Welcome to our annual tour of recommended reads and equipment highlights brought to you by members of the NHBS team. Here are our staff picks 2016!
The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants
I admit that I’m a bit of a closet palaeontologist. Having decided to forego a career in this field in favour of biology, I have nevertheless retained a fascination for dinosaurs, so I enjoy a good dino-book like no other, and Indiana’s Life of the Past series… oh, wait. Probably the most surprising thing about The Sauropod Dinosaurs is that it was not published by Indiana University Press as part of their Life of the Past series, but instead by Johns Hopkins University Press. For anyone familiar with the aforementioned series, this book would fit right in, and displays similarly high production values, gorgeous illustrations, and accessible popular science. I have yet to go beyond merely flicking through it and admiring it, but I could not resist and got myself a copy as soon as this came out. Leon – Catalogue Editor
The Arctic Guide: Wildlife of the Far North
The Arctic Guide is a fantastic reminder of the precious diversity of wildlife that occupies the Northern regions of the planet – including mammals, birds, fishes, lizards and frogs, flies, bees, butterflies and flora. There is even a fascinating entry on domesticated sled dogs. It is beautifully produced, as we have come to expect from Princeton University Press natural history lists. Well-designed colour plates are accompanied by unusually descriptive detail by author Sharon Chester, making this an enjoyable general read for naturalists as well as an essential companion for Arctic researchers or travellers. Katherine – Marketing
Britain’s Treasure Islands: A Journey to the UK Overseas Territories
To research Britain’s Treasure Islands, and the TV series of the same name that was broadcast in 2016, Stewart McPherson travelled to each of the 16 remote islands and peninsulas across the globe that are under UK sovereignty.
The contrasts between the different territories are fascinating, some can be travelled to with relative ease (e.g. Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands), but others are nearly inaccessible and as a result have most wonderful wildlife – one of my favourite chapters describes the British Indian Ocean Territory, home of undisturbed coral reefs, and giant Coconut crabs.
This hefty book is full of adventure and natural history, with fold-out maps and countless photos, and just perfect for dipping into when it’s cold and windy outside. Anneli – Senior Manager
Bushnell NatureView Binoculars
We all love the Bushnell NatureView Binoculars because they are bright, well balanced and really solid, without being heavy. They have a fantastic field of view for scanning the horizon and an excellent close focus distance so they are brilliant for insect work too. They are very well designed binoculars at a really affordable price. Simone – Wildlife Equipment Specialist
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Sapiens is a very ambitious book, covering the entirety of human history while exploring what the future holds for our species. You will learn to admire, sympathise with and hate our species as Harari examines the key factors which lead to our success over other animals. Through Hariri’s use of creative metaphors, he successfully manages to answer some of the big questions which would otherwise be incomprehensible. I can’t wait to read his latest book Homo Deus, which further explores the future of our species; where we’re are headed and what challenges we will face. Tim – Customer Services
Bushnell Trophy Cam Essential E2
Whilst carrying out research for my PhD studying chemical communication in the Eurasian beaver I recorded many hours of beaver responses to the scents of intruding neighbours using trail cameras. I also enjoyed taking them home to record animals in my garden and surrounding countryside. The Essential E2 is an affordable yet good quality trail camera that will give you an insight into the animals visiting your garden. It is surprising how many different animals and birds visit gardens without people knowing, although some leave a nice surprise of a dug-up lawn! A friend recently used a trail camera to investigate who was digging up their lawn – badgers looking for tasty leatherjackets! Hannah – Wildlife Equipment Specialist
Cavity nesting bees make up around 30% of the solitary bees in the UK. These non-aggressive insects require dry, hollow tubes to make their nests and use natural materials, rather than wax, to construct the cells in which the larvae grow.
I bought this small wooden solitary beehive for my garden in an attempt to provide nesting space for these vital pollinators. It has been a great addition to the garden and within a month of installing it, several of the holes had been packed with leaves. This was really exciting to see and suggests that it was being used by local leafcutter bees.
The box is well made and has withstood the local Dartmoor weather (i.e. windy and wet much of the time) really well. The wood has weathered attractively over the year and the box still feels robust and sound. As a fruit and vegetable grower it is great to know that we are attracting pollinators to the garden. Luanne – Senior Wildlife Equipment Specialist
Heavy-duty Badger Gate
One of our latest developments is a redesign of an existing product sold by us. Our new heavy-duty badger gates are made on site, welded by our own fully qualified TIG welder, ensuring quality workmanship and a finish we hope the customer is amazed by.
Currently, our competitors only use galvanised mild steel. This results in a cumbersome, awkward to use product. Ours, however, is lightweight but still gives the same strength and reusability, making it far easier to transport to the required area and reduce the strain required to set up a gated badger enclosure. Competitively price, this item should fulfil all your requirements and more, a must have for anyone working towards badger conservation. Thomas – Wildlife Equipment Engineer
Our new pond net frame has been designed and developed to make a more sustainably sourced, budget frame for everyone from young children up. Manufactured in house, it means that we are no longer reliant on external suppliers to fulfil orders, and therefore able to lower the cost to you, the customer. Also, not being shipped from the other side of the world makes it a greener, more sustainable product, reducing airmiles and making it more environmentally friendly. Lightweight, coming in at only 300g, it has two tactile foam handles, fitting very nicely into the hand. Kynan – Fabricator
Arboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing
In memory of Oliver Rackham, Little Toller’s Arboreal sets out to curate a journey through the managed and wilder woods of Britain, with some very insightful companions. The book is a perfect blend of collected nostalgia, fancies, facts and little fictions that each in turn highlights something of the wild wood within us. Authors, journalists, artists, poets and woodland custodians impart wisdom, wonder and hope; and each leaves their own mark on the mind with their input. This book is an immersive, beautiful, lyrical and poignant treat, let it take you into the woods, or better still, take it with you and head for the trees! Oli – Graphic Designer
Michael Scott is a nature writer and cruise ship speaker who has had an interest in botany since his undergraduate studies at Aberdeen University. His latest book, Mountain Flowers, is an extensive and engrossing survey of Britain’s montane flora. Michael expands on the story of Diapensia (see below) in the August 2016 issue of British Wildlife.
Tell us about the book and who might find it interesting.
I suppose it’s aimed mostly at people who already have some general interest in the wild flowers of Britain. Perhaps they already know something about the flora of lowland areas but don’t quite know where to begin seeking out the more elusive species that grow at higher altitudes in the British mountains. The book describes the key places to visit and some of the characteristic species at each site. It also describes the ecological requirements of each species, and I’d really hope that will encourage people to explore more widely in the mountains and hopefully make new discoveries there.
Many of the mountain areas of Britain are stunningly beautiful, and I would be thrilled if people who love mountains were also encouraged to read the book and discover more about these wonderful wild areas and about the colourful plants that grow beneath their feet as they hike the fells or ‘bag their Munros’. I’ve tried to select photos for the book that are as attractive and compelling as possible to inspire readers to explore and investigate – or just to act as a wonderful souvenir of holidays in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands or wherever.
I best sum up my objective for the book at the end of chapter one: “If I can persuade a few… hillwalkers to slow their relentless pace, to look around them as they climb, to venture off the beaten path and explore an interesting-looking crag or delve into the watery runnels that seep from the tops – in other words, to enjoy seeing a hill, rather than just conquering it – then this book will have been truly worthwhile.”
How did you first become interested in botany?
I grew up near Edinburgh Zoo and from an early age spent all my spare time in the zoo getting to know the animals. By the age of 8, I’d decided I wanted to be a zoologist when I grew up – which I thought meant going around the world looking at zoos! That enthusiasm never waned, and I went to Aberdeen University to study zoology. In first year we also had to study botany, and I found that new and fascinating. I knew that plants lay at the foot of all food chains, and therefore that plants were key to how the natural world worked, so I switched over to doing my degree in botany. I was lucky that the university had a field station at Bettyhill on the north coast of Scotland, and some of the first plants I got to know there were montane species growing at unusually low altitudes in the relative sub-arctic climate of the far north. Then, in Honours year, we had an amazing field trip to Obergurgl in the Alps, and I have been hooked on mountain flowers ever since.
You are now lucky enough to spend a lot of your time as a quest speaker on cruise ships around the world; how might you go about getting passengers interested in Britain’s mountain flowers?
It’s funny that you should ask that, because I’m just about to go off on a cruise to Nova Scotia in Canada, and on one of the four days when we sail back across the Atlantic to Liverpool I’m planning a talk called The Lure of Mountain Flowers. I think I’m going to start that with the story of a birdwatcher called Charles Tebbutt, who is best known for his book on the birds of (distinctly unmountainous!) Huntingdonshire. In July 1951, he was walking on a rugged hillside in Inverness-shire, when he spotted a plant at his feet that he didn’t recognise. He collected a few samples of the flowers and leaves, which he sent to various botanic gardens and he was promptly told, with some excitement, that he had discovered a rather handsome flower called Diapensia* which had never previously been recorded in Britain.
