NHBS Guide to Newt Survey Equipment

Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) – CC Leonora (Ellie) Enking via Flickr

Great Crested Newts are the UK’s most strictly protected amphibian, requiring licensed ecological surveys if a development may affect them. As the first signs of spring emerge, ecologists are preparing for the start of this year’s newt survey season. Below, we have compiled a list of the most common newt survey methods and the equipment needed for each, so that you can ensure you have everything you need as the survey season approaches.

Netting
NHBS Traditional Amphibian Net

Netting for adult and larval newts can be a useful tool in both survey and relocation. Here at NHBS, we have designed an amphibian net specifically for the safe and efficient capture of newts. The net bag is attached by a wide velcro collar which prevents newts from becoming caught between the frame and the bag. The bag can also be removed from the frame to be disinfected between sites. The seams have been carefully placed so that they do not come into contact with the front edge of the net, and the material of the bag is a soft 2mm mesh. The net head is 300mm wide and comes with a sturdy, wooden 1.2m handle. We also sell a diamond-shaped amphibian net that comes in either standard depth or deep. Its shape is ideal for easy and safe capture for amphibians and is also available in a collapsible frame for easy transport between sites.

Dewsbury Trapping

The Dewsbury trap is an innovative design of newt refuge trap that is exclusive to NHBS. The clever design of this trap ensures that any trapped newts have access to both fresh air at the top of the trap and a thermally stable refuge at the bottom of the pond. They can be easily deployed from the edge of the pond meaning that not only is this trap safer for newts, but it is also safer and more convenient for surveyors too. In preliminary trials the Dewsbury trap was found to be more effective at catching newts than traditional bottle trapping methods and can be left unattended for up to 24 hours meaning night visits are not necessarily required.

Please note: we recommend that you contact your national licensing authority (Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, etc) before you purchase this trap. The Dewsbury Newt Trap is not included within either the Level 1 or Level 2 Natural England Class Survey Licence and a separate licence is required

Bottle Trapping

Bottle trapping is a popular method of surveying for both detecting and assessing populations. It can, however, become quite labour intensive, especially if you are looking to cut bottles into traps yourself. To save yourself some valuable time, we sell pre-cut bottle traps with the head inverted and ready to deploy. These can be bought in packs of 40 or 120 and are cut from 2L PET bottles with a 28mm neck diameter. Alternatively, we sell the whole bottles if you would rather cut the traps yourself.

Torching

Torching is a less invasive and effective method of counting/observing newts without the need for capturing them. Torches are recommended to be between 500,000 and one million candlepower and need to ideally last several hours at a time. The Cluson CB2 range is very popular among ecologists and provides 1 million candlepower with long lasting battery life and an easy-to-use pistol type grip. 

Drift Fencing

Fencing can either be used to temporarily exclude or contain newts in mitigation projects. It can also be used to aid the capture of newts for relocation and is typically a short barrier with the base buried underground. Our Tristar Newt Fencing comes in rolls of 100m, is made of UV stabilised polythene sheeting and tinted green. It is designed to resist weather damage and has a life expectancy of 5 years, making it ideal for temporary mitigation projects during development works. It is easy and simple to put up and can be fixed into place with our soft wood stakes.

Pitfall Traps

Often, pitfall traps are used alongside drift fencing in order to trap and translocate newts in relocation projects. They consist of a container that is buried underground often flush with the edge of drift fencing. Both rectangular buckets and round buckets have been shown to be effective and we supply several options depending on your preferences.

Recommended Accessories

Light & Dry Micro First Aid Kit

Bamboo Canes

dialMax Vernier Dial Caliper

Snowbee Granite PVC Thigh Waders

Snowbee Lightweight Neoprene Gloves

Replacement Amphibian Net Bag

Broad Spectrum Disinfectant Tablets

Breaksafe Thermometer

A note on licensing

Please note that Great Crested Newts and its habitat are protected by law. Any Great Crested Newt survey work must be undertaken by a licensed ecologist. Different levels of license are required for different survey and mitigation methods. For more information, please visit https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/great-crested-newt-licences#great-crested-newt-survey-and-research-licences

Interview with the authors of The Little Owl

The Little Owl, Athene noctua, is one of the most well-studied species of owl. Despite being widespread across Europe, Asia and North Africa, populations are now in decline, making studies of its behaviour and ecology all the more important. The revised second edition of The Little Owl, which vastly expands on the original, published in 2011, covers everything you could wish to know about the species. From its history, taxonomy and genetics, to details of its habits, diet and breeding, the wide-ranging text consolidates all of the current available knowledge, obtained both from the author’s personal experience and research, as well as scientific and conservation literature.

The authors, Dries van Nieuwenhuyse, Ronald van Harxen and David H Johnson generously gave up some of their time to answer our questions about the book, the issues currently affecting Little Owls globally, and their hopes for the future of this captivating species. The Q&A is also illustrated with some of the beautiful images from the book, all of which were created by scientific illustrator and graphic designer Joris De Raedt.


Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and the work you are currently involved in?

Dries is a life-long owl researcher and statistician active in ecological method development and publication. He has authored five books on the impact of technology and statistics on the decision-making processes of organisations, and in particular brings his skills as a statistician to his ornithological work.

Ronald is Chairman of the Dutch Little Owl Working Group (STONE), and has been active in research on breeding biology and population dynamics within nest box populations and conservation of the Little Owl in the Netherlands and internationally for more than four decades.

David is Executive Director at Global Owl Project, USA and working since more than a decade on a demographic study of the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). He has worked in natural resource conservation for four decades and has written two previous books on owls, wildlife and fisheries.

Joris De Raedt is scientific illustrator and graphic designer
visualising the wonders of the natural world. He illustrated the book through a combination of graphite sketches and digital illustrations. Color and details are added on the computer using a graphic tablet. More on his workflow at jorisderaedt.com.

For anyone that enjoyed reading the first version of The Little Owl which was published in 2011, what new things can they expect to discover in this updated second edition?

The subtitle of the first edition was Conservation, Ecology and Behavior, the second edition paid special attention to Taxonomy, Population Dynamics and Management. Major improvements are the illustrations that were all created by Joris De Raedt. This allowed us to make compilations of photos of the subspecies and their habitats to obtain extremely detailed and standardised artistic plates. The fact that this edition is in colour allowed excellent drawings of the embryonic development, the evolution of nestlings in function of age and high quality distribution maps by country and globally. The global distribution map was revised with much more accurate data than even before, thanks to the internet and technological advances.

Plenty of new insights were brought in by Ronald on breeding biology, prey items and behaviour in nestboxes that were equipped with webcams. Photos led to video, and that led to online webcam data that was tagged with time, prey species and specific behavior by volunteers.

The final major evolution was the intensification of replicated experiments since the first edition. Crucial questions on the yellowness of the beak of the female in relation to breeding performance and feeding preference of female nestlings by females, and also in relation to the yellowness of the beaks of the offspring, led to major breakthroughs in our knowledge. Due to the publication of the first edition, the start of a pdf and citizen science website for data collection improved the international cooperation tremendously and facilitated access to international data bases of ringing data, geocoded pictures and vocalisations.

