Nature Classics Library: an interview with Jon from Little Toller Books

Jon Woolcott of Little Toller
Jon Woolcott of Little Toller at the publisher’s office in Dorset

Little Toller Books was established in 2008 as an imprint of Dovecote Press with the aim to revive lost classics of nature writing and British rural history. The success of their Nature Classics Library, has allowed them the independence to follow their inspiration in terms of the projects they pursue and they are now a leading voice in nature publishing. We asked Jon Woolcott of Little Toller Books about the Nature Classics Library.

The books are beautifully designed – what was the original inspiration behind the Nature Classics Library?

Thank you, that’s nice to hear – we work really hard at the design of the books, it strikes us that a book should be a beautiful object, and reflect the quality of the writing. The founders and co-owners of Little Toller, Adrian and Gracie Cooper, moved to Dorset but when they wanted to explore more about the country around their new home they found many of the books they wanted to read were no longer available. That inspired them to republish the great classics of nature writing – books like The Making of the English Landscape by W G Hoskins and The South Country by Edward Thomas. So Little Toller Books was born. The list has grown from there.

The Making of the English Landscape - W G Hoskins

With introductions by big name authors giving them great general appeal, are you hoping to bring these classics to a new audience?

Indeed – we’re not the first generation to rediscover these great books – and bringing authors like William Boyd, Robert Macfarlane and Carol Klein to them makes a big difference. We also use artists to complement the writing – the obvious example is Ravilious on our edition of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White, but we use artists to illustrate our monograph series.

Eric Ravilious illustration fromThe Natural History of Selborne
Eric Ravilious illustration fromThe Natural History of Selborne

How do you choose the books that end up on the list?

We’re a tiny team (there are just four of us at Little Toller) so we work together but ultimately Adrian chooses the books – it’s based on his taste and a sense of what readers are looking for, but always with the goal of exploring nature and our relationship with landscape.

If you could gain rights to publish any book from the history of nature writing, what would it be, and why?

We’ve always got a wish-list on the go! We’d love to publish Tarka the Otter of course (we already publish Williamson’s Salar the Salmon) but a really exciting project would be to publish an anthology of Darwin’s letters recounting his explorations into his local area, and his relationship with his family. As yet, this remains in the pipeline though!

Salar the Salmon - Henry Williamson

Do you remember the first natural history book that you enjoyed?

At Little Toller we all have our favourites, books that made an enormous difference to the way we felt or thought about nature. Speaking just for me I would highlight a book we don’t (yet!) publish – Bevis by Richard Jefferies. It’s not really a natural history book – ostensibly it’s a children’s book in the Swallows and Amazons tradition but written earlier. Jefferies brilliantly articulates the feelings of a boy as he explores the landscape. Jefferies was an early exponent of what we now call nature writing and I remember being captivated by his style. Adrian would choose On the Origin of Species because it’s so important, but for pure enjoyment he would have to go for Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (editorial note: available as part of The Corfu Trilogy).

What do you think characterises great nature writing?

Oh, that’s a difficult question – each writer brings something new – but it’s characterised by a deep understanding of the subject combined with wonderful writing. A sense of the personal reaction to the natural world is imperative – we don’t publish text books but instead those which bring the reader close to the subject.

Little Toller also publishes new writing, with Horatio Clare’s Orison for a Curlew just out. What are you looking for in potential new publications like this?

We look for originality, for subjects which readers will love, and for wonderful writing. It’s led us to publish Oliver Rackham, Iain Sinclair and Richard Skelton this year alone.

The Ash Tree - Oliver Rackham

What does the future have in store for Little Toller and the Nature Classics Library – any secrets you can let us in on?

We’re always looking to expand what we do – for instance we have two short films on our website about two of our books made by the authors – Iain Sinclair’s Black Apples of Gower and Richard Skelton’s Beyond the Fell Wall –  and Andrew Kotting made Iain’s film with him. We’re tiny so we can be really flexible in what we publish but we’re especially excited by In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas – which will have Thomas’ photographs from 1913 taken along the journey, published for the very first time – coming in March next year. We’re also looking forward to Cheryl Tipp’s book on the sounds of the sea. Many of NHBS’s fans will know her – she’s the Wildlife Sounds Curator at the British Library. And we have new books in the pipeline from Tim Dee, Dexter Petley and Horatio Clare, as well as new Nature Classics from R M Lockley and others. We’re also continuing to put our monographs into paperback as we have just done with The Ash Tree. We’re very busy! But we’re enormously heartened by the reaction to our books.

