The Big Bluebell Watch 2018

In late April and May bluebells create a stunning blue carpet in woodlands around the UK – a favourite sight for naturalists and walkers everywhere. Image by Carine06 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

What is the Big Bluebell Watch?

The Big Bluebell Watch is organised by the Woodland Trust and takes place from 2nd April until 31st May. This nationwide survey involves members of the public submitting their sightings of bluebells around the UK via an online map, the results of which will allow the Woodland Trust to monitor the status of native bluebells and to guide future conservation efforts.

Continue reading for more information about bluebells in the UK, as well as some tips on telling the difference between native and non-native species. Then head over to the Woodland Trust website to submit your findings.

Bluebells in the UK

Our native bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, flowers between mid-April and the end of May, transforming our woodlands with a stunning blue carpet beneath the budding canopy. Although present throughout Western Europe, more than half of the world’s bluebells are found in the UK where they are an important indicator of ancient woodland.

Despite being one of the nation’s favourite flowers, H. non-scripta is now threatened by habitat destruction, illegal collection and hybridisation with non-native species. Because of this, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and, since 1998, it has been illegal to collect native bluebells from the wild.

The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is a closely related species which was introduced to Britain in the 1600s as an ornamental garden plant. It has now spread into our countryside where it hybridises freely with native bluebells. This is a problem as the hybrids tend to be hardier and can outcompete the native bluebell, while diluting their gene pool and characteristics. There is a huge concern that, if left without monitoring or management, the native British bluebell will no longer exist in the wild.

How to tell the difference between native and non-native bluebells

There are three types of bluebell that you may encounter in the UK: the native British bluebell, the introduced Spanish bluebell and the hybrid, which results when the two species cross-breed. Here are a few tips to help you tell the difference:

British Bluebell
Image by User:Colin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

British bluebell
• Leaves are narrow (approximately 1 – 1.5cm wide)
• Stem often droops to one side
• All or most of the flowers are on one side of the stem
• Tips of the petals curl up
• Flowers are cylindrical in shape
• Flowers are usually deep violet-blue although sometimes white or pink
• Flowers have a strong sweet scent
• Pollen is creamy-white

Spanish Bluebell
Image by Leonora (Ellie) Enking via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Spanish Bluebell
• Leaves are broader than those of the British species (often over 3cm wide)
• Stems tend to be straight and erect
• Flowers are distributed around the stem
• Tips of the petals do not curl
• Flower are bell or cone-shaped
• Flowers often paler blue or pink or white
• Flowers have little to no scent
• Pollen tends to be blue

Hybrid Bluebell
The hybrid bluebell is a cross between these two types and may show a wide range of intermediate characteristics. If you find a bluebell that has any of the characteristics from the second list, then it is probably safe to assume that you are looking at a hybrid bluebell.

Where do I submit my bluebell sightings?

During April and May, the Woodland Trust are collecting records of bluebell sightings from all around the UK. It doesn’t matter where you see them – whether they are in your garden, in a field or in a woodland, every sighting is important and will help to build a comprehensive picture of the state of our native bluebells. If you’re not sure which type you’ve seen then you can still make a submission to the records.

Submit your sightings before 31st May on the Woodland Trust website.

Wildflower Guides

If you’re interested in learning more about the flowers and plants you see while out and about, why not pick up a wildflower guide. Below you will find a list of some of our bestsellers.

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
Marjorie Blamey et al.
This is the first fully-illustrated and fully-mapped guide to the British and Irish flora, covering more than 1,900 species. Its restriction to the British Isles alone allows far more detail and more local information, and identification is made easier with the inclusion of maps for most species.

 

Collins Wild Flower Guide

Collins Wild Flower Guide
David Streeter
Featuring all flowering plants, including trees, grasses and ferns, this fully revised and updated field guide to the wild flowers of Britain and northern Europe is the most complete illustrated, single-volume guide ever published. Illustrated by leading botanical artists.

 

The Wild Flower Key

The Wild Flower Key
Francis Rose and Clare O’Reilly
The expanded edition of this essential guide is packed with extra identification tips, innovative features designed to assist beginners and many more illustrations. Also includes a compilation of the latest research on ancient woodland indicator plants.

 

Seeds of Science: An interview with Mark Lynas

photo of Mark Lynas
Mark Lynas

Mark Lynas is an author, journalist and environmental activist. He has previously written books on climate change (including High Tide: News from a Warming World and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet) and the Anthropocene (The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans). A one-time anti-GMO activist, Mark changed his mind on genetically modified organisms while researching his books on climate change. Seeds of Science: Why We Got it so Wrong on GMOs chronicles Mark’s conversion and examines the widespread opposition to GMOs and the damage this is doing. I contacted Mark to talk more with him about GMOs, and about his new title, which is published this week.

We have been domesticating crops for millennia, and you write that radiation is an accepted method to induce genetic mutations. Such plants can even be labelled “organic”. Effectively, there is a continuum from very crude tools (domestication) to more precise ones nowadays to achieve the same end goal: plants with traits that we desire. Why has recombinant DNA technology been singled out by activists?

I think that if mutagenesis by radiation were invented tomorrow, Friends of the Earth would be up in arms. I suspect that it really is a matter of grandfathering with these kinds of technologies. The newer ones get opposed because they seem too new, for want of a better way of putting it, too innovative and too artificial, whereas we are comfortable with the older ones because they have always been there. As I say in the book, your pet dog is genetically modified from the original wolf, otherwise you would not let it anywhere near your children. But if a scientist in a labcoat were to propose to genetically modify a wolf directly in the laboratory, in order to give it a pug nose and make it unable to breathe properly, I am sure there would be all kinds of hullabaloo. So, it is about being comfortable with something that has become traditional, which maybe was innovative decades or centuries ago, but has become part of our established normality.

These things are socially constructed debates, they are not really a result of scientific innovation directly, they are a result of interest groups deciding that they are opposed to specific innovations for specific reasons. So, there has not been any significant opposition to the use of genetically modified bacteria or micro-organisms to produce insulin for diabetics, or rennet for cheese, or multiple other biotechnological applications. It is very much about opposition to some kind of perceived adulteration of the purity and authenticity of food, especially because food has got such powerful cultural and deeply political meaning.

I would include seeds in that as well. So, the concept of the seed is a very politically significant one. The idea that farmers must control seeds, that seeds are a kind of inherited genetic common property that have been enclosed and privatised by corporations – for people with particular political views these are very powerful concerns.

Effectively, we have been consuming GMOs for millennia, ever since we started eating domesticated plants, with no ill effect on our health. Has the health scare not wasted tremendous amounts of time and money in unnecessary research that, as we could have known beforehand, showed that there is no danger to consuming GMOs?

The health scare is something I was never involved in promoting. Looking back at the things I wrote, I alluded to it a couple of times, but it certainly was never a central concern.

As I explain the book, realising there was a scientific consensus on GMO safety which was equivalent to the consensus on climate change was a big part of why I changed my mind. While I do not claim that science can answer all of the political and economical questions, if we could all at least agree that this technique is as safe as any other, and probably safer in terms of changing crop genetics to be honest, then we can move on to talk about the other topics sensibly. But so long as you have got activists out there, particularly in developing countries, spreading rumours and myths about GMOs causing cancer and sterility then I think that that is so objectionable that it has to be opposed directly, just as we do with anti-vaccine campaigners which are out there doing real damage to public health.

So, do you think that the argument that we have been eating animals and plants that have been genetically modified through domestication with no ill harm is one that will resonate with activists?

