Daringly innovative when it opened in 1848, the Palm House in Kew Gardens remains one of the most beautiful glass buildings in the world today
In Palace of Palms, Kate Teltscher tells the extraordinary story of its creation and of the Victorians’ obsession with the palms that filled it: a story of breathtaking ambition and scientific discovery and, crucially, of the remarkable men whose vision it was.
Cultural historian and author, Kate Teltscher kindly took some time to answer our questions about her new book and sign a limited number of bookplates.
Can you tell us something about your background and what motivated you to write Palace of Palms?
I’ve visited Kew since my childhood and have always loved the Palm House. It’s such a magnificent building, and just astounds you, the moment that you enter the Gardens. It’s so sleek and elegant, and modern-looking. As soon as you push open the door, the heat hits you, and you’re inside this tropical world. The architecture and plants combine to form this astonishing spectacle. The whole Gardens are landscaped around the Palm House, and the three long vistas at the back mean that you’re always catching sight of the Palm House as you walk the grounds. I wanted to find out why the Palm House was at the centre of Kew. Why was it the first building to be commissioned when Kew became a public institution? As a cultural historian, I was interested in the story that the Palm House could tell about Britain and botany, about palms and empire. And then in the course of my research I became fascinated by the characters that I discovered: the ambitious first Director, the self-taught engineer, and the surly yet devoted Curator.
The historical period in your book has been described as ‘The Golden Age of Botany.’ Do you think this description is justified?
The period certainly saw the birth of modern botany and many plant collecting expeditions, but the idea of a ‘golden age’ seems outdated now. The phrase tends to obscure or gild botany’s connection with commerce and empire. From its very foundation as a public garden, Kew had close links with colonial gardens across the empire. John Lindley, the botanist who wrote a government report on Kew, proposed that the colonies would offer up their natural resources to Britain to aid ‘the mother country in every thing that is useful in the vegetable kingdom’. Kew was seen as the co-ordinating hub of a network of colonial gardens in India, Australia, the Indian Ocean and the West Indies, that would exchange information and plants across the globe. Transplanting medicinal plants, economic and food crops across continents, Kew engineered environmental and social change worldwide.
Why were palms so important to the Victorians?
The Victorians inherited the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’ notion that palms were the ‘princes of the vegetable kingdom’. They were regarded as the noblest of all plants, far surpassing all European vegetation. For the public educator, Charles Knight, they combined ‘the highest imaginable beauty with the utmost imaginable utility’. They provided every necessity of life: food, drink, oil, clothes, shelter, weapons, tools and books. They were so bountiful that Linnaeus imagined that early humanity had subsisted entirely on palms. As Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal put it: the question is not ‘What do they afford us? But what is there that they do not?’
Your book is full of intrigue, exploration and innovation. During your research was there one fact or event that stood out as been particularly remarkable?
I was particularly struck by the change in status of palm oil between the 1840s and today. Industrial chemists had recently discovered the properties of palm oil that would, in our own time, make it one of the most ubiquitous of vegetable oils. In the nineteenth century, palm oil was used as axle grease on the railways and, combined with coconut oil, as a constituent of soap and candles. The oil palm grew in the areas of West Africa previously dominated by the slave trade. The trade in palm oil, it was argued, was the most effective means to combat human trafficking. In contrast to current fears that palm oil production is a major cause of deforestation and involves child and forced labour, the Victorians viewed palm oil as an ethical product, with unlimited manufacturing possibilities.
How do you envisage the future of the Palm House, the finest surviving Victorian glass and iron building in the world?
I understand from Aimée Felton, the architect who compiled a report on the Palm House, that despite the constant humidity of the interior, the actual structure is in reasonably good shape. These days, I guess, the Palm House does not look so big. Some of the tallest palms can never reach maturity because the Palm House roof is not high enough; they have to be cut down so that they don’t break through the glass. Obviously modern plant houses, like the Eden Project biospheres or the Norman Foster-designed Great Glass House at the National Botanic Garden of Wales may be larger or wider. But what I find interesting is that these plant houses, like the Palm House, are daring, experimental structures. The Palm House really functioned as the model for glasshouses across the globe throughout the nineteenth century: in Copenhagen, Adelaide, Brussels, San Francisco, Vienna and New York. From a contemporary point of view, the Palm House is often seen as a forerunner of twentieth-century modernism. It offers a perfect union of form and function, with its clean lines and organic shape. In recent years, the Palm House has provided the inspiration for one of London’s current icons: the London Eye. I expect that it will go on inspiring architects and engineers for years to come!
Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?
I’m hoping to work more with Kew, in particular a project to digitise an early record book that documents all the plants that were received and sent out from Kew at the end of the eighteenth century. Since Kew was the first point of entry for many plants into Britain, and also sent plants to colonial botanic gardens all over the world, this record book is central to our understanding of the circulation of plant species, both nationally and globally. Kew really is a place of infinite riches, for the visitor and historian alike!
Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew
By: Kate Teltscher
Hardback | July 2020| £19.99£25.00
The extraordinary history of the magnificent Victorian Palace of Palms in the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.
All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.
We are delighted to announce Independent Alliance as our Publisher of the Month for July: a chance in these challenging times to immerse yourself in eloquent, knowledgeable and thought-provoking writing.
We have price-offers on our top fifty Independent Alliance titles and have showcased our top ten below:
A Natural History of the Hedgerow: and Ditches, Dykes and Dry Stone Walls
By: John Wright
Paperback| May 2017| £8.99£11.99
Tells the story of hedgerows past and present, encompassing their long significance in the life of the countryside.
Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature
By: Patrick Barkham
Hardback | May 2020| £13.99£16.99
Patrick Barkham explores the relationship between children and nature.
The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife
By: Stephen Moss
Hardback | February 2020| £13.99£16.99
Stephen Moss journeys the length and breadth of Britain to find the wildlife that is thriving amidst our urban landscape.Read our author interview here.
The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination
By: Richard Mabey
Paperback | Oct 2016| £8.99£10.99
Mabey puts plants centre stage, and reveals a true botanical cabaret: a world of tricksters, shape-shifters and inspired problem-solvers.
The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is?
By: Nick Lane
Paperback | April 2016| £8.99£10.99
Why is life the way it is? If life evolved on other planets, would it be the same or completely different…
The OrchidHunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness
By: Leif Bersweden
Paperback | April 2018| £6.99£8.99
In the summer after leaving school, a young botanist sets out to fulfil a childhood dream – to find every species of orchid native to the British Isles.
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back
By: Mark O’Connell
Hardback | April 2020 | £11.99£14.99
Where environmentalists who fear the ravages of climate change and billionaire entrepreneurs dreaming of life on Mars find common ground…
Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn to be Animals
By: Carl Safina
Hardback | April 2020 | £14.99£18.99
Safina demonstrates that the better we understand the animals with whom we share this planet, the less different from us they seem.
Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today By: Ken Thompson
Paperback | July 2019 | £6.99£8.99
Ken Thompson establishes Darwin as a pioneering botanist, whose close observations of plants were crucial to his theories of evolution
Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s Eye View of a Highland Year By: Sir John Lister-Kaye
Paperback | Oct 2019 | £8.99£10.99 Sir John Lister-Kaye follows a year through the seasons at Aigas and the Highland animals, and in particular the birds – his ‘gods of the morning’ – for whom he has nourished a lifelong passion.
Forest loss escalates biodiversity change. New international research focusing on biodiversity data spanning 150 years and over 6,000 locations, published in the journal Science, reveals that as tree cover is lost across the world’s forests, plants and animals are responding to the transformation of their natural habitats, revealing both losses and gains in species.