Browse the full list of books in Little Toller’s Nature Classics Library at NHBS

Naturalist, artist and author Steven Falk on his new field guide to bees

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandNaturalist and wildlife artist Steven Falk has had a diverse career with wildlife and conservation, including working as an entomologist with Nature Conservancy Council, and as natural history keeper for major museums. He is now Entomologist and Invertebrate Specialist at UK invertebrate conservation organisation Buglife. His new Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland will be published by British Wildlife Publishing next month.

Tell us about your role at Buglife.
At Buglife, I have quite a diverse role. I provide information and advice to colleagues, external enquirers and a plethora of external organisations. I’ve been particularly involved with overseeing the production of new red lists for assorted invertebrate groups, also providing feedback to the various national pollinator strategies, new agri-environment schemes, plus helping to develop projects for some of our most endangered invertebrate species. We also have a consultancy now, Buglife Services, which carries out and coordinates invertebrate surveys all over Britain. We’ve just done an exciting survey of the A30 and A38 in Devon and Cornwall. We need more understanding of road verge invertebrates, especially pollinators.

How did you come to write this landmark identification guide to all the bees of Britain and Ireland?
I was approached by Andrew Branson in 2012 and was initially quite reluctant, because you cannot use a traditional field guide approach for bees, as many cannot be identified to species level in the field (they require the taking of a specimen for critical examination under a microscope) and it is crucial that we keep the national dataset (run by BWARS) clean and reliable by being honest about where the limits of field identification lie. So I agreed to write it on the basis that it covered all 275 species, had reliable keys, and could appeal to both hardcore recorders and general naturalists. I knew this was feasible, because we had faced the same challenge with the seminal book British Hoverflies (Stubbs & Falk, 1983, 2002). So it is a field guide in the loose sense – it will help you to recognise much of what you see in the field, but also indicate at which point you need to take specimens and put them under a microscope. But you don’t need to collect bees or have a microscope to enjoy the book – we made sure of that.

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandThere is growing concern about the conservation status of bees – how are our bees getting on, and how might the publication of this book help them?
Yes, we need to be concerned about bees. We have already lost 25 species and several more are teetering on the edge of extinction. Good bee habitat continues to be lost. Brownfield land came to the rescue last century, but most of that has now been developed or lost its flowery early successional stages, which is what so many bees need. The research being carried out on pesticides such as neonicotinioids is also pretty disturbing – check out the work by Prof. Dave Goulson at Sussex University. It seems to be affecting bee numbers in many parts of the country. The national pollinator strategies being published by UK member states are a call to arms – let’s get monitoring bees. But the emphasis is on developing citizen science to achieve some of this, because there is little funding. High quality amateur recording is part of this plan, and Britain’s strong tradition of this makes it a realistic proposition. But the last comprehensive coverage of British bees was Saunders, 1896, and it has been the lack of modern ID literature that has held bee recording back. Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, and the supporting web feature (embedded in my Flickr site) will hopefully fix this!

Your career as a wildlife artist began early – you worked on the colour plates for Alan Stubb’s guide to British Hoverflies when you were just a teenager. How did this collaboration come about?
I pinned some bumblebees I had caught near my home in North London when I was 12. Half of them turned out to be bee-like hoverflies, and that started a fascination with hoverflies. The following summer holiday, I went out with a net almost every day, and seemed to find a new type of hoverfly daily. I was totally hooked on them, and I painted things that fascinated me, including those hoverflies. I exhibited some hoverfly artwork at the 1976 AES Exhibition in Hampstead, and met Alan Stubbs who told me he was writing a new guide to hoverflies. I said I wanted to do the artwork (I was only 14), and the rest is history. It took 3 years of evenings, and I think I was 17 when I finished it. I’m very proud of those plates, and you can see how my style develops (plate 8 was the first and plate 7 was the last – you can see a lampshade reflection in the early ones!).

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandDo we see any of your artwork in this book?
Sadly not, my eyesight is not great these days and I do very little drawing and painting now. But the British Wildlife Publishing ‘house artist’ is the great Richard Lewington, and he’s done a magnificent job. The bumblebee plates in particular, are just stunning, the best ever produced.

