On 9th September the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published the 2020 Living Planet Report which warns of drastic declines in mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The report also suggests ways in which we might curb biodiversity loss and begin recovery by 2050.
Loss of sea otters is proving to be devastating for the limestone reefs that underpin Alaskan kelp forest ecosystems. In a healthy, functional system, otters predate the sea urchins that graze on the reefs, but dwindling population sizes mean that reefs are likely to collapse within decades.
Despite the debate around the role and value of protected areas, recent research from the University of Queensland has shown that, when well-managed, they are incredibly effective. 80% of mammal species monitored doubled their coverage in protected areas over a period of 50 years, and 10% of the mammals studied survived solely on protected land.
This weekend, Sir David Attenborough returned to our screens in the UK with a new one-hour production titled Extinction: The Facts. In a departure from his usual style, the documentary depicts scenes of destruction, loss and crisis for many wild populations and ecosystems. His final line, however, is a call to arms: “What happens next, is up to every one of us”.
The beautiful and historic Sharpham Estate runs alongside the River Dart just outside Totnes in South Devon. Beginning this year, a three-year project called Wild for People, run by the Sharpham Trust under a National Lottery Heritage Fund project, will begin to enhance the biodiversity of this 550-acre area, aided by a passionate team of conservation trainees. Working with Ambios Ltd, who are based on the Estate, this project aims to turn more of the Sharpham Estate organic, re-wild significant parts of the landscape and encourage more people to interact with the nature there.
Jack Skuse, director of Ambios, recently took the time to chat with us about the Sharpham Wild for People project. In this inspiring conversation we talk about the practicalities of rewilding working alongside food production, how the Covid pandemic has affected the first year of the project, and his tips for people wanting to get into a career in conservation.
Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Sharpham Estate and how the land is currently used?
Sharpham is an ancient landscape. People are known to have lived here from at least 1260. The landscape as we currently see it was designed this way during a period when the estate was owned by Philamon Pownell. He was a sea captain who captured a Spanish galleon laden with treasure from South America. With his wealth he set about transforming Sharpham, building the Palladian villa (designed by famous architect Robert Taylor) and creating the Sharpham Parkland – sweeping away hedgerows to open up vistas from the main carriage drives across the estate and into Totnes, and planting trees to accentuate and frame the views. Since his death the estate has had different owners, however, the parkland has remained largely intact, with the vineyard being the main alteration to this landscape in more recent times. Today Ambios rent and manage part of the estate (80 acres) and have recently signed the lease for a further 50 acres for rewilding and nature conservation training, and in partnership with United Response provide a care day service for adults with learning difficulties and disabilities.
What are your current trainees busy with at the moment?
Ambios offer three-month traineeships for people looking for a career in nature conservation, alongside other nature training opportunities in the UK and EU. Our current crop of trainees have been here since early July, having been through an early Covid-19 quarantine period. The first part of the traineeship is about building confidence in nature, often supporting the academic education many would have had at university with practical skills and applied knowledge – the skills the sector demands. This includes species ID (birds, plants, bats, etc), technical language training, practical skills including basic carpentry and land-based work, as well as engaging with the public through online platforms. Now that they have developed some of these skills, the central part of the placement is about taking ownership of a project that relates to rewilding. As this is our first year rewilding, there are many baseline surveys the trainees are carrying out with our team of trainers supporting their work. Surveys include grasslands, crickets and grasshoppers, river birds, butterflies. One of our trainees has also taken on the task of producing content for our website around rewilding and linking with other projects/information so that people looking at our site can network into the world of rewilding – a learning resource. This is in collaboration with Rewilding Britain.
How has the Covid pandemic affected the project this year?
It is impossible to imagine a year like this one and, as with all businesses, we have been significantly affected. The day service in partnership with United Response closed, and only now we are beginning to reopen. This meant much of the day-to-day work of the farm had to be reappointed to our long term volunteer team – right in the middle of our lambing and calving period! Many of our trainees come from the EU, and our traineeships saw reduced numbers. Our risk assessment put in place some strict measures to ensure everyone was safe and followed protocol. Some of our staff were furloughed meaning our work had to simplify and streamline, and some of our training content moved online (our Effective Camera Trapping Course for instance). Meanwhile, we have been working to enter into a comprehensive agri-environment scheme for our new land to rewild (50 acres) to subsidise our farming practice and allow us to prioritise wildlife. Given the land is listed historic parkland this is not without its complexity – see below!
One of the aims of the Wild for People project is to help more people engage with nature on the estate. Is the area open to the public and/or do you host events that local people can get involved with?
In partnership with Sharpham Trust we have been awarded £177,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to run a comprehensive public programme of education and events alongside our rewilding. This naturally has had a slower start than originally planned due to the pandemic but the funding has allowed us to offer fully subsidised placements on our traineeship. Alongside this we will start up a new volunteer day later this year to allow hands on engagement with rewilding. The process over the next three years – the duration of the Lottery project and the first three years (of five) of our tenancy and agri-environment countryside stewardship programme – will be to reinstate the historic parkland at Sharpham, which is in a degraded state, and convert the land to organic status. This will involve planting 140 trees in their original location from over 200 years ago, repairing the bridge over the Sharpham Marsh and allowing permissive access to the historic viewpoint with the installation of kissing gates. It will also allow us to fence the perimeter of the holding to allow stock to freely roam across the full 50 acres, choosing where to forage, dung and rest uninterrupted, passing between the two parcels of land either side of the public access farm track with the aid of gates. This work programme will sit with our public invitation volunteer days, our nature conservation traineeship and the work programme for the people United Response support. Sharpham Trust will also run a series of public events and school visits, culminating in an annual Bioblitz where we can study the impact of our rewilding over an intensive 24-hour wildlife survey period.
