Owl Pellet Dissection

Owl pellets contain all of the indigestible parts of the prey. Image by Gail Hampshire via Flickr.
What is an owl pellet?

Owls feed on a variety of prey; most commonly small mammals but also birds, frogs and other small animals. These prey items are consumed in their entirety and, while the flesh is digested by enzymes, the owl is unable to digest the harder parts of the body, including the teeth, bones, fur or feathers. These indigestible parts are regurgitated as a pellet. Unless they are very fresh, pellets are dry, light and odourless.

In this article we will look at where to find owl pellets and how to tell which species of owl they came from. We will also provide some tips on how to dissect a pellet, how to group the bones into types, and how to identify some of the main species of small mammal that you will find in pellets in the UK.

Where to find owl pellets

Owl pellets can frequently be found wherever owls nest or roost. Good places to search are at the base of tall trees within woodland areas, or in barns or outbuildings where owls are known to roost. Please be aware that you must not disturb breeding or roosting owls in order to collect pellets. Barn Owls in particular are protected in the UK by law under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and their breeding sites must not be disturbed under any circumstances.

If you don’t have any luck finding your own pellets or don’t have access to places where you might find them, there are several places online where you can order some. Reputable sources in the UK include the Barn Owl Trust and the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary.

What species of owl is my pellet from?

There are five resident species of owl in the UK: Barn Owl, Tawny Owl, Little Owl, Short-Eared Owl and Long-Eared Owl. All of these species produce pellets that are relatively easy to tell apart, particularly if you also know the habitat where they were found. Below is a brief guide to their main characteristics.

Barn Owl: pellets usually measure 3-7cm in length and are rounded at both ends. They are fairly dark in colour and have a smooth surface.
Tawny Owl: pellets measure 2-5cm in length and are narrow and bumpy, often having tapered ends. Greyish in colour and sometimes furry looking.
Little Owl: pellets are fairly small measuring only 1.5-2cm in length. Long and narrow with a soft crumbly texture.
Short-Eared Owl: pellets are fairly large, measuring 3-6cm in length. Narrow with one rounded end and one tapered end. They are grey and smooth and very lightweight.
Long-Eared Owl: pellets measure around 2-4cm and are narrow and bumpy. Usually grey in colour.

The most common pellets you will find in the UK are from Barn Owls.

Barn Owl pellet with mounted needle and fine pointed forceps.
How to dissect an owl pellet

There isn’t much equipment you need to dissect an owl pellet, but a few items will make the job a bit easier:

Mounted needle: this is useful for teasing out fur from around the bones, and moving around delicate specimens. A cocktail stick or needle pushed into a cork will also do the trick.
Forceps/tweezers: helpful for picking up bones and particularly for removing fur from inside skulls. Forceps with a fine point are best.
Magnifying glass/hand lens: a small magnifier will allow you to get a closer look at the bones that you find. Jaw bones in particular are very useful for identifying the species and a magnifier will help you get a better look at the arrangement and structure of the teeth.
White paper/card and glue: it can be helpful to arrange your bones by type onto a sheet of white paper which you can then write on when you have decided what they are and who they belong to. If you would like to make a permanent ID aid you can also glue them onto a piece of card and add permanent labels.

How to identify the contents of an owl pellet

The first thing you will need to do is to tease apart the pellet and separate the bones from the fur and feathers that are holding it all together. To begin with it is easiest to gently break the pellet into several smaller sections then work on each of these in turn. Use your fingers as well as the forceps to carefully tease apart each section, removing any bones and placing them to one side for identification. If your pellet is very hard and dry, try soaking it in water first to soften it.

Once you have all of the bones from your owl pellet, try to group them into types on your sheet of paper. The most common bones you will find are the following:

  • Skulls: for mammals, this consists of the top part of the skull and upper jaw, along with the lower jaw, although this is likely to become detached once you have cleaned all of the fur and other material from inside. For bird species this will include the upper and lower parts of the beak.
  • Back legs: includes the thigh bone (femur) and the lower leg bones (fibula and tibia)
  • Front legs (arms or wings): includes both upper (humerus) and lower (radius and ulna) bones
  • Hip bones
  • Shoulder blades (scapula)
  • Back bones (vertebrae)
  • Ribs

The image below illustrates typical examples of each type of bone. You can also download a useful bone identification sheet from the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary website.

 

The most useful part of the skeleton for identification is the skull and jaws or beak. Bird skulls will obviously be very distinct from those of mammals due to the presence of the beak, so these can immediately be separated out. For the remaining mammal skulls, however, we will need to take a closer look at their lower jaw bones and teeth.

In the UK the most common small mammals you will find in owl pellets are voles, mice and shrews. It is very easy to distinguish which of the lower jaws belong to shrews as they have a continuous line of teeth from the front to the back of the jaw. This is because shrews are insectivores and chew their food, much the same as we do. Voles and mice, however, both gnaw their food, and have a big gap between the long front tooth and the back teeth.

To tell the difference between voles and shrews, we need to take a closer look at their back teeth. Voles have teeth with distinctive grooves down the sides.  In those of a field vole, the grooves run all the way down the side of the tooth. There is also no obvious root. Bank voles have grooves which only run part-way down the side of the tooth and they have two obvious roots, similar to those of a human tooth. The back tooth from a mouse jaw is much smaller when compared to a vole and its structure is much more similar to that of a human tooth. It also has two roots. This sheet from the Barn Owl Trust has a great illustration of the various small mammal lower jaws with size guidelines to help with identification.

Hopefully this article has been a useful introduction to owl pellet dissection and the identification of some of the most common prey species contained within them. If you want more help with identifying all of the bones in your pellet down to species level, the guides listed below are invaluable. Once you have categorised all of the bones you can attach them to a piece of card with permanent labels or arrange them to create a complete skeleton of each species.

Finally, don’t forget to wash your hands well when you have finished your dissection. Any pellet remains can be safely composted.

Further reading

Guide to British Owls and Owl Pellets

This fold-out chart includes colour paintings of the five species of owl permanently resident in the British Isles, shown both perched and at rest. Also included are illustrations and written descriptions of the different pellets that may be found, and a systematic identification key to their contents, including complete skulls, jaws, teeth and other recognisable bones and animal parts.

 

The Analysis of Owl Pellets

This booklet will not only enable you to identify what you find in the pellets of British owls, but also shows how the data may be usefully presented and how to estimate the actual weight of food the birds have eaten.

 

Ash Dieback (Chalara)

In this image it is clear to see how the crown of the mature ash tree is suffering from dieback. (Image by Sarang via commons.wikimedia.org)
What is ash dieback?

Ash dieback is a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (known previously as Chalara fraxineus, hence the disease commonly being referred to as ‘Chalara’). The fungus originated in Asia where it is largely harmless to native ash trees; this is because they have developed resistance to it during their long existence side-by-side. It was introduced to Europe around 30 years ago via infected ash saplings, and was first discovered in 2012 in the UK in south-east England. This area remains the most severely affected, although it is systematically spreading throughout the rest of the country.

