Book Review: Birds, Beasts and Bedlam by Derek Gow

Birds, Beasts and Bedlam: Turning My Farm into an Ark for Lost Species is an eclectic mix of stories from Derek Gow’s past and from the varied people he’s met and worked with. Opening with an account of his expedition to see bison in Poland, Gow laments the loss of ‘great beasts’ from Britain. We’ve lost much of our megafauna, including steppe bison; aurochs; brown, polar and cave bears; Eurasian and Irish elk; lynx; and wolves. Some of these losses, along with the current rate of habitat destruction, have drastically changed how our ecosystems function.

Derek Gow is a reintroduction expert, farmer and author, best known for his work with beavers, white storks, water voles and wildcats. His first natural history book, Bringing Back the Beaver, was a highly acclaimed success, detailing his firsthand account of the reestablishment of beavers in waterways across England and Scotland. Following Gow’s rewilding and farming adventures, from his first attempt at keeping livestock as a child to his time working at zoos and captive breeding programmes, Gow’s new memoir describes his battles with creating a viable farm and how he is repairing the damage this caused to the land and wildlife. 

In 2006, Gow bought a farm next to his property in South Devon. In chapter three ‘Not a Lark or a Lizard Lived There’, Gow details the quiet decline of wildlife on his farm and his slow realisation of the damage he caused by following conventional farming practices. He tells of his final straw moment, when a small mammal trapping course run on his land only turned up two woodmice. The lack of voles indicated a much wider absence of wildlife within the farm, such as the loss of barn owls and kestrels.

Male kestrel offering a vole to a female. Image by Francesco Veronesi via Flickr

After realising the damage that was occurring, Gow started to deconstruct his farm, selling off his livestock and began to try to rejuvenate the land. Through excavations, fencing and accidental escapees, a complex series of watercourses and wetlands were created. Birds, otters, amphibians and insects started to return. But this wasn’t enough. Gow introduced Heck cattle, Iron Age pigs (a hybrid of wild boar and Tamworths), mouflon sheep, Exmoor ponies and even water buffalo to replicate the ecosystem roles of Britain’s lost megafauna. These helped shape not only the species composition and trophic structure of the ecosystem, but also the physical structure of the habitats, conserving and promoting biodiversity. Gow describes how the cattle gouged banks and dug pits in pastures, how pigs created wallows that supported tadpoles and dragonfly larvae, and how the presence of grazing ponies has resulted in an irregular, wilder edge where pastures and woods meet. 

Mouflon by leopoldo de castro via Flickr

Throughout the later chapters, Gow shares the conservation history and reintroduction attempts of two ailing UK species, the water vole (Arvicola amphibius) and the pool frog (Pelophylax lessonae). Water vole populations have significantly declined in recent decades due to predation by the invasive American mink (Neovison vision), habitat degradation, historical persecution and pollution. The reduction in waterways and habitat corridors, the removal of bankside vegetation and the urbanisation of floodplains are among the many ways water vole habitats are being destroyed.  Gow recounts the process of creating a successful captive breeding program for water voles, sharing the many mistakes that were made before they found the right cage design. Thousands of water voles have been bred for release projects, helping to boost declining populations.

Human encroachment into watercourses is also thought to have been one of the causes of the extinction of pool frogs in the UK. Reintroductions from populations in Sweden have been underway since 2005. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gow links both the reintroduction of this species and the efforts for water voles to the reintroduction of beavers. As anyone who has read Bringing Back the Beaver will know, beavers are ecosystem engineers and shape the habitats they live in. Their actions provide a far more sustainable and natural practice for creating more suitable habitats to facilitate rewilding and the reintroduction of other species.

Beaver pond in Yellowstone National Park. Image by NPS / Neal Herbert via Flickr

Birds, Beasts and Bedlum is a fun, engaging memoir, filled with excentric tales and artful insights into the world of farming, conservation and rewilding. Ending on a lament at the often slow, overcomplicated process of reintroductions and rewilding, this book highlights the need for a better-developed system and large-scale reshaping of the landscape, with a final call for the return of the wolf. 


Birds, Beasts and Bedlam: Turning My Farm into an Ark for Lost Species
By: Derek Gow
Hardback | June 2022 | £14.99 £19.99

 

 

 

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

The NHBS Guide to UK Shieldbug Identification

Shieldbugs are insects in the superfamily Pentatomoidea. They are characterised by their well-developed scutellum, the hardened extension of the thorax over the abdomen. Many shieldbug species are triangular, with a broad pronotum and pointed end to the abdomen. They also produce a foul-smelling liquid from their prothoracic glands, which inspired the American name “stink bug”, although this name is specific to the family Pentatomidae.

Some shieldbugs are considered pest species due to the damage they can cause to crops. The recent arrival of the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys) to the UK is considered a serious threat to fruit and vegetable crops. They damage the salability of produce and can even contaminate the taste of juice or wine, causing waste and a loss in income.

Identifying shieldbugs is usually based on structural characteristics, body length (from the head to the end of the abdomen, ignoring the antennae and legs), and species range. Colouration and pattern can be useful but there is often variation between individuals of the same species. Using a hand lens, sweep net or beating tray can help when surveying for shieldbugs. A field guide that includes juvenile stages would also be useful as nymphs can often have different colour patterns to adults.

Hawthorn Shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale)

Distribution: Widespread across the UK.
What to look for: The most common shield bug in the UK, the hawthorn shieldbug is also UK’s largest. Its scutellum and pronotum are green, framed with red sides. The ‘shoulders’ of its pronotum are pointed with red and black tips, and its corium, the thickened basal portion of the forewing, is red. Its wing membrane can vary in colour but is usually red.
Similar species: The birch shieldbug (Elasmostethus interstinctus) but this species does not have a green scutellum. The juniper shieldbug (Cyphostethus tristriatus) is also similar but this species does not have a red wing membrane.