In terms of rewilding, do you feel it is important to strike a balance between the land being ‘productive/useful’ and leaving it to nature?
In terms of the balance of farming and wildlife, my feeling is that we need to view the role of the countryside through a very different lens to the one we have been viewing it through. The countryside provides many different things to us; from the food we eat and the employment we gain to our recreation and wellbeing, to other ‘ecosystem services’ including flood defence, carbon capture and of course for wildlife. We have become very efficient at food production, but this has been to the detriment of wildlife, where we have seen the catastrophic decline in species number and diversity since the industrial revolution. In order to halt this decline we need a fundamentally different set of priorities and management approaches for the countryside, that encourage and importantly fund wildlife friendly initiatives. Rewilding is, I believe, the best, most sustainable, most captivating and acceptable approach to wholescale land management for wildlife.
Productive agricultural land should, in my view, have food production as its main objective. However, I believe that marginal land, under a skewed farm subsidy model that pays for land to be farmed regardless of its productivity, should have a different value placed upon it, and should be (un)managed accordingly. A great example is our land at Sharpham. Many of the uplands, steep sided valleys and unproductive farmland could see a regeneration in wildlife that should be supported by a different farm subsidy model and diversified economies that would provide employment, bring people back to the countryside and connect people in a deeper way with nature. And whereby the cumulative benefit would be seen not just in increased wildlife, but in our collective effort to become carbon neutral with thriving ecosystems and connected communities. Our small project is part of this and with a public engagement agenda we hope to share these values with as wide an audience as we can so people can see the true, intrinsic value of nature and the role the countryside has on all our lives.
What is the greatest challenge of the project?
There are many challenges to our project, aside from the obvious and immediate Covid-19. Brexit will see a different relationship with the EU, and the ability of European trainees to study with us to share good practice and learn about rewilding across the continent may be compromised. The values I mentioned above should be supported under the new, post-Brexit ELMS farm subsidy scheme that will replace countryside stewardship in the coming years. However, as we enter a recession the budget available to support these initiatives may be reduced and turn landowners away from wildlife-friendly practices towards more intensive agriculture. These economic factors are very relevant to our long term aspirations and in inspiring and motivating other local landowners in joining the wildlife resistance.
The landscape at Sharpham that is being rewilded has a significant cultural and historic value already – it is an iconic landscape, set within the South Devon AONB and has a grade 2* listing for its historic importance, as well as a national cycle route passing through it. The changes we will see under the new rewilding regime will change the way this landscape will look and feel. Our initial work to restore the historic parkland aims to honour its heritage; our ongoing rewilding will give it a new and relevant role long into the future, and will be part of its story. We hope to be able to share this story so that people can see the value of it, and balance these different values.
We have learnt from the Knepp Estate (a large rewilding project in the east of the UK set on a lowland farm) some of the challenges that rewilding sites face. Indeed, in running our existing holding we have seen dog attacks on our livestock and littering, with livestock eating waste left by people enjoying the dramatic walks and views of the Dart Valley. Our mixed stocking will bring their own challenges when interacting with people, but we have measures in place to manage this risk. Newborn calves for example are very cute to look at, but their mothers can be very protective and feel any proximity to their offspring as a threat. We are definitely not taking these challenges lightly, however, we know that the majority of the public are aware of and respect the countryside.
The training scheme offers the trainees a great range of practical field skills and conservation experience. What advice would you give to a young (or not so young!) person who is wanting to get into conservation as a career?
Most of the employers we engage with say that that experience is key. This is however the challenge that prospective employees face – employers requiring experience and employees finding it increasingly difficult to gain valuable experience. I’d say keep going! Find creative ways to gain experience, whether it’s practicing your ID skills in your garden or out on walks. When you get the chance to apply or make it through to interview show enthusiasm, be genuine and authentic – the people interviewing you are human too – and try to use good, relevant examples to prove your passion. Also try to be true to yourself – if the job you are applying for isn’t necessarily the one you would hope to do long term, be honest with yourself about it, and don’t give up!!!
In the meantime, keep linked with job advertisers like Countryside Jobs Service and environmentjob and build your network on professional/social media platforms (like LinkedIn) with employers – nature conservation is a small world. Aim to use relevant examples related to the job advertised; even if the experience you’ve had is small, don’t big it up; be honest and, most importantly, detailed – tell employers exactly what you have done, when, where, for how long and who with. Also, don’t be afraid to ask employers what training they offer – they don’t need you to be the finished article but they want evidence of your awareness of the world and the role you’ve applied for and that you have adaptable skills and are willing to learn. Its become a cliché to an extent, but whereas your education will prove a level of understanding of your subject, what employers also want to know is how good you are at some of the softer skills like teamwork, flexibility, creativity, application and dedication, and having good examples of these to hand will be invaluable.
The post-Covid employment landscape will make job hunting even more challenging, so keep an eye on current government initiatives and any opportunities that may pop up over the next 12-18 months. The government has promised to invest in a green economic recovery and this may well see new training opportunities that could be the key to you gaining relevant experience.
Finally, have a look at our blog page. Here, members of the Ambios team offer more advice, support and top tips on how to get a career within the conservation sector.
Completely weatherproof and able to run for months on a single set of batteries, trail cameras are now commonly used for wildlife surveys or studying animal behaviour, and are becoming a vital tool for conservation all around the world. They are also incredibly popular with naturalists who are interested in finding out what the wildlife is up to on their local patch.