No, because it is not about the facts. You can present evidence until you are blue in the face, but that hardly changes anybody’s minds. You have to look at why there is this opposition, and the reason it has persisted for so long is that is has become an article of faith for a lot of people with a particular ideological bias. And that is not just on the left. Yes, there is an anti-corporate aspect to this, but it is also found on the right. It has recently come to light that the Russians have been promoting anti-GMO memes as a way of undermining public trust and the integrity of Western science. And you can see it from the extreme right in France: Le Pen is anti-Monsanto and anti-GMO. The same goes for the far-right and the far-left in Italy. It has become a kind of populist rallying cry which can be put in the context of this wider loss of trust in elites and intellectual expertise generally, which is a story of our modern times. It saddens me that the environmental movement is part of this shift towards post-truth, at least in the GMO sense, but it just goes to show that it is not resulting from any singular political perspective

In the Q&A session of your 2013 talk at the Oxford Farming Conference, you mention that the opposition to GMOs is effectively a proxy war against modern agricultural methods.  Why do people not make a distinction between the tool (genetic modification) and the wielder (in most discussions this ends up being big agricultural companies such as Monsanto)?

I am not even sure it is the business practices of Monsanto in any real sense. If you ask people what it is that Monsanto supposedly does, you will often get a lot of internet-generated myths. I included a whole chapter on Monsanto in the book, precisely because I felt that this was an elephant in the room that needed to be dealt with, and I needed to go through some of the anti-Monsanto memes out there and try and identify what was real and what was not. So, yes, I think there is a conflation between GMOs and modern agriculture in general with certain people in the West. This is quite an elite phenomenon; certain foodie types feel that the food system is failing them. It is kind of conflated with packaging, supermarkets and being disconnected from the local and the authentic. So, it is a kind of wider Romantic movement against what is perceived to be the dominance of technology in modern life. There is a nostalgic appeal to what the traditional farm was – with the farmer in overalls, chewing straw and getting his hands dirty – which is not there with the image of a modern farmer sitting high up in a cab of a combine harvester on Facebook while his machine is driven by GPS or even robotics. It does not have the same emotional appeal to it. So, I think there is this feeling of alienation with the modern food system in general, which I think has driven a lot of this opposition.

Seeds of Science cover

One reason I can think of why people oppose GMOs is a lack of understanding the science. How much are current high-school curricula paying attention to basic genetics, especially in the context of biotechnology in agriculture? Can we do more here and in the future see a new generation of better-informed citizens?

Well, that would be nice, but I do not think that it is essential any more than people need to understand immunology in order to have their children vaccinated. Yes, I am a passionate supporter of increasing science literacy, and I think it is important for a functioning democracy in a very general sense that we have a population who understands at least the basics. But it would not help – this is a political controversy. Even increasing science literacy does not help to diffuse it, because it is not really about the science. The scientists are not disagreeing on any of this. It is the same with climate change where people with different political viewpoints then claim to differ on the science. Presenting more scientific evidence does not help to resolve it, we have to make sure that the evidence is not steamrolled by emotional appeals by people who have an ideological interest in diminishing public understanding of science.

 You seem intent on putting an end to the polarised discussion and the trench warfare as you call it. I believe this is a large part of why you wrote this book. With this book about to be published, what more can we expect to see from yourself and others to try and bring the two sides closer together?

As I say towards the end of the book, the first draft was an angry book about how evil the anti-GMO movement is and decrying all that. And then I threw that away and rewrote it because I did not want to deepen the polarisation. I wanted to make a more honest attempt to understand where people are coming from who still oppose this technology. I felt it was incumbent on me as a former activist myself to do that in as humble a way as possible. So, I went back and talked to people who are still activists who I used to work with back in the day and I tried to give them a fair hearing. I think it is important that we recognise what these concerns are and that they are genuinely held. It is very easy to characterise your opponent as being evil or corrupt. However, people who oppose GMOs think they are doing the right thing. You can say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but if we at least do each other the honour of recognising that we are all trying to make the world a better place, then maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle by respecting each other’s concerns and worldviews so we can try and figure out what we have in common.

I say this in learning from the experience of climate change where I have been guilty of this as much as anyone. Through shouting and fighting we have just polarised the situation, and I think it is further away from being solvable now than it probably was back in the late nineties when I started working on it.

Seeds of Science is available to order from NHBS

The NHBS Guide to UK Amphibian Identification

 

The UK is home to seven native species of amphibian. Over the winter, these frogs, toads and newts have all been hibernating, but it will soon be time for them to venture out to their breeding ponds and pools. If you’re lucky, you will be able to spot them when you’re out and about.

In this blogpost we will provide you with some of the key characteristics of each species which will help you to identify exactly what you’re looking at. For those of you who are keen to find out more, we have also provided a list of field and identification guides at the bottom of the page.


Newts

Newts are members of the salamander family and have a lizard-like body shape. They are semi-aquatic, spending part of the year on land, returning to the water in spring to breed. Eggs are laid in the water where they hatch into tadpoles and then proceed to develop front and back legs, along with gills for breathing. They leave the water in late summer once their gills have been lost.

The three species of newt which are native to the UK are the Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris), the Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus) and the Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus).

Smooth Newt:

Image by gailhampshire via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Look for the pale spotted throat. Image by gailhampshire.

• Size: Grows to around 10-11cm in length.
• Colour: Males brown/olive; females light brown. Belly is usually yellowy orange with black spots. The throat is pale with darker spots.
• Skin Texture: Smooth
• Habitat: Spring to early summer in ponds and pools (frequently found in garden ponds). Late summer under logs and stones near to water.
• Other notes: The male has a wavy back crest during the breeding season.

Palmate Newt:

Image by Laurent Lebois via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Look for the pale throat without spots and a dark stripe through the eye – this can help you to distinguish it from the smooth newt. Image by Laurent Lebois.

• Size: Grows to around 7-11cm; slightly smaller than the smooth newt.
• Colour: Males olive brown; females yellowish brown. The throat is white/pale pink and does not have spots or speckling. The eye has a dark stripe running horizontally through it.
• Skin Texture: Smooth
• Habitat: During the breeding season (early March to late May) in shallow ponds, often in heathland bogs. During summer in woodland, ditches and gardens near to water.
• Other notes: During the breeding season, the male palmate newt has a ridge running along its back and a tail which ends in a filament. Its back feet are also webbed.

Great Crested Newt

Much larger than the smooth or palmate newt, the male has a large crest which is broken where the tail meets the body. Image by Chris H.

• Size: Up to 15cm in length. Females may be even larger than this.
• Colour: Dark brown or black with white/silver dots on sides. Underside is orange with black spots. Pale throat.
• Skin Texture: Warty
• Habitat: March to May in deep ponds with vegetation. Great crested newts often range further than smooth or palmate newts during the summer and can be found in gardens, ditches and woodland.
• Other notes: The male has a very distinctive crest during the breeding season which is broken at the point where the tail meets the body. The crest also has a silver stripe.


Frogs

Frogs are short-bodied, tailless amphibians that largely lay their eggs in water. These eggs hatch into aquatic larvae, known as tadpoles, before metamorphosing into froglets and then adults.

There are two native species of frog in the UK: the Common Frog (Rana temporaria) and the Pool Frog (Pelophylax lessonae).

Common Frog

Keep an eye out for dark patches behind the eyes and dark barring on the back legs. Image by Erik Paterson.

