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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Online wildlife trade in Myanmar is on the rise. A WWF report found that the enforcement of bans on the wildlife trade has weakened following a 2021 military takeover, with dealings increasing by 74% from 2020 to 2021. Over 173 species were traded, 54 of which are threatened with extinction. Future studies are planned to better understand the role Myanmar has in the global trade in endangered species.
There is hope for the red-tailed phascogale recovery program after a catastrophic population decline following the arrival of cats and foxes to Australia. Now found in just 1% of their original range, these small marsupials were once abundant across much of the country. Fourteen captive-bred individuals were released in the Mallee Cliffs National Park last week, joining 60 others released last year. It’s hoped that the refuge could eventually boost the national population by around 20%.
A critically endangered Sumatran rhino was born in Indonesia, the first ever in the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park. There are estimated to be fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild, with only nine in captivity. This rhino calf is also a third-generation captive-born Sumatran rhino, which is the first ever recorded for this species, representing a hope for the future of this species.
A new use of genomic techniques is aiming to expand information on sharks’ recent history to help researchers assess how they may respond to climate change and pressures related to the fishing industry. In a study focusing on shortfin mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus), researchers collected more than 1,000 samples of jaws and vertebrae from museums, national fishery institutes and personal collections, spanning three centuries. Around half underwent genomic analysis, and the results showed that their genetic diversity has not reduced significantly in recent years, potentially due to high levels of connectivity between different populations allowing for continued gene flow. This is potentially a cause for optimism about the long term prospects of mako sharks.
The South West Marine Ecosystem conference series has been running for more than a decade, bringing together those involved in marine conservation, scientists and managers to share information to improve understanding, future monitoring and management.
This series of webinars on the state of the south-west’s seas presented a number of topics, including cetaceans, climate change, seals, south-west fisheries in 2021, marine and coastal birds, fish and turtles, oceanography and plankton, seashore and seabed, water quality and marine protected areas. These webinars give a well-rounded update on the south-west marine ecosystem, its processes, challenges and successes. We were very pleased to be able to support and attend this series of webinars. Below is a summary of some of the engaging and thought-provoking talks from what was an insightful and educational programme.
The Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT), who work to survey, record and process data for the identification and monitoring of seals within the south-west, discussed the current state of the grey and common (harbour) seal populations in the region. The webinar highlighted the threats seals face in south-west waters, including entangling and disturbances. There was a large number of disturbances seen in 2021, with almost 1,500 seals affected. These disturbances can be caused by a number of human activities, including noisy walkers, dogs, beachgoers, kayaks, SUPs, small watercraft, commercial fishing boats and local trip boats. The impact of instances such as entanglement and disturbances are cumulative, having severe consequences on the survivability of seals.
Marine impact deniers, apathy, misconceptions and the general prioritisation of humans over wildlife seriously impact the conservation efforts for seals in the UK, but CSGRT are working to counteract this within the south west. Through conservation activities, censuses and public awareness campaigns, the CSGRT has managed to promote best practices amongst a number of companies to reduce their chances of causing disturbances. They have also been working with Natural England and National Trust to install trail cameras, checked and monitored by a local volunteer, to record the response of seals to the presence of people.
Marine and Coastal Birds:
The south-west marine ecosystem is home to a vast number of seabirds. Regionally, there is also a mixed picture of the health of seabird populations, with population recovery and decline in different species across Lundy, the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.
In 2021, RSPB staff and volunteers reassessed the abundance and distribution of cliff-nesting seabird populations on Lundy, forty years after the initial census in 1981. They found over 27,000 breeding seabirds on the island, mainly auks and Manx shearwaters. In 2000, the seabird population was approximately 6,000, but since the removal of rats in 2004 populations have been able to make an amazing recovery. Historically, however, the area supported around 80,000 birds, suggesting that further conservation efforts and surveys are needed.
In the Isles of Scilly, rat removal on certain islands has also contributed to an increase in some seabird numbers and breeding success, such as for the Manx shearwater. The number of breeding pairs of kittiwakes, however, has been declining over the last few decades, and last year, for the first time in living memory, there were no kittiwakes nesting on the Isles of Scilly.
In Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, certain seabirds are also declining, including a steep decline in the main wintering population of black-necked grebes in Carrick Roads, Cornwall. There is no obvious reason for this decline, as there are fewer disturbances and better management of the area. In Exmouth, Devon, occupied kittiwake nests have been increasing since 2000, but their breeding success has been reducing since 2018, from an average of 1.05 to 0.43 overall across all 3 plots monitored. In Dorset, several species are struggling, even with close management and conservation. On Chesil Beach, only 3 little tern chicks successfully fledged from 48 nests, 155 eggs and 102 chicks.
