Vultures are a crucial part of many of the world’s ecosystems, and without these specialist environmental cleansers many ecosystems wouldn’t function. In A Vulture Landscapewe share a calendar year in the lives of these gargantuan raptors as they live, breed, feed and fly with effortless ease across the skies of the vulture landscape that is Extremadura in central Spain.
Author, Ian Parsons visited us at NHBS to answer some questions about these often maligned birds and also signed a limited amount of copies of his new book.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I was born and grew up in Devon in south west England, as I grew up I became more and more interested in the natural world, I can remember becoming fascinated by slow worms when I was around seven years old, although I also remember my mum’s slightly horrified reaction when I happily brought one into the house to show her. I wanted to be a Ranger from an early age and after a countryside management course at college I became one for twenty years. When the time was right for a change, myself and my wife moved to Extremadura in Spain where we set up Griffon Holidays, running specialist bird tours in this amazing region that I had first discovered almost twenty years before.
Why did you chose to write about vultures?
Because they are brilliant! I am a massive natural history fan and geek and I’m passionate about all types of wildlife, I would say that trees and birds are my two main interests and when it comes to birds there is nothing like a vulture. Watching birds with a nigh on three metre wingspan gliding right past you is an amazing experience, they are masters of the air and take flight efficiency to the extreme, they can read the air and its movements and to watch them is mesmerising. In the book I mention several times how my favourite past time is Vulture Gazing, just sitting back and watching them drift across the blue sky above you, it is a great way to declutter your mind, everyone should vulture gaze!
What’s special about Extremadura and its fauna and flora?
Extremadura is a region in western Spain, it is roughly twice the size of Wales, but with only one third of the human population, it is relatively empty of people and full of amazing wildlife. It has long been known as a bit of a destination for birders and rightly so. There are Great and Little Bustards, two species of Sandgrouse, colourful stars such as the Blue Rock Thrush, Roller and Bee-eater, NHBS’s very own Hoopoe is abundant and then there are the birds of prey, five species of eagle, three species of kite, falcons, harriers etc. And of course there are the vultures, the Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture and Egyptian Vulture, the skies always have something interesting in them.
Spending time on the flower rich plains in the spring listening to the wall to wall surround sound song track of abundant larks whilst raptors drift by overhead is one of life’s pleasures.
What were the major challenges you faced while writing your book?
I think the biggest difficulty is knowing when to stop! When you are passionate about something it is very easy to get carried away.
What impact has Covid had and will continue to have on eco-tourism?
It has had a massive impact. I had to cancel the tours for 2020 which were fully booked, personally it is heart breaking to have to tell people that their trip which they had been really looking forward to is off. But everybody knew why the decision had to be made. I always put the clients up in a lovely Spanish town in a local family run hotel, they are lovely people and they are having to endure a really bad situation. As to the future? Who knows, the situation is so unclear at the moment, it is impossible to make any real plans.
Is it fair to say that vultures have a bit of an unfair reputation?
Vultures are associated with death, it’s what they do, they are scavengers and they eat dead things. We humans don’t like the subject of death, we actively avoid it and therefore anything that is associated with it tends to be seen in a negative light. But vultures need to be seen in a positive light, many of the world’s vulture species are critically endangered, the last category before extinction, they are in that position because of us. Vultures do an incredible job, they are nature’s environmental cleansers and they help keep ecosystems healthy and functioning, they can deal with diseases like bovine TB, rabies and even anthrax, they remove these diseases before they can become a threat to us, they help keep people safe. We should celebrate them and most certainly enjoy them, I hope my book will go some way to helping improve the image of these brilliant birds.
Recently a Bearded Vulture has had an extended stay in Britain, is this normal?
It’s not normal, it is only the second time that one of these majestic birds has been recorded in Britain (in 2016 one briefly visited Devon and South Wales). Vultures are not native to Britain, the climate for one thing is not conducive to them and it is noticeable that after an extended stay in the Peak District the bird has started moving south and east again now that the seasons are changing. Their appearance is the result of some fantastic conservation work carried out in the Alps where the bird has been successfully reintroduced after being persecuted to extinction over one hundred years ago. The new population is absolutely booming, and wild born young are being born in good numbers each year, in 2019 39 young successfully fledged. Vultures like the Bearded don’t breed until they are around five years old and after they become independent the young birds like to wander. For a vulture, distance is rather irrelevant, they often fly several hundred kilometres in a day’s foraging, and it is one of these young birds that has turned up in Britain this year, but the bird is just an avian sightseer and hopefully it will return safely to its natural range before very long. Whilst it will remain unusual for these birds to turn up in Britain on their travels, the continued success of the conservation work in the Alps means that there will be a chance that other wandering young will follow in the future.
After a well-earned rest, are there any plans or works-in-progress that you can tell us about?
I am currently involved in a great new project that aims to rewild your inbox! Purple Crow sends out a mixture of great photography and great writing to your inbox throughout the week, the idea is to inspire people with stunning images and inspiring words, see purplecrow.co.uk for more details. Book wise I am working on a book looking at the wildlife of Britain through the seasons.
A Vulture Landscape: Twelve Months in Extremadura
By: Ian Parsons
Paperback | October 2020| £15.99£17.99
Readers can enter the world of the vulture, get to know these amazing birds and learn how they control diseases that threaten us, why some species have bald necks, as well as how they have mastered the art of flying without expending any energy.
Signed copies are limited and subject to availability.
All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.
Wiley Blackwell is the international scientific publishing business of John Wiley & Sons. They aim to partner the research community and authors to enable access to the scientific and scholarly insights that are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. Wiley Blackwell are our Publisher of the Month for October.
Wiley Blackwell publish internationally across a diverse range of academic and professional fields, including biology, medicine, environmental & social studies, evolutionary biology, ecology and the natural science.
Throughout October we will have special offers on many Wiley Blackwell titles, giving you an opportunity to explore their varied and authoritative range of titles and we have selected some highlights below:
Population Ecology in Practice
Edited by: Dennis L Murray, Brett K Sandercock
Paperback| Feb 2020| £37.99£44.99
This textbook covers all the analytical methods commonly used by population ecologists. The use of empirical examples and real datasets makes this particular relevant to students and practising ecologists.
Practical Field Ecology: A Project Guide
By: Charles Philip Wheater, Penny A Cook, James R Bell
Paperback | Second Edition | July 2020| £37.99£44.99
A hands-on guide full of practical advice, a must-read for anyone embarking on a career as a field ecologist.
