Mountain Flowers: An interview with Michael Scott

Between book writing, Michael Scott spends a lot of each year as a speaker on cruise ships - here he is exploring the Kakum National Park in Ghana.
Between book writing, Michael Scott spends a lot of each year as a speaker on cruise ships – here he is exploring the Kakum National Park in Ghana.

Michael Scott is a nature writer and cruise ship speaker who has had an interest in botany since his undergraduate studies at Aberdeen University. His latest book, Mountain Flowers, is an extensive and engrossing survey of Britain’s montane flora. Michael expands on the story of Diapensia (see below) in the August 2016 issue of British Wildlife.

Tell us about the book and who might find it interesting.
I suppose it’s aimed mostly at people who already have some general interest in the wild flowers of Britain. Perhaps they already know something about the flora of lowland areas but don’t quite know where to begin seeking out the more elusive species that grow at higher altitudes in the British mountains. The book describes the key places to visit and some of the characteristic species at each site. It also describes the ecological requirements of each species, and I’d really hope that will encourage people to explore more widely in the mountains and hopefully make new discoveries there.

Many of the mountain areas of Britain are stunningly beautiful, and I would be thrilled if people who love mountains were also encouraged to read the book and discover more about these wonderful wild areas and about the colourful plants that grow beneath their feet as they hike the fells or ‘bag their Munros’. I’ve tried to select photos for the book that are as attractive and compelling as possible to inspire readers to explore and investigate – or just to act as a wonderful souvenir of holidays in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands or wherever.

Mountain Flowers

I best sum up my objective for the book at the end of chapter one: “If I can persuade a few… hillwalkers to slow their relentless pace, to look around them as they climb, to venture off the beaten path and explore an interesting-looking crag or delve into the watery runnels that seep from the tops – in other words, to enjoy seeing a hill, rather than just conquering it – then this book will have been truly worthwhile.”

How did you first become interested in botany?
I grew up near Edinburgh Zoo and from an early age spent all my spare time in the zoo getting to know the animals. By the age of 8, I’d decided I wanted to be a zoologist when I grew up – which I thought meant going around the world looking at zoos! That enthusiasm never waned, and I went to Aberdeen University to study zoology. In first year we also had to study botany, and I found that new and fascinating. I knew that plants lay at the foot of all food chains, and therefore that plants were key to how the natural world worked, so I switched over to doing my degree in botany. I was lucky that the university had a field station at Bettyhill on the north coast of Scotland, and some of the first plants I got to know there were montane species growing at unusually low altitudes in the relative sub-arctic climate of the far north. Then, in Honours year, we had an amazing field trip to Obergurgl in the Alps, and I have been hooked on mountain flowers ever since.

You are now lucky enough to spend a lot of your time as a quest speaker on cruise ships around the world; how might you go about getting passengers interested in Britain’s mountain flowers?
It’s funny that you should ask that, because I’m just about to go off on a cruise to Nova Scotia in Canada, and on one of the four days when we sail back across the Atlantic to Liverpool I’m planning a talk called The Lure of Mountain Flowers. I think I’m going to start that with the story of a birdwatcher called Charles Tebbutt, who is best known for his book on the birds of (distinctly unmountainous!) Huntingdonshire. In July 1951, he was walking on a rugged hillside in Inverness-shire, when he spotted a plant at his feet that he didn’t recognise. He collected a few samples of the flowers and leaves, which he sent to various botanic gardens and he was promptly told, with some excitement, that he had discovered a rather handsome flower called Diapensia* which had never previously been recorded in Britain.

Diapensia on its remote hillside in the west Highlands of Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott
Diapensia on its remote hillside in the west Highlands of Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott

That may be 60 years ago now, but I think it shows that there might still be exciting discoveries to be made in the British mountains – and that you don’t need to be a professional botanist to make them! I’ll then go on to a series of beautiful scenic photographs, just to remind folk how beautiful our mountains are, then I’ll show some of our most attractive mountain plants to prove just how much they add to the allure of the hills. That will lead into the mystery stories behind these plants: I’ll speculate why Diapensia is still only known from that single, rather unremarkable hillside and what that might have to do with Norwegian commandos. I’ll tell the story of two attractive little plants that cling to survival in Snowdonia, and why a relative of the garden pinks is known from only two very different sites, one a crag in Lake District and the other a hillside of shattered rocks in Angus. There are plenty of ‘ripping yarns’ from mountain botany to interest cruise ship passengers – and I hope they will also inspire readers of my book.

(* Incidentally, I apologise to any keen botanists reading this who, like me, know many plants better by their scientific names. As in the book, I’m not quoting scientific names here because I don’t want to scare off readers who aren’t botanists – and those of us who are botanists probably have plenty of books in which we can check the scientific names if we need them).

What distinguishes a mountain flower and how many such species occur in Britain?
That’s a really good question. Many of them are species which also grow in the Alpine regions of central Europe or in the Arctic regions of the far north, so they are categorised broadly as ‘arctic-alpines’ – a term that will be familiar to most gardeners. But Britain lies in a special position off the west coast of Europe and its climate is tempered by winds that come off the Atlantic. As a result, many alpine species grow here at dramatically lower altitudes than where they occur in the Alps, and some arctic species also grow here, far south of their normal latitudes. Several species meet on the mountain cliffs of the Lake District or the southern Highlands of Scotland that grow together nowhere else in the world (which makes these especially important conservation sites in an international perspective). I also list in the book several species that grow in Britain at their northernmost or their southernmost sites in the world.

So, although I could define a mountain plant as one that grows typically above, say, 1,500 feet, that doesn’t always work in Britain because many of these come down almost to sea-level on the wind-battered north coast of Scotland or on the Western and Northern Isles – and that’s what makes British mountain botanising so intriguing. In fact, I almost reverse the argument in the book. I have selected 152 species that I regard as typically montane, then, for the purposes of the book, I define mountains as places where these plants grow – and these range from unexpected places like The Lizard in Cornwall, right up to the island of Unst in Shetland.

Tell us more about the unique conditions in the UK and their effect on mountain flower distribution.
The important thing to recognise is that many of our montane species have been clinging to survival on remote mountain ledges since just after the end of the last Ice Age. They survive there because of the chance juxtaposition of the right kind of rock and soil and a local microclimate that mimics the conditions to which they are adapted elsewhere in the high mountains of Europe or the high Arctic. It is vitally important that we try to understand why they survive there and continue to monitor their populations, because these are the plants that will give us the first warning of changes that are likely to happen on a much bigger scale in the Alps and the Arctic because of climate change. They are vital “miners’ canaries” for what lies ahead – plus I think Britain would be infinitely the poorer were we to lose them from our hills.

Page detail from Mountain Flowers
Page detail from Mountain Flowers

How have 21st century developments in botanical research affected our understanding of mountain flower ecology?
Hmm… In the strictest sense of botanical research, the latest genetic studies have sometimes made life a bit more difficult, especially for ageing botanists like me! It has changed our understanding of the relationships between species which in turn has led to a lot of changes in scientific names and how species fit into our concepts of plant families. It has also shown that one or two of what we thought were good mountain species are actually just variants of much commoner species, highly adapted to the mountain environment.

What has increased hugely over the 60 years since the last major account of British mountain flowers was published is our knowledge of the distribution of our mountain flowers, thanks to the hard work of hundreds of botanists in recording schemes masterminded by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI). The BSBI published increasingly comprehensive atlases showing the distribution of our native plants in 1962 and in 2002, and recorders are now hard at work gathering data for the next Atlas 2020 project, due to be completed in three years’ time, while, all round the country, enthusiastic botanists have compiled and published detailed accounts of the plants of their local counties or areas. I was given privileged access to the BSBI’s online databases in compiling the information in my book, and I am hugely grateful for that.

What I now want is for readers to prove me wrong! From the BSBI databases, I have tried to note the northernmost and the southernmost sites from where the key montane species have been recorded, and the highest and lowest altitudes at which they have been found, but I am sure keen readers could find new records beyond these extremes – and report them, I hope, to their local botanical recorder. I have reported on sites from which certain species appear to have died out, and I would be thrilled if that encouraged readers to go out and re-find the plants there.