Historically the Little Owl has suffered due to intensive agriculture practices and abundant use of pesticides. Are Little Owls still widely affected by these issues, and do we yet have a clear idea of how they are likely to be impacted with the additional challenges posed by the climate crisis?

Little Owls are ambassadors of small-scale landscapes. In some countries they disappear due to intensification of the agriculture, while in other countries they disappear when farming is halted (grazing cattle disappear) and after forestation. Climate change is expected to have a positive impact on the species in the north and the east due to less snow cover. Increasing heavy rain during the breeding season, on the other hand, will probably have a negative impact on breeding success. Increase in desertification might not be an issue, as this typical Mediterranean species can even be found in the Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula. In Europe, most negative impacts comes from agricultural intensification, with an increase in maize leading to less grassland, increase in pesticides and rodenticides, increase in scale of the landscape with fewer parcel borders, fences or shrubs.

An important part of the book deals with management techniques that have proven to work over the long term. Reintroducing short grassy vegetation with commanding perches and provision of nestboxes can significantly help Little Owls to cope with modern agriculture. If conservation is started timely enough, this simple management can help preserve healthy populations. When densities drop too low, this might not be sufficient and, in combination with a lack of food, can lead to local extinctions.

What are the key ways in which Little Owls are surveyed? And how comprehensive is our knowledge of where they occur and their current population sizes?

The species is excellent for research due to its easy response to playback of vocalisations, historically mostly undertaken in western Europe but recently increasing in eastern Europe. Monitoring efforts have continued since the 1980s and offer a good view on population numbers. This has led to extra research on the possible impact of habitat deterioration, food availability and the increase of Stone Marten and Tawny Owls as possible limiting factors.

Since the first edition plenty of new local and large scale atlases have been published leading to a very detailed knowledge on the distribution and population numbers in Europe. The new EBCC atlas has distribution data at the 50 by 50km level, the 27 EU member states monitor Little Owl presence at the 10 by 10km level, and a number of local atlases have data available at the 1 by 1 km level.

Outside of Europe, the species is rather common but distribution knowledge remains anecdotal with population estimates largely based on local average densities and, in rare cases, on habitat modelling. More insights emerged from North Africa and the East (eg Iran and Pakistan) but much more work is still needed outside Europe. Hopefully this book can boost research in less well-studied countries, as many methods that have proven to be working simply need to be replicated elsewhere.

How effective have captive breeding and reintroduction projects been for the Little Owl so far? And is this approach likely to be an important one for their future conservation?

Not very effective. Some initiatives have been undertaken but with moderate outcomes. Reintroduction remains an emergency brake that rarely works. Supplemental feeding, provision of nestboxes and landscape improvements are much more effective, particularly when they are started in a timely manner. The key is not to wait too long before starting with small-scale management and to keep healthy populations, even in areas with intensive agriculture.

How likely are Little Owls to utilise artificial nestboxes?

Very likely, and this makes The Little Owl one of the best and easiest models for biological and conservation research. The ease of installing nestboxes with webcams and with predator protection allows data to be collected in an unprecedented manner, without special tools or tedious field work. People can observe the species seated at their kitchen table, youngsters can easily be involved in playback monitoring, nestbox maintenance and food supplementation, which eventually leads to experiments and dedicated citizen science. This make the species so special.

Finally, what’s next for you? Are there new books on the horizon?

Sure, Ronald and Dries will publish a non-scientific version of the book in Dutch for the 2000+ local volunteers to thank them for their tremendous help in collecting and digitising Little Owl data through conservation, management and ringing. David and Dries are currently preparing a similar book on the close relative of the Little Owl, the Burrowing Owl. Finally, Ronald is currently working on a book on all owl species that can be found in The Netherlands. We’ve still got some work to do.


The Little Owl by Dries van Nieuwenhuyse, Ronald van Harxen and David H. Johnson was published by Cambridge University Press in October 2023 and is available from nhbs.com.

This week in Biodiversity News – 1st April

Conservation

Increasing shortages of early season food threatens bumblebee populations. A new study published by the Universities of Oxford and Exeter has revealed that pollinator-friendly plant species are now flowering up to a month too late to aid bee conservation, resulting in low colony survival rates and reduced queen production. The reduction in pollen and nectar availability during the March to June period, which is critical during the early stages of colony formation, can have catastrophic effects on colony populations, with research suggesting that a two week gap in pollen supply reduces the production of daughter queen bees by up to 87%. To combat this decline, it is recommended that existing hedgerows should be populated with early blooming species such as Ground Ivy, cherry, and Hawthorn, which would increase colony success rates from 35% to 100%. 

Photograph of a bumblebee flying towards a yellow flower.
Bumblebee by James Johnstone, via flickr.

A pioneering translocation project aimed at saving a rare species of fungus in now underway in Cumbria. The Willow Glove fungus is a critically endangered species that can now only be found in two woodlands in Scotland, with the majority of it living on a single fallen tree. Scientists have recently removed sections of dead wood that the fungus is living on and relocated it to three receptor sites in an attempt to prevent the species’ impending extinction. The fungus is being transported to protected sites of special scientific interest where the fungus was last recorded before it became extinct in England 50 years ago. Host trees have been selected due to their plentiful supply of willow glue, a parasite that the Willow Glove depends on for survival. The success of this relocation technique will be monitored by volunteers from Cumbria Fungi Group for the next five years.

RHS Rosemoor aims to rediscover lost, native apple varieties to help the fruit survive climate breakdown. This spring, horticulturalists are searching for lost varieties of apple trees that used to be abundant in ancient orchards, with the goal of discovering the genetic traits of those species that are still thriving today. The University of Bristol and Sandford Orchards will each receive the genotypes of apple species that have been deemed important from across England and plan to investigate the rare ‘survivor varieties’ that have not been propagated, collected or recorded before. The hope is that their genetic code can be preserved for future use in an attempt to safeguard biodiversity and boost the UK apple industry’s resilience to climate change, particularly for those species that are native to this country. This project will play a vital role in the sustainability of the UK’s commercial orchards, 80% of which have been lost since 1900.

Closeup image of Apples hanging off a tree in an orchard.
Apple Orchard by Sue Thompson, via flickr.

Discovery

A newly discovered orchid species boasts the longest nectar spur of any known plant relative to its flower size. The Solenangis impraedicta, found in the forest canopies of central Madagascar, is the first orchid discovered since 1965 that has made extreme adaptations to allow only a certain species to access its nectar and facilitate pollination. Its hyper-long nectar spur, measuring 33cm, makes it the longest of any known plant when compared to its small flower size of only 2cm, and researchers suggest it may only be accessible to the Long-tongued Hawkmoth. The significance of this discovery has been noted due to the similarities between this species and Darwin’s Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale), which is also native to Madagascar. Darwin speculated that only a moth with an exceptionally long proboscis could reach the nectar, while Alfred Russel Wallace further built on this in his predication that a hawkmoth would be the only species able to do so. Finding this rare orchid highlights the urgency of conservation measures in Madagascar that are necessary to combat the rapid rate of deforestation occurring on the island.