• Size: Adults grow to 6-9cm in length.
• Colour: Olive green to yellow-brown. Usually spotty or stripy with dark patches behind the eyes and darker barring on hind legs.
• Skin Texture: Smooth and moist.
• Habitat: From late February to early October in all sorts of ponds and pools. Common in gardens.
• Other notes: Moves by hopping. Common frogspawn is gelatinous with black embryos and tadpoles are initially black but turn speckled brown. (This is a useful way of distinguishing them from toad tadpoles, which remain dark until development).

Pool Frog

• Size: Adults grow to 6-9cm in length.
• Colour: Usually brown with dark spots. Light yellow back stripe.
• Skin Texture: Smooth and moist.
• Habitat: Currently only present in localised spots in East Anglia.
• Other notes: Males have prominent vocal sacks on the side of the mouth.


Toads

Toads are characterised by dry-looking, warty skin and short legs. They usually move via a lumbering walk, as opposed to the hopping motion used by frogs. As with frogs, most toads lay their eggs in water. These hatch into tadpoles before growing legs and metamorphosing into the adult form.

Within the UK there are two native species of toad: the Common Toad (Bufo bufo) and the Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita).

Common Toad

The common toad moves with a lumbering walk and has distinctive bulges on the back of its head. Image by stanze.

• Size: Females grow up to 13cm whilst males are smaller and usually reach only 8cm.
• Colour: Brown to grey-green. Paler on the underside.
• Skin Texture: Dry-looking and warty.
• Habitat: From late February in damp, shady spots near to breeding ponds. During the summer in woodlands, gardens and fields.
• Other notes: The common toad has amber eyes with a horizontal pupil. Moves with a lumbering walk or small hop. Eggs are laid in strings in a double row. Upon hatching the tadpoles are dark and, unlike frog tadpoles, remain so until they develop. 

Natterjack Toad

The natterjack toad has a yellow stripe down the spine. Image by Bernard Dupont.

• Size: Females grow up to 8cm whilst males are slightly smaller.
• Colour: Pale brown/green, often with brightly coloured red or yellow warts. Yellow stripe down the spine.
• Skin Texture: Dry-looking and warty.
• Habitat: Coastal dunes and lowland heath, often in open, unshaded habitats. The natterjack toad is very rare in the UK.
• Other notes: The natterjack toad has amber eyes with a horizontal pupil. Moves with a running motion, rather than hopping. Lays strings of eggs in a single row.


Further reading:

 

Amphibians and Reptiles

Amphibians and Reptiles
A comprehensive guide to the native and non-native species of amphibian and reptile found in the British Isles. Professor Trevor Beebee covers the biology, ecology, conservation and identification of the British herpetofauna, and provides keys for the identification of adult and immature specimens as well as eggs, larvae and metamorphs.

Britain's Reptiles and Amphibians

Britain’s Reptiles and Amphibians
This detailed guide to the reptiles and amphibians of Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands has been produced with the aim of inspiring an increased level of interest in these exciting and fascinating animals. It is designed to help anyone who finds a lizard, snake, turtle, tortoise, terrapin, frog, toad or newt to identify it with confidence.

 

FSC Guide: Reptiles and Amphibians

A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Ireland
This laminated pamphlet is produced by the Field Studies Council and covers the 13 species of non-marine reptile and amphibian which breed in Britain, as well as the five species which breed in Ireland. These include frogs, toads, newts, snakes and lizards.

 

Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Britain and Europe
This excellent field guide covers a total of 219 species, with a focus on identification and geographical variation. The species text also covers distribution, habitat and behaviour. Superb colour illustrations by talented artist Ilian Velikov depict every species.

 

The Amphibians and Reptiles of ScotlandThe Amphibians and Reptiles of Scotland
This book is designed to be an interesting and informative guide to the amphibians and reptiles that are found in the wild in Scotland. The authors have focused on those species native to Scotland, plus those which are non-native but are breeding in the wild.

A Natural History of Churchyards

Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards, an interview with Stefan Buczacki

The unique features of churchyards mean that they offer a valuable niche for many species. Enclosed churchyard in particular provide a time-capsule and a window into the components of an ancient British landscape. Well known botanist, mycologist and broadcaster Stefan Buczacki has written a passionate call-to-arms for the future conservation of this important and vital habitat.

Stefan has answered a few questions regarding the natural history of churchyards and what we can do to conserve them.

You refer to a Modern Canon Law, derived from an older law of 1603 that all churchyards should be ‘duly fenced.’ How important was that law in creating the churchyards we’ve inherited?

 

Hugely important because although some churchyards had been enclosed from earlier times, the Canon Law making it essential was what kept churchyards isolated/insulated from changes in the surrounding countryside.

I was fascinated by the ‘ancient countryside’ lying to the east and west of a broad swathe from The Humber, then south to The Wash and on to The New Forest: could you expand on that division you describe?

 

The division into Planned and Ancient Countryside has been known and written about since at least the sixteenth century but the geographical limits I mentioned really date from the area where the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were so important. The more formal Planned Countryside landscape has been described as having been ‘laid out hurriedly in a drawing office at the enclosure of each parish’ whereas the fields of Ancient Countryside have ‘the irregularity resulting from centuries of ‘do it yourself’ enclosure and piecemeal alteration’.

If cemeteries, particularly enclosed cemeteries offer a ‘time capsule’ are there any current development or initiatives you can think of that future generations will consider as a similar natural heritage?

 

A difficult one but I suppose the closest might be SSSIs and comparable wild life reserves. National Parks might be thought candidates, but they are too large and too closely managed.

Managing a cemetery in a way that keeps everyone happy seems an impossible job. Last August I was photographing a meadow that had sprung up at a cemetery, when another photographer mentioned how disgusting it was. I was slightly bemused until the man explained he was a town councillor and was disgusted that the cemetery was unmaintained – “an insult to the dead” was how he described it – I thought it looked fantastic! whatever your opinion, how can we achieve common-ground between such diametrically opposed views?

Only by gentle education and by informed churchyard support groups giving guidance and instruction to the wider community. The other side of the coin to that you describe – and equally damaging – is where a churchyard support group itself believes that by creating a neat and tidy herbaceous border in their churchyard to attract butterflies they are doing something worthwhile! A little learning is a dangerous thing.

A whole chapter is devoted to the yew tree; such a familiar sight in so many churchyards. There are many theories as to why yews were so often planted within churchyards. From all the theories in your book, which one do you think has the most credence?

 

That Christianity inherited and then mimicked pre-Christian/Pagan activity without knowing – as we still do not – what its original significance might have been. There is so little documentary evidence from pre-Christian times.

All the significant flora and fauna of churchyards their own chapters or sections; from fungi, lichen and plants, to birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals? Which class, order or even species do you think has the closest association with churchyards and therefore the most to gain or lose from churchyard’s future conservation status?

Without question lichens; because there are just so many species largely or even wholly dependant on the churchyard environment – the gravestones and church buildings.

With church attendance declining and the future of churchyard maintenance an increasingly secular concern; could you give a brief first-steps outline as to how an individual or a group might set about conserving and even improving the natural history of their local churchyard?

Without doubt, the first step should be to conduct a survey of what is there already; and be aware this is not a task for well-intentioned parishioners unless they have some specialist knowledge. The County Wildlife Trusts would be my first port of call as they will have all the necessary specialist contacts. Then it will be a matter – with the specialist guidance – of developing a conservation management plan.

If someone, or a group become custodians of a churchyard what five key actions or augmentations would you most recommend and what two actions would you recommend against?