Avian Evolution: The Fossil Record of Birds and its Paleobiological Significance
By: Gerald Mayr
Hardback | November 2016| £57.50£67.50
Gives an overview of the avian fossil record and its paleobiological significance. Covers both Mesozoic and more modern-type Cenozoic birds in some detail.
Cowen’s History of Life
Edited by: Michael J Benton
Paperback | Sixth Edition | Oct 2019| £47.99£54.99
For anyone with an interest in the history of life on our planet, the new edition of this classic text describes the biological evolution of Earth’s organisms and reconstructs their adaptations and their ecology.
Freshwater Algae: Identification, Enumeration and Use as Bioindicators
By: Edward G Bellinger, David C Sigee
Hardback | Second Edition | Feb 2016| £62.75£72.75
A comprehensive guide to temperate freshwater algae, with additional information on key species in relation to environmental characteristics and implications for aquatic management.
The Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects
By: Peter C Barnard
Hardback | Oct 2011| £47.50£51.50
A key reference work for entomologists, and for all professionals who need a comprehensive source of information about the insect groups of the British Isles.
The Braconid and Ichneumonid Parasitoid Wasps: Biology, Systematics, Evolution and Ecology
By: Donald LJ Quicke
Hardback | Jan 2015 | £119.50£142.50
The Ichneumonoidea is a vast and important superfamily of parasitic wasps, with some 60, 000 described species.
Handbook of Road Ecology
Edited by: Rodney van der Ree, Daniel J Smith, Clara Grilo.
Hardback | June 2015 | £82.75£98.75
Offers a comprehensive summary of approximately 30 years of global efforts to quantify the impacts of roads and traffic and implement effective mitigation.
Paleoclimatology: From Snowball Earth to the Anthropocene By: Colin Peter Summerhayes
Paperback | August 2020 | £54.99£64.99
An invaluable course reference for undergraduate and postgraduate students in geology, climatology, oceanography and the history of science
Ecological Methods By: Peter A Henderson, Thomas RE Southwood
Paperback | Forth Edition | Mar 2016 | £47.50£54.50 The first edition of Ecological Methods was published in 1966 and became an instant classic text. While still relevant to experienced researchers, the 4th edition has text which is accessible and useful to students.
Once a familiar sight motionless above road verges, the population of kestrels has sharply declined, a decline which continues as the intensification of agriculture and the populations of other raptors increases.
Richard Sales comprehensive new study investigates the decline, after first exploring all aspects of the kestrels’ life, from plumage and diet through breeding to survival.
The book includes data from Richard’s recently completed four-year study in which video cameras were installed to watch breeding behaviour in a barn in southern England.
Richard visited us to sign copies of his new book and answer our questions about how his expertise in physics and engineering have been used to find out more about this illustrious falcon.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I am from Somerset and have maintained my West Country accent all my life, though I haven’t lived there for many years. I did physics as an undergraduate, then did an MSc in theoretical physics (studying energy loss from general relativistic stars), then a PhD in astrophysics flying a large (50kg) gamma-ray telescope suspended under a 3 million cubic foot balloon filled with hydrogen. The telescope flew at 105,000ft and discovered the first-ever gammar-ray pulsar. I then worked as a glaciologist in Switzerland for a while, and then took a job in the UK power industry.
When did you develop an interest in birds?
My father was bird lover and tailored our family holidays around the breeding season, so we went to Exmoor to watch buzzards and so on, rarely going anywhere near a beach and more often than not learning how to survive in poor weather. Both my brother and myself believe we owe our interest in birds to those trips. My father taught us how to watch birds, not just to learn their names so we could impress other people, but to really watch them. That has stayed with me ever since. I was more academic than my brother (who is a chemist – not a pharmacist, a chemist) and Dad wanted me to study zoology, but I chose physics. I also chose climbing as a primary hobby when I was teenager, first rock faces, then mountains, which is why I finished up in Switzerland when I was offered a post that allowed me to live at the Jungfraujoch and climb every weekend.
We lost our grant money in Switzerland, so I had to find another job. But as the years went by birds became more and more important to me. The dual love of birds, and snow and ice drew me to the Arctic and eventually I took very early retirement – I was only in my 40s – so I could spend more time travelling in the Arctic, supporting myself by starting a physics consultancy and writing books. One of the first Arctic-based books was a Poyser on Gyrfalcons which I co-authored with a Russian friend, Eugene Potapov. For that book I was watching gyrs in the Canadian Arctic. There was breeding pair and I watched the male hunting Arctic Ground Squirrels. He was coming from very high and a long way off and I noticed that he was not travelling in a straight line and couldn’t understand why not since the shortest route is the quickest. That lead me to investigate the eyes of falcons and also to build my own Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) so I could track hunting falconry birds.
Has data from the Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) you have developed been used in your books?
I flew my first generation IMUs on all four UK breeding falcons – each time on falconry birds. The unit I flew used the satellites to give me track position and had a barometer for height data (as height from satellites is only accurate if there are a lot of satellites in view, which is sometimes not the case on Scottish moors where I was flying on peregrines). The IMU also had a tri-axial accelerometer, gyro and magnetometer. All the data was stored on a flash drive on the bird so I crossed my fingers each time I flew one that the bird would come back.
In 2018 I co-authored a monograph on Steller’s Sea Eagles, the world’s largest eagle, with two Russian colleagues, and was lucky enough to find a captive Steller’s in this country which I could fly the unit on. That was a seriously interesting time. Steller’s are huge. I remember seeing them for the first time in the wild – in Kamchatka – which was awesome, but the size only became apparent when I saw them above sea ice over the Sea of Okhotsk when they flew with White-tailed Eagles. The White-tailed Eagles are the biggest raptors we see over here, but they were dwarfed by the Steller’s.
I also flew the unit on Merlins for the book published earlier this year. By then I was flying second generation units. These are much smaller, weighing only 3g, and much faster, tracking at 13Hz and collecting tri-axial data at up 1.6kHz. How much I can reduce the weight is important because every additional gram affects the bird in some way, and so particularly for Merlins getting the weight down is vital. Speed of data acquisition is also important because Hobbies, for instance, are incredibly agile and so the unit has to be fast to follow every twist and turn. Flying on a hunting Merlin was a strange experience. On the first flight we put the IMU on, released the bird and it flew 60m and attacked a Blackbird in a hedge. After a short fight the Blackbird escaped. For the rest of that day and several other days, the Merlin didn’t catch anything.
Why did you choose Kestrels as the subject for your latest book?