That may be 60 years ago now, but I think it shows that there might still be exciting discoveries to be made in the British mountains – and that you don’t need to be a professional botanist to make them! I’ll then go on to a series of beautiful scenic photographs, just to remind folk how beautiful our mountains are, then I’ll show some of our most attractive mountain plants to prove just how much they add to the allure of the hills. That will lead into the mystery stories behind these plants: I’ll speculate why Diapensia is still only known from that single, rather unremarkable hillside and what that might have to do with Norwegian commandos. I’ll tell the story of two attractive little plants that cling to survival in Snowdonia, and why a relative of the garden pinks is known from only two very different sites, one a crag in Lake District and the other a hillside of shattered rocks in Angus. There are plenty of ‘ripping yarns’ from mountain botany to interest cruise ship passengers – and I hope they will also inspire readers of my book.
(* Incidentally, I apologise to any keen botanists reading this who, like me, know many plants better by their scientific names. As in the book, I’m not quoting scientific names here because I don’t want to scare off readers who aren’t botanists – and those of us who are botanists probably have plenty of books in which we can check the scientific names if we need them).
What distinguishes a mountain flower and how many such species occur in Britain?
That’s a really good question. Many of them are species which also grow in the Alpine regions of central Europe or in the Arctic regions of the far north, so they are categorised broadly as ‘arctic-alpines’ – a term that will be familiar to most gardeners. But Britain lies in a special position off the west coast of Europe and its climate is tempered by winds that come off the Atlantic. As a result, many alpine species grow here at dramatically lower altitudes than where they occur in the Alps, and some arctic species also grow here, far south of their normal latitudes. Several species meet on the mountain cliffs of the Lake District or the southern Highlands of Scotland that grow together nowhere else in the world (which makes these especially important conservation sites in an international perspective). I also list in the book several species that grow in Britain at their northernmost or their southernmost sites in the world.
So, although I could define a mountain plant as one that grows typically above, say, 1,500 feet, that doesn’t always work in Britain because many of these come down almost to sea-level on the wind-battered north coast of Scotland or on the Western and Northern Isles – and that’s what makes British mountain botanising so intriguing. In fact, I almost reverse the argument in the book. I have selected 152 species that I regard as typically montane, then, for the purposes of the book, I define mountains as places where these plants grow – and these range from unexpected places like The Lizard in Cornwall, right up to the island of Unst in Shetland.
Tell us more about the unique conditions in the UK and their effect on mountain flower distribution.
The important thing to recognise is that many of our montane species have been clinging to survival on remote mountain ledges since just after the end of the last Ice Age. They survive there because of the chance juxtaposition of the right kind of rock and soil and a local microclimate that mimics the conditions to which they are adapted elsewhere in the high mountains of Europe or the high Arctic. It is vitally important that we try to understand why they survive there and continue to monitor their populations, because these are the plants that will give us the first warning of changes that are likely to happen on a much bigger scale in the Alps and the Arctic because of climate change. They are vital “miners’ canaries” for what lies ahead – plus I think Britain would be infinitely the poorer were we to lose them from our hills.
How have 21st century developments in botanical research affected our understanding of mountain flower ecology?
Hmm… In the strictest sense of botanical research, the latest genetic studies have sometimes made life a bit more difficult, especially for ageing botanists like me! It has changed our understanding of the relationships between species which in turn has led to a lot of changes in scientific names and how species fit into our concepts of plant families. It has also shown that one or two of what we thought were good mountain species are actually just variants of much commoner species, highly adapted to the mountain environment.
What has increased hugely over the 60 years since the last major account of British mountain flowers was published is our knowledge of the distribution of our mountain flowers, thanks to the hard work of hundreds of botanists in recording schemes masterminded by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI). The BSBI published increasingly comprehensive atlases showing the distribution of our native plants in 1962 and in 2002, and recorders are now hard at work gathering data for the next Atlas 2020 project, due to be completed in three years’ time, while, all round the country, enthusiastic botanists have compiled and published detailed accounts of the plants of their local counties or areas. I was given privileged access to the BSBI’s online databases in compiling the information in my book, and I am hugely grateful for that.
What I now want is for readers to prove me wrong! From the BSBI databases, I have tried to note the northernmost and the southernmost sites from where the key montane species have been recorded, and the highest and lowest altitudes at which they have been found, but I am sure keen readers could find new records beyond these extremes – and report them, I hope, to their local botanical recorder. I have reported on sites from which certain species appear to have died out, and I would be thrilled if that encouraged readers to go out and re-find the plants there.
What is the biggest conservation threat to mountain flowers in the UK?
I imagine most informed readers of the NHBS newsletter would expect me to say climate change was the biggest threat to mountain plants, and, in the long term, there is no doubt that climate change is a huge threat. But, as I have tried to show in the book, the impact of climate change on the mountain environment in the short to middle term is difficult to predict with any certainty and may not immediately be as disastrous as we fear.
What is beyond doubt is that, if we are to give montane plants any chance of adapting to the changes ahead, we need to get much better at managing our hills and mountains. Overgrazing by red deer is a huge problem across most of Scotland. The regular burning of moorland areas that are managed for the sport shooting of red grouse or to produce a ‘spring bite’ for sheep tends to encourage a few resilient species at the expense of many other, more delicate plants. Yet some mountain habitats also benefit from restricted amounts of grazing, and if continuing financial challenges lead to further declines of extensive sheep farming in the uplands that could become a big problem too. The challenge lies in getting the right balance between these conflicting priorities – and I’m afraid the decision by the people of England and Wales to leave the European Union (the EU has been a huge help in establishing conservation priorities in Britain) is not going to make that any easier.
Tell us about some specific species you find particularly interesting and that feature in the book.
In the book I have selected 18 species, most of which are rarities, whose distribution and survival particularly intrigues me. I call them “Three-star Mountain Enigmas” for reasons I explain in the book and I give an extended account of each of them. For some of these species, I hope to shed insight, based on the scientific researches of dedicated mountain botanists; for others, I can only pose questions, in the hope of inspiring someone to find an answer. And there are plenty of puzzles in our mountains. Why, for example, is Alpine Rockcress found only in a single corrie in Scotland, when it grows almost as a weed in disturbed ground in the Alps and Arctic? Why (and how) is Iceland Purslane dispersed all the way from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego, yet in Britain it only grows on gravelly slopes on the Isles of Skye and Mull?
In the book, I suggest that Alpine Sowthistle is restricted to tiny populations on just four remote cliffs in the eastern Highlands of Scotland because humans have almost completely destroyed the mountain woods in which it once grew (and where it still flourishes in the Alps and Scandinavia), and I show how the 2001 outbreak of Foot-and-mouth Disease revealed how Marsh Saxifrage and Alpine Foxtail grass are actually much commoner than we ever realised.
For someone interested in a bit of amateur research, where are some of the best spots for finding mountain flowers?
I’d always say that the best place to start is the montane site that is nearest to home, whether that’s the Brecon Beacons, the Peak District, the Pentland Hills or wherever – they’re all covered in the book. Then you can make regular visits through the spring and summer to find each of the local species in full flower and follow them through the season to catch them in seed too (there are some species which you can only identify with certainty if you can find their fruits as well as their flowers) – although I should add that, by the time you read this, it is probably a bit late in the year already for mountain plants, so buy the book and start planning for next year!
Once you have got to know the commoner montane species for your local patch, you can perhaps plan a holiday further afield to one of the real mountain hotspots, like Snowdonia or Upper Teesdale, the Breadalbane hills of Perthshire or the Cairngorm Mountains of Inverness-shire. One spot that I particularly recommend in the book is the area around the Glenshee Ski Area, south of Braemar in Aberdeenshire. The A93 road from Blairgowrie to Braemar rises here to 670m (around 2,200 feet), so montane species grow right beside the car park, but the area is already so well-used by skiers that you needn’t worry too much about damaging the vegetation – and there are some really special plants for plant explorers to find.
It is currently the school summer holiday period – any tips for getting kids interested in botany?
Another great question. Kids like action, and it’s the perfect time of year to show plants in action. Find the different kinds of fruits that plants produce and see how they are dispersed. Find the winged fruits (called samaras) of a sycamore tree or the ‘keys’ of an ash tree and work out how they spread. Who can get their fruit to travel furthest? Find some dandelion ‘clocks’. Don’t just see how may blows it takes to remove all the seeds from the ‘clock’; instead try to follow one of the seeds on its little parachute and find out how far it travels. If you can find a patch of Rosebay Willowherb, investigate how it spreads its seeds. If a riverside near you has been invaded by Himalayan Balsam (aka Policeman’s Helmet); see if you can work out how its explosive fruits have made it a successful ‘Alien Invader’ (in this case from India, not from Outer Space). How do the wild relatives of garden peas and strawberries spread – and what about potatoes? If you want to get really yucky, you might want to ask kids why they think tomato plants sometimes start growing beside sewage treatment plants!
If you have a boggy area nearby, see if you can find Common Butterwort growing there and investigate how its sticky leaves trap little insects which the plant then dissolves and absorbs to get the nutrients it needs to grow. Even better, see if you can find Common Sundew whose leaves are covered in red hairs which curve over to trap little insects caught by the sticky surface of the leaves. Then go online to discover how Venus Flytraps, Pitcher Plants and other insectivorous plants trap their prey – there are some great websites aimed at youngsters about these plants.