What is the biggest conservation threat to mountain flowers in the UK?
I imagine most informed readers of the NHBS newsletter would expect me to say climate change was the biggest threat to mountain plants, and, in the long term, there is no doubt that climate change is a huge threat. But, as I have tried to show in the book, the impact of climate change on the mountain environment in the short to middle term is difficult to predict with any certainty and may not immediately be as disastrous as we fear.
What is beyond doubt is that, if we are to give montane plants any chance of adapting to the changes ahead, we need to get much better at managing our hills and mountains. Overgrazing by red deer is a huge problem across most of Scotland. The regular burning of moorland areas that are managed for the sport shooting of red grouse or to produce a ‘spring bite’ for sheep tends to encourage a few resilient species at the expense of many other, more delicate plants. Yet some mountain habitats also benefit from restricted amounts of grazing, and if continuing financial challenges lead to further declines of extensive sheep farming in the uplands that could become a big problem too. The challenge lies in getting the right balance between these conflicting priorities – and I’m afraid the decision by the people of England and Wales to leave the European Union (the EU has been a huge help in establishing conservation priorities in Britain) is not going to make that any easier.

Tell us about some specific species you find particularly interesting and that feature in the book.

Alpine Sowthistle of (legal) Scottish origin, growing in the author's garden in Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott
Alpine Sowthistle of (legal) Scottish origin, growing in the author’s garden in Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott

In the book I have selected 18 species, most of which are rarities, whose distribution and survival particularly intrigues me. I call them “Three-star Mountain Enigmas” for reasons I explain in the book and I give an extended account of each of them. For some of these species, I hope to shed insight, based on the scientific researches of dedicated mountain botanists; for others, I can only pose questions, in the hope of inspiring someone to find an answer. And there are plenty of puzzles in our mountains. Why, for example, is Alpine Rockcress found only in a single corrie in Scotland, when it grows almost as a weed in disturbed ground in the Alps and Arctic? Why (and how) is Iceland Purslane dispersed all the way from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego, yet in Britain it only grows on gravelly slopes on the Isles of Skye and Mull?

In the book, I suggest that Alpine Sowthistle is restricted to tiny populations on just four remote cliffs in the eastern Highlands of Scotland because humans have almost completely destroyed the mountain woods in which it once grew (and where it still flourishes in the Alps and Scandinavia), and I show how the 2001 outbreak of Foot-and-mouth Disease revealed how Marsh Saxifrage and Alpine Foxtail grass are actually much commoner than we ever realised.

For someone interested in a bit of amateur research, where are some of the best spots for finding mountain flowers?
I’d always say that the best place to start is the montane site that is nearest to home, whether that’s the Brecon Beacons, the Peak District, the Pentland Hills or wherever – they’re all covered in the book. Then you can make regular visits through the spring and summer to find each of the local species in full flower and follow them through the season to catch them in seed too (there are some species which you can only identify with certainty if you can find their fruits as well as their flowers) – although I should add that, by the time you read this, it is probably a bit late in the year already for mountain plants, so buy the book and start planning for next year!

Once you have got to know the commoner montane species for your local patch, you can perhaps plan a holiday further afield to one of the real mountain hotspots, like Snowdonia or Upper Teesdale, the Breadalbane hills of Perthshire or the Cairngorm Mountains of Inverness-shire. One spot that I particularly recommend in the book is the area around the Glenshee Ski Area, south of Braemar in Aberdeenshire. The A93 road from Blairgowrie to Braemar rises here to 670m (around 2,200 feet), so montane species grow right beside the car park, but the area is already so well-used by skiers that you needn’t worry too much about damaging the vegetation – and there are some really special plants for plant explorers to find.

The slopes of the Glenshee Ski Area south of Braemar on the Perthshire/Aberdeenshire boundary are one of the most accessible sites to see a good range of Britain's montane flora. Photo: Michael Scott
The slopes of the Glenshee Ski Area south of Braemar on the Perthshire/Aberdeenshire boundary are one of the most accessible sites to see a good range of Britain’s montane flora. Photo: Michael Scott

It is currently the school summer holiday period – any tips for getting kids interested in botany?
Another great question. Kids like action, and it’s the perfect time of year to show plants in action. Find the different kinds of fruits that plants produce and see how they are dispersed. Find the winged fruits (called samaras) of a sycamore tree or the ‘keys’ of an ash tree and work out how they spread. Who can get their fruit to travel furthest? Find some dandelion ‘clocks’. Don’t just see how may blows it takes to remove all the seeds from the ‘clock’; instead try to follow one of the seeds on its little parachute and find out how far it travels. If you can find a patch of Rosebay Willowherb, investigate how it spreads its seeds. If a riverside near you has been invaded by Himalayan Balsam (aka Policeman’s Helmet); see if you can work out how its explosive fruits have made it a successful ‘Alien Invader’ (in this case from India, not from Outer Space). How do the wild relatives of garden peas and strawberries spread – and what about potatoes? If you want to get really yucky, you might want to ask kids why they think tomato plants sometimes start growing beside sewage treatment plants!

If you have a boggy area nearby, see if you can find Common Butterwort growing there and investigate how its sticky leaves trap little insects which the plant then dissolves and absorbs to get the nutrients it needs to grow. Even better, see if you can find Common Sundew whose leaves are covered in red hairs which curve over to trap little insects caught by the sticky surface of the leaves. Then go online to discover how Venus Flytraps, Pitcher Plants and other insectivorous plants trap their prey – there are some great websites aimed at youngsters about these plants.

Mountain Flowers is available from NHBS

Mountain Flowers

Interview with Simon Poulton about the new BioEcoSS TubeTrap

Simon Poulton struggling to enter data in the field
Simon Poulton struggling to enter data in the field

The BioEcoSS TubeTrap is a new product for ecologists and researchers conducting mammal surveys. The innovative design is the work of data consultant Simon Poulton, who told us more about his company and his revolutionary new small mammal trap.

Tell us a little about your organisation and how you got started.
BioEcoSS Ltd is a consultancy specialising in all aspects of ecological data handling and analysis. I became a consultant after taking voluntary severance from ADAS, which was the scientific and advisory arm of the old MAFF – precursor to DEFRA, for the youngsters among you. I had worked for them for 14 years, developing from basic wildlife advice through to coordinating the national monitoring of Environmentally Sensitive Areas and other agri-environment schemes. Change was in the air, with ADAS becoming a “Next-Steps Agency”. So, I decided to go it alone, allowing me to concentrate more on the practical side of database design and statistical analysis – rather than managing teams and editing their reports. It also allowed me to select my clients to focus more on the taxa that I was interested in – primarily mammals and birds.

Why the name? Well, when I set up as a consultant I had a very loyal spaniel call Bess. Struggling to come up with a descriptive name that had “ecology” and “statistics” in it, a mischievous friend took one look at the adoring dog at my feet, and suggested BESS. So, I became Biological & Ecological Statistical Services! Bit of a stretch – but it caught on. Then when I converted to a limited company five years later, I thought I’d better have something a bit more respectable – so BioEcoSS Ltd was born.
Over the last 18 years, I’ve had a good number of clients, including universities, NGOs such as the Mammal Society, Vincent Wildlife Trust & BTO and government departments such as Natural England, CCW and JNCC. My work has generally fallen into two types:

a) ecological database design, and
b) statistical analysis of existing datasets.

However, in all my projects, I’ve tried to emphasise the importance of incorporating these aspects at the project planning stage – very often they’re not! So, it’s not unusual for clients to turn up with a dataset that’s been stored in a spreadsheet, riven with errors, and with a survey design that just doesn’t give them the power they need to detect change or spatial variation. I do what I can, but it would be so much better if these aspects were considered more carefully at the outset as part of an integrated design – sorry, that’s a bit of a lecture!

What was the original inspiration behind the TubeTrap?

BioEcoSS TubeTrap
BioEcoSS TubeTrap

About six or seven years ago, when I was on the council of the Mammal Society, we were discussing the setting up of a national small mammal monitoring scheme. The then chair, Dr Johnny Birks (very well-known to all mammalogists), lent back in his chair and sighed “It’s such a shame we don’t have a good trap at a reasonable price!”. We all agreed that we would have to focus on non-invasive methods for a large-scale, mass-participation survey – which is not a bad thing anyway – but there was still a need for trapping to provide high quality data.

On the train home I started thinking about this idea. Database design is a very creative and practical process –understanding the requirements of the user and combining these with practical and intuitive solutions. And I felt I was fairly practical – good with wood and I seem to be forever re-plumbing my house! As the son of an engineer, I thought I might be able to come up with a good design for a mouse trap. After all, I had been using the trusty Longworth and even some old Shermans for over 25 years, so I knew their faults and limitations.

So over the next 18 months I set out to build a prototype. I was certain that injection moulding was the answer to producing large numbers of cheap traps and I was very lucky to get some financial help from the, now sadly defunct, Manufacturing Advisory Service. I also fell on my feet by finding two incredibly helpful and innovative small companies in the West Midlands; an injection tool-making company (BFT Engineering) and an injection moulding company (BTF Polymers). (The names are purely coincidental – they’re not related in any way – but they continue to cause me total confusion!) These guys were enormously helpful in designing the tools and producing prototypes for testing. So – TubeTraps are entirely British made!