In the near future, there are several key areas that need addressing to help seabird conservation efforts in the south west. More standardised recording is needed in key estuarine sites, to ensure that there is proper data on populations such as the black-necked grebes. Additionally, there needs to be closer monitoring and increased take-up of nest recording for widespread seabirds, as well as management of possible tourism disturbance.
Seashore and Seabed:
Using information harvested from observations on social media and other sources, Keith Hiscock of the Marine Biological Association presented the state of the seashore and seabed of south-west seas in 2021. By comparing current sightings with previous records, such as the recording of Poecilochaetus serpens in 2021, where it was previously noted in 1902, the persistence of species and biodiversity within these areas can be analysed. They were able to see the gains and losses of species on the seashore and seabed, for example lower numbers of crawfish (Palinurus elephas) in areas where significant numbers had been seen in the last few years, and increases in abundance and extent of other species, including Zostera noltii and Z. marina.
They were also able to note the presence of new species within areas of the south west, including the Mediterranean feather duster worm (Sabella spallanzanii), and the increasing abundance and extent of non-native species, such as the Pacific oyster (Magallana gigas). The number of non-native species within south west waters has continued to grow, with the range and abundance of some species already present also increasing. The very slight increase in the presence of warm water species suggests that ocean warming is having an effect, but it is not having a marked impact on biota composition. Overall, this webinar called for a better process for the systematic recording of events and change in south-west seas.
This year’s webinar programme was an enlightening insight into the ecosystem of the south west, as well as the ongoing conservation efforts undertaken by multiple different groups and volunteers across the region. For those who were unable to attend the live lectures this year, recordings of each are available on the South West Marine Ecosystems youtube channel. Further information about conferences can be found on their website, along with an archive of their previous conferences.
Grassland habitats are areas of vegetation dominated by grasses. Similarly to heathland, grassland can be divided into lowland and upland (above 200m). The type of sediment can also be used to classify grassland habitats, such as calcareous (lime-rich soils), acidic (sands, gravels and siliceous rocks) and neutral (clay and loam soils). They are often maintained by human intervention, through mowing, fertilising, drainage, burning or chemical treatments, as well as livestock grazing. They can also be maintained by natural processes such as grazing or browsing, or due to exposed conditions at the coast or at high altitudes where shrub and tree growth is limited.
Grassland can also be separated into unimproved, semi-improved and improved. This refers to the amount of agricultural interference in the habitat. Improved grasslands have undergone high modification or intensive agriculture, and thus typically have fewer species with a limited variety of grasses and flowering plants. (white clover, perennial ryegrass and other agricultural species usually cover more than 50% of improved grasslands). These habitats are covered more in-depth in another blog: The NHBS Introduction to Habitats: Farmland.
Semi-improved grassland is a transition category between improved and unimproved grasslands that have undergone some modification through the use of, for example, fertilisers, herbicides and grazing. These habitats have a reduced range of plant species compared to unimproved grassland but a wider diversity than improved grassland.
Unimproved grassland, also termed species-rich, has not been artificially fertilised, ploughed or reseeded. Grassland habitats are considered to be species-rich if they have more than fifteen plant species per square metre, a wildflower and sedge cover of more than 30% (excluding creeping buttercup, white clover and invasive weed species), and less than 10% cover of white clover and perennial ryegrass. Species-rich grassland habitats not only support a large number of flora species but also many fauna species such as invertebrates and birds. They improve and maintain the health of soils, protect against soil erosion, sequester carbon and provide food for browsing and grazing species such as deer and livestock.
Other examples of grassland habitats include lowland meadows, upland hay meadows, montane grasslands, purple moor-grass and rush pasture, marshy grassland, wet grassland and calaminarian grassland.
What species can you find here?
The number and type of flora species found in grasslands depends on the type and health of the habitat. Unimproved, species-rich habitats can support a huge variety of grasses, wildflowers and other vegetation. They all provide food and shelter for the many different fauna species that can be found in grasslands.
Crested dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus)
Grassland is dominated by grass cover and the species of grasses present can depend on factors such as soil type, altitude, level of agricultural improvement and maintenance routine. Crested dog’s-tail is found in many grassland habitats. It is a wiry, tufted grass that grows between 15–60 cm tall and is a traditional grazing grass. It is a common species that prefers lowland grassland and is the foodplant of many caterpillar species, such as the large skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus).