What sort of techniques do you use to produce your artwork – which is strikingly realistic and very detailed?
I painted birds a lot as a young child and was very aware of the bird artists of the time and their styles, people like Basil Ede, Charles Tunnicliffe and Robert Gillmor. I particularly liked the detail and photo-realism of Basil Ede’s work and became aware that he used gouache. So I started to use gouache and preferred it to watercolour. I’d often start with a black silhouette and build up the colour and texture on top of this, which is the opposite of watercolour painting. But others, like Denys Ovendon and Richard Lewington, show what can be done with watercolour, so it’s just a taste thing. For really intense or subtle colours, I’d need to use watercolours, because they produce a much larger colour pallete than gouache. Richard knows his watercolours – you need to if you want to tackle butterflies like blues, coppers and purple emperors. I’m possibly more proud of my black and white illustrations than my colour work. Here I was most influenced by the likes A. J. E. Terzi and Arthur Smith, house artists for the Natural History Museum. Their use of cross-hatching and stippling is so skillful, and I’ve tried to emulate this in my pen and ink artwork. Never use parallel lines in cross hatching!

Any future interesting projects coming up that you can tell us about – artistic, or conservation-based?
There are many more books I’d like to write, especially for wasps and assorted fly groups. It’s not just the subject, it’s the approach. I like getting into the mindset of the beginner and finding the right language and approach. We need to get more people recording invertebrates. I like the double-pronged approach of books plus web resources, and I have a popular and ever-expanding Flickr site that greatly facilitates the identification of many invertebrate groups. On the conservation front, I’m keen to continue promoting understanding of pollinators and to increase the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes. Invertebrate conservation is in my blood and I’ll be pursuing it to the very end in one form or another. I might even try illustrating again one day if I can find the right glasses!

Order your copy of the Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland
Visit Steven Falk’s website

Interview with botanist James Byng, author of The Gymnosperms Handbook

James Byng
James Byng in Zambia looking for Syzygium

James Byng is the author of the new Gymnosperms Handbook and a founding member of Plant Gateway, the botany organisation that published this, and his previous book, The Flowering Plants Handbook (out of print – new edition pending). In this interview he tells us about his work with Plant Gateway, raising the profile and accessibility of plant research, his own work with the genus Syzygium, and a day in the life of a working botanist.

You are a founding member of the Plant Gateway team. What is the vision for this botany organisation?

Taxonomic research is an underfunded and underappreciated branch of science and so few plant taxonomists are employed today in universities, and most national botanical institutions are cutting staff. However, the need to document the world’s species diversity has never been greater with as many as a fifth of all known plant species estimated to be threatened with extinction.

We believe at Plant Gateway an important step in slowing the biodiversity crisis is making plants more relevant and more accessible to people. It sounds simple but plant research in general is never quite appreciated as much as research on animals or in other scientific disciplines. But plants are fundamental for our own existence and continued survival on this planet, and we still barely know anything about most of them. Plant Gateway was founded for passionate like-minded taxonomists to make sense of the complicated botanical literature by publishing practical literature, running affordable and engaging identification courses, and undertaking taxonomic research with the aim of bringing it to a wider audience and making significant strides in our knowledge.

Who are the Plant Gateway courses for and how can they get involved?

Whilst training to be a plant taxonomist I witnessed over the years that plant identification skills were rarely being taught at universities anymore despite there still being a huge demand. Even though several courses exist which teach these skills, many of the courses are very expensive and/or taught too much from the specialist’s point of view which scares people off. Our courses are designed for everybody and anybody whatever a participant’s botanical background – all you need is an interest and love for plants! On past courses we have had undergraduate and postgraduate students, university professors and lecturers, horticulturalists, ecologists, Friends of Botanical Gardens and gardeners. We run several 1-day identification courses all over the UK in May and June, and a week long course in Tenerife around Easter time in 2016. Places on these courses can be reserved on our website.

The Gymnosperms Handbook: A Practical Guide to Extant Families and Genera of the World

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gymnosperms Handbook is the second publication from Plant Gateway. Who is this book aimed at?

The Gymnosperms Handbook is a concise introduction to identifying extant gymnosperms of the world. It is aimed at both specialists and non-specialists; ranging from experienced botanists, ecologists, horticulturalists, biologists and gardeners to students and those people who are learning about and interested in conifers, cypresses and other gymnosperms because they see them in their local parks and forests. So the handbook is aimed for everybody whatever their background.

Part of your own research is focused on the systematics of Syzygium (Myrtaceae). What led you to this particular genus?

In 2007 I was an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen when I first encountered the genus Syzygium in Zambia while undertaking ecological fieldwork. Since then I have been intrigued by the genus as most botanists seem scared by the sheer number of (known and unknown) species and the difficulty in identifying them due to the seemingly poor diagnostic characters which separate species. The genus is famous for containing the commercial clove (Syzygium aromaticum) and is now the largest tree genus in the world with over 1,200 species. I am now leading a project, with collaborators in the USA, Australia, Africa and Asia, to unravel evolutionary relationships of Syzygium and to document all species in a global monograph.