The UK is very lucky in the four falcons we have as breeding species. Peregrines are renowned for their high-speed stoops, Merlins for their fast chases and ringing flights, Hobbies for their agile flights after dragonflies and Kestrels for their ‘hovering’ search for mammals. A different hunting technique for each. I was particularly interested in Kestrels as in hovering – the official term for the technique is now ‘flight-hunting’ – the head must be held stationary for successful hunting so the body has to absorb the phenomenal forces caused by gravity, beating wings and the drag of gusting wind. I was anxious to investigate how they did it.
Did you encounter any challenges collecting data for your new book: Kestrel?
It required a lot of very sensitive equipment and some skilled operators. We borrowed two hi-speed cameras insured for £250,000 and set them up head-on and side-on to a flight-hunting falconry male Kestrel which carried the IMU. The cameras were running at 800fps and were filming 4k images, vast amounts of data were being collected and stored. The unit on the bird was collecting tri-axial data at 800Hz. It was also collecting satellite timing data, so to align wing, eye and head position we had to have a special time code generator which took a signal from the same satellites and stamped each frame of the film with a time measured in microseconds. The results are impressive in terms of how stable the head and eye position are. We are now preparing a paper for the scientific literature of body orientation relative to head position. It would have been good to have had that in the book as well, but the maths is so complex it is hard to make it easily accessible.
Your book features a four-year study to observe breeding behaviour; can you tell us anything about the methods and findings?
For four successive years we set up an array of video cameras filming breeding Kestrels in a barn in Hampshire. We had one camera filming the comings and goings of the adults and, later the fledglings, and two cameras in the nest box watching egg laying, incubation, hatching and chick growth. We filmed 24 hours every day, turning on IR lights to film at night. We measured egg laying intervals to the nearest minute, found accurate hatch times and watched every prey delivery. We also set up live traps where we knew the male hunted so we could weigh the local voles and mice and estimate how many kgs of rodent it takes to make 1kg of Kestrel. The filming was interesting – over the years the adults brought in slow worms, lizards, frogs and moths, as well as voles, mice and shrews. One male also brought in a weasel. This has long been suspected, but never-before filmed.
Can you tell us about any projects you are currently working on?
Because of COVID there is less money about, and writing books also takes lots of time and hard work. I have already decided I will not do a Peregrine book as there are already enough on the market (though none of them cover flight dynamics the way I would). I had planned to do a Hobby book because their flight is so fascinating, but if 2021 is another COVID year l might not be able to.
The Common Kestrel
By: Richard Sale
Hardback | September 2020| £49.99
Investigates all aspects of the Kestrels’ life, from plumage and diet through breeding to survival: also includes a four-year study in which video cameras capture breeding behaviour. Further studies also investigated the flight using the modern technology of inertial measurement units allied to excellent photography.
Derek Gow has written an inspirational and often riotously funny firsthand account of how the movement to rewild the British landscape with beavers has arguably become the single most dramatic and subversive nature conservation act of the modern era.
Derek has taken time to answer a few questions about his new book and the role beavers can have in restoring nature.
Could you tell us a little about your background and where the motivation for this book comes from?
I was born in Dundee in a council house. My grandfather’s generation had been farmers but my parents were not. I have always had a huge interest in nature which developed as I grew older. In time I began a career in farming and while aspects of this life were appealing, I became less enamoured with the impact of farming on the natural world and the savage repercussions of its consequence. I read all Gerald Durrell’s books when small, attended his field course on Jersey in 2000 and from that point on, initially as a manger for several wildlife centres focused on native wildlife and then ultimately, on my own farm, began to pioneer opportunities for wildlife restoration.
You have a clear affection for beavers; will a more emotive dialogue help spread the idea of restoring nature to a broader base, or do you think the science will win hearts and minds?
I think it’s a combination of both. You need science to back a case for their sentient restoration on the back of all the credible good they do, but you also need people to feel emotionally linked. They are the most wonderful of creature’s – creators of landscapes which are brim-full of life. They are caring for their offspring and while savagely territorial with other beavers, are commonly as individuals, largely benign. We did appalling things to them in the past and in effort to forge a better future I see no harm in explaining to people just how critical it is that we consider other species as individuals of worth and importance with characters as well.
There are so many organisations involved; some still going, some now inoperative: DEFRA, IUCN, SNH, EN, NCC, CLA etc. How do you manage to reach a consensus across all those organisations, and do you think the voice for restoring nature needs streamlining?
Yes it needs streamlining, but we need to be much bolder and much less deferential. In the commercial world if individuals or organisations perform poorly then they are dismissed or they disappear as entities. In nature conservation we are way too good at ignoring duffers and making excuses for their mistakes. This situation however uncomfortable is simply no good and at a time of ecological crisis potentially fatal. We must be bullish in our approach to progress while still retaining what reasonable allies there are. The pace of restoration should be swift rather than slow. There is no reason whatsoever for delay.
The activities of beavers such as: felling trees and potentially flooding arable land sound quite alarming to a lot of people. How are those issues addressed when proposing to reintroduce beavers?
Simple. We published a management handbook in 2016 which you chaps help sell and promote. Beavers are a very well understood species in both continental Europe and North America all we need to do is co-opt the sensible programmes of management and understanding which have been applied there to here, stop gibbering and making up excuses and move on. There is nothing they do which we can’t counteract if we wish to do so. A wider programme of education to promote better understanding is an essential first step.
Beavers seem to be a benchmark to define our future relationship with wild creatures. Does your campaign stop at beavers, or would you like to see other ‘lost’ species reintroduced to Britain?
I think that lynx should be restored with reasonable haste if living space which is suitably large with an adequate abundance of prey sufficient to maintain a viable population exists. I think wildcats must be restored in England and in Wales. Other candidates would be species like the great bustard, wild boar, golden, white tailed eagles and common crane; in a wider range, the burbot, black stork/more whites, vultures and many other amphibians, reptiles and insects. I think a dialogue should begin about learning to relive with the wolf now. If we want to have future forests which the deer can’t destroy we will need this predator very much.
Does Brexit and the eventual demise of the Common Agricultural Policy offer any hope for a more nature sensitive approach to farming in the UK?
Yes it does. We can do it our way now but we must recognise that very much good has come from the EU habitats directive and that our way should seek to exceed and surmount this legislation and not just become a tawdry box ticking exercise in excuse manufacturing and prevarication.
With beavers now established in Devon on the River Otter, how do you see that project developing in the next five years?
The beaver population there will expand for sure to number many 100’s over time. Many other rivers should become the focus of further reintroductions as a result of the excellent field work and research carried out on the Otter by a broad range of partnership bodies. The project and its results demonstrate quite graphically that beavers are entirely tolerable in a modern cultural English landscape with a degree of low level intervention and that their engineering activities enable an abundance of other wildlife to flourish.