How does the TubeTrap compare to other small mammal traps on the market?
Well! What do you expect me to say – pretty good I reckon! Seriously –I think there are three primary aspects to the efficacy of a small mammal trap:

1) How well do they catch?
2) How humane are they?
3) How practical are they to use?

In the UK the main competitor is, obviously, the Longworth. This has remained virtually unchanged over the last 50 years so, in an evolutionary sense, it must be pretty well adapted to what it does. I’ve carried out some comparative trials (as have six or seven users) which shows that TubeTraps catch just as well as Longworths. As the number of trials increases, there’s even some evidence that they are better at catching very small animals such as pygmy shrews and harvest mice. I’m hoping that two students from UEA will be trialling the traps this autumn to provide enough data to show this is statistically significant. I’ve not compared them directly with Shermans or Trip Traps, but people have told me, anecdotally, that TubeTraps have a higher capture-rate.

Episoriculus leucops
Episoriculus leucops

Part of the design was to make a trap that was as humane as possible. Obviously, the correct setting and use of traps goes a long way to ensure the survival of captured animals – in particular, live invertebrate food for shrews is essential, as is regular checking. But I wanted the TubeTrap to help prevent exposure of animals, so the use of plastic and the double-walled nest-box provide much better insulation. I’ve also had a bit of a theory about shrew deaths. A very light animal (say a pygmy or juvenile common shrew) enters a trap without tripping it, scoffs all the food and then leaves. Along comes an adult shrew, trips the door and finds a trap with no food. Result – starvation. So I think the very sensitive and stable mechanism of TubeTraps will help prevent this situation.

The practicality aspects of the design were very important, especially setting the trap and cleaning. The nestbox and tunnel parts of the trap snap together very intuitively and are virtually impossible to pop open accidentally – unlike a poorly set Longworth. The smooth, cylindrical profile of the trap makes it very easy to push into dense vegetation and remove for emptying. Again – in the past, I’ve popped open Longworths when pulling them out of hedgerows as the corners of the nest box or the hook of the pin hinge catches on a bramble. The TubeTrap’s white doors are very easy to see, even in poor light, so it’s much easier to check when they are closed. So too with the pre-bait lock – it has a very visual appearance, so it’s much more difficult to leave a trap locked open by mistake. The round profile of the nestbox and the flat base of the tunnel with no side-walls make them very easy to clean. Finally – and possibly most importantly, all parts of the trap snap together, so it’s very easy to replace any damaged parts. I always carry a few spare triggers (which can get chewed) and the elastic springs for replacement in the field.

Development of the TubeTrap is continuous and I’m pleased to say that NHBS is stocking the new Mark II version. This has a more stable trip mechanism, which is counter-balanced, making it much more difficult to accidentally trip when knocked or jolted. This also makes it easier to set TubeTraps in awkward places or above-ground attached to branches or poles. There was an issue in the original design with surface-tension from rainwater holding the doors open, but a number of modifications in the new Mark II trap have addressed this.

How and where have TubeTraps been used and what is the most interesting species you have caught?

TubeTraps have been used by a number of universities, county mammal groups and wildlife trusts. As far as I know, they are being used for mammal research, survey and monitoring. Also, I know that the trusts have used them for training and open-days, so they’re proving versatile.
As you may have gathered from some of the time periods I mentioned earlier, I’m getting a bit long-in-the-tooth! But, a few years ago I finally started the PhD (at UEA) that I’d never got around to doing. I’m looking at altitudinal variation in small mammal communities in the central Himalayas of Nepal – using 120 of my traps of course! I’ve done three seasons’ fieldwork and caught 795 animals at altitudes from 1300m to 4200m. The traps have performed very well and have been catching hundreds of tiny shrews, as well as some pretty hefty rats weighing over 100g. The CarryCases have also been fantastic, not just for carrying the traps, but as dissection and dinner tables! There’s no doubt in my mind that the best animal I have caught is a tiny shrew called Episoriculus leucops – only 5g in weight, but with the longest tail you’ve ever seen (pic above).

BioEcoSS TubeTrap Carry Case
BioEcoSS TubeTrap Carry Case

What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?
That’s a tricky question! I think just because of the size of the project and its subject – the Environmental Monitoring Database for Natural England. I’ve worked on this for over ten years, bringing together into a single database all the agri-environment monitoring data carried out since 1987. There are over 4.25 million data items in this database, which makes it a unique resource. But how can I not mention the work I’ve done with excellent conservation organisations such as the Mammal Society (scoping and setting up the national small mammal monitoring scheme with Phoebe Carter and Johnny Birks) or the Vincent Wildlife Trust (analysing their fantastic dataset on batbox usage collected by the tireless Colin Morris and his colleagues).

But, I also hope I’ve made a real contribution in Nepal, mostly by giving young ecologists hands-on experience of fieldwork, statistical advice and training that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I should say that this has been a two-way process and I’ve had fantastic support from them (Hari Basnet, Sagar Dahal, Hem Kathuwal and others). I would also like to mention my friends and colleagues, Laxman Poudyal, Sujan Maharjan, Hem Sagar Baral, Sharad Singh and Dibesh Karmacharya – who have all helped in this reciprocal process. And – most importantly – the porters, whose superhuman efforts at carrying traps, collecting water and wood, cooking amazing food and generally remaining completely cheerful made this work possible.

Simon, Suman, Padam, Hari and Sujan with Machhupuchhare behind.
Simon, Suman, Padam, Hari and Sujan with Machhupuchhare behind

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Another tricky one! I’ve had a long-lasting love affair with India and Nepal, so I should say the tigers I saw in Kanha and Ranthambore National Parks, or Indian one-horned rhinos in Kazirangha or the fantastic nilgai in Sariska. But, actually, the most thrilling was probably five years ago at 3500m in Nepal when my colleagues and I came across a very (I mean VERY) fresh set of prints of himalayan black bear only a few meters from our camp-site. That certainly caused a stir amongst the porters! Then again – the most sublime moment was probably during that expedition, being out just before dawn, when the koklass pheasants started calling. Their harsh cries carry for hundreds of metres through the gloom – the Nepalis’ literal interpretation is “How are you, Uncle?”. It’s a spine-tingling memory just thinking about it.

Any new inventions in the pipeline?
I might have! Actually, a client from Ireland recently asked if I could produce traps with shrew holes. It had been on my mind for a while, so I made 30 doors with shrew holes for her. She’s trialling them now and if they work well, I’ll make them generally available. The benefit of putting the holes in the doors is that you can easily snap these out and replace them with standard doors if you don’t want the shrew holes.

I do have another idea, but I’m keeping my cards close to my chest at the moment. Suffice it to say – if it works it could revolutionise small mammal trapping – I’m saying no more!

Find out more about the BioEcoSS TubeTrap at NHBS

Supplier Interview: Fraser Rush of Third Wheel Ringing Supplies

Fraser-RushTell us a little about your organisation and how you got started.

Third Wheel Ringing Supplies has been trading for about two years and comprises myself and my wife, Mary. We make a small range of equipment for ringers, specialising in traps and particularly trying to fill gaps in the market. Traditionally much of this sort of equipment has either been knocked together by ringers themselves or imported (expensively) from Europe or North America.

Our range is still very small, but it is gradually expanding as we develop more products. Product development is very slow however as, with bird safety being so important, any new product has to be extensively tested before it can be offered for sale. Nevertheless a slightly expanded product range should be launched in the coming months. Our manufacturing ethos is based on quality; never knowingly making sub-standard equipment in the quest for cheaper production costs. Hence our products are not the cheapest available, but they might be the best.

The business started when I took voluntary redundancy from my job. Having worked for (among others) The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Local Authorities as a nature reserves manager for 30 years, I was ready for a change. I’ve always liked making things and have a good grounding in engineering which, together with my interest in bird ringing, led onto me making various bits of ringing equipment for my own use and thence onto a small business, making equipment for other ringers.

Why Third Wheel? Well, we had to call it something and, having a slight obsession with classic motorcycles, particularly those with sidecars, the name seemed to fit us as a family.

What challenges do you face as an organisation working in the ecology sector?

One of our biggest challenges has been to persuade ringers not to rely so heavily on mist nets all the time. Although mist nets are very effective for many species and situations, they still have their limitations and traps can often be just as effective or, for some species, the only method of capture. Increasing numbers of ringers are starting to appreciate the value of different trap designs and, as traps form the mainstay of our business, we see this as a good thing!

High Flier Mist Net Support System
Third Wheel’s High Flier Mist Net Support System

What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?