Hummingbird Hawkmoth in flight while feeding off a purple flower.
Hummingbird Hawkmoth by Peter Stenzel, via flickr.

An ancient species of river dolphin has been discovered in the Peruvian Amazon. A team of palaeontologists have found a giant fossilised skull on the shores of the Napo River that belonged to the largest-known species of river dolphin in history. This colossal creature, measuring 3-3.5 metres in length, is not related to the native Amazon River (Pink) Dolphins, but rather the South Asia river dolphins who are found 10,000km away. Researchers suggest that the dolphins’ ancestors originally lived in the ocean but ventured into the abundant freshwater ecosystems of the proto-Amazonia, before becoming extinct when new habitats emerged and their prey vanished.

Environment

The earliest-ever sighting of the Asian Hornet suggests they may now be established in the UK. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recently confirmed that an Asian Hornet was sighted and captured on the 11th March in Kent – one month earlier than the first hornet sighting of last year. Once hornets are established, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them, and with Asian Hornet numbers having skyrocketed in the UK in 2023, scientist are concerned that they are now overwintering in the UK. This may have detrimental effects on wild pollinators emerging from hibernation, particularly Britain’s bee populations which play a key role in agricultural pollination. 

Author Q&A with Dominic Couzens and Gail Ashton: An Identification Guide to Trees of Britain and North-West Europe

An Identification Guide to Trees of Britain and North-West Europe is a fantastic new guide to 89 of the most commonly found and easily recognised trees in the region. Suitable for everyone, from the complete novice to the experienced naturalist, the book contains lively and interesting text from Dominic Couzens, complemented by Gail Ashton’s photographs. These show details of each species throughout the seasons as well as features that are useful for identification.

Dominic Couzens is a bird expert, nature writer and the author of over 40 books. He is also a regular print columnist and writes for Bird Watching Magazine, Nature’s Home (RSPB) and Water Life (WWT). He is passionate about communicating about the natural world  and has a particular passion for writing about current threats to the planet and how they can be best addressed.

Gail Ashton is a photographer and writer with a passion for wildlife and invertebrates in particular. Well known for an incredible project where she undertook to photograph 500 UK invertebrates over the course of a year, she is passionate about encouraging everyone, young or old, to observe and appreciate the natural world.

We recently got to the chance to ask Dominic and Gail some questions about the book; about the process of compiling such a guide, the most fascinating things they learned in the process and their concerns for the future of trees in Britain and further afield.


Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to be working together in writing this book?

DC: I am an experienced writer of natural history books and I’ve written a number of field guides, both to birds and mammals. However, in 2021 I came across Gail’s remarkable project to photograph 500 species of invertebrates in a single year. Her fabulous library was the perfect material for an insect guide, so we published An Identification Guide to Garden Insects in 2022. The project was a great success so here we are.

GA: I have always loved nature and one of my favourite ways to be outdoors is in woodland and forest. Studying insects brought me a new layer of fascination for trees as I found out just how many other organisms they support, and just how complex they are. Trees came on the back of the very-well received ‘Garden Insects’, and follows the same, beautiful format and layout.

There are numerous books available on tree identification. What do you think sets your book apart from other ID guides of its kind?

GA: Yes, there are a good number of outstanding tree guides out there – some of which I use myself. But they can be quite expansive and overwhelming, especially for those of us just starting our tree identification journey. This book is a perfect entry-level guide which introduces you to the different ways in which you can look at trees in order to recognise key features.

DC: It’s very different. For a start, while most tree guides even just to Britain have 300 or more species, we have cut this down to about 90. So it’s simplified and entry-level, including all the common wild species and some introduced ones – those that people might see. It is very far from technical and we have tried to make every species interesting and fun in its own right. We have included some really great facts about many of the trees.

I’m always fascinated by the process behind the compilation of such a comprehensive ID guide. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

DC: Trees are complicated, with all the different parts from leaves to bark. As the writer of most of the text, even though I had a decent grasp of many British trees, it was always a challenge not to forget all the details. The other very difficult task was in selecting the species. We wanted to include all the species people will notice, including such non-natives as Magnolias and Eucalyptus, while including the bona fide wild trees. But we couldn’t find room for all the tricky willows, and in the end we just hope our choice chimes with people.

GA: Believe it or not, the biggest challenge for me was actually finding the trees. It sounds mad, because trees are everywhere, right? But finding that perfect tree to photograph took a lot of research, walking and finding, and then the light had to be right, so I would revisit trees multiple times. Some of the trees were quite difficult to find, such as the Wild Service and Mulberry, so a lot of detective work was required to pinpoint them. I also had to make repeat visits to capture them in all their seasonal phases. There are trees from all over Europe in this book -thousands of miles and hundreds of hours! But those are the lengths I’ll go to get a great photo.

I particularly enjoyed the fascinating facts that you included for each species in the book. Did you learn anything new or particularly surprising about any of the tree species covered over the course of your research?

DC: I learnt an enormous amount. Did you know that each Holly leaf lives an average of seven years, for example? I also love the fact that Monkey Puzzles are essentially adapted to cope with browsing Sauropod dinosaurs.

GA: I became particularly fascinated with the Ginkgo – a unique throwback to the very beginnings of life on Earth; a tree which is neither conifer nor broadleaf, but somewhere in between.

A big part of conservation and land management is knowing what species are where and how many there are. How much do we currently know about the trees present in Britain and their population sizes?

GA: According to Forestry Research, only 13% of the United Kingdom is currently wooded. That’s such a small percentage compared to a few thousand years ago. Our ancient woodlands have all but disappeared, replaced by farmland, urban development and plantations. Veteran trees are our most important, as they support more communities and sequester more carbon than young trees. It’s essential that our remaining veteran trees and woodland fragments are fully protected to ensure the health of our future natural landscapes.

DC: The recent Atlas of British Flora means that we are well covered in these terms. For some of the rarer trees, such as Black Poplars, we know how many individuals there are of each sex.

Within this guide you include information on the months when leaves, flowers and buds might be seen for each species. Do you have any information or a feel for how rapidly climate change is impacting these features?

DC: Trees are a good early-warnings system, and you don’t need to write a book on trees to see that many are coming out earlier than they used to – hazel catkins in December, for example. However, it was very difficult to get any accurate figures for the book because it varies so much from year to year, and we were also covering Northern Europe as well as Britain. However, we certainly got a feel for the potential problems. Birch catkins are coming out earlier in response to warming, but might be approaching the earliest they can cope with physiologically. Oak budburst will affect both the caterpillars that feed on it and the Blue Tits that feed on the caterpillars. On a wider scale, temperature changes will affect the whole distribution of trees through the country, with northern species retreating. We could lose some specialists such as Dwarf Willow, and the climate will also become easier for introduced trees.