What does a working day as a botanical researcher look like for you?

A typical working day for a plant taxonomist in the twenty first century varies from week to week. Most of my time is spent with dried plant collections, housed in herbaria, where I sort through specimens collected from past and present field expeditions and document and describe species diversity. I also spend time collecting new data and plants in the field, usually in the tropics, and undertaking lab work where I extract and amplify DNA to understand evolutionary histories. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly(!), I spend time in front of the computer writing up my findings in the form of scientific papers, reports and books. It can be a combination of enjoyment and stress but once I finish a piece of work it makes it all feel worthwhile.

What’s next in line for publication from Plant Gateway?

One of the next titles in our practical handbook series will be a revised second edition of The Flowering Plants Handbook which will include notes on all flowering plant genera, more images, and will follow the soon to be published Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) IV classification system. Also, there will be a practical handbook on ferns and their allies co-authored with my Plant Gateway colleague, and leading fern specialist, Dr Maarten Christenhusz.

Find our more about the Gymnosperms Handbook

John Wilkinson, Science Programme Manager with ARC Trust, on amphibian conservation

john-wilkinsonThe Amphibian Survey and Monitoring Handbook is the latest volume in the Conservation Handbooks series, tackling all aspects of amphibian survey. Author John Wilkinson is Science Programme Manager with The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC Trust).

What is your background in herpetology and what have been some of the highlights of your work?

After university, where my undergraduate dissertation was on amphibian diversity in Northern Italy, I worked on some short-term academic contracts before getting a job coordinating the international response to global amphibian declines with the IUCN SSC Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force (now the Amphibian Specialist Group). I learnt a lot there about the complexities of amphibian declines and the importance of systematic surveys.

A recent highlight of my conservation work was the discovery, building on my PhD research, that toads on the Channel Island of Jersey are a completely different species than those in mainland Britain – they’re actually Bufo spinosus, a species that evolved in Iberia millions of years ago whilst English toads were spreading out of the Balkans. Most importantly, their ecology is very different and they therefore require different conservation measures!

Could you tell us about any major trends that have been discovered by the monitoring schemes you have been involved with?

Part of my work is coordinating the UK National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme (NARRS), which has so far highlighted the serious declines of British adders and changes in the relative abundance of our smaller newts (palmate newts seem relatively more widespread than in former national surveys, possibly indicating a change in quality in Britain’s ponds).

How does a decline in amphibian and reptile biodiversity affect ecosystems?

These creatures are hugely important for many ecosystems as they occupy key niches in the middle of the food chain: as well as being important prey for a wide range of species from otters to marsh harriers, they are themselves important predators, consuming millions of pest invertebrates every year. Healthy amphibian populations in particular are therefore important to human food production and population losses have economic implications as well as resulting in more pesticide use.

What can be done to reverse this decline which is pervasive worldwide?

Though numerous factors cause declines, habitat loss and fragmentation is still the most significant problem. Local planning must take into account the need to keep breeding and foraging habitats connected to boost population resilience – as well as incorporating habitat into landscape-level schemes. At ARC, we’re leading the way on using predictive modelling and GIS techniques to model the effects of development and produce the best outcomes for amphibians (and other species).

If you were given the chance to implement one policy, today, in support of amphibian & reptile conservation, anywhere in the world, what would it be?

It would be easiest to come up with a list! I will, however, highlight a problem in the UK: our widespread amphibians have NO real protection under the law – though the NERC act outlines a “duty to consider” declining species like toads in development. ALL our amphibians and reptiles need full legal protection which is enforced, and which includes their habitats – otherwise developers can continue to fill in ponds and disconnect populations at will. Our widespread species are really a lot more threatened than the most highly-protected ones (the effects of this can already be seen with recent declines in the adder and toad)!

How can the general public get involved with projects to help their local herpetofauna?

  • Join a local Amphibian and Reptile Group (ARG) and ask them if they can participate in NARRS, as a group, to ensure their local information is considered nationally.
  • Build a pond and make a compost heap.
  • Volunteer to help create and manage habitats through ARC and/or other bodies such as local wildlife trusts.
  • Always report sightings of amphibians and reptiles (see www.recordpool.org.uk) – this will help their conservation.
  • Take local councils, conservation bodies (or anyone else!) to task when any local sites are planned for development or disconnection!

