Cotswolds to Congo - Benedict Pollard of The Lakes by Yoo

PUBLISHED: 10:21 22 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:45 20 February 2013

Benedict during the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew expedition to the Congo.

Benedict during the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew expedition to the Congo.

Benedict Pollard has one foot in a remote rainforest and the other in a luxury Lakes development, as Marianne Sweet reports

Botany Bay

The remote rainforests of the Congo, for most, would seem the complete antithesis of a luxury second home development in the Cotswolds.
The Republic of Congo, also known as Congo (Brazzaville), has witnessed three coups in three decades, is one of Africas main oil producers but 70 per cent of its population live in poverty.
The Lakes by yoo at Coln Park near Fairford is a 650-acre site of disused quarry pits which have been transformed into a lakes estate, with homes on sale from 770,000, and nature and country living at its heart.
But for botanist Benedict Pollard the two ecosystems are not all that dissimilar. He applies the same discipline, methodology and passion for conservation in the UK as he does in the tropics.
His full-time job at The Lakes is Landscape and Ecology Manager, but he devotes much of his free time to tropical research and conservation.
The 36-year-old, who lives in Oxfordshire spent 18 days as part of a conservation research team from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on an expedition to Congo (Brazzaville), one of the least explored countries on earth.
Though he bridles at the comparison, the trip was the botanists equivalent of an Indiana Jones-style archaeologist in search of treasure. No botanist had ever visited this rainforest before a rare chance to discover unknown species.
The team had to contend with scorpions, forest elephants, poachers and pythons not to mention the intense humidity, thunderous rain and conducting negotiations with the locals in pigeon French.
Ben worked at Kew for several years, and whilst working as their Conservation Projects co-ordinator, discovered a plant from Cameroon that is now named after him Ledermanniella pollardiana.
The plant is only known from one place in the world, a beautiful waterfall. Its a small herb which does not tolerate pollution, requires high levels of oxygenation, and is held firmly on to the rocks by a sort of super strong plant glue.
The Congo expedition was more remote even than any of Bens six trips to Cameroon. They flew by small plane into Yakotapema, drove three hours on dirt roads from base camp to the village of Simonbondo, then each loaded with 30kg of kit, trekked three hours on foot to the rainforest of LOgoou-Lkti, a Proposed National Park.
We had to cross the Ogoou River and the only way to do it was to rent a dug-out canoe, called a pirogue, from this man who seemed to have the monopoly on canoes, explained Ben. We only had access to one canoe to get the 10 of us across the river to set up camp by sundown. It was quite unstable and slightly worrying. Not to mention the crocodiles.
The team carried all their food, equipment and tents, with Ben carrying some extra a gazebo from home. I thought it would be useful if it was the rainy season and we could work under it while labelling and cataloguing species. In the end it became our dining room roof.
The expedition was funded by MPD, a mining company. The team was in a race against time to find a target list of 18 rare or new plant species discovered on the mine site. If these could be found in LOgoou-Lkti, it would strengthen the argument to protect it as a national park.
Ben led the team with a Congolese botanist, Gilbert Nsongola, known only as The General. One of their first priorities was to purchase wine for the village chief. This was vital, as we hadnt realised the importance of holding a libation (an offering to the ancestors) before entering the forest. The elders could hold a ceremony in our absence, protecting us from harm.
However, the expedition was not without drama. An experienced animal tracker and his guide failed to return to camp one night. They had no food, water or torches. Locals are afraid to enter the forest at night because of the forest elephants.
Two search parties failed to find them. It rained heavily that night. Next day Ben set off with two guides to look for the missing pair, again returning empty handed. Talk started of how we had failed to properly observe the local custom of a libation, and we should go to the chief to appease the spirits and release the lost. About two minutes later the lost walked in to camp worse for wear, but okay.
In eight days, dramas aside, Bens team collected 450 specimens. We were up by 5.45am and had to stop pressing specimens by sundown, about 6pm.
The team collected flowering or fruiting plants, and mapped out three, 25m by 25m squares of rainforest and collected a sample of everything growing there. Each sample was numbered, tagged, photographed and notes recorded before being pressed and sent back to MPDs base camp, where it was dried.
Back in Brazzaville, Ben held plant family identification classes in French with local university botany students.
Our partner institution, The National Herbarium of Congo, holds their national collection of 30,000 dried plant specimens. The Anglo-Congolian MPD teams collected 3,000 equivalent to 10 per cent of the national collection. These conservation expeditions help us to identify threatened species and prevent them being lost forever.
Ben is hard-pressed to pinpoint his most exciting find. One would be the yellow-flowered Begonia a plant often associated in tropical Africa with ancient forest, undisturbed for tens of thousands of years. Another is a species of tree in the bean family that has only been collected once since the end of the First World War.
Back in safer Cotswold countryside, Ben recently made an exciting discovery of a rare annual wildflower, the solitary Red Hemp Nettle hidden in grass outside one of the houses at The Lakes. A member of the mint family, it is classified as Critically Endangered in the UK. Ben, painstakingly, collected 710 seeds. A third of them will go to the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew, and the rest to help establish a protected colony of rare arable wildflowers on site.
It is only one of many conservation projects he has on the go on site. I am more enthused than ever about what we can do here in the Cotswolds. But we must do our research first, as we would on an expedition. If we do not know what is here, then how can we conserve it?

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