Dolphins learn how to use tools from peers, just like great apes. A new study upends the belief that only mothers teach hunting skills, adding to growing evidence of dolphin intelligence, experts say. It is the first known example of dolphins transmitting such knowledge within the same generation, rather than between generations.
Hedgehogs are abundant in urban and suburban areas and can frequently be found in gardens, as these provide safe, accessible spaces for them to forage and rear their young. They are most active between April and September with the main mating season occurring between May and June. Female hedgehogs give birth during June and July, although some will go on to produce a second litter later in the summer. All of this means that now is a great time to look for hedgehogs – and if you’re taking part in the Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Days Wild Challenge, then this will also contribute to your month of wild activities.
If you’re lucky enough to have hedgehogs in your garden, why not take the time to record their behaviours for Hedgehogs After Dark. This project, organised by Hedgehog Street, aims to learn more about the ways in which hedgehogs are using our gardens and the behaviours that they are showing through the spring and summer. Until Sunday 26th July you can submit your observations to their website and have the chance of winning an exclusive hedgehog hamper in their prize draw. Visit their website for lots of information about the different behaviours they are interested in and how to submit your findings (you will need to register as a Hedgehog Champion to do this).
Keep reading for some top tips on making your garden attractive to hedgehogs and how to watch them, either with or without a trail camera.
Is your garden hedgehog friendly?
There are several things that you can do to make your garden more attractive to hedgehogs:
• Improve access – Gardens are only useful for hedgehogs if they can access them. Plus, hedgehogs move long distances throughout the night to find enough food, so creating networks of gardens that they can move between is important. By cutting a 13cm diameter hole in the bottom of a fence or removing a brick from the base of a wall, you can help to provide access and link your garden with surrounding ones.
• Provide shelter – Try to keep some areas of your garden wild and overgrown, as this will provide secure nesting and feeding spaces. An artificial hedgehog home will also provide a safe and warm space for hedgehogs to overwinter and for a female to birth and raise her young in the spring and summer. Try not to use pesticides or slug pellets in the garden, as these are poisonous to other animals as well as slugs.
• Provide food – Make sure that there are lots of worms, beetles and earwigs in your garden by growing wildflowers and providing log piles. Leaving areas of the garden which are overgrown or making a small wildlife pond will also help to encourage a diverse range of invertebrates. (Make sure your pond has sloping sides or piles of rocks to allow any animals to escape.) You could also provide a shallow dish of fresh water along with meaty dog or cat food, some chopped unsalted peanuts or sunflower hearts.
Tips for watching hedgehogs
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so the best time to watch them is during late evening. Throughout the night they can travel up to 2km searching for food and/or mates. (This great video shows radio-tracked hedgehogs moving between gardens in a suburban area of Brighton). If you have a suitable window looking out onto your garden, then you can watch them from the warmth of your home. Make sure that you turn any inside lights off and keep noise to a minimum. If there is no illumination from street lights, visibility will be best at twilight (before complete dark) and around the time of the full moon (provided it isn’t too cloudy).
If you can’t watch the garden from a window, then wrap up warm, get into stealth-mode and venture outdoors. As with any wildlife-watching endeavour, the most important thing is to be still and quiet. It might also help if you can get low to the ground which will provide a hedgehog-level view of their activities. Don’t be tempted to try to get too close to them, however, and never attempt to pick them up or interfere with their natural movements.
Using a trail camera to watch hedgehogs
One of the best ways to view the hedgehogs in your garden is using a trail camera. If you’re lucky enough to own one of these, then setting it up to record at night is a great way to see if any hedgehogs are around and, if so, what they’re getting up to. Here are some tips to maximise your chance of getting great footage:
• When siting your camera, think about where the hedgehogs are likely to be moving around. If you have a hole cut in your fence and you know that hedgehogs are using it to access your garden, then you might want to point your camera towards this. Similarly, if you have provided any food or water, then setting your camera up near to this is a great way to capture footage of them feeding.
• Position your camera low to the ground. Think about the size of the hedgehog and where it is most likely to trigger the infrared beam.
• Set your camera to the highest sensitivity setting. If you find that it is triggering far too much, particularly in the absence of any animals, then you can always reduce this later.
• As you’ll be recording hedgehogs mostly in darkness, having a camera with invisible night vision LEDs could be a bonus, as these will not startle the animals. Plus, models with adjustable night-time illumination (or which adjust automatically) will give you the most control over your image quality.
[The Browning Strike Force HD Pro X is one of our bestselling trail cameras for hedgehog watching and is used by lots of great projects, such as London Hogwatch. For more information or advice about trail cameras, please get in touch with us and chat with one of our experienced ecologists.]
Maybe you don’t have a garden, or you have one but haven’t seen any hedgehogs using it. You can still view lots of great hedgehog videos on the Hedgehog Street YouTube channel. Or, if you use Facebook, why not watch this talk by ecologist and hedgehog fan Hugh Warwick, recorded for the Summer Solstice ‘Wonderland’ Festival this spring.
Trees are a vital part of our ecosystem and essential to all life. Trees offer habitation and food to wildlife, they provide us with oxygen, clean the air, conserve water and stabilise soil. As such, trees are invaluable to our environment and to human well-being.
In the UK there are at least fifty native tree species, and they come in many different sizes and shapes. All trees have distinct features that can help with identification. In this blog we will focus on 10 common native trees and provide you with the most important things you need to look out for, so you can recognise Oak from Elder or Silver Birch from Ash.
How to Identify a Tree:
By looking at the overall features as well as where the tree is growing you can work out what the species is. Below are some key characteristics to look out for when trying to identify a tree :
The size and shape of the tree
Leaves and needles
Flowers and fruit
Bark, buds and twigs
10 Common British Trees and How to Identify Them:
1. Oak (Quercus robur)
Where to find: The ancient, wise oak is one of Britain’s most iconic species, standing tall for hundreds of years, it can be found across the country
How to identify:
The common pedunculate oak is a large deciduous tree growing up to 40m tall, with a grey bark when young and darker brown with fissures as it ages.
Look out for: Its oval to oblong shaped leaves with its familiar deep lobed margins with smooth edges. Oak can be easily identified by its distinctive acorns that hang on long stalks.
2. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
Where to find: Ash is a common, widespread tree often found amongst British hedgerows and in many mixed deciduous woods in the UK.
How to identify:
Ash grows tall, up to 30-40m, the bark is pale brown and fissures as the tree ages.
Look out for: The tree can be recognised by its pinnately compound leaves, usually comprising three to six opposite pairs of light green, oval leaflets. The buds are one of its defining characteristics. The buds are a sooty black with upturned grey shoots. Sadly, ash is also identified by a serious disease called Ash dieback that is a substantial threat to the species. The fungus appears as black blotches on the leaves, and the whole tree appears to be dying back.
3. Common Lime (Tilia x europaea)
Where to find: The sweet smelling lime is native to much of Europe, found scattered across the wild it is more commonly found in parks and along residential streets
How to identify:
Common lime is a tall, broadleaf tree, and is a natural hybrid between large-leaved and small-leaved limes.
Look out for: The Common lime has dark green heart-shaped leaves. It is known for its sweet, smelling white-yellow flowers, that hang in clusters of two to five and develop into round, oval fruits with pointed tips. The common lime can be distinguished from other lime varieties by the twiggy suckers around the base of its trunk.
4. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Where to find: An ancient tree steeped in mythology and folklore, hawthorn is most commonly found growing in hedgerows, woodland and scrub.