On a purely personal level, Third Wheel’s most important achievement has been that, after only two years of trading, it seems to be working as a business. Although I have a passion for what I do, it still has to pay the bills and, for the time being at least, it is doing just that.

It has also been particularly gratifying to have our equipment used to great effect in a number of research projects worldwide. In addition to various projects in Europe, Third Wheel traps are used for chickadee research in Florida, grey jay research in Alaska and snow bunting research in the Canadian Arctic.

Nearer home, highlights have been a customer who caught a dunnock within 7 minutes of the postman delivering one of our traps and another who, on taking delivery of a new prototype, caught 55 linnets on the first morning.

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?

Having been pursuing wildlife for nearly my whole life, I’ve been lucky enough to have many memorable wildlife encounters, which makes choosing a favourite rather tricky.

I’ve visited Svalbard (what we used to call Spitsbergen) in the High Arctic many times, as a leader of study tours. Here the memorable wildlife moments come thick and fast with polar bear, Arctic fox, beluga whale and countless breeding auks, wildfowl and waders against a stunning scenic backdrop.

On the bird ringing side of things, my best and most memorable ringing sessions have been catches of wigeon, teal and other wintering wildfowl as part of a cannon netting team. Wigeon are amazing little ducks and to ring one in Devon which probably breeds in central Russia is a real privilege.

UK’s first ever Deaf-led bat walk

As part of their Heritage Ability project, Living Options Devon recently hosted the UK’s first ever Deaf-led bat walk at the Love Parks event, in Cockington Park, Devon.

NHBS are delighted to have been able to loan them an Echo Meter Touch bat detector from Wildlife Acoustics, which allowed the attendants to view live sonograms on an iPad – whilst receiving further information in British Sign Language from the guide, Alasdair Grant.

Heritage-Ability-bat-walk

This fantastic event was part of a whole day of activities helping to make heritage sites more accessible for disabled and Deaf people.

Alasdair, Deaf Alumni Programme Manager for Deaf Unity, who is working towards his bat license, led an inspiring bat walk which one participant said was “a memorable and unique experience”.  The walk included watching soprano pipistrelles and lesser horseshoe bats exiting their roosts in outbuildings in Cockington Court, and common pipstrelles, serotine and noctule bats feeding in the park and lakes area.

The walk provided a unique opportunity for Deaf people to see and learn more about the lifestyle of our British bats and how to identify different species using bat detectors with visual sonograms rather than by sound. The Echo Meter Touch connects to an iPad to provide an excellent and very accessible visual display of bat calls in real time.

Living Options and Deaf Unity very much hope to run further bat walks in the future and would be delighted to advise other organisations and bat groups on how to lead bat walks for Deaf people.

The Heritage Ability Project supports heritage sites in South West England to improve accessibility for disabled people. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project is currently piloting different approaches with partner sites including museums, country parks, nature reserves and historic houses.

Best bat detectors for bat walks

Echo Meter TouchEcho Meter Touch

This tiny ultrasound module connects directly to your Apple device and lets you listen to bat calls in real time as well as viewing a live sonogram on your screen. Ideal for bat walk leaders, the Echo Meter Touch provides you with plenty of real time information to share with your group, as well as letting you record and classify calls so you can provide a later update of all species heard during the walk.

 

Elekon Batscanner

Elekon Batscanner

The Batscanner is one of the simplest bat detectors on the market – simply turn it on and listen. The device will automatically tune to the frequency of the bat call nearby and will display this frequency on the LCD screen whilst playing the sound back at an audible level.

 

SSF Bat2SSF Bat2

The SSF Bat2 cleverly scans all frequencies simultaneously and will jump to the peak (loudest) frequency at the touch of a button. Pre-programme up to four fixed frequencies and view a small spectrogram of the received call. Ideal for beginner or seasoned bat walkers.

 

 

Magenta Bat 4 and 5

Magenta Bat Detectors

The Magenta Bat 4 and Magenta Bat 5 are our most popular detectors for beginners. Affordable to buy and simple to use, they convert the call produced by the bat into a sound which is easily heard through the speaker. Simply tune to the required frequency using the large dial on the front of the unit. The Bat 5 also has a digital display which makes tuning the detector even easier.

Grasses, sedges and rushes: an interview with Dominic Price

Dominic Price
Dominic Price near some grass in a valley mire

Dominic Price is the author of this summer’s botanical bestseller, A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes. He is also director of The Species Recovery Trust, a botanical tutor, and an all-round advocate for conservation.

Your book is proving to be a huge success – what prompted you to write it, and who is your target audience?

It mostly came about from the grass courses I’ve run for the last seven years, during which I built up a huge body of observational evidence on grasses, from chatting to people and just spending a lot of time looking at them. Teaching plants is fantastic as it really makes you be concise about why things are what they are, plus you get to see what people muddle up; things you might never think yourself.

A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and RushesIn addition I felt there was a niche for an affordable, portable, and easy to use book. It definitely won’t suit everyone, but I hope that people who might have been put off by some of the more weighty tomes might find this a good way in (which certainly applies to me). It won’t teach you every grass, but hopefully it will make people feel much more confident about the ones you tend to encounter regularly.

 

How did you become interested in grasses?

During my early years of being a botanist I was terrified of grasses and it took me a long while to get a handle on them. This came about from spending time with other friendly botanists and gleaning as much as I could from them. Once I had got better at them (and I’m still a long way from mastering them) I was really keen to share this knowledge with other people. I did my first grasses course at the Kingcombe Centre 7 years ago, which I was absolutely terrified about running, but it went OK, and it all moved from there. I now run about 18 grasses courses a year, which I absolutely love doing, and all the proceeds from these go into our species conservation programme, meaning a single day’s training can fund a species programme for a year.

What defines the graminoids, and how can the three groups – grasses, rushes, and sedges – be distinguished?

Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes
Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

It’s a difficult term, graminoids! I’m very guilty of calling them grasses, which of course only some of them (the Poaceae) are. I also tend to commit the grave sin of talking about wildflowers and grasses (especially when describing courses) when of course grasses are in fact flowers. Their key characters are that they are all monocots, and exclusively wind pollinated.

Telling them apart can be relatively easy, the rushes tend to have waxy round stems, the sedges are tussocky with separate female and male inflorescences, and the grasses are, well… grassy looking? But there are so many exceptions to this! Just today I was running a course where someone muddled up Slender Rush with Remote Sedge, and I realised that these two look almost identical from a distance!

What is the importance of the graminoids in the ecosystem at large?

Graminoids are exceptionally useful as indicator species, with many of them showing incredible affinity to certain soil types, nutrient levels and pH. If you walk into a field and see a shiny green swath of Perennial Ryegrass you know you’re unlikely to be finding overwhelming levels of biodiversity. Go into another field and find a clump of Meadow Oatgrass and you know you’re in for a long haul of finding other species.

As it says on the Species Recovery Trust website, over the past 200 years, over 400 species have been lost from England alone. Do you think enough is being done to halt biodiversity loss in the UK?

Tricky question! We have an incredibly large and diverse conservation sector in the UK, full of talented and passionate individuals devoting their lives to saving the planet. And yet we are still losing species at an alarming rate. When I was born, just over 40 years ago, the world had twice as many species as it does now, so this is not a historical problem we can blame on previous generations, this is the here and now of how humans are choosing to live our lives and harm our planet.

These are clearly difficult times financially, and clearly every sector is feeling the pain of budget cuts, however it is upsetting to see the way biodiversity has almost dropped off current political agendas (the environment was barely mentioned at all in the referendum debates) so I do worry that people, and governments, are just not doing enough. It is now fairly widely accepted that we are living through (and causing) a sixth mass global extinction event, which should be the biggest story and policy issue anyone is talking about, and yet species conservation still seems to be a niche market!

What does it take to re-establish a species like Starved Wood-sedge, which is one of the Trust’s Species Recovery Projects?

Large utricles (seeds) of Starved Wood-sedge (Carex depauperata) - photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust
Large utricles (seeds) of Starved Wood-sedge (Carex depauperata) – photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust

Starved Wood-sedge (SWS) has two native sites in the UK, and we’re working hard at both of these over a long time period to steadily improve the conditions, bringing more light in through coppicing and canopy reduction, and trying to encourage seedling establishment through ground scarification. SWS has an interesting bit of trivia in that it has the largest utricles (seeds) of any native sedges which should make it very easy to grow, but recently we started to think these large seeds may be their downfall as they are so susceptible to vole and mouse predation – but it’s hard to know for sure. We have established and continue to closely work on the two re-introduction sites, where we used plants grown up by Kew Gardens to establish new populations, and we are keen to establish one more in the next decade in a more traditionally managed wood to look at how the species would fare in active coppice rotation.

If you could put one policy change in place today to enhance species conservation what would it be?

