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

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

 

Nurture for Nature: Interview with Dr. Amir Khan

Dr. Amir Khan is a GP, well-known for his regular appearances on Lorraine and Good Morning Britain. As a lifelong lover of wildlife, he is also ambassador for the Wildlife Trusts and Butterfly Conservation. He is passionate about connection with the natural world as a mutually beneficial practice which can not only improve our mental and physical health, but is also necessary to ensure the conservation and biodiversity of local areas.

From April this year, Dr. Khan is fronting Butterfly Conservation’s Nurture for Nature campaign which aims to get people involved with the wildlife in their gardens and local wild spaces. We recently chatted with him about the campaign as well as his love of the natural world.


Your incredibly popular Instagram and Twitter accounts are full of beautiful images and descriptions of your local wildlife encounters. Have wildlife and conservation always been passions of yours?

I have been a lover of wildlife from an early age, my dad and I used to watch nature documentaries together. He wasn’t well enough to get out of the house so I would tell him about what I had seen in the woods or local park. As I got older, I learned about wildlife gardening and the importance of nature on our health. I am passionate about everyone, from all walks of life, having access to nature and that means conserving it. It has such important wellbeing effects that everyone should get to experience. I experienced the benefits of nature on my mental health during the pandemic, when I would come home from the surgery after visiting my patients in nursing homes; nature helped me during these difficult times.

As an ambassador for Butterfly Conservation you are also going to be fronting their new Nurture for Nature campaign. Can you tell us a bit more about this and what it hopes to achieve?

Butterflies and insects are vital pollinators and we need them in our lives to keep us alive! By understanding that by helping nature we are actually helping ourselves, I am hoping people will see the wider benefit of doing simple things that can encourage some of these wonderful creatures to visit them. We have to remember that, at this time of year, many insects are emerging from a long winter and need areas where they can feed to get them going for the spring and summer months. They will then get the mental and physical benefits that being close to nature provides and our insects get more areas to feed, drink and rest.

Hopefully lots more people will be inspired to get into their gardens this year as a result of the campaign. Do you have plans for your own garden this year?

I am really excited about my garden this year. After what feels like a very long winter, I want my garden to feel like a haven for both myself and the wildlife that visit or live there. I am making sure every corner has something in it to entice wildlife. There is nothing better than a summer’s day in the garden, simply watching the insects going about their business whilst you potter about. And knowing they are feeding off the plants and flowers you planted is a lovely feeling.

We’ve also heard that you’re hoping to get into moth trapping! What is it about moths that interests you?

I absolutely love moths! I think they are the most underrated insects in our gardens. They are vital pollinators but have a bit of a bad reputation, probably down to the fact that many of them are nocturnal so we are just not as familiar with them. I want to show people that moths are just as amazing as butterflies and just as beautiful. By doing some moth trapping this summer I am hoping to catch and showcase some of the gorgeous moths that live right under our noses!

It’s fascinating to read about the link between lifestyle choices and their impacts on mental and physical health. How do you feel that a connection with wildlife and an appreciation for nature fit into this picture?

There is so much proven science behind the wellbeing effects of nature. When we are amongst natural spaces, listening to bird song or spending time immersed in nature, our bodies produce chemicals that make us feel content and happy – we produce less stress hormones which can help reduce blood pressure and heart rate, having an overall calming feeling on our minds and bodies. We need to embrace and encourage this as part of our every day lifestyles. This is why we need to conserve green spaces so that everyone can benefit from them.


Find out more about the Nurture for Nature campaign and sign up for your free gardening and wellness guide on the Butterfly Conservation website.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 19th April 2021

A recent review of nearly 55,000 protected areas concluded that it is not enough to simply designate an area of land as ‘protected’. Instead, considerable thought should be put into their selection and, once established, monitoring and enforcement should be made a priority. This study, undertaken by a group of scientists from Michigan State University, looked at how well such areas contributed to forest protection, which is a key factor in preserving natural resources.

This month, the Woodland Trust in the UK have published their State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021. Focusing predominantly on native woods and trees and trees in towns and cities, this valuable document includes information on their coverage, condition, wildlife value, benefits and threats, and also suggests the steps required to help them.

Landowners and farmers in Wensleydale have grown a six-mile continuous stretch of woodland and hedgerows to provide a highway to join up two populations of dormice. Part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, the Wensleydale Dormouse Project hopes to strengthen two populations of dormice that were reintroduced in 2008 and 2016 following a long period of local extinction.

 

NHBS for Professional Ecologists

At NHBS we understand the needs of professional ecologists and are here to support you in your work. Here’s what we can offer you:

Specialist advice and support:
  • We have ecologists and former ecological consultants on our team, all of who are experienced and knowledgeable about the products that we sell. Whatever you need to know about our equipment, before or after purchase, we are sure to be able to find the answer for you.
  • Should you experience any problems with the equipment you buy from us, we will make sure that it is repaired or replaced as quickly as possible. Just get in touch with us and one of our wildlife equipment specialists will be able to chat with you about any issues you are experiencing.
Huge product range:
  • We stock a huge selection of environmental survey tools and conservation products, including items for protected species survey and environmental monitoring. We also stock the UK’s largest selection of nest boxes and habitat products from suppliers big and small.
  • By sourcing all of your survey and conservation kit from one place, you can shop with ease and ensure that everything you need is delivered quickly and reliably.
  • Can’t find what you’re looking for? If there is a piece of kit that you need but you can’t find it on our website, get in touch and we’ll do our best to get hold of it for you.
Conservation Pro reward scheme
  • We do our best to make sure our prices are competitive and our customer service is second to none. With our Conservation Pro Reward Scheme we go even further by offering our frequent customers access to automatic discounts when ordering online, over the phone or via purchase order.
  • Receive discounts of up to 10% on a huge range of equipment and 5% on all books. You can even view your discounted prices when logged into your online account.
  • There are two levels – Conservation Pro 1 and Conservation Pro 2. To be eligible for Conservation Pro 1 you will need to have spent at least £8000 ex VAT within the last year and to be eligible for Conservation Pro 2 you will need to have spent at least £4000 ex VAT within the last year.
Bespoke manufacturing
  • If you can’t find what you are looking for, we are happy to help with designing and building the survey equipment you need.
  • Our team of engineers and seamstresses are experienced in metalwork, woodwork and textile construction and can chat with you about your specific requirements.
  • Simply fill out the form on our bespoke manufacturing page, including details of your project and the type of equipment you require, and one of our engineers will get back to you as soon as possible.
Bespoke Ichthyoplankton Net
BTHK Tree Roost Net

 

 

 

 

 

Support for European customers
  • To ensure continuity of service following Brexit, we have registered a company in Bonn, Germany – NHBS GmbH. The new business is fully registered for tax and VAT in Germany.
  • Order through nhbs.com in Euros as well as UK pounds. Transactions in Euros will be processed through NHBS GmbH, but all the ordering processes remain the same! You can continue to order by phone, email, website or even fax in either currency.
  • Switch between Euros and UK Pounds at nhbs.com using the currency switcher in the top right hand corner of the site.
  • You can also browse certain parts of our website in German language, and speak to our dedicated German speaking bilingual customer service advisor by calling +49 (0)228 5048 8063 or emailing info@nhbs.com.

Why not order your free copies of our 2021 Bat Survey, Entomology, Aquatic Ecology and Field Survey catalogues. Simply click on the link below and select the ones you require.