Hawthorn shieldbug by gailhampshire via Flickr
Common Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasina)

Distribution: Widespread in England, Wales, and parts of Northern Ireland.
What to look for: This is a larger species, with a dark wing membrane and a bright green body during summer. The adults become a bronze-brown colour in the autumn before hibernating throughout winter.
Similar species: The southern green shieldbug (Nezara viridula), a non-native species. However, this species has paler wings than the common green shieldbug.

Common Green Shieldbug by Charlie Jackson via Flickr
Parent Bug (Elasmucha grisea)

Distribution: Occurs across the UK but most commonly in south-east and central England.
What to look for: This is a medium-sized species with red and beige colouration. Most individuals have a black patch on the scutellum. This species also has a black and white connexivum, the flattened lateral border of the abdomen.

Parent Bug by Dean Morley via Flickr
Pied Shieldbug (Tritomegas bicolor)

Distribution: Widespread across the south-east and central England.
What to look for: This species does not have the characteristic triangular shape and could be confused for a ladybird. It has a black and white piebald pattern, with a grey or translucent wing membrane. Its pronotum is black with a white spot on each ‘shoulder’.
Similar species: Rambur’s pied shieldbug (Tritomegas sexmaculatus), although this species has a black wing membrane.

Pied Shieldbug by hedera.baltica via Flickr
Juniper Shieldbug (Cyphostethus tristriatus)

Distribution: Common in southern and central England, with an expanding range.
What to look for: This is a bright green species, with a green pronotum, head and scutellum. They have pinkish-red markings on their corium. Their wing membrane is green with a black X-shaped mark.
Similar species: The birch and hawthorn shield bugs are visually similar but neither species has the black X-shaped mark on their wing membrane.

Juniper Shieldbug by gailhampshire via Flickr
Striped Shieldbug (Graphosoma italicum)

Distribution: First recorded in the UK in 2020, only found in two sites in London.
What to look for: Also known as the Italian striped bug and the minstrel bug, their body is rounded with bold red and black longitudinal stripes. Their connexium is black with several black, square-shaped spots.
Similar species: There are several similar species, such as Graphosoma lineatum, but none are found in the UK.

Striped Shieldbug by Chris Parker via Flickr
Ornate Shieldbug (Eurydema ornata)

Distribution: Coastal areas between Devon and Sussex, scattered in other parts of southern England.
What to look for: They have a distinctive red and black pattern across their pronotum and abdomen. There are other colour morphs, however, and they can have a white and yellow background with the same black markings. They have a black head with a red, white or yellow ‘mouth’ shape and a black wing membrane.
Similar species: The scarlet shieldbug (Eurydema dominulus). They can be distinguished by the pattern on their corium. The ornate shieldbug has a thin black line, two spots and a washed-out area, compared to the thicker line, one or no spots and no washed-out area on the scarlet shieldbug.

Ornate Shieldbug by Joan Quintana via Flickr
Blue Shieldbug (Zicrona caerulea)

Distribution: Widespread across Britain, particularly in the north, and absent from Ireland.
What to look for: The blue shieldbug has a deep blue-green metallic sheen, with a dark wing membrane. They resemble leaf beetles, species in the Altica genus, whose larvae they predate upon. This is called aggressive mimicry, where a predator resembles its prey to avoid detection.

Blue Shieldbug by Ben Sale via Flickr
Bishop’s Mitre Shieldbug (Aelia acuminata)

Distribution: Widespread across southern Britain.
What to look for: This is a straw-coloured species, with brown longitudinal stripes, a distinctive pointed head and a ridged pronotum.
Similar species: Mecidea lindbergi is another elongated shield bug but it is a thinner species without brown stripes.

Bishop’s Mitre Shieldbug by Ben Sale via Flickr

Suggested reading and equipment:

Guide to Shieldbugs of the British Isles

£3.75

 

 

 

 

A Pocket Guide to the Shieldbugs and Leatherbugs of Britain and Ireland

£12.99 

 

 

 

 

Standard Sweep Net

£29.95 

 

 

 

 

Beating Tray

£49.96

 

 

 

 

 

Invicta Pooter

£3.95

 

 

 

 

 

60ml Collecting Pot

From £0.35

 

 

 

 

Opticron Hand Lens 23mm 15x Magnification

£14.50 £16.50

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 16th May 2022

Climate change

Bleached sea sponges have been found in New Zealand waters for the first time, with extreme ocean temperatures being blamed. Bleaching was found in more than a dozen sites near Breaksea Sound and Doubtful Sound in Fiordland, with as many as 95% of sponges bleached in some parts. These sponges play an important role in the ecosystem by creating habitats for fish and by releasing carbon, which other species feed off. The region had recorded temperatures up to 5°C higher than usual in April, which researchers think has a “very strong correlation” with the bleaching events.

Research

Paleobiologists are using shark teeth to decipher evolutionary processes. By studying multiple tiger shark teeth from different developmental stages, from embryos to adults, a team of researchers are able to draw conclusions about extinct species based on preserved shark teeth. This contribution to our knowledge of dental characteristics during tiger shark development will help researchers understand the developmental and evolutionary processes of both present and extinct sharks.

Extinction risk

Habitat loss is endangering migratory birds in Tanzania. The Kilombero wetland, an important habitat for numerous bird species, is under threat from human-caused degradation, such as recurring drought spells, unsustainable farming practices and overgrazing. Pantaleo Munishi, a Professor of Ecosystems and Conservation at the Sokoine University of Agriculture believes many bird species native to Kilombero will become extinct within a decade as they may be unable to cope.