I’m not sure, my current rather grassroots view is I’m not sure if conservation isn’t dying a death by policy. A few years back I spent the best part of two years of my life working on Biodiversity Opportunity Areas, only to see these being replaced by IBDAs (which I’ve now forgotten what it stands for) only to see these superseded by NIAs. I then had somewhat of a personal crisis that in all that time, even though I’d been instrumental in producing some very interesting maps of core area and buffer zones and opportunity areas, I’d done absolutely nothing to help species on the ground. I think it was during this same time that Deptford Pink went extinct in Somerset and Dorset too, which I still feel pretty bad about.

The problem with policies, and ministers, and successive governments is that they never last for that long. While not disputing that our current democracy is a wonderful thing, and obviously I feel lucky to live in a country where we can all vote and potentially change things we like, if you superimpose governments and policies on top of the Anthropocene (the current geological age where humans have gained the ability to start fundamentally changing the planet, both in terms of biodiversity and climate) then the two simply don’t match up in terms of the timescales we need to be operating on to bring a meaningful change to biodiversity loss. And it goes without saying that when government budget cuts occur it will always be the environment sector that will suffer, and this obviously has a terrible net effect on projects that are up and running and are suddenly suspended.

Without wanting to sound too ‘big society’ I think the meaningful changes we are seeing are from individuals, either making a big difference in their jobs in the environment sector, or simple volunteering, spending a few days a year clearing bramble from around a rare species, counting butterflies on a transect, monitoring their local bat populations. For me, that is where change is happening, not in government policy units.

How would you encourage a young nature lover or student to take an interest in the subject of grasses?

Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes
Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

I’m lucky to have two young children to try this out on, and I must say they are now budding graminologists. I think the starting point is everyone likes knowing what things are and naming them, whether it’s music, works of art, types of lorry. We are on the whole naturally inquisitive beings, so I just tend to show people things and encourage them to go off and find more like them. Add to that some stripy pyjama bottoms (Yorkshire Fog), Batman’s Helmet (Timothy), Floating Sugarpuffs (Quaking Grass) and Spiky Porcupines (Meadow Oatgrass) and the whole thing becomes pretty fun! Incidentally there are equivalent adult versions of these too, which are unmentionable here…

What is the most surprising, odd, or unexpected fact you can share about grasses?

Grasses have a profound link with humanity. 4 million years ago the spread of grasses in the savannas of East Africa is now believed to be the main driver in our primate ancestors coming down from the trees and developing a bipedal habit to move between patches of shrinking forest while keeping a watch out for predators. 40,000 years ago we saw the birth of agriculture with the development of early crops, the decline of hunter gatherer lifestyles and the start of the society we live in today (gluten intolerance sufferers probably think this is where it all started to go wrong). And all because we learnt to collect seed from promising looking grasses, and start planting in quantities we could harvest.

Tell us more about the plant identification courses. What are these all about and how people can get involved?

When we set up The Species Recovery Trust we knew that funding projects over a long term basis (all our work plans are 50 years long) was going to be a challenge, so we set about seeking ways to bring in modest sums of unrestricted funding over that period of time, for which running training courses was an obvious contender. This was combined with my passion for teaching plants, and then finding other people who shared this view. We’ve now been able to build up a team of some of the best tutors in the country, who combine their expert knowledge with running courses that are extremely fun and really help people get to grips with a range of subjects.

By automating the booking process (which works most of the time) we can also keep our prices extremely competitive, as well as offer discounted places for students and unemployed people who are desperate to get into the sector. On alternate years we offer one ‘golden ticket’ which enables one winner to attend 10 training courses for free, which will give people a huge helping hand in their conservation careers.

All the information on the courses can be found on the training courses page of The Species Recovery Trust website.

Can you tell us about any interesting projects you are involved with at the moment?

Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) - photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust
Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) – photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust

We have a great project running on Spiked Rampion at the moment, and after 6 years we now have the highest number of plants ever recorded, all due to a fantastic steering group of the good and great from Kew, Forestry Commission, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and East Sussex County Council, along with some very committed local volunteers. It’s been a lot of work but proved a great example of many organisations joining up with a single achievable aim of saving a really rather special plant from extinction.

This summer is going to see a network of data loggers placed around the New Forest as part of a project to re-discover the New Forest Cicada, that we’re working on with Buglife and Southampton University. There are real concerns about whether this species is already extinct, but as it spends most of its life underground and only emerges and sings for a short period it is a good contender for the UK’s most elusive species.

A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes is available from NHBS

A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

The Effective Ecologist: An Interview With Neil Middleton

Neil Middleton - author of The Effective EcologistNeil Middleton is an entrepreneurial ecologist who is the managing director of consultancy Echoes Ecology Ltd, and Time For Bespoke Solutions Ltd, a company that provides management consultancy and people development solutions.

Many will recognise Neil as co-author of Social Calls of the Bats of Britain and Ireland, however it is his passion for workplace training and development that is the driving force behind his latest book, The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment.

What inspired you to write this book?

The number of times I see people who have paid lots of money and spent a huge amount of their time being educated and trained to work within our sector, only to find that so many of the things that differentiate the mediocre from the brilliant just haven’t been covered. I spend a lot of my time being asked by people for advice and guidance, and felt that no one else had attempted to tackle the subject matter from the perspective of an ecologist. I found this quite irritating and eventually decided that if no-one else was going to try and help, then I would.

The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment
The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment

Office success… isn’t it all a good work ethic and common sense?

In part, most definitely – I would not deny that. But if it is as simple as that why do so many people struggle to deliver a number of the ‘non-ecological’ aspects of their work to the highest level. And what is a good work ethic and common sense? Has anyone ever described that to you in the role you are in? Do you know, specifically, the things you should be focusing on and the pitfalls you should be avoiding. Do you know how to manage your time better, be more professional, be better organised? Who in your working environment is assisting you in a structured way with these things? Other types of business within the service sector (which is where ecological consultancy sits) spend huge amounts of time and resources training their people on some of the material I am writing about here. For some reason this isn’t that evident within ecology. As I say in the book – sitting in today’s ecological consultancies we have ecologists who are managing people, dealing with customers, project planning, marketing products, producing financial reports… They are expected to perform all of these responsibilities, and many more, to a high level, as well as the ecological aspects of their role. How many of them have been given training or proper guidance about how to perform these non-ecology aspects of their role to a high level?

Would you mind telling us about your worst office etiquette blunder?!

Illustration from The Effective Ecologist by Joan Punteney
Illustration from The Effective Ecologist by Joan Punteney

It makes me shudder thinking about the number of blunders I have made over my working life, and still do. I will keep it ecological.

I once got into a lift with a bloke who used to be my YOC leader about thirty years earlier (for those youngsters out there, the YOC used to be the junior branch of the RSPB). It just so happened that many years later, coincidentally, we were both working for the same insurance company.  He didn’t normally work from our office. I saw him in the distance and quickened my step in order to catch up with him, so that we could share the lift. I said good afternoon, asked him how he was and then proceeded to tell him all about this excellent spot I had found for watching raptors (he was a member of his local raptor group after all). Anyway, it turns out he was in the building to meet with our regional manager (Tracey), who, as it happens, was also my boss’s boss. So being helpful I took him to Tracey’s room, continuing to tell him about some of my latest bird sightings.

They met, and Tracey welcomed him by saying, “Brilliant to meet you again John.”  The guy I had been talking to – or at least I had thought I had been talking to – wasn’t called John! Yes I had just met some random stranger (considerably more senior to myself in the business) in the lift and had swamped him with ornithological anecdotes. The bloke didn’t know me at all, but remained polite throughout, and thought he had just met some nutter in the lift. I doubt that he would have ever been able to tell a Kestrel from a Griffon Vulture, let alone a Sparrowhawk from a Goshawk. And after Tracey had finished her meeting? Yes I was called in to explain myself, as John had obviously told her all about it. Before long everyone on the floor had heard about what had happened.

Sounds painful! In your experience, what are the three most common office faux pas people might make?

In no particular order, and in haste, these are today’s examples. Ask me tomorrow and I would come up with a different list, I am sure.

  • Failure to communicate effectively. For example, not saying the right thing to the right person at the right time. Almost everything that goes wrong in a work setting (or for that matter personal settings) boils down to poor communication or no communication.
  • Doing the wrong things in the wrong order when under pressure. Time is evaporating and you are wasting the remaining time doing stuff that isn’t going to get you to where you need to be.
  • Not preparing enough. To fail to prepare, is very much to prepare to fail. Too often people aren’t very good at playing ‘consequences.’ They don’t think what is going to happen next, and then after that, and so on. This means that a few steps down the line when something unexpected happens they are caught off guard. If only they had thought it through and prepared properly to begin with, that unexpected situation should’ve been precisely one of the scenarios they should’ve accounted for days, or even weeks, earlier.