Have you any projects you are currently involved in, or planning that you can tell us about?
Together with a range of other organisations I am working to form a wood cat project which will culminate in the reintroduction of the wildcat in Devon. The old English name was the wood cat and those of us involved think therefore that this is a more appropriate escutcheon. Next year I will be releasing white storks on my farm and rewilding over 150 acres of land which I own. In March 2021 I will complete work on a new book for Chelsea Green titled The Hunt for the Iron Wolf which will detail the history of this species in the UK.
Bringing Back the Beaver: The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways
By: Derek Gow
Hardback | September 2020| £19.99
Derek Gow’s inspirational first-hand account of beaver reintroduction across England and Scotland.
Derek Gow is a farmer and nature conservationist. Born in Dundee in 1965, he left school when he was 17 and worked in agriculture for five years. Inspired by the writing of Gerald Durrell, all of whose books he has read – thoroughly – he jumped at the chance to manage a European wildlife park in central Scotland in the late 1990s before moving on to develop two nature centres in England. He now lives with his children, Maysie and Kyle, on a 300-acre farm on the Devon/Cornwall border which he is in the process of rewilding. Derek has played a significant role in the reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver, the water vole and the white stork in England. He is currently working on a reintroduction project for the wildcat.
Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and a writer with a background in plant sciences, microbiology and ecology. He received a Ph.D. in tropical ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama.
Merlin’s just published book, Entangled Life explores the incredible world of fungi and how it has shaped and continues to influence the world we live in
Merlin kindly agreed to answer our questions about his book and these incredible organisms.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
As an undergraduate I studied plant and microbial sciences. I then moved over into the humanities for my masters degree in the history and philosophy of science, where I focused on the history of Amazonian ethnobotany – the study of the relationships between humans and plants. I then shifted back into the sciences for my PhD, conducting research into the ecology of mycorrhizal fungi in tropical forests in Panama. There’s a strange disciplinary barrier between the sciences and the humanities which I’ve long found frustrating – and artificial – and for much of my education I’ve tried to find the places where it is less well-maintained and has become more porous.
Where did the motivation for this book come from?
Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants and can link plants together in shared networks sometimes known as the ‘wood wide web’. These fungi allowed the ancestors of plants to move out of freshwater and onto land, some 500 million years ago, and without them the planet would be unrecognisable. At school I had been taught to think of plants as autonomous individuals, but they turned out to be the product of a complex tangle of relationships: mycorrhizal fungi are a more ancient part of planthood than wood, leaves, flowers, or even roots. What we call plants are really algae that have evolved to farm fungi, and fungi that have evolved to farm algae – and this ancient relationship lies at the base of the food chains that sustain nearly all life on land. The more I studied these organisms and their intimate relationships, the more I realised that thinking about fungi makes the world look different. Entangled Life arose from this enquiry, and my sense of vertigo at the realisation that we’re only just beginning to understand this mind-bending kingdom of life.
Fungi appear to make decisions but has no ‘mind’ in the way we would understand. How can you best explain how ‘mycelial minds’ make sense of their environment?
Mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi: for the most part fungi live their lives as branching, fusing networks of tubular cells known as mycelium. Mycelial co-ordination is difficult to understand because there is no centre of control. If we cut off our head or stop our heart, we’re finished. A mycelial network has no head and no brain. Fungi, like plants, are decentralised organisms. Control is dispersed: mycelial co-ordination takes place both everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. These networks can sprawl over tens or even hundreds of metres and are subject to an unceasing flood of sensory information. And somehow, without a brain, fungi are able to integrate these many data streams, make decisions, and determine suitable courses of action. How they coordinate themselves remains a puzzle. There are a few options. Some researchers suggest that mycelial networks might transmit developmental cues using changes in pressure or flow – because mycelium is a continuous hydraulic network like a car’s braking system, a sudden change in pressure in one part could, in principle, be felt rapidly everywhere else. Some have observed that metabolic activity – such as the accumulation and release of compounds within hyphal compartments – can take place in regular pulses that could help to synchronise behaviour across a network. Others have found that the mycelium of some fungal species is electrically excitable and conducts spikes of electrical activity along hyphae, analogous to the electrical impulses in animal nerve cells, which could allow different parts of a network to stay in touch with themselves.
A common or shared mycorrhizal network seems to be a model for all ecology, yet outside of a few specialists is relatively under-researched and tends to be plant-centrist; why do you think is that is the case?
If you show someone a picture of a forest containing a jaguar and ask people to describe the image, most would describe the jaguar and say nothing about the bustle of plant life that makes up most of the scene. Our tendency to overlook plants in favour of animals has been termed ‘plant-blindness’. I think a similar phenomenon – fungus-blindness – sometimes plays out when we think about shared mycorrhizal networks. Plants are larger and easier for us to see and so our attention is naturally drawn to them. Plants are also more familiar units of life, which makes it easier for us to tell stories featuring them. Fungal networks are intuitively and conceptually slippery, and more difficult for us to make sense of.
Mycroremediation; the use of fungi to restore the biological health of soil has long been understood, but rarely used in large-scale applications. Do you think that will change in the future?
I hope so! Fungi are metabolic wizards with astonishing talents for breaking down stubborn substances, from lignin, wood’s toughest component, to rock, crude oil, polyurethane plastics and the explosive TNT. Despite its promise, however, mycoremediation is no simple fix. Just because a given fungal strain behaves in a certain way in a dish doesn’t mean it will do the same thing when introduced to the rumpus of a contaminated ecosystem. Fungi have needs – such as oxygen or additional food sources – that must be taken into account. Moreover, decomposition takes place in stages, achieved by a succession of fungi and bacteria, each able to pick up where the previous ones left off. It is naive to imagine that a lab-trained fungal strain will be able to hustle effectively in a new environment and remediate a site by itself. Some of the most promising applications of mycoremediation under development involve redirecting our waste streams so that material can be processed in fungal facilities before it hits the landfill. These approaches strike me as the most promising because they involve a larger scale re-evaluation of our dysfunctional philosophy of waste. By building systems in which fungi intercept pollutants before they spill into the environment we can start to deal with the causes of pollution rather than just the symptoms.
Some radical mycologists declare that ‘fungi can save the world!’ How credible do you think some of their claims are?
Fungi have been shaping the planet and its biospheres for over a billion years and will no doubt continue to do so. And there are certainly many ways that we might partner with fungi to help us to adapt to life on a damaged planet. As in any field that holds great promise there’s hype and some big claims floating around, some more credible than others. Then again, we don’t know nearly enough about fungi as we should. Their lives are endlessly surprising, and even many of their well-established behaviours and characteristics can seem incredible at first hearing.