Amphibian Survey and Monitoring Handbook

Find out more about the Amphibian Survey and Monitoring Handbook

Sweden’s first regional dragonfly atlas – interview with author Tommy Karlsson

Tommy Karlsson, author of Östergötlands Trollsländor [Dragonflies in Östergötland]
Tommy Karlsson, author of Östergötlands Trollsländor [Dragonflies in Östergötland]
Congratulations on the book and on publishing the first regional distribution atlas for dragonflies in Sweden. What is your background in natural history? Have you always been interested in dragonflies?
Thank you very much! I am a biologist and work since 2005 at the department of Nature Conservation at the County Administrative Board of Östergötland, mainly with action plans for threatened species. I have always been interested by natural history, and as a kid I liked to collect larvae of dragonflies, stoneflies, mayflies and other limnic insects. However, my interest for imago dragonflies and identification of species started during my biology studies, about 2002-2003.

For those who may not be familiar with the natural history of Sweden, what sort of place is Östergötland in terms of biodiversity and landscape?
Östergötland is situated in south east Sweden and covers 14,500 km sq. It is situated in the boreonemoral vegetation zone and can be divided into four natural geographic regions: the southern woodlands, the plains, the archipelago, and the northern woodlands. The woodlands and the archipelago mainly consist of coniferous forests, while the plains mainly consists of intensively cultivated agricultural land. The woodlands have great numbers of lakes and mires, while the plains are very poor in water. The main part of Östergötland is lowlands, but in the southern woodlands there are considerable areas above 200 m.a.s.l. The bedrock in the county is mainly acid but in the western part of the plains there is an area of Cambro-silurian calcareous rock. During the last glaciation, calcareous material was dispersed southwards, resulting in calcareous soils in some parts of the southern woodlands with granite bedrock. As a consequence of bedrock and soils you find mainly oligotrophic and dystrophic waters in the northern woodlands, eutrophic waters in the plains, and a mix of oligotrophic, dystrophic and mesotrophic in the southern woodlands. Östergötland, along with other southeastern regions, is one of the most species-rich regions in Sweden considering invertebrates due to its relatively warm and dry summers. It is well known for its considerable areas with hollow oaks and the saprolyxic fauna and flora associated with them.

Onychogomphus foripatus description and distribution map from Östergötlands Trollsländor [Dragonflies in Östergötland]
Onychogomphus foripatus description and distribution map from Östergötlands Trollsländor [Dragonflies in Östergötland]
How do you co-ordinate a project like this, with 150 volunteers over the course of five years (2008-2012), and what were some of the highs and lows?
It worked out very well since all was based on voluntarism. After getting initial information about surveying and identifying dragonflies, the participants could work quite independently. Most of the communication with the participants was made through e-mail. In addition, several activities were organized: kick-offs every spring, survey courses and excursions during summer, and reporting courses during fall. Many of the participants had no experience of surveying dragonflies before, and the fact that we managed to get so many volunteer amateurs out surveying dragonflies was one of the highlights of the project. Furthermore, the participants were a heterogenous group in terms of age and gender, and not only older men which is common in entomological contexts.

In the study you make comparisons with 10 other regions in Europe. What conclusions have you been able to draw through these comparisons?
Yes, I compare Östergötland with some other European regions where dragonfly surveys have been performed. Most of the regions have more species than Östergötland because they are situated south of Östergötland. On the other hand, Östergötland has two species which generally are missing in the other regions: Coenagrion johanssoni and Aeshna serrata. When comparing the species the regions have in common, the frequency for some species differs a lot between Östergötland and the other regions. Östergötland is distinguished by the fact that species classified as red-listed and/or decreasing in Europe occur more frequently in Östergötland than in most of the other regions. Particularly Coenagrion armatum and Leucorrhinia caudalis can be pointed out as much more common in Östergötland. Thus, Östergötland has both a national and international responsibility for these species, together with A. serrata, Aeshna viridis and Nehalennia speciosa. The reason for this is that important habitats for these species, such as bog ponds and mesotrophic lakes are naturally more common in Sweden, and that the exploitation of waters in Sweden has not been as severe as in central Europe.

Östergötlands Trollsländor [Dragonflies in Östergötland]
Östergötlands Trollsländor [Dragonflies in Östergötland]
What were some of the other significant findings of the project?
Probably because of global warming there is an ongoing change in the European dragonfly fauna where several southern species have expanded rapidly northwards and some northern species have retreated. In Östergötland the establishment of Lestes virens and Ischnura pumilio has been documented during the survey. L. virens was observed for the first time in the county in 2005 and, during the period 2008-2012, was found at several new localities every year. I. pumilio was first noted for the Östergötland in 2012.

