Author interview with Ben Jacob: Orchid Outlaw

The Orchid Outlaw tells the tale of author Ben Jacob’s mission to save some of the UK’s rarest, native orchids. With many facing extinction due to land use change and the climate crisis, while also not being protected by environmental and planning laws, Ben took it upon himself to rescue these threatened plants and grow them in his own kitchen and garden, rather than losing the plants all together. In doing so, he placed himself on the wrong side of the law. This part memoir, part natural history piece shows us how we can all save the world one plant at a time.

Ben Jacob wearing a brown jacket stood by a bank with some orchids growing out of it.Ben works as a University lecturer by day, and as a clandestine ecologist, conservationist and Orchid-saviour by night. It is always a pleasure to meet the authors behind our books, particularly those who are adopting their own approach to nature restoration and conservation, and we were delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Ben in person about The Orchid Outlaw and have him sign our books. We discussed how he first became interested in Botany, his thoughts on the Right to Roam movement, what he hopes the reader can learn from his book and more. Read the full author interview on the Conservation Hub.


Firstly, can you tell us about yourself and how you first became interested in both Botany and orchids?

By day I’m a mild-mannered lecturer (in a subject which has very little to do with science or botany); by night I am a guerrilla conservationist with a focus on rescuing, conserving, and bringing back to the land, our native orchids. The Orchid Outlaw explains the journey I took from a chance encounter with a tropical orchid in a garden centre as a child, which led me, when I was older, to trekking through jungles to look for tropical species, then, and older still, via a mugging, an enforced return to England and a broken back, to encounter Britain’s – and Europe’s native orchids. As I learned more about these species, I realised that my preconceptions about our native orchids and the state of our natural environment were wrong. I became aware of the significant recent decline in orchid populations… and began my unorthodox means of saving them. I tell this story alongside (hopefully) entertaining diversions through history, medicine, man’s changing relationship with nature, Charles Darwin’s discovery of evolution, and a critical exploration of the laws which exist to protect wildlife in this country but which are so full of huge holes that battalions of construction vehicles can rumble straight through, crushing all life before them. Which they do. Daily. Without any legal consequences.  

In contrast, a well-intentioned conservationist (like me) rescuing wild flora or fauna from private land which is about to be turned into a housing estate, without first going through the hurdles required to gain permission from the landowner, risks fines of £5,000 per plant or six months in prison. Do these laws make sense? No. Are they helping sustain a healthy and diverse population of native species? No. So, like any laws which don’t work, someone should stand up to them and do what needs to be done. 

Bee Orchid in some grass.
Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) by Oli Haines.

In the past week, the European Council has formally adopted the Nature Restoration law. Do you think this law could have any influence on conservation policy here in Britain, and to what extent do you think it will change people’s attitudes towards our responsibility to protect the natural environment?

In Britain (as elsewhere) 2024 is a national election year so any impact on British political attitudes of a European law will depend to an extent on which party wins. Unfortunately, none of our main political parties have a good track record when it comes to protecting our natural heritage for us and future generations we have seen a rapid decline in numbers across all species and native habitats over many decades presided over by both main parties and a coalition. Of course, for the sake of everyone’s future, I’d like to think this European Council law marks a shift in geo-political will which will pull all national policies into its orbit (fingers-crossed)… but the realist in me suggests that unless meaningful, accountable, well-policed penalties accompany laws, those laws tend to make little concrete difference (consider for example international laws around freedom of expression, asylum, and war crimes, which are broken all around the world every day). 

The Orchid Outlaw highlighted how pre-industry anthropogenic land use is intertwined with orchid distribution, particularly in the UK. How do you think rewilding (which is currently a very hot topic) can be implemented in a way that supports these species that may have benefitted from traditional land management rather than being left to nature? 

The Orchid Outlaw looks a little bit at how native orchids thrived in the habitat niches created on a large scale by man, including hay meadows, and how centuries of people-managed woodland (the clearing of underwood and occasional felling) provided conditions which helped many native orchid species to thrive. Of course, these habitats had existed long before people (meadows had been formed, for example, by large, now extinct cattle, naturally falling trees, and wildfires) so, in many ways, mankind took on the role of these natural forces for his own benefit and, in the process, allowed many other species not only orchids to benefit too. In this sense, ‘rewilding’ is not simply a case of letting an area go wild without any human intervention ironically this kind of habitat is completely ‘un-wild’ unless it is stocked with the right range of creatures which are going to complete the tapestry of life (and death) needed to reach a healthy, natural, sustainable equilibrium. 

Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza) by Jo Graeser.
Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza) by Jo Graeser.

How can we mitigate orchid loss in a practical conservation framework when vital species-specific symbiotic relationships with fungi are not considered, so these species may not be protected under current schemes?

There are all kinds of gaping holes in our awareness of the world and what really goes on in the soil, which sustains everything, is one of them. Because of this particular hole, soil health has fallen through the gaps of wildlife conservation laws, even though soil, like the sea, is a vast, living, environment containing more life than we can see and it is an environment upon which the world depends. Orchids in particular have a very complex, as yet only partially understood, crucial relationship with certain soil fungi (mycorrhizae). This is because orchid seed germinates unlike that of any other plant. It creates a symbiotic relationship with a specific mycorrhiza in order to then form a kind of hairy blob (a ‘protocorm’) which, eventually, sometimes after many years living underground sustained only by fungus, becomes a flowering plant. This makes orchids important indicators of soil health, because it seems that the mycorrhizae they need are adversely affected by artificial fertilisers and herbicides. In a way then, our orchids have taught me that any conservation framework has to start from the ground literally, the dirt up, because that is the secret to success. If the earth and the microbes in it are right for the plants there and, of course, plants are crucial to any rewilding project then insects, birds, mammals will come and the tapestry of life which orchids introduced to me will weave itself. 

The right to roam movement is growing, especially close to home here in Devon. What are your thoughts on trespassing for the purpose of immersing and enjoying nature that is legally out of reach for the majority of citizens? Following this, if the laws were to change do you think it would affect attitudes towards nature with more people having the chance to be exposed to nature?

Let’s be honest, this is ‘our’ land. Our ancestors built it, fought for it, died for it, are buried in it; it is deplorable that we do not have the right to roam considerately and with respect upon our land. The right to roam exists in Scotland without any major detriment to anybody and the fact that it does not exist in England and Wales says a great deal about the sway the old class system still holds here after all, 0.06% of the population owns half of rural England and Wales and much of this land distribution extends back to the days of feudal lords. For centuries, no one has done much to change this status quo.  

Obviously, allowing people the chance to experience nature is a great way of changing attitudes to it… but a lot of the land we can roam in Devon is still unavailable to those in inner city areas, so a shift in awareness towards our natural world our natural heritage, formed over thousands of years and which we should be proud to pass on to our children – is not solely about opening up rural land. The recent pandemic made many people far more aware of how important being outside in nature is to our wellbeing whether in a park or allotment or an uncut verge with a bench to sit on and wild flowers buzzing with insects and flickering with butterflies. So, while the right to roam is important, I think wider appreciation of the real value of nature will be helped by allowing nature to be more present everywhere in everyone’s life from green roofs, wild parks and county farms, to unmown verges and tree-lined streets smothered in bird boxes… 

Miltary Orchid on the right hand side of the photo in a field of grass.
Military Orchid by Charlie Jackson, via flickr.