GA: I think that trees are more difficult to use as indicators than insects as trees have a much longer generational turnover, and they don’t move; however monitoring the emergence of blossom and leaves in spring and the falling of leaves in autumn is a great citizen science tool to establish changing trends.

Are there any trees in the UK for which the future seems particularly bleak?

DC: There are well known problems for ash trees and to a lesser extent oaks, and we simply don’t know how far their respective diseases will go. But as a warning, remember that the Field Elm, in its various forms, used to be lowland England’s most abundant tree. Paintings by our forebears of the countryside were often dominated by elms – now they are a shadow of their former selves. And as mentioned above, the warming climate will impact upon our more northerly species.

GA: Ash dieback is currently decimating younger adult trees, though there is a glimmer of hope in that veteran ash are currently immune to the fungus. Juniper is in massive decline across the UK due to loss of suitable habitat.

Finally, what are you both working on now? Do you have plans for further books?

DC: We have co-written two books on insects recently: A Year of Garden Bees and Bugs and An Insect a Day, both of which are published by BT Batsford and are narrative-style books.

GA: I am currently working on upcoming books about invertebrates. I have an exhibition of my photos planned, as well as workshops, talks and podcasts.


An Identification Guide to Trees of Britain and North-West Europe will be published by John Beaufoy Publishing in April 2024 and is available from nhbs.com.

Book Review: Blue Machine

***** An engrossing odyssey into oceanography

In a break from many other books about the deep sea that talk about animals, Blue Machine focuses on the ocean itself, revealing a fascinating planetary engine. Equal parts physical oceanography, marine biology, and science history, topped off with human-interest stories, Czerski has written a captivating book that oozes lyricism in places.

Czerski is an accidental oceanographer, stumbling into the discipline from a background in physics. She boasts a long list of science communication credentials as a TV presenter, podcast host, columnist, public speaker, and author. This is a big book with chunky chapters but Czerski keeps the flow going by alternating between scientific explanations, fascinating experiments, and remarkable historical episodes. I find the deep sea endlessly fascinating and have been drawn ever further into oceanography through my reviews, yet something was always missing. This book has finally scratched the oceanographic itch I have long been trying to satisfy. How so, you might ask?

Stormy sea and waves crashing against a stony beach.
Stormy Waters IMG_6958 by Ronnie Robertson, via flickr.

Start with that introduction. If you zoom right out, what sets a planet’s temperature, and with it the potential for life, is the balance between energy input from the sun and energy loss to the universe in the form of heat. From this grand, cosmic perspective, what the ocean with its circulating currents does is intercept some of that incoming energy and prevent it from immediately escaping again, instead “diverting it on to a much slower path through the mechanisms of the Earth: ocean, atmosphere, ice, life and rocks” (p. 5). From an energy point of view, “the Earth is just a cascade of diversions, unable to stop the flood but tapping into it as it trickles past; and the ocean is an engine for converting sunlight into movement and life and complexity, before the universe reclaims the loan” (p. 6). To me, this was such an awe-inspiring, attention-grabbing perspective on life on Earth, expressed so eloquently, that I wondered: is Czerski the new Ed Yong of oceanography? Tell me more, please!

What helps to understand the above perspective is the fact that the ocean is a vast three-dimensional environment that is constantly in motion, creating and maintaining differences at different scales. Heat and salinity create different layers of water that do not readily mix, meaning the ocean is stratified. This results in gigantic underwater conveyor belts and waterfalls. What makes these processes interesting is the shape of the container holding all this water: i.e. the continents and underwater topography. The local gravitational pull of the underlying rocks deforms the water surface, creating domes and holes over very large surface areas, a shape known as the geoid. Many more fundamental features and principles are described though she admits that she cannot squeeze the full complexity of the ocean into one book, treating other topics only briefly or not at all.

Bright blue, large wave tubing with splashes all around it.
The tube by Misty, via flickr.

Admirably, Czerski is equally at home in the marine biology department and she features some wonderful critters here. True, these abound in all good popular science books about the deep sea, but her physics background allows her to show how the physical and biological worlds intertwine. A beautiful example of this is the mesoscale eddies that are spun off by oceanic gyres: large islands of rotating water that become temporary havens for all the plankton and fish that find themselves inside. The formation of these wandering buffets is such a regular phenomenon that large ocean predators such as tuna can make a living by roaming the seas in search of them.

Another captivating element is the many ingenious experiments, both historical and current, that she describes here. We almost developed a method to collect a long-term dataset on the global ocean’s temperature by bouncing sound waves through the seas, but the idea stalled after a successful pilot experiment in 1991. More successful is the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey which has been running for the last 90 years, deploying mechanical recorders towed behind ships that use elegant internal clockwork to capture plankton on long strips of mesh and have gathered valuable long-term records.

The physical world also entwines with human history. One example is the narrow northern half of the Indian Ocean where gyres do not form but seasonal currents flow eastwards and westwards. The 14th-century Chinese Ming Dynasty used these to send expeditions of large ships laden with valuables up and down the coast of Asia and Arabia, trading goods for political influence and prestige. I was similarly captivated by the poorly known story of the 18th-century Scottish herring lassies: bands of female contractors who travelled south along the English coast each summer, following the southwards moving herring fleet. While the men worked the boats out at sea, the women were ready in ports and at beaches to gut, salt, and pack each day’s landing before the freshly-caught fish could spoil. Hard-working, skilled, and independent, they were decades ahead of most other women in Victorian England.

Wave Breaking on rocks at Asilomer State Beach.
Wave Breaking Asilomer State Beach by Charlie Day, via flickr.

All of this is backed up by an attitude that, coming from a scientist, is refreshingly clued in to social issues. This becomes explicit in the final chapter where she addresses the environmental issues she has so far avoided. Though a popular mantra in politics is that we need to follow the science, she opposes this “for the simple reason that science does not lead. Where leadership comes from is a clear statement of values” (p. 381). Science can inform these, yes, but we have to decide what we care about for ourselves and our communities. Going down this path involves hard questions without simple answers, and nuance rather than binary “I am right, you are wrong” categories. It also means breaking with our perception of “the ocean as the end of a one-way pipe” (p. 289). There is no “away” on this planet for our trash. And it means breaking with a culture of infinite growth on a finite planet. Her thinking here is influenced by her contact with Polynesian cultures that value cooperation, openness, and teamwork, in contrast to the Western mindset of ownership and power play.

If I need to sound a critical note it is the lack of illustrations. Though the UK version features nice endpapers and a stunning cover, there are only two maps and two illustrations in the rest of the book. Especially some of the physical oceanography principles would have benefited from explanatory diagrams.

Blue Machine is an engrossing odyssey into oceanography. Czerski brings her substantial experience in science communication to bear on this topic and has written a transformative book. She brings to life the watery fabric of the ocean itself in ways I have not encountered before.