 

  1. Discuss the project with your vicar/priest/diocese to explain your goals and obtain their support. Show them my book!
  2. By whatever means are available [parish magazine, website, email…] contact the parish community at large to explain that you hope [do not be too dogmatic or prescriptive at this stage] to take the churchyard ‘in hand’ and ask for volunteers – but do not allow well-meaning mavericks to launch out on their own. And continue to keep people informed.
  3. See my answer to Question 7 – and undertake a survey.
  4. As some people will be keen to do something positive straightaway, use manual/physical [not chemical methods] to set about removing ivy that is enveloping gravestones and any but very large trees. It should be left on boundary walls and to some degree on large old trees – provided it has not completely taken over the crown – but nowhere else.
  5. Use a rotary mower set fairly high to cut the grass; again until the management plan is developed.
  6. Set up properly constructed compost bins for all organic debris – and I mean bins, not piles of rubbish.

 

  1. Do not plant anything either native or alien unless under proper guidance – least of all do not scatter packets of wild flower seed. You could be introducing genetic contamination of fragile ancient populations.
  2. Stop using any chemicals – fertiliser or pesticide – in the churchyard; at least until the management plan has been developed.

Stefan’s book Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards was published in March 2018 is currently available on special offer at NHBS.

Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards
Hardback | March 2018
£12.99 £14.99

 

 

 

Further reading on lichen in churchyards…

 

A Field Key to Common Churchyard Lichens
Spiralbound | Jan 2014
£9.99

 

 

Guide to Common Churchyard Lichens
Unbound | Dec 2004
£2.99

 

Please note: All prices stated in this article are correct at the time of posting and are subject to change at any time.

Owl Sense: An interview with Miriam Darlington

We currently have a limited number of signed copies available!

Author photograph by Richard Austin

For most of her life, Miriam Darlington has obsessively tracked and studied wildlife. Qualified in modern languages, nature writing and field ecology, she is a Nature Notebook columnist at The Times. Her first book, Otter Country was published in 2012 and her latest book, Owl Sense was recently Book Of Week on BBC Radio 4.

We recently chatted to Miriam concerning her quest for wild encounters with UK and European owls.  

Owl Sense

It seems the main threat to barn owl numbers is the way our landscape has changed regarding commercial development and farming methods. What do you think is the single most important action regarding land management that could halt their decline and get their numbers growing sustainably?

 

It is all about protecting the owls’ habitat. As field vole and small mammal specialists the owls need rough grassland, where the small mammals live. The rough grassland needs to be protected, and wide enough strips around the field margins maintained and left so that a deep, soft litter layer of dead grasses can build up. This litter layer is essential for voles to tunnel through; this is what they need to survive, so it is all about helping farmers to be aware of this and funding them to manage this type of wildlife-friendly grasslands. Nesting sites are also vital; as mature trees are not replaced, and barns are unsympathetically converted, the owls will have no roosts and no nesting sites. Barn Owls need specialised, sheltered nest boxes in farm buildings. If they can feed, they can breed, and if they can breed they will continue to grace our countryside.

The volunteer work you undertook with The Barn Owl Trust was very interesting, but seemed quite intrusive to these reclusive, easily alarmed birds. What can you say to assuage my concerns? 

 

The Barn Owl site surveys that I observed and described may seem like an intrusion, but it was a vital part of the BOT’s conservation work and always carried out with the utmost care. I would describe it as a necessary intrusion, as it was part of a 10-yearly survey, an information gathering exercise altogether essential for our knowledge of how many owls are breeding in Devon and the South West. The status and numbers of occupied sites were ascertained, and farmers, landowners and general public could be advised accordingly; nest boxes were repaired or replaced, risks assessed and owners given invaluable conservation advice. I described an incident in the book where an owl flew out of the barn we were surveying, demonstrating that owls are very sensitive, the utmost care is always taken, and the laws around the protection of owls are very strict. We were working in warm, dry conditions and no harm came to the owls. The Barn Owl Trust work under licence from Natural England, knowing that if any owl is inadvertently disturbed, they will usually quickly return to their roost. However, with the risks in mind, the greatest care and respect as well as a strict protocol was always followed when surveying sites . We had to work quietly and quickly, counting, ringing and weighing young as rapidly as possible with no time wasted. Adult owls often roost away from the nest due to it being full of pestering young, so they were usually unaffected by our visit. In other cases, the adult owl(s) looked but stayed put as they were well hidden. In some cases, for instance busy working farm barns, the owls are used to all sorts of noise, machinery and disruption, and were completely habituated, and not disturbed at all. Most of the time the adult owls I saw were vigilant, rather than stressed. The young have no idea what is happening and become biddable when approached. All-in-all, the value of the data we gathered would far outweigh any small intrusions. But the general public should be aware that it is illegal to recklessly enter a nesting site without a licence, especially with the knowledge that owls are breeding there.

Historically, owls were viewed as harbingers of doom. This seems to have been replaced by the commercial ‘cutifying’ of owls. Can this still be considered a sort-of reverence – is this the best regard wild animals can now expect?

 

No, I feel we need more than that; we need to respect their wildness, not their cuteness. Humans need to remember to keep our distance; the owls are not there for our enjoyment after all, but as a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. It helps to attract our attention that they are beautiful and charismatic, and it can be thrilling to catch sight of one, but I don’t feel that simply seeing them as cute is any help at all. We need a deeper respect for them than that. We need to care for, respect and understand their needs, but I think reverence is probably too much to ask! I would say sympathy is important, and that should be taught/encouraged in schools.

I found the descriptions of Eagle Owls foraging around waste dumps quite disconcerting. Away from their natural environment, sustaining themselves on human waste seems a sad fate for any animal, let alone a magnificent eagle owl. Am I being overly sentimental and unrealistic?

Yes, it’s easy to see only ugliness there, and it seems like a shame, yes perhaps it is disconcerting, but it shows these creatures are adaptable. It is not desperation, it is opportunistic…and they were feeding on rats, not human waste, so it was probably win-win.

Staying with human and wild animal interactions, you mention recent new builds and the impact they can have. As the rate of new builds is unlikely to decline, do you think developers could do more to take wildlife into account and, if so, what would these measures look like and how would they be enforced?

I believe developers are legally obliged now, and have been for some years, by local authorities, to survey for wildlife and to mitigate for any wildlife found to be breeding there. I visited a site on the edge of my town recently where some of the houses had bat boxes and swift boxes. It is legally enforced already, but many people may be unaware of this.

Captive owls are increasingly popular, and you wrote a reflective passage concerning a little owl called Murray. Even naming a wild animal is anathema to many conservationists. However, your initial concern about a captive owl seemed to diminish as you saw the effect it had on the audience. Do you think displaying captive birds can help conservation efforts?

It is very complex. I don’t think keeping and displaying captive wild animals is the best idea, ultimately. Humans have been domesticating animals for millennia however and it is interesting to look at the long view. Although I am very uncomfortable with keeping wild animals as pets, I have witnessed two things: 1. That when they are kept properly by experienced professionals, they do not seem to suffer and can lead long and relatively safe and healthy lives; and 2. that they can have benefits; increased sympathy and understanding for the species, aspirational opportunities for marginalised people, help for suffering or socially isolated people. I’m not a scientist however. I don’t feel qualified to make the final decision on this. It’s easy to pontificate about the morality of it all, and to see the risks, but not so easy to untangle the costs to the animal and the benefits, economic, emotional and otherwise to some humans. In the end, when we wanted an animal for my family, we got a domestic dog, not an owl. I think that’s the best one could wish for, in the circumstances.