A new study has found that the number of flying insects has declined by nearly 60% in less than 20 years. This decline threatens our entire ecosystem, and a wide variety of species may go extinct, including wildflowers, songbirds, bats and fish. Scientists are also warning that this loss could increase food bills, as insects play a vital role in pollination and nutrient recycling.

Pink Pigeon by arcalexx via Flickr

Pink pigeons have made a recovery in Mauritius but the species is still losing genetic diversity. In the 1980s, it was estimated that only around ten pink pigeons were left in the wild. They were threatened by introduced predators such as cats and rats, as well as the loss of almost all of their native forest. Through a captive breeding and release programme, which began with an initial population of 12 birds taken from the wild in the 1970s and 80s, there are around 400 individuals in the wild, downlisting the species from critically endangered to vulnerable. As the population has experienced such a bottleneck, however, there is a risk of “genomic erosion” and individuals becoming less genetically healthy as so many are closely related. This can reduce the chances of the pigeons hatching and fledging successfully, as well as reducing their lifespan. A new study has been published looking into this genomic erosion.

Policies

Campaigners are accusing ministers of “giving up” on protecting the UK’s seabirds as they plan to apply for an exemption to a legal duty to protect the rare species. 24 of the UK’s 25 breeding seabirds were placed on the Red or Amber Birds of Conservation Concern List, including puffins and gannets. The legal duty to halt seabird decline was imposed by the UK marine strategy, first published in 2012, along with 14 other measures to achieve “good environmental status” by 2020. The UK has failed to meet 11 of those targets, with seabird decline worsening from the 2012 starting point.

Gannet by Airwolfhound via Flickr

The Finnish Government has approved a proposal for the new Nature Conservation Act, with new updates, provisions and chapters on voluntary ecological compensation, threatened habitats, management of data on the natural environment, and a national biodiversity strategy and action programme. The proposal was first prepared at the beginning of 2020 and is hoped to be entered into force in summer 2023.

Conservation

New nature reserves, pocket parks and a mass community movement will bring nature back to London. Rewilding experts commissioned by the mayor, Sadiq Khan, are drawing up a proposal to rewild the city. Core rewilding areas will be chosen on the outskirts of London and will be connected by nature corridors crisscrossing the city. One plan includes turning parts of the Thames estuary into wetlands.

A record number of dams were removed from Europe’s rivers in 2021. Around 239 dams and weirs were removed across 17 countries last year. These river barriers block fish migration routes, leading to the loss of breeding grounds and reduced species abundance, impacting the ecosystem and species that rely on these fish, such as otters and eagles. More than 1 million barriers still exist on Europe’s rivers, with around 150,000 no longer serving any economic purpose.

A “ground-breaking” biodiversity audit of more than 10,000 species along a 105-mile stretch of coastline in north Norfolk has been created to help any decisions about their future. This stretch included a huge variety of habitats, including saltmarsh, sand dunes, freshwater grazing marshes and other wetlands. The huge database included more than a million biological records and was combined with other ecological datasets, along with knowledge from natural history experts and managers.  The audit will hopefully be used to help inform decisions on how best to improve the diversity of the area.

Norfolk saltmarshes and mud flats along the Norfolk Coast Path, by summonedbyfells via Flickr

New wetlands will be created along the West Midlands road network as part of the £6m Network for Nature programme launched by National Highways and the Wildlife Trusts. One wetland, to be created in the Lugg Valley close to the A49, is hoped to bridge a gap for wildlife between Bodenham Lake nature reserve and Wellington Gravel Pits. It is also expected to reduce pollution entering the River Lugg, creating drainage pools close to the A49. In total, 26 projects will develop and restore over 1,700 acres of woodlands, grasslands, peatlands and wetlands across England.

Robert Gillmor Obituary

Robert Gillmor 1936–2022

We have recently received the sad news of the passing of Robert Gillmor, a leading ornithologist and author, and one of Britain’s most popular and loved wildlife artists.

Born in 1936, Gillmor’s illustrations were first published in the monthly magazine British Birds when he was just 16. Since then, he illustrated more than 100 books, as well as producing several of his own collections, including Cutting Away in 2006, Birds, Blocks And Stamps in 2011, and Pressing On: A Decade of New Linocuts in 2018. Notably, he was the artist behind the original Avocet drawings used for the RSPB logo and the Sacred Ibis in the British Ornithologists Union (BOU) logo. His artwork has also appeared in journals, calendars, greetings cards and posters. In 2015, Gillmor received an MBE for his services to wildlife art.

Gillmor also designed over seventy of the covers for the New Naturalist series, bringing to life a variety of titles including Farming and Birds; Beetles; Garden Birds; British Warblers, his first cover; and his 72nd, Ecology and Natural History.  In 2011, Royal Mail commissioned Gillmor to illustrate a set of Post & Go Birds of Britain stamps. He created 46 designs over three years and the profits from the sale of the original linocuts were donated to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Robert Gillmor was one of the founding members of the Society of Wildlife Artists, an organisation founded in 1964 seeking to encourage appreciation of the natural world through fine art inspired by wildlife. SWLA strives to promote awareness of the importance of conservation through exhibitions and publications, while also supporting young artists that are eager to develop their knowledge and skills in wildlife art.

Gillmor was a keen ornithologist, serving on the council of three national organisations: RSPB, BOU and the British Trust for Ornithology. Due to his contributions to ornithology and bird conservation, he received the highest awards from all three societies. He also had a leading role in the promotion of the British Birdwatching Fair (Birdfair), an annual event whose organisers donated all of their profits to Birdlife International, and designed many of the event’s iconic posters.