And what is next for you and for the Östergötlands Entomological Society?
This year I have got the assignment to co-ordinate Sweden’s monitoring of the dragonflies species listed in the EU’s habitat directive. It will be very nice to work professionally with dragonflies and I have learned a lot about these species and dragonfly monitoring during the survey in Östergötland. I started this work last week with a field study of Ophiogomphus cecilia, a species only occurring in some few unregulated rivers in the very far north of Sweden. Concerning the Entomological Society in Östergötland, we have discussed the possibility of starting up another voluntary survey of some other easy identified insect group, e.g. shield bugs or grasshoppers, but nothing is ready to start yet.

Östergötlands Trollsländor [Dragonflies in Östergötland] is available now from NHBS

Ecologist Derek Gow on beaver reintroductions in the UK

Ecologist Derek Gow (The Derek Gow Consultancy) is the co-author of The Eurasian Beaver, published in January 2015. His involvement with Devon Wildlife Trust’s trial reintroduction and the Tayside beaver reintroduction makes him uniquely placed to discuss the topic of beaver reintroductions in the UK.

The Eurasian BeaverHow would the presence of healthy beaver populations enhance the UK’s landscape and biodiversity?

In Eurasia and North America beavers are the keystone species around which all other wetland life revolves. Their simple dam building and tree felling activities trigger a whole range of complex changes in their surrounding environments which clearly result in greatly enhanced levels of biodiversity and biomass. In landscapes which are semi-natural the cascade of dynamic changes they produce harbours the potential for breathtakingly spectacular results, such as the return of the black stork. While in highly manipulated, human engineered environments they can literally breathe life back into the land.

You are involved with the Devon Beaver Project, which has created a test environment to see how reintroduced beavers would affect their local ecosystem. Can you tell us more about this project, and what results it has produced so far?

The initial stage of the Devon Beaver Trial was designed to evaluate from ground zero the impact of a beaver family in an enclosed area of wet-woodland of approximately 3ha. Between 2011 and 2015 the beavers created a series of approximately 14 major dam systems on a 200 metre length of a seasonally flowing water course at the northern end of the site. They maintain long dams in the winter when water is abundant and short dams in the summer when water is scarce. At the time of writing their impoundments are capable of retaining approximately 1000 tonnes of water, none of which would have seasonally remained on site without them. The return of the beaver has been accompanied by a proliferation of wildlife. Flowering and other vascular plant communities now abound on site. On warm sunny days meadow browns, marbled whites and a host of other butterflies flit through its open woodlands. Dragonflies and damselflies occur in ever greater numbers while amphibians such as common frogs have increased in numbers fiftyfold. Juvenile common lizards hunt through the deadwood understory while marsh tits, spotted flycatchers, greater spotted woodpeckers, tree creepers and redpolls hunt insects in the trees. Water fowl have moved into occupy environments which formerly did not exist. Red and roe deer jump the perimeter fence to drink in its pools.

It is an absolutely amazing project and a brilliant site.

What does a reintroduction look like in practical terms? Can you break down the logistics of species reintroduction?

Well if you ask the Germans its simple: you get lots of beavers – 40 plus per release, drive along the road, spot a likely location, and let them go. A crude system which works! Reintroductions in Britain are often subject to a large degree of politics, which can be frustrating as this is a species well understood throughout its natural range which simply offers so much. We could do much better. To date, beaver reintroduction has been a haphazard affair with major public spats between those that wish them to remain and those that are opposed – the history of the Tayside and Devon beavers demonstrate this well. Given that this species was last present in Britain outside of our living memory, it is assumed that licensed releases require a scientific demonstration of how this animal will impact a British landscape – as though it will be any different from what our European and American counterparts have already demonstrated. In realistic terms, in Britain an official reintroduction would involve a small number of animals, released into a specific site, with thorough scientific monitoring of impact and public opinion. Though we may take heart that beavers are now back in our landscape, the process to full restoration is likely to be slow and cautious.

What precedent does the approval of the River Otter beaver population set for reintroductions as a wider concept? Are we likely to see lynx roaming wild any time soon?

We need to learn to live with and tolerate beavers before I think we can accomplish anything more adventurous in Britain. If we can’t move forward with reintroducing this charismatic rodent that has such significant impacts on its environment, and can single-handedly do so much to restore our wetlands, then we need to be seriously realistic about our collective ability to accept top predators on this island – no matter how nostalgic or headline grabbing the notion of lynx may be.

What would you say to people who consider reintroduction to be somehow against the natural order of things?