The BioEcoSS TubeTrap is a new product for ecologists and researchers conducting mammal surveys. The innovative design is the work of data consultant Simon Poulton, who told us more about his company and his revolutionary new small mammal trap.
Tell us a little about your organisation and how you got started. BioEcoSS Ltd is a consultancy specialising in all aspects of ecological data handling and analysis. I became a consultant after taking voluntary severance from ADAS, which was the scientific and advisory arm of the old MAFF – precursor to DEFRA, for the youngsters among you. I had worked for them for 14 years, developing from basic wildlife advice through to coordinating the national monitoring of Environmentally Sensitive Areas and other agri-environment schemes. Change was in the air, with ADAS becoming a “Next-Steps Agency”. So, I decided to go it alone, allowing me to concentrate more on the practical side of database design and statistical analysis – rather than managing teams and editing their reports. It also allowed me to select my clients to focus more on the taxa that I was interested in – primarily mammals and birds.
Why the name? Well, when I set up as a consultant I had a very loyal spaniel call Bess. Struggling to come up with a descriptive name that had “ecology” and “statistics” in it, a mischievous friend took one look at the adoring dog at my feet, and suggested BESS. So, I became Biological & Ecological Statistical Services! Bit of a stretch – but it caught on. Then when I converted to a limited company five years later, I thought I’d better have something a bit more respectable – so BioEcoSS Ltd was born.
Over the last 18 years, I’ve had a good number of clients, including universities, NGOs such as the Mammal Society, Vincent Wildlife Trust & BTO and government departments such as Natural England, CCW and JNCC. My work has generally fallen into two types:
a) ecological database design, and
b) statistical analysis of existing datasets.
However, in all my projects, I’ve tried to emphasise the importance of incorporating these aspects at the project planning stage – very often they’re not! So, it’s not unusual for clients to turn up with a dataset that’s been stored in a spreadsheet, riven with errors, and with a survey design that just doesn’t give them the power they need to detect change or spatial variation. I do what I can, but it would be so much better if these aspects were considered more carefully at the outset as part of an integrated design – sorry, that’s a bit of a lecture!
What was the original inspiration behind the TubeTrap?
About six or seven years ago, when I was on the council of the Mammal Society, we were discussing the setting up of a national small mammal monitoring scheme. The then chair, Dr Johnny Birks (very well-known to all mammalogists), lent back in his chair and sighed “It’s such a shame we don’t have a good trap at a reasonable price!”. We all agreed that we would have to focus on non-invasive methods for a large-scale, mass-participation survey – which is not a bad thing anyway – but there was still a need for trapping to provide high quality data.
On the train home I started thinking about this idea. Database design is a very creative and practical process –understanding the requirements of the user and combining these with practical and intuitive solutions. And I felt I was fairly practical – good with wood and I seem to be forever re-plumbing my house! As the son of an engineer, I thought I might be able to come up with a good design for a mouse trap. After all, I had been using the trusty Longworth and even some old Shermans for over 25 years, so I knew their faults and limitations.
So over the next 18 months I set out to build a prototype. I was certain that injection moulding was the answer to producing large numbers of cheap traps and I was very lucky to get some financial help from the, now sadly defunct, Manufacturing Advisory Service. I also fell on my feet by finding two incredibly helpful and innovative small companies in the West Midlands; an injection tool-making company (BFT Engineering) and an injection moulding company (BTF Polymers). (The names are purely coincidental – they’re not related in any way – but they continue to cause me total confusion!) These guys were enormously helpful in designing the tools and producing prototypes for testing. So – TubeTraps are entirely British made!
How does the TubeTrap compare to other small mammal traps on the market?
Well! What do you expect me to say – pretty good I reckon! Seriously –I think there are three primary aspects to the efficacy of a small mammal trap:
1) How well do they catch?
2) How humane are they?
3) How practical are they to use?
In the UK the main competitor is, obviously, the Longworth. This has remained virtually unchanged over the last 50 years so, in an evolutionary sense, it must be pretty well adapted to what it does. I’ve carried out some comparative trials (as have six or seven users) which shows that TubeTraps catch just as well as Longworths. As the number of trials increases, there’s even some evidence that they are better at catching very small animals such as pygmy shrews and harvest mice. I’m hoping that two students from UEA will be trialling the traps this autumn to provide enough data to show this is statistically significant. I’ve not compared them directly with Shermans or Trip Traps, but people have told me, anecdotally, that TubeTraps have a higher capture-rate.
Part of the design was to make a trap that was as humane as possible. Obviously, the correct setting and use of traps goes a long way to ensure the survival of captured animals – in particular, live invertebrate food for shrews is essential, as is regular checking. But I wanted the TubeTrap to help prevent exposure of animals, so the use of plastic and the double-walled nest-box provide much better insulation. I’ve also had a bit of a theory about shrew deaths. A very light animal (say a pygmy or juvenile common shrew) enters a trap without tripping it, scoffs all the food and then leaves. Along comes an adult shrew, trips the door and finds a trap with no food. Result – starvation. So I think the very sensitive and stable mechanism of TubeTraps will help prevent this situation.
The practicality aspects of the design were very important, especially setting the trap and cleaning. The nestbox and tunnel parts of the trap snap together very intuitively and are virtually impossible to pop open accidentally – unlike a poorly set Longworth. The smooth, cylindrical profile of the trap makes it very easy to push into dense vegetation and remove for emptying. Again – in the past, I’ve popped open Longworths when pulling them out of hedgerows as the corners of the nest box or the hook of the pin hinge catches on a bramble. The TubeTrap’s white doors are very easy to see, even in poor light, so it’s much easier to check when they are closed. So too with the pre-bait lock – it has a very visual appearance, so it’s much more difficult to leave a trap locked open by mistake. The round profile of the nestbox and the flat base of the tunnel with no side-walls make them very easy to clean. Finally – and possibly most importantly, all parts of the trap snap together, so it’s very easy to replace any damaged parts. I always carry a few spare triggers (which can get chewed) and the elastic springs for replacement in the field.
Development of the TubeTrap is continuous and I’m pleased to say that NHBS is stocking the new Mark II version. This has a more stable trip mechanism, which is counter-balanced, making it much more difficult to accidentally trip when knocked or jolted. This also makes it easier to set TubeTraps in awkward places or above-ground attached to branches or poles. There was an issue in the original design with surface-tension from rainwater holding the doors open, but a number of modifications in the new Mark II trap have addressed this.
How and where have TubeTraps been used and what is the most interesting species you have caught?
TubeTraps have been used by a number of universities, county mammal groups and wildlife trusts. As far as I know, they are being used for mammal research, survey and monitoring. Also, I know that the trusts have used them for training and open-days, so they’re proving versatile.
As you may have gathered from some of the time periods I mentioned earlier, I’m getting a bit long-in-the-tooth! But, a few years ago I finally started the PhD (at UEA) that I’d never got around to doing. I’m looking at altitudinal variation in small mammal communities in the central Himalayas of Nepal – using 120 of my traps of course! I’ve done three seasons’ fieldwork and caught 795 animals at altitudes from 1300m to 4200m. The traps have performed very well and have been catching hundreds of tiny shrews, as well as some pretty hefty rats weighing over 100g. The CarryCases have also been fantastic, not just for carrying the traps, but as dissection and dinner tables! There’s no doubt in my mind that the best animal I have caught is a tiny shrew called Episoriculus leucops – only 5g in weight, but with the longest tail you’ve ever seen (pic above).
What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?
That’s a tricky question! I think just because of the size of the project and its subject – the Environmental Monitoring Database for Natural England. I’ve worked on this for over ten years, bringing together into a single database all the agri-environment monitoring data carried out since 1987. There are over 4.25 million data items in this database, which makes it a unique resource. But how can I not mention the work I’ve done with excellent conservation organisations such as the Mammal Society (scoping and setting up the national small mammal monitoring scheme with Phoebe Carter and Johnny Birks) or the Vincent Wildlife Trust (analysing their fantastic dataset on batbox usage collected by the tireless Colin Morris and his colleagues).
But, I also hope I’ve made a real contribution in Nepal, mostly by giving young ecologists hands-on experience of fieldwork, statistical advice and training that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I should say that this has been a two-way process and I’ve had fantastic support from them (Hari Basnet, Sagar Dahal, Hem Kathuwal and others). I would also like to mention my friends and colleagues, Laxman Poudyal, Sujan Maharjan, Hem Sagar Baral, Sharad Singh and Dibesh Karmacharya – who have all helped in this reciprocal process. And – most importantly – the porters, whose superhuman efforts at carrying traps, collecting water and wood, cooking amazing food and generally remaining completely cheerful made this work possible.