Andy Mabbett, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Gillmor: 6th July 1936–8th May 2022

This Week in Biodiversity News – 4th May 2022

Climate change

Global forest destruction has continued, despite pledges to end deforestation during COP26. Satellite data has shown that 3.75 million hectares of tree cover disappeared across primary tropical forests in 2021, an average of 10 football pitches a minute. The rate has not significantly changed in recent years, despite over 100 world leaders signing the COP26 pledge to end deforestation within the decade. The loss was estimated to have released 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon emissions, equivalent to India’s annual emissions, the third-highest carbon-emitting country in the world. In similar news, northern regions of the world saw record tree cover losses in 2022. Figures were up 30% compared to 2020 for these boreal forests, with wildfires causing huge losses. Climate change is seen as a key driver for the losses in this area, as drier, hotter conditions are leading to more wildfires and greater damage from insects.

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a giant ocean current that moves water between the equator and the arctic, is slowing. While this behaviour is still within the range of its own natural patterns, a new study has found that climate change is likely playing at least a small part. This current is largely responsible for the mild weather conditions of the North Atlantic region, including much of Europe and the eastern United States. If this current continues to slow, it may lead to disruption of weather patterns within these areas, with some data suggesting these processes are already starting to occur.

New discoveries

A 231-million-year-old fossil of an ancient ancestor to Lepidosauria has been found. Lepidosauria is a suborder of reptiles that contains all snakes and lizards, approximately 11,000 species in total. The early phase of this group’s evolution about 260-150 million years ago has remained a mystery until now. CT scans have allowed scientists to create a mosaic of colours for each bone of the skull, showing the fossil’s anatomy in high-detail resolution on a scale of only a few micrometres. The species, termed Taytalura alcoberi, is an important finding, revealing how this successful group of animals originated.  

A new frog species, discovered due to genetic testing, has already been classified as endangered. The only known habitat of Philoria knowlesi, the world heritage-listed Gondwana rainforests of Australia, experienced extensive damage during the 2019-20 black summer bushfires. Queensland’s environmental department has stated that it is already moving to protect the habitat of this newly identified species, one of only seven known species of mountain frog, with a number of measures in place to support the recovery of fire-impacted areas.

Extinction risk

A number of bird populations in Canada are declining due to forest degradation. Research led by Oregon State University has shown that many species are under stress from human-caused changes to forest composition. Breeding habitat loss impacted 66% of the 54 most common bird species in the Acadian Forest, Canada, from 1985 to 2020. This loss was strongly associated with the loss of older forests, leading to long-term bird population declines. Between 33 and 104 million birds were estimated to have been lost over the 35-year study due to forest degradation.

Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis) by xulescu_g via Flickr

Over one-fifth of reptile species are at risk of extinction. A new study is calling for urgent conservation efforts after assessing over 10,000 species and finding that reptiles are under serious threat of extinction. While numerous assessments are available for birds and mammals, such comprehensive extinction risk estimates have not been completed for reptiles. At least 21% of the species assessed are categorised as being vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, compared with 41% of amphibians, 25% of mammals and 14% of birds. Conservation measures such as habitat restoration and controlling invasive species have been suggested as ways to reduce these extinction risks.

Policies

Strict controls have been implemented on the import of pine and cedar trees into Great Britain to help protect against the threat of the tree pest Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa). This species can cause significant damage to pine and other conifer trees and could potentially pose a risk to human and animal health. These new regulations ban the import of pine and cedar trees grown in countries where the Pine Processionary Moth is established, such as Italy and France, although exceptions apply in cases where Pest Free Areas are designated or where the trees have been grown under complete physical protection for their lifetime.

Conservation

The tope shark (Galeorhinus galeus), also known as the soupfin shark, snapper shark and school shark, may receive protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The shark, also present in UK waters, has prime habitat in the waters off California, Oregon and Washington. They face a high risk of bycatch and entanglement in gillnets, with populations declining by 88% globally in the past 80 years. The U.S. government will open a public comment period on protection for this species, requiring the National Marine Fisheries Service to decide by February 2023 whether to list the species.

Osprey by Colin Durfee via Flickr

Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) have produced an egg in southern England for the first time in 200 years. This species became locally extinct in the early 1800s due to habitat loss and persecution by humans. Since 2017, a number of experts have been working to re-introduce ospreys to southern England by relocating adult birds from Scotland. It is hoped that this pair of ospreys at Poole Harbour, Dorset, will produce two more eggs over the week and, after a 35-40 day incubation period, the chicks will hopefully hatch by late May.

A beaver has been released to a site in west Dorset, as part of a new collaborative conservation project between the Cornish Seal Sanctuary and the Beaver Trust as part of the West Dorset wildlife Initiative. This is the first successful transfer of the project and is hoped to be “just the beginning”. Two other beavers were also transferred, with the project aiming to support the restoration of the native species through specialised captive care of youngsters.

This year’s No Mow May has begun, with gardeners being encouraged to leave their lawns unmowed and allow them to grow wild during the month. Conservation charity Plantlife stated that more than 250 plant species were reported during last year’s campaign, as leaving lawns uncut can create a biodiversity hotspot that will benefit pollinators and other insects, as well as other species such as birds. Here at our Devon offices, we will be leaving our grassy lawn un-mown for the duration of May. Last year, we were able to record 24 different flowering species and we’re hoping for even more this year!