When you consider our contemporary British landscapes and their land-use practices, which are entirely dictated by human activity, they represent little in the way of natural order. In truth they are not ecosystems and we are probably grasping at straws to even describe what’s left as tattered fragments blowing in the wind. Instead we have a wealth of isolated areas of biological richness, generally produced as a result of relict human activities which are difficult to maintain and increasingly vulnerable and fragile. Do we accept that these nature zoos are it, or do we try to foster and encourage a process whereby we change the pattern of the landscape we have made to make it better for people and wildlife alike? Reintroductions, where human activities have caused the past extinction or diminution of a species in Britain, are simply a tool we should employ with competent ease where the circumstances justify its use.

We recently heard the news about the successful litter of kits produced by the River Otter beavers. What did this news mean to you personally? 

Brilliant!! It’s been a long time coming. Let’s move on now from these vital but small and isolated pockets of beavers and see the full restoration of this incredible species.


 

Also available now

Nature's Architect: The Beaver's Return to Our Wild LandscapesNature’s Architect: The Beaver’s Return to Our Wild Landscapes is the latest book from leading nature writer Jim Crumley. The book explores the natural history of the beaver, and Crumley makes his case in favour of beaver reintroduction.

 

 

Supplier interview: Volker Runkel of ecoObs

Volker Runkel of ecoObs

ecoObs are a small German company at the forefront of full spectrum bat call recording and identification. They produce the Batcorder 3, a highly optimised bat detector (each new microphone arrives with its own calibration factor to ensure that comparisons between units are valid) designed to consistently record bat calls of sufficiently high quality to make auto-identification possible. Calls can then be processed using ecoObs software bcAdmin 3.0, bcAnalyse 2.0 and batIdent. These enable the rapid and accurate identification of common bat species, speeding up the identification process by up to 70% and allowing users to focus more time on rare or interesting bat species. We asked ecoObs co-founder and managing director Volker Runkel to introduce the company.

Tell us a little about your company and how you got started

For my PhD thesis I developed a quite basic and rather well working solution for passive monitoring of bats. Already then I saw that automation in data collection as well as analysis was one of the keys to focus on, instead of all raw analysis work. We quickly realized there is a huge demand for such a solution. We then were lucky and found an engineer who partnered up with us and redesigned the hardware so it was power efficient, small and easy to use. The batcorder system was born.

ecoObs Batcorder 3
ecoObs Batcorder 3

What challenges do you face as a company in the ecology/natural history sector?

The sector is rather small and as a hardware producer we for example often have problems acquiring small quantities of parts. In electro-engineering small companies still require some hundred thousand parts while we ask for a mere thousand. Also the demand for devices is highly seasonal – 90% of orders arrive within a few weeks in spring when the bat season starts. On the other end, we have a very vivid and heterogeneous bat worker scene.

What do you consider the most important achievement of your company in recent years?

I think getting the batcorder and the analysis software out in the wild and thus pushing the whole field of passive monitoring and automated bat call identification to where it is now. When we started in 2004 no one believed it would be ever working, and now a rising number of devices and software exists.

What is your most memorable wildlife/natural history encounter?

Spotting and touching an Echidna in the wild!

Browse all ecoObs products

 

Firmware update for the Anabat Express

Express Firmware 5506J

Anabat Toolbox 1.17

Titley Scientific has released a new firmware for your AnaBat Express.  It fixes a problem with the timezone recorded in GPS transect log files.

Run Anabat Toolbox and install the update. Then connect your Anabat Express via USB to upgrade the firmware.

Firmware updates from Wildlife Acoustics

New Firmware available for SM2, SM3 and SMZC product families

These firmware updates all address an SD card compatibility issue we have recently seen in a number of specific SD card models. If you have experienced SD card errors or corruption, this firmware update may resolve these issues.

SM3/SM3BAT/SM3M Firmware 1.2.7

In addition to the SD card issue above, this version also improves the interpretation of a program containing non-infinite loops. The firmware can be found here.

SMZC Firmware 1.0.6

In addition to the SD card issue above, this version also improves the interpretation of a program containing non-infinite loops. The firmware can be found here.

SM2/SM2BAT/SM2M Firmware 3.3.9

The firmware can be found here.

You can contact support2015@wildlifeacoustics.com if you have any questions.

On the importance of pollinators in East Africa: an interview with Whitley Gold Award winner Dino Martins

Dino MartinsDr Dino Martins is an entomologist and evolutionary biologist with a PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University. He is also well-known in his native East Africa where he works to educate farmers about the importance of the conservation of pollinators. It is this work that recently won Dr Martins the prestigious Whitley Gold Award presented by the Friends and Scottish Friends of the Whitley Fund for Nature. His book, The Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa has just been published by Random House Struik. What’s more, he takes great photos, the majority of those in the book being his own.