In your previous book Otter Country you describe the places you are in with as much awe as the animal you are hoping to see – the same with Owl Sense. Is it the wild place or its occupiers that move us? Even the government’s recent 25 Year Environment Plan alludes to the mental and physical health benefits natural spaces can provide; do you think conservation efforts would be better focused on wild places for their own sake or concentrate on the fauna and flora that inhabits them?

You can’t separate the two. The habitat comes first, but any expert will tell you that the animals are inseparable from their natural habitats. Look at what happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yosemite. The whole ecosystem began to restore itself when the wolves came back. My philosophy is to describe both; I feel passionately about the connections of the whole ecosystem, including the humans in it. I want to engender understanding and sympathy for that inseparableness. For most people, however, I expect going to a countryside place or a wild place is the most important, and encountering a wild animal, or knowing that there is a possibility of it will come second. I have focussed on owls and employed them as ambassadors, and animals can certainly attract public sympathy, but I suspect it is ownership of the land, stewardship of the land, the economic, health and social impacts of the land, that might win us the argument.

Your journey to Serbia to see the long-eared owls was amazing.  So many owls, living in apparent harmony in close proximity to humans. As these spaces develop, however, this balance will of course shift, and not in favour of the owls.  The only hope offered seemed to be tourism and, ironically, hunters preserving the landscape. Do you see these two options as the only solutions to ensuring the long-term survival of long-eared owls in Serbia?

Yes. I wouldn’t call it harmony necessarily, more like tolerance! The owls have been coming to the towns for many, many years and that will not change as long as the roost trees are preserved and farming does not intensify too quickly. As with Barn Owls, the owls need to fly out into the fields as they feed on the small rodents and small birds in the farmland.. this may become threatened with changes in farming as the country becomes more prosperous. Ecotourism will probably protect the state of things, as with the large owl roosts that are so spectacular; this economically deprived country needs every help it can get. The local people have caught on to this, but the authorities have some way to go with supporting it and fully and sustainably harnessing it. They key would be to harness ecotourism wholeheartedly. And yes, the hunters wish to preserve the habitats, which is excellent. It seems like the best arrangement, in the circumstances, and probably quite sustainable.

Your French guide, Gilles alluded to a dislike towards bird watchers (les ornithos) in the provinces.  He said that, while in the countryside, he couldn’t leave his bird book on show in the car as people would slash his tyres. Things aren’t so bad here in the UK, but do you consider being a conservationist akin to being a radical and a subversive? – has protecting the environment fully entered the consciousness of the mainstream?

I think it has entered mainstream consciousness, and has some superb advocates now, but the activists should never let down their guard; we all need activists keeping an eye because right now we can never afford to be complacent – complacency is a very human trait and one that has brought us into this mess. We need to be constantly asking questions, constantly probing, curious and vigilant, and if that is a form of activism, I’m with the activists. It’s about questions and sometimes challenges, I think that’s what the best journalism, environmentalism, nature writing, scientists and conservationists do best.

You make it clear that the decision to leave the EU is not what you would have wished for. Aside from potentially losing a connection with mainland Europe, do you envisage any pro and cons for the UK environment regarding Brexit?

 

I’m not enough of an expert to be able to answer that. I was mortified to find that Britain was going to separate itself from what appeared to be a friendly and well-meaning, beneficial alliance, especially in terms of conservation regulations, but am completely naïve about the economic and the conservation implications for the future – I think we just have to continue working to call our leaders to account, and never lose sight of our priorities.


Owl Sense
Hardback | February 2018
£12.99 £15.99

 

 

 

 

Otter Country
Paperback | May 2013
£7.99 £9.99

 

 

 

Miriam’s writing centres on the tension, overlaps and relationships between science, poetry, nature writing and the changing ecology of human-animal relations.  On a personal note I thought Owl Sense fulfilled this challenging undertaking.  The personal and evocative writing, all underpinned by the ecology, biology and historical significance of these amazing animals made this a joy to read.

Miriam Darlington signing stock at NHBS

Miriam called into NHBS to sign our stock; these will be available only while stocks last.

NHBS currently have price-offers on Owl Sense and Miriam’s previous book Otter Country.

Please note: Prices stated in this blogpost are correct as of 15th February 2018 and may be subject to change at any time.

Save 25% on all Princeton University Press books

During February and March 2018, we are offering 25% or more off all Princeton University Press and WILDGuide books.

Universities are hallowed seats of learning and University Presses their beacons. Princeton University Press embrace the highest standards of publishing as embodied in the work of their authors from Albert Einstein in their earliest years to the present.

Princeton University Press pride themselves on bringing scholarly ideas to the world; they publish an acclaimed list by eminent authors in subjects that are core interests for NHBS customers. So, during February and March 2018, it is our great pleasure to offer 25% off all Princeton University Press books, available on our website and distributed in the UK.

Our current top-ten Princeton University Press titles:

Far From Land
Hardback | Due February 2018
£18.95 £24.95

 

 

Bovids of the World: Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives
Paperback | March 2016
£20.95 £27.95

 

 

The New Neotropical Companion
Paperback | February 2017
£20.95 £27.95

 

 

The Arctic Guide: Wildlife of the Far North
Paperback | August 2016
£17.21 £22.95

 

 

Primates of the World: An Illustrated Guide
Hardback | September 2016
£16.95 £24.95

 

 

The Princeton Guide to Ecology
Hardback | February 2017
£29.95 £49.95

 

 

Field Guide to the Fishes of the Amazon, Orinoco & Guianas
Paperback | January 2018
£28.46 £37.95

 

 

Trees of Panama and Costa Rica
Paperback | November 2013
£22.95 £37.95

 

 

Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics
Paperback | May 2016
£41.95 £54.95

 

 

A Mathematical Nature Walk
Paperback | October 2015
£10.95 £17.95

 

 

Browse all Princeton University Press titles

 

WILDGuides produce a series of definitive yet simple-to-use photographic guides to Britain’s wildlife. They also publish field and visitor guides to a wide range of wildlife hot-spots around the world. More recently they have embarked upon a series of photographic guides to the bird families of the world.

To complement the Princeton University Press promotion, NHBS are offering 25% or more off all WILDGuide titles until the end of March 2018.

Our current top-five WILDGuides:

Britain’s Spiders: A Field Guide
Paperback | May 2017
£17.95 £24.95

 

 

Britain’s Mammals: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Ireland
Paperback | April 2017
£14.95 £17.95

 

Wildlife of Madagascar
Paperback | October 2016
£18.95 £24.95

 

 

Britain’s Plant Galls: A Photographic Guide
Paperback | September 2011
£9.95 £16.95

 

 

Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley
Hardback | April 2014
£11.95 £18.95

 

 

Browse all our WILDGuides titles.

Please note that all prices in this blogpost are correct as of 6th February 2018. The 25% offer will end at midnight on Saturday 31st March.

 

The 2018 Big Garden Birdwatch

Great Tit by Jannis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Big Garden Birdwatch provides the RSPB with a huge amount of data and allows them to monitor changes in abundance and distribution of garden birds throughout the UK. Image by Jannis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey – in 2017 almost half a million people submitted results! Now in its 39th year, this annual event has become vital in helping the RSPB monitor trends in the abundance and distribution of birds in the UK.