Entangled Life has taken years of research and investigation. Allowing for a well-earned rest, have you any future projects you can tell us about?
I have plenty of studies to write up, and a number of research questions I’m exploring. I have yet to emerge from this tangled enquiry and don’t imagine that I will any time soon. Fungi have received a tiny fraction of the attention given to animals or plants and there are wide open questions whichever way one looks.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures
By: Merlin Sheldrake
Hardback | September 2020| £16.99£20.00
An immersive trip into the largely unknown world of fungi, showing just how otherworldly and amazing this neglected group of organisms is.
All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.
Oxford University Press are NHBS’s Publisher of the Month for September.
Founded in the mid-17th Century, Oxford University Press (OUP) have published some of the most influential environmental books. Nearly 400 years later, OUP continue to release important works as the largest university press in the world.
Oxford University Press, highlights and forthcoming in 2020
We have great prices on selected bestselling professional and academic titles from OUP until 31st September and have showcased our top ten below:
Handbook of the Marine Fauna of North-West Europe
Edited by: Peter Joseph Hayward and John S Ryland
Paperback| Feb 2017| £42.99£52.99
Authoritative guide to the accurate identification of the common components of the inshore benthic invertebrates of the British Isles and adjacent European coasts.
By: Graham Scott
Paperback | September 2020| £27.99£34.99
This concise introduction to ornithology returns in a second edition, highlighting new developments in the avian fossil record, urban ecology, and climate change.
The Biology of Soil: A Community and Ecosystem Approach
By: Richard D Bardgett
Paperback | September 2005| £34.99£43.99
Part of the excellent Biology of Habitats Series which provides information on the habitat, its biodiversity and the types of organisms present
The Sensory Ecology of Birds
By: Graham R Martin
Paperback | Feb 2017| £33.99£36.99
Ranges widely across species, environments, and behaviours to present a synthesis that challenges previous assumptions about the information that controls the behaviour of birds.
Biology and Conservation of Musteloids
Edited by: David W Macdonald and Christopher Newman
Paperback | Oct 2017| £37.99£47.49
Suitable for graduate level students as well as professional researchers in musteloid and carnivore ecology and conservation biology.
Wildlife Conservation on Farmland (2-Volume Set)
Edited by: David W Macdonald and Ruth E Feber
Hardback | July 2015| £85.99£107.50
Examines the most important challenges facing farmers, conservationists, and policy makers, using examples of real-life, linked studies from a farmed landscape
The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers?
By: Graeme Barker
Paperback | Jan 2009 | £44.99£54.99
Addresses one of the most debated and least understood revolutions in the history of our species, the change from hunting and gathering to farming.
Bumblebees: Behaviour, Ecology, and Conservation
By: Dave Goulson
Paperback | Sept 2009 | £39.99£50.99
An excellent review of bumble bee biology and behaviour by leading bumblebee biologist, Dave Goulson
Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words By: Jeremy Mynott
Paperback | April 2020 | £13.99£16.99
The many different roles birds played in culture: as indicators of weather; for hunting, eating and medicine; as pets and entertainments; and as omens and intermediaries between the gods and humankind.
Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past By: David Reich
Paperback | Feb 2019 | £8.99£10.99 Ancient DNA is rewriting most of what we thought we knew about human history. David Reich explains what the genetics is telling us about ourselves and our complex and often surprising ancestry.
The Gratis Books Scheme
One of our most rewarding collaborations with OUP has been the Gratis Books Scheme. Since 1999, with support and assistance from the British Ecological Society, this scheme has been sending free copies of books to conservationists in developing countries who would otherwise be unable to obtain them.
Iolo Williams was born and brought up in mid Wales. After gaining an ecology degree he worked for the RSPB for almost 15 years as Species Officer for Wales. In the late 1990s Iolo left the Society to work full-time in the media, presenting in both Welsh and English. He co-presented Springwatch 2020 and is a tireless campaigner for wildlife and conservation.
We caught up with Iolo and asked him a few questions on: lockdown, rewilding, Brexit and the future for nature.
Wales has a variety of landscapes and environments; do you have a favourite habitat?
I was born and brought up in mid-Wales and grew up in a small village called Llanwddyn (Lake Vyrnwy), which was a fantastic area with a mixture of habitats. But, where I am happiest really is up on the high ground: up on the mountains, up on the moorland, enjoying not just the solitude and the scenery, but some of the amazing wildlife, such as: black grouse, merlin and hen harrier. You have also got sundews, butterworts, and bog asphodel; all amazing and well adapted to these harsh conditions. So that’s where I’m happiest really – when I want a day by myself, away from everyone, that’s where I head for.
Do you think ecotourism and nature capital have a role to play in wildlife conservation?
I think ecotourism is absolutely vital for the future survival of our wildlife and our habitats, and ourselves too. It’s only when we educate people, it’s only when people see what’s out there, it’s only then that people grow to appreciate it and will then fight to ensure that it survives for their children and for future generations. So, I do believe it’s a vital part of conservation and education.
But of course ecotourism does involve travel, which is a dilemma. I travel a lot less than I used to and off-set it as much as I can, but I learned a lesson whilst visiting Chitwan National Park in Nepal and lamenting my carbon footprint involved to get there. The head ranger heard me and said, ‘Listen, if you didn’t come here, there wouldn’t be a national park. The government wants the wood, wants to log these trees you see here. It wants to drain this wetland to grow cash crops. But it’s only because of the money you bring in that we are able to protect and enhance this national park: the Indian one-horned rhino, the Asiatic elephant, the tigers and all the other wildlife that’s here.’ So, it is a dilemma, but to stop that overnight would be disastrous for wildlife worldwide.
The pros, do out-weigh the cons – as long as we are sensible about it; we need to stop needless travel, we need to utilise public transport wherever we can, and in a rural area like mid Wales it’s often not even possible – more often than not I have to take the car. A change must come from individuals, but more than anything the change has got to come from government – we need a better public transport system.
Ecotourism can also provide sustainable jobs. I’ve just come back from Mull; the eagles bring in a huge amount of capital every year. Mull would probably grind to a halt without ecotourism. Yes, you have agriculture there and farming, but by far the biggest employer in Mull is green tourism. People come to Mull to see eagles, to see otters, to see minke whales, basking sharks, and all of these charismatic species. Morally, we shouldn’t have to put the economic argument forward, we should be looking after wildlife for its own sake. But when you are dealing with developers and ministers, you have to put the economic argument forward.