What do you hope the reader can learn from The Orchid Outlaw? 

On the one hand, I like to think that The Orchid Outlaw takes a reader on the same journey of discovery I went on, with orchids as my guide, opening my eyes to so much I hadn’t known. One of the biggest wake-up calls orchids gave me was the inadequacy of our wildlife laws and the massive, underreported decline of some our native flora. Orchids also taught me about the important microfauna all around us, the complex nature of soil, the history of botany and herbalism, and of course the fascinating world of native orchids themselves the magical co-evolution that has occurred between orchids and their pollinators, the fact that some species never need sunlight, that others grow a metre tall and smell of decay, and some can live to be over a hundred years old… and a great deal more.   

On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, I’d like to think that what I do, as unorthodox as it is, shows that you don’t have to be a scientist, researcher, or working for an official institution to make a positive impact for the other living organisms on our planet.

Can you tell us what’s occupying your time at the moment? Do you have any other books in progress that we can hear about?  

Aside from the usual rescuing and reintroducing native orchids, at the end of The Orchid Outlaw I talk about moving to the countryside to an old house which needed and continues to need a lot of attention. So, the garden (which was essentially a forest of nettles) and the lab I started building at the bottom of the garden to propagate orchids (so I no longer need to turn the kitchen into my lab) is largely what occupies my spare time. In any spare moments I am working on a couple of book proposals, both of which relate to elements of The Orchid Outlaw, but, for now, they’re closely guarded secrets! 


Orchid Outlaw book cover showing the title written in yellow, on top of an image of a blue and green orchid on a black background with heras fencing over the top.

The Orchid Outlaw has been published by John Murray and is available from our online bookstore.

Author Interview with Jenny Macpherson: Stoats, Weasels, Martens & Polecats 

Stoats, Weasels, Martens and Polecats book cover showing an orange, white and purple lino print of a two stoats on a rock within ferns.The latest volume in the New Naturalist series, Stoats, Weasels, Martens & Polecats focuses on the four species of ‘small mustelids’ – highly specialised predators and ubiquitous assassins, some of which were once hunted to near-extinction. This delightfully rich text details their physiology, distribution, daily lives, significance in UK history and folklore, while also intertwining the authors own experiences working at the forefront of mustelid conservation across England and Wales.

Jenny MacPherson portrait, wearing a yellow knitted hat and a thick winter coat with the hood up.

Jenny MacPherson managed the Pine Marten Reintroduction Project for many years before taking over as the Principle Scientist at The Vincent Wildlife Trust. She has a longstanding background in zoology and research, holds an MSc in Conservation at the University College London and a PhD from Royal Holloway.

Jenny recently took the time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about the book, including how she first became interested in mustelids, how she thinks these animals will fare in relation to the current climate and environmental challenges and more.


Can you tell us a little about your background and what first interested you in mustelids? 

I studied zoology at university as a mature student, having worked as a theatre costume assistant in London when I left school. Actually, my first experience of mustelids was the rather unflattering portrayal of the Stoats and Weasels in the National Theatre production of The Wind in the Willows that I worked on, back in 1990! – I was responsible for getting Otter into his costume, a 1920s style knitted bathing suit. Then, as an undergraduate at Royal Holloway University, I planned my dissertation project on Pine Martens, having been captivated by them on holidays in Scotland, where it was such a rare treat to see them. Since then, mustelids, and especially Pine Martens, have been a major interest of mine. 

Stoat stood on a log.
Stoat by Andy Morffew, via flickr.

What are the challenges of studying this group?  

It is very difficult to study elusive, nocturnal animals that live at low density and are patchily distributed. It certainly tests our ingenuity. Thankfully some of the rapid advances in technology are helping, as I describe in the book. 

How do you think small mustelids in the UK will fare in the face of climate and environmental change? 

It is difficult to predict and it will likely vary between species. Pine Martens might ultimately benefit from increases in afforestation for carbon storage, but in the meantime existing forests are coming under multiple pressures from recreation, timber harvesting and emerging plant diseases. The impacts of environmental change on prey populations shouldn’t be underestimated either. Some long-term studies have already shown declines in the abundance and diversity of small mammal communities linked to climate change, which is of concern for all of our native carnivores. 

Weasel stood with its front paws on a rock in some long grass.
Weasel by Alan Shearman, via flickr.

Historical opinions held by some across the UK favour culling of mustelids. For instance, Pine Martens in Scotland are at risk of predator-control trapping due to a perceived risk to livestock and game birds. What can we do to challenge these long-held, traditional ways of thinking in relation to UK predators? 

We need to raise greater awareness of natural processes, including predation. Predators have a number of important functions and play a key role in supporting our ecosystems. In Britain, these have been out of balance for centuries as a result of human intervention and we have become used to ‘controlling’ any animals that cause us an inconvenience, rather than working together to find practicable ways of living alongside predators. 

Pine Marten stood on a broken Silver Birch log.
Pine Marten by Caroline Legg, via flickr.

Citizen science projects are a great way for people outside of the field to get involved with conservation research. Are there any resources where the public can submit sightings? And how can citizen science benefit the conservation of this group? 

Citizen scientists and volunteers are crucial to conservation research and we have a long history of their involvement in Britain. Vincent Wildlife Trust collect sightings and other records of Pine Martens and are currently also carrying out a two-year national survey of Polecats. More information can be found on the website at www.vwt.org.uk. The collective effort of citizen scientists makes it possible to gather huge amounts of information over large areas and time frames, which helps to focus conservation efforts where they are most needed for these species. 

Are you working on any other projects you would like to share with us? Can we expect more books from you in the future? 

I am currently working on a number of projects in my role at Vincent Wildlife Trust, including a feasibility study for reintroducing European Mink to the southern Carpathians in Romania, and I have just started writing another book. 


Stoats, Weasels, Martens and Polecats book cover showing an orange, white and purple lino print of a two stoats on a rock within ferns.

Stoats, Weasels, Martens & Polecats is available to pre-order from our online bookstore.

Supplier interview with Unitura

Unitura are experts in nature-inclusive construction and renovation who provide off-the-shelf solutions to projects that require roosting and habitat mitigation. They are involved in the design and manufacture of their own product lines, including bat boxes, bird boxes and insect hotels. They are specialists in green architecture in the form of green roofs or facades and provide bespoke services for nature inclusivity projects. 

We recently had the opportunity to talk to the founders of Unitura, Sicco, Robert-Jan and Henk, about the company, their product range, what they hope for the future of the business and more. 

Photo of the three Unitura founders stood in their warehouse by a bat box.


Firstly, can you tell us about what inspired the establishment of Unitura?  

The founding of Unitura stemmed from our shared interests. Prior to founding Unitura, Sicco and Henk were already engaged in providing ecological advice, while Robert Jan was primarily involved in the building sector. During a casual gathering, we brainstormed and landed on the concept of bat boxes. At that time, there was limited knowledge about such products in the market, presenting us with an intriguing challenge. 