This year the survey takes place from Saturday 27th to Monday 29th January. It’s a great activity for the whole family, and all it takes is an hour of your time. Here’s how to take part:

  1. Choose a good place to view your garden. If you don’t have a garden then wrap up warm and head down to your local park or green space to take part from there.
  2. Watch the birds for an hour, counting the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. (This reduces the likelihood of counting the same bird more than once). Don’t forget to make a note of any other wildlife that you spot as well.
  3. Submit your results, either on the Big Garden Birdwatch website, or by posting a paper form.
  4. Look out for the results being published in March!

Useful links:

Recommended reading:

The Everyday Guide to British Birds
Charlie Elder
The perfect companion for nature enthusiasts and birdwatching beginners. It describes the most common and widespread species that a birder is likely to come across in Britain, and illustrates the features that make each of them unique.

 

Collins Bird Guide
Lars Svensson
The UK’s most popular bird guide. Covering Britain and Europe, the book provides all the information needed to identify any species at any time of year, with detailed text on size, habitat, range, identification and voice.

 

Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland
Rob Hume et al.
Focusing on identification and containing maps, facts and figures on numbers and distributions, this breakthrough publication was devised by a team of lifelong birdwatchers, all with many years’ experience of showing people birds and producing user-friendly field guides.

Guide to the Top 50 Garden Birds
Edward Jackson and Andrew Simms
This handy fold-out guide is designed to help identify the majority of species likely to be found in a garden throughout the year. The choice of ‘top 50’ is based on the relative abundance of species recorded in the UK by the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey.

 

RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds
Simon Harrap
A compact and informative field guide which covers more than 200 of the most common birds found in Britain. Features concise descriptions of each bird’s main characteristics including plumage, calls and song, confusion species, habitat, distribution and status, and behaviours.

 

A Practical Illustrated Guide to Attracting and Feeding Garden Birds
Ed. by Jen Green
This is the complete book of bird feeders, bird tables, birdbaths, nest boxes and backyard bird watching. It helps you learn what to feed garden birds, from seeds, grains and peanuts to fruits, suet cakes and fat balls, as well as how to attract birds by planting the right flowers, trees and shrubs.

The Plant Messiah: An interview with Carlos Magdalena

Carlos MagdalenaCarlos Magdalena is a botanical horticulturist at Kew Gardens, famous for his pioneering work with waterlilies and his never-tiring efforts to save some of the world’s rarest species from extinction. In his book, The Plant Messiah, Carlos shares stories of his travels and his work at Kew and, in doing so, opens our eyes to the delicate wonder of plants and the perils that many of them are now facing.

We recently caught up with Carlos to chat about plant conservation, his views on extinction and lots more.


The Plant MessiahIn your book you describe your trips to some incredible places – most of which have resulted in the collection of valuable herbarium specimens and seeds for growing or storage. Where does the impetus for these projects come from? Do you get to choose the species and/or projects that you work on or are these assigned to you?

They can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, they are assigned to me, like the projects in Peru and Bolivia: there is a need for a horticulturist capable of speaking Spanish, with experience in propagation of tropical plants and therefore, they contact me and from there we start the ball rolling. However, there is always the personal interest, though this works in an indirect way. Because I have been interested for years in tropical waterlilies, especially those from Australia, I had built up masses of knowledge, contacts and experience and therefore one day, someone needs someone with those skills and they want you to join in their projects. My endeavours in Mauritius started when seeds were set in a Ramosmania plant in a glasshouse in London. After this happened, there was a need to bring back this species to the island. Since this was a very genuine reason that could be solved at a very low cost, funding was allocated soon to travel and then, any time I go, I return with many more species that need working on to secure them ex-situ so you establish a working relationship with the country. There is so much work to be done that at the end of the day, money and time are the limits to be honest, but especially, funding is the main issue I have.

The Plant MessiahMany of the methods you use for germinating seeds and propagating plants have been considered unorthodox, and this is undoubtedly one of the reasons behind your outstanding achievements. Did you find that your peers and colleagues were initially suspicious of your techniques and approach, or did you always feel supported in your methods?

I guess they are not that unorthodox after all, I will say is more in the lines of ‘if something does not work, let’s try something else’, which is a bit unorthodox but also the sensible thing to do in those cases. I guess it is always tricky to swim against the ‘mantras’ or certain situations where is easier to stick to ‘oh, it won’t work because it cannot be done’ but even when I can be a victim of this myself, I try to do my best to think that you never know if you don’t try. Horticulture is a bit complicated since there are so many aspects to take into account. Science has a big part to play in it, but there is also that bit that is more like cooking, not witchery, but no white lab coat stuff either.
In cultivation, there are too many factors, compost types, light, humidity, temperature, temperature fluctuation, pests, seasons, fertilizers, nutrient levels, and so on and so forth. It is very difficult sometimes to come from an answer as result of traditional science when trying to work out what are the best parameters for each of the 400,000 known species of plants. Good basic science knowledge is vital, but the capacity of guessing, the ability to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes, to be capable of observing very small changes in the general looking of a plant (which I guess involves good photographic memory) are equally important, throwing in a bit of ‘gut feeling’ as it can help too! Sometimes first you manage to grow a plant by ‘play it by the ear’ and if you succeed and manage to grow many, then you can do the empirical work in a more traditional scientific manner, but first, it has to grow!

Many of the processes you describe in your book are very labour intensive and appear to involve a certain amount of trial and error. With the understanding that time is of the essence for many of the species you work with, and that availability of seeds may be severely limited, how do you cope with the prolonged uncertainty and pressure that must surely exist when attempting to germinate seeds or propagate cuttings?

You try to do the obvious first. Sometimes you know that something works very well with that family, so you will try that first. If it does not work you need to come up with a theory of ‘what happened’ and then create a scenario that tries to prevent that situation happening again. When quantities of seeds are abundant, then that makes things easier since you can try many things at once. With very small quantities of material this is not possible, so you try to use safer options. Seeds that cannot be dried die if you dry them. Seeds that need to be dried to germinate can stay wet for a period after harvesting, so if the seeds have not been dried already, I may sow them without drying in a way that I can recover it later to try a dry, then wet method. If something can be undone, sometimes takes preference over some action that cannot be undone. If that fails, then try plan B. if everything fails and there is no more material, you had that experience so that next time something is available you can try something else. However, were the seeds non-viable? Were they too old? It can be a bit tricky to get the whole picture sometimes. There are quite a few general rules that help, the difficulty is to spot the exceptions to the rule. In these cases, experience is the mother of science and not the other way around, but then, you have to be sure that whatever change you want to do make sense from a natural science point of view.

You frequently state in your book that extinction is unacceptable. How do you feel about the proposals by some ecologists that our modifications to the planet have in fact stimulated evolution, and that extinctions and non-native invasions are just part of a natural process, albeit it one that our actions may have accelerated?