What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Another tricky one! I’ve had a long-lasting love affair with India and Nepal, so I should say the tigers I saw in Kanha and Ranthambore National Parks, or Indian one-horned rhinos in Kazirangha or the fantastic nilgai in Sariska. But, actually, the most thrilling was probably five years ago at 3500m in Nepal when my colleagues and I came across a very (I mean VERY) fresh set of prints of himalayan black bear only a few meters from our camp-site. That certainly caused a stir amongst the porters! Then again – the most sublime moment was probably during that expedition, being out just before dawn, when the koklass pheasants started calling. Their harsh cries carry for hundreds of metres through the gloom – the Nepalis’ literal interpretation is “How are you, Uncle?”. It’s a spine-tingling memory just thinking about it.
Any new inventions in the pipeline?
I might have! Actually, a client from Ireland recently asked if I could produce traps with shrew holes. It had been on my mind for a while, so I made 30 doors with shrew holes for her. She’s trialling them now and if they work well, I’ll make them generally available. The benefit of putting the holes in the doors is that you can easily snap these out and replace them with standard doors if you don’t want the shrew holes.
I do have another idea, but I’m keeping my cards close to my chest at the moment. Suffice it to say – if it works it could revolutionise small mammal trapping – I’m saying no more!
Tell us a little about your organisation and how you got started.
Third Wheel Ringing Supplies has been trading for about two years and comprises myself and my wife, Mary. We make a small range of equipment for ringers, specialising in traps and particularly trying to fill gaps in the market. Traditionally much of this sort of equipment has either been knocked together by ringers themselves or imported (expensively) from Europe or North America.
Our range is still very small, but it is gradually expanding as we develop more products. Product development is very slow however as, with bird safety being so important, any new product has to be extensively tested before it can be offered for sale. Nevertheless a slightly expanded product range should be launched in the coming months. Our manufacturing ethos is based on quality; never knowingly making sub-standard equipment in the quest for cheaper production costs. Hence our products are not the cheapest available, but they might be the best.
The business started when I took voluntary redundancy from my job. Having worked for (among others) The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Local Authorities as a nature reserves manager for 30 years, I was ready for a change. I’ve always liked making things and have a good grounding in engineering which, together with my interest in bird ringing, led onto me making various bits of ringing equipment for my own use and thence onto a small business, making equipment for other ringers.
Why Third Wheel? Well, we had to call it something and, having a slight obsession with classic motorcycles, particularly those with sidecars, the name seemed to fit us as a family.
What challenges do you face as an organisation working in the ecology sector?
One of our biggest challenges has been to persuade ringers not to rely so heavily on mist nets all the time. Although mist nets are very effective for many species and situations, they still have their limitations and traps can often be just as effective or, for some species, the only method of capture. Increasing numbers of ringers are starting to appreciate the value of different trap designs and, as traps form the mainstay of our business, we see this as a good thing!
What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?
On a purely personal level, Third Wheel’s most important achievement has been that, after only two years of trading, it seems to be working as a business. Although I have a passion for what I do, it still has to pay the bills and, for the time being at least, it is doing just that.
It has also been particularly gratifying to have our equipment used to great effect in a number of research projects worldwide. In addition to various projects in Europe, Third Wheel traps are used for chickadee research in Florida, grey jay research in Alaska and snow bunting research in the Canadian Arctic.
Nearer home, highlights have been a customer who caught a dunnock within 7 minutes of the postman delivering one of our traps and another who, on taking delivery of a new prototype, caught 55 linnets on the first morning.
What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Having been pursuing wildlife for nearly my whole life, I’ve been lucky enough to have many memorable wildlife encounters, which makes choosing a favourite rather tricky.
I’ve visited Svalbard (what we used to call Spitsbergen) in the High Arctic many times, as a leader of study tours. Here the memorable wildlife moments come thick and fast with polar bear, Arctic fox, beluga whale and countless breeding auks, wildfowl and waders against a stunning scenic backdrop.
On the bird ringing side of things, my best and most memorable ringing sessions have been catches of wigeon, teal and other wintering wildfowl as part of a cannon netting team. Wigeon are amazing little ducks and to ring one in Devon which probably breeds in central Russia is a real privilege.
Your book is proving to be a huge success – what prompted you to write it, and who is your target audience?
It mostly came about from the grass courses I’ve run for the last seven years, during which I built up a huge body of observational evidence on grasses, from chatting to people and just spending a lot of time looking at them. Teaching plants is fantastic as it really makes you be concise about why things are what they are, plus you get to see what people muddle up; things you might never think yourself.
In addition I felt there was a niche for an affordable, portable, and easy to use book. It definitely won’t suit everyone, but I hope that people who might have been put off by some of the more weighty tomes might find this a good way in (which certainly applies to me). It won’t teach you every grass, but hopefully it will make people feel much more confident about the ones you tend to encounter regularly.
How did you become interested in grasses?
During my early years of being a botanist I was terrified of grasses and it took me a long while to get a handle on them. This came about from spending time with other friendly botanists and gleaning as much as I could from them. Once I had got better at them (and I’m still a long way from mastering them) I was really keen to share this knowledge with other people. I did my first grasses course at the Kingcombe Centre 7 years ago, which I was absolutely terrified about running, but it went OK, and it all moved from there. I now run about 18 grasses courses a year, which I absolutely love doing, and all the proceeds from these go into our species conservation programme, meaning a single day’s training can fund a species programme for a year.
What defines the graminoids, and how can the three groups – grasses, rushes, and sedges – be distinguished?
It’s a difficult term, graminoids! I’m very guilty of calling them grasses, which of course only some of them (the Poaceae) are. I also tend to commit the grave sin of talking about wildflowers and grasses (especially when describing courses) when of course grasses are in fact flowers. Their key characters are that they are all monocots, and exclusively wind pollinated.
Telling them apart can be relatively easy, the rushes tend to have waxy round stems, the sedges are tussocky with separate female and male inflorescences, and the grasses are, well… grassy looking? But there are so many exceptions to this! Just today I was running a course where someone muddled up Slender Rush with Remote Sedge, and I realised that these two look almost identical from a distance!
What is the importance of the graminoids in the ecosystem at large?
Graminoids are exceptionally useful as indicator species, with many of them showing incredible affinity to certain soil types, nutrient levels and pH. If you walk into a field and see a shiny green swath of Perennial Ryegrass you know you’re unlikely to be finding overwhelming levels of biodiversity. Go into another field and find a clump of Meadow Oatgrass and you know you’re in for a long haul of finding other species.
As it says on the Species Recovery Trust website, over the past 200 years, over 400 species have been lost from England alone. Do you think enough is being done to halt biodiversity loss in the UK?
Tricky question! We have an incredibly large and diverse conservation sector in the UK, full of talented and passionate individuals devoting their lives to saving the planet. And yet we are still losing species at an alarming rate. When I was born, just over 40 years ago, the world had twice as many species as it does now, so this is not a historical problem we can blame on previous generations, this is the here and now of how humans are choosing to live our lives and harm our planet.
These are clearly difficult times financially, and clearly every sector is feeling the pain of budget cuts, however it is upsetting to see the way biodiversity has almost dropped off current political agendas (the environment was barely mentioned at all in the referendum debates) so I do worry that people, and governments, are just not doing enough. It is now fairly widely accepted that we are living through (and causing) a sixth mass global extinction event, which should be the biggest story and policy issue anyone is talking about, and yet species conservation still seems to be a niche market!
What does it take to re-establish a species like Starved Wood-sedge, which is one of the Trust’s Species Recovery Projects?
Starved Wood-sedge (SWS) has two native sites in the UK, and we’re working hard at both of these over a long time period to steadily improve the conditions, bringing more light in through coppicing and canopy reduction, and trying to encourage seedling establishment through ground scarification. SWS has an interesting bit of trivia in that it has the largest utricles (seeds) of any native sedges which should make it very easy to grow, but recently we started to think these large seeds may be their downfall as they are so susceptible to vole and mouse predation – but it’s hard to know for sure. We have established and continue to closely work on the two re-introduction sites, where we used plants grown up by Kew Gardens to establish new populations, and we are keen to establish one more in the next decade in a more traditionally managed wood to look at how the species would fare in active coppice rotation.
If you could put one policy change in place today to enhance species conservation what would it be?
I’m not sure, my current rather grassroots view is I’m not sure if conservation isn’t dying a death by policy. A few years back I spent the best part of two years of my life working on Biodiversity Opportunity Areas, only to see these being replaced by IBDAs (which I’ve now forgotten what it stands for) only to see these superseded by NIAs. I then had somewhat of a personal crisis that in all that time, even though I’d been instrumental in producing some very interesting maps of core area and buffer zones and opportunity areas, I’d done absolutely nothing to help species on the ground. I think it was during this same time that Deptford Pink went extinct in Somerset and Dorset too, which I still feel pretty bad about.
The problem with policies, and ministers, and successive governments is that they never last for that long. While not disputing that our current democracy is a wonderful thing, and obviously I feel lucky to live in a country where we can all vote and potentially change things we like, if you superimpose governments and policies on top of the Anthropocene (the current geological age where humans have gained the ability to start fundamentally changing the planet, both in terms of biodiversity and climate) then the two simply don’t match up in terms of the timescales we need to be operating on to bring a meaningful change to biodiversity loss. And it goes without saying that when government budget cuts occur it will always be the environment sector that will suffer, and this obviously has a terrible net effect on projects that are up and running and are suddenly suspended.
