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The Birse and Robertson Archive

IntroductionOpens up new window showing map of Scotland with moorland sampling sites

The Birse and Robertson archive is a unique collection of historical information on the status of Scottish plant communities, built up over the last 70 years. Eric Birse and Jim Robertson surveyed and studied Scottish vegetation between 1945 and 1985, firstly under the auspices of the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research, and later as part of the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute. During this period they collected almost 7000 records of vegetation composition, many with accompanying soil profile information. The records cover all major Scottish vegetation types and were collected throughout Scotland. This information was subsequently used to develop a vegetation classification for Scotland, published as ‘Plant communities of Scotland’ in 1980.

Long term vegetation change

Since the original surveys of Birse and Robertson were completed, there has been increasing awareness of, and interest in, the long term impacts of human activities on plant community composition. Climate change, deposition of pollutant sulphur and nitrogen, changes in land management priorities and agricultural practises all have the potential to impact on vegetation composition, with implications for biodiversity and conservation of important species and habitats. Historical datasets such as the one collected by Birse and Robertson provide an important baseline against which changes can be measured.


Between 2004 and 2014 approximately 1500 of the original survey locations were re-visited and re-surveyed as part of Scottish Government funded projects to investigate long term change in Scottish vegetation. Resurveyed habitats included alpine, moorland, woodland, wetland and grassland vegetation types. The habitat resurveys have resulted in a number of publications describing vegetation change in Scotland over the last 30-50 years and relating this to changes in climate, pollution and land-use.

Creating the archive

The original Birse and Robertson records were hand written onto paper records cards and stored in the basement of the James Hutton Institute, along with a herbarium of plant, bryophyte and lichen voucher specimens collected at the time of the surveys. A project to digitise the archive involved the transcription of the hand written record cards into an electronic database, cross linking of vegetation data with associated soils information, and cataloguing and preservation of the herbarium. Data from re-surveyed plots comprises electronic records of vegetation composition, associated soils and environmental information and digital photographs, and these are also included in the database.

Further information

For further information about the Birse and Robertson Archive, or if you are interested in collaborating or using the data, please contact Dr Andrea Britton at Download an information leaflet here or from the image of the leaflet. 


The development of the Birse and Robertson Archive was supported by the Scottish Government RESAS under its underpinning capacity funding.


Pakeman, R.J., Hewison, R.L., Riach, D., Fisher, J.M., Hurskainen, S., Fielding, D.A., Mitchell, R.J. (2017) Long-term functional structure and functional diversity changes in Scottish grasslands. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment, 247: 352-362.

Mitchell, R.J., Hewison, R.L., Britton, A.J., Brooker, R., Cummins, R., Fielding, D., Fisher, J., Gilbert, D., Hester, A., Hurskainen, S., Pakeman, R., Potts, J., Riach, D. (2017) Forty years of change in Scottish grassland vegetation: increased richness, decreased diversity and increased dominance. Biological Conservation, 212: 327-336.

Britton, A.J., Hewison, R.L., Mitchell, R.J., Riach, D. (2017) Pollution and climate change drive long-term change in Scottish wetland vegetation composition. Biological Conservation, 210: 72-79.

Britton, A.J., Hester, A.J., Hewison, R.L., Potts, J., Ross, L.C. (2017) Climate, pollution and grazing drive long-term change in moorland habitats. Applied Vegetation Science. 20: 194-203.

Britton, A.J.,Beale, C.M., Towers, W. & Hewison, R.L. (2009) Biodiversity gains and losses: evidence for homogenisation of Scottish alpine vegetation. Biological Conservation 142, 1728-1739.


Areas of Interest

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.