The fungus overwinters in the leaf litter surrounding the ash tree, and during the summer and autumn it produces fruiting bodies which in turn release huge numbers of spores that land on the leaves of the surrounding trees. They are also carried over large distances by the wind. The spores enter the tree via the leaves and continue to penetrate the plant’s cells, where they eventually block the system responsible for water transport. Young, fragile trees can die very quickly, whereas older, stronger trees may fight back for a while before repeated infections over several years finally kill them.

Why is it a problem and how concerned should we be?

Ash trees play a huge role in woodland diversity and, when present in hedgerows and gardens, are key in connecting fragmented habitats. They are home to a variety of invertebrates, birds and lichens and, as with all trees, contribute to purifying the air and absorbing CO2. As wood from the ash tree is highly valued both for timber and firewood, there is also an economic cost to their loss. This is compounded further by the cost incurred in dealing with the dead trees.

It is expected that, in time, Britain will lose in excess of 80% of its ash trees, incurring a total cost of £15 billion.

How can I recognise the signs of ash dieback?

Ash trees affected by ash dieback initially exhibit dark patches on their leaves which then wilt and go black, and are often shed early. Trees also show characteristic diamond shaped lesions where the branches meet the trunk. Epicormic growth is common as the infected tree becomes stressed – this is where previously dormant buds lower down the trunk begin to show new growth.

The Observatree website features several excellent ID guides, videos and posters designed to help non-specialists identify the presence of ash dieback.

A large lesion on the branch of an infected ash tree. (Image Courtesy of The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright)
What can be done to address the problem?

There is no known cure for ash dieback, although some fungicides have been found to be effective in suppressing the symptoms if they are reapplied every year. Due to the expense of this, they are only really viable for trees of special cultural or heritage value.

Otherwise, the best options moving forwards are to monitor the spread of the disease in the hopes that enough mature trees will show resistance to the fungi that populations can be re-established from their offspring. For this reason, young ash trees should be carefully protected from grazing. Woodlands and parks, particularly those that have lost ash trees, should be replanted with a variety of native and locally grown species to help to protect and improve biodiversity.

In managed parks and gardens, burning the leaf litter around the trees in autumn and winter may be effective in minimising the spread of spores. Similarly, encouraging the public to wash shoes, bikes, buggies and vehicles between visits to different woodlands may also be of some use.

In an infected tree, the centre of the branch commonly turns grey-brown. (Image Courtesy of The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright)
What can I do to help?

There are several things you can do to help:

• Support the Woodland Trust by donating to their Tree Disease Fighting Fund. All donations will go towards efforts to monitor the spread of ash dieback, replanting healthy trees and improving biosecurity measures.
• Practice good woodland hygiene – this includes cleaning shoes, car and bike wheels after visits to woodlands, as well as refraining from taking cuttings or other plant material.
• If you spot an ash tree showing symptoms of ash dieback, you can report it on the TreeAlert website in Britain, or the TreeCheck website in Northern Ireland.

Further reading/resources

Ash | Edward Parker
Ash charts the evolution of this magnificent tree, and its 43 species across the northern hemisphere for the past 44 million years. From its significance in ancient Indo-European cultures, to its remarkable properties in treating Alzheimer’s, Parker looks at the botany, cultural history and medicinal uses of the ash tree.

 

Oak and Ash and Thorn | Peter Fiennes
Immersing himself in the beauty of Britain’s woodlands and the art and writing they have inspired, Peter Fiennes explores our long relationship with the woods and the sad, violent story of how so many have been lost. Just as we need them, our woods need us too. But who, if anyone, is looking out for them?

 

The Ash Tree | Oliver Rackham
Oliver Rackham delves into the history and ecology of the ash tree, exploring its place in human culture, explaining ash disease, and arguing that globalisation is now the single greatest threat to the world’s trees and forests. There is no more urgent message for our times. We cannot go on treating trees like commodities to be bought and sold.

 

Ash | Archie Miles
Ash looks at every aspect of the tree: its many visual manifestations; the uses of the timber for so many different purposes; its cultural significance in place names, folklore, myth and superstition; its inspirational importance for artists, poets and writers; and, of course, the issues arising from the inevitable spread of ash dieback.

How to use a quadrat

Surveying plants within a quadrat (a)
What is a quadrat?

A quadrat is a square frame, usually constructed from wire or plastic-coated wire, although they can be made from any sturdy material. Most commonly they measure 50cm x 50cm (i.e. 0.25m2), and may have further internal divisions to create either 25 squares each measuring 10cm x 10cm or 100 squares measuring 5cm x 5cm. Some frames are also collapsible which allows you to connect several pieces together to create larger sample areas.

What are quadrats used for?

Quadrats are used to survey plants or slow-moving/sedentary animals. They can be used either on land or underwater to gain an estimate of:

  • total number of an individual (or several) species.
  • species richness/diversity – the number of different species present in an area.
  • plant frequency/frequency index – the uniformity of a plant’s distribution within a surveyed area (not a measure of abundance).
  • percentage cover –  useful in situations where it is difficult to identify and count individual plants, such as grasses or mosses.

By deploying several quadrats it is possible to compare any of these factors either spatially (for example in locations with different light or pH levels) or over time, such as at different points throughout the year.

Quadrats being used along an intertidal transect to study rocky shore ecology (b)
How to use a quadrat

Most surveys require that quadrats are placed randomly within the survey site. One way to ensure that placements are truly random is to divide your survey area into quadrat-sized spaces and then use a random number generator to choose x and y coordinates. The quadrat can then be placed in the appropriate position. The number of samples you require will depend largely on the size of your survey site and the amount of time/manpower you have available. A minimum of ten samples should ideally be used.

In some situations, more specific placement of the quadrats is required. For example, when studying the changes in species presence/abundance on a shoreline, you may wish to take samples at regular intervals along a transect up the beach.

Creating a species list

One of the simplest ways of using a quadrat is to create a species list. To do this, the quadrat is placed randomly several times within the target area and the plants present within them are recorded. This will not provide any information on abundance or distribution, but will be a useful guide as to the species that are present at the time of sampling.

Estimating the total number of a species

For plants or animals that are easy to count, it is possible to estimate their total numbers for your survey area. To do this, simply count the number present in a series of quadrat samples then divide the total by the number of samples to get an average count per quadrat. If you know the dimensions of your entire survey site you can then multiply this up to get an estimate of the total number of a species present.

Estimating plant frequency/frequency index

To calculate plant frequency or frequency index, you simply need to note down whether the target species is present or absent within each quadrat sampled. The number of quadrats in which the species was present should be divided by the total number of samples taken and then multiplied by 100 to get the frequency as a percentage. For example, in a survey where 10 samples were taken, dandelions were found in 6 of these. This would give a frequency index of (6/10) x 100 = 60%.