Without wanting to sound too ‘big society’ I think the meaningful changes we are seeing are from individuals, either making a big difference in their jobs in the environment sector, or simple volunteering, spending a few days a year clearing bramble from around a rare species, counting butterflies on a transect, monitoring their local bat populations. For me, that is where change is happening, not in government policy units.
How would you encourage a young nature lover or student to take an interest in the subject of grasses?
I’m lucky to have two young children to try this out on, and I must say they are now budding graminologists. I think the starting point is everyone likes knowing what things are and naming them, whether it’s music, works of art, types of lorry. We are on the whole naturally inquisitive beings, so I just tend to show people things and encourage them to go off and find more like them. Add to that some stripy pyjama bottoms (Yorkshire Fog), Batman’s Helmet (Timothy), Floating Sugarpuffs (Quaking Grass) and Spiky Porcupines (Meadow Oatgrass) and the whole thing becomes pretty fun! Incidentally there are equivalent adult versions of these too, which are unmentionable here…
What is the most surprising, odd, or unexpected fact you can share about grasses?
Grasses have a profound link with humanity. 4 million years ago the spread of grasses in the savannas of East Africa is now believed to be the main driver in our primate ancestors coming down from the trees and developing a bipedal habit to move between patches of shrinking forest while keeping a watch out for predators. 40,000 years ago we saw the birth of agriculture with the development of early crops, the decline of hunter gatherer lifestyles and the start of the society we live in today (gluten intolerance sufferers probably think this is where it all started to go wrong). And all because we learnt to collect seed from promising looking grasses, and start planting in quantities we could harvest.
Tell us more about the plant identification courses. What are these all about and how people can get involved?
When we set up The Species Recovery Trust we knew that funding projects over a long term basis (all our work plans are 50 years long) was going to be a challenge, so we set about seeking ways to bring in modest sums of unrestricted funding over that period of time, for which running training courses was an obvious contender. This was combined with my passion for teaching plants, and then finding other people who shared this view. We’ve now been able to build up a team of some of the best tutors in the country, who combine their expert knowledge with running courses that are extremely fun and really help people get to grips with a range of subjects.
By automating the booking process (which works most of the time) we can also keep our prices extremely competitive, as well as offer discounted places for students and unemployed people who are desperate to get into the sector. On alternate years we offer one ‘golden ticket’ which enables one winner to attend 10 training courses for free, which will give people a huge helping hand in their conservation careers.
All the information on the courses can be found on the training courses page of The Species Recovery Trust website.
Can you tell us about any interesting projects you are involved with at the moment?
We have a great project running on Spiked Rampion at the moment, and after 6 years we now have the highest number of plants ever recorded, all due to a fantastic steering group of the good and great from Kew, Forestry Commission, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and East Sussex County Council, along with some very committed local volunteers. It’s been a lot of work but proved a great example of many organisations joining up with a single achievable aim of saving a really rather special plant from extinction.
This summer is going to see a network of data loggers placed around the New Forest as part of a project to re-discover the New Forest Cicada, that we’re working on with Buglife and Southampton University. There are real concerns about whether this species is already extinct, but as it spends most of its life underground and only emerges and sings for a short period it is a good contender for the UK’s most elusive species.
Neil Middleton is an entrepreneurial ecologist who is the managing director of consultancy Echoes Ecology Ltd, and Time For Bespoke Solutions Ltd, a company that provides management consultancy and people development solutions.
The number of times I see people who have paid lots of money and spent a huge amount of their time being educated and trained to work within our sector, only to find that so many of the things that differentiate the mediocre from the brilliant just haven’t been covered. I spend a lot of my time being asked by people for advice and guidance, and felt that no one else had attempted to tackle the subject matter from the perspective of an ecologist. I found this quite irritating and eventually decided that if no-one else was going to try and help, then I would.
Office success… isn’t it all a good work ethic and common sense?
In part, most definitely – I would not deny that. But if it is as simple as that why do so many people struggle to deliver a number of the ‘non-ecological’ aspects of their work to the highest level. And what is a good work ethic and common sense? Has anyone ever described that to you in the role you are in? Do you know, specifically, the things you should be focusing on and the pitfalls you should be avoiding. Do you know how to manage your time better, be more professional, be better organised? Who in your working environment is assisting you in a structured way with these things? Other types of business within the service sector (which is where ecological consultancy sits) spend huge amounts of time and resources training their people on some of the material I am writing about here. For some reason this isn’t that evident within ecology. As I say in the book – sitting in today’s ecological consultancies we have ecologists who are managing people, dealing with customers, project planning, marketing products, producing financial reports… They are expected to perform all of these responsibilities, and many more, to a high level, as well as the ecological aspects of their role. How many of them have been given training or proper guidance about how to perform these non-ecology aspects of their role to a high level?
Would you mind telling us about your worst office etiquette blunder?!
It makes me shudder thinking about the number of blunders I have made over my working life, and still do. I will keep it ecological.
I once got into a lift with a bloke who used to be my YOC leader about thirty years earlier (for those youngsters out there, the YOC used to be the junior branch of the RSPB). It just so happened that many years later, coincidentally, we were both working for the same insurance company. He didn’t normally work from our office. I saw him in the distance and quickened my step in order to catch up with him, so that we could share the lift. I said good afternoon, asked him how he was and then proceeded to tell him all about this excellent spot I had found for watching raptors (he was a member of his local raptor group after all). Anyway, it turns out he was in the building to meet with our regional manager (Tracey), who, as it happens, was also my boss’s boss. So being helpful I took him to Tracey’s room, continuing to tell him about some of my latest bird sightings.
They met, and Tracey welcomed him by saying, “Brilliant to meet you again John.” The guy I had been talking to – or at least I had thought I had been talking to – wasn’t called John! Yes I had just met some random stranger (considerably more senior to myself in the business) in the lift and had swamped him with ornithological anecdotes. The bloke didn’t know me at all, but remained polite throughout, and thought he had just met some nutter in the lift. I doubt that he would have ever been able to tell a Kestrel from a Griffon Vulture, let alone a Sparrowhawk from a Goshawk. And after Tracey had finished her meeting? Yes I was called in to explain myself, as John had obviously told her all about it. Before long everyone on the floor had heard about what had happened.
Sounds painful! In your experience, what are the three most common office faux pas people might make?
In no particular order, and in haste, these are today’s examples. Ask me tomorrow and I would come up with a different list, I am sure.
Failure to communicate effectively. For example, not saying the right thing to the right person at the right time. Almost everything that goes wrong in a work setting (or for that matter personal settings) boils down to poor communication or no communication.
Doing the wrong things in the wrong order when under pressure. Time is evaporating and you are wasting the remaining time doing stuff that isn’t going to get you to where you need to be.
Not preparing enough. To fail to prepare, is very much to prepare to fail. Too often people aren’t very good at playing ‘consequences.’ They don’t think what is going to happen next, and then after that, and so on. This means that a few steps down the line when something unexpected happens they are caught off guard. If only they had thought it through and prepared properly to begin with, that unexpected situation should’ve been precisely one of the scenarios they should’ve accounted for days, or even weeks, earlier.
Say I’m an ecology graduate passionate about reversing habitat loss and saving endangered species. How does this book help animals?
If you want to be successful working with a subject you are passionate about, and do this to a high level, and therefore in your example, help animals as much as you can, then this book talks about the skills that, quite possibly, will make you considerably more effective, more professional, a better communicator, more organised, a better team player, and much more. Ask yourself – are you happy at being merely OK at what you do, or do you want to make the best use of your time in order to have the greatest positive impact upon the things you are passionate about? So I would challenge you to keep buying all the books about the animals you are so passionate about, and yes you will undoubtedly learn more about the technical aspects of your role, but this book (at less than twenty quid and a handful of hours) will open the door to many of the tools you can use to turn that knowledge and passion into the actionable events that will make the difference. I am afraid to say that passion and knowledge alone are rarely enough.
If I may I would also like to say that the material in the book is not just for new entrants into the role. There is so much in here that is equally applicable to more experienced ecologists, managers and those in a training role within our sector. There is already an excellent book about How to Become and Ecological Consultant(Searle, S. M., 2011). This new book is the next step in the process and could easily have been called ‘How to succeed now you have a job, and in doing so perform at the highest level.’
How would you describe the unique challenges facing graduating ecologists in 2016, and in what ways do you think today’s graduates differ from those of ten or fifteen years ago?
The one thing that has been evident throughout the last decade is that, in the main, people qualifying from colleges or universities just aren’t work ready to enter many ecological consultancies. It is the ever present scenario, ‘You can’t get a job without experience. But how do I get the experience without a job?’ Many of the people we see coming into our own business for interviews have been told very little, if anything, about the consultancy sector, and even less about the business skills they will need in order to give themselves any chance of success. I find this quite frustrating as ecological consultancy work is probably one of the more realistic career options that people going through an appropriate university degree can hope to pursue.