We started out quite simply – making and painting bat boxes in a small, rented office in a farmhouse. During the week, we focused on consultancy work and at the weekend we focused on producing bat boxes. We noticed that more was possible than just bat boxes and started to expand our range. It was no longer just about bats, but a complete range of in-field, nature-inclusive building. 

Unitura warehouse with bat boxes laid out on a table.

How has the idea of nature-inclusive building been received since the company was founded, and how important do you think this is for the future of the planet?  

Since our company was founded, the idea of nature-inclusive building has mainly been driven by legislation. However, we are now seeing a shift where it is becoming more of an integral part of construction projects and people are recognising its broader importance. We expect that in the future, it will become a standard component in the construction industry, particularly in the Netherlands where we see nature-inclusive building gaining more traction. 

A few years ago, green buildings were rare, but now architects are increasingly incorporating them into their designs. This rapid development in the Netherlands is due to both political and corporate recognition of its urgency. Governments are implementing more regulations and companies are eager to adapt to these changes. 

You have a very wide range of products on offer, from nest boxes, insect hotel and seeds, to equipment needed to create live, biodiverse green roofs. Can you tell us a bit more about your bestselling products?  

Our best-selling products are the wood-concrete built-in facilities for birds and bats. Our range includes an extensive series of modular bat boxes that can be endlessly expanded and exchanged. This allows you to put together your bat boxes according to your own wishes. These boxes are specifically designed for bats that live in buildings. We also offer various built-in facilities for birds, including swifts and House Sparrows, which can be easily integrated into the masonry. 

Three swifts flying into a swift box.

How did the introduction of the Nature Conservation Act in 2017 affect the design and manufacturing of your products?  

The introduction of the Nature Conservation Act in

 2017 likely impacted the design and production of our products. Similar legislation already existed in the Netherlands prior to this. At the moment, according to Dutch law, it is mandatory to conduct ecological research on protected species and their habitats before construction activities can commence. As a solution, a Species Management Plan (SMP) is now in place. An SMP outlines the protected species present in an area and the threats they face, whether across the entire municipality, in specific neighbourhoods, or within areas earmarked for significant sustainability or construction activities. It also describes the actions needed to protect, restore, or even increase the population of species. 

For our company, this may entail adjusting our designs and manufacturing processes to comply with the regulations set forth in the SMP. For instance, in the insulation industry, our designs must account for specific insulation values to ensure that our product is suitable for use in various construction projects, such as installing nest-boxes in cavity walls.

I think the live, biodiverse roofs and building facades that you create are a fantastic idea and look stunning, however they are sadly quite uncommon here in the UK. Can you talk us through how you create them, why they should be used instead of a flat roof and how they benefit the environment?  

Our green roofs offer various benefits, including reducing heat stress, significant water buffering capacity and CO2 reduction – they are also well-suited for renovation, as they are made with cassettes (HDPE units containing pre-cultivated wildflowers and herbs used to make green roofing). Within these cassettes, we use native species that contribute to promoting biodiversity and support local flora and fauna. 

The process begins with the manufacturing of cassettes, which are then placed on the roof. These cassettes are produced by specialised nurseries and contain a substrate in which we sow native seeds from our partner organisation, De Bolderik. After approximately 12 weeks, the cassettes are ready to be installed on the roof. 

Photograph of a Unitura living roof on top of one of their company buildings.

Do you have any new products on the horizon that you can tell us about?  

We continuously work on developing new products. We recently launched a new sensor specifically designed for detecting incoming and outgoing bats. With an active lifespan of two years, this sensor enables long-term monitoring. Users can easily view and download the sensor results via the companion app.  

What is the hope for the future of Unitura? 

Our aim is to broaden our model into a complete supplier of nature-inclusive solutions, integrating green elements such as green facades and green roofs. Moreover, we are firmly committed to expanding our presence in the international market. We are curious what the future will bring us! 


Unitura Modular bat tubes.

Unitura Modular Bat Tubes

This modular bat tube from Unitura is a highly versatile built-in solution for bat mitigation and integration into a wall. Each tube has a single or multiple large crevices with a sloped entrance hole to accommodate bats leaving and entering the site and promote the runoff of water away from the interior of the tube. The tubes come in single, double and triple crevice layers and with/without an entryway. They can be mixed and matched completely depending on the design specification of the build and built as large or as small as needed.

Unitura tall external bat box.Unitura Tall External Bat Box

This single crevice external bat box from Unitura provides a suitable and durable roost for crevice-dwelling bat species. Made from thermally stable and resilient woodconcrete this bat box can be mounted to any external walls where a roost may be needed. MULTI-MONTI fixings are included and are designed to be used without a Rawl plug. The screw anchor is approved for installation in cracked and uncracked concrete, as well as a whole range of other building materials.

Unitura External Swift Box.

Unitura External Swift Box

This external single-cavity swift box has been designed as a long-lasting nest box for swifts. Constructed from woodconcrete this swift box has a sloping roof to provide drainage and prevent dirt streaks from forming on the external wall. These boxes come with all the required fixings and an instruction card for easy assembly.

Soffit and Fascia Swift Box.Soffit and Fascia Swift Box

These under-eaves swift nest boxes are a subtle and attractive way of providing swifts roosting opportunities in your eaves and soffits while remaining durable and secure for both the home and birds. The roost is made of both a wooden concrete entrance stone and an FSC plywood box, with ideally only the entrance stone being exposed to the elements, improving the durability and longevity of the box. The box is designed to be mounted in multiple directions depending on the angle of mounting and the shape and angle of the soffit/fascia.

Unitura Little Owl Box.

Unitura Little Owl Box

Designed to provide a secure nesting solution for Little Owls, whilst excluding unwanted species, this nestbox has an entryway vestibule to help discourage Stone Martens, a large open nesting space with a removable roof and drainage/ventilation holes in the base.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 3rd June

Wildlife 

Ambitious project in south-west Wales aiming to restore one of the world’s most important habitats is getting underway. Two species of seagrass, Eelgrass (Zostera marina) and Dwarf Eelgrass (Zostera noltii) are being grown in ponds fed with seawater pumped in from the nearby Carmarthen Bay, and over the past two years alone this project has processed 1.5 million seeds. These have subsequently grown tens of thousands of plants that are now being reinstated in the wild to help restore the UK’s underwater seagrass meadows, 90% of which have vanished in the past 30 years alone. 

Photo taken with a camera lens half under water and half above water showing a thick seagrass forest.
Seagrass near body of water during daytime by Benjamin L Jones via unsplash.

Thriving Ecuador bird tourism is incentivising farmers to turn their agricultural land into nature reserves. Ecuador is home to over 1,600 species of bird, almost double the number found across the whole of Europe. As the country’s birding tourism grows, increasing numbers of farmers are turning their agricultural land into nature reserves to help preserve their stunning local wildlife. This is not only benefiting nature, but also the country’s economy as wildlife tourism offers a much more profitable livelihood than farming, resulting in some farmers expanding their land’s potential further than any traditional farming model would have provided. 