Author Interview with Mark Carwardine: Field Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises

Practical and portable, this is the ultimate field guide to the world’s cetaceans. This is the most comprehensive, authoritative and up-to-date guide to whales, dolphins and porpoises. Containing more than 500 accurate illustrations – complete with detailed annotations pointing out the most significant field marks – this new field guide covers all 93 species and every subspecies in the world.

The informative text, produced in collaboration with many of the world’s most respected whale biologists, is accompanied by distribution maps, size demonstrations, dive sequences and additional information such as comparisons of silhouettes and illustrations of barnacles, lice and callosities.

Cetacean expert Mark Carwardine kindly took the time to discuss this new field guide with us, discussing how the outlook for cetaceans has changed since he first began to study them, why he chose to use illustrations over photographs and what he is working on now.


What inspired you to write this new field guide and how does it differ from your previous handbook?

The Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises was the culmination of a life’s work, really, and took six years to research and write. It was designed as a comprehensive reference book to be used at home or in the office – and, consequently, weighs almost as much as a small porpoise. The pocket-sized Field Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises is an abbreviated (and fully updated) version, focusing more on identification, and it has been designed specifically to take into the field. Since our knowledge of cetaceans has improved so much, with new behaviour and many new species described in recent years, previous field guides (my own included) are drastically out of date. I think a new guide was desperately needed.

Dusky dolphin by wanderstruck via Flickr

Your book includes a number of threatened species, including the functionally extinct Yangtze river dolphin and the vaquita, many of which we may lose entirely over the next decade. How has the outlook for whales, dolphins and porpoises changed since you first started to study cetaceans?

There’s no doubt that for many cetacean species, if not most, the outlook is worse than it was when I started working in this field. Some – the humpback whale is a good example – are doing surprisingly well, against all odds. But many others are not. The vaquita, we believe, is down to the last 10 individuals and is almost certainly the next (after the Yangtze river dolphin) doomed to extinction. Sadly, though, it’s not alone. The North Atlantic right whale comes to mind – there are fewer than 350 survivors and, with numbers continuing to decline, we fear for its future. Countless others are on the verge of extinction or have all but disappeared from many of their former haunts. Sometimes, I am surprised that any survive at all, given the shocking number of threats they face, such as commercial whaling and other forms of hunting, myriad conflicts with fisheries, pollution, habitat degradation and disturbance, underwater noise, entanglement in or ingestion of marine debris, ship strikes and climate change.

This field guide is full of beautiful and detailed illustrations. Why did you choose to include these rather than photographs?

I prefer the use of illustrations in field guides, because I think they demonstrate the key identification features more effectively. Also, there is a huge amount of variation within each species of cetacean – geographical variations, races and sub-species etc – and good photographs do not exist of many of the most critical ones!

Relatively little is known about the population estimates or trends of many of the species listed in this book. Why do you think this is the case, and is there ongoing research taking place to fill these knowledge gaps?

It’s true to say that our knowledge of cetaceans has grown from virtually nothing to just a little bit – despite decades of wild whale research. They are incredibly difficult animals to study, because they spend most of their lives underwater, often live far out to sea and regularly travel vast distances. They are even more difficult to count. I take people to see the friendly grey whales in San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico, every year and we have fun trying to estimate the number of whales within the relatively small lagoon. Everyone comes up with wildly different numbers. Just imagine trying to estimate the number of minke whales, for example, in the North Atlantic. In some cases, a species is so rare that we know every individual and have an accurate population size. But in many cases it’s an informed guesstimate. The key thing is to be able to compare these guesstimates from time to time and place to place to get relative population trends. And, with some exceptions, I do think we have a pretty good idea about which species are declining and which are doing relatively well.

Minke whale with a satellite tag, image by Oregon State University via Flickr

Is there anything that you are currently working on or do you have any plans for future projects that you would like to tell us about?

Well, I’ll never stop spending as much time with whales, dolphins and porpoises as possible! And I’ll be keeping the field guide up-to-date, of course, for future editions. But I’ve also been working on a book closer to home, called RSPB How to Photograph Garden Birds, which will be out early next year (to tie in with the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch). It started as an excuse during lockdown to photograph my own garden birds but, as I developed and discovered more tricks and techniques, it gradually turned into a book. One thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to travel to far-flung corners of the world to take great pictures of wildlife. Indeed, some of the most memorable and eye-catching images I’ve ever seen – especially while judging umpteen wildlife photography competitions over the years – have been of common and familiar species taken close to home. Yet these more ‘ordinary’ subjects tend to be ignored by many photographers. They are considered too obvious or insufficiently compelling (although I’ve never understood why because, by any standard, many of our garden birds are strikingly beautiful). While there are countless awe-inspiring images of polar bears and humpback whales, when was the last time you saw a truly inspirational image of a house sparrow or a robin, for example? Exactly. Hopefully, that’s where this book will help and inspire.


Field Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises
By: Mark Carwardine
Paperback | May 2022 | £12.99 £16.99

 

 

 

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Book Review: Ever Green by John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy

Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet is a deft introduction to the very complex topic of forest degeneration. Megaforests, forest ecosystems that are continental in scale and contain large undisturbed areas, are under threat. Only five megaforests exist today, New Guinea, the Congo, the Amazon, the North American boreal zone and the Taiga. These megaforests provide a vital service by preserving biodiversity, providing a stable climate and supporting thousands of cultures.

John W. Ried and Thomas E. Lovejoy explore how destructive human activities are impacting these remaining megaforests and their diminishing undisturbed zones. Blending evocative and accessible nature writing with fact-filled science, the authors explain why these untouched forests are so important for the survival of our global biodiversity and ourselves. Not only are these megaforests home to millions of species, but they also help to stabilise our climates by storing large amounts of carbon, to maintain watersheds, and provide much of the world’s drinkable water by releasing so much moisture-filled air that ‘flying rivers’ form.