Say I’m an ecology graduate passionate about reversing habitat loss and saving endangered species. How does this book help animals?

If you want to be successful working with a subject you are passionate about, and do this to a high level, and therefore in your example, help animals as much as you can, then this book talks about the skills that, quite possibly, will make you considerably more effective, more professional, a better communicator, more organised, a better team player, and much more. Ask yourself – are you happy at being merely OK at what you do, or do you want to make the best use of your time in order to have the greatest positive impact upon the things you are passionate about? So I would challenge you to keep buying all the books about the animals you are so passionate about, and yes you will undoubtedly learn more about the technical aspects of your role, but this book (at less than twenty quid and a handful of hours) will open the door to many of the tools you can use to turn that knowledge and passion into the actionable events that will make the difference. I am afraid to say that passion and knowledge alone are rarely enough.

If I may I would also like to say that the material in the book is not just for new entrants into the role. There is so much in here that is equally applicable to more experienced ecologists, managers and those in a training role within our sector. There is already an excellent book about How to Become and Ecological Consultant (Searle, S. M., 2011).  This new book is the next step in the process and could easily have been called ‘How to succeed now you have a job, and in doing so perform at the highest level.’

How would you describe the unique challenges facing graduating ecologists in 2016, and in what ways do you think today’s graduates differ from those of ten or fifteen years ago?

The one thing that has been evident throughout the last decade is that, in the main, people qualifying from colleges or universities just aren’t work ready to enter many ecological consultancies. It is the ever present scenario, ‘You can’t get a job without experience. But how do I get the experience without a job?’ Many of the people we see coming into our own business for interviews have been told very little, if anything, about the consultancy sector, and even less about the business skills they will need in order to give themselves any chance of success. I find this quite frustrating as ecological consultancy work is probably one of the more realistic career options that people going through an appropriate university degree can hope to pursue.

Also, for someone to spend all of that time and expense gaining a qualification that so often tells them so little about the natural world in their own country is disappointing. We see many people that may know quite a bit about overseas mammals or habitat for example, but would struggle to identify a water vole!  There are exceptions to this, but based on the CVs we have passing regularly through our inboxes, they are very much exceptions. 

As managing director of two companies, as well as a bestselling author, time management must be a well worn tool in your kit bag. What’s your top time management tip?

Neil Middleton in field ecologist mode
Neil Middleton in field ecologist mode

Everything in this world is affordable or available at some level apart from time itself. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how many people you have in your team, whether or not you are the best at what you do. Once a moment has passed you can never get it back, you can never go back to yesterday and undo the thing that prevents you doing what you should be achieving today.

My top tip – treat time as the most precious commodity you have available to yourself, organise it well, be protective over it and use it well. Make sure you spend your time doing things that make a difference – if there is no benefit to spending time on something then stop doing it. No benefit, no point. One of the ways I focus on this is, when I go to bed each night I list in my head what I will achieve tomorrow – and nine times out of ten I do it. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes other things get in the way (often in fact) – but I don’t go to bed the following night regretting how I have spent my time today, and I don’t make excuses. We all are equally rich with the time we have immediately in front of us. The choice is, how do you choose to use it to best effect?

And what three daily habits would you encourage any office worker to take up starting tomorrow?

  • Look at what you have on in your diary for tomorrow and next week, today – and not tomorrow morning. If you don’t have a diary, then get one, use it, and keep it with you at all times. Don’t have separate diaries for personal and business. You can only be in one place at any one time. People keeping two diaries tend to be unable to commit to things because their other diary is at home, or at some point make errors that needn’t have been made. I have a whole section about this in the book and I don’t sit on the fence about it.
  • Every phone call you have with a colleague, a customer or a supplier – immediately follow it up with an email. Get into this habit and you will protect yourself and the business from someone saying in the future that they didn’t agree to that, or they hadn’t understood what you meant at the time etc. You will never know which one of these every day conversations will come back to bite you, but beyond doubt one or two of them will. When that happens you will regret not doing that email. You know you are right, but you can’t prove it, and now others are doubting you. Don’t regret it, it’s a controllable – do the email.
  • Be on time, every time – without fail. People that keep time well tend to be organised, professional and of course in the right place at the right time. Too often first impressions and daily tasks are tarnished or ineffectively handled because someone is late. It’s not professional and it certainly is disrespectful to others.

If there is one thing you wish you had known at the beginning of your career, what would it have been?

How important all of these business-related skills are to giving yourself a chance of being better at what you do. In my own world at that time I thought it was just down to being technically good enough, and gaining experience. It isn’t. Being technically brilliant doesn’t make you the best person at the job – being effective does. This is what the book is about. I am trying to enable others to realise, earlier on, many of the things that no-one told me about at the beginning.

There is a big marketing dilemma with this book. Firstly, those people who already know some of this stuff will buy it and probably learn some new stuff to add to their tool box. Then, those who are struggling might think it’s worth a shot – can’t do me any harm. But many more will feel that they don’t need it. They are getting on just fine as they are, and they don’t know what they don’t know. These are the ones that may benefit the most, irrespective of what stage in their career they are at. If you are one of these people, and you are the only one in your team that reads the book – then immediately you have an edge. Conversely if everyone in your team has read it and you haven’t – well… To summarise, I wish I had read this book 35 years ago.

What would be one of the most challenging training situations you encounter on a regular basis?

Referring to my office blunder answer – it’s now time to fess up! I am good at remembering names, and pretty good at remembering faces, but an Achilles heel is most definitely putting the two things together at the right time. This is an area that I find myself constantly having to focus time and effort on. Put an audience in front of me and I have various tricks I adopt to help reduce the chances of me getting someone’s name wrong. Occasionally though, regretfully, I make a mistake and have to apologise.

How has self-development been important to you in your life?

If you stop developing you stop improving, you stop getting better and you stop learning. After that… then is there really much point in doing what you are doing? You may as well say to yourself – ‘well this is as good as I will ever be and I am going to stop trying to be better.’ I am sure that there are lots of happy people out there who from a professional perspective are able to be like that. I find that approach odd and uncomfortable, and as such I just want to keep learning how to avoid making mistakes, or when that fails, learning what I could do next time that would result in a better outcome.

Who or what has had the most impact on your success?

Who? – So many people, ranging from people I currently work with, all the way back to when I was in the insurance sector and before that in the leisure and catering sector. I am where I am now (we all are!) because of who we have listened to and looked up to in the past.

What? – Not being afraid to push myself in a professional setting. If something seems beyond me or too difficult or almost impossible I would rather try and fail (failure gives you the ammunition to do it better next time!) than wonder, what if? It is quite daunting doing something like writing a book. I suspect many people don’t do things because they think they can’t, or they don’t want to risk making a fool of themselves, or are overly concerned what others might think. My advice would be, whatever you set your sights on – go for it. The worst that will happen is that you will learn a lot about yourself. The best that could happen should be self-evident. The one certainty is that if you don’t try it you will achieve nothing, learn nothing and always wonder ‘what if?’

What are you looking forward to in 2016?

At the moment improving my running technique, lots of bat work and my holiday in the south of France in August (I will have my diary with me though!), when I can do some batting and birding for pleasure, and spend good times with my partner, Aileen, who inspires me to be the best version of myself that I can be. But don’t tell her about the batting and birding bit – she thinks it’s a holiday; not a self-development opportunity.

The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment

The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment is available to order from NHBS

EFE & GB Nets becomes part of NHBS

EFE & GB Nets
EFE & GB Nets: plankton net at sea

EFE & GB Nets has been manufacturing marine and freshwater survey nets and entomological survey equipment in the UK since 1974 and is renowned for the quality and durability of its products. On May 17th, NHBS acquired EFE & GB Nets and began the process of transferring the workshop from Lostwithiel in Cornwall to our new facility alongside our warehouse in Totnes. Production will resume in the next few days and everyone at NHBS is extremely excited about the opportunities that expanding into manufacturing brings.

Bernard Mercer, founder and chairman of NHBS said: “we are delighted and honoured to be the new owner of EFE & GB Nets, which has been supplying great products to conservationists for over 40 years. We aim to maintain the excellent design and manufacturing standards for which EFE & GB Nets is known; and also hope to develop innovative new products that meet the needs of the conservation community, both in the UK and internationally.”

nets
The familiar trademark orange flashing around the mouth of each net will remain a clear mark of quality and durability.