How to identify:
Hawthorn is identified by its dense, thorny foliage, and if left to fully mature can grow to a height of 15m.
Look out for: Shiny lobed leaves, and five petalled, sweet smelling flowers that are similar to cherry blossoms. It is characterised in the winter by its deep red fruits, known as haws.
5. Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Where to find: Used regularly for coppicing, hazel can be found in a range of habitats, including woodlands, gardens and grasslands.
How to identify:
A small shrubby tree, with a small, grey-brown bark, and can reach up to 12m when left to grow.
Look out for: Leaves are oval, toothed, and have soft hairs on their underside. It is familiar for its long yellow catkins that appear in Spring, and crop of hazelnuts in the winter.
6. Common Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
Where to find: Common Alder enjoys moist ground and so can be found along riversides, fens and wet woodlands, providing shelter to fish.
How to identify:
Alder is a deciduous tree that grows to 25m. It is broadly conical in shape, and the bark is dark and fissured.
Look out for: Small cone like fruits and young catkins that harden when pollinated. It can also be recognised by its purple buds and purple twigs with orange markings in winter.
7. Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Where to find: A favourite in Christmas decorations, holly is widespread and found commonly in woodland, scrub and hedgerows.
How to identify:
The dense, evergreen tree has a smooth bark and dark brown stems. It can grow up to 15m in height.
Look out for: Holly can be easily identified by its dark, evergreen, shiny leaves that have prickles on the edges, as well as its bright red berries.
8. White Willow (Salix alba)
Where to find: The weeping, romantic willow can be spotted growing in wet ground, for example along riverbanks and around lakes.
How to identify:
White willow is a large, fast growing tree growing up to 25m, with an irregular, leaning crown.
Look out for: Willow is distinguished from other trees by its slender, flexible twigs that drape into the water. White willow appears more silvery than other willows due to its pale, oval leaves, that carry silky, white hairs on the underside. In early Spring look out for its long yellow catkins.
9. Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
Where to find: A pioneer species, silver birch is a popular garden tree, and thrives in moorlands, heathland and dry and sandy soils.
How to identify:
Can be easily recognised by its silvery, paper bark. It has drooping branches and can reach 30m in height.
Look out for: Its triangular-shaped leaves that grow from hairless leaf stalks. In Spring flowers appear as yellow-brown catkins that hang in groups, once pollinated female catkins thicken and darken to a crimson colour.
10. Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Where to find: Historically known for its magical properties, Elder appears in hedges, scrub, woodland, waste and cultivated ground.
How to identify:
Elder can be identified by its short greyish-brown trunk, that develops deep creases as it ages. The tree can grow to around 15m.
Look out for: Elder has compound leaves, each leaf divided into five to seven leaflets. In summer Elder is recognised by its creamy, sweet, smelling white flowers that hang in sprays, and later in autumn develop into deep, purple berries.
Recommended reading and guides:
Collins Tree Guide: The Most Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Europe
Through beautiful full-page illustration accompanied by key information about each creature, books are designed to encourage young children’s interest in the outside world and the wildlife around them.
Trees: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Structure
A dendrochronological delight, the beautifully written and illustrated Tree Story reveals the utterly fascinating world of tree-ring research and how it matters to archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history.
Winter Trees: A Photographic Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs
Hosted by the Freshwater Biological Association, the Riverfly Partnership represents a network of organisations whose aims are to protect the water quality of our rivers, further the understanding of riverfly populations and actively conserve riverfly habitats. This is achieved via a range of ongoing projects which utilise citizen scientists to monitor invertebrates, water chemistry, physical habitat, pollution and hydromorphological functioning in order to gain a picture of overall river health.
Ben Fitch is the national project manager for the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative, one of the projects run by the Riverfly Partnership. This week we chatted to him about the Partnership and their projects, the importance of riverflies and how Covid-19 has affected his working life over the recent months.
If one were to canvas general public opinion about flies, many people would likely think of those which they consider to be pests, such as house flies, mosquitos, greenfly, blackfly and horseflies. How would you explain to a non-specialist how important riverflies are and why we should care about them?
First of all, I would say that all insects are essential to life on this planet, with species fulfilling important roles within ecosystems – even those ‘pesky’ flies as some may see them.
Next, I would highlight the fact that freshwater is a precious natural resource upon which all life on Earth depends. Humans are certainly no exception to that rule, but it is because of us that freshwater is under considerable and continuous threat.
I would go on to explain that riverflies contain three groups of insects, namely mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. More than 280 species of riverflies have been recorded in the UK, most of which spend the greater part of their life beneath the surface of still or running freshwater as larvae, before emerging from the water as winged adults. Riverflies should be present in running and still freshwater bodies across the UK throughout the year, they are at the heart of freshwater ecosystems and are a vital link in the aquatic food chain as a food source for fish and birds.
Importantly, riverflies are sensitive to changes in water quality, for example chemical or organic pollution, which makes them excellent indicators of the health of a freshwater body (they are often referred to as the canaries of our rivers). Thus, by monitoring them regularly, it is possible to identify and manage pollution issues, deter would-be polluters, and protect our freshwater ecosystems.
Does Britain have any endemic or particularly rare riverflies?
There are eight rare and threatened riverfly species that have been designated as conservation priorities by the UK Government. The eight species, listed as follows, are categorised as being of Principal Importance:
Northern February red (Brachyptera putata): a stonefly that occurs only in Britain. It is found mainly in Scottish upland streams.
Rare medium stonefly (Isogenus nubecula): only known to occur in the Welsh River Dee and may now be extinct.
Scarce grey flag (Hydropsyche bulgaromanorum): a large caddisfly only known from stony areas on the River Arun in Sussex.
Scarce brown sedge (Ironoquia dubia): a caddisfly only known from three southern English sites. There are no recent records for this species.
Small grey sedge (Glossosoma intermedium) a caddisfly that has been found in only four Lake District streams. There are no recent records for this species.
Window-winged sedge (Hagenella clathrata) an orange mottled caddisfly that lives in pools on bogs and heathland at about ten sites in the UK.
Southern iron blue (Baetis niger): a widespread mayfly species whose abundance appears to have declined in some areas by as much as 80% in recent decades.
Yellow mayfly (Potamanthus luteus): an attractive, bright yellow mayfly that is found mainly on the River Wye in the Welsh borders.
[I would like to give great thanks to Craig Macadam, Conservation Director at Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, for permitting me to use information from the Buglife website in parts of this interview, particularly above. To find out more about why bugs are essential to our planet and all life on it, visit: https://www.buglife.org.uk].
The Riverfly Partnership coordinates a number of projects looking at lots of different measurements of river health. These include surveying invertebrates, physical habitat, hydromorphological features and pollution events. What happens to the data that is collected in these projects? Who uses it and what for?
Firstly, I should clarify that the Riverfly Partnership (RP) is hosted by the Freshwater Biological Association and is a network of more than 100 partner organisations representing anglers, conservationists, entomologists, scientists, water course managers, and relevant authorities. RP carries out work according to its core aims: to protect the water quality of our rivers, to further the understanding of riverfly populations, and to conserve riverfly habitats.
As your question states, RP is involved in a number of citizen science freshwater monitoring initiatives. Here is a summary of those initiatives along with how data is collected, stored, and used in each case:
Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI)
The Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) is a project that enables trained volunteers, such as anglers and conservationists, to protect river water quality by regularly monitoring eight pollution sensitive aquatic invertebrate groups. Data is recorded in the field before being uploaded to the national online ARMI database (once checked and verified, ARMI data is available under the terms of the Open Government Licence). ARMI complements the work carried out by statutory agency staff across the UK, such as the Environment Agency in England, primarily by reporting pollution incidents to and sharing ARMI data with those agencies directly.