Critically endangered Devils Hole Pupfish population reaches a 25 year high. This rare species lives in the smallest known desert habitat of any vertebrate and is only found in the upper areas of a single limestone cave in the Mojave Desert, Nevada, where the whole population resides on a single shallow rock shelf. They have evolved to be able to withstand harsh desert conditions, including very high water temperatures and extremely low oxygen levels. In 2013, their population fell to just 35 individuals, but careful conservation efforts over the past 11 years have offered hope for this rare species as their population has now reached a 25-year record high of 191 fish. 

Environment 

The North Atlantic is set to be hit by more than double the normal number of hurricanes this season, warns NOAA. Researchers have suggested that this is predominantly due to high sea surface temperatures as a result of the upcoming transition between El Niño and La Niña which helps these storms grow more easily. Although there is no evidence showing that climate change is a contributing factor, it is likely to exacerbate the severity of these weather patterns. Contrastingly, NOAA have predicted a below-normal hurricane season for the central Pacific region where El Niño and La Niña work in opposition. 

Hurricane Matthew hits Haiti aerial photograph.
Hurricane Matthew hits Haiti by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s photostream, via flickr.

Purbeck Heath begins its transformation into an ancient savannah habitat to help precious species thrive. The National Trust’s lead ecologist for Purbeck, David Brown, explained that the project hopes to use domestic grazers such as wild cattle, pigs, ponies and deer to mimic their wild ancestors and shape the 1,370 hectares of open grassland in Dorset into a dynamic, complex and biodiverse ecosystem. Purbeck Heath is already one of the most diverse areas in the UK, and this project will aid the recovery of rare and threatened species such as Purbeck Mason Wasps, Heath Tiger Beetles and Sand Lizards. 

Climate 

Increased ocean temperatures are undercutting the Thwaites Glacier and causing glacial melt from below. This glacier is currently losing 75 billion tons of ice per year, accounting for nearly half the total ice lost from Antarctica per annum. Scientists have revealed that an estimated 150 million kilowatts of thermal power are injected into the ice with each undercutting intrusion, which could melt 20 meters of ice off the bottom of the glacier each year. Recent simulation to assess the effects saltwater invasion may have on retreat rates has revealed it could double the overall rate of ice loss for some glaciers. 

Thwaites Glacier photograph showing the edge of the glacial shelf with some small icebergs floating along the side of it.
22-01-21 04 Thwaites Glacier by Felton Davis, via flickr.

New research reveals the catastrophic effects of extreme heat, deoxygenation and acidification in the oceans due to fossil fuels and deforestation. In the top 300 meters of affected oceans, these compounded events are lasting three times longer and are six times more intense than in the 1960s. A fifth of the world’s ocean surface is susceptible to all three of these stresses at once, which has been further exacerbated in recent decades as extreme weather conditions have become more intense. Scientists warn that the extra CO2 absorbed by the oceans has increased the temperature and acidity of seawater, is dissolving the shells of sea creatures and starving the ocean of oxygen. This series of events is comparable to those experienced at the end of the Permian period 252 million years ago when the planet experienced the largest known extinction event in its history. 

Author interview with Richard Mabey: The Accidental Garden

The Accidental Garden cover showing a blackbird stood on some grass.In The Accidental Garden, author Richard Mabey takes the reader on a journey through his own garden in Norfolk and explores the possibility of nature becoming humankind’s equal partner. He watches as his ‘accidental’ garden becomes its own director and reorganises itself in its own way, with ants sowing cowslips in their own patterns, roses serendipitously sprouting amid gravel, moorhens nesting in trees and other fascinating interactions.

Portrait of Richard Mabey stood in front of some trees.

Richard Mabey has authored 30 books since becoming a full-time writer in 1974, a number of which have won awards, including the East Anglia Book Award, National Book Award and Whitbread Biography Award. He sat on the UK’s Nature Conservancy Council in the 1980s, has been awarded two Leverhulme Fellowships and three honorary doctorates, and became a Fellow in the Royal Society of Literature in 2011.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Richard about his most recent book, where we discussed his approach to garden ‘by’ wildlife and the challenges he faced, the extent to which nature can thrive itself when human involvement is minimised, projects that are currently occupying his time and more.


Can you tell us what inspired you to write The Accidental Garden

I’ve been meditating on many of the book’s themes for a long while – the paradox of our seeming new respect for nature co-existing with an obstinate reluctance to relinquish control; our obsession with tree-planting, as if trees have lost the ability to reproduce themselves; the lust for tidiness over vitality. What sparked the book – and set it in the theatre of our own garden – was a Dark Bush-cricket singing at midnight from the hollyhocks on that hottest-ever day in July 2022. It sounded like an anthem of hope.  

Dark Bush Cricket sat on a leaf poised to jump.
Dark Bush Cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) by Dean Morely, via flickr.

You mentioned in the first chapter that you try to garden ‘by’ wildlife as much as for it. Have you faced any challenges while using this approach, and what tips would you give to someone who wants to try and garden by the wildlife and biodiversity found in their own patch? 

The Accidental Garden isn’t an advice manual. It’s a hesitant, personal account of what happened when we opened the gate to what I call ’parallel development’ in our space. We do what humans do in gardens, and allow other organisms to do what they want. Allow them to become subjects rather than objects, and effectively become fellow gardeners. So I left the bramble patch be, instead of digging it up to plant some runtish nursery-forced oakling. Result: Field Maple and Hazel saplings growing through its protective thorniness. I kick bare patches in the grass and see what self-seeds. Broomrapes, Heartsease and Bee Orchids have been among the surprise settlers. If you’re prepared to junk judgemental labels like weeds and pests there are very few challenges from this approach. 

22:50 by Marie-Lou Wechsler, via flickr.
22:50 by Marie-Lou Wechsler, via flickr.

There seems to be evidence that, if left to fend for itself, nature can thrive and colonise without human involvement, as seen along the Dorset coast in the 1800s. What do you think humankind can learn from this going forward? 

I’m continually amazed that we find nature’s ability to thrive and adapt surprising. How else could the planet have supported an abundance of life for billions of years before humans arrived on the scene? The natural world has never lost that enterprise and agility. Our reluctance to take advantage of this, to capitalise on adaptive solutions to environmental change, is a typically arrogant stance by our species, still stuck in its ‘dominion over’ mode, and our loss, as well as the natural world’s.   

As you mentioned in one of your chapters, many people relish how non-native plant species can transport you to other places, while they also play a key role in garden biodiversity and over time can become at home in the UK, as seen with Snowdrops and Horse Chestnut. How do you think we can nurture the inevitable introduction of new species without this disadvantaging native plants?  