Estimating percentage cover

For species in which it is difficult to count individual plants (e.g. grasses and mosses) it is easier to estimate percentage cover. For this purpose a quadrat with internal divisions is recommended – one with 100 5cm x 5cm squares is particularly useful. Results from several quadrats can then be averaged and scaled up to get an estimate for the entire survey area.

Important things to remember
Quadrat with 25 10cm x 10cm divisions

• The number of samples you take (i.e. the number of times you deploy your quadrat during your survey) will affect the reliability of your results. Sample sizes which are too small are much more likely to be affected by anomalous counts (e.g. localised clusters of individual species). On the other hand, planning for too many samples can create an impractical workload.

• Bear in mind that there will always be observer bias. By their nature, flowering plants are easy to overestimate and low-growing species are more likely to be missed.

• Take care to make sure that your quadrats are randomly placed if your survey design requires this. It is easy to subconsciously place them where there are large numbers of flowers or easy to count species. Using a coordinate-based system will solve this problem.

Quadrats available from NHBS

At NHBS we sell a selection of high-quality quadrats, designed to be strong, long-lasting and durable.

Q1 Quadrat
Made from heavy gauge steel wire with zinc plating, the Q1 Quadrat measures 0.5m x 0.5m and has no divisions.

 

 

Q2 Quadrat
The Q2 Quadrat is made from heavy gauge steel wire with a plastic protective coating. The 0.5m x 0.5m frame is subdivided into 25 squares for sampling dense vegetation or species-poor habitats.

 

Q3 Quadrat
The Q3 Quadrat is made from heavy gauge steel wire with plastic coating. The 0.5m x 0.5m frame is subdivided into 100 squares for calculating percentage cover or making presence/absence recordings.

 

Q4 Quadrat
The Q4 Quadrat is a strong collapsible quadrat made from four pieces of heavy gauge steel wire with zinc plating. A single Q4 frame will make a 0.5m x 0.5m open frame without divisions, suitable for general vegetation surveys. Additional units can be used together to make a variety of quadrats, e.g.. 1m x 1m or 1m x 0.5m. Being collapsible means it is also ideal for travel.

Photo credits:
(a) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
(b) USFWS Pacific Southwest Region via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Climate Challenges: 2. Forest Fires

In the lead up to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November of this year, we are writing a series of articles looking at some of the toughest global climate crisis challenges that we are currently facing. This post looks at the increase in the prevalence and intensity of forest fires, and how they can be both exacerbated by and contribute to climate change.

Forest fire in Lassen Volcanic Park, California. Image by Lukas Schlagenhauf via Flickr.
How and why do forest fires occur?

In many ecosystems forest fires are a natural event and, particularly in high-latitude forests, can help to maintain a healthy ecosystem, release nutrients into the soil and help with seed dispersal. Fossil charcoal remains suggest that natural fires have occurred since the appearance of terrestrial plants 420 million years ago and were caused by lightning or volcanic eruptions. While these factors are still responsible for a number of forest fires, human-ignited fires, such as those caused by discarded cigarettes, poorly controlled bonfires or cooking fires, sparks from electrical equipment and intentional arson, are now increasingly prevalent. Controlled fires are also used to manage farmland and pasture, and to clear natural vegetation. How quickly and efficiently a fire will spread depends largely on the amount and type of flammable material present, along with the local topography, moisture levels and weather conditions.

When and why are forest fires a problem?

A combination of climate change and poor land management mean that many areas are now much more prone to forest fires than they have been historically. In particular, hotter and dryer conditions, combined with ecosystems that are degraded by logging and disease means that fire seasons are becoming much more extreme and widespread. This is especially worrying in tropical rainforests, where forest fires would previously have been rare.

Increased occurrences of forest fires pose a number of environmental, social and economic problems. As well as damaging forest ecosystems, large-scale fires release copious amounts of CO2 and pollutants into the atmosphere, which are problematic both from an environmental standpoint and as a significant human health concern. Over the past century, wildfires have accounted for 20-25% of global carbon emissions – a worrying statistic that illustrates the environmental significance of the problem. In addition to this, the economic impact of fires can be considerable, with damage to property and tourist attractions, pollution of water supplies and the cost of evacuating local residents being some of the main problems.

11-mile fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho. Image by Intermountain Forest Service via Flickr.
Are forest fires ever a good thing?

As mentioned previously, wildfires have occurred throughout the history of terrestrial life, and many species have evolved to cope with or thrive under the conditions that they produce. Particularly in areas such as the vegetated regions of Australia, the celd in southern Africa, the fynbos in South Africa and the forested areas of the US and Canada, forest fires are common and help to create what is known as ‘snag forest habitat’. These areas feature higher species richness and diversity when compared to unburned forest, and their soils are rich from the plant nutrients that the fires help to return. Furthermore, many of the native plants that thrive in these areas rely on fire for successful germination of their seeds. Some of these ecosystems, however, are now suffering from too much fire, which has upset natural cycles and altered the previously well-balanced plant communities.

What can be done to prevent and control forest fires?
1996 poster from Rotorua Forest Service. Image by Archives NZ via Flickr.

Forest fire prevention attempts to reduce the risk of fires, as well as minimising their intensity and spread. One of the key methods is to educate and raise public awareness of the human-involvement in forest fires. In Europe, more than 95% of fires are caused by humans, and so addressing this is considered to be the most effective means of reducing unplanned forest fires. Closely controlling the use of planned burning is also important, as fires that are conducted under less dangerous weather conditions are much more likely to be successfully contained. The intentional igniting of small areas of vegetation is also used to minimise the amount of flammable material available for future forest fires and, when conducted carefully, can also help to maintain high local species diversity. However, this method is often unpopular due to the economic losses associated with burning potentially usable timber. Another method, particularly popular in the US, involves a fuel reduction strategy that involves logging and thinning overstocked trees.

Summary

• Although forest fires have occurred naturally since the evolution of terrestrial vegetation, climate change and changes in land management have produced conditions that are much more favourable for long, intense fire seasons.
• Forest fires make a significant contribution to global carbon emissions, destroy important habitat and can cause local widespread desertification.
• Current methods of controlling and preventing forest fires include widespread education to minimise the unintentional starting of fires by the public, as well as controlled small-scale burning of vegetation and clearing overstocked trees.
• Despite this, forest fires continue to be a significant challenge. They contribute to the climate crisis and pose a significant risk to wildlife and human life and health.

Useful resources

• This global map, available on NASA’s Earth Observatory website, shows the location of active fires around the world on a monthly basis.
Forest Fires – Sparking Firesmart Policies in the EU: This EU commissioned report is aimed at scientists, land-managers and policy-makers and offers a wide portfolio of solutions to prevent and combat forest fires.
• Watch incredible footage of forest fires and learn more about their impacts in this excellent episode of David Attenborough’s ‘Our Planet’.

Climate Challenges: 1. Insect Decline

In the lead up to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November of this year, we are writing a series of articles looking at some of the toughest global climate crisis challenges that we are currently facing. This post looks at the evidence for and challenges posed by a global decline in insects.

Bumblebee by Charles Haynes, via Flickr
What is the evidence for a global insect armageddon?