Urban Riverfly includes an additional six aquatic invertebrate groups to the eight used in the original ARMI scheme and can be used across a number of different river systems, but especially modified rivers and those influenced by conurbations. Urban Riverfly data is recorded in the field by trained citizen scientists, hosted locally through Riverfly Hubs, and used by Catchment Partnerships to inform catchment management and direct conservation action.
Extended Riverfly uses 33 invertebrate groups, including the eight ARMI groups, to provide a more nuanced picture of river water quality according to different stressors. Extended Riverfly data is collected, stored, and used similarly to that of Urban Riverfly.
Hosted by the Earthwatch Institute, Freshwater Watch is a global initiative for monitoring water quality and water chemistry. Data is recorded in the field and submitted online by trained citizen scientists, after which experts provide analysis and feedback to monitors and present evidence to decision- and policy-makers worldwide.
The Modular River Survey, or MoRPh, enables citizen scientists and professionals to be trained to assess and record physical habitat and hydromorphological functioning in their local rivers and streams. Data is hosted online by Cartographer and is used by Catchment Partnerships to inform catchment management and direct conservation action.
The Outfall Safari is a citizen science method devised to systematically survey outfalls in urban rivers in order to identify pollution and notify the relevant authorities (sharing data accordingly). It was created by the Citizen Crane project team in partnership with staff from Thames Water and the Environment Agency, and is regarded by the Environment Agency as best practice.
SmartRivers, hosted by Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC), takes citizen science invertebrate monitoring to the highest resolution. Species data are recorded in the field then stored in S&TC’s database. S&TC staff process SmartRivers data through their unique calculator and provide data analysis that identifies specific water quality stressors in the river and pinpoints where they are occurring. S&TC use SmartRivers data to provide evidence that can help prevent pollution occurring in the first place. This evidence can also inform how to concentrate management efforts locally to achieve the best environmental outcomes.
Like many people across the UK, you have been furloughed as a result of the global Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic since March 2020, so are not legally permitted to work. As such, we are grateful to you for agreeing to do this interview in a voluntary capacity. Can you describe your role within the Riverfly Partnership and what a typical work day looks like for you?
My working role for the Riverfly Partnership is as the national project manager of the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI). The Riverfly Partnership receives funding support for the role from the Environment Agency (rod licence revenue and the Water Environment Improvement Fund). I have also been a committed and active ARMI volunteer monitor since 2009.
At the moment, I would not describe my days as ‘typical’ for the reasons outlined in your question. I have not been able to work since late March, neither has it been possible to carry out ARMI sampling for the larger part of the same period. I am grateful, however, for the excellent ongoing support provided by the Freshwater Biological Association and I hope to be able to return to work in the near future, as soon as government advice permits and once it is deemed safe for me to do so. In the meantime, I have greatly enjoyed spending more time with my family which has largely centred around home educating our two children whilst my wife, as a key worker, has continued to work throughout.
A typical day prior to the current situation was always incredibly busy! My key responsibilities revolve around supporting and expand the ARMI network, including communications, publications, presentations, training delivery, tutor support, tutor/training workshop observations and QA, tutor development, database and website management, and much, much more. I wouldn’t feel right at this point if I didn’t thank every single ARMI volunteer, participant, partner, and supporter for their incredible commitment towards protecting our rivers. I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues Alex Domenge, Steve Brooks, Bill Brierley, Roger Handford, Lesley Hadwin, Kirsty Hadwin, Paul Knight, Nick Measham, Tom Miles, along with every RP Board member, every Extended / Urban Riverfly Working Group member, and every contact at the Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales, and Northern Ireland Environment Agency. As you can see the work that I am involved in has partnership at its core.
If people want to get involved with riverfly monitoring (or any of your citizen science projects) how would you suggest they get started? Do they need prior knowledge/experience of freshwater sampling or species ID?
Volunteering, as a river monitor or riverfly recorder, is not only an excellent way to protect the health of your local river, but also to contribute towards direct conservation action, local communities, scientific data and evidence, and sustainability.
New volunteers are always welcome and no prior knowledge or experience is necessary.
Individuals interested in becoming a volunteer Riverfly monitor should register their interest with their local Riverfly hub coordinator. To find out who that is please use the contact us page on the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org
Individuals interested in becoming a riverfly recorder should visit the Riverfly Recording Schemes (RRS) page of the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org/Recording_Schemes where details about the schemes and RRS coordinator contact information can be found.
Organisations interested in joining the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) must have a member who is prepared to act as a local coordinator (to serve as a contact point between the EA / SEPA / NRW / NIEA and the monitoring group) and have members attend an official ARMI workshop. The workshop includes presentations, practical demonstrations and active participation. For more information please contact us via the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org
For information about freshwater invertebrate and freshwater ecology training courses, I can highly recommend the Freshwater Biological Association: https://www.fba.org.uk
What conservation actions or changes would you like to see happen in your lifetime that would have a significant (and positive) impact on river health and biodiversity?
I could list many here but I am going to go with two, off the bat:
Serious, long term political commitment to the natural world and conservation thereof
If you had to tell people to google a photo of one species of riverfly which would you choose? (perhaps because it is ecologically important or just because it looks interesting!)
If I had to choose one, it would be of a flat-bodied mayfly larva (species Ecdyonurus dispar – Autumn Dun) because new volunteers often remark that it looks like an alien! If that stirs your curiosity, type ‘Ecdyonurus dispar’ in to your internet search engine of choice. If you can find an image of the white spot variant that is particularly striking.
I would also like to share this beautiful image, simply named ‘Mayfly’, photographed by Jon Hawkins. This was the winning entry to the most recent RP Photography Competition and I think it deserves to be seen! (Reproduced with kind permission of the Riverfly Partnership, copyright Jon Hawkins.)
(a) Mayfly by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
(b) Caddisfly by Magnus Hagdorn via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
(c) River Exe by Adrian Scottow via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Conservationists successfully track red pandas in the mountains of Nepal by satellite. The mammals are endangered, with numbers down to a few thousand in the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China, find out more here about the factors driving them towards extinction.
The BAR-LT is a bioacoustic recorder manufactured by Frontier Labs. The recorder is designed to be deployed in the field over extended periods and can be programmed to record for set times. This type of acoustic recorder is ideal for monitoring bird song, frog calls, or even wolves. This kind of monitoring is often referred to as passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) and is becoming increasingly popular in biodiversity studies across the globe. Not only are these growing libraries of soundscapes important for current research and survey, but they also provide invaluable references for future research into both global and local scale biodiversity change.
The BAR-LT is a professional two-channel audio recorder designed specifically for long-term autonomous field deployments. It comes in a waterproof, lockable enclosure made from tough UV resistant plastic. It has space for four SD cards, each with up to 512GB storage capacity, meaning vast amounts of data can be recorded over one deployment. It is powered by 1-6 rechargeable 18650 batteries, providing 100-600 hours of recording time, and can also be powered using an external 6V or 12V power input. There are two microphone configuration options available: Standard (two-channels; one mic pointing left, one pointing downwards) and Left/Right. The omnidirectional microphones are highly sensitive and ultra-low noise, producing clear, crisp recordings.
We took the standard BAR-LT out to the field to record the dawn chorus.