As well as the complete range of marine, freshwater and entomological survey equipment produced by EFE & GB Nets, we are also very happy to undertake bespoke design projects, including entirely new nets and other equipment. Please contact our Wildlife Equipment Engineer, Thomas Hamilton Koch (thomashk@nhbs.com) to discuss your ideas.

Preparations underway in the new EFE & GB Nets manufacturing unit.
Preparations underway in the new EFE & GB Nets manufacturing unit.

 

Book Review – Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud

Haeckel's EmbryosHaeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud

Written by Nick Hopwood

Published in hardback in June 2015 by Chicago University Press

Readers of our newsletter may remember Haeckel’s Embryos as my pick of 2015. A more in-depth review therefore seems in order.

The German naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) is a figure I initially mostly knew from his beautiful Art Nouveau style drawings of animals and sea creatures, published as Kunstformen der Natur between 1899 and 1904. These perennially popular images have found their way into art books, an as yet unpublished pop-up book, and have of course not escaped the current colouring book craze.

Far more influential, however, are Haeckel’s contributions to the field of embryology and the now (in)famous images of grids showing embryos of humans and other backboned animals looking almost identical when just forming, and diverging in form during development. These images have become iconic, classics of textbooks right up to our current day, but are also some of the most fought-over images in the history of science, being the subject of three separate controversies, each one bigger still than the last one.

Haeckel’s Embryos is a study of how images of knowledge succeed and become the stuff of legends, or fail and fall by the wayside as forgotten side notes in history. Hopwood gives an incredibly detailed account of both the formation and the afterlife of Haeckel’s embryo drawings, and the accusations of fraud leveled at him. And you get a lot of book for your money, with 17 chapters running just over 300 pages and another 80 pages of notes and references. Measuring some 22 × 28 cm this is a large-format study that is richly illustrated (as befits a book of this type) with a large number of historical illustrations that have never appeared outside of their original context, a great many of which were dug out of the archives of the Ernst-Haeckel-Haus in Jena, Germany.

Haeckel's Embryos page 39
An example of embryological drawings circulating at the time

The book proceeds roughly chronologically, with the first three chapters setting the stage by reviewing the academic milieu into which Haeckel stepped, and the kinds of embryological drawings already circulating at the time. In chapter 5, then, Hopwood starts the investigation proper. He carefully reconstructs the making of the figures which were first published 1868 in Haeckel’s book Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, and looks at each step from planning and drawing through to printing and publishing, mining Haeckel’s archives for both original drawings and correspondence with his publisher. This book went through eleven editions over more than forty years (1868-1909) and it is interesting to see how the famous grid developed gradually from initial pairs of drawings of two stages of dog, human, chick, and turtle embryos. The first “recognisable” grid (i.e. still circulating today ) didn’t emerge until inclusion in Haeckel’s more embryo-focused book Anthropogenie in 1874, which went through six editions until 1910.

Haeckel's Embryos page 164
Haeckel’s embryo grid during its development

His work immediately came in for criticism from fellow scientists, starting mid-1869 with the Swiss zoologist Ludwig Rütimeyer. Though no outright accusations of fraud and forgery were made, one of Rütimeyer’s concerns was Haeckel playing fast and loose with the public and with science by reusing the same woodcut illustration to represent early-stage pictures of dog, chicken and turtle. This was quickly rectified in the next edition, though Haeckel was slow to admit to his mistake. This barely caused a ripple on the pond, and Hopwood does a good job of making you realise why: this was an era in which discussions between scientists took place in either private correspondence, or in publications in obscure specialist literature, here the Archiv für Anthropologie, that was only circulated locally and will not have been read by more than a few hundreds of people. No, the first proper controversy did not take place until 1875, and saw Haeckel pitted against the Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His. One of the things they disagreed on was the similarity (Haeckel) or difference (His) of early embryos.

What is shocking is how Haeckel responded to this. I have never really had a good idea of the man’s character, and solely based on his beautiful artwork for Kunstformen der Natur have always thought of him benignly. Hopwood’s history reveals a rather different side to the man; he fashioned himself as a daring pioneer, here to enlighten the ignorant public (so much for humility), and his polemic responses to opponents bristle with arrogance, provocation and ad hominem attacks. He also refused to acknowledge mistakes, and countered charges of forgery – remarkably it was Haeckel himself who introduced this word in the discussion – as necessary deductions to fill in gaps, and as a logical consequence of presenting schematic figures. Although this soiled his reputation, the lack of a hostile consensus allowed Haeckel to draw ever more ambitious grids including more species. And the continued popularity of his work meant that the sheer number of books and later pamphlets in circulation made his pictures the most widely known and accessible in this era of print. It did spur his colleagues to set higher and higher standards for vertebrate embryology and push the field as a whole forward.

The next couple of chapters explore the 1870s to 1900s, discussing the expansion of Haeckel’s grids, how non-scientists encountered his work, how his work was reproduced and copied, and how critics kept the issue of forgery alive by repeating the allegations. These chapters make for especially revealing reading. Although Haeckel’s drawings were more available in Germany, the critics were also more numerous here, so copying was more extensive in Britain and the US. This also largely had to do with the available techniques for image reproduction at the time, which were both cumbersome and costly. And it was not until 1892 that George John Romanes reproduced the entire grid in his book Darwin and After Darwin. This reproduction also graces the dustjacket of Haeckel’s Embryos and to this day is the most reproduced and recognisable figure in Anglophone textbooks. But most copying was creative, with authors borrowing a few figures, deleting columns, adding rows, changing drawings, etc.

Haeckel's Embryos page 215
Romanes’s version of the grid

The second big controversy erupted around 1908-1910, when private scholar Arnold Brass became a spokesman for the freshly formed Kepler League, a club formed in response to a large public lecture that Haeckel gave. Following a lecture by Brass in which he attacked Haeckel, Haeckel returned the attack in a magazine, in response to which Brass privately published a slanderous pamphlet. The ensuing backing and forthing played out not in difficult books and serious periodicals, but in widely read newspapers. Brass’s pamphlet was so radical that it embarrassed even his own Kepler League. And it back-fired when morphologists recruited a large number of professors and museum directors to sign a declaration (“the declaration of the forty-six”), which, while not justifying Haeckel’s actions where his drawings were concerned, could see no motive for fraud. At the same time the declaration condemned Brass and the Kepler League for slandering such a respected biologist. This largely ended this controversy, partially in Haeckel’s favour. In his late life in Germany Haeckel was defended, forgiven, or reviled, depending on people’s political and religious inclinations. But the scientific community at large was more than happy to let bygones be bygones.

In the English-speaking world, in the meantime, too few of the exact allegations regarding his images were known in-depth, which meant the images still had a lease of life. And chapter 16 is a very interesting chapter telling the story of how the grid images survived into modern textbooks. Although faux-pas in postwar Germany, and only occasionally adopted in British schools, they were a relative staple in American textbooks. A combination of the higher profile of evolution as a subject in the American system in the early 20th century, and little knowledge of the forgery charges, meant the pictures could survive there. The rising and falling tides of anti-evolutionist sentiment did mean they were often modified and redacted, leaving out the human embryos. This further ensured their survival as it made them less radical. Another factor of influence was the inner workings of the textbook industry, where busy authors tended to copy each other or themselves rather than spend time to go back to the sources. Later on, the shift from authors to production teams meant that authors critical of Haeckel had less influence. In a further ironic twist, the Romanes drawing of Haeckel’s grid was often used while at the same time criticizing Haeckel in the accompanying body of the text. Interestingly, embryology textbooks long excluded the drawings, as their focus was not on evolution at the time. Experimental embryology as a field languished for decades until the 1960s when the field was reframed as developmental biology, although it took until the mid-1980s for Haeckel’s figures to be introduced to this discipline. By that time a new generation was only vaguely, or not at all, aware anymore of the accusations leveled at Haeckel. This knowledge was by now mostly limited to historians of biology, and even then many Anglophone historians were unaware. The few that weren’t did not realize how much the pictures were still in use (Hopwood counts himself among this group). This nicely undercuts the assumption that images and theories are linked so closely together that they live and die in unison. And this sets the stage for the third and final controversy surrounding these images.