The buff-breasted paradise-kingfisher (Tanysiptera silvia) is native to both Australia and New Guinea. Image by Graham Winterflood via Flickr

In the prologue, ‘Anastasia’s Woods’, we are introduced to a young member of the Momo clan who have lived in the forests of western New Guinea for many generations.  Through vivid descriptions of the habitats, flora and fauna of these great megaforests, Ried and Lovejoy advocate for the rights of Indigenous people as stewards of their forests. Combining this with enchanting photographs, new perspectives and rich accounts of people who are fighting to conserve these landscapes, the authors create a persuasive appeal for the protection of these lands, through methods such as improving indigenous rights, smarter road network planning and the expansion of protected areas.

In chapters 2 and 3, ‘The North Woods’ and ‘The Jungles’, Ever Green explores each megaforest separately, discussing the unique make-up of their ecosystems, and their historical and current relationships with humans. The authors discuss how human activities are tipping the balance against species within these ecosystems. For example, we have known for a while that fire is an integral part of forest life in certain areas, promoting biodiversity and plant reproduction. The forest comes alive with specially evolved species, such as pyrophilous insects like the black fire beetle, consuming the fire-damaged wood; animals such as the blackpoll warbler that prey on these insects; and herbivores like the snowshoe hare consume the tender shoots and leaves that grow just after these fire events. The increased rate of fires is disrupting this natural regenerative process, however, impacting species that rely on different stages of regeneration. Other anthropogenic activities such as mining and road-building are opening up previously ‘safe areas’ for prey to predators and hunters. All these new threats are endangering the stability of species populations beyond the point that forest ecosystems may be able to cope. 

Snowshoe hare, a North American species that play a critical role in forest ecosystems. Image by Tim Rains, NPS Climate Change Response via Flickr

Chapter 7, ‘Forests and the Real Economy’, discusses the need for an economy that values the integrity of the natural systems of forests, which strives to support nature rather than disassembling it. Untouched forest areas, particularly megaforests, are continuously undervalued, as there is so much value in sellable products such as minerals, timber and game, as well as land for agriculture. With the perceived abundance of these products within large forests, it is often seen as reasonable to “chip these little pieces off the edges”, as the authors quote Meredith Trainor, head of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, without seeing the damage all these little pieces cause in the bigger picture. This destruction, the ‘inadvertent by-product of economic activity’, is unsustainable and has been wearing away the very foundations of much of our product-based economic systems.

To combat the current product-oriented view we have of forests, the authors discuss the idea of ‘forest-oriented metrics’, where environmental information such as climate costs and benefits are reported alongside existing indicators such as GDP and the employment rate. Ever Green argues that cost-benefit analysis cannot accurately price the whole value of forests, however, including their aesthetic and spiritual value, therefore these landscapes will always be undervalued while using this method. But the authors do believe that economics has a role in environmental policy, as it helps to inform on how to most effectively act to accomplish a goal that has been ‘fashioned from various streams of knowledge and ethics.’

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Image by Alexander Gerst via Flickr

While many of the solutions Ever Green puts forward are the work of major businesses and governments, the book ends with an invitation for everyone to visit these megaforests and to consider their own personal choices. Although it is easy to believe that our own good actions may be overshone by the negative actions of larger organisations, there are still a number of ways individuals can help save big forests. If you’re looking for an accessible and engaging introduction to deforestation, conservation-orientated solutions and nature-based economies, Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet is an ideal addition to your reading list.


Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet
By: John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy
Hardback | April 2022 | £17.99 £19.99

 

 

 

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 20th April 2022

Climate change

Trophic interactions may prevent species from adapting quickly to climate change. A new study has found that predator-prey interactions cause some species, particularly large predators, to shift their ranges more slowly than changes in climate conditions. These large-bodied top predators will stay longer than smaller prey in historical habitats, partly because of the arrival of new food sources that have already shifted their ranges. Thus, they continue to occupy areas where the conditions mean they are less likely to thrive, potentially reducing growth and reproduction rates.

New discoveries

The first evidence of meningitis is Greenland sharks has been found. A stranded shark, thought to be around 100 years old, was found in March of this year. A post-mortem was carried out and showed that her brain contained a type of Pasteurella bacterium, which likely caused the meningitis. This rare occurrence is an exceptional opportunity for scientists to learn about this cryptic and endangered species, which usually occupies waters up to 2,600m below the surface of the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. In other shark news, several major brands have been found to sell cat food that contains protected and vulnerable sharks, including silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis). Researchers found that 31% of the 144 samples from 45 cat food products contained shark meat.

A number of new or rediscovered species have been found recently, including a tropical plant species (Gasteranthus extinctus) found in Ecuador, believed to be extinct for almost 40 years, and six of the world’s smallest frogs, which have been discovered in Mexico. These frogs, part of the Craugastor genus, may be classed as endangered, with calls for them to be better protected as they face a number of threats, including habitat damage and chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that is severely impacting amphibian populations across the world.

Policies

Dogger Bank, the UK’s largest sandbank, has been given protection from bottom trawling. Despite being labelled as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), the occurrence of bottom trawling at this site has tripled over the last few years. This activity has serious environmental impacts, through the destruction of seabed habitats, the release of carbon usually stored in the sediment and the disturbance of marine species that rely on these areas. Now, four bylaws have been introduced, coming into effect in June, which will ban bottom trawling in Dogger Bank, as well as Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge. However, there is criticism that only four of 64 offshore benthic MPAs are receiving this protection and only parts of Inner Dowsing are covered by the bylaws.