Also, for someone to spend all of that time and expense gaining a qualification that so often tells them so little about the natural world in their own country is disappointing. We see many people that may know quite a bit about overseas mammals or habitat for example, but would struggle to identify a water vole! There are exceptions to this, but based on the CVs we have passing regularly through our inboxes, they are very much exceptions.
As managing director of two companies, as well as a bestselling author, time management must be a well worn tool in your kit bag. What’s your top time management tip?
Everything in this world is affordable or available at some level apart from time itself. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how many people you have in your team, whether or not you are the best at what you do. Once a moment has passed you can never get it back, you can never go back to yesterday and undo the thing that prevents you doing what you should be achieving today.
My top tip – treat time as the most precious commodity you have available to yourself, organise it well, be protective over it and use it well. Make sure you spend your time doing things that make a difference – if there is no benefit to spending time on something then stop doing it. No benefit, no point. One of the ways I focus on this is, when I go to bed each night I list in my head what I will achieve tomorrow – and nine times out of ten I do it. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes other things get in the way (often in fact) – but I don’t go to bed the following night regretting how I have spent my time today, and I don’t make excuses. We all are equally rich with the time we have immediately in front of us. The choice is, how do you choose to use it to best effect?
And what three daily habits would you encourage any office worker to take up starting tomorrow?
Look at what you have on in your diary for tomorrow and next week, today – and not tomorrow morning. If you don’t have a diary, then get one, use it, and keep it with you at all times. Don’t have separate diaries for personal and business. You can only be in one place at any one time. People keeping two diaries tend to be unable to commit to things because their other diary is at home, or at some point make errors that needn’t have been made. I have a whole section about this in the book and I don’t sit on the fence about it.
Every phone call you have with a colleague, a customer or a supplier – immediately follow it up with an email. Get into this habit and you will protect yourself and the business from someone saying in the future that they didn’t agree to that, or they hadn’t understood what you meant at the time etc. You will never know which one of these every day conversations will come back to bite you, but beyond doubt one or two of them will. When that happens you will regret not doing that email. You know you are right, but you can’t prove it, and now others are doubting you. Don’t regret it, it’s a controllable – do the email.
Be on time, every time – without fail. People that keep time well tend to be organised, professional and of course in the right place at the right time. Too often first impressions and daily tasks are tarnished or ineffectively handled because someone is late. It’s not professional and it certainly is disrespectful to others.
If there is one thing you wish you had known at the beginning of your career, what would it have been?
How important all of these business-related skills are to giving yourself a chance of being better at what you do. In my own world at that time I thought it was just down to being technically good enough, and gaining experience. It isn’t. Being technically brilliant doesn’t make you the best person at the job – being effective does. This is what the book is about. I am trying to enable others to realise, earlier on, many of the things that no-one told me about at the beginning.
There is a big marketing dilemma with this book. Firstly, those people who already know some of this stuff will buy it and probably learn some new stuff to add to their tool box. Then, those who are struggling might think it’s worth a shot – can’t do me any harm. But many more will feel that they don’t need it. They are getting on just fine as they are, and they don’t know what they don’t know. These are the ones that may benefit the most, irrespective of what stage in their career they are at. If you are one of these people, and you are the only one in your team that reads the book – then immediately you have an edge. Conversely if everyone in your team has read it and you haven’t – well… To summarise, I wish I had read this book 35 years ago.
What would be one of the most challenging training situations you encounter on a regular basis?
Referring to my office blunder answer – it’s now time to fess up! I am good at remembering names, and pretty good at remembering faces, but an Achilles heel is most definitely putting the two things together at the right time. This is an area that I find myself constantly having to focus time and effort on. Put an audience in front of me and I have various tricks I adopt to help reduce the chances of me getting someone’s name wrong. Occasionally though, regretfully, I make a mistake and have to apologise.
How has self-development been important to you in your life?
If you stop developing you stop improving, you stop getting better and you stop learning. After that… then is there really much point in doing what you are doing? You may as well say to yourself – ‘well this is as good as I will ever be and I am going to stop trying to be better.’ I am sure that there are lots of happy people out there who from a professional perspective are able to be like that. I find that approach odd and uncomfortable, and as such I just want to keep learning how to avoid making mistakes, or when that fails, learning what I could do next time that would result in a better outcome.
Who or what has had the most impact on your success?
Who? – So many people, ranging from people I currently work with, all the way back to when I was in the insurance sector and before that in the leisure and catering sector. I am where I am now (we all are!) because of who we have listened to and looked up to in the past.
What? – Not being afraid to push myself in a professional setting. If something seems beyond me or too difficult or almost impossible I would rather try and fail (failure gives you the ammunition to do it better next time!) than wonder, what if? It is quite daunting doing something like writing a book. I suspect many people don’t do things because they think they can’t, or they don’t want to risk making a fool of themselves, or are overly concerned what others might think. My advice would be, whatever you set your sights on – go for it. The worst that will happen is that you will learn a lot about yourself. The best that could happen should be self-evident. The one certainty is that if you don’t try it you will achieve nothing, learn nothing and always wonder ‘what if?’
What are you looking forward to in 2016?
At the moment improving my running technique, lots of bat work and my holiday in the south of France in August (I will have my diary with me though!), when I can do some batting and birding for pleasure, and spend good times with my partner, Aileen, who inspires me to be the best version of myself that I can be. But don’t tell her about the batting and birding bit – she thinks it’s a holiday; not a self-development opportunity.
James Lowen is a wildlife writer, editor, guide and photographer. Immersed in all aspects of natural history from a young age, he has spent several years leading wildlife tours in South America and Antarctica. Now back in Britain, he continues to express his passion for bringing nature to life for the non-specialist, and has turned his attention to British wildlife. A Summer of British Wildlife: 100 Great Days Out Watching Wildlife – his second book on the subject – is out now.
How did you come to write this book?
The concept of A Summer of British Wildlife grew out of my previous book for Bradt Travel Guides, 52 Wildlife Weekends: A Year of British Wildlife-Watching Breaks (also available from NHBS). Whilst writing that guide, I realised that Britain in summer possesses such an abundance of natural riches that I could not possibly squeeze them all into a single book! In his review of 52 Wildlife Weekends for British Wildlife magazine, celebrity wildlife-blogger Mark Avery suggested that I might have lavished summer with ‘long weekends’. That got me thinking about the 100 best wildlife experiences that Britain has to offer over each and every summer.
How did you choose what to include in the book?
Good question. There was so much to write about that I could probably have produced this book three times over! In whittling down the worthy longlist, I took account of principles such as how best to cover the breadth of British wildlife experiences (from bumblebees to basking sharks, orchid-rich meadows to seabird skyscrapers), geographical spread (the days out stretch between Scilly and Shetland), and the likely interest for families (using my 5-year-old daughter as a barometer). Fundamentally, however, I had to be personally excited by the experience: if not, I wouldn’t be able to inspire others to travel.
There is a strong ethical element to wildlife travel these days – how does the book support that?
This is not a guide to particular travel operators or service providers, which is how ethical considerations are typically framed nowadays. Instead, the book takes a wider approach to ethics. By focusing on Britain, I commend ‘staycations’, which largely avoid the greenhouse gas emissions of aircraft travel. By encouraging people to visit reserves run by particular wildlife charities, I encourage people to reward those land-managers with their custom. I stress the guiding principle of responsible wildlife-watching, namely that the welfare and conservation of species supercedes our enjoyment of them. Following advice from reserve managers, I remain silent about wildlife experiences about which I would love to have written; red helleborine and spiny seahorse are notable examples. Finally, by homing in on children’s interests, I seek to inspire the next generation of wildlife-watchers. If our offspring do not love wildlife, there will not only be no wildlife travel (ethical or otherwise) in future… there will be no wildlife either.
Can anyone enjoy this book or do you need lots of outdoor gear?
You don’t need any outdoor gear to enjoy nature. Just some combination of locomotion, eyes and ears. Clearly, some specialist outdoor gear can help – whether binoculars, digital cameras or moth traps – so if you want an enhanced experience, you might want to browse the NHBS equipment catalogue.
What stands out about the book as a read?
You should probably ask a reader that, rather than the author! Everyone will have their own take on what stands out from the book, just as they have their own idea of what stands out in the spectrum of British wildlife. But I will convey some thoughts from the very first review of the book, by naturalist Amy-Jane Beer in BBC Wildlife magazine (April 2016 issue). Amy-Jane says that the book “will fuel your imagination, frame your desires and simplify your logistics for the summer ahead”. Amy-Jane considers that the book “maintains a lovely tone, necessarily practical but also occasionally poetic – a friendly, encouraging and knowledgable companion”. She concludes that the guide is “an ideal addition to any family bookshelf, though it should also spend plenty of time in your backpack or glove compartment”.
Are the experiences in the book weatherproof?
Ha! Most are yes, which is just as well given the erratic nature of British weather. Where particular weather is key, such as searching for mountain ringlet (a rare butterfly) in Perthshire, I make this clear. Of course, some days benefit from inclement times, such as looking for windblown shearwaters off the Cornish coast!