One of the first meta-analyses of insect population decline was published in 2014 by Dirzo et al. in Science under the title ‘Defaunation in the Anthropocene’. This seminal paper reported that 67% of monitored invertebrate populations showed 45% mean abundance decline and warned that ‘such animal declines will cascade onto ecosystem functioning and human well-being’. Three years later, Hallmann et al. (2017) published the results from 27 years of malaise trap monitoring in 63 natural protection areas in Germany, and concluded that insect biomass had declined by more than 75% during this time. This paper in particular was widely reported in the media, creating widespread concern among the public of an impending insect armageddon, or ‘insectageddon’.

Since then, several other reports have continued to draw attention to declines in insect abundance, biomass and diversity around the world (for excellent reviews see Wagner (2020) and Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys (2019)). However, many of these studies have been restricted to well-populated areas of the US and Europe and there is little information available to assess how these patterns compare with other less well studied regions.

Despite the abundance of data suggesting a pattern of global insect decline, many studies show conflicting results, with datasets from a similar area often reporting different patterns. There is also evidence that some insects are faring well, particularly in temperate areas which are now experiencing milder winters. Species that benefit from an association with humans, such as the European honeybee, may also be experiencing an advantage, along with certain freshwater insects that have benefited from efforts to reduce pollution in inland water bodies.

What are the challenges in assessing and predicting insect population trends?

In comparison to vertebrate groups, comprehensive long-term datasets are rare for invertebrates. This is primarily down to the fact that invertebrates are incredibly species rich and so, even for those that have been formally identified and described, a considerable amount of skill and knowledge is required for reliable identification. In addition to this high level of expertise is the need for large amounts of field equipment, which means that long-term, comprehensive studies can be expensive and difficult to fund.

Both historical and current invertebrate monitoring data tends to come from a small number of wealthy and well-populated countries (usually the US and western Europe), and there are comparatively few datasets available from tropical and less developed areas. Unfortunately, these understudied countries and regions tend to be the areas where we might expect to find the most diverse and species rich populations of invertebrates.

Other challenges relate to the way that data is collected. Using total insect biomass as a measure provides a useful large-scale perspective and provides information relevant to ecosystem function. It also minimises the problems involved with taxonomy and identification. However, using this measure means that species-level trends are completely overlooked.

Illustration: Virginia R. Wagner
What are the main stressors affecting insect populations globally?

Studies suggest that the main stressors impacting invertebrates are changes in land-use (particularly deforestation), climate change, agriculture, introduced and invasive species, and increased nitrification and pollution. However, it is rare that a single factor is found to be responsible for monitored declines and the situation has been described as being akin to ‘death by a thousand cuts’.

In a recent special edition of PNAS, that looked in depth at the available research and literature on insect decline in the Anthropocene, climate change, habitat loss/degradation and agriculture emerged as the three most important stressors.

Where do we go from here?

Traditionally, conservation has focused on rare and endangered species. However, with mass extinctions and large scale invertebrate loss, which include declines in formerly abundant species, a different approach is required. Invertebrates form an important link between primary producers and the rest of the food chain, and play a key role in most ecosystems. They provide numerous ecosystem services such as pollination, weed and pest control, decomposition, soil formation and water purification, and so their fate is of both environmental and economic importance.

There are several things to be positive about within the realms of invertebrate conservation: over the past decade, funding to support insect conservation has been growing and, in many countries, there are now substantial grants allocated to monitoring and mitigation projects. The EU and US have seen widescale banning of certain pesticides following research demonstrating their impacts on both economically important pollinators and other fauna. Finally, citizen science projects to study invertebrate populations are becoming both numerous and successful, greatly increasing the amount of comprehensive, long-term data that is available to inform conservation decisions.

Despite this, much more long-term data on invertebrate populations is required, particularly from regions outside of Europe and the US, such as tropical areas of the Americas, Africa and Asia. Attention to factors such as the standardisation of survey techniques and improved data storage and accessibility are also important, as well as the utilisation of new methods including automated sampling/counting equipment and molecular techniques. Using the information available, evidence-based plans for mitigating and reversing declines are desperately required.

All of this takes time however, and we need to act now. Even without comprehensive species-level data, we know that a biodiversity crisis is occurring at a rate serious enough for it to have been termed the ‘6th Mass Extinction’. Individual, group, nationwide and global action will all be required to combat this. Widescale change in societal attitudes to insects will undoubtedly need to play a role in this process, alongside global efforts to slow climate change and develop insect-friendly methods of agriculture.

Large-scale intensive agriculture which relies heavily on the application of pesticides and fertilisers is a huge concern for insect populations. Image by Rab Lawrence via Flickr.
Summary

• Numerous studies have reported large-scale declines in insect populations, with several estimating a loss of approximately 1–2% of species each year.
• The availability of high-quality and long-term datasets is a limiting factor in assessing population trends. Furthermore, available data tends to be from well-populated and historically wealthy areas such as the US and western Europe, with the diverse and species-rich tropics severely under-researched.
• The main stressors thought to be impacting insect populations globally are climate change, habitat loss/degradation and agriculture. In most, if not all of these cases, a combination of these and other factors are likely to play a role.
• Although there are some aspects of insect conservation to be positive about, much work still needs to be done. Further monitoring and recording are required, particularly in poorly studies areas, in order to inform conservation decisions. Simultaneously, local and global efforts must be made to slow climate change, halt the destruction of ecologically important habitats and develop nature-compatible methods of agriculture.

References and further reading

• Jarvis, B. (2018) The Insect Apocalypse is Here. The New York Times
• Dirzo, R. et al. (2014) Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Science 345: 401–406
• Hallmann, C. A. et al. (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS One 12: e0185809
• Wagner, D. L. (2020) Insect declines in the Anthropocene. Annu. Rev. Entomol. 65: 457–480
• Sánchez-Bayo, F. & Wyckhuys, K. A. G. (2019) Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers. Biol. Conserv. 232: 8–27
• Wagner, D. L. et al. (2021) Insect decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a thousand cuts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 118(2): e2023989118

Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse

Eye-opening, inspiring and riveting, Silent Earth is part love letter to the insect world, part elegy, part rousing manifesto for a greener planet. It is a call to arms for profound change at every level – in government policy, agriculture, industry and in our own homes and gardens, to prevent insect decline. Read our extended review.

 

The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World

In a compelling global investigation, Milman speaks to those studying this catastrophe and asks why these extraordinary creatures are disappearing. Part warning, part celebration of the incredible variety of insects, The Insect Crisis highlights why we need to wake up to this impending environmental disaster.

Climate Change and British Wildlife

In this latest volume in the British Wildlife Collection, Trevor Beebee examines the story so far for our species and their ecosystems, and considers how they may respond in the future. Check out our interview with Beebee, where we discuss the background of this book, his thoughts on conservation and his hopes for the future.