The NHBS Guide to Rockpooling

Rockpooling is an educational and extremely enjoyable wildlife activity that introduces you to a colourful world of creatures that are usually hidden beneath the sea. Rock pools are full of limpets, crabs, whelks, periwinkles and anemones, all of which have fascinating adaptations that allow them to live in this unique place. The intertidal zone is an exceptionally harsh habitat, with animals needing to cope with exposure to saltwater, rainwater, changing temperatures and sun. Rockpooling is a brilliant hands-on activity to introduce children to this unique habitat and discuss how animals and plants cope with living there.

Photo credit: S Webber

Planning a Rockpooling trip

The best time to go rockpooling is in the late spring or summer, when the weather is milder and temperatures are warmer. There are many excellent locations to go rockpooling on the UK coast and, by searching the local area or consulting this list by The Wildlife Trusts, you can find some of the best spots. Once you know which area you are heading to, you need to consult the local tide table. Rockpooling is best done on a low spring tide, because the most interesting range of creatures are likely to be found nearest the sea edge. Pick a day with calm weather conditions and when the low tide point is at a suitable time in the day – you need to time your visit to be there for low tide and then watch carefully for the tide coming back in. Make sure that you take a sun hat, sun cream and wear sturdy shoes, as the rocks can be very slippery.

Rockpooling equipment and method

Photo credit: S Webber

Bucket – a clear or white plastic bucket is great for storing your finds temporarily.

Net –a net can help with catching crabs when used carefully, but avoid scraping along rocks.

ID guide – there are a range of ID guides including laminated FSC sheets and seashore identification guides.

Pots – smaller animals can be transferred carefully to pots for a closer look.

Endoscope – peer deep into the depths of the rockpools and record images and videos with a handheld endoscope.

Approach rock pools carefully, as animals can be wary of noise and shadows appearing above them. Dip your bucket into the water to catch mobile animals or carefully search through with your hands. If you fill your bucket and pots with a little seawater then you can keep any creatures you find in there for a short period of time while you identify them. Watch out for crab claws as they can nip, and anemone tentacles as they can sting. Do not remove any creatures that are attached to the rocks as they may have a specific place that they attach to until the tide comes back in. Turn over stones to find crabs and have a good look to see if there is anything hiding in the seaweed. Once you have finished looking, make sure you return the animals gently back into the pool.

Common UK Rock Pool Inhabitants

Green shore crab (Carcinus maenas)

Photo credit: John Haslam via Flickr

Hermit crab  (Pagurus bernhardus)

Photo credit: Peter Corbett via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common blenny  (Lipophrys pholis)

Photo credit: Duncan Greenhill via Flickr

Beadlet anemone  (Actinia equina)

Photo credit: Deryk Tolman via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snakelocks anemone  (Anemonia viridis)

Photo credit: NHBS (taken with Video Endoscope)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flat top shell  (Steromphala umbilicalis)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

Limpet  (Patella vulgate)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common periwinkle  (Littorina littorea)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

Recommended reading and equipment

The Essential Guide to Rockpooling
#243734

 

 

Educational Rock Pooling KitEducational Rock Pooling Kit
#192241

 

 

Rock Pool: Extraordinary Encounters Between the Tides
#249715

 

 

 

The Rocky Shore Name Trail
#228841

 

 

Rocky Shores
#242624

 

 

 

Life Between the Tides
#256239

 

 

 

Rock Pools
#255911

 

 

 

RSPB Handbook of the Seashore
#241750

 

 

 

White Plastic Bucket
#197160

 

 

60ml Collecting Pot
#199488

 

 

 

Hand Held Magnifier
#202230

 

Video Endoscope
#243795

 

Phenology Series: Spring

Springtime is often synonymous with rebirth, renewal and regrowth. As the Earth’s axis tilts towards the sun, our days become warmer and the snow starts to melt. The rivers and streams swell, air and ground temperatures rise, and we start to see new plant growth.

There are no fixed calendar dates for the beginning of spring. Ecologically, the start of this season relates to biological indicators, such as the start of certain animal activities and the blossoming of particular plant species. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events from year to year, like the budburst of trees, the arrival of summer migrant species, the breeding bird season and the emergence of hibernating wildlife. You can find out more about the study of phenology in our previous blog post.

This is the first in our four part seasonal phenology series where you can explore a collection of ID blogs, books, equipment and events to make the most of the spring season.


Identification guides

Over the years, we’ve made a number of identification guides for UK species, many of which are active during spring. Here’s a selection that we think are particularly useful for this season:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


What you might see:

  • You will likely start to notice the first flowering of many plant species, including Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis), Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis), Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Wood Anemone (Anemondoides nemorosa).
  • The budburst of trees, including Alder (Alnus glutinosa), Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and Sycamore (Acerpseudoplatanus), with many also having their first leaves appear in March or early April.
  • Trees such as Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), Hazel (Corylus avellana) and Field Maple (Acer campestre) begin to produce blossoms and catkins. Spring blossom can start as early as February and last through to early summer.

  • The emergence of several insect species, such as Seven-spot Ladybirds (Coccinella septempunctata), Orange Tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines), Green Tiger Beetles (Cicindela campestris) and Dark-edged Bee-flies (Bombylius major).
  • The beginning of the nesting season for most European bird species, including Great Tits (Parus major), Tawny Owls (Strix aluco), Long-eared Owls (Asio otus) and Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes). Great Crested Grebes (Podiceps cristatus) start their courtship rituals in early spring, with their elaborate dances, synchronised swimming, preening and ‘mewing’.
  • Many migratory birds also begin to arrive during spring, such as Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita), Swallows (Hirundo rustica) and Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe).

  • Reptiles and amphibians become more active during spring and into summer, coming out of hibernation and venturing to find food and breeding sites. Frogspawn, toadspawn and tadpoles also begin to appear during early spring and onwards.
  • A number of mammal species give birth during this time so that their young are born when resources are most plentiful. Badger cubs (Meles meles), which are mainly born in February, will begin to gradually emerge from their setts during spring.


Activities:


Upcoming events:

Earth Day – 22nd April
International Dawn Chorus Day – 5th May
Hedgehog Awareness Week – 5th to 11th May
World Bee Day – 20th May
International Day for Biological Diversity – 22nd May
World Environment Day – 5th June
World Ocean Day – 8th June
Insect Week – 24th to 30th June


Essential equipment and books:

An Identification Guide to Garden Insects of Britain and North-West Europe

 

 

 

 

Wild Flower Flowcharts: Species ID the Easy Way

 

 

 

Great British Marine Animals

 

 

 

 

 

Opticron Hand Lens: 15x 23mm

Check out our guide to hand lenses and our full range.

 

Educational Rock Pooling Kit

 

 

 

Wireless Nest Box Camera.

Wireless Nest Box Camera

 

 

 

 

 

Browse our full collection for more spring books and equipment highlights.