The Browning Patriot, released this year, is one of Browning’s top of the range cameras. Along with excellent resolution image and video capture (24MP images, 1920x1080p video), the Patriot features Browning’s unique dual-lens technology. This means that a separate lens and sensor system are used for daytime and night time capture, allowing you to capture excellent quality footage whatever the time of day. No-glow LEDs, which are completely invisible to both humans and other animals, are used to illuminate your subject at night up to a distance of 34m. A colour viewing screen, adjustable steel tree bracket and host of advanced camera settings all add to the Patriot’s appeal.
How we tested
We loaded the Patriot with a full set of AA batteries and a 32GB SD card then set the time and date. The camera mode was set to ‘Trail’ which means that it would record still images whenever the motion sensor was triggered by movement. The capture delay (ie the time between images being taken) was set at 5s and the image quality 24MP. Multi-shot mode was set to off (ie the camera would only take a single image per trigger) and the capture timer was set to 12.00am for both the ON and OFF times, meaning that the camera would be active 24 hours a day.
Our initial test took place in a back garden with the camera mounted on a tripod approximately 3m away from a baited tree stump. Ensuring that the camera was angled correctly was very easy, as the background of the main viewing screen shows a live image from the camera. We also conducted a motion trigger test by selecting ‘MOTION TRIGGER’ and then waving a hand above the stump to check that the light on the front of the camera was activated.
For the second field test the camera was placed in a ride that was cut into an area of wetland where there have been frequent otter sightings. Once again the camera was mounted on a tripod but this time the camera was set to record video (high resolution, length 20s, capture delay 5s).
In the third and final test, the camera was sited in an area that had both moving water and vegetation within the motion detection range. This was to provide us with some idea of the camera’s sensitivity and to see whether it would be repeatedly triggered by this motion. The camera was set to record video with the same settings as used previously.
What we found
When sited in the garden, the camera took lots of pictures of birds that were attracted to the bait. The camera triggered reliably and the quality of the images, including the colour reproduction, was good. We were particularly impressed that the images below – although taken first thing in the morning, pointing directly into the sun – were not over-exposed.
Unfortunately, when we retrieved the camera from the second field test, a number of cows had broken into the area from a neighbouring field and knocked over the camera. The footage of the cows, however (despite not being what we had hoped to capture!), was good quality.
In the final test we were pleased to observe that the camera had triggered only with the arrival of the local birds, and we did not have to sift through 100s of videos of empty scenery. The audio recorded with the clip featured below was also very true-to-life.
Although the second, and potentially most interesting, part of our field test was prematurely curtailed, this exercise gave us a good chance to familiarise ourselves with the Browning Patriot and to see the camera in use. First up – the manual. Clearly written and lacking any unnecessary waffle, the manual made setting up the camera incredibly straightforward. In fact, this parsimony also extends to the camera itself – while there are enough options to give you plenty of control over the footage collected, there aren’t so many that it becomes overwhelming.
The front-opening design means that it is really easy to alter the settings even when your camera is strapped in place. Similarly, the bottom-loading battery tray and easily accessible SD card slot mean that these can both be changed quickly in the field without moving the camera. The steel bracket on the rear of the camera means that, when strapped to a tree or post, it grips the surface, making it more stable. For our tests, we attached the camera to a tripod which allowed us lots of control over the camera angle and height. However, as we found out, it also makes it much more susceptible to being knocked over. For locations where security is an issue, a groove in the case that runs beneath the bracket allows it to be secured with a cable lock – one with a maximum diameter of 8mm would be required.
As previously mentioned, being able to view a live image from the camera during setup, along with the motion trigger function, means that you can be sure that your camera is angled correctly. (It’s really important to remember to turn off the motion trigger function before you leave the trail camera, however, as it will stay in this mode until it is turned off manually). The sensitivity of the camera appeared to be set very cleverly, as it was triggered reliably by the movement of birds and other animals, but we experienced very few empty shots or videos, which suggests that the movement of water or vegetation were not affecting the motion sensor.
The only minor limitation we found with this camera is that the Patriot doesn’t have a hybrid mode which means that you have to choose between capturing still images or videos. (Many cameras give you the option to record both and will capture a number of images first before then switching to video record).
Overall we were very impressed with the Browning Patriot and would wholeheartedly recommend it for professional or personal use. The images and videos were good quality, the camera was easy to set up and position and the price (currently under £200) is very competitive. We’re eager to continue using this camera and still have high hopes for getting some footage of our elusive otters. Check back soon to find out if we’re successful!
The Browning Patriot is available through the NHBS website and is also available as a starter bundle which includes 8 x Lithium AA batteries and a 32GB SD card.
To view our full range of trail cameras, visit www.nhbs.com. If you have any questions on wildlife recording or would like some advice on the microphone for you then please contact us via email at email@example.com or phone on 01803 865913
During this year’s lockdown and social isolation, many of us have been appreciating how important nature is to our happiness and wellbeing. It has also given us an opportunity to connect with local wildlife and develop or brush up on our identification skills.
While a good field guide is invaluable for this, there are also a huge number of really useful online resources available to help with identifying wild plants and animals. In this article we have listed a few of our favourites, covering plants, butterflies and moths, amphibians, birds, mammals and invertebrates.
We have also included links to ongoing citizen science projects for each; if you’re regularly taking note of the species you find then why not contribute this information to an organisation that can use the data to monitor biodiversity and inform conservation decisions.
At the end of the article you will find a couple of apps that can be used to record, identify and share your general wildlife findings.
PTES Great Stag Hunt – Help guide future conservation action for stag beetles by recording your sightings.