First, I think that even if something is naturally going extinct, it should be preserved. No-one questions that we preserve items such as cathedrals or classic paintings under the excuse that ‘oh well, naturally they will fall apart and disintegrate in time’. They are an immeasurable resource and relevant part of our heritage. Regarding the invasive introductions…this is complex and cannot be summarized in a simple statement like the one above. There are species that naturalize and do not create a massive change, they just integrate as another item in the system, others occupy heavily pre-damaged ecosystems, so in fact, and they are a symptom rather than an illness of the damaged ecosystem. Look at Buddleia and its preference for cracks in concrete, brownfields, and decaying urban environments. Conservation is in a way altruistic (every species should have the right to live, just because it is a species), but also is an act of egoism and self-preservation because they are so useful to us in many ways. The more that we can keep, the more biodiverse the planet will be. As earlier stated, it is a very complex issue. What is the impact of invasive plants on CO2 absorption? Not sure what the answer to that is, but I bet that in some cases they are sequestering CO2, but not for all the species nor all the situations either. Avoiding extinctions should be always high on our agendas. We can aim to preserve many species long term, even if we still allow for lots of human changes taking place, but only if we can stop climate change and we manage the land properly. If we think ‘yeah, is all part of a natural process’ then we have to admit that burning fossil fuels is as natural as flying rabbits from Spain to the Antipodes, and also, that climate change will lead to a mass extinction but then, it will recover in a few million years later? No thanks, I rather keep the world as it is, beautiful and biodiverse, because guess what, nearly all of it is avoidable. Key word here: avoidable.

Animal conservationists often bemoan the fact that it is difficult to get the public interested in the “non-charismatic megafauna”. So, while the whales, tigers and pandas of the world have plenty of public attention and support, the plankton, toads and flies are often neglected. Do you feel this problem exists within the sphere of plant conservation too? Are the beautiful “charismatic” plants given attention over the less visually striking species? Or do you think that plants as a whole are neglected? As an extension of this, how do you think we should go about getting the public to care about the conservation of plants?

Firstly, yes, I think that plant conservation is low on people’s minds when compared with furry large animals. True that. But to be fair, a subspecies of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011 and all the populations of this emblematic mammal are declining badly despite its cuteness, so there is work to be done with animals for sure.
I think we need to understand that plants are more important to our survival, and to the animal species survival than we think they do. With plants, we need to know them better before we can truly appreciate them. There is no Rhino without savannah and we need to look at the savannah more like a vegetation community rather than a background setting for Rhinos. Plants are the green glue that sticks the planet ecosystems together. We need to look at the system more, but systems are made of components and we cannot lose them if we want to keep the system going. It is always easier to attract funding and interest to showy plant species. Sad but true, but on the other hand, many stunning looking species are threatened and nothing much has been done. We need to raise the game in all departments of conservation. At the end of the day, it is the planet that we are protecting, not single species only. I have the feeling that avoiding plant extinction is easier than animal extinction, at least ex-situ. Yet, there are more instances of animals being reintroduced to the wild than plants. Sometimes, you need to introduce animals to recover the vegetation, i.e wolves rather than planting trees. Sometimes you may need to plant trees to reconnect two populations of large mammals. Fisheries rely heavily on seagrass and mangrove forest. Those two marine habitats fix massive amounts of CO2. Does global warming affects Panda’s favourite food? Rather than focus on animal vs plant conservation, we need to do this: to focus on single species so that they do not go extinct but also make sure that the worlds ecosystems are functioning. Easier said than done, but I refuse to accept that ‘cannot be done’. It is all avoidable.

Finally, is there a plant, either extant or presumed extinct, that you dream of seeing during your lifetime?

Only one? The trouble here is what to choose…there is so many things I do not want to miss in my life time. Never seen the redwood forest, I’ve never been to South Africa, Madagascar, New Guinea, Socotra…just to name a few incredible biodiverse areas that contain 100s of interesting ‘must see’ species. The discovery of a living fossil plant in the likes of Ginkgo or the Wollemy pine would always be very exciting…indeed the reappearance of an extinct species is always uplifting, however, if I have to choose, I go for the ‘extinction avoidance’. Mostly because, if I’m aware it is about to happen, and when it happens, it is so depressing. So I choose this: to produce and germinate seeds of Hyophorbe amaricaulis from Mauritius. Only one palm tree left, and decades of failures mean that is likely it will go extinct during my lifetime. I’m aware of this, and I cannot bear the thought of waking up one day to the news that a cyclone has split it in half.


The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena is published by Penguin Books and is available from NHBS in hardback. The paperback version is due for publication in April 2018.

Science Needs You! – The NHBS Guide to Citizen Science

New Year – the perfect time for new plans and resolutions. If you’re looking for a way to make a difference in 2018 then why not consider becoming a citizen scientist and contributing to some of the biggest and most exciting scientific studies happening today? In this post we will take a look at the history of citizen science before providing you with a great list of projects that you can get involved in and a selection of books to inspire you.

Image by Bio Blitz via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
A BioBlitz provides a useful snapshot of the wildlife present in an area, and is also a great event where the community can gather and get to know eachother.

Where did it all begin?:

Citizen science is a term used to describe any research that is conducted either wholly or in part by non-professionals. (I hesitate here to use the term “amateur” as this brings to mind individuals that are either unskilled or who are beginners in their field which, in many cases, couldn’t be further from the truth). Such projects are usually organised and managed by a professional research body or charity and areas of study can encompass anything from biology, physics and history to social sciences and technology.

The term “citizen science” was first used in the mid-1990s. However, the concept of everyday non-professionals conducting science on their own terms is by no means a recent phenomenon. For example, Gregor Mendel, who provided much of the foundation for our modern understanding of genetics, was actually an Augustinian monk for most of his life. Susan Hendrickson who discovered the largest complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex dropped out of high school to pursue her passion for specimen collecting. And even Charles Darwin initially went to university to study medicine before transferring to a Bachelor of Arts degree in the hopes that he would become a country parson.

The urge to pursue the study of something, whether that be dinosaur bones or the theory of evolution, is not always associated with financial recompense and, in fact, this leads to one of the biggest benefits of modern citizen science projects: the ability to conduct studies on a scale many times larger than would ordinarily be viable. This is because most research projects, particularly those in the natural sciences, generate a huge amount of fieldwork and data. The time taken to collect and process this, as well as the cost incurred by employing people to do the work, can make them prohibitively expensive. Employing an army of citizen scientists who are willing to work for free solves both problems very nicely. The benefits are by no means one-sided however. Inspiring and educating those that get involved and the provision of vital public outreach are both incredibly important, and the psychological benefits of volunteering have long been documented.

With the advent of the internet and a whole host of new technologies which make it easier than ever to communicate and share data, it is no wonder that citizen science has exploded in such a big way over the past two decades. Nationwide surveys such as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count are now incredibly well-publicised and attract 1000s of volunteers. They provide just two excellent examples of how a country full of keen amateur naturalists can work together to expand the body of knowledge about our best-loved wildlife.

And it’s not just wildlife-lovers that are taking up the mantle of pioneering research. Projects such as I Like Clean Air, founded in Hackney, shows how everyday people can take their health and environment into their own hands, and collect the data they need to promote change in the places they live. Through their Be a Martian project, NASA are enlisting the help of people all over the world to analyse the data accumulated by their Mars exploration spacecraft and rovers. Even within the NHS, patient-led projects are a prime  example of how people from all backgrounds can use their own knowledge and personal experiences to further science and understanding.

Citizen Science Projects:

Image by Bio Blitz via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Moth trapping is fun for all ages and provides lots of useful data for local or national recording schemes.

So, if you’re looking for a project to get involved in, keep reading for a list of wildlife and environment-related citizen science studies that you can take part in this year. Some of them might require a bit of legwork – perhaps you will need to go for a walk (or several walks) to record what you see. Others can be accomplished easily from a window looking out into your garden and a few can even be done online.

This list by no means covers all of the options out there so, if there’s nothing here that takes your fancy, get in touch with your local Wildlife Trust or search the internet to find out what’s going on near you.