Gardening for Wildlife: Creating Habitat

In the first of our two-part series, Gardening for Wildlife: Providing Food, we looked at how to attract wildlife to your garden by including plants for pollinators and providing food for birds and mammals. In the second of our two-part ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ series, we look at how to create nesting or overwintering habitat effectively for the wildlife that visits your garden. Natural nesting sites for birds, insects and mammals have become rare in the broader landscape due to changes in farming, woodland management practices and building construction techniques. Wildlife-friendly gardens can provide fantastic habitat for invertebrates, birds, amphibians and mammals by making a few simple changes and by letting a bit of wildness back in.

Mining Bee © Ed Phillips

Insects

It is easy to provide habitat for insects in your garden just by leaving the lawnmower in the shed. Setting aside a patch of grass to grow longer should encourage wildflowers to grow in your lawn, and will provide food and shelter for insects and small mammals. Creating a log pile in which beetles, woodlice and earwigs can shelter is also an easy way to increase garden wildlife habitat. You can provide additional nesting space for solitary bees or overwintering quarters for other insects by creating or installing an insect house. These can be homemade and constructed to your own design, or you can purchase purpose made houses. These are particularly important for solitary bees, who use tunnels in wood, mortar, plant stems or artificial houses to nest. They lay eggs and place a food source in a series of cells, and then block the entrance with materials such as mud, leaves or fine hair. Other nest sites can be provided by leaving dead wood and stems standing and leaving a patch of bare earth or mud bank for mining bees.

Vivara Pro Seville Nest Box

Bird Boxes

Providing bird boxes in your garden can be an excellent way of helping wildlife, as natural nest sites can be rare due to changes in house construction and woodland management techniques. There is a vast array of nest boxes available for many different species of birds, so it is worth knowing which bird species visit your garden before selecting a box. A good place to start is by providing a nest box with a 32mm entrance hole that is suitable for house sparrows or blue and great tits, who are enthusiastic occupiers of nest boxes. Most nest boxes are made of breathable materials such as wood or wood fibres mixed with concrete (Woodcrete or WoodStone). The advantage of Woodcrete and WoodStone nest boxes is that they are much more durable and can last for 10 years or more. Purpose-built nest boxes are available for many different species such as swifts, treecreepers and even robins. For more details on our most popular nest boxes, please see our series of blog posts on nest boxes suitable for different locations. For more details on where to hang your nest box, please see our blog post

Image by Peter O’Connor via Flickr.

Mammals

Gardens are extremely important for hedgehogs and can provide excellent opportunities for foraging and hibernation. Leaving a pile of fallen leaves or a log pile can give them a place to shelter during the daytime or you can choose to invest in a hedgehog nest box. These can provide a safe place for hedgehogs to sleep or hibernate – there is even the option of installing a nest box camera so that you can watch footage of them using the box.

Hedgehogs can travel up to 2km each night, eating as they go. Allowing them to move freely between gardens is important to ensure that they can obtain enough food and find safe spaces to sleep. If you have a garden fence, cut a hole at the bottom measuring 13 x 13cm to allow hedgehogs to pass through on their nightly wanderings. You could also remove a brick from the bottom of a wall or dig a channel underneath. 

Bats also use gardens for foraging, so increasing the number of invertebrates in your garden will help to attract them. Bats naturally roost in a variety of spaces including holes in trees. With natural cavities being rare, providing a bat box can be a great way of helping them and our series of blog posts on the top bat boxes for different locations, and our advice on where to hang your bat box is a great place to start. The best time to watch them is at dusk when you can sit in the garden and see them whizzing around catching mosquitoes. Alternatively, you can invest in a bat detector and identify the species visiting your garden. For both bats and hedgehogs, connectivity to other patches of suitable habitat is key. Hedgehogs use hedgerows or need access through fences to be able to visit multiple gardens, and bats use treelines and hedgerows when foraging.

Image by Erik Paterson via Flickr.

Amphibians and Aquatic Invertebrates

The easiest way to help aquatic invertebrates and amphibians is by creating a pond or small body of water. Even if you have a small garden, you can create a mini pond with an old belfast sink or a washing up bowl. Choose a warm, sunny spot that will be good for dragonflies and tadpoles, consider planting a few native freshwater plants and wildlife such as pond skaters, damselflies and water beetles should soon find the spot. Please ensure that ponds are positioned with safety in mind if you have children, and that you include rocks or sloping edges so that wildlife can get in and out. There are fantastic guides to creating a pond available, such as the Wildlife Pond Book, and once your pond is up and running you can even try some pond dipping. It is not recommended to collect frogspawn from the wild, but you can encourage amphibians into your garden by providing damp areas such as log piles or a frog and toad house.

Watching Wildlife

Having attracted wildlife to your garden, there are several ways you can get fantastic views up close.  Binoculars give you a great view of wildlife that is further away, but with close focus distances now much improved, they also offer a great way of magnifying insects and aquatic invertebrates. Read our blog post to find out how to choose a pair of binoculars. Alternatively, trail cameras can be used very effectively in gardens to record garden visitors such as hedgehogs and birds. These standalone weatherproof cameras use passive infrared to detect passing warm-bodied animals and take either still photographs or videos. For more information on trail cameras, see our blog post on how to choose a trail camera. For a really close-up insight into what the wildlife in your garden is doing, consider installing a nest box camera. See our guide on how to choose a nest box camera for advice on the different options. A hedgehog nest box camera can also give you really amazing footage of hedgehogs feeding and nesting.

By providing food resources and suitable habitat for wildlife, you can ensure that your garden becomes a sanctuary for the animals around you and a spectacle of nature right on your doorstep.

Recommended Reading

The Wildlife Pond Book
#246688

This offers a fresh and unique perspective on ponds, encouraging readers of any budget to reach for the spade and do something positive to benefit their shared neighbourhood nature.

 

 

Guide to Garden Wildlife
#246618

Even the smallest garden can be an important haven for wildlife, and this authoritative guide enables everyone to explore this wealth on their back doorstep. It covers all the main animal groups – including pond life – likely to be found in a garden in Great Britain and Ireland.

 

Making Wildlife Ponds
#231864

This guide can help you create an aquatic habitat in your garden, home to stunning, brightly coloured damsel- and dragonflies with iridescent eyes, amphibians which choose to breed, and birds and mammals of many kinds that come to drink at such placid waters, including hedgehogs

 

Nestboxes: Your Complete Guide
#241181

Building your own nestbox and watching a pair of birds raise a successful brood will bring pleasure to the whole family, and this book provides all you need to know to get started. Written by Dave Cromack and drawing on the BTO’s expertise, this provides the perfect guide to building, erecting and monitoring nestboxes for a broad range of bird species.

 

FSC Freshwater Name Trail
#175156

Aimed at KS2 and above, this 8-page fold-out chart is a fully illustrated key to help users identify the main animal groups found in freshwater. None of the identification in the key goes beyond family level, and some of it stays at the phylum or class.