Conservation and ecology

Extinctions and habitat fragmentation may have contributed to the reduction in nutrient transport by wildlife. Stocks of phosphorus, a key ingredient used in fertilisers in modern agriculture, are diminishing. A new study has shown that, historically, wildlife transported a large proportion of phosphorus back to the land after it was washed into rivers and out into the ocean. With reduced species abundance and the erection of man-made structures such as dams and fences blocking natural migration routes, this process is being hindered, potentially creating an impending shortage of fertilisers. By restoring habitat connectivity and promoting biodiversity, these natural pathways may be mended.

In other biodiversity news, the decline in Poland’s feral pig population, caused by a disease outbreak in 2015, has had a strong impact on oak regeneration, with recruitment increasing twofold compared to pre-epidemic levels. Additionally, the critically endangered spotted tree frog (Litoria spenceri) is attempting to bounce back after being brought to near extinction by Australia’s Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020. Eighty frogs were released in Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales, giving hope for the species’ future.

Climate Challenges: 5. Extreme Weather Events

In the lead up to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November of last year, as well as the months that have followed, we have been writing a series of articles looking at some of the toughest global climate crisis challenges that we are currently facing. This article looks at the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, their impacts, and how they are affected by climate change.

Storm damage from Storm Emma at Holyhead marina, Wales in 2018 by Hefin Owen via Flickr
What are extreme weather events and why do they occur?

Extreme weather events can be split into four categories: geophysical (i.e. tsunami), meteorological (i.e. storms, tornadoes), hydrological (i.e. floods) and climatological events (i.e. extreme temperatures, drought, wildfires). They are usually defined as unusual, unexpected, unseasonal or severe weather. This extreme weather often has a significant impact on us and the environment, causing damage, loss of livelihood and even loss of life.

There is debate as to how much climate change is responsible for our changing weather patterns. There are a variety of causes for extreme weather, including tectonic plate shifts, changes in air pressure or movement, ocean temperatures, atmospheric moisture content, the reflection rate of solar radiation and even the tilt and orbit of the Earth. These are natural variations that cause naturally occurring extreme weather, therefore, the occurrence or even intensity of these events cannot only be blamed on climate change.

How does climate change affect extreme weather events?

Many studies on weather events around the world have connected the increase in intensity and frequency of extreme heat, drought and rainfall to human influence. The picture is more complex for tropical storms (hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones). It is expected that these events will become more intense due to human influences, such as sea-level rise and anthropogenic warming. It is thought that these tropical storms will occur less frequently, however, although there is no consensus.

The increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases due to human activities is causing an increase in average global temperatures. This leads to other impacts, such as glacial and sea ice melting, which is affecting the global ocean circulation. This circulation acts as a conveyor belt, transporting cold water from the poles to the equator and warmer water and precipitation from the tropics back to the poles. A disrupted circulation, for instance due to the weakening of the Gulf Stream, could cause extreme weather events such as far colder winters in western Europe.

Actions such as deforestation can also cause changes in extreme weather events, as removing large sections of forest can impact the movement of water in the atmosphere. This can change precipitation patterns both locally and globally – if occurring on a large enough scale. Increased precipitation can cause flooding, whereas a decrease in rainfall can lead to drought. For more information, check out our previous Climate Challenges article on the local and global implications of deforestation and its relation to climate change.

Increasing land temperatures may push ecosystems to the brink of collapse. High land surface temperatures in Europe on 25th July 2019 by European Space Agency via Flickr
What are the impacts of extreme weather events?

The damage from extreme weather events to both humans and the environment can be catastrophic. Beyond the direct loss of life, there is an impact on livelihoods, homes and other buildings, roads and infrastructure. The costs of these events can be incredibly high, and it can take years or even decades for areas and countries to recover from the worst of these events. This will only get worse as they become more intense and more frequent, as there will be more damage and less time to recover between events. During February of this year, a series of successive storms, including Dudley, Eunice and Franklin, brought widespread damage, leaving hundreds of thousands without power and millions of pounds in repair and clean-up costs.

Many cities are not built to withstand weather conditions outside of the norm for the area and, therefore, may not have the infrastructure in place to deal with certain extreme weather events. This was evident during the 2021 snowstorm in Texas, United States, where the state’s power supply was not equipped to deal with the record low temperatures. This led to many power outages for over 5 million people, with the total loss of life reported as 210 people.

Environmentally, habitats can be impacted. They can be altered or even destroyed, leading to the extinction of many species that are unable to rapidly adapt, particularly if their distribution is already restricted. It is usually generalist, resilient species that are able to adapt and survive this level of disturbance, therefore specialist species are more likely to become extinct. After a major disturbance event, ecological succession can take place and species recolonise the area. This phenomenon begins with pioneer species, such as plants, lichens or fungi, and the animals that rely on them, before developing in complexity to a stable ‘climax community’. This habitat can be vastly different from the original, depending on the species that survived the original event and those nearby that can recolonise the area. The climax community can also take decades or even centuries to develop, therefore the biodiversity of the area may be reduced or altered for an extended period of time.

Successive storms during winter in late 2015 to early 2016 caused widespread flooding across Great Britain and Ireland. Image by Andrew Gustar via Flickr
What can be done?

Similarly to many of the climate challenges in this series, the solution relies on limiting the rise of global average temperatures. This can be achieved through a combination of methods, many of which were discussed at the COP26 in November 2021. Some of these methods, such as switching to renewable energies and moving towards more sustainable agriculture, are already underway in the UK.

More work needs to be done, however, as even the 1.5°C limit in the rise in global average temperature that the Paris Agreement is aiming for could still have a huge impact on the climate. At 1.5°C, 14% of the world’s population will be exposed to severe heatwaves at least every five years. Rainfall will become more erratic, leading to more flooding, droughts, and reduced water availability. Extreme weather events will be more likely to occur and at a higher intensity.