Congratulations on winning the award – how did you become involved in entomology, and what does this award mean to you personally?

I am very honoured and deeply humbled – I take this award as recognition for the immense contribution by pollinators (mainly insects) and small-scale farmers in rural areas around the world to biodiversity. So I am receiving it I feel on their behalf. My earliest memories are of insects, as I spent a lot of time watching and chasing after them as a child. This award will enable me to scale up our work on the conservation of pollinators in East Africa, and also raise further awareness among farmers, school children and the general public on how this important ecosystem service puts food on our plates and nutrition in our bodies.

You  work extensively with the East African farmers, educating them about the importance of pollinators for healthy crop yields – what is your main message to them?

Cuckoo wasp and lycaenid butterfly on coriander flowers in Turkana, Northern Kenya – photo credit: Dino Martins
Cuckoo wasp and lycaenid butterfly on coriander flowers in Turkana, Northern Kenya – photo credit: Dino Martins

Our main message to farmers is to celebrate the biodiversity that underpins the life support systems of the planet. Farmers are our greatest allies in the conservation of biodiversity in East Africa. Most of the forest habitats, for example, are surrounded by small-scale farmers whose actions can go a long way to either protect or degrade the forests, and of course the many endemic species they are home to. We want to get farmers and everyone to understand the connection between their own lives, food production and wild insects. We do a simple experiment where we bag one flower and leave one open to insects, then watch what develops over the next few days or weeks depending on the crop. It is always uplifting to see the moment a light goes on in the farmers’ eyes when they see the connection between insects visiting the flowers and the yields they enjoy. Working to help conserve pollinators and restore habitats has seen yields increase up to ten-fold on some crops, such as passionfruit and watermelon.

Entomology may be perceived as a less glamorous area related to wildlife conservation, but it is so essential globally – what is the appeal, and the importance of your field for world biodiversity?

Honeybee on the blackjack weed (Bidens pilosa) in the Kerio Valley Kenya - photo credit: Dino Martins
Honeybee on the blackjack weed (Bidens pilosa) in the Kerio Valley, Kenya – photo credit: Dino Martins

As Professor E. O. Wilson stated so eloquently some time ago: “Insects are the little creatures that run the world”. This is more true than ever in Africa where the large mammals are important, but also depend on insects that pollinate wild plants, disperse seeds, help build soil and recycle nutrients through the whole ecosystem. Understanding biodiversity is essential for sustainable development and conservation in Africa today. I feel that we are uncovering a previously ‘hidden’, somewhat unrecognised sphere of biodiversity: that of the rural farming landscape. When farmers create hedgerows of natural plants, protect patches of forest or grassland, or work together to create on-farm habitats we are finding that some of these landscapes are especially rich in pollinators. For example, on one mango farm in the Kerio Valley we have recorded over 1,000 different species of flower-visiting insects. This farmer harvests up to 12,000 mangoes weekly that earn him thousands of dollars. Without pollinating insects there would be no income on this farm. Watermelon farming brings in over 10 million US $ annually to just one county (Baringo) in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Scaling this up globally means that a huge part of our food production and especially high-value crops like nuts and berries are dependent on wild insects.

Do you feel confident that enough is being done to protect our pollinators?

There is a lot of interest in pollinators today that has come about from regional initiatives, including the Global Pollination Project managed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. There is also an on-going assessment of pollinators by the IPBES (I am a coordinating lead author for one of the chapters). Locally, many farmers, gardeners, beekeepers and enthusiasts are working to create habitats, provide nesting sites and learn about the pollinators around them. This is very inspiring and heart-warming to see. In East Africa, where we have a huge diversity of bees and other insects, one of the challenges is actually just identifying them, and this is where we are working with farmers – so that they can recognise that the diversity on their farms is of direct benefit to them and their families. Major challenges remain in terms of better understanding and managing pesticides and also farming in ways that are compatible with nature while scaling up food production worldwide.

pocket insects east africaWhat is coming up for you next, following this award, and the publication of your book, Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa?

I am back in Kenya now after an amazing few weeks in London. I am very much looking forward to getting back into working with farmers and completing a number of other books including ‘The Bees of East Africa: A Natural History’, and ‘The Butterflies of Eastern Africa’ with Steve Collins. A book we launched digitally on pollinators is also due to be printed shortly, but can also be downloaded here.

The Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa is being very well-received here and abroad, and I have had hundreds of messages saying how exciting it is to finally have a book on insects for the region. On the work front I have just been appointed the Director of the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya and am looking forward to getting more entomology projects going there.

The Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa is available now from NHBS