Riverfly Partnership Projects – Find out more about all of the Riverfly Partnership’s ongoing monitoring projects. Options are available for a range of skill and experience levels.
iSpot – Created in collaboration with the Open University and the OpenScience Laboratory, iSpot is a community-based app that allows you to record and share your wildlife sightings and get feedback from other users regarding any identification queries that you might have.
iRecord – This app enables you to get involved with biological recording by contributing your species sightings along with GPS acquired coordinates, descriptions and other information. Data is then made available to National Recording Schemes, Local Record Centres and Vice County Recorders (VCRs) to help with nature conservation, planning, research and education.
Seaweeds, or marine macroalgae, are plant-like organisms that live in coastal areas, usually attached to rocks or other substrates. They are divided into three taxonomic groups: brown, red and green. Broadly speaking, species fall into the group that most closely matches their colour. However, the groups also differ in more complex structural and biochemical features, such as their photosynthetic pigments and cell structure. While green and red seaweeds are classified in the Kingdom Plantae, which also includes all of the world’s land plants, brown seaweeds belong to the Kingdom Chromista and are more related to algae, diatoms and protozoans.
British and Irish seas are home to more than 600 species of seaweed; this is more than 6% of the known species globally. They are incredibly important ecologically and provide both food and shelter for numerous other creatures. In fact, one of the great pleasures of studying seaweeds is the many other species that you find along the way.
If you find yourself enjoying your seaweed studies, why not contribute to the Natural History Museum’s Big Seaweed Search. It only takes around an hour and will provide valuable data that can be used to research the effects of environmental change on our seashore communities.
When and where to find seaweed
Seaweed is present all year round. At low tide, more of the shore will be exposed which means that you are likely to find a greater range of species. This is also the only time that you are likely to spot a glimpse of those seaweeds that thrive in the lower intertidal zone. Sheltered shores tend to provide a better location for many species, as most cannot survive the battering of the waves in more exposed locations. However, there are a few species that are specially adapted to live on exposed shores so it’s always worth a look there. Similarly, as most species require a firm substrate to anchor to, rocky shores will be home to more seaweeds than sandy or muddy ones.
Ten common species to look for
Bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus)
ID notes: An olive-brown seaweed that has branching fronds with smooth edges. Paired air-filled bladders run along the length of the fronds on either side of the central rib. 15-100cm in length. The number of bladders present is related to the exposure of the shore; in very exposed places this species may grow without any bladders and will also be much reduced in length.
Distribution: Found on rocky shores between the high and low water line.
Knotted wrack (Ascophylum nodosum)
Also known as: Egg wrack
ID notes: This yellow-brown seaweed has long fronds reaching up to two metres in length. Single large air bladders appear at regular intervals along its length.
Distribution: Found on the mid-shore on sheltered rocky coasts. Knotted wrack is very long-lived (up to 15 years) in comparison to other algae; this allows it to become dominant on many sheltered coastlines. When the tide goes out it often forms huge piles.
Spiral wrack (Fucus spiralis)
Also known as: Twisted wrack
ID notes: Spiral wrack is generally a pale olive-brown and grows up to 40cm. As the name would suggest, fronds are generally (although not always) twisted and have smooth edges and a distinct central rib. When mature, fronds have yellowish, paired swollen tips; these are the reproductive structures.
Distribution: Found high on the rocky shore, just below the high-water mark.
Serrated wrack (Fucus serratus)
Also known as: Toothed wrack or saw wrack
ID notes: This brown seaweed forms branched fronds 50 to 80cm in length. Edges are serrated.
Distribution: Found on sheltered and semi-exposed rocky shores just above the low water mark. Fucus serratus is often the dominant algal species found at this point on the shoreline.
Oarweed (Laminaria digitata)
ID notes: Oarweed has dark brown-green fronds that are up to two metres in length and split into long finger-like blades. Attaches to the rock with a claw-like holdfast which allows it to survive in rough subtidal conditions.
Distribution: Grows in dense beds in the lower intertidal and shallow subtidal zones (at a depth of up to 20m). Often all that can be seen of this species are the tops of the fronds during low tide.
Sugar kelp (Saccharina latissimi)
Also known as: Sea belt
ID notes: Forms long undivided blades that are yellow-brown in colour and have ruffled sides. Grows up to five metres in length.
Distribution: Found on the lower shore and in deep rock pools. Mostly on sheltered shores and can be found up to a depth of 30m.
Sea lettuce (Ulva lactua)
ID notes: Sheet-like light green seaweed which grows up to 25cm in length and 30cm in width. Very delicate and almost translucent; almost like floppy lettuce leaves.
Distribution: Found attached to rocks or floating in rock pools.
Gutweed (Ulva intestinalis)
Also known as: Grass kelp
ID notes: As the Latin name would suggest, gutweed resembles the intestines of mammals and consists of inflated hollow fronds which have bubbles of air trapped along them. Bright green and grows up to 40cm in length.
Distribution: Occurs in a wide range of intertidal habitats including rockpools and on sand or mud. Can also be found growing on shells or other seaweeds.
Carrageen (Chondrus crispus)
Also known as: Irish moss
ID notes: Dark reddish-purple branching seaweed which appears iridescent when submerged. Turns green with exposure to bright sunlight.
Distribution: Rocky shores and estuaries, on rocks and in pools in the lower intertidal and upper subtidal zones.
Purple laver (Porphyra umbilicalis)
ID notes: Forms fronds of variable shape which are thin and membranous. Olive to purple-brown in colour and up to two metres in length.