Haeckel's Embryos page 283
An example of the embryo drawings surviving into contemporary books

The final two chapters detail the third and (for the moment) final controversy, which was set in motion by Michael Richardson (incidentally a lecturer of mine when I was studying at Leiden University in the 2000s). In several low-profile publications he criticized Haeckel’s drawings and, after comparing a wide range of vertebrate embryos, he concluded that “there is no highly conserved embryonic stage in the vertebrates”. To really get the spotlight on his findings however, he lured the press with a charge of forgery which was picked up by the Times, followed by Science and New Scientist. From here on outwards the story exploded and was rapidly exploited by creationists and the burgeoning Intelligent Design movement who threw around wild claims that “a primary pillar of evolution had finally been revealed as fraudulent” and, gasp, evolution was truly “a theory in crisis”. Richardson, embarrassed by the misappropriation of his publications and the misinformation that was being spread, started back-pedalling, and came under critique from colleagues in the field. He could have seen this one coming after all. But many came to his defense and even Stephen Jay Gould weighed in with a column in Natural History magazine, separating Richardsons’s “good science” from “careless reporting” and “media hype”. Richardson publisher a further long review, finding only “some evidence of doctoring”. Evo-devo aficionados debated the issue among themselves for a few more years, and the general consensus to come out of that was that on a fundamental level Haeckel was right, but he had taken artistic license in schematising his drawings. This was too late to affect mainstream perception though, and creationists, headed by the conservative think-tank The Discovery Institute, kept on adding fuel to the fire with books, public TV debates and, with the rise of the internet, websites and blogs. Ironically, recent research in developmental biology showed that embryological similarity between species at early stages isn’t just limited to morphology, but extends to gene expression patterns. In spite of this, Intelligent Design proponents have kept the focus on the most problematic images. Hopwood likens them to the iconoclasts of the Protestant Reformation, showing off beheaded statues as emblems of defeat. It is not in their best interest to remove all traces of these images, but rather to constantly exhibit them to vilify and condemn evolutionary theory and further their own agenda. Throughout all this circus the images were of course reproduced, copied and spread further and wider than ever before.

When I read about this book, I was hoping it would answer the question “Given what we now know about embryology, how do Haeckel’s images compare? What details did he change that gave rise to all these controversies?”. Seeing that this book claims to be a definitive history, and in pretty much all other respects is, I would have liked to see a concluding chapter laying out our current state of biological knowledge and see the old images compared to what we know now. Hopwood does reproduce some of the comparative images that Richardson published in his articles, but if you really want to get to the bottom of those questions, you will have to take a look there. This is understandable though: Hopwood is a historian, so the book focuses foremost on the history of these images, not so much on the biology behind it. And when he describes the third controversy he does mention the current consensus (Haeckel embellished but fundamentally makes a valid point) and the various opinions that now circulate. But a separate chapter laying out and summarizing just the biological facts then and now would for me have really completed the work, even at the risk of repeating what is already present diffusely throughout the book.

A lot more things are covered than I have mentioned here, and particular attention is paid to the religious and political milieu in Germany at the turn of the 19th century in which the first two controversies took place. A lot of this will be unfamiliar territory for today’s readers (it certainly was for me), and the book might have benefited from some side boxes introducing certain historical periods or schools of thought.

Those criticisms aside, in my opinion Hopwood offers readers an incredibly thorough and objective account of the complete 140+ year history of these controversial images. And I expect Haeckel’s Embryos will rapidly become the go-to work for both biologists and historians to understand their full, rich, and complex history.

Haeckel’s Embryos is available to order from NHBS.

Book Review – Seeds: Safeguarding Our Future

Seeds: Safeguarding Our FutureSeeds: Safeguarding Our Future

Written by Carolyn Fry

Published in hardback in April 2016 by Ivy Press

With a topic such as seeds and Ivy Press’s reputation for beautiful books you would be forgiven for thinking that this might be another coffee-table book in the same vein as the successful series of books published by Papadakis on seeds, pollen, and fruit. Although richly illustrated, Seeds: Safeguarding Our Future is very much a popular introduction to the biology of plants, focusing on seeds in particular, with pithy chapters covering evolution of plants, reproduction, seed dispersal, and germination. The subtitle gives away the angle this book takes though, with the first chapter on the importance of seeds to humanity, and the final chapter on how we might use seed biodiversity to ensure our own survival in the future. Though modern agriculture can feed many, its monoculture approach has also led to the loss of a large amount of genetic diversity. The dangers this could pose, especially with the impact of a changing climate, is a theme that runs throughout the book. Each chapter ends with a profile of a well-known plant and a profile of one of the many seed banks around the world that operate to conserve and catalogue the genetic diversity of plants.

Seeds internal image 1

Carolyn Fry is well-placed to write on this topic, having previously published books on Kew’s Millenium Seed Bank Project and on plant hunters. Furthermore, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens have endorsed the book and several of their experts have contributed expert advice. The book is a good primer on plant biology, and I noticed the short sections on, for example, reproduction were a great way to brush up on my slightly forgotten textbook knowledge. The seed bank profiles, pretty much one for each continent, are interesting little sections, highlighting the important work done here to safeguard against future threats to agricultural crops. Though shortly mentioned in the final chapter, I would have loved to have seen the futuristic Svalbard Global Seed Vault profiled in the same way. As a planetary back-up of agricultural seed collections around the world, this surely is one of the most impressive and intriguing seed banks.

Seeds internal image 2

All in all this is an excellent introduction to seed biology with a focus on conservation and agricultural importance, executed to Ivy Press’s typical high production standards.

Seeds: Safeguarding Our Future is available to order from NHBS.

What’s new for 2016 – Bat detector news

Elekon Batlogger C
Elekon Batlogger C

The bat survey season is just beginning and since our last update in November 2015 many of the new bat detectors have arrived in stock and we have received some customer feedback and updates on specifications from manufacturers. The total count of new bat detectors now stands at six – three passive full spectrum recorders from Elekon, two passive recorders in the Song Meter family from Wildlife Acoustics, and the handheld Anabat Walkabout from Titley Scientific.

Song Meter SM4BAT
Song Meter SM4BAT

We have had the Wildlife Acoustics SM4BAT FS in stock on and off now for the last few weeks (supplies have been limited) but we now have plenty on the shelves. We are really impressed with these units – they are smaller, lighter and easier to programme than the old Song Meters and have massively improved battery life (up to 45 nights for the FS and 70 nights for the ZC). They come in a strong lockable enclosure that can easily be chained to a tree and include a 3m microphone cable when purchased with the SMM-U1 microphone. The ZC units have not arrived yet but are expected in early April. The SM4BAT detectors also include an incredible three year warranty (excluding the microphones).

Wildlife Acoustics have also announced that they are phasing out the EM3+, the SMZC and the SM2BAT+, which are being replaced by the Echo Meter TouchSM4BAT ZC and SM3BAT / SM4BAT respectively.

Elekon Batlogger C
Elekon Batlogger C

Elekon have now released three new passive bat detectors within the last few months which are based around the very highly regarded Batlogger M handheld bat detector. The Batlogger C is probably the highest specification bat detector on the market today – it has everything you would expect from a high end passive detector including programmable recording schedules, fully weatherproof enclosure, and high quality full spectrum recordings as well as many extras. These include optional sms and/or email messages reporting the status of the unit and the number of recordings made as well as the amount of power remaining. Furthermore, because the Batlogger C also has in-built GPS it can send you an alert if the unit is moved. A wide range of power options are available: a 50 hour rechargeable battery is included and there is space for a second. Mains power is also an option as is solar power which requires the addition of the Batlogger C solar panel. When used with two 50 hour batteries, just half a day of sun in every 10 days should be enough to keep the Batlogger C powered indefinitely.

Elekon Batlogger A+
Elekon Batlogger A+

Also from Elekon, the Batlogger A family – the A and the A+ are new miniaturised passive bat detectors. Both are programmable, are housed within a small weatherproof enclosure and include a Knowles FG microphone on a 2m extension cable. The Batlogger A will record for up to 30 hours on eight AA batteries (e.g. three 10 hour nights). The Batlogger A+ was created after a customer contacted Elekon to say that the Batlogger A looked perfect for installing up trees and in other inaccessible location but that ideally, the battery life should be longer. In response the team at Elekon quickly created the new Batlogger A+ which is slightly larger than the Batlogger A but includes the same rechargeable lithium ion battery used in the Batlogger C. This will power the A+ for up to 70 hours. Stock of both models are fairly limited so please contact us soon if you would like to place an order.

Anabat Walkabout
Anabat Walkabout

A few software glitches delayed the release of the Anabat Walkabout in 2015 but this incredible new bat detector has now been in stock for several months. The touch screen Android tablet based bat detector not only records any passing bats but also lets you view the sonogram in real time in both full spectrum and zero crossing formats. A GPS, lux-meter, thermometer and humidity sensor are all in-built so not only will each call be geo-tagged but you will also be able to collect the full range of environmental data for each transect without needing any additional tools. A fully charged unit will last for around eight hours. The Walkabout bundle will soon also include a copy of Analook Insight analysis software to allow you to view and analyse full spectrum and zero crossing recordings.

If you would like any help, advice, or a short loan of one of our demo bat detectors please get in touch with our Wildlife Equipment Specialists on 01803 865913 or customer.services@nhbs.com.