Quaking-grass (Briza media)
Another grass species is quaking-grass, with purple and green heart-shaped flower heads on delicate stems that appear to ‘quake’ or quiver in the breeze. Resembling miniature hops, this plant is also called totter grass, dithery dock, jiggle-joggles, earthquakes and toddling grass. The seeds of this species are a source of food for many bird species, such as yellowhammers and house sparrows.
Grasses are important foraging plants and their leaves and grain are eaten by a wide variety of species, such as small mammals, livestock, deer and many invertebrates. They also provide shelter and nesting materials, often used as the base or weaving material for many bird nests. Grasses can also help to stabilise the soil.
Cowslip (Primula veris)
There are thousands of wildflower species in grassland habitats, providing an important nectar and pollen source for many invertebrate species. Cowslip favours dry, calcareous grassland, but is also found in woodland, hedgerows and road verges. It flowers from April to May and its yellow, bell-shaped flowers are encased in a long, green tube-shaped calyx and grow in clusters. The flowers all face one side of the plant and have five petals, each with a small indent on the top edge. Cowslip is particularly important as it is an early food source for many pollinators.
Eyebright (Euphrasia sp.)
Another example of a wildflower species found in grassland habitats is eyebright. There are multiple eyebright species, including many hybrids, and identification in the field is often difficult. They’re semi-parasitic, feeding on the nutrients of the roots of nearby grasses. This can help control the spread of more aggressive grass species, allowing other wildflowers to grow.
Fungi form an important part of grassland habitats, playing a vital role by breaking down organic matter in the soil and facilitating the cycling of nutrients. They also food for many different species, including insects, mammals, gastropods like slugs and snails, nematodes, bacteria and even other fungi.
Scarlet waxcap (Hygrocybe coccinea)
Waxcaps are associated with unimproved grasslands that have a short sward and are nutrient-poor, moss-rich and long-established, and occur in both upland and lowland areas. Due to changes in agricultural practices, these habitats have been declining in Europe, and conservation efforts have been made to protect them. These waxcap grasslands are also home to other fungi species including agarics, clavarioid fungi and earthtongues.
Sometimes called the scarlet hood or righteous red waxy cap, the scarlet waxcap can be found across the Northern Hemisphere. They’re found in fields, open woodland, lawns and roadside but they prefer unimproved grassland, where no fertiliser, chemical treatment or ploughing has occurred.
White Spindles/Fairy Fingers (Clavaria fragilis)
This species is an upright fungus consisting of tubular, unbranched basidiocarps (the fruiting body). They are white with browning at the tips and are very fragile, with smooth, soft and somewhat brittle flesh. They also occur in waxcap grassland and other old, unimproved grasslands.
Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus)
This fungus, also known as lawyer’s wig, is very common in parklands, grasslands and lawns, with a tall, shaggy cap that begins white before turning browner and grey with age. The cap opens to a bell shape as the gills turn from white to pink and then black, dissolving from the base of the cap until it’s almost completely gone. This dissolving fruitbody breaks down into a black fluid that is full of fungal spores, aiding dispersal. This fluid was historically used as an ink substitute.
Diverse grasslands can provide habitats for a wide variety of wildlife. There is a lot of cross over between grassland and farmland species, due to much agricultural land being improved grassland habitats. Grassland is home to several species of birds, such as ground-nesting species and birds of prey. They also support small mammals, reptiles and many grazing and browsing species, such as deer, rabbits and wild horses. They are also important habitats for a huge number of invertebrates, with wildflower-rich habitats supporting many pollinator species.
Common field grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus)
This common and widespread species feeds on grasses and other plants. They prefer dry habitats and are found in grassland, heathland and agricultural areas, but tend to occur in higher densities in ungrazed areas. Many invertebrate species play important roles in grassland habitats, allowing air penetration and nutrient cycling in the soils and the breakdown of dead organic material. They are also prey for species such as birds, reptiles and some small mammals.
Marbled white (Melanargia galathea)
Butterflies are another group of invertebrates that are common in grassland habitats, particularly species-rich grasslands, due to the presence of many food plants and shelter provided by scattered scrub. Although some species can be found in multiple different grassland types, the habitat can sometimes be characterised by the presence of different butterfly and moth assemblages.
The marbled white is found in unimproved grassland with tall sward, as well as gardens, road verges and railway embankments, and is widespread in southern Britain. Its range has been expanding northwards and eastwards. Its caterpillars rely on red fescue (Festuca rubra) as a foodplant, as well as sheep’s fescue (F. ovina), Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus) and tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum).