  • Nature’s Calendar – The Woodland Trust
    Help to track the effects of weather and climate change by recording the happenings of the plants, animals and fungi where you live.
  • Bioblitz – Various
    A Bioblitz is an intense period of studying all of the wildlife within an area over a short period of time. Hosted by lots of different organisations and individuals, they occur throughout the year.
  • Big Garden Birdwatch – RSPB
    Observe and record the birds in your garden over one weekend and help the RSPB identify the distribution and abundance of our favourite garden visitors.
  • Big Butterfly Count – Butterfly Conservation
    Contribute to the world’s largest survey of butterflies and day flying moths and provide vital data which will help scientists understand how climate change is affecting our local wildlife.
  • National Whale and Dolphin Watch – Sea Watch Foundation
    The data collected during this annual event helps towards understanding and protecting cetaceans around the UK. Take part in an organised event or, if you have some experience, conduct your own watch.
  • The Great British Wildflower Hunt – Plantlife
    Record the wildflowers you see in your garden or when out walking, and help Plantlife to gather information on how wild plants are faring in our wild (and not so wild) spaces.
  • National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – Amphibian and Reptile Conservation
    Record individual sightings of amphibians and reptiles or take part in a longer-term monitoring project by revisiting a sample site several times a year.
  • The National Mammal Atlas Project – The Mammal Society
    Submit your sightings of mammals using the online recording forms or via the handy Mammal Tracker App.
  • Natural History Museum
    The Natural History Museum runs a range of citizen science projects, some of which can be completed online. Their website also includes lots of useful information on setting up your own project, running a Bioblitz, and even creating a website for your own recording scheme.
  • Zooniverse
    On the Zooniverse website you can participate in research of all kinds. As well as biology projects, there are others relating to history, literature, social science and much more.

Recommended Reading:

Bradt Complete Guide to Wildlife and Conservation Volunteering
Peter Lynch
This comprehensive guide includes information on long- and short-term volunteering opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds, from gap-year students to retirees. A must read for anyone wanting to contribute to wildlife conservation around the world.

 

The BTO/CJ Garden BirdWatch Book
Mike Toms
This enthralling book will provide you with information on how feeding our garden birds is affecting their survival, and will also encourage you to take part in the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This annual survey is the largest monitoring scheme of its type in the world and is vital to our understanding of our garden birds and the factors affecting their survival.

BTCV Practical Handbooks
This series of practical guides aims to help individuals and groups of volunteers undertake practical conservation work. Covering a wide range of topics, such as dry stone walling, tree planting and toolcare, each book is illustrated and clearly laid out in a step-by-step format.

 

 

The Incidental Steward

The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science
Akiko Busch
While not a primer on the prescribed protocols of citizen science, this book combines vivid natural history, a deep sense of place, and reflection about our changing world. Musing on the expanding potential of citizen science, particularly in the US, the author celebrates today’s renewed volunteerism.

 

 

NHBS Staff Picks 2017

Welcome to our annual round-up of the books and equipment we have most enjoyed reading and using this year, all chosen by members of the NHBS team. Here are our choices for 2017!

Winter Birds

Winter Birds

In Winter Birds, we find Lars Jonsson’s loving portraits of some of the birds that he observed in southern Gotland in the winter months; both the watercolours and the accompanying essays are wonderfully intimate and personal. A fascinating book to dip into on cold and windy evenings, even if (like me) you don’t know your finches from your jays. First published in Swedish two years ago, this is now available in a UK edition, with range maps for both Sweden and the British Isles alongside each species. Expertly translated by David Christie, this is one of my favourite books this year.
Anneli – Senior Manager

Orison for a Curlew: In Search of a Bird on the Brink of Extinction

The Slender Billed Curlew, Numenius tenuirostris, is emblematic of species decline and ultimately extinction. With the last fully-fledged sighting in Morocco in 1995, naturalist and traveller Horatio Clare took up the challenge of sighting this ethereal creature. With precision and clarity and in only 115 beautifully written pages, this book takes the reader on an immersing journey into history, politics, hunting and conservation.
Nigel – Books and Publications

Field Guide to Moths

Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland

As a newbie to the world of moths, this book is a definitive and indispensable guide to UK species (excluding micro-moths). With in-depth descriptions and distribution maps for each species and beautifully clear and concise illustrations, this newly updated guide is a valuable resource and must-have mothing companion, perfect for beginners and pros alike.
Oli – Graphic Designer

Why We Sleep

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

Picking my favourite book of the year wasn’t easy this time, having stepped up my reading efforts this year. But since there has to be one: Why We Sleep is an exceedingly well-written book about the biology of human sleep, and especially the deleterious effects of chronic sleep deprivation that most of us subject ourselves to. Matthew Walker is a gifted writer with a knack for explaining neurobiological principles in clear language and using imaginative metaphors. It actually made me undertake some very serious attempts to change my sleeping habits.
Leon – Catalogue Editor

The Lost Words

For anyone even vaguely interested in nature writing Macfarlane needs no introduction.
His series on landscape, place and imagination has enthralled me since I first picked up The Old Ways several years ago.
Created in response to the nature-related words culled from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, words which are considered no longer relevant to a modern childhood, Macfarlane along with artist and author Jackie Morris have created a beautiful ‘spell book‘ for younger readers. A joyful celebration of both nature and language.
Johnny – Customer Services

Dinosaur MonopolyDinosaur Monopoly

Everyone at the NHBS board game club loved Dinosaur Monopoly. A new take on an old favourite, though we all agreed the T-Rex should not be the Mayfair of this board! Have fun excavating sites, bartering for ownership and making (or losing!) the big bucks!
Natt – Customer Service & Dispatch Manager

 

Petzl Tikka Headtorch

The Petzl Tikka is a brilliant head torch – with a light output of 200 lumens, you really get a lot of light for your money! Having five different light settings, it’s great for close up work, and with a range of 60m is ideal for night running/orienteering (with the added bonus of being weather resistant). From personal use, I would highly recommend this to anyone who is after a high quality head torch for a very reasonable price.
Sam – Customer Services

Mushrooms and Toadstools

Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain & Europe: Volume 1

Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain & Europe is the long-awaited field guide by Geoffrey Kibby, the highly respected field mycologist. This title stands out from other fungi guides with its detailed and comprehensive identification and field notes, but for me the real highlights are the gorgeous illustrations and diagrams running through the whole text. One doesn’t have to be a serious mycologist to appreciate the beauty of fungi as presented in this book!
Rachel – Customer Services

Kite Caiman Binoculars

Kite Caiman Binoculars

My pick is the 8 x 42 Kite Caiman Binoculars, which are our newest edition to the Kite binocular range. They have an amazing close focus and far reaching power, they’re affordable, bright, and are great quality. The Caimans make the ultimate pair of binoculars in the field for anyone on a budget.
Bryony – Wildlife Equipment Specialist

Squid Empire

Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods

Covering hundreds of millions of years, Squid Empire tells the fascinating story of how the squishy squids we have in our ocean today became what they are. Written with humanity and wit this book is extremely approachable, even by a layperson such as myself.
Luke – Web Developer

The Plant Messiah

In his time working at Kew Gardens, Carlos Magdalena has managed to track down and propogate some of the world’s most threatened plant species. Many of these success stories are shared in The Plant Messiah and all are recounted in Carlos’s enthusiastic and charismatic style. Part memoir, part “botany-101” and part plant elegy, I found this book difficult to put down, and whizzed through it in just a day or two. It is inspiring, thrilling and educational – what more could you ask for?
Luanne – Senior Editor