Distribution: Found in the mid to upper shore, generally on mussel-covered rocks. Common on exposed coastlines.
This photographic guide aims to demystify seaweed identification for the non-specialist. Over 235 species are described in detail, with colour photographs, information on habitat, distribution and confusion species.
Curious About Nature provides a passionate voice in support of fieldwork and its role in ecological research. Comprising a series of chapters written by forty diverse contributors, this inspiring book hopes to encourage both new and seasoned ecologists to pursue outdoor learning and research as often and fully as possible.
Tim Burt (who edited the book alongside Des Thompson), recently took the time to answer some of our questions.
Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds and how you came to be collaborating on this book.
We have both been involved with the Field Studies Council since 2006 when Des joined the Board of Trustees (I have been a trustee since 1982), but we had worked together before then, for example, a conference on the future of the British uplands held in Durham in 1999.
What are your first memories of fieldwork?
As I note in my essay in Curious about Nature, I came under the spell of an inspirational teacher at secondary school, Jim Hanwell. My first memory of fieldwork is being sent to measure the width of the main road outside the school gate to compare with the width of the red line printed on the OS map. Not something that would be done these days given health and safety concerns, but nevertheless I was hooked! Jim’s main influence was in physical geography, geomorphology especially, with many field trips to the Mendips and even an expedition to Spain and Portugal.
Some of the most well-known and respected scientists in history have had an incredibly varied range of interests and passions. Take Darwin, for example, who not only studied plants and animals, but also geology, anthropology, taxidermy and medicine. Do you think that, in modern times, we no longer celebrate or respect the ‘generally curious’ and instead expect people to be much more specialist in their areas of expertise?
Specialist research is inevitable in these very competitive days; departments compete via research assessment rankings and individuals must build their CVs to gain promotion. But in my experience, the best academics retain a breadth of interest; in physical geography this invariably combines fieldwork with other skills back at the department.
You currently hold the positions of President (Tim) and Chairman (Des) of the Field Studies Council and, as such, must both feel passionate about the education of field skills. With increases in health and safety concerns alongside reduced funding for outdoor activities, have you observed a change in child and youth education over the past decades in terms of the amount of fieldwork that takes place?
Health and safety concerns can (and must) be sorted out; it is continued funding that puts field trips at risk. The value of outdoor education is important for all sorts of reasons, not just academic knowledge and understanding. There is a real threat at the moment, with next year’s focus on getting schoolchildren back in the classroom. Senior administrators must be convinced of the value of investing in fieldwork, otherwise it is an easy cost to cut. But at what eventual “cost”?
At NHBS we sell a lot of equipment that is purposely designed to limit the amount of time that researchers and naturalists have to spend in the field – such as motion-activated trail cameras. While these are the preferred choice for many researchers, do you think that there benefits to traditional, observational fieldwork that cannot be replicated by collecting data remotely?
Field equipment has always been necessary, even in the days of clockwork mechanisms and pen-and-ink chart recorders. Today’s digital equipment expands the possibilities, not limits them. But it is still vital to be out in the field, curious about what is happening and what you can see – this is how new ideas are generated. There is no substitute for standing on a hillside, thinking about the landscape in front of you, especially if you happen to be somewhere very different to England like the badlands of southern Utah!
Do you have a favourite fieldwork pioneer (included in the book or not) whose story you find particularly inspiring?
People always think of Charles Darwin as a biologist, but he was equally a geologist on the Beagle, and his geological observations during his circumnavigation of the globe remain fascinating to read, for example, his thoughts about the formation of coral reefs and atolls. He was very much a follower of Charles Lyell in his appreciation of the dynamic nature of the Earth’s surface.
Finally – what are you each working on currently? And do you have plans for further books?
We do have plans for a further book together, an elaboration of Curious about Nature, with a working title In the footsteps of Gilbert White. For my part, I have been drafting chapters for Durham weather and climate since 1841, to be published by OUP. Last year I co-authored a book (with Stephen Burt, no relation) about the weather records at the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, so the new book is complementary to that, with much the same structure, but clearly a different regional focus. I ran the Oxford weather station for 10 years and have been in charge of the Durham station since 2000.
Curious About Nature is edited by Tim Burt and Des Thompson and is published by Cambridge University Press. It is available from nhbs.com in paperback and hardback.
The Big Butterfly Count is an annual citizen science survey organised by Butterfly Conservation. This project, which is the world’s biggest survey of butterflies, aims to assess the health of our environment by counting a selection of our most common butterflies (along with a couple of day-flying moths).
Butterflies respond very quickly to changes in the environment and, as such, are useful biodiversity indicators. They can also provide an early warning system for environmental factors that may go on to impact other wildlife. Since the 1970s, numbers of butterflies and moths in the UK have decreased significantly. Monitoring this decline and any future change is an important step in studying the effect of the climate crisis on our wildlife.
The Big Butterfly Count 2020 will run from Friday 17 July to Sunday 9 August.
During the 2019 survey, more than 100,000 counts took place. On average, people saw 16 butterflies during the 15 minutes; this was higher than the 2018 average of 11 and the second highest number recorded since the survey began.
2019 was also notable in that it was a ‘Painted Lady year’. Painted Lady butterflies migrate over successive generations from north Africa to central and northern Europe. A Painted Lady year happens about once in a decade, and is when unusually high numbers of this migratory butterfly arrive in the UK. In 2019 they were the most numerous species spotted during the Big Butterfly Count; they accounted for more than a quarter of all butterflies reported and were more than two times as common as the next most abundant species (the Peacock).
Other increases seen in 2019 included the Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell while the Large White, Small White and Green-veined White all decreased in comparison to 2018.