Bloody-nosed Beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa)
Beetles often make up a large percentage of invertebrate assemblages in grassland habitats. They play many important roles in grassland ecosystems, as plant feeders, prey, predators, parasites and scavengers, recycling nutrients from organic matter both into the soil and through the food chain. Bloody nosed beetles are black, flightless beetles that are often found in grasslands and coastal areas, particularly in the south and central UK. Their common name comes from their peculiar defence mechanism. They secrete foul-tasting, bright red hemolymph (a fluid analogous to blood) from their mouth when threatened.
Skylark (Alauda arvensis)
Many birds nest in grassland habitats, such as vulnerable wading birds (lapwing and curlew) and the skylark. A small bird, the skylark has a streaky brown plumage with a small crest. It is listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 (BoCC 4) red list due to its recent population declines. These declines have been associated with agricultural intensification and the resultant reduction of grassland availability and suitability of farmland habitats for breeding and foraging. Birds such as the skylark use grassland as foraging grounds, feeding on seeds and insects. They are prey for other species such as birds of prey and foxes.
Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Several predator species utilise grassland habitats, namely foxes, weasels, stoats and some birds of prey. A number of birds of prey use grasslands to hunt for small mammals and other prey species. Kestrels predate almost exclusively on small mammals, such as voles, shrews and mice. They also occasionally prey on birds, particularly fledglings during the early weeks of summer, as well as bats, lizards and some invertebrates.
Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)
The UK has six deer species, although only two are native: red and roe deer. Fallow deer are thought to have been introduced by the Normans and the three other species, Reeves’ muntjac, Chinese water deer and sika, were introduced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For more information on these species, check out our guide to UK deer identification.
Roe deer are small deer, with a reddish-brown colour during summer and a paler or black colouration in winter. They have a large white rump that becomes less obvious during the winter. Many grassland habitats are maintained by grazing and browsing, where species such as deer feed on the shoots of trees and scrub species that would otherwise encroach on the habitat. In many countries, deer populations are controlled by predators such as wolves, to help reduce the extent of their impact on grasslands. Other habitats are then able to develop, allowing the expansion of woodland, shrubland and heathland. The UK does not have any large predators anymore, however, therefore deer populations are managed through culling to prevent overgrazing.
Species-rich grasslands are highly threatened habitats, as most grassland in the UK is improved or semi-improved. The main threats to grassland habitats are agricultural improvement and development. Ploughing, re-sowing, intensive grazing or mowing and heavy use of fertilisers can fundamentally change soil type and quality. This, along with clearing for development, reduces the quality and area of habitat, which would impact the number and range of flora and fauna they can support. Heavy recreational use can also impact grasslands, particularly fragile vegetation.
Another threat is encroachment from scrub and trees because of abandonment, incorrect or lax maintenance or intentional efforts to increase woodland cover. Woodland is often prioritised over grassland (that is not used for agriculture), as it is seen as more environmentally important, particularly in relation to carbon sequestration. The consequent fragmentation of grasslands is a threat in itself, as habitat patches that are too small or isolated may no longer be able to support viable populations of some species.
Areas of significance
Grassland can be found across the UK but there are some areas of significance such as the Culm grasslands and Rhôs pastures (purple moor grass and rush pastures), East Anglian Breckland and areas of the new forest (lowland dry acid grassland) and the Keen of Hamar in Shetland (calaminarian grassland).
A new study has found plants that humans don’t need will ‘lose’ in the face of humanity. Around 46,292 species out of the 86,592 vascular plants studied were categorised as ‘losers’ or ‘potential losers’, many of which are not considered to be useful to humans. Due to this, plant communities of the future will likely be more homogenised. The findings cover less than 30% of all known plant species, highlighting that more work is needed in this field.
A project by the environmental group ‘The Nature Conservancy’ aims to undo the ‘degradation’ of a Kentucky stream. The Long Branch stream was straightened decades ago, altering the flow and natural biodiversity along with increasing erosion. Contractors had previously re-created the natural bends, pools and riffles of the stream, placing rocks, tree root wads and burlap material at some places along the banks. Workers are now planting trees along a section of the stream with the hopes of providing better habitat for a small fish called the Buck darter, which is found only in this watershed.