How We Tested
We loaded the BAR-LT with a single memory card and four rechargeable 18650 batteries. We set a simple sunrise-based schedule, asking the recorder to record from an hour before sunrise to an hour after. The recorder then did the rest, using its in-built GPS to determine where in the world we were and therefore what time the sunrise was, basing start and stop times on this. We took the recorder to a nearby spot of woodland and fixed it to a tree using the included strap and a python cable lock (available separately) looped through the metal mounting plate at the back of the recorder.
What We Found
Although we could have left the BAR-LT out for an extended period of time, we only left it out for a single night on this occasion. When we collected it, the two-hour recording had successfully been completed, with minimal battery or memory drain. Upon listening to the dawn chorus, the audio was wonderfully clear, and the microphones were very sensitive. Some examples of audio and sonograms are below.
The BAR-LT was very simple to set up and, although the scheduling capabilities are powerful, the settings are logical and easy to navigate. The battery life and memory capacity were outstanding, making the unit a really great piece of kit for any long-term deployments or for use in very remote locations where access is infrequent. We were also particularly impressed with the handy battery removal tool that came with the kit – it saved a lot of time fiddling with the batteries and also demonstrated how well-thought-out the kit is. The only part of the design that we weren’t so keen on was the metal backplate for mounting the unit, which is slightly larger than the unit itself and doesn’t have any grip teeth like most trail cameras do. The tree we were mounting the unit to was relatively small, meaning the backplate got in the way a bit, and only just fit a python padlock after a bit of a squeeze.
The recordings that the BAR-LT produced provided a wonderful soundscape and we were impressed with the quality of the recordings. There was very little ‘noise’ and the clarity of the recordings was evident, both when listening to the audio and when viewing the sonogram. The microphones picked up the sounds of the road surprisingly well, even though we thought we were far enough away to exclude them, demonstrating their impressive sensitivity.
We feel that the BAR-LT would be a great detector for conservationists and researchers who are looking to capture soundscapes for both current and future research. It performed well for bird song, but we think it would be equally as valuable to those wishing to record any terrestrial call. If you are interested in recording aquatic or low-frequency calls with the BAR-LT, please get in touch with us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view our full range of sound recorders and microphones, visit www.nhbs.com. If you have any questions on wildlife recording or would like some advice on the microphone for you then please contact us via email at email@example.com or phone on 01803 865913
Amid the enduring difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been heartening to see the resourcefulness, resilience and imagination shown by the naturalist community. To give a taste of this, we asked our British Wildlife contributors how they had spent their time through late March and April, when restrictions were at their tightest. Here we give you the delightfully varied responses that came back. I hope that readers enjoy this snapshot of life in lockdown for the naturalist.
A spectacular spring
The start of lockdown coincided with a most exceptional run of fine spring weather (April was duly confirmed by the Met Office as the sunniest since 1921). While it was somewhat torturous to watch this unfold from the confines of our homes, time outdoors was all the more invigorating for it and the usual spring arrivals and emergences were met with even greater joy than normal.
A number of our regulars have tracked the changes as spring progressed, and Simon Leach has been encouraging local recorders to do the same: ‘I’ve been recording first flowerings since 2008 in the Taunton area, replicating (sort of) a similar exercise undertaken by Walter Watson in the first half of the twentieth century. And this year, constrained by “lockdown”, it seemed like a good idea to “widen the net” to get others in Somerset recording first flowering dates as well.’ By late May more than 35 participants had been drawn to the cause, and their recording from the height of lockdown through to the time of writing, in late May, has highlighted an extraordinarily early spring: Common Dog-violet Viola riviniana, Greater Butterfly-orchid Platanthera chlorantha and Biting Stonecrop Sedum acre, for example, have all had their earliest first flowering dates since Simon started the initiative.
Spring seemed to arrive early farther north, too, as Michael Scott notes: ‘Lockdown in the northwest Highlands is not too different from normal life here, but with few tourists and without the incessant afternoon hum from the rush hours of transatlantic jets. April 17th was a red-letter day. As I ate breakfast, I spotted the first Swallow of the year. Going outside, I heard the first Cuckoo from the adjacent hill. Later, a distinctive off-key scolding from the coastal bay below the house told us that the Common Sandpipers were back, too. They were respectively one, four and two days earlier than we recorded last year, but I suspect that may just reflect more observer effort!’
And it was not just summer migrants and wildflowers that were making early appearances, but also spring invertebrates. David Christie, copy checker for BW, noted the following from his home in Southampton: ‘Among the highlights were the garden’s earliest ever Dark-edged Bee-fly, on 16th March, a pleasant sunny day which also produced a Comma, a Small Tortoiseshell and two Brimstones. On 26th, an astonishing addition was a single male Wood White, unsurprisingly the first ever for the garden — but some 6 weeks too early! I imagine that this, the daintiest of the whites, was bred and released by somebody nearby (several people have released butterflies in the area in previous years). In April Orange-tips became the commonest butterfly, and on 16th of that month a Red-tailed Bumblebee, supposedly a common species but a garden first, turned up; it stayed for several days but had apparently disappeared by the middle of the following week.’
Peter Marren has enjoyed tracking changes on his local patch in Ramsbury, Wiltshire: ‘The sunniest side of this enforced lockdown is that I have come to appreciate home turf as never before. It helps that this has been the brightest, if not the warmest, April for some time, but this year the beauty of the meadows, woods and downs around Ramsbury has made me gasp, as if seeing it for the first time. I watched while a late spring turned into an early one. Frog spawn, flocculent and chilly, appeared in the ditch outside during the first week in March, and by the second week in April the tadpoles were already well grown. I heard the first Chiffchaff, much later than usual, on March 18th. It was joined in song by a Blackcap by March 25th. I heard the first Willow Warbler on April 5th (they are still doing well here, and have spread from the valley scrub into a belt of trees below the down, planted 15 years ago). The first Orange-tip fluttered into my garden on 9th April. The first singing Reed Warbler began –like a cold engine warming up – on the 10th, I spotted the first Swallow on the 13th and heard a solitary Cuckoo calling from the reedbed on Easter Sunday, 12th April. There was a close tie-in this year with the opening of our two cuckoo flowers, Lady’s Smock Cardamine pratensis and Lords-and-Ladies Arum maculatum. I should perhaps mention that spring usually comes late to Ramsbury. We are in a narrow east-west valley where a cold westerly blows from the Marlborough Downs and puts everything back by about a week.
‘Apart from the perennially exciting arrival of our summer visitors, I find I am looking at the small, easily overlooked things in life. This year I watched the leaves unfurl. Ash has, for once, tied with oak (so perhaps we are in for neither a splash nor a soak). Its feathery leaves push upwards in a shuttlecock from a bush of spent flowers, then angle out stiffly on their long petioles. By contrast, the leaves of oak curl softly from their buds, masked by a screen of yellow-green catkins. For a day or two, the hedgerow oaks take on an almost autumnal hue before they turn spring-green, that delicate, tender green that lifts the heart and makes you feel young again (anyone know any good oak songs?). Baby oak leaves lack the bitter tannins that build up later on. I nibble some straight from the branch – green chewing gum. Isolation makes you do strange things.
‘I’m also looking at bees. The only way I can get close to a bee is with close-up binoculars. Where banks face the sun, and especially when they are sheltered by a hedge, the mining bees are busy, locating their little, barely visible excavations, and vanishing into them bearing heavy loads of bright yellow pollen. Much of it, I note, is taken from Leylandii cones (so let’s hear it for once for that much-maligned conifer). Watching the bees at work are a whole host of parasites. On 31st March there was a brief flurry of oil beetles. Later on, nomad bees and blood bees were swarming about, each intent on laying a single egg inside the mining bee’s chamber. Patrolling bee-flies will do the same. The proper bees do not seem to notice that they are surrounded by malevolent cuckoos. Imagine a troop of hostile visitors raiding your cupboards and your fridge, sleeping in your bed, chasing away the kids. And that’s before the insecticides get you. I am glad I am not a bee. I am glad I live in Ramsbury. The swamp may be muddy yet – for the valley has taken a long time to recover from February’s floods – but it is full of life. Nature is the perfect antidote to despair in this surreal, locked-down spring.’