How to take part
To take part, all you need to do is spend 15 minutes counting butterflies on a sunny day between 17th July and 9th August. You can conduct the count from anywhere you like; in the garden or park, in the woods or fields or wherever you find yourself outdoors.
If you are counting from a fixed position, count the maximum number of each species that you can see at a single time. For example, if you see three Red Admirals together then record it as 3, but if you only see one at a time then record it as 1 (even if you saw one on several occasions) – this is so that you don’t count the same butterfly more than once. If you are doing your count on a walk, then simply total up the number of each butterfly species that you see during the 15 minutes. You can do as many counts as you like, even if these take place in the same location.
Submit your results online on the Big Butterfly Count website, where you can also download a handy butterfly ID chart. Or, carry out the survey and submit your count all in one go using the free smartphone app, available for both iOS and Android.
Butterfly identification resources
On the NHBS blog you will find a handy butterfly ID guide, helpfully split into different habitat types. Or why not take a look at one of the popular field guides below:
This comprehensive guide describes and illustrates about 440 species, depicting both males and females and – where there is significant variation – subspecies. Distribution maps accompany every widespread species.
Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland #245485
This handy pocket-sized book has become the essential guide to identifying the butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland. It contains over 600 superb illustrations of the life stages of each species, together with beautiful artworks of butterflies in their natural settings.
Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Ireland #245262
The illustrations in this guide, from originals painted by Richard Lewington, show 58 British butterfly species. The paintings are a quick identification aid to the butterflies most likely to be seen and all are drawn to life-size.
Hedgehogs are abundant in urban and suburban areas and can frequently be found in gardens, as these provide safe, accessible spaces for them to forage and rear their young. They are most active between April and September with the main mating season occurring between May and June. Female hedgehogs give birth during June and July, although some will go on to produce a second litter later in the summer. All of this means that now is a great time to look for hedgehogs – and if you’re taking part in the Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Days Wild Challenge, then this will also contribute to your month of wild activities.
If you’re lucky enough to have hedgehogs in your garden, why not take the time to record their behaviours for Hedgehogs After Dark. This project, organised by Hedgehog Street, aims to learn more about the ways in which hedgehogs are using our gardens and the behaviours that they are showing through the spring and summer. Until Sunday 26th July you can submit your observations to their website and have the chance of winning an exclusive hedgehog hamper in their prize draw. Visit their website for lots of information about the different behaviours they are interested in and how to submit your findings (you will need to register as a Hedgehog Champion to do this).
Keep reading for some top tips on making your garden attractive to hedgehogs and how to watch them, either with or without a trail camera.
Is your garden hedgehog friendly?
There are several things that you can do to make your garden more attractive to hedgehogs:
• Improve access – Gardens are only useful for hedgehogs if they can access them. Plus, hedgehogs move long distances throughout the night to find enough food, so creating networks of gardens that they can move between is important. By cutting a 13cm diameter hole in the bottom of a fence or removing a brick from the base of a wall, you can help to provide access and link your garden with surrounding ones.
• Provide shelter – Try to keep some areas of your garden wild and overgrown, as this will provide secure nesting and feeding spaces. An artificial hedgehog home will also provide a safe and warm space for hedgehogs to overwinter and for a female to birth and raise her young in the spring and summer. Try not to use pesticides or slug pellets in the garden, as these are poisonous to other animals as well as slugs.
• Provide food – Make sure that there are lots of worms, beetles and earwigs in your garden by growing wildflowers and providing log piles. Leaving areas of the garden which are overgrown or making a small wildlife pond will also help to encourage a diverse range of invertebrates. (Make sure your pond has sloping sides or piles of rocks to allow any animals to escape.) You could also provide a shallow dish of fresh water along with good quality hedgehog food, meaty dog or cat food, or dry cat biscuits.
Tips for watching hedgehogs
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so the best time to watch them is during late evening. Throughout the night they can travel up to 2km searching for food and/or mates. (This great video shows radio-tracked hedgehogs moving between gardens in a suburban area of Brighton). If you have a suitable window looking out onto your garden, then you can watch them from the warmth of your home. Make sure that you turn any inside lights off and keep noise to a minimum. If there is no illumination from street lights, visibility will be best at twilight (before complete dark) and around the time of the full moon (provided it isn’t too cloudy).
If you can’t watch the garden from a window, then wrap up warm, get into stealth-mode and venture outdoors. As with any wildlife-watching endeavour, the most important thing is to be still and quiet. It might also help if you can get low to the ground which will provide a hedgehog-level view of their activities. Don’t be tempted to try to get too close to them, however, and never attempt to pick them up or interfere with their natural movements.
Using a trail camera to watch hedgehogs
One of the best ways to view the hedgehogs in your garden is using a trail camera. If you’re lucky enough to own one of these, then setting it up to record at night is a great way to see if any hedgehogs are around and, if so, what they’re getting up to. Here are some tips to maximise your chance of getting great footage:
• When siting your camera, think about where the hedgehogs are likely to be moving around. If you have a hole cut in your fence and you know that hedgehogs are using it to access your garden, then you might want to point your camera towards this. Similarly, if you have provided any food or water, then setting your camera up near to this is a great way to capture footage of them feeding.
• Position your camera low to the ground. Think about the size of the hedgehog and where it is most likely to trigger the infrared beam.
• Set your camera to the highest sensitivity setting. If you find that it is triggering far too much, particularly in the absence of any animals, then you can always reduce this later.