A Squat lobster was seen on Shackleton’s Endurance ship, potentially the first Munidopsis species recorded in the Weddell Sea. It is hard to be certain due to the resolution of the released images but Dr Huw Griffiths from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) suggested the animal could be from the Munidopsis genus, which contains over 200 known species.
In response to the growing climate and biodiversity crisis, SCOTLAND: The Big Picture is working to drive the recovery of nature across Scotland through rewilding. Using positive storytelling, they hope to inform and inspire change, while also enabling practical rewildling through partnerships and collaborations. They see a role for everyone in creating a wilder Scotland, with a vision of a vast network of rewilded land and water where wildlife and people flourish.
Executive Director, Peter Cairns, has kindly taken the time to answer a few questions for us.
Could you tell us about the work that SCOTLAND: The Big Picture does and how the charity began?
Our core team has been involved in environmental communications for more than two decades so when the rewilding story really started to gain momentum in Scotland, probably about a decade ago, we were well placed to document it. The ‘R’ word (rewilding) remains contentious to this day, but as we embraced it at an early stage, we gradually – and unwittingly – became the voice of the movement, or at least one of them. That gave us a platform and in 2019, we became a fully-fledged charity, working to drive the recovery of nature across Scotland through rewilding, in response to the growing climate and biodiversity crises.
One part of your vision is creating a future for Scotland where people thrive, but development and industry can sometimes be in contention with wildlife. How do you think a nature-based economy could allow for long-term restoration of habitats without negatively impacting communities?
Pitching people against nature helps neither. We need to look for new ways to marry our economic systems with our ecological systems.
We believe the transformational recovery of nature can only be achieved with the support of local communities – rewilding will only work if people can see social, cultural and economic benefits that work in tandem with ecological recovery.
The original principles of rewilding were founded on the ‘3C’s’ – cores, corridors and carnivores, and there’s no reason why such a model can’t be explored in Scotland. ‘Cores’ means areas that are effectively given over to nature, allowing natural processes to shape and govern the land. Around these could be buffer zones, where a high degree of ecological functionality is maintained, but a range of nature-based economic activities, such as payments for natural capital, wild produce and diverse nature-based experiences, help support vibrant communities.
SCOTLAND: The Big Picture was a founding member of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance, how have you found the reception of this alliance amongst organisations? Are they generally in favour of large-scale rewilding in Scotland?
Rewilding has come to mean different things to different people and that can be a challenge, but it also provides opportunity for it to be rolled out at different scales and settings, while still making a valuable contribution to nature recovery. The members of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance are all at different stages on their journey, but all recognise that the traditional models of conservation have failed to arrest and reverse ecological decline, and are committed to a fresh, more ambitious, more holistic approach.
Outside of the Alliance, there is a growing appetite for change across Scotland, as land managers look at the social, political and economic horizon, and realise that business as usual is not an option.
Your upcoming feature-length documentary, Riverwoods, reveals the perilous state of Scotland’s salmon and presents the inextricable relationship between fish and forests. What are the main threats to this species and Scotland’s rivers, and why is salmon such a valuable species for forest ecosystems?
Atlantic salmon is a modern-day canary in the mine – an indicator of ecosystem health. The reasons for its spectacular decline, like so many species, are many and complex, and this film doesn’t attempt to address them all. Instead, Riverwoods tells the story of salmon – young salmon in particular -in our rivers, and carries a simple message: The health of our rivers and all the life within them, is directly dependent on the health of the landscapes through which they flow.
Perhaps to set the scene, I can quote from a recent article we produced on this very subject:
6,000 years ago, a rich, dynamic woodland ecosystem stretched across 60% of Scotland’s land area. These were diverse forests of Scots pine, oak, rowan, birch, aspen and willow; a complex community of shrubs and bushes, tall trees, tiny trees, dead and dying trees, all intertwined in a constantly evolving system.
Flanking Scotland’s rivers and lochs, these woodlands were shaped by beavers, creating fresh coppice growth, new wetlands and backwaters, raising the water table and toppling insect-laden trees into and alongside the river. The decaying timber provided food and sanctuary for more invertebrates, as well as casting dappled shade across the river’s surface.
Spent salmon, exhausted after an epic journey from freshwater to sea and back again, fed brown bears, wolves, eagles, ospreys and otters, before the precious marine nutrients found in their carcasses, were taken up by the soil nourishing fresh plant and tree growth.
In other parts of the world, the connectivity between river, forest and ocean, and the bountiful runs of salmon that still persist, creates a living, breathing, working system. Here in Scotland, just 3% of our native forest remains, clinging on in isolated, lonely fragments and despite their reputation for beauty and drama, the glens through which our rivers run, are often bare and treeless, reflecting the centuries of ecological decline that we have come to accept as normal.