Are you a supporter of rewilding and do you think it is a sustainable use of land?
I am in principle, but say ‘rewilding’ to a lot of people and they say, “ah, they’re going to bring back wolves and bears, and I don’t want wolves and bears. My children will be mauled” etc. While that’s not true it’s also not true that’s what rewilding is all about. It’s really about the restoration of habitats, it is about what Isabella Tree and her husband have done at Knepp, which works fantastically well. Places like the Cambrian Mountains have fantastic wildlife like pine martens, goshawks, red squirrels etc, but vast areas of the Cambrian Mountains are a green desert. So, the potential for rewilding; just a few trees, maybe restoring the lost peat bogs etc. is vast and the knock-on effects for capturing carbon and preventing flooding all makes so much sense. But of course, the people in power want to make more money for themselves and their acquaintances and a lot of them don’t want to consider embracing this approach.
Does Brexit and the end of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) present any opportunities?
Firstly, I voted against Brexit, I think it will be an unmitigated disaster. It was the tabloid papers stirring the pot of xenophobia that prevented the real issues being properly discussed. Most of the farmers around me here voted for Brexit because they were fed up with what they saw as European bureaucracy. Of course, now the reality is biting, many farmers I speak to now wish they hadn’t, especially now as their MP has voted to allow cheap, low standard foods from the US into the country. Despite what we sometimes read, the food standards in the UK are very high and to lower those standards is stabbing farmers in the back.
However, in the long-term Brexit can offer an opportunity. If we had a better government in power, I would be optimistic about those opportunities because there is no doubt the CAP has been a most destructive policy from an environmental point of view. It really should have been reformed at least twenty years ago and now is an opportunity to do that, but with the current government’s track record with the environment makes me believe not much will change. We are up against a very powerful agricultural lobby. The big fertiliser companies, the big pesticide companies, the big machinery companies all of these are a massively powerful lobby and this government will listen to their argument not the environmentalist’s.
Has lockdown presented people with an opportunity to connect with nature?
I hear people saying how wildlife benefitted hugely from lockdown, and I think temporarily it did. One simple example is far fewer hedgehogs killed on the roads, of course now lockdown is eased I’m seeing dead hedgehogs on the roads all over again. Also, roadside verges not being mown or mowed late had a knock-on effect that was huge!! Flowers, bees, butterflies all in abundance. Some councils have seen this, taken note, and said – okay fantastic, we are going to reduce mowing from now-on. Others have carried on mowing and mowing, which is an absolutely dreadful policy for wildlife. Lockdown has really tested people, especially from a mental health point of view, but during lockdown the birds, flowers and butterflies have brought so much joy to families. Nature has been there for us through this traumatic time and we must remember that when these restrictions are over.
The one long term benefit I’m hoping lockdown will have is that a seed has been planted in a lot of youngsters and adults where they will think: remember last year when we walked this lane and there was all those flowers and we saw that lovely white and orange butterfly, let’s go and see if it’s all there again. So, hopefully for many people that seed has been planted.
Discover Iolo’s favourite ‘Wild Places’ in these two titles from Seren Books
This comprehensive, clearly illustrated field guide, looks at all 815 bird species of Malaysia and Singapore. The main identifying features of each species are described and key facts cover size, voice, range and status and habitat. Distribution maps provide a view of where the birds can be found. The book also includes information on taxonomy and nomenclature, the breeding cycle, migration, conservation and key bird-watching sites of the region. This guide is essential for any naturalist interested in this region of the world.
Recording and observing such a rich diversity of birds, with over 800 species of birds including endemics in abundance is a huge undertaking. How does such a daunting project come to fruition? We asked contributors: Lim Kim Seng, Yong Ding Li and Lim Kim Chuah to answer some questions about themselves and the creation of A Field Guide to the Birds of Malaysia & Singapore
Can you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds within ornithology and conservation?
Kim Seng– I started birding when I was about ten years old. I grew up in a family farm in Sembawang, in the northern countryside of Singapore. Together with my four other brothers, we explored the streams, hills and swamps and grew to love nature. One day, I saw a large kingfisher with a brown head, bright red beak and blue wings. It was my first Stork-billed Kingfisher and I was hooked. I was able to identify it through a book that I found in our National Library Natural History Section. Five years on, I joined the then Malayan Nature Society (now Nature Society (Singapore)) as a student member and just four years later, I led my first official society birdwatching outing at Rifle Range Road, together with my other birding brother Kim Chuah. With the help of other dedicated members, I learned a lot and was able to play my part in nature conservation, documentation, research and outreach, and have been an active member since then.
Ding Li – I have been birdwatching since my primary school days, after finding what I later discovered, to be Magpie Robins near my home in Kuala Lumpur. Subsequent visits to the mangroves of Kuala Selangor introduced me to the colourful world of birdwatching. Through various research projects, I have professionally studied birds in diverse settings ranging from Malaysian rainforests and the mountain forests of Sulawesi (Indonesia), to Australian woodlands. I now work full-time for BirdLife International, coordinating projects on bird conservation in Southeast Asia.
Kim Chuah – I grew up in a farm in rural Singapore in the ’60s and the surrounding woodlands and marshes were my playground. During my many sojourns into the wilderness, I started to notice some of the birds that lived around me – White-breasted Waterhen, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Common Tailorbird etc. That’s how I became interested in birds and it became my life-long passion. I’ve been volunteering in the Bird Group of the Nature Society (Singapore) since I was an undergrad. I participated in many of the birdwatching activities organized by the Bird Group including regular bird census and bird surveys. The data we collect helps towards a better understanding of birdlife in Singapore and is useful in building our case for better protection of habitats in Singapore.
How long has this project been in the making?
Kim Seng – My friend Dana Gardner, the illustrator of this book, got me interested in doing another book. We had successfully collaborated on a first field guide to the birds of Singapore in 1997 and were keen to work together again. Dana had a friend who was a publisher and we decided to a do a single volume field guide to the birds of the whole of Malaysia, since none existed. This was in 2010. Unfortunately, our publisher pulled out not long after that and we were left stranded. Luckily, through my fellow collaborators – Kim Chuah and Ding Li – we managed to get John Beaufoy interested in our project. A contract was signed in 2016 and as they say, the rest is history!
What was the biggest challenge in creating this field guide?
Kim Seng – Each of us had different ideas on how to do the book and also other personal commitments. We as the writers also had to contend with differences in writing styles. Luckily, we decided to stick with a standard format, came up with a list of who was writing what chapters and what bird families and managed to more or less stick to our deadlines. Another challenge was the impressive work done by our illustrator. He had to do illustrations of all 829 species all by himself. To ensure accuracy, he would send us completed plates for comment, and we duly responded if changes were needed. Not an easy task, as we were based in Singapore and he, in the USA.