• As you’ll be recording hedgehogs mostly in darkness, having a camera with invisible night vision LEDs could be a bonus, as these will not startle the animals. Plus, models with adjustable night-time illumination (or which adjust automatically) will give you the most control over your image quality.
[The Browning Strike Force HD Pro X is one of our bestselling trail cameras for hedgehog watching and is used by lots of great projects, such as London Hogwatch. For more information or advice about trail cameras, please get in touch with us and chat with one of our experienced ecologists.]
Maybe you don’t have a garden, or you have one but haven’t seen any hedgehogs using it. You can still view lots of great hedgehog videos on the Hedgehog Street YouTube channel. Or, if you use Facebook, why not watch this talk by ecologist and hedgehog fan Hugh Warwick, recorded for the Summer Solstice ‘Wonderland’ Festival this spring.
Hosted by the Freshwater Biological Association, the Riverfly Partnership represents a network of organisations whose aims are to protect the water quality of our rivers, further the understanding of riverfly populations and actively conserve riverfly habitats. This is achieved via a range of ongoing projects which utilise citizen scientists to monitor invertebrates, water chemistry, physical habitat, pollution and hydromorphological functioning in order to gain a picture of overall river health.
Ben Fitch is the national project manager for the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative, one of the projects run by the Riverfly Partnership. This week we chatted to him about the Partnership and their projects, the importance of riverflies and how Covid-19 has affected his working life over the recent months.
If one were to canvas general public opinion about flies, many people would likely think of those which they consider to be pests, such as house flies, mosquitos, greenfly, blackfly and horseflies. How would you explain to a non-specialist how important riverflies are and why we should care about them?
First of all, I would say that all insects are essential to life on this planet, with species fulfilling important roles within ecosystems – even those ‘pesky’ flies as some may see them.
Next, I would highlight the fact that freshwater is a precious natural resource upon which all life on Earth depends. Humans are certainly no exception to that rule, but it is because of us that freshwater is under considerable and continuous threat.
I would go on to explain that riverflies contain three groups of insects, namely mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. More than 280 species of riverflies have been recorded in the UK, most of which spend the greater part of their life beneath the surface of still or running freshwater as larvae, before emerging from the water as winged adults. Riverflies should be present in running and still freshwater bodies across the UK throughout the year, they are at the heart of freshwater ecosystems and are a vital link in the aquatic food chain as a food source for fish and birds.
Importantly, riverflies are sensitive to changes in water quality, for example chemical or organic pollution, which makes them excellent indicators of the health of a freshwater body (they are often referred to as the canaries of our rivers). Thus, by monitoring them regularly, it is possible to identify and manage pollution issues, deter would-be polluters, and protect our freshwater ecosystems.
Does Britain have any endemic or particularly rare riverflies?
There are eight rare and threatened riverfly species that have been designated as conservation priorities by the UK Government. The eight species, listed as follows, are categorised as being of Principal Importance:
Northern February red (Brachyptera putata): a stonefly that occurs only in Britain. It is found mainly in Scottish upland streams.
Rare medium stonefly (Isogenus nubecula): only known to occur in the Welsh River Dee and may now be extinct.
Scarce grey flag (Hydropsyche bulgaromanorum): a large caddisfly only known from stony areas on the River Arun in Sussex.
Scarce brown sedge (Ironoquia dubia): a caddisfly only known from three southern English sites. There are no recent records for this species.
Small grey sedge (Glossosoma intermedium) a caddisfly that has been found in only four Lake District streams. There are no recent records for this species.
Window-winged sedge (Hagenella clathrata) an orange mottled caddisfly that lives in pools on bogs and heathland at about ten sites in the UK.
Southern iron blue (Baetis niger): a widespread mayfly species whose abundance appears to have declined in some areas by as much as 80% in recent decades.
Yellow mayfly (Potamanthus luteus): an attractive, bright yellow mayfly that is found mainly on the River Wye in the Welsh borders.
[I would like to give great thanks to Craig Macadam, Conservation Director at Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, for permitting me to use information from the Buglife website in parts of this interview, particularly above. To find out more about why bugs are essential to our planet and all life on it, visit: https://www.buglife.org.uk].
The Riverfly Partnership coordinates a number of projects looking at lots of different measurements of river health. These include surveying invertebrates, physical habitat, hydromorphological features and pollution events. What happens to the data that is collected in these projects? Who uses it and what for?
Firstly, I should clarify that the Riverfly Partnership (RP) is hosted by the Freshwater Biological Association and is a network of more than 100 partner organisations representing anglers, conservationists, entomologists, scientists, water course managers, and relevant authorities. RP carries out work according to its core aims: to protect the water quality of our rivers, to further the understanding of riverfly populations, and to conserve riverfly habitats.
As your question states, RP is involved in a number of citizen science freshwater monitoring initiatives. Here is a summary of those initiatives along with how data is collected, stored, and used in each case:
Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI)
The Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) is a project that enables trained volunteers, such as anglers and conservationists, to protect river water quality by regularly monitoring eight pollution sensitive aquatic invertebrate groups. Data is recorded in the field before being uploaded to the national online ARMI database (once checked and verified, ARMI data is available under the terms of the Open Government Licence). ARMI complements the work carried out by statutory agency staff across the UK, such as the Environment Agency in England, primarily by reporting pollution incidents to and sharing ARMI data with those agencies directly.
Urban Riverfly includes an additional six aquatic invertebrate groups to the eight used in the original ARMI scheme and can be used across a number of different river systems, but especially modified rivers and those influenced by conurbations. Urban Riverfly data is recorded in the field by trained citizen scientists, hosted locally through Riverfly Hubs, and used by Catchment Partnerships to inform catchment management and direct conservation action.