How do you think Scotland’s river catchments can be restored? What changes need to take place?
Fundamentally, we need to perceive and manage river catchments as a complete ecological system and not as a series of individual species and habitats. No species exists in isolation and again, the health of our rivers is dependent on the health of the surrounding landscape.
More immediately, many of Scotland’s rivers are getting warmer, some approaching the lethal limit for young salmon, so these fish are crying out for the trees that once shaded and nourished them. The roots of trees like alder and willow, which can live in the water, protect fish from the sun and provide hidey-holes during high flow events. Tree roots help stabilise riverbanks and woody structures like fallen trees in the river, create deep pools and riffles providing salmon with the structurally diverse riverbeds they favour. A lack of overhanging trees also reduces insect numbers which in turn, means less food falling from branches into the mouths of hungry fish.
For people inspired by your work, how would you suggest they get involved?
We normally recommend 3 actions:
WILD YOUR SPACE: It’s easy to imagine rewilding at a landscape scale but this is a journey that offers space for everyone. Parks, gardens and public spaces can all make a valuable contribution to a landscape rich in nature and passionate individuals and communities are already working together to create more space for bats, bees and butterflies. Everyone can get involved.
MAKE SOME NOISE: Rewilding is as much a change in mindset as it is a physical change to the land or sea, so it’s good to talk. Most people don’t realise that Scotland has become a nature-depleted nation. Talk to family, friends and work colleagues about the potential of a rewilded Scotland for nature, climate and people. Encourage them to join our Big Picture community.
PUT YOUR MONEY TO WORK: There are many ways to invest in rewilding. You can support businesses such as local farms that are working to restore wildlife, or nature tourism operators who donate part of their revenues to rewilding. And of course, you can help make more rewilding happen by supporting organisations like SCOTLAND: The Big Picture.
You can find out more about SCOTLAND: The Big Picture from their website and by following them on Facebook and Twitter.
Based in Berkshire, NatureBureau publishes a wide range of books, including internationally important handbooks and atlases alongside highly localised UK field guides. Publishing under the imprint of Pisces Publications, they are renowned for their beautifully designed and well-researched books. We are happy to announce NatureBureau as our Publisher of the Month for March.
With updated maps and over 2,800 colour photographs throughout, this expanded edition covers over 2,300 species, supporting by comprehensive sections on all insect groups, including beetles, flies, ants, bees and wasps. The concise text gives information on behaviour as well as their current conservation status and pointers are given to help avoid misidentification with species of similar appearance.
With detailed descriptions and photos of the adult, egg, caterpillar and chrysalis of each species, this book reveals in detail the fascinating life cycles of the 59 butterfly species that are considered resident or regular migrants to Britain and Ireland. It provides unique insights into a hidden world and is illustrated with over 1,300 high-quality colour photos.
This new guide, the first of its kind, features many of the large, spectacular insects a visitor to southern Europe and the Mediterranean is likely to encounter. The guide covers 1,500 insect species, including many endemics, and represents all the major groups of this region.
Based on 22 years of research carried out in the field and in herbaria, this is the first detailed floristic work on the family to adopt the current taxonomy derived from DNA sequence data. It provides a timely review of morphological characters of the species in relation to their phylogeny and species delimitation based on the latest molecular analyses.
This guide includes accounts for 866 macro-moth species, each with a distribution map showing current and historical occurrences, trends, status, a phenology chart and colour image. Distribution maps are also provided for a further 25 species that have not been recorded since 1970.
The Bumblebee Book covers all 27 bumblebee species occurring in Britain and Ireland, illustrated by photographs that show their full range of variation, including the striking island races. Each species has a detailed description with up-to-date distribution maps and notes on the life cycle, flowers visited and habitats used.
The book maps the ebb and flow of butterfly populations in Cornwall, including national rarities such as the Marsh Fritillary and the Silver-studded Blue. It covers a description of all 37 of Cornwall’s resident and regular migrant butterflies and 12 occasional visitors, including their ecology, life cycle, population trends and geographical distribution, as well as passages on the best places to see butterflies in Cornwall and how butterflies are recorded and conserved.
This is the first book to cover all of the 600 macro moth species in the West Midlands and many of the regularly recorded micro moths. This guide is illustrated with over 700 photographs and also includes up-to-date distribution maps, habitat descriptions, adult flight periods and larval food plants.
All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.