Are there any unexpected, unusual, or surprising entries in the book?
What will flabbergast one person may appear mundane to another, so that is hard to answer. I cover what I feel to be the very best of British wildlife, but that doesn’t mean it is all universally well known. So I suspect that some eyes may open wide at my suggestion to spend a morning looking for the globally threatened tansy beetle near York, or to combine a family day on the beach with watching dune tiger-beetles scurry along the sand. Some may also be amused at my cheek in proposing that we go looking for red grouse in the Peak District on August 11, the day before the hunting season commences.
How does Britain compare to the rest of the world as a wildlife destination?
I have gone wildlife-watching in about 60 countries worldwide, and have written books about the wildlife of Antarctica and Brazil. When I returned to Britain from four years living in Argentina, I thought I would be bored by British wildlife. Not a bit of it. This book, and its predecessor (52 Wildlife Weekends) are testament to the exhilaration that I feel every single time I set foot outside my door in search of wildlife. There are 60,000 species of ‘thing’ in Britain, and I have seen just 3% of them. There is loads more out there that I need to track down!
Where are you going for your summer holidays this year?
As a family, we plan to spend lots of time exploring our new home county of Norfolk: camping, kayaking and walking our way through the wilds.
What do you like to read on your travels?
I am usually too busy watching wildlife while travelling to actually read anything. But I always take a book for the journey. On my last trip (to wintry Japan; see my images here), I read George Monbiot’s Feral. On my next trip (a family holiday to Spain) I will be taking the memoir of my childhood hero, Chris Packham: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar.
Bats of Britain and Europe is a new field guide highlighting the remarkable diversity of bat species regularly occurring in Europe. 45 species are described in detail, the pages are full of hundreds of colour photos of bats, and illustrative diagrams and tables, and there is substantial information on bat biology and ecology, tracking and detecting, and identification.
As authors Christian Dietz (long-established teacher, author and bat expert) and Andreas Kiefer (Research Associate at the University of Trier, Germany) say in the Foreword, this book represents the achievement of their “dream of continuing the field guide that introduced us both to bats” – Schober & Grimmberger 1987 /1998.
What is your background in studying and working with bats, and what makes them special for you?
Christian: I am working as a consultant in impact assessment studies mainly focused on bats and as a scientist in bat research. Bats are so special for me since they have evolved so many special adaptations to their nightly way of life and developed such a high biodiversity.
Andreas: I am a researcher in bat ecology and conservation. The diversity of bats is so big and in most species we are just barely scratching the surface on understanding them. And we need to know which species live where and why, otherwise conservation cannot be successful.
What was your first experience of seeing a bat in the wild?
Andreas: I started very late. When I was 20 I helped counting hibernating bats in slate mines, only half a year later I had my first own project. I searched for summer roosts of greater horseshoe bats in my home region but I found only grey long-eared bats. Up to now long-eareds are my favourite study objects.
Christian: As a child I found a brown long-eared bat injured by the neighbour’s cat and tried to care for it. Later I became fascinated with searching their roosts and practical conservation of hibernacula.
What areas of bat research are you currently focusing on?
Christian: As a consultant I am very interested in mitigation and monitoring of populations, and scientifically I am mostly engaged in studying the biodiversity and cryptic species in the Middle East and the Caucasus. Knowledge about the taxonomy and distribution of species is the important base for future conservation work.
Andreas: At the moment I am a researcher at Trier University. In my small bat group we currently work on the impact on wind energy on bat populations, the ecology and conservation of the Sardinian long-eared bat, and new methods for monitoring bat populations.
How are the British and European bat populations doing at the moment?
Andreas: Most of our bats species do fine, but we have signals that the grey long-eared bat is declining not only in Germany. The situation of Mehely’s horseshoe bat is more dramatic when you see it in a European context. Another species, the Sardinian long-eared bat which is endemic for Sardinia has fewer than 400 specimens left. Maybe this species will go extinct in the next years. Other species expand their range and come more to the North.
Christian: Some species like the pipistrelle bat do fine and are common and widespread, and even some rare bats like the lesser horseshoe bat seem to recover from former population crashes and slowly recolonise parts of their lost distribution. On the other hand some species still decline and may even face local extinction of populations. Examples are the grey long-eared bat and Mehely’s horseshoe bat, both specialists for preying on large moths in mosaic-like open habitats with grasslands, orchards and hedges. While the grey long-eared bat is still widely distributed, and the observed negative population trends and local extinctions still do not threaten the species as a whole, the situation with Mehely’s horseshoe bat is much more dramatic. It has already lost big parts of its European distribution and become extinct in some countries, while remaining populations are scattered and isolated. I am much afraid the species will become extinct since I have seen it disappearing in parts of Bulgaria already where I used to study it a decade ago.
If you could implement any policy change that you think would be of benefit to bats, what would it be?
Christian: Since the establishment of the European Natura 2000 network, bats get considerable protection and are taken into consideration in impact assessment and mitigation. However the implementation of these laws differs extremely between countries, and especially in the eastern parts of Europe nature protection is still difficult. There, changes in agriculture and massive habitat loss threaten some of the largest bat populations in Europe – on the other hand very expensive and sometimes ineffective compensation measures are done in western European countries. I think it would help a lot to concentrate some money from compensation to protect wonderful habitats and bats in Eastern Europe.
Andreas: Of course we need more money and projects for bat conservation, especially in Eastern Europe. And we need more sensitivity for useless compensations in Western Europe. But mainly we need a change in European agriculture politics. A better support for EU-subsidies for organic farming, less pesticides and a stop of land consumption would be helpful for bats and nature conservation overall.
The new book is a field guide to the 45 species of bat of Britain and Europe – who is the book aimed at, and what unique information will it provide for the reader?
Andreas: We hope that it is useful for professionals and beginners. For the first time, we give an overview to all European species and we show a key for the species identification of bat hairs from droppings.
Christian: We tried to give an up-to-date overview to the fascinating biodiversity of European bats and to give many ideas for practical conservation work.
You include newly described species – what can you tell us about these?
Christian: Bat taxonomy has seen big changes in the last decades, the biodiversity of European species has been much underestimated. We studied all newly discovered species in Europe from the Iberian Peninsula to Anatolia and on islands like Sardinia and Crete.
Andreas: Many new bat species had been identified in the past two decades, mainly with the help of DNA-sequencing. We tried to cover Europe and neighbouring areas and all European islands in the Mediterranean Sea.
If somebody is curious about studying bats, what advice would you give them to get started – apart from buying a copy of your book!?
Andreas: Join your local bat group! These people know what they do and they are happy when new bat friends will help them. Nothing is better than learning from experts and Britain has a lot of them.
Christian: Great Britain is famous for its many NGOs and local bat groups – so the best is to make contact to people being already engaged in bat research and conservation – they will help you.
How did you become interested in working with vultures, and how did you come to be a part of this reintroduction project?
When I was a child I was interested to explore nature. At that time there was not much literature to find and to learn about nature. First I wanted to work on plants. Just around 1985 the first edition of the Red Data Book of Bulgaria was published and I tried to buy a copy and start studying the species. But when I had enough money from my parents and relatives around New Year’s Eve, I did not succeed to find the Volume I of the book- plants. I found after checking a lot of book stores in Sofia the Volume II- animals. It was only one copy of the book and part of it was missing (reptiles and amphibians), but the birds were there. I found that some of the rarest birds were the vultures and they were historically found in the area of my father’s birth town – Kotel. Here I started to wish to meet vultures in nature. After some time I became a member of Bulgaria Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) – now BirdLife Bulgaria – which was just established and was in charge of the conservation of last colony of griffon vultures in the country in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains. I was first a volunteer and later was working for the project for conservation of vultures in this area. Then I started to think about restoring the population in other sites in Bulgaria. I tried to organize feeding sites in other parts of the country where vultures historically were present, but this was not enough to restore the old colonies. Then I saw what was done in Massif Central in France by Michel Terrasse and his colleagues from FIR/LPO– namely reintroduction of griffon vulture through release of captive bred but also rehabilitated birds from Spain. Thus I decided that this should be done also in other parts of Bulgaria. BSPB were not very willing to work on reintroductions, which is why it was necessary to create a new NGO to work on reintroductions – Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna (FWFF) – created in 2000. Then I married Nadya Vangelova- and we went to live in her town – Blagoevgrad. The nearest historical place for vultures was Kresna Gorge (only 25 km away from the town) and it appeared it was still suitable for vultures, but they were gone extinct in the 1960s due to a mass and well organized state level poisoning campaign targeting terrestrial predators. Ten years later after the establishment of FWFF we succeed to implement the reintroduction of the species in Kresna Gorge, which is now presented in the current book.
Tell us about the Kresna Gorge in terms of biodiversity – what sort of place is it, and how do vultures fit into the ecosystem?