While the impacts of a 1.5°C rise are thought to be less than those of a 2°C rise, they will still be devastating to many countries and people. And so it is key that countries begin to build resilience against extreme weather, support those most vulnerable and begin to protect and restore habitats. Countries were asked to produce an ‘adaptation communication’ for COP26, outlining what they are currently doing and their future plans to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Changes in wind patterns due to climate change could increase the amount of extreme snow that parts of Britain receive. Snowfall in Riverside, Cardiff, South Wales by Jeremy Segrott via Flickr
COP26 pledges

Following COP26, 90% of the world’s economy is now striving for net zero emissions, with many aiming for 2050; over 100 world leaders signed both The Glasgow Leader’s Declaration on Forest and Land Use and the Global Methane Pledge; and more than 40 countries signed the Coal Pledge, which aims for nations to move away from coal power by the 2030s for major economies and 2040s for developing countries. In addition, multiple countries, companies, philanthropic foundations and international development banks pledged funding to move away from financing fossil fuels and towards renewable energies.

While there are a number of faults with some of these pledges, with criticism over the perceived lack of strict accountability, a peer-reviewed study has found that these new policies could help to keep global warming below 2°C. This will hopefully limit the impact of climate change on extreme weather events, but to keep within the target of 1.5°C, far more needs to be done. The IPCC announced that emissions would need to peak before 2025 and significantly decline by 2030. Read more about the outcomes of COP26 in our blog: Climate Challenges: COP26 Round Up.

Summary
  • Extreme weather events are unusual, unexpected, unseasonal or severe weather. They can cause massive damage and destruction to both us and the environment.
  • Due to climate change, many extreme weather events may become more frequent and more intense. This will cause more damage and allow less time to recover, potentially pushing both communities and ecosystems beyond the point they can survive.
  • The solutions rely on reducing the rise in global average temperatures by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
    Even at a rise of 1.5 degrees, the impact of extreme weather could increase. Therefore, a strategy of adaptation and protection for those most vulnerable is needed.
  • The policies and pledges signed at COP26 last year may be enough to keep global average temperatures below 2°C, but far more is needed to limit the rise to 1.5°C.
Useful resources:

The COP26 website page on their goal of adaptation: https://ukcop26.org/cop26-goals/adaptation/

NASA’s website on selected findings of the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming, highlighting the impacts of a 1.5°C versus 2°C rise. https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2865/a-degree-of-concern-why-global-temperatures-matter/

Our previous blog on Climate Challenges: What is COP26 and Why is it Important?, covering many of the impacts of an increase in global average temperatures above 2°C and the goals of the UK government.

 

Water Always Wins: Going with the Flow to Thrive in the Age of Droughts, Floods & Climate Change
Erica Gies
Available for pre-order | Hardback | £19.99

 

 

 

Drought, Flood, Fire: How Climate Change Contributes to Catastrophes
Chris Funk
Hardback | £19.99

 

 

 

 

Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change
Friederike Otto
Hardback | £18.99

 

 

 

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Phenology Series: Spring

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

There are no fixed calendar dates for the beginning of spring. Ecologically, the beginning of spring relates to biological indicators, such as the start of certain animal activities and the blossoming of particular plant species. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events from year to year, for example the budburst of trees, the arrival of summer migrant species, the breeding bird season and the emergence of hibernating wildlife. For more information on the study of phenology, read our blog post. This is the first in our new annual seasonal phenology series – explore our collection of ID blogs, books, equipment and events to make the most of the spring season, and look out for our summer blog in July.


Identification guides

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


What you might see:

  • You will likely start to notice the first flowering of many plant species, including cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis), meadow foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis), bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and wood anemone (Anemondoides nemorosa).
  • The budburst of trees, including alder (Alnus glutinosa), horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and sycamore (Acerpseudoplatanus), with many also having their first leaf in March or early April.
  • Trees such as hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), hazel (Corylus avellana) and field maple (Acer campestre) begin to produce blossoms and catkins. Spring blossom can start as early as February and last through to early summer.

  • The emergence of several insect species, such as seven-spot ladybirds (Coccinella septempunctata), orange tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines), green tiger beetles (Cicindela campestris) and dark-edged bee-flies (Bombylius major).
  • The beginning of the nesting season for most European bird species, including great tits (Parus major), tawny owls (Strix aluco), long-eared owls (Asio otus) and wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes). Great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus) start their courtship rituals in early spring, with their elaborate dances, synchronised swimming, preening and ‘mewing’.
  • Many migratory birds also begin to arrive during spring, for example chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), swallows (Hirundo rustica) and wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe).

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


Activities:


Upcoming events:

Earth Day – 22/04
International Dawn Chorus Day – 01/05
Hedgehog Awareness Week – 1–7/05
Restoring Nature: Rewilding and
Regenerative Agriculture Literary Festival
– 14/05
World Bee Day – 20/05
International Day for Biological Diversity – 22/05
World Environment Day – 05/06
World Ocean Day – 08/06
Insect Week – 20–26/06


Essential equipment and books:

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

£11.99 £14.99

 

 

 

Wild Flower Flowcharts: Species ID the Easy Way

£6.99

 

 

Great British Marine Animals

£19.99

 

 

 

 

Opticron Hand Lens: 15x 23mm

£14.50 £16.50

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

 

NHBS Rock Pooling Kit

£37.99 £48.48

 

 

 

NHBS Nest Box Camera Kit

£92.99 £99.98

 

 

 

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

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.