A number of correspondents noted what an excellent spring it has been for invertebrates, and bees in particular seem to have been popular with those wishing to use their time in lockdown to get to grips with a new group. From Anglesey, James Robertson writes: ‘I sit on a low wall, dangling my legs. After a while a queen Garden Bumblebee heads into a gap at the base of the wall by my feet. I am learning the skill my ornithologist brother tried to teach me many years ago. Then I was having none of it. Plants sat around on their bottoms, I had to search them out, keep on the move. But this year everything is different. Be still and the insects come to you. As so often, the constraints we are under force us to be creative, to learn new tricks and look at the world afresh.
‘As the dominant hominid falls silent, nature booms and buzzes. The exceptional weather puts on a display of insect variety. Wasp Beetles bounce around my garden, flicking their antennae and not looking quite right for the wasps they pretend to be. Red Mason Bees investigate holes in concrete posts and Joanna’s Bee Hotel, a future bee smorgasbord for hungry Blue Tits. She has quickly mastered the identification of Early, Garden, Red-tailed and Buff-tailed Bumblebees.
‘My car windscreen is splattered with insect bodies. This is supposed to be a memory, how it was when we were children. Is this explosion of life a sign of what would happen if we stilled the great machine of our industrious world?’
It was not the abundance of bees but a single unexpected one that provided a highlight for our copy editor, David Hawkins: ‘I was delighted when a rather smart solitary bee appeared in my flat in Bristol, having blundered in through the window. I consulted Falk & Lewington at length, but was perplexed – trying my damnedest to make it an Andrena of some sort, although none of the candidates looked quite right. Plus it had very beautiful mottled dark blue-grey eyes. Then, using a hand lens, I caught sight of a small spike on the underside of the first sternite – this, apparently, is diagnostic of a male Spined Mason Bee Osmia spinulosa. It seemed very curious to encounter it in the middle of the city, but we live near a railway line and some allotments so there may well be suitable habitats there. Most interestingly, as with some other Osmia spp., it nests inside vacant snail shells.’
While lockdown may have produced a new generation of bee enthusiasts, it was perhaps not such a good time to pick up an interest in flies. Alan Stubbs reports that his garden ‘is almost bereft of hoverflies; yesterday I achieved the fourth species for the March–April period and I have never seen more than two of any on a lap of the garden. Flies as a whole are very sparse even now (23rd April), a shame in the lockdown. The current drought does not help, but there is a legacy effect from low populations and drought last year. The excessive winter rains have not been of benefit (and have possibly been a negative factor). Currently it is difficult to know how widespread the doldrums extend, but I suspect areas that have had more rain over the last four to six weeks will have fared a bit better. Reports from London and Warwickshire suggest I am not alone.’
Bringing wildlife to you
While opportunities to go out into the wider countryside were limited, many found ways to bring wildlife to their doorsteps instead. Moth-trapping has seen a surge in popularity, as Paul Waring explains: ‘Moth-trap operators are better placed than many wildlife enthusiasts to cope with lockdown arrangements. Most of us routinely operate a light-trap in our gardens, and some do so on verandas and roof-tops if they have no garden. With a light-trap the moths come to us, from the garden itself, and from beyond it, so we do not need to leave our home to record what is about. The numbers and variety of moths in the catch and the seasonal patterns of occurrence always hold some interest, even in inner city locations. One is sometimes amazed at what turns up. Facebook has been full of people reporting their garden catches, often including photos of the moths, sometimes with lively discussion, throughout the lockdown period.’
The staff at Butterfly Conservation, unable to get out into the field, have also focused on moths in their gardens. Mark Parsons tells of some early highlights: ‘During lockdown the conservation staff at Butterfly Conservation were encouraged to run a moth trap at their homes. At least 28 staff participated, with traps being run from Devon to Cambridgeshire and north to Deeside, as well as in Northern Ireland. Although there were a few cool evenings in the first three weeks, generally conditions were relatively mild and very suitable, and as a result there were a lot of interesting observations. Of the scarcer species there were records of Silver Cloud Egira conspicillaris (Worcestershire), Small Eggar Eriogaster lanestris (Dorset), Marbled Pug Eupithecia irriguata (Devon) and the micro-moth Mompha divisella (Dorset and Glamorgan), with a Light Orange Underwing Boudinotiana notha (Surrey) being seen by day. Other interesting records included high counts of Lunar Marbled Brown Drymonia ruficornis (56) and Frosted Green Polyploca ridens (31), both on 11th April in Surrey. It really is amazing what can be found in gardens!’
BW’s Founding Editor, Andrew Branson, has been making good use of other technologies to monitor goings-on in his garden: ‘So often when we are observing the natural world we are looking at it from a very narrow perspective both in time and in space. We return to our favourite haunts looking for confirmation of the same species – the anxious scanning for returning migrants is a classic expression of this. I am always struck by the way we have a mental search pattern that reinforces what we expect to see. A classic is the way botanists with their stooping gaze on the ground will often fail to record unusual tree species right above them. In lockdown I have been trying to extend my appreciation of garden species by using a webcam to record nocturnal life. I’m lucky enough to have a garden that reaches down to a river, and have been discovering that not only do we have the expected Brown Rats, Mallards and Moorhens making regular nightly visits, but our garden also seems to be on the rounds of an Otter, an American Mink (not so welcome), Hedgehogs (first I’ve seen in the garden for years), Roe Deer, Foxes and Rabbits. Recently, the webcam captured a furtive pair of Tawny Owls having a midnight bath in the river!’
Dave Wilkinson has spent time studying some of the more obscure lifeforms in his pond: ‘Lockdown natural history: in the imagination it is snow leopards and camels as I read George Schaller’s new book Into wild Mongolia, while in reality it’s restricted to the garden and occasional short walks. In February we had a new garden pond dug, with the first water plants going in just before lockdown. With few ponds nearby it quickly attracted birds, hedgehogs and wasps; to drink, wash, or forage along the edge. Water beetles, pond skaters and water boatmen quickly followed. New ponds tend to be prone to algal blooms and ours is no exception. The torrential rains of February washed surrounding soil into the newly dug pond, adding nutrients, then the warm sunny weather of April powered algal photosynthesis – the pond first scummed with ‘blanket weed’, then turned bright green with cyanobacteria and other algae. Without lab access (no plankton net or centrifuge) some ingenuity allowed me to concentrate some plankton to view with a rather basic 50-year-old microscope. With such equipment colonial cyanobacteria – such as Aphanocaspa – were easier to isolate than smaller cells. The floating ‘blanket weed’ quickly vanished, but small patches of filamentous algae are in the shallows, including the green alga Stigeoclanium. Under the microscope these threads have the look of cells-within-cells, with small round green structures within the longer tubular cells. These structures are chloroplasts, the site of photosynthesis with the product stored as starch, staining dark when I added iodine. Back in the depths of geological time these chloroplasts evolved from free-living cyanobacteria; down my microscope I am seeing the history of our emerald planet encapsulated in the green scum of a garden pond.’