The only visiting species we have any trouble with is Ground Elder, and otherwise our patch is developing into a resilient fusion garden. Native plants and animals form new communities with benign settlers. I’m writing this in May just feet from a large and dazzling patch of self-sown flowers that have established themselves in the gravel round the house, including Red Campion, Green Alkanet, Lamb’s Lettuce, Red Valerian, Hedgerow Cranesbill, Ox-eye Daisies. My interest is in the vitality and autonomy of this community (and its insect life – Hummingbird Hawk-moths are the stars!).  But in terms of pure visual attractiveness it would match any herbaceous border. I’m also pleased by the way Turkey Oaks are regenerating in and beyond our patch of treeland, growing alongside the Wild Cherries and Ashes, and proving more resistant to deer browsing than English Oaks. Of course, many newcomers cause trouble away from their home ground. But in an environment that is being damaged so much by climate change, we need new species to keep a biologically rich tapestry of life here, in case our traditional species have trouble coping. ‘Nativeness’ has always had strict time limits, at both ends.  

Horse Chestnut seeds on a tree.
Horse Chestnut – Aesculus hippocastanum by Judy Gallagher, via flickr.

What was the most interesting finding that you came across while undertaking this journey with your own garden?  

I think learning about eliasomes, the little parcels of fat on the ends of many seeds that are ants’ rewards for acting as beasts of burden. (They ferry the seeds to their hills and feed the fat globules to their grubs.) Our red ants’ hills are now like living standing stones and I like to think they are responsible for Cowslips now carpeting most of our grassland.  

What do you hope the reader can learn from The Accidental Garden?  

I’ve been astonished by the inventiveness of our fellow beings when allowed a little leeway to do their own thing. When we drop our paternalistic attitude, our belief that we know best what should live where. Gardens are often compared to theatres, with the gardener as writer, director, set designer rolled into one. Can’t they also be open stages where uninvited, unsupervised species and ancient processes of colonisation and decay can improvise their own landscapes? In the 20 years we’ve been here one half of our plot has transformed itself into a kind of common, with patches of treeland and open grass, and a total of over 150 wild plant species arrived largely of their own accord. A garden is only in the smallest sense a microcosm and metaphor for the planet. But in it it’s possible to glimpse larger lessons about neighbourliness and cooperation, and the fact that the natural world is not intrinsically a victim, in need of constant intensive care.  

What are you occupying your time with at the moment? Do you have any other books in progress that we can hear about? 

At my age I should be put out to grass. But I can’t stop thinking and scribbling. I’ve just finished an expanded new edition of my 1993 book on the cultural history of Nightingales, Whistling in the Dark, out next year. And I’m dogged by a fancy of tracing the wild thread in the art of nature (always my second subject) from the cave paintings in Derbyshire to Andy Goldsworthy’s spring-flower-enclosing snowballs. But maybe I should just be content to use my walking stick (my Instrument of Minimum Intervention) to scratch more patches in the grass. 


The Accidental Garden book cover.

The Accidental Garden is available to pre-order from our bookstore.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 20th May

Climate crisis

Unusual spring weather is affecting bird migrations. The Wood Warbler, Redstart and Pied Flycatcher migrate from sub-Saharan Africa to British oak woods every spring and depend on Oak Moth caterpillars to feed their young. In recent years, these caterpillars had already emerged and were pupating by the time the birds arrived, resulting in their chicks starving. This year, however, they are facing a new issue: as spring has been so wet and cold, many birds have not reached Britain yet, while those that have are having to search for food in cool weather and have not begun nesting. These shifts in long-term weather patterns are likely to continue to cause migration issues going forward due to their unpredictability. 

Pied flycatcher stood on the ground amongst small plants and grass.
Pied Flycatcher by hedera.baltica, via flickr.

The final Venezuelan glacier has been downgraded to an ‘ice field’ following large-scale glacial melt. This follows the loss of at least six other glaciers across the country in the last century due to an increase in global temperatures. In March 2024, researchers revealed that the Humboldt glacier had shrunk from 450 hectares to just two hectares. More recent observations show that, in the last two months it has reduced in size further to the area of just two football pitches. The latest projections suggest that between 20–80% of glaciers worldwide will be lost by 2100 as a result of climate change, with some of this loss already inevitable despite attempts to combat climate breakdown. 

Environment 

New record of Asian Hornet sightings threatens native pollination species. While Asian Hornets aren’t yet established in the UK, recent flooding and warm temperatures are increasing the risk of this species spreading across the country. Defra has warned that early detection and irradiation is the key to saving our native pollinator species who are known to feed on Honeybees. Since 2016, there have been 108 sightings of Asian Hornets, 56 of which were recorded last year alone. A further eight have been reported in the UK so far this year. Kent is on the front-line of the battle against this species with many of the UK sightings recorded in this county. 

Close up photo of an Asian hornet stood on some moss on a branch.
Asian hornet by Gilles San Martin, via flickr.

Pioneering project that makes eco-friendly concrete from crushed shells may be the answer to extreme flooding. A team at the University of Central Lancashire has developed an innovative, sustainable, permeable concrete made from recycled crushed scallop and whelk shells that would otherwise go to landfill when discarded by fishmongers. Trials are being undertaken in Blackpool to assess its effectiveness in gardens, footpaths and car parks, and early results are very positive. 

Over 8,000 hectares of land ‘left to nature’ to increase biodiversity. This restoration project, run by Forestry England and supported by both Forest Holidays and the Government, will be implemented in four areas across the UK: Castle Neroche, Somerset; Kielder Forest, Northumberland; Newtondale, North Yorkshire and Purbeck, Dorset. The project aims to minimise human involvement, allowing nature to shape these forest landscapes itself. Andrew Stinger, The Head of Environment at Forestry England, stated that, although the team is uncertain how these areas will evolve once human activity is reduced, they are confident they will become more biodiverse with the help of reintroduction initiatives, aid flood mitigation, improve air quality, and restore soil health.

Science 

Sea Otter coming up from under the water holding a crab.
Sea Otter by Bureau of Land Management California, via flickr.

Study reveals that female Sea Otters are using tools to help preserve their teeth. Researcher Chris Law documented the moment that a female Sea Otter used a rock anvil to open the shell of its next meal, a type of behaviour which has previously been witnessed in very few animals. Further investigation revealed that, when there’s a decline in their preferred food, female Sea Otters have evolved to use tools to allow them to overcome their weaker biting ability when compared to their male counterparts, which allows them to consume alternative, larger prey without damaging their teeth.

 

This Week in Biodiversity News – 29th April

Environment 

Half the world’s estuaries have been altered by humans, with 20% of estuary loss occurring in the past 35 years alone as a result of urban or agricultural land expansions. Ninety percent of this has occurred in rapidly developing Asian countries, whereas very little estuary loss has been noted in higher income countries within the same period. This is because waterway alterations in these higher income countries were made many decades prior during their own urban development stages. With much of the world now trying to undo this damage and rewild urbanised areas, countries are now investing in programmes to return these areas to wild mudflats and salt marshes which will increase climate resilience, replenish aquatic populations, reduce flood risk and aid nature’s recovery. 

An aerial view of Dawlish estuary on a sunny day with boats on the water and the tide partially in.
An aerial view of a large body of water by Nick Russill, via unsplash.

