost anywhere, including on man-made objects such as buildings and bridges, surfaces such as pavements and tarmac drives, and parks and arable fields. A wide variety of species can be found around houses and gardens, and many of these can be identified using the Mosses and Liverworts of Towns and Gardens sheet. Some common bryophytes that are likely to be found close to where you live are described here. See if you can find some of them!

Because the leaves of most bryophytes are only one cell thick, and very few of them have any specialised conducting tissue to transport water along the stem, they are very vulnerable to drying out. Although some species are adapted to prolonged desiccation, others cannot survive unless kept moist. Therefore, the best places to look for bryophytes are often sheltered and humid habitats such as woodlands, by watercourses, and in damp places such as bogs and fens.

Nature reserves can be excellent places to look. Wildlife Trusts usually do not mind bryologists collecting small amounts of common species for identification purposes (but if in doubt, do ask permission), but in return they should be sent a list of species found.

One of the fascinating things about bryophytes is how they differ from area to area and even site to site. The presence of particular species is influenced by the interaction of a number of factors including climate, topography, geology, hydrology and land management. Many of our Regional Recorders have written accounts of their own vice-counties, highlighting the kinds of habitats and bryophytes that may be found there. See our Vice County Explorer also for links to reports of past BBS national field meetings held in each area. Many of these give suggestions of sites to visit and the notable species that you might come across and are well worth reading.