And in the terrestrial realm, Roy Watling has also been looking at some smaller organisms in his garden in Edinburgh: ‘Some years previously, when I was recovering from a medical procedure, I had to make time for exercise. I walked around the streets close to my house, gradually increasing the distance each day; I could not resist the temptation to “mycologise” though and began to list all the micro-fungi found on the vascular plant cultivars I saw in each garden. Now I am confined to my own garden because of lockdown I decided to conduct a similar survey, with surprising (to me at least) results. Thus, the tips of shoots of Irish Tutsan Hypericum pseudohenryi hosted the mildew Erysiphe hyperici, which is not uncommon on our native plants, while hidden among the erect branches of the snowberry Symphoriocarps x doorenbosii was another mildew, E. symphoricarpi. These two species are not rare but are poorly recorded in Scotland, and certainly neither has previously been recorded here on these hosts. The true mould Ampelomyces quisqualis, a parasite of a range of mildews, is equally under-recorded, although can be obvious to the keen observer. Also evident in my border was blotching on the shrub Hebe x francisciana: a rather distressing sight caused by the fungus Septoria exotica. On the north facing side of the house where it is moist and shaded, Chaetothyrium babingtonii grows prolifically in a mixed planting of various Rhododendron cultivars and hybrids. This fungus is common and widespread under the right conditions, and although it does not appear to harm the plants it looks very unsightly – thank heavens it only occurs on Rhododendron!’
Frances Dipper has been observing the interactions between some more familiar species: ‘The human brain is much better than a computer algorithm at picking out patterns (hence ‘Galaxy Zoo’ – the web-based project that uses citizen scientists to classify distant galaxies based on their shape) so changing from recording fish (and other marine life) to birds and garden wildlife is proving to be a fascinating experience during lockdown. Seashore recording and diving are time-limited, but looking out at a habitat resource (i.e. the bird feeders in my large, wildlife-friendly garden) is not. As a marine biologist learning to be an ornithologist, here are some recent observations. Some Greenfinch Carduelis chloris prefer to spray out sunflower hearts from the feeder and then eat at their leisure on the ground below – memories of rich arable field pickings? Much smaller Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis will hold their ground (perch) on the feeder in the face of Greenfinch bully tactics. Starling Sturnus vulgaris are now adept at clinging on to feeders – perhaps our Cambridge ones are fast learners. Great Tit Parus major will nest in vertical holes, in this case a hollow brick column. There is also a Magpie Pica pica nest in our oak tree. A faithful Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata pair used to nest every year in the same vine until a Magpie raided its nest a few years ago. The best sighting to date? Not a bird but a Grass Snake Natrix natrix swimming across the pond and obviously unaware that Great Crested Newt Triturus cristatus is a protected species! Now how did one of the latter get into my downstairs shower room?’
And the extra time at home allowed Michael Scott the chance to notice garden visitors who might have gone undetected in a normal year: ‘Freedom from urgent deadlines has meant more time to observe how regularly a pair of Yellowhammers come to join the Dunnocks and an occasional fat Bank Vole feeding on the grain that ungrateful Chaffinches and House Sparrows regularly scatter onto the ground from our bird feeders. A small group of Long-tailed Tits in early April was a first for the garden. One was collecting the frayed ends of some garden string, presumably for a nest somewhere in the area.’
David Christie noted some apparent effects of the lockdown itself on the birds in his garden: ‘Perhaps the most notable feature of April–May was that many birds were becoming unusually tame. When I was “tidying” a corner of the garden, an adult female Blackbird walked around my feet, picking up odd items of food; feeding within a few centimetres of my feet, she occasionally looked up at me to check what I was doing! The visiting Stock Doves, too, were tamer than usual. On 24th April, a pair of Blackcaps had begun nest-building just a metre from our back window; although several Blackcaps regularly spend January–April in the area, they have never before nested here (sadly, the pair deserted at the laying stage). By the end of the month, a Blackbird pair with three fledglings showed no fear of humans, nor did a fully independent young Robin.’
And Hugh Raven similarly has been musing on the possible effects of lockdown on the wildlife of his local loch and beyond: ‘Float over the deep belly of our local sealoch and look north, and you spy two rivers as they reach the sea – in plan like the outstretched arms of a mermaid’s purse. Embraced by these limbs is a verdant turf of saltmarsh fringed by a pancake of sandy mud, twice daily exposed when the tide recedes. At this time of year, it’s the haunt of sawbills. Goosanders and mergansers are by nature shy and flighty, but this year they are abundant. With human traffic around the loch and up these rivers – never heavy – a fraction of the norm, having eaten their fill they laze about on foreshore and saltmarsh preening in the spring sunshine. I counted 18 one day in late April. Sawbills are good at fishing. Research from Norway reports “adult goosander on average eat from 310 to 500g fish a day”. At this time of year they’re enjoying the feeding opportunities presented by the smolt run – that evolutionary miracle that sees juvenile salmon pour downstream as maturity, light and temperature tell them to reset their osmotic meter, leave fresh water and start to fatten up in their marine phase.
‘Salmon smolts weigh some 20g, so if they are the main source of food, each duck may eat twenty or more a day. Thousands will disappear down their gullets. The local river is noted for the freshwater pearl mussel – which depends on migratory salmonids to survive. You can get a licence to shoot sawbills, but there’s no appetite for that here. Salmon and pearl mussels, or these beautiful sleek and shiny ducks? Such are the dilemmas of conservation.’
Natural history online
The lockdown experience would surely have been very different had it happened in the not-so-distant past. Social media, and the online world in general, has changed our hobby and helped naturalists to stay connected throughout this period (see Brett Westwood’s column in this issue for more on this topic). Members of the birding community, for example, have been enjoying the rapid sharing of news, and a healthy element of competition, while working on their ‘lockdown lists’.
Dawn Balmer reports: ‘The movements of the released White-tailed Eagles from the Isle of Wight have been well tracked by the birdwatchers fortunate enough to spot them flying over their gardens (see https://bit.ly/2X5YXlK). I’ve also been amazed how many people have recorded Osprey over their garden, too! Both species seemed to have avoided airspace over our garden, though we were lucky enough to see two Cranes circling overhead on 20th May.
‘The first few nights of April saw a large passage of Common Scoters overland. While not a new phenomenon, it has never been documented so well. Birders stood in gardens and listened in the dark, others set recorders to record overnight – see https://bit.ly/3e5ejhj for a summary. Personally, we sat outside in our garden in Thetford (Norfolk) on the nights of 1st and 2nd April and heard Teal and Wigeon on the 1st, and Wigeon again on the 2nd. We’ve since added Moorhen to our house list – heard one fly over calling at 3.45am, and Dunlin, which flew over calling at 10.30pm one evening! With a bit more time on people’s hands, more have taken up “nocturnal migration” recording.’
Adrian Knowleshas been monitoring the Facebook pages of the Essex Field Club, which has produced some notable records through lockdown: ‘Rob Smith posted a picture of the fly Bibio venosus from his daily walk patch, Headley Common in south Essex. Apparently there are only two other records in Essex, both in the north of the county. He has also recorded the mining bee Andrena cineraria from the same site – this species remains a scarce in Essex. There were two records of the ladybird Rhyzobius forestieri, a recent colonist of the UK, including one in someone’s garden. Then, on 10th April, Ed Hardy grabbed a load of wood chip during his morning walk with a view to identifying contents during his lockdown time. His finds included the beetle Rugilus angustatus, which is rare in the county, with a lack of recent records.’