Extended Riverfly uses 33 invertebrate groups, including the eight ARMI groups, to provide a more nuanced picture of river water quality according to different stressors. Extended Riverfly data is collected, stored, and used similarly to that of Urban Riverfly.
Hosted by the Earthwatch Institute, Freshwater Watch is a global initiative for monitoring water quality and water chemistry. Data is recorded in the field and submitted online by trained citizen scientists, after which experts provide analysis and feedback to monitors and present evidence to decision- and policy-makers worldwide.
The Modular River Survey, or MoRPh, enables citizen scientists and professionals to be trained to assess and record physical habitat and hydromorphological functioning in their local rivers and streams. Data is hosted online by Cartographer and is used by Catchment Partnerships to inform catchment management and direct conservation action.
The Outfall Safari is a citizen science method devised to systematically survey outfalls in urban rivers in order to identify pollution and notify the relevant authorities (sharing data accordingly). It was created by the Citizen Crane project team in partnership with staff from Thames Water and the Environment Agency, and is regarded by the Environment Agency as best practice.
SmartRivers, hosted by Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC), takes citizen science invertebrate monitoring to the highest resolution. Species data are recorded in the field then stored in S&TC’s database. S&TC staff process SmartRivers data through their unique calculator and provide data analysis that identifies specific water quality stressors in the river and pinpoints where they are occurring. S&TC use SmartRivers data to provide evidence that can help prevent pollution occurring in the first place. This evidence can also inform how to concentrate management efforts locally to achieve the best environmental outcomes.
Like many people across the UK, you have been furloughed as a result of the global Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic since March 2020, so are not legally permitted to work. As such, we are grateful to you for agreeing to do this interview in a voluntary capacity. Can you describe your role within the Riverfly Partnership and what a typical work day looks like for you?
My working role for the Riverfly Partnership is as the national project manager of the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI). The Riverfly Partnership receives funding support for the role from the Environment Agency (rod licence revenue and the Water Environment Improvement Fund). I have also been a committed and active ARMI volunteer monitor since 2009.
At the moment, I would not describe my days as ‘typical’ for the reasons outlined in your question. I have not been able to work since late March, neither has it been possible to carry out ARMI sampling for the larger part of the same period. I am grateful, however, for the excellent ongoing support provided by the Freshwater Biological Association and I hope to be able to return to work in the near future, as soon as government advice permits and once it is deemed safe for me to do so. In the meantime, I have greatly enjoyed spending more time with my family which has largely centred around home educating our two children whilst my wife, as a key worker, has continued to work throughout.
A typical day prior to the current situation was always incredibly busy! My key responsibilities revolve around supporting and expand the ARMI network, including communications, publications, presentations, training delivery, tutor support, tutor/training workshop observations and QA, tutor development, database and website management, and much, much more. I wouldn’t feel right at this point if I didn’t thank every single ARMI volunteer, participant, partner, and supporter for their incredible commitment towards protecting our rivers. I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues Alex Domenge, Steve Brooks, Bill Brierley, Roger Handford, Lesley Hadwin, Kirsty Hadwin, Paul Knight, Nick Measham, Tom Miles, along with every RP Board member, every Extended / Urban Riverfly Working Group member, and every contact at the Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales, and Northern Ireland Environment Agency. As you can see the work that I am involved in has partnership at its core.
If people want to get involved with riverfly monitoring (or any of your citizen science projects) how would you suggest they get started? Do they need prior knowledge/experience of freshwater sampling or species ID?
Volunteering, as a river monitor or riverfly recorder, is not only an excellent way to protect the health of your local river, but also to contribute towards direct conservation action, local communities, scientific data and evidence, and sustainability.
New volunteers are always welcome and no prior knowledge or experience is necessary.
Individuals interested in becoming a volunteer Riverfly monitor should register their interest with their local Riverfly hub coordinator. To find out who that is please use the contact us page on the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org
Individuals interested in becoming a riverfly recorder should visit the Riverfly Recording Schemes (RRS) page of the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org/Recording_Schemes where details about the schemes and RRS coordinator contact information can be found.
Organisations interested in joining the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) must have a member who is prepared to act as a local coordinator (to serve as a contact point between the EA / SEPA / NRW / NIEA and the monitoring group) and have members attend an official ARMI workshop. The workshop includes presentations, practical demonstrations and active participation. For more information please contact us via the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org
For information about freshwater invertebrate and freshwater ecology training courses, I can highly recommend the Freshwater Biological Association: https://www.fba.org.uk
What conservation actions or changes would you like to see happen in your lifetime that would have a significant (and positive) impact on river health and biodiversity?
I could list many here but I am going to go with two, off the bat:
Serious, long term political commitment to the natural world and conservation thereof
If you had to tell people to google a photo of one species of riverfly which would you choose? (perhaps because it is ecologically important or just because it looks interesting!)
If I had to choose one, it would be of a flat-bodied mayfly larva (species Ecdyonurus dispar – Autumn Dun) because new volunteers often remark that it looks like an alien! If that stirs your curiosity, type ‘Ecdyonurus dispar’ in to your internet search engine of choice. If you can find an image of the white spot variant that is particularly striking.
I would also like to share this beautiful image, simply named ‘Mayfly’, photographed by Jon Hawkins. This was the winning entry to the most recent RP Photography Competition and I think it deserves to be seen! (Reproduced with kind permission of the Riverfly Partnership, copyright Jon Hawkins.)
(a) Mayfly by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
(b) Caddisfly by Magnus Hagdorn via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
(c) River Exe by Adrian Scottow via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)