 

 

Recommended Garden Products

Bee Brick
#244140

 

 

BeePot Bee Hotel
#244760

 

 

 

 

Vivara Pro Seville 32mm WoodStone Nest Box
#234956

 

 

 

 

Brecon FSC Nest Box
#252721

 

 

 

 

WoodStone Swift Nest Box
#217160

 

 

Vivara Pro Barcelona WoodStone Open Nest Box
#234963

 

 

 

 

 

Hedgehog Nest Box
#179141

 

 

 

 

Large Multi-Chamber WoodStone Bat Box
#246918

 

 

 

 

 

Magenta Bat 5 Bat Detector
#171849

 

 

 

 

WoodStone Frog and Toad House
#209839

 

 

 

NHBS Pond Dipping Kit
#244947

 

 

 

Author Q&A with Jeremy Biggs & Penny Williams: Ponds, Pools and Puddles

Ponds, pools and puddles are a common sight in our landscape and play a very important part in sustaining wildlife. In Volume 148 of the New Naturalist Series, the authors provide a comprehensive survey of the variety of plants and animal life for which they are a habitat, and discusses the way in which they are used, their importance, and compares their major variations in life cycles. Ponds, Pools and Puddles makes an invaluable contribution to raising awareness of these popular, yet frequently underrated freshwater habitats and gives them the attention they rightly deserve.

Jeremy Biggs and Penny Williams work for Freshwater Habitats Trust, a wildlife conservation charity focused on reversing the decline in freshwater biodiversity. They have been involved in numerous research projects, publications and conferences on the ecology and management of ponds and other freshwater habitats.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Jeremy and Penny about how they became interested in ponds, whether they think technological advances will play an important role in future pond research and more.


Jeremy Biggs wearing wellies on the side of a large pond looking at something he has caught in a net on a sunny day with clear, blue skies.
Jeremy Biggs

Can you tell us how you both became interested in ponds and pond life?

P: I had a wonderful early experience at primary school: we had a trip to a local pond in Southborough, Kent and caught a Three-spined Stickleback. The teacher brought a couple back to a classroom tank and I watched in amazement as the beautiful azure blue and orange male made a nest and fanned the eggs with his tail.

J: I was interested in wildlife from my teens, particularly birds, but it was at university (Royal Holloway, University of London) that my interest in freshwater was awakened. Crucial for me was an inspirational teacher – the late Dr Nan Duncan – who ran one of the best courses there was on freshwater biology.

I found your definition of a pond interesting as there appears to be so many ways of deciding what constitutes a pond. Can you talk us through the process that you went through to decide on the parameters for your definition?

P: After working on ponds for a couple of years it became clear that we needed an easy-to-use definition, particularly to deal with the inevitable question: is it a pond or a lake? It also had to include temporary ponds, which were hardly recognised in the UK at the time. So, at Freshwater Habitats Trust we went for an area-based definition because that’s easy to measure. We set 2 ha as the pond/lake cut off, as this seemed to best capture the difference between the two. The ‘wet for at least four months of the year’ is included as this is roughly the time needed for ponds to develop a wetland plant community. That means that you should be able go to a basin that’s wet or dry at any time of year and tell if it is a pond. In practice, the lower limit is a little flexible: we use 1m² to include tiny pools and garden ponds, but for practical reasons use 25m² for national counts of ponds where it’s impractical to count every little countryside puddle.

Penny Williams carrying an inflatable kayak by a pond on a sunny day with blue skies.
Penny Williams

It’s clear that the first national pond survey paved the way for gaining a more in-depth understanding of pond classifications, species, ecological preferences and more. What do you think the next step is in gaining an even greater understanding of ponds, and do you think modern, technological research methods will play a big part in this?

P: Current policy, legislation and general awareness of the importance of ponds now lags way behind our knowledge of pond ecology – so although there is still an enormous amount more to find out about pond biology, I think the greatest need is for knowledge that shows the importance and value of ponds for protecting freshwater biodiversity. For example, we need evidence about how high-quality pond creation and restoration can be used, at a landscape scale, to maintain healthy freshwater metapopulations, prevent extinctions and enable the spread of species that may be increasingly isolated by pollution and climate change. This is a real focus for Freshwater Habitats Trust, where we’ve been championing the importance of small waterbodies – and ponds in particular – for more than three decades.

Modern technology will undoubtedly play a part in this: DNA, and eDNA in particular, may be a game changer, although we are some way off from using it for the purpose that I would love: routine monitoring of all waterbodies (rather than just rivers) to get a real understanding of what is happening to freshwater biodiversity in our landscapes and how we can best address that.

New technologies are always exciting but, to be honest, I think the main thing we need at the moment is publicity, publicity, publicity. Widespread knowledge and appreciation at all levels of how wonderful these little waterbodies are.

J: More than a particular technological solution, what we really need is funding for ‘National Pond Survey 2’, led from a conservation perspective and, as we’ve been doing for the last 30 years, generating and testing the ideas that Ponds, Pools and Puddles summarises. There’s so much to learn here: are ponds still declining in quality? What’s the effect of pond management? How do ponds, lakes, streams, wetlands and rivers interact? What about the microbiota which we know next to nothing about (that is something eDNA will help with)? How is climate change affecting ponds?

It was fascinating to learn that there is a much greater variety of species found in ponds in comparison to river communities. How important do you think ponds are in the recovery of nationally scarce or Red Data Book species?

J: The very wide variety of nationally scarce and Red Data Book species found in ponds means that ponds are absolutely vital for the recovery of these species. The special virtue of ponds is that, with their small catchment, we can still find large numbers of very high-quality ponds in the landscape, or create new, near pristine, clean water ponds in areas protected from pollution. This is all much more difficult for streams, rivers and many lakes with their much bigger catchments. There’s no doubt that creating and restoring networks of clean water ponds could put many of our Red Listed freshwater species on an upward trajectory. Indeed, this is one of the aims of Freshwater Habitats Trust’s vision to build the Freshwater Network: to reverse the decline in freshwater biodiversity. This will see us creating a network of wilder, wetter, cleaner, more connected freshwater habitats, and ponds play a big part in this concept.

Delta Pond in Eugene, Oregon surrounded by trees, plants and flowers on the shoreline.
Delta Pond in Eugene, Oregon by Rick Obst, via flickr.

To what extent do you expect climate change to affect the ecological formation and chemical makeup of natural ponds in the future?

P: The effects of climate change on ponds are undoubtedly going to be complex, varied, unexpected and unpredictable. For example, in the Water Friendly Farming project, where we’ve been monitoring the same ponds for over a decade, a clear (but not predicted) result is that shallow ponds are being rapidly encroached by marginal wetland vegetation in dry years, and this vegetation persists so that open water is being lost. However, the effect differs: where ponds are grazed this has been beneficial, sometimes enabling uncommon plants like Orange Foxtail (Alopecurus aequalis) to spread to lovely new poached drawdown zones. In other cases, it has been sad to see little ponds with water buttercups be replaced by just wetland grasses like Sweet-grasses (Glyceria spp) and Creeping Bent (Agrostis stolonifera).