The introduction of new diseases via open import systems are destroying EU trees and crops, with outbreaks on the rise once again. This comes after a mutation of one of the major killers of Olive trees in Italy, Xylella fastidiosa, was detected in America and is now wiping out US vineyards alongside its Italian counterparts. New data has revealed that an average of 70 foreign plant diseases were introduced to the EU between 2015–2020, despite legislation being enforced to prevent their spread in 2016, and scientists are holding open systems accountable. According to international protocols, only 2% of imported plants travelling through open systems are inspected for the presence of diseases, meaning that an alarming number of plant pests may be brought into the EU undetected. Although some pathogens are harmless in areas where ecosystems have evolved alongside them, they can be deadly when introduced to a new area. As global temperatures continue to rise, the problem is only likely to get worse. 

Conservation 

A UK study has proven that wilder gardens boost butterfly population numbers, with long, uncut grass likely to almost double butterfly abundance. This research, co-authored by the head of science at Butterfly Conservation, recorded a 93% increase in butterflies in gardens within farmed landscapes who did not cut their lawns, while gardens in urban areas noted an 18% rise in population numbers. These wilder habitats attract species whose caterpillars live and feed on the grass, provide greater quantities of nectar that are necessary for butterfly survival, and create important breeding habitats, which subsequently increases population numbers. The study advises that long grass should be left until late September or early October before cutting as some species require longer grass nearly all year round. 

Close up of two holly blue butterflies perched on the end of a plant in the sunshine.
Holly blue butterflies by Nikk, via flickr, (image rotated).

Music featuring the sounds of nature earn royalties that will be donated to environmental causes. This new initiative, launched by the Museum for the United Nations, will recognise nature as an official artist on major music streaming platforms. A share of the royalties earnt when these songs are played will be donated to environmental causes and initiatives who are working hard to protect nature for the future. Nature itself will also have its own artist page on Spotify which will showcase ambient recordings of nature’s sounds, with 70% of the profits from these tracks funding conservation programmes. 

The south coast’s only breeding Osprey pair have laid a fourth egg. These birds became the first nesting Ospreys on the south coast for 180 years after their reintroduction seven years ago. They returned to Poole Harbour in late March after their migration to West Africa and laid their first egg on the 15th April 2024. As female Ospreys usually only lay 3 eggs due to the challenges of feeding 4 young, researchers were surprised to find a fourth, but due to the exceptional job the pair did while caring for 3 chicks in 2023 they have high hopes for success this season.

Osprey mid flight holding a fish in its claws.
Osprey by texaus1, via flickr.

Discovery 

Common Eastern Bumblebee queens have adapted so they can survive underwater for up to a week during hibernation, which is thought to be responsible for the species’ continual population stability, despite a third of all other bumblebee species currently in decline. This study was conducted as a result of water leaking into containers housing hibernating queens; results revealed that over 80% of the bees survived when submerged for up to seven days. Scientists noted that these findings are unusual as most overwintering insects cannot cope when submerged in water. However, it is hoped that this flood tolerance will help the species continue to thrive in the wild. 

Common Eastern Bumblebee collecting nectar on a yellow flowers.
Common Eastern Bumblebee by Judy Gallagher, via flickr.

The largest snake that ever lived has been discovered in Western India, measuring up to 15m long and weighing a tonne. The fossil of the Vasuki indicus snake was discovered in a mine in western India and included 27 vertebrae, a few of which remained in the correct anatomical position. Scientists concluded that it would have lived in marshy swamps around 66m years ago during the Cenozoic era and, due to its size, it would have been a slow-moving ambush predator who attacked its prey through constriction. 

This Week in Biodiversity News – 15th April

Environment 

The UK’s first national assessment of earthworms has revealed that their populations decrease by 2% annually, and overall earthworm population numbers have fallen by a third over the past 25 years. This study, conducted by an ecologist at the British Ornithology Trust (BTO), also concluded that the largest decline in this species has been observed in broadleaf woodland ecosystems. This may now be having detrimental effects on other species, such as woodland birds, who have seen a subsequent population decline of 37% since 1970. Barnes’ study concludes that, if these results are found elsewhere, the long-term decline of this keystone species could affect our ability to grow crops, as worms aid the growth of 140m tonnes of food a year. It may also have catastrophic effects on soil health, ecosystem structure, function, and above-ground wildlife.

Earthworm diving into the soil between some blades of grass with leaves on the floor.
20060131 earthworm dives by schizoform, via flickr.

Global rainforest deforestation continues at a rate of ten football pitches per minute. Despite widespread efforts to minimise deforestation across the Brazilian and Colombian Amazon, new data has revealed that 37,000 sq km was still removed from previously undisturbed rainforests in 2023. Large increases were noted in Bolivia, Laos and Nicaragua, which has now offset the positive progress made by other countries in the reduction of deforestation. Experts have warned that governments are unlikely to meet their climate and biodiversity commitments due to the continuation of mass deforestation, with many going against the COP28 agreement to halt and reverse the loss and degradation of forests in the next six years. This puts the 2030 zero-deforestation target even further out of reach. 

New research has revealed that national parks are failing to tackle the biodiversity crisis, despite these important areas covering 10% of England and 20% of Wales. Due to lack of government funding, the direct grant set aside for national parks has been cut by 40% since 2010, resulting in poor peatland condition, no change in woodland biodiversity in a 5-year period, and a significant decline in river and lake health. Aside from a lack of funding, national parks are not restoring nature as only 13.7% of the land is publicly owned, with the remaining 86.3% privately owned and often intensely farmed. Campaign for National Parks is calling for a new deal that ensures the government sets a clear mission to increase nature protection and restoration in the UK’s national parks, and subsequently double core national park grants to reinstate this vital funding to its 2010 level. 

Dartmoor landscape with cloudy sky but sun shining on the grass, with the moors in the background and a tor stone in the foreground.
Dartmoor by dreamgenie, via flickr.

Discovery and reintroduction 

One of the world’s most elusive moles has been sighted in Australia. The Northern Marsupial Mole, or Kakarratul, lives in one of the most remote parts of Australia and is only sighted a few times each decade. Due to their rarity, authorities are still unsure of their population size and these creatures remain a mystery to most of the world. However, the Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa Martu rangers discovered the rare, blind Northern Marsupial while working in the Great Sandy Desert, making this the second species sighting in six months. 

Progress has been made in the first ever shark translocation project, which aims to reintroduce Zebra Sharks to the Raja Ampat archipelago in Indonesia after the species was declared functionally extinct due to overfishing and habitat degradation. This is the first initiative attempting to translocate shark eggs from an aquarium to a hatchery before releasing them into the wild. Two sharks have recently hatched on the island of Kri and will be kept in tanks until they are strong enough to be released into the wild. The project aims to release 500 Zebra Sharks by 2032 in the hope of creating a genetically diverse breeding population that will aid long-term species recovery. If successful, this rewilding project will set a strong example of how to re-establish endangered species populations in marine ecosystems and would be a breakthrough for future conservation efforts. 

Zebra Shark swimming in the sea over a rocky seabed with fish swimming above it.
Zebra Shark by Daniel Sasse, via wikimediacommons.