 

Rebugging the Planet: The Remarkable Things  that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do – Any Why We Need to Love Them More

Environmental campaigner Vicki Hird demonstrates how insects and other invertebrates, such as worms and spiders, are the cornerstone of our ecosystems and argues passionately that we must turn the tide on this dramatic bug decline.

 

The Last Butterflies: A Scientist’s Quest to Save a Rare and Vanishing Creature

Weaving a vivid and personal narrative, Haddad illustrates the race against time to reverse the decline of six butterfly species. A moving account of extinction, recovery, and hope, The Last Butterflies demonstrates the great value of these beautiful insects to science, conservation, and people.

 

Why Every Fly Counts: Values and Endangerment of Insects

Hans-Dietrich Reckhaus discusses the beneficial and harmful effects of insects and explains their development and significance for biodiversity. This second, fully reviewed and enlarged edition provides new insights into the value of species seen as pests, insect development and their decline in different regions in the world.

Beaver Trust: Q&A with Eva Bishop

Eva Bishop

Eva Bishop, Communications Director for Beaver Trust, recently took the time to talk to us about the important work the charity is doing to help communities welcome beavers back to Britain.

In this thought-provoking conversation, we discuss some of Beaver Trust’s upcoming projects, how the Covid pandemic has affected them as a charity, and share different ways to get involved in beaver conservation within Britain.


1. Firstly, can you tell our readers a bit about the Beaver Trust and its main aims?

Our overall mission is to restore Britain’s rivers and wildlife with beavers. We were not in fact established as a single species charity, but as a small crew wanting to build climate resilience for people and wildlife – yet we see the potential for rapid and restorative action that beavers offer. If you take a look at a map of British waterways it depicts an expansive system of veins carrying the lifeblood of the country. Then imagine huge swathes of that being given greater space for nature, becoming living wetlands and water storage systems rather than drained, polluted, straightened ditches. Beavers are our ally here so we are working collaboratively with a range of organisations and of course landowners to support their return.

Beaver Trust’s core work involves convening real conversations in order to make good decisions on national beaver policy and a supporting management framework, finding engaging ways to achieve outreach and education on learning to co-exist with beavers again, and of course supporting many beaver projects on the ground. Our national aim must be to move beyond enclosed projects wherever possible so that beavers can once again become part of native wildlife fauna and work across whole catchments to reinstate biodiversity and healthy ecosystem function.

2. There is a lot of contention between some landowners and conservationists around the subject of beavers, particularly when it comes to reintroductions. Do you find that misinformation and prejudice are significant challenges in the case of this species?

Where misinformation and prejudice exist it’s always unhelpful. However, I think the existence of conflict can be overplayed with beavers and our experience has been one largely of cooperation and collaboration.

Beavers and their impacts aren’t always beneficial to the surrounding land use, we’re very clear about that. Where contention does arise it can often be overcome through better information and knowledge. Well practiced management techniques are being successfully used across Britain, with the right experience and resources there is no reason for these not to become second nature like tree protection against deer for example. Beavers are reestablishing already, but we have an opportunity to target areas for new wild releases that are less likely to cause conflict and instead achieve greater benefits for society and wildlife. That’s something we are collectively all working towards, to minimise conflict.

There is always room for misinformation – hence our core strand of work around communications and education – and there is still work to be done engaging a broad audience in key conversations around beavers (such as farming, angling, flood-banks and the appropriate use of lethal control), ensuring broad diversity in all conversations and that everyone is heard. There is a lot of good research available on the impacts and effects of beaver reintroduction across Europe, not to mention the research within Britain as well. Management is also well-established and now requires government resources to expand nationally alongside training and communications, so that we can offer a swift response to any anticipated, perceived or felt issue.

Prejudice is harder to tackle, as is human nature’s aversion to change, but we always aim to put forward a transparent view of beaver impacts including challenges and invite inclusive debate across our work. But as I said, Beaver Trust’s experience in England to date has been a pretty positive one with the landowning and farming community.

North American beaver on lodge by Ben Goldfarb

3. A core component of your work moving forward is set to focus on river buffer zones – allowing nature to recover and regenerate around river banks. Can you tell us more about this?

Yes, and it links directly to the previous question. If we want beavers to achieve all the good flood and drought mitigation, water filtering and biodiverse habitat restoration we anticipate, they will need space to operate. Their dams and canals can revert streams and smaller rivers into meandering wetlands, however, depending on the location this could quickly cause issues. In a sense, we need to make our rivers fit for beavers (and all other life that should exist there), without placing further burden on farmers trying to do the right thing and produce affordable food.

The key is space for nature. Stepping back from the margins and allowing the naturally high biodiversity that should exist there to thrive. Beaver Trust is therefore working in partnership with leading environmental NGOs on a programme for riparian buffer zones along whole catchments. We need a greater vision than a small strip of river bank, and are aiming for 10-20m+ zones, but it could even mean whole floodplains are set aside for natural processes.

Farmers will then be paid for nature’s recovery and we’d like to see farm clusters able to apply, allowing greater scope for whole catchment restoration and connected nature corridors. For the programme to succeed and feed into ELMs we need a simple payment mechanism and not just another layer to add to the farmer’s list of environmental expectations. We need a broad partnership, including Defra, to think systemically so that it becomes easier for land managers to make good environmental decisions without hidden costs to their operations.

If we allow rivers the space to find their natural course and re-establish meanders, scrub and woodland to naturally regenerate, beavers to bring back freshwater habitat and increase species abundance, then we will start to see real resilience along our river network ready to help us as climate pressures hit harder and stronger.

We hope to see a bold and ambitious government strategy for beavers, but given their catchment-scale impacts we should be thinking systemically with related policies. The great thing about river buffers is that it could take relatively little land out of production – but these edges are where all the great biodiversity happens. So it’s a win-win for conservation and farming if we make it easier and practical to sign up.

4. Are there any other big projects that the Trust is going to be working on in the near future?

Our main policy campaign this year will be river buffers, working in partnership with the National Trust, Rivers Trust and Woodland Trust. As part of this we are working on a follow-up documentary film to the award-winning ‘Beavers Without Borders’ (2020) that explores the challenges and opportunities for river buffers, interviewing experts on a variety of areas including farming, angling, public access and biodiversity. But we will also continue our core policy ambition convening broad stakeholder working groups on the English Beaver Strategy, which the government is set to consult on this summer.

In the restoration department we are supporting a groundbreaking community-led beaver project where a group of local landowners and residents are looking to reintroduce beavers as a flood mitigation strategy along the whole catchment.

Beaver Trust has also recently been awarded the call off contract for the beaver management framework in Scotland by NatureScot, so we’ll be gearing up for a busy season at the end of the year. Working alongside landowners experiencing conflicts particularly in prime agricultural areas and looking towards long-term mitigation strategies. This can range from ecological advice, tree protection, dam and burrowing mitigation, to translocation as a last resort. In collaboration with the animal care and veterinary team at Five Sisters Zoo, beavers are health screened and rehomed to licenced projects elsewhere in the country.