The Kresna Gorge is one of the very few places in Bulgaria with Mediterranean climate. This, in combination with steep slopes and rocky outcrops, makes the area very interesting for biodiversity. Some species of Bulgaria’s reptiles are found only here. Autochthonous loose forests of Juniperus excelsa were declared nature reserve and many southern species of birds are found here. In terms of vultures’ suitability, the area still has well preserved extensive livestock breeding and transhumance practice, where the herds are moved in the nearby high mountains Pirin and Rila, home to two of the three national Parks in Bulgaria. So it is the combination between deep valley with mild winters and high mountains with alpine pastures that makes the habitats suitable for vultures. Extensive livestock breeding and the presence of large carnivores like wolf and bear are additional benefits for the vultures. The last also poses a threat for the vultures, because the conflict between livestock breeders and carnivores some times leads to illegal poison baits use, which is the biggest threat for the vultures. We found that providing the feeding sites for vultures make it safer for them. Also, some people are concerned that it may be unnatural to feed vultures but because we dispose mainly of – although not only – food coming from the nearby villages, this makes the process rather natural.
Why was there a need to embark on a reintroduction process – how did the griffon vulture lose its place?
Since the beginning of the twentieth century the situation of the vultures of the Balkans and Europe became worse and worse based on extensive livestock breeding decline but mainly on direct persecution and non-deliberate poisoning. Not least the habitats changed especially in Bulgaria, where vast areas were reforested and thus the vultures no longer were able to search for and find food. In the 1960s nearly every available carcass for the vultures was poisoned and they went extinct from the entire country. In 1970 all large European vultures were considered extinct from the country. Only a small colony of less than 30 birds and 2-3 breeding pairs survived in Eastern Rhodope Mountains on the border with Greece. Although the conservation measures helped this colony to increase from 2-3 pairs to about 80 nowadays, the range of the species did not extend and still is only in Arda River Valley in Eastern Rhodopes. In the 1970s the large vultures were still surviving in Greece, but with time the bearded and griffon vultures have gone extinct from the mainland. The only black vulture colony in the Balkans is found in Dadia National Park in Greece close to the Bulgarian border. So we saw there is now suitable source of vultures where from they may recover naturally and that is why we decided to establish 5 new colonies – 4 to the north along the Balkan Mountain chain where we work in close cooperation with other NGOs such as Green Balkans and Bird of Prey Protection Society, and to the south west, Kresna Gorge. The last is also close to the small and declining population of the griffon vulture in FYR of Macedonia. But with the newly established colonies, it seems the situation gets a bit stabilized now. The summering, wintering and migrating birds on Balkans now have some more safe areas – read the book for the Reintroduction in Kresna Gorge to find how it works.
In short – if we want to have forests, wolves, but also vultures we have to reintroduce and organize feeding sites for them in our modern world dominated by man.
Reintroductions are quite a hot topic at the moment. One of the main concerns is finding accord between conservationists, landowners and the public regarding the benefits of such actions. Was this a problem for you in Bulgaria?
This is manageable. Especially with friendly species like the vultures it is a small concern for the local people in the very beginning and then they just appreciate the lovely and gorgeous birds flying high in the sky. The proper communication and involvement with local people is crucial for the success of any such initiative.
What are some of the major challenges the team faced during the years of the project?
The development of the network for receiving in-time information about livestock carcasses was very important and it took quite some time. Establishment of the first nucleus of griffon vultures also was a challenge. We did it twice until we found what the most important thing is. It was the food that should be provided not only in large quantity, but also at the best place for the vultures, and in summer to be provided frequently in small amounts so as not to decompose. We hardly learned that decomposed carcass is not an appreciated food source for vultures. They prefer fresh carcasses. Or at least not rotten meat. When we found that and made an effort to overcome it we saw the success.
Would you say that the process has been a success, then?
Yes, this is a success story. Of course we would like to see some more achievements in successful breeding and increase of the number of the breeding pairs of griffon vultures, as well as the return of the black and Egyptian vultures as breeders in the area. And one day also the return of the bearded vulture too.
Are there any lessons learned from this project that might have application for reintroduction practice in general?
There are two things: the vultures will not survive in the modern world without managing the carcass disposal. We could not have forests and wolves and also to have vultures just on their own. The last should be supported through feeding sites, at which the carcasses from the local villages and farms would be disposed and made accessible to vultures.
We developed a good method for individual identification of the vultures through so-called visual marking. We use cameras with long lenses and take pictures of every bird seen in flight. Then we compare the characteristics of the plumage. This way, even birds not marked with rings or wing-tags could be distinguished. The method is well described in the book.
If you could make one change to policy in Bulgaria, or beyond, that would be of benefit for vulture conservation, what would it be?
In the vultures’ range (either historical or current), where suitable habitats are still found, every natural or national park authority should be involved in maintenance of feeding site(s) for vultures. This should be one of the basic management practices for all protected areas that have an administration body. This way a large network (e.g Natura 2000 sites) of vulture safe areas will be established and the coherence of the habitat and space restored.
Some adaptations of the legislation concerning poisoning of wildlife and domestic cats and dogs should be done especially in Bulgaria. The use of poison baits in natural environment should be treated as an act of hunting. Nowadays the Bulgarian legislation does not treat the poison bait setting for dogs and cats. Only if a game species and/or protected species is affected the law could be applied.
How are the vultures doing today, and what are the next steps, for the project, and your own work with the Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna?
The vultures are preparing for the new breeding season. They are now making the very attractive simultaneous flights as breeding displays and seem very much enthusiastic especially in warm and windy days.
The next step is the reintroduction of the Eurasian black vulture, within the frame of the new Bright Future for Black Vulture in Bulgaria project LIFE14 NAT/BG/649, in cooperation with Green Balkans, Vulture Conservation Foundation, EuroNatur and the regional Government of Extremadura. I hope in future a similar story and a book will be issued for the black vulture in Kresna Gorge and Balkan Mountain in Bulgaria, where the species is now extinct for more than half a century.
I would like to mention here my colleagues and friends that work hard for all this to happen – Hristo Peshev, Lachezar Bonchev, Atanas Grozdanov, Nadya Vangelova and Yavor Iliev.
As usual at this time of year, we like to have a look back at what we’ve been enjoying over the last twelve months – see our selection of staff picks below. We wish all our customers a happy new year – and look forward to working with you again in 2016.
Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud
Haeckel’s drawings of developing embryos are some of the most iconic images in biology, and surely everyone who has studied biology will recognize them. Most people will also know that these images are notorious, and that charges of fraud have been levelled at Haeckel. But are these charges justified? And how much was lost in translation as these images were reproduced and disseminated in the 19th century? This richly illustrated book is the definitive account of these images and their history, going all the way back to the source material in the Haeckel archives in Germany, and hopefully will put the speculation and controversy surrounding these images to rest. A must-read for those interested in the history of science. Leon – Catalogue Editor
The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is?
This book stood out for me this year, as it ticks all the boxes: Lane is right at the cutting edge of science, he provides plausible and well-reasoned solutions to a whole host of fascinating questions. The Vital Question is very well written and I might even read it again! Anneli – Senior Manager
African Wild Dogs: On the Front Line
Having spent most of my life obsessed with African wild dogs and having focused the majority of my degree studies on them, I jump at the chance to read any new book about these amazing creatures. This book* does not disappoint; it is part witty memoir, part serious exploration of African wild dog conservation practise. I promise you won’t be able to put it down. Natt – Customer Service Supervisor
*Please note, African Wild Dogs is temporarily out of stock and is supplied from South Africa. We expect more stock in Spring 2016.
The Antelope of Africa
The Antelope of Africa is a fantastic new field guide, and perfect for the armchair wildlife traveller. Not having visited the continent, Africa’s diverse landscapes and nature retain their mystery, and this appealing full-colour photographic guide evokes the desire to roam the grassy plains in the company of hirola, gazelle, and topi. However, I’m probably not the target audience for this book! It contains a substantial amount of scientific information and will be an essential tool for conservationists and policy makers striving to solve the challenges facing antelope populations in Africa’s stressed ecosystems. Katherine – Marketing
Few and Far Between: On the Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals
Charlie Elder makes a memorable quest to the front line of British conservation in his search for some of our most iconic endangered species, and some of our more understated gems. He handles the potentially sombre topic of scarcity with true passion and optimism and writes with equal bounces of humour and thumps of heart. Few and Far Between celebrates the rich diversity of wildlife sharing our home, and is enlightening in how we can help to secure its place in the future. Oli – Customer Service
SteriPEN Aqua Water Purifier
If you love camping, travelling and generally stomping around outdoors then the SteriPen Aqua is a great bit of kit. It uses UV light to sterilise water in less than a minute and doesn’t leave the nasty taste that you can get with iodine tablets (and it’s much quicker!). The SteriPen is small enough to fit into my rucksack and is always a reassuring component of my outdoor gear. I’m looking forward to taking it on lots more adventures in 2016. Luanne – Equipment Specialist
I watched the entire series of The Hunt, brought to us from the BBC’s highly acclaimed Natural History Unit in Bristol. With every new major production they release, the standard in wildlife film-making is raised yet again. The style of filming is consistently innovative and unique in places, such as attaching a camera onto the side of an elephant to get close up shots of hunting tigers. I guarantee you’ll be amazed. Here is the accompanying book, full of stunning photography and insightful text. James – Equipment Specialist