Martin Harvey, David Roy and Helen Roy offer some insight into the effect of lockdown on submissions to iRecord, the online biological recording system maintained by the Biological Records Centre (part of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology): ‘April 2020 proved to be a busy month with over 100,000 records added, up from about 75,000 in April 2019. It’s hard to know how much of this increase is the result of people taking up wildlife recording as an activity while locked down close to home, and how much is due to the combination of overall growth in records arriving at iRecord and the sunny weather that many experienced during April. But there do seem to be some changes in the patterns within these records. Not all biological records state the habitat that they were recorded in, but for those that do there has been a clear shift, with the proportion of records assigned to gardens more or less doubling, and a big fall in the number of records assigned to “wilder” habitats such as woodlands and grasslands. The most frequently recorded species during the month have been typical garden visitors, including butterflies such as Orange-tip and Peacock, the Dark-edged Bee-fly, Hebrew Character moth and Buff-tailed Bumblebee.’
‘Records arriving in iRecord are checked and verified by expert naturalists on behalf of the national recording schemes. An impressive three-fold increase in verification during April 2020 compared to the previous year is testament to the dedication of these people, and no doubt also demonstrates they have been making good use of the time that might have been spent in the field during a different year.
‘What effect these changes will have on the total pool of records available for 2020 remains to be seen, but it will be exciting to consider the ways in which these records can contribute to the long-term analyses that BRC and the recording schemes collaborate on. In the meantime, we hope that as many people as possible have been able to find ways of connecting with nature during these unprecedented circumstances.’
The lockdown has provided an excellent opportunity to fill in gaps in distribution maps and monitor species on the move by encouraging the submission of records. Butterfly Conservation, for example, is asking the public to report on butterflies seen in their gardens, as Caroline Bulman explains: ‘Understanding the changes in patterns of emergence and distribution across the UK is vital to improving our understanding of the impacts of climate change on butterflies and other native wildlife. Wherever you live your observations are even more vital this year and particularly those in northern England and in Scotland, where you can record novel information of species which are spreading northwards, in response to a changing climate. For example, in mid-April we had a report of the most northerly Comma ever recorded in Britain, found in Caithness on the north coast of Scotland! If you’d like to get involved go to https://bit.ly/3bM1gQk to register and download a free smartphone app, or sign up to record butterflies in your garden, on your PC or laptop at https://bit.ly/2WOQ40M where you can also read the results from 2019.’
Paul Waring used the daily exercise walks to further the understanding of moth populations in his local area: ‘During lockdown we have taken the opportunity of beating for caterpillars to start recording the colonisation by moths of a hedgerow of various native broadleaf trees newly planted to screen from view a field of solar panels. We have also carried our pheromone lure for Emperor moths Saturnia pavonia with us every day to see if the large “white hole” for this species shown just south of The Wash in the newly published Atlas of Britain and Ireland’s Larger Moths reflects lack of recording or a genuine absence. Thus far it appears the Emperor really is absent, although this is certainly not the case for many other moth species for which there is a similar white hole.’
For some groups, recording need not be limited to our time outside the house either. Geoff Oxford writes: ‘The British Arachnological Society, working with Jordan Cuff (Cardiff University), has launched two “lockdown” spider surveys that can be completed around the house and garden. One is to record the species, numbers and locations of the three British cellar spiders –the very common Daddy-long-legs Spider Pholcus phalangioides, the much less common Wine Cellar Spider Psilochorus simoni and the rare Marbled Cellar Spider Holocnemus pluchei. The second, newly launched, is to record when clusters of Garden Spider Araneus diadematus spiderlings are first noticed. Details of both surveys can be found on Twitter @BASSurveys and at britishspiders.org.uk. Response so far to the first survey has been good with some 50 people counting a total of over 185 cellar spiders, some in previously unrecorded hectads.
‘The lockdown has not seen arachnologists locking away their equipment. Initiated by Richard Wilson and Chris Cathrine, naturalists nationwide have taken to surveying their garden lawns in a two-minute sample using modified garden blow-vacs. Early results include a new spider for Yorkshire, Cryptachaea blattea. The survey has led to informed discussion via Twitter @britishspiders and #lockdownsuckschallenge, creating a forum for promoting more widely spider biodiversity in gardens. Lockdown has seen an unprecedented surge in interest in arachnids more generally; we have been inundated on Twitter.’
Lichenologists, too, have been getting better acquainted with their home patches, with some excellent results – Sandy Coppins reports: ‘Lichens lend themselves to “local looking” perhaps more than several other wildlife groups. BLS Twitter suggested recording lichens on your doorstep, window sill or garden, etc. But after your initial ten lichens seen on your patio slabs, where to go next? Heather Paul, in Forres, says “I amused my neighbour by going down on my knees on the pavement outside to look at Lecanora muralis which of course I have never recorded here.” While in North Wales, Dave Lamacraft on a gentle potter to look at some nearby trees, “with a view to better learning some common things in ‘normal habitats’ for a change”, was surprised to find Ramalina lacera almost straight away swiftly followed by Schismatomma graphidioides – both pretty rare in Wales!
‘But perhaps the most surprisingly fruitful and fascinating lichen results from the lockdown came from not stepping out the door: John Douglass, in South Lanarkshire, for example, writes “I was sorting through some old boxes of specimens… and came across some C[aloplaca] aractina collected from a coastal rock face on Muck (2012). I have checked it against my collections from the Lizard and the spores etc. check out good for this species.” Apart from John’s Muck revelation, C. aractina is confined in the British Isles to coastal rocks at The Lizard, in Cornwall, so this find is a lovely disjunct extension.’
As for the BW editorial team, while we have each been left slightly envious of those people with gardens we made the most of our daily exercise walks.
Catherine Mitson, BW‘s Assistant Editor, reports: ‘Except in times of flooding, the Exwick spillway is a popular route for runners and cyclists alike. To one side, however, is a less frequently visited footpath that follows the natural flow of the River Exe. Here, the shrubs and trees grow a little more wild, and the tall bank to the right muffles the sound of passers-by. I can now enjoy the soundtrack of my walk, featuring the nasal ‘dzwee’ of Greenfinches, the chattering of Blackcaps, melodic Song Thrushes, and the drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker. This was the first time I had been here, despite living so close – a direct consequence of the lockdown. I now visit this small stretch almost every day and have seen the unmistakable flash of a Kingfisher, a Dipper on two occasions, and, looking up, there are often noisy Long-tailed Tits hopping around in the branches. During the last week of April, House and Sand Martins have arrived and are now regularly seen zipping across the river as the evening sets in. The first few sunny weeks of lockdown stirred many insects; of the butterflies I have spotted so far my personal favourites include Orange-tip, Common Blue, Peacock, Comma and Brimstone. My first Dark-edged Bee-fly of the year is always a personal highlight, but this was topped as I happened across a Hairy-footed Flower Bee nesting site in a cob wall less than five minutes from my house. These strange times have certainly opened my eyes to what lies just beyond my doorstep.’
For myself (Guy Freeman), the lockdown highlights have come from strolls along my local beach here in Teignmouth which, naturally, have been timed to coincide with the best tides. The shore – mostly expanses of brick-red sand – does not look the most inspiring from a rock-pooling perspective, but I always enjoy the challenge of searching for life in these damp deserts. The walks during lockdown have been among the most productive I have had here, with favourite finds including some of the more weird and wonderful sand-dwelling specialists – the Angular Crab, which looks too exotic for these shores, and the more common but equally bizarre Masked Crab.
Many thanks to all the contributors to this piece who responded so enthusiastically to our initial call for submissions.
The contributors featured here write regularly for British Wildlife– the magazine for the modern naturalist