Our communications and outreach team is working hard across a number of projects, including The Lodge Cast podcast series, radio and other media. We also have several education initiatives under way but one particularly exciting partnership is for a new beaver enclosure and educational learning hub at a major tourist attraction in the South West. The key driver of this project is improving nature connection with children from socially and economically deprived backgrounds, and people with reduced mobility and sensory and cognitive disabilities. We have not yet secured funding for this project so cannot say further than that at present but it exemplifies Beaver Trust’s ambition to educate and connect people beyond wildlife enthusiasts with the joys that beaver wetlands offer.

Dam at WVF by James Wallace

5. The Covid pandemic has had a huge impact on individuals and organisations. How has the Beaver Trust been affected over the past year, and how have you dealt with these unforeseen challenges?

It’s been a genuinely interesting and challenging time to be part of a new charity: Lockdown arrived while Beaver Trust was really getting its roots down, there was no furlough option for us at the time as we were so new, plus we were a very small team and some of us had the challenge of home education to navigate (torturous for both teacher and pupil)!

But it has made us a really strong and resilient team, given our remote locations. I think one of the great strengths of Beaver Trust people is their wholehearted approach to work: Real conversations, emotional wellbeing and individual authenticity is encouraged and, for us, it works well. It also helped immensely to have a powerful passion for nature restoration and climate action shared within the team, enough to keep everyone motivated, and to have such incredible support for beavers from the public. They are already a much-loved animal and as such we’ve received reams of very humbling offers of voluntary support from all sorts of highly experienced individuals. We are grateful for every single one.

6. Thank you so much for your time in chatting to us. One final question: for anyone interested in getting involved in beaver conservation within Britain, how would you suggest that they go about this?

Beaver dam by Eva Bishop

It’s a great question and I’d start by saying it’s time to break the system: forget career silos, land and wildlife needs ALL of us – it is everyone’s countryside, rivers are everyone’s source of freshwater and wildlife should be part of everyone’s mental health and wellbeing whether through paid employment, voluntary time or new cultural norms. To use a small example, how do we make litter picking fun? Anyone can care for their local patch and help conserve it. I recently saw a wine bottle used in the construction of a beaver dam, something we can avoid by everyone taking part.

But I also think the conservation sector can be quite intimidating and packed with such expertise it’s hard to infiltrate, so I’d encourage people to follow their interest and speak up, even if you’re not sure you tick every box. Within beaver restoration, specific roles will emerge within charities and across communities as wild populations expand, specific training programmes will be available (for example beaver management through CIEEM), keep an eye out for new job opportunities with Beaver Trust, Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trusts and others.

Another idea would be to join in with some citizen science on collecting information on beavers and river impacts. This doesn’t need to be specific to Beaver Trust either – there’s the Freshwater Habitats Trust, or the Mammal Society which has a mammal tracker app, all of which could help support wider conservation work.

If you’re already in employment, why not talk to your company about funding nature’s restoration and helping scale the impact of nature restoration charities. One of the biggest challenges to conservation is the funding and resources to expand operations.

On a purely fun level, Beaver Trust also hosts regular outreach activities like May’s poetry competition, last year’s photography competition, the monthly podcast, online quizzes and various other celebrations, so please get in touch and join in. Write us a blog and we might be able to publish it on our website. The more these communications are shared, the more people will understand what a beaver is and be accepting of its arrival. Conserving nature as a whole will benefit all the species that rely on it, including humans.


You can find out more about the Beaver Trust from their website and by following them on Facebook and Twitter.

To learn more about the Beaver Trust’s conservation projects, you can read the Introducing: Beaver Trust article included in the Spring 2021 issue of Conservation Land Management magazine. In this article, Eva Bishop discuss how the Beaver Trust came to be, what it is trying to achieve, and the exciting projects it has been involved in.

 

Mammal Society: Q&A with Stephanie Wray

The Mammal Society is a charity dedicated to the research and conservation of Britain’s mammals. By surveying, monitoring, researching, and sharing information about the state of mammals, it contributes to conservation efforts to help maintain these species.

Stephanie Wray

We recently spoke to Stephanie Wray, the new Chair of Mammal Society, who kindly took the time to answer some questions about her background, her ambitions for the charity, and some ways in which you can get involved and support mammal conservation.

 

 


1. First, could you tell us a little bit about the Mammal Society and the important work that it does?

The Mammal Society is a charity which works towards the conservation of British mammals based on sound science. We were started in the 1950s and have always had both a strong academic member base of the ecologists and natural scientists who study our wild mammals, but also a fantastic body of amateur naturalists who are fascinated by mammals and willing to give up their free time to learn more about them and help their conservation in practical ways. Over time our membership has grown to include, for example, ecological consultants who work with protected species, protecting them from development, and many others who just love mammals. Increasingly we are benefiting from support from members of the public who, while they may not be able to devote time to practical projects themselves, care deeply about the British countryside and our iconic mammal species and want to help us to help them. At the moment we are developing exciting projects looking at the conservation of mountain hares, our amazing native hare which turns white in the winter and which may be threatened by climate change, and the harvest mouse, a species of traditional farmland as small as a two-pence piece and increasingly threatened by the way we manage our countryside.

Mountain Hare, Cairngorms by Sorcha Lewis (Mammal Photographer of the Year 2020)

2. From your PhD on brown hares in the 1990’s and a post-doc on Livingstone’s bat on the Comores, to your role as past president of the CIEEM and, most recently, your position as director of Biocensus and founder of specialist consultancy Nature Positive, you’ve had an incredibly fascinating and influential career so far. What attracted you to the position of Chair of the Mammal Society?

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Mammal Society, since my first Mammal Society conference in 1989. It’s where, a couple of years later, I presented my first scientific talk on the results of my PhD research and where I met many other mammal enthusiasts who have remained lifelong friends. Many of the Society’s members, professional and volunteer, have helped me with my research over the years, turning up in fair weather or foul to help me catch and radio-collar mammals to learn more about their habits, collect samples of dropping and other ‘glamorous’ tasks. So I want to be able to give something back, to make sure that the Society continues to grow and acts as an effective, science-backed voice for the conservation of wildlife in the UK. Our members have a huge amount of knowledge and experience and I want to make sure that we can leverage that to have our voices heard and deliver the right outcomes for conservation.

3. Unusually for an ecologist, you also have a Master’s degree in Business Administration. Do you think that marketing, economics, and the social sciences in general have an important role to play in ecology and conservation?