What features do you hope will make your field guide stand out from any others?
Kim Seng – This book is compact and contains all the necessary information you need to identify any bird species you see in the listed countries. The text is crisp and the illustrations accurate and there is also a detailed site and habitat guide to get birders to the most interesting places quickly and see those fascinating birds, based on the authors’ many years in the field.
Have the travel restriction due to COVID – 19 presented any threats or opportunities for the avifauna of Malaysia and Singapore?
Kim Seng – Well, COVID-19 has placed tremendous restrictions on travel in both Malaysia and Singapore. You could bird in certain areas but only with social distancing and other safe practices in place. Initially, we could only look at the birds from our balconies or backyards but this was an opportunity for some of us to study some of the neglected urban birds and understand a little better. I actually published two blogs based on my observations of urban birds from my balcony! In the last couple of months, restrictions have been eased and we are allowed to go birding in our favourite birding places, but I’m still waiting for the day when I can travel freely and bird in Malaysia again.
Do you think eco-tourism is beneficial to conservation?
Kim Seng – Definitely. I believe ecotourism brings a lot of attention to the tremendous beauty and biodiversity of the natural habitats in both countries. It also brings revenue and employment opportunities to the local community who in turn will help to protect these wonderful places for a long time to come.
What in your view are the best reasons to visit Malaysia and Singapore if you are a birdwatcher or an ornithologist?
Kim Seng – Three reasons – good birds, good food and good company. All three are never in short supply in these two amazingly friendly countries. The people are generally very friendly and the variety of local food is really incredible. Of course, the fascinating diversity of birds, with over 800 species of birds and Bornean, Peninsular and Sunda endemics in abundance are dreams to savour for birdwatchers and ornithologists alike.
Are you working on any other projects you can tell us about?
Kim Seng – I am currently working at putting up an adult learner’s module or course on “Birdwatching for Beginners”. It’s something I had worked on in the past and I want to continue my work in getting people of all ages interested in birdwatching as I believe it is a healthy and useful pastime. It should be fun as there are outdoor trips as well.
Ding Li – I am currently working with a team of designers to develop a board game on the migratory bird species of Asia. Such a concept to promote bird conservation has not been done in this region, so I am quite excited to see the final project materialise. I am also working with a team of international researchers to review the state of all of Asia’s migratory birds. If all goes well, this will be published in early 2021, and will bring together lots of new insights from all over the region and how migratory birds can be better conserved.
Kim Chuah – I am currently organising the 36th Singapore Bird Race. It will be interesting to see how we can organise the race during this pandemic. We will use the social media and available digital tools to make the race as exciting as in previous years. I am also working on action plans to better protect and conserve the critically endangered Straw-headed Bulbul in Singapore.
A Field Guide to the Birds of Malaysia & Singapore
By: Lim Kim Seng, Yong Ding Li, Lim Kim Chuah, Dana Gardner(Illustrator)
Paperback | August 2020| £19.99£24.99
A fully comprehensive field guide to the 815 bird species of Malaysia and Singapore. Published by: John Beaufoy Publishing
All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.
The orchard has been a traditional component of the British landscape for many centuries. However, subsidies have led to the destruction of older traditional orchards to make way for more intensive farming and now only a fraction remain.
The value of these orchards for wildlife has long been underestimated. Ben Macdonald and Nick Gates spent years visiting a traditional orchard across all seasons observing its imperilled and overlooked abundance of life.
Ben and Nick have taken time to answer our questions about their book and this remarkably fertile habitat. We also have a limited amount of signed bookplates – available while stocks last.
Could you tell us a little about your backgrounds?
Nick Gates (NG): I grew up in West Sussex, and could usually be found building a dam across a stream or out catching grasshoppers and slow worms on the Ashdown Forest somewhere. I ended up reading Natural Sciences at Cambridge and, similar to Ben, have now found myself making wildlife documentaries. But I adore spending time in the field, and am forever looking for new areas to explore, new behaviours to interpret and new species to learn about.
Benedict Macdonald (BM): I grew up north of Bristol, and my fascination with nature began with raising butterflies at school, which then took me onto my great passion for birds. I took a different route to Nick, studying English at Oxford to improve my journalistic skills before moving into the natural history film industry. The love of birds remains – and it was indeed the search for breeding lesser-spotted woodpeckers for the BTO’s Bird Atlas that, one magical morning, led me to the Orchard.
Where did the motivation for this book come from? Are Orchards a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?
NG: The project actually started as a photographic record, nest-box project and field diary. We certainly didn’t envisage when first visiting the orchard that one day we’d be able to convert our passion for it into a book. As the years went by, and we uncovered more of the orchard’s stories each season, we realised we had built up a library of magical stories about this special place – and the book idea was born.
You divided the book into chapters by each month; was this something you planned all along and why did month-by-month fit the narrative of the orchard so well?
BM: As any pair of naturalists will tell you, the skills you have are similar but often complimentary. In January, for example, much of the expertise lies in tracking small mammals around the orchard, and reading prints etched in the snow – one of Nick’s favourite past-times. May is all about birdsong and concealed nests, and spoke deeply to my own love of birds. But make no mistake – every month is special in the orchard. The players are always on the move.
NG: Having spent six years visiting the orchard across all seasons, it was clear that its stories were deeply rooted around the lifecycles of the apple and perry pear trees – which themselves have a very defined year. Once the book idea became a reality, it seemed the most natural way to introduce our audience to the orchard world. As Ben and I both often travel abroad on our respective filming trips, it also worked really well when dividing the chapter structure, as we each had unique experiences from certain months that we wanted to share.
The neighbouring orchard is run intensively and very differently to the orchard you studied; what would you say are the practical advantages of being less intensive?
NG: The major benefit appears to be maintenance. Spraying an orchard many times a season requires expensive inputs in machinery, as well as the manual labour required to continually prune each tree to a very defined shape to make the spraying as efficient as possible. In an unsprayed orchard, many different age classes of trees can thrive alongside each other. If an elderly tree is lost to a storm, it is easy to leave some of the deadwood and replace it nearby with a new young specimen. But the biggest benefit is that with an intact food chain, your costly pesticide inputs are replaced with spotted flycatchers and redstarts, which arrive for free each year and willingly hoover up all manner of insects that enjoy nibbling fruit trees!