Climate crisis 

A record hot March leads to fears of faster rates of climate change. Last month was the hottest March on record, reaching 1.68°C warmer than in pre-industrial times. This marks the tenth record breaking monthly temperature in a row, and scientists are concerned that they may not temporarily fall, as expected, after the El Niño period due to the warm weather experienced at the end of 2023. Researchers are now trying to ascertain whether the changes in El Niño are a phase shift or just an anomaly in long-term climate trends. Although they are unsure how conditions in the Pacific Ocean will evolve over the coming months, current predictions suggest it could be replaced by a full La Niña cooling phase. 

This week in Biodiversity News – 1st April

Conservation

Increasing shortages of early season food threatens bumblebee populations. A new study published by the Universities of Oxford and Exeter has revealed that pollinator-friendly plant species are now flowering up to a month too late to aid bee conservation, resulting in low colony survival rates and reduced queen production. The reduction in pollen and nectar availability during the March to June period, which is critical during the early stages of colony formation, can have catastrophic effects on colony populations, with research suggesting that a two week gap in pollen supply reduces the production of daughter queen bees by up to 87%. To combat this decline, it is recommended that existing hedgerows should be populated with early blooming species such as Ground Ivy, cherry, and Hawthorn, which would increase colony success rates from 35% to 100%. 

Photograph of a bumblebee flying towards a yellow flower.
Bumblebee by James Johnstone, via flickr.

A pioneering translocation project aimed at saving a rare species of fungus in now underway in Cumbria. The Willow Glove fungus is a critically endangered species that can now only be found in two woodlands in Scotland, with the majority of it living on a single fallen tree. Scientists have recently removed sections of dead wood that the fungus is living on and relocated it to three receptor sites in an attempt to prevent the species’ impending extinction. The fungus is being transported to protected sites of special scientific interest where the fungus was last recorded before it became extinct in England 50 years ago. Host trees have been selected due to their plentiful supply of willow glue, a parasite that the Willow Glove depends on for survival. The success of this relocation technique will be monitored by volunteers from Cumbria Fungi Group for the next five years.

RHS Rosemoor aims to rediscover lost, native apple varieties to help the fruit survive climate breakdown. This spring, horticulturalists are searching for lost varieties of apple trees that used to be abundant in ancient orchards, with the goal of discovering the genetic traits of those species that are still thriving today. The University of Bristol and Sandford Orchards will each receive the genotypes of apple species that have been deemed important from across England and plan to investigate the rare ‘survivor varieties’ that have not been propagated, collected or recorded before. The hope is that their genetic code can be preserved for future use in an attempt to safeguard biodiversity and boost the UK apple industry’s resilience to climate change, particularly for those species that are native to this country. This project will play a vital role in the sustainability of the UK’s commercial orchards, 80% of which have been lost since 1900.

Closeup image of Apples hanging off a tree in an orchard.
Apple Orchard by Sue Thompson, via flickr.

Discovery

A newly discovered orchid species boasts the longest nectar spur of any known plant relative to its flower size. The Solenangis impraedicta, found in the forest canopies of central Madagascar, is the first orchid discovered since 1965 that has made extreme adaptations to allow only a certain species to access its nectar and facilitate pollination. Its hyper-long nectar spur, measuring 33cm, makes it the longest of any known plant when compared to its small flower size of only 2cm, and researchers suggest it may only be accessible to the Long-tongued Hawkmoth. The significance of this discovery has been noted due to the similarities between this species and Darwin’s Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale), which is also native to Madagascar. Darwin speculated that only a moth with an exceptionally long proboscis could reach the nectar, while Alfred Russel Wallace further built on this in his predication that a hawkmoth would be the only species able to do so. Finding this rare orchid highlights the urgency of conservation measures in Madagascar that are necessary to combat the rapid rate of deforestation occurring on the island.

Hummingbird Hawkmoth in flight while feeding off a purple flower.
Hummingbird Hawkmoth by Peter Stenzel, via flickr.

An ancient species of river dolphin has been discovered in the Peruvian Amazon. A team of palaeontologists have found a giant fossilised skull on the shores of the Napo River that belonged to the largest-known species of river dolphin in history. This colossal creature, measuring 3-3.5 metres in length, is not related to the native Amazon River (Pink) Dolphins, but rather the South Asia river dolphins who are found 10,000km away. Researchers suggest that the dolphins’ ancestors originally lived in the ocean but ventured into the abundant freshwater ecosystems of the proto-Amazonia, before becoming extinct when new habitats emerged and their prey vanished.

Environment

The earliest-ever sighting of the Asian Hornet suggests they may now be established in the UK. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recently confirmed that an Asian Hornet was sighted and captured on the 11th March in Kent – one month earlier than the first hornet sighting of last year. Once hornets are established, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them, and with Asian Hornet numbers having skyrocketed in the UK in 2023, scientist are concerned that they are now overwintering in the UK. This may have detrimental effects on wild pollinators emerging from hibernation, particularly Britain’s bee populations which play a key role in agricultural pollination. 

Author Q&A with Jeremy Biggs & Penny Williams: Ponds, Pools and Puddles

Ponds, pools and puddles are a common sight in our landscape and play a very important part in sustaining wildlife. In Volume 148 of the New Naturalist Series, the authors provide a comprehensive survey of the variety of plants and animal life for which they are a habitat, and discusses the way in which they are used, their importance, and compares their major variations in life cycles. Ponds, Pools and Puddles makes an invaluable contribution to raising awareness of these popular, yet frequently underrated freshwater habitats and gives them the attention they rightly deserve.

Jeremy Biggs and Penny Williams work for Freshwater Habitats Trust, a wildlife conservation charity focused on reversing the decline in freshwater biodiversity. They have been involved in numerous research projects, publications and conferences on the ecology and management of ponds and other freshwater habitats.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Jeremy and Penny about how they became interested in ponds, whether they think technological advances will play an important role in future pond research and more.


Jeremy Biggs wearing wellies on the side of a large pond looking at something he has caught in a net on a sunny day with clear, blue skies.
Jeremy Biggs

Can you tell us how you both became interested in ponds and pond life?

P: I had a wonderful early experience at primary school: we had a trip to a local pond in Southborough, Kent and caught a Three-spined Stickleback. The teacher brought a couple back to a classroom tank and I watched in amazement as the beautiful azure blue and orange male made a nest and fanned the eggs with his tail.

J: I was interested in wildlife from my teens, particularly birds, but it was at university (Royal Holloway, University of London) that my interest in freshwater was awakened. Crucial for me was an inspirational teacher – the late Dr Nan Duncan – who ran one of the best courses there was on freshwater biology.

I found your definition of a pond interesting as there appears to be so many ways of deciding what constitutes a pond. Can you talk us through the process that you went through to decide on the parameters for your definition?

P: After working on ponds for a couple of years it became clear that we needed an easy-to-use definition, particularly to deal with the inevitable question: is it a pond or a lake? It also had to include temporary ponds, which were hardly recognised in the UK at the time. So, at Freshwater Habitats Trust we went for an area-based definition because that’s easy to measure. We set 2 ha as the pond/lake cut off, as this seemed to best capture the difference between the two. The ‘wet for at least four months of the year’ is included as this is roughly the time needed for ponds to develop a wetland plant community. That means that you should be able go to a basin that’s wet or dry at any time of year and tell if it is a pond. In practice, the lower limit is a little flexible: we use 1m² to include tiny pools and garden ponds, but for practical reasons use 25m² for national counts of ponds where it’s impractical to count every little countryside puddle.