Well, you have done your research – I do indeed! We hear a lot about the bad things that businesses do, but the economic reach, innovation and entrepreneurship of industry can also act as a huge power for good. Businesses are starting to realise that their entire operations depend on biodiversity and that working to protect the natural world is not just a philanthropic exercise, it’s sound business sense. Sometimes how a business affects the environment is very obvious (they may use a lot of water or harvest a wild species) but in many cases it is hidden deep in their supply chains. Let’s say that you are a manufacturer of oat milk. You will have a great narrative around the climate impacts of your product compared to dairy milk, soy and almonds – but what about the biodiversity impacts? If the oats you buy are grown at a factory scale, removing hedges and ploughing up to the field boundaries, with the addition of lots of artificial fertilisers or pesticides, then you will have undone all those climate benefits through your impacts on nature – and the decline in the harvest mouse population would be an indicator of that. Now that is not just a concern to the Mammal Society – it’s a risk to your business in terms of future costs (as the environment becomes more degraded then we lose soil fertility and pollinator species, and yields will fall) in terms of your reputation (we’re drinking oat milk in the first place because we care about the environment) and in terms of your ability to attract investment (the institutional lenders don’t want to be on the wrong side of the next ‘palm oil’ issue). Under that kind of pressure, businesses can be incredibly flexible and develop new approaches, like regenerative farming, which can represent a win-win – a premium product for them, a healthier environment for everyone.

4. Taking on the role of Chair of a charity during a global pandemic must be an exciting yet challenging prospect. What are your hopes and ambitions for the charity over the next few years?

It is certainly an exciting time to take on a new role. Particularly during our first ‘lock down’ in Britain last year I think we all really appreciated our limited time outdoors and took time to enjoy those short nature ‘snacks’. For some that meant spotting wild goats or deer in the car-free streets, for others it may have been a grey squirrel or urban fox in the garden. My hope is that as we recover from the pandemic we don’t lose sight of that link to nature, and that as society moves forward it will be with increased understanding of and respect for the way the natural environment supports and underpins everything we do. My ambition for the next phase of the Mammal Society’s life is to really raise our profile to that of a household name alongside larger charities such as RSPB and WWF. I want to make sure that we develop our communications strategy, and through our website, publications and social media engagement, reach a wider audience and raise the profile of British mammals and their conservation in line with our charitable objectives. I want us to continue delivering the highest quality of scientific research and to proactively engage with government and the media on mammal conservation and management issues to contribute to the delivery of evidence-based policy.

Female Muntjac by Keith Elcombe (Mammal Photographer of the Year 2021)

5. As stated on your website: Britain is now recognised as one of the most nature-deprived countries in the world. Are you broadly optimistic about the future of mammals in the UK?

I think we have to be; the only viable option for human society is to live in harmony with nature. This year is a hugely important one for nature with the COP15 meeting in China in October on the post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, and the related COP26 meeting on climate change in Glasgow in November. These will be decisive in setting out international approaches to protected areas and sustainable use of the commodities we harvest from nature. Here in the UK, we have clear commitments arising from our exit from the EU, in the government’s 25 year environment plan, and through measures such as mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain in the forthcoming Environment Bill. All the pieces are there, we just need to commit to putting them together into a coherent protection framework. One quarter of British mammals are currently at risk, but it isn’t too late to bend the curve on extinctions and watch our biodiversity flourish again.

6. Finally, for any of our readers who are wanting to get involved with mammal conservation in the UK, what are the most important things that they can be doing right now?

Firstly (obviously!) have a look at the Mammal Society’s website (https://www.mammal.org.uk/support-us/) and you will find all sorts of things you can do to help from sending us records of mammals you have seen to organising a bake sale (hedgehog cupcakes, anyone?). In your day to day life, here are a few things you might try to help mammals.

  • Garden with nature in mind. If you have a garden, try to leave a wild corner with food for wildlife particularly in the autumn and winter. An open compost heap if you have space is helpful to invertebrates, reptiles and small mammals (but don’t add any cooked food!) If you have a pond, make sure the sides are not too steep or add a ramp to make sure thirsty creatures don’t fall in and drown. Consider leaving food out for hedgehogs (cat food, never milk) or badgers (they aren’t too fussy!) if you are lucky enough to have them. Leave small gaps under fences to make sure hedgehogs and other small mammals can move around. If you don’t have a garden, a window-box or a pot of herbs on the doorstep can provide a source of food for pollinators and contribute to biodiversity.
  • One of the biggest threats to nature is how we manage the countryside and as consumers we can all send a message about what we want agri-business to do. Choose products wisely – is there embedded destruction of the countryside in that breakfast cereal? Write to the supermarket or the manufacturer and ask them how they manage their impacts on biodiversity – both directly and through the ingredients they buy in.
  • Write to your local MP and ask them what they will be doing to make sure that even removed from the EU’s strong environmental legislation, Britain will be a leader in environmental protection. The Wildlife and Countryside Act, which is the key piece of legislation for protecting mammal species such as bats, otters and dormice, is under review this year. Ask your MP to vote to retain and add to the strict protection we have for some mammal species and to prevent it being watered down.
  • And most importantly – just go out there and watch mammals. I may be biased, but for me there is nothing better than being out in the countryside early on a spring morning watching the hares chasing around and knocking seven bells out of each other. You might like to stay up late watching badgers or bats, or enjoy the crazy antics of a squirrel on a bird feeder. It’s important that we engage with nature and encourage our children to do the same. If we don’t see and understand wildlife, we won’t fight for it. And, trust me, we need to fight for it.

You can find out more about Mammal Society from their website and by following them on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Seabirds, and a Short History of Illustrated Bird Guides

The soon to be published Seabirds by Peter Harrison, Martin Perrow and Hans Larsson represents the latest in a long history of exquisitely illustrated bird identification guides. An update of the original 1983 publication of Harrison’s, it covers all 437 known species of seabird, from seaducks and grebes to cormorants and pelicans. The publication of this beautiful and comprehensive book has prompted us to take a look at some of the history surrounding illustrated bird guides over the past century.


Title page of the History of the Birds of Europe

At the end of the 19th century, there existed only a few professional bird illustrators. These were usually employed by wealthy patrons, drawing and painting species as requested for private collections and portfolios, with subjects chosen to reflect their patron’s specific ornithological interests. By the turn of the 20th century there were a small number of illustrated bird guides available commercially, such as H.E. Dresser’s A History of the Birds of Europe, published in nine parts between 1871 and 1896. However, these were extremely expensive to purchase due to high production times and costs.

One of the first widely available bird books, The Observer’s Book of British Birds, was published in 1937. Illustrated by Archibald Thorburn, who was eager to embrace the new age of print, the book included plates that showed species in a natural setting and was incredibly popular with a post-war audience. This was closely followed by The Handbook of British Birds by H.F. & G. Witherby (1938-1941) which consisted of five volumes illustrated in colour. These were later combined into a single volume: The Popular Handbook of Birds (1962). At this time, most illustrations were based on museum specimens, as fieldwork was limited by poor optics and the cost of travel, and very few photographs of live specimens were available. Because of this, images, although technically accurate, often missed details of ‘jizz’ and other useful field characteristics as well as seasonal differences in plumage.

Tunnicliffe’s ‘What To Look For In…’ series was popular with both adults and children during the post-war years.

The years and decades following the second world war saw a growing interest in birds in Britain, helped considerably by the RSPB which encouraged the creation of bird art and viewed it as a useful tool for inspiring public interest. At this time, Charles Tunnicliffe’s two albums: Bird Portraits and Wild Birds of Britain, alongside his four What To Look For In Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter books were incredibly popular with both children and adults. Unusually for the time, Tunnicliffe only worked from real-life specimens which gave his illustrations a rare lifelike vibrancy. (Tunnicliffe is also well known for his illustrations of country life and the original wood engravings included in Tarka the Otter).