J: Climate change is going to have a big impact, but the effects are going to very difficult to predict. Ponds are so varied, it’s inevitable that their responses will be too. It’s possible to make sweeping generalisations (pollution impacts get worse, many temporary ponds disappear) but there’s a good chance these will wrong. It’ll be crucial to have a good set of observations of what is actually happening to ponds. In the meantime, the priority should be to use ponds to put as much clean water as we can back into the landscape.

What is the most interesting finding that you have come across while researching ponds, pools and puddles?

P: For me it’s undoubtedly been the opportunity to riff on my geological background and delve into the ancient natural processes that shaped ponds in the past – and which still has so much to teach us about ponds (and other freshwaters) today. For example, I love the fact that almost all of today’s wetland plants evolved in landscapes that had already been shaped by grazing and poaching processes for over 200 million years – no wonder many wetland plants benefit from grazing and the presence of muddy ground! And, at a time when many people (including scientists and policymakers) still undervalue ponds as man-made artificial features, some of world’s best-preserved evidence of early life in terrestrial landscapes (the Devonian Rhynie cherts in Scotland which are c400 my) reveal an environment that is full of ponds with the fairy shrimps and tadpole shrimps swimming amongst stoneworts.

J: For me, it’s been the chance to bring together so much information that we simply haven’t had a chance to publish anywhere else. With the amount of time it takes to publish research, we are extremely selective about what we write up in papers. Only the most important results ever make it into print. It’s also allowed us to look at groups we don’t work on so much ourselves (such as the microalgae) and see how these reinforce many of the ideas about ponds from the more obvious bigger plants and animals. It’s also nice to get into the book the truth that many of our biggest and most famous wetlands, like the Coto Donana in Spain, are actually massive pond complexes comprised of over 3,000 temporary ponds!

Pennington Flash Pond through the Trees.
Pennington Flash Pond through the Trees by Ronald Saunders, via flickr.

Are either of you working on any other projects that we can hear about?

J: Freshwater Habitats Trust is really busy at the moment! Amongst other things we are:

– Launching the Freshwater Network: this is our plan to restore freshwater biodiversity taking account of freshwaters, including the critically important small (standing and flowing) that make up most of the water environment but have been largely overlooked for 100 years.

– Developing the network in key regions to protect and restore freshwater biodiversity in some of our most important freshwater landscapes like the New Forest, The Brecks, in the catchment of the R. Thames and in the Yorkshire Lowlands.

– Working with colleagues in Europe and South America looking at pond biodiversity, ecosystem services and climate change as part of the EU Horizon 2020 PONDERFUL project.

– Beginning research on the value of pond buffer zones in a project for Natural England and assessing the role that eDNA can play.

– Creating thousands of new ponds with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation as part of the Newt Conservation Partnership – created for Great Crested Newts but with much wider benefits for wildlife and, critically, monitoring the effects so we can tell whether it’s really making a difference.

– Continuing catchment research which looks at all of the water environment. Fortunately more and more people are realising that in every landscape, small waters are a lifeblood.

– and so many others….


Ponds, Pools and Puddles Cover.

Ponds, Pools and Puddles is available to pre-order from our online bookstore here.

Toads in the Roads

It is in the earliest months of the year, when the weather turns milder and deeply saturating rains arrive, that adult toads, frogs and newts begin to emerge from their wintering hibernacula and make their long-standing annual journeys to the waterways in which they breed. It’s an ancient way of life for amphibians and a behaviour that pre-dates humankind by millennia.

Close up of a Toad crossing a loose, stony road at night.
Toad – Oli Haines

Roads are a relatively new addition to the landscape by comparison. A blink of an eye in toad evolution. They frequently bisect the paths that amphibians must navigate in order to reach their ancestral ponds. Being relatively slow-moving, small, and cryptically coloured, amphibians are incredibly vulnerable on tarmac roads. As such, it is estimated that two tons of toads are killed on roads each year in the UK.

This February was one of the warmest and wettest on record in England, and it felt every bit of it. Despite the gloom of early darkness and torrential rain, I was thrilled to sign up and join an enthusiastic local volunteer group of Toad patrollers, deep in the Devon laneways, to learn what work is being done to mitigate our impact on the amphibians currently making these critical journeys.

The Toads on Roads project was spearheaded by the amphibian charity Froglife over twenty years ago. Volunteers that are involved in the project put in considerable effort each year to monitor known and established toad crossings around the country. These are the places where toads gather in their largest numbers and are at significant risk of being run over in their attempts to reach spawning ponds.

The group I joined have, for a number of years, been protecting an intersection where three roads meet beside a large pond. As we gather in high-vis vests at around half five in the evening, it’s already fully dark. We’re wearing latex-free gloves and bearing large white buckets. The pond is swelling up either side of the road, flooding the tree roots in a muddy soup. The rain falls intermittently and, sure enough, a proud collection of male toads is already eagerly lining the roads awaiting the females.

Toads crossing for 800 metres sign on the side of a road with a grassy verge, wildflowers and long grass.
Toads crossing sign in Stalisfield Road by Pam Fray, via geograph.org.

We walk along the lane counting the toads we find and placing markers near them that are more visible for passing cars than the toads themselves are. It’s not such a busy road, but it is narrow and steeply enclosed between old earthen hedgerows that cars and tractors have clipped away over time, resulting in an overhang that the toads are incapable of climbing. Often, they become trapped along the lane. Where we find them in a predicament, we watch to observe the direction of their travel, and if the cars come, we gently lift the toads off the tarmac and place them in the verge where they appear to be headed.

A few drivers who come by slow down and ask what we’re doing. Many seem intrigued by the response, often vowing to take care as they go on. I’m told this is an improvement. As awareness of toad crossings and the work being done to monitor them increases, people are more understanding, though I’m assured there’s still animosity from some drivers who feel inconvenienced.

During some of the evenings on the patrol we encountered beastly weather; driving rain and flooded roads; and I marvelled at the dedication of the volunteers and their care for the amphibians crossing the roads. I learned that more people are approaching Froglife to get involved and that, due to increased awareness and publicity, the plight of toads is reaching more and more would-be patrollers. There have also been successful cases of temporary road closures to divert traffic during the heights of toad migration in the UK this year.

Close up of two toads, one on the back of another, crossing a gravelly road at night.
Toads – Oli Haines

It’s a complex web of challenges that contribute to amphibian population declines – not just nationally but globally. Land-use intensification threatens our waterways with myriad pollutants and our roads and construction projects fragment vital habitats or obliterate them entirely. It’s heartening that awareness is building. It has been such an inspiration to me to learn there’s a network of enthusiastic and caring volunteers out there in the winter nights, working at limiting the damage to amphibian populations, championing these remarkable and charismatic animals, and building hopeful connections in local communities while doing so.

If you feel call to get involved, visit the Froglife website where you can learn more about local toad crossings. There’s also abundant information on ways that you can make any local green spaces or gardens more amphibian friendly, such as making ponds, allowing wilder patches and encouraging greater invertebrate diversity.


Read our two-part Gardening for Wildlife blog for more information.