Penny Williams carrying an inflatable kayak by a pond on a sunny day with blue skies.
Penny Williams

It’s clear that the first national pond survey paved the way for gaining a more in-depth understanding of pond classifications, species, ecological preferences and more. What do you think the next step is in gaining an even greater understanding of ponds, and do you think modern, technological research methods will play a big part in this?

P: Current policy, legislation and general awareness of the importance of ponds now lags way behind our knowledge of pond ecology – so although there is still an enormous amount more to find out about pond biology, I think the greatest need is for knowledge that shows the importance and value of ponds for protecting freshwater biodiversity. For example, we need evidence about how high-quality pond creation and restoration can be used, at a landscape scale, to maintain healthy freshwater metapopulations, prevent extinctions and enable the spread of species that may be increasingly isolated by pollution and climate change. This is a real focus for Freshwater Habitats Trust, where we’ve been championing the importance of small waterbodies – and ponds in particular – for more than three decades.

Modern technology will undoubtedly play a part in this: DNA, and eDNA in particular, may be a game changer, although we are some way off from using it for the purpose that I would love: routine monitoring of all waterbodies (rather than just rivers) to get a real understanding of what is happening to freshwater biodiversity in our landscapes and how we can best address that.

New technologies are always exciting but, to be honest, I think the main thing we need at the moment is publicity, publicity, publicity. Widespread knowledge and appreciation at all levels of how wonderful these little waterbodies are.

J: More than a particular technological solution, what we really need is funding for ‘National Pond Survey 2’, led from a conservation perspective and, as we’ve been doing for the last 30 years, generating and testing the ideas that Ponds, Pools and Puddles summarises. There’s so much to learn here: are ponds still declining in quality? What’s the effect of pond management? How do ponds, lakes, streams, wetlands and rivers interact? What about the microbiota which we know next to nothing about (that is something eDNA will help with)? How is climate change affecting ponds?

It was fascinating to learn that there is a much greater variety of species found in ponds in comparison to river communities. How important do you think ponds are in the recovery of nationally scarce or Red Data Book species?

J: The very wide variety of nationally scarce and Red Data Book species found in ponds means that ponds are absolutely vital for the recovery of these species. The special virtue of ponds is that, with their small catchment, we can still find large numbers of very high-quality ponds in the landscape, or create new, near pristine, clean water ponds in areas protected from pollution. This is all much more difficult for streams, rivers and many lakes with their much bigger catchments. There’s no doubt that creating and restoring networks of clean water ponds could put many of our Red Listed freshwater species on an upward trajectory. Indeed, this is one of the aims of Freshwater Habitats Trust’s vision to build the Freshwater Network: to reverse the decline in freshwater biodiversity. This will see us creating a network of wilder, wetter, cleaner, more connected freshwater habitats, and ponds play a big part in this concept.

Delta Pond in Eugene, Oregon surrounded by trees, plants and flowers on the shoreline.
Delta Pond in Eugene, Oregon by Rick Obst, via flickr.

To what extent do you expect climate change to affect the ecological formation and chemical makeup of natural ponds in the future?

P: The effects of climate change on ponds are undoubtedly going to be complex, varied, unexpected and unpredictable. For example, in the Water Friendly Farming project, where we’ve been monitoring the same ponds for over a decade, a clear (but not predicted) result is that shallow ponds are being rapidly encroached by marginal wetland vegetation in dry years, and this vegetation persists so that open water is being lost. However, the effect differs: where ponds are grazed this has been beneficial, sometimes enabling uncommon plants like Orange Foxtail (Alopecurus aequalis) to spread to lovely new poached drawdown zones. In other cases, it has been sad to see little ponds with water buttercups be replaced by just wetland grasses like Sweet-grasses (Glyceria spp) and Creeping Bent (Agrostis stolonifera).

J: Climate change is going to have a big impact, but the effects are going to very difficult to predict. Ponds are so varied, it’s inevitable that their responses will be too. It’s possible to make sweeping generalisations (pollution impacts get worse, many temporary ponds disappear) but there’s a good chance these will wrong. It’ll be crucial to have a good set of observations of what is actually happening to ponds. In the meantime, the priority should be to use ponds to put as much clean water as we can back into the landscape.

What is the most interesting finding that you have come across while researching ponds, pools and puddles?

P: For me it’s undoubtedly been the opportunity to riff on my geological background and delve into the ancient natural processes that shaped ponds in the past – and which still has so much to teach us about ponds (and other freshwaters) today. For example, I love the fact that almost all of today’s wetland plants evolved in landscapes that had already been shaped by grazing and poaching processes for over 200 million years – no wonder many wetland plants benefit from grazing and the presence of muddy ground! And, at a time when many people (including scientists and policymakers) still undervalue ponds as man-made artificial features, some of world’s best-preserved evidence of early life in terrestrial landscapes (the Devonian Rhynie cherts in Scotland which are c400 my) reveal an environment that is full of ponds with the fairy shrimps and tadpole shrimps swimming amongst stoneworts.

J: For me, it’s been the chance to bring together so much information that we simply haven’t had a chance to publish anywhere else. With the amount of time it takes to publish research, we are extremely selective about what we write up in papers. Only the most important results ever make it into print. It’s also allowed us to look at groups we don’t work on so much ourselves (such as the microalgae) and see how these reinforce many of the ideas about ponds from the more obvious bigger plants and animals. It’s also nice to get into the book the truth that many of our biggest and most famous wetlands, like the Coto Donana in Spain, are actually massive pond complexes comprised of over 3,000 temporary ponds!

Pennington Flash Pond through the Trees.
Pennington Flash Pond through the Trees by Ronald Saunders, via flickr.

Are either of you working on any other projects that we can hear about?

J: Freshwater Habitats Trust is really busy at the moment! Amongst other things we are:

– Launching the Freshwater Network: this is our plan to restore freshwater biodiversity taking account of freshwaters, including the critically important small (standing and flowing) that make up most of the water environment but have been largely overlooked for 100 years.

– Developing the network in key regions to protect and restore freshwater biodiversity in some of our most important freshwater landscapes like the New Forest, The Brecks, in the catchment of the R. Thames and in the Yorkshire Lowlands.

– Working with colleagues in Europe and South America looking at pond biodiversity, ecosystem services and climate change as part of the EU Horizon 2020 PONDERFUL project.

– Beginning research on the value of pond buffer zones in a project for Natural England and assessing the role that eDNA can play.

– Creating thousands of new ponds with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation as part of the Newt Conservation Partnership – created for Great Crested Newts but with much wider benefits for wildlife and, critically, monitoring the effects so we can tell whether it’s really making a difference.

– Continuing catchment research which looks at all of the water environment. Fortunately more and more people are realising that in every landscape, small waters are a lifeblood.

– and so many others….


 

Ponds, Pools and Puddles is available to order from our online bookstore here.