The late 1940s and 50s saw the publication of the first ‘modern’ field guides, in which much more attention was paid to identifying characteristsics, behavioural details and notes on confusion species. Of these, the Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds, illustrated by Richard Richardson and the Collins Field Guide, illustrated by American artist Roger Tory Peterson, were by far the most popular. While the Pocket Guide grouped birds by size and similarity, with no regard for taxonomic relatedness, Peterson’s book arranged birds taxonomically, a difference that split readers in their preference for each style.

Volume VIII of the ambition Birds of the Western Palearctic

The 1960s saw a huge ecological awakening in Britain, and an increased interest in the natural world. Popular bird art at this time also experienced a boom with the arrival on the scene of talented artists such as Basil Ede and Robert Gilmore, the latter of who was instrumental in forming the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) in 1964. The decades following were a wonderful period for illustrated bird guides and a number of key publishers now found that it was financially viable to produce these in much higher numbers and successfully market them to the general public. Notable publications from the 1970s include the Hamlyn Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, The Collins Pocket Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe and the extremely ambitious Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, The Birds of the Western Palearctic.

The 1980s were notable for the arrival of the first modern family monographs, beginning with Seabirds in 1983, beautifully illustrated by Peter Harrison. Unlike general field guides, these focused exclusively on a single family of birds, and were incredibly popular. Seabirds was closely followed by Shorebirds, illustrated by Peter Hayman, and Wildfowl, illustrated by Hilary Burn. However, the most ambitious and well-known example of this format is the Handbook of the Birds of the World which stands at 16 volumes, published by Lynx over a period of 20 years.

Collins Bird Guide

Still, expectations continued to rise and the quest for the perfect field guide continued, until the Collins Bird Guide finally appeared in 1999. Renowned globally for the quality of the artwork – which is considered to be exceptional, both aesthetically and as an identification aid – this book has remained the stalwart companion for huge numbers of birders over the past two decades.

This month’s publication of Seabirds is a wonderful continuation of the rich history of illustrated bird guides and is a shining example of a book which is both invaluable as an identification guide, and treasured as a work of art.


SM4/SM4BAT SD Card Compatibility Fix

This is a Technical Support Bulletin from Wildlife Acoustics regarding problems that can occur when using the SM4 family of recorders with certain SD cards.

Overview

A number of customers have recently reported deployment problems when using SanDisk Extreme and SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC flash cards with their Song Meter SM4 family recorders. The issue can affect all Song Meter SM4 family products including the SM4, SM4TS, SM4BAT-FS, SM4M, and SM4MU (but excluding SM4BAT-ZC).

The failure generally manifests with schedules that make continuous back-to-back one-hour recordings and can result in recordings being lost. Corrupted .WAV recordings with a 256KB length and/or many .sm4dump files on the card are both indications. The issue only rarely affects schedules with short duty cycle recordings such as 10 minutes on the hour, or on triggered recordings on the SM4BAT-FS.

Note: Many of the above symptoms are normal at the end of a deployment as batteries fail. What is unique to this issue is it can occur while the batteries are fresh.

Solution

Wildlife Acoustics have released firmware version 2.3.3 that corrects this problem and may improve interoperability with other flash cards as well. We strongly advise customers to update to this latest version as soon as possible whether you are seeing issues or not. The firmware is available on the Wildlife Acoustics website after you log in to your account here: https://www.wildlifeacoustics.com/account/downloads/sm4.

Firmware version 2.3.3 also fixes an unrelated issue, introduced with firmware 2.3.1, which could result in corrupted cards that are formatted in exFAT and have the “dirty bit” set (this indicates an issue with unmounting the card previously).

Note: If you experience card corruption, Wildlife Acoustics have tools that can possibly recover recordings off the card. Contact their support team using the details below for more information.

Contact Wildlife Acoustics

Please contact support2021@wildlifeacoustics.com if you have any questions or concerns.

Campaign to ban the use of peat-based composts in the UK

A UK campaign, headed by Professor Dave Goulson, has called upon the government to ban the use of peat in garden compost by the end of 2021.

In 2011, voluntary targets were set by the government with the aim of ending the domestic sale of peat-based composts by the end of 2020. But, in a recent letter to the environment secretary, George Eustice, Goulson explains that these targets have been an ‘abject failure’. The letter, which has been signed by a long list of notable conservationists, scientists and gardeners – including Alan Tichmarsh, Isabella Tree and Kate Bradbury – goes on to suggest that banning peat-based composts before the COP26 climate conference is a vital step in demonstrating the UK government’s dedication to addressing the climate crisis.

Why is peat important?

Globally, peatlands store half a trillion tonnes of carbon; this is twice as much as is stored in the world’s forests. In the UK alone, peatlands hold more than three billion tonnes of carbon although, worryingly, only 20% exist in a natural or near natural state. Peatlands also provide important habitat for many species of plants and animals and play a critical role in reducing flooding.

As well as the extraction of peat for use in the garden trade, these areas are under threat from overgrazing, draining (so that land can be made suitable for farming), and burning of the surface heather, particularly on grouse shooting estates.

Peatlands grow from the slow accumulation of dead plant material in wet terrestrial habitats and take an incredibly long time to form. When the peat is extracted or damaged, the stored carbon that has built up over centuries is released into the atmosphere. Because of this, the UK’s peatlands are now acting as a net carbon source, rather than an environmentally critical store.

Peat extraction in Sharpham, Somerset. Image by Matthew Britton via Flickr.
How can I help?
  • As a gardener and consumer, one of the most important things you can do is to commit to only buying composts that are peat-free. Or, better still, if you have the space, try making your own from kitchen and garden waste. As stated in Goulson’s letter ‘Unearthing this precious store of carbon to use in the garden is needless, given that there are high-quality peat-free alternatives available’. Following a survey conducted by the Wildlife Trusts, only two garden retailers declared an end-date for peat sales: Travis Perkins in 2021 and Wickes by 2025. Other retailers, including B&Q, Asda and Lidl said they were committed to phasing out peat products but gave no date.
  • For anyone purchasing plants from nurseries, the Dogwood Days blog provides a comprehensive list of plant nurseries that are peat-free on site and/or committed to sourcing peat-free plants.
  • Sign the petition to ‘Ban the use of peat in horticulture and all growing media by 2023‘. The deadline for this petition is 6th June 2021, and 10,000 signatures are required to ensure a government response.
  • Follow and share the #PeatFreeApril campaign on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and help to spread the world among your fellow gardeners.
Further reading

An Illustrated Book of Peat (2-Volume Set) The Life and Deaths of Bogs: A New Synthesis
James HC Fenton
March 2021 | Spiralbound
#252901

 


Cover image: ‘Organic Choice all purpose peat free garden compost’ from crinklecrankle.com