BM: The summer migrants are critical to the success of the orchard – but the residents play an invaluable role. Throughout the winter, various species of tits, finches and woodpeckers, especially lesser-spotted, are all rooting out potentially harmful insects from the bark of the orchard’s trees. And as Nick puts it, treecreepers act as tree ‘dentists’, removing lots of tiny insects that could eventually end up reducing the lifespan of the trees.
The orchard you observed rewarded you with plenty of surprising stories and scenarios. Was there one single episode that stood out for you?
BM: For me, it was when we finally solved the mystery of the goshawk’s larder. Our generation has grown up with the idea that goshawks are limited to big woods and often those dark, silent plantations. The idea a goshawk could be hunting our orchard didn’t even occur to us at first, even after we found pheasant after pheasant neatly plucked. It was only when the pair decided to display right overhead one March that, like an Agatha Christie novel, it all came together.
NG: I have been out in the field looking for interesting stories in the natural world for as long as I can remember, so it is always rewarding coming across something unexpected. The best thing about the orchard, is that this just seems to happen so regularly! But if I had to single out one, I’d say my biggest surprise was the day I excitedly returned to photograph the coal tit family nesting in a pear tree, only to find the entrance to their nest firmly blocked with a rather unfortunate wood mouse. Having most likely scoffed the nest contents, it couldn’t fit back through the hole it had entered through. It was one of the most extraordinarily bizarre things I’ve yet chanced upon in the natural world.
Do you think a separation from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can create any opportunities for wildlife and biodiversity?
NG: Yes. The CAP model has ample opportunity for reform, and I hope that this is reflected in whatever system is adopted post Brexit. A model that rewards land owners for improving the biodiversity on their land is long overdue, as is a system that recognises carbon capture. There are certainly massive opportunities for British biodiversity – it is now up to those in positions of decision making to ensure they chose the correct advisers to inform these new policies.
BM: The Common Agricultural Policy has paid for enormous destruction of the countryside, and even models such as orchards that should be profitable to farmers – not just wildlife. In my view, we actually need a specific orchard subsidy. It seems mad that we can continue to pay for sheep grazing to denude hillsides and accelerate the flow of water off the hills, yet we cannot pay our farmers to grow apples. But this subsidy has to happen soon: orchards are vanishing fast.
Installing a wildlife pond is often sited as being the best way to add biodiversity to a garden; for those lucky enough to have the space, would you recommend planting an orchard for a similar reason?
NG: Absolutely. With something like a pond, you tend to see the rewards within just a few months of installing it, as the first newts and dragonflies arrive to breed in the new water source. Whilst fruit trees can take a few years to start blossoming and become increasingly valuable for your local wildlife, they mature incredibly quickly relative to most other tree species. Apples and pears are usually producing blossom and a crop in five to seven years, and by 40 years of age are well on their way to becoming an ‘ancient orchard’. Also, fruit trees, particularly those grafted to dwarf rootstock, don’t actually need a lot of room – and considering it only takes half a dozen trees to be called an orchard – most public green spaces could host a small wildlife orchard that would be of great help to local biodiversity.
After a well-earned rest, are there any plans or works-in-progress that you can tell us about?
NG: Ben and I have a few ideas for co-authored projects in the future but our next respective titles will both be individually written. I am currently working on a book about an urban wildlife garden…watch this space!
BM: As I approach the end of writing my third book, Cornerstones – for Bloomsbury (published January 2022), I have to be honest that a writing break is in order. Both writing and publicity are fantastic to be involved in but they do take a lot of time. Perhaps I can put my feet up and read Nick’s wildlife gardening book!
Ben Macdonald and Nick Gates spent years visiting a traditional orchard across all seasons observing its imperilled and overlooked abundance of life. If we can favour traditional methods and harvesting, the benefit will not only be for wildlife but for people too.
All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.
In 2018 , while still running a taxi business, an opportunity arose to purchase a few acres of local woodland on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. Completed within a matter of weeks, Steve and Tamara Davey became proud custodians of their very own woodland!
When they discovered an impressive range of wildlife on their woodland site, they decided that the management of the area would be based on the continued provision of habitat for certain species, including seven recorded bat species, the visiting Nightjar and Woodcock.
We caught up with Steve to ask him about how they are supporting nature through their project Woodland Wildlife.
Can you tell me a little about your backgrounds.
Both Tamara and myself had childhood holidays in the Scottish Highlands as children, and there is no better place to develop an affinity with nature. It’s a place that holds a permanent residency within our hearts, those childhood memories imprinted on our futures. Mine were on the West Coast of Scotland opposite the Isle Of Skye. We used to stay in these old caravans that leaked and were powered by calor gas. The smell of the matches and gas appliances echoes those memories for me. The area was only a few miles up the coast from where Gavin Maxwell wrote his best-selling book Ring of Bright Water. As a family we spent a lot of time down at Sandaig ( in the book it was Camusfearna), Gavin’s books were really the only ones I read due to my interest in nature and love for Scotland. Above his hearth he had inscribed in Latin the words “non fatuum huc persecutus ignem” meaning, “it is no will o the wisp that I have followed here.” This phrase is very apt and resonates with our Woodland Wildlife project.
Aside from Scotland both Tamara’s and my childhoods involved getting out in nature with family walks, especially on Dartmoor. Also, similar to the book and film Kes, aged twelve I had a female kestrel to look after. My father converted the garden shed, and I remember rushing home from school every day. We looked after a tawny owl for a while too. Myself and our son also volunteered at a local bird of prey centre – these memories, and the knowledge you gain from an early age all lie dormant until the right opportunity presents itself later in life.
What motivated you to embark on the Woodland Wildlife project?
From the Spring of 2018 we made regular trips to the woodland because we couldn’t keep away and used to come up with loads of excuses to the selling agent on why we were visiting so often. We completed the purchase at the end of the summer. During the first twelve months we were staggered by the volume and diversity of the wildlife within our little plot and it was this that spurred us into creating Woodland Wildlife. I couldn’t believe that the domain woodlandwildlife.co.uk was available so I snapped it up. I then asked the web company that had recently rebuilt my taxi website to work on a website for Woodland Wildlife. They came up with the current logo which I really liked however the squirrel was grey and so I asked them to change it to red as that signified hope to me! At that point the future focus was more on the development of guided visits. In August last year we set up the Facebook page and that is seeing a steady increase of followers. We post on there most days and this time of year we may be posting up to eight times in one day, purely because of the observations – we are always finding new species to photograph. Through the winter months the posts are more project focused as that is the time of the year when most of the manual work is done.
What has been the biggest challenge in returning the woodland back to nature?
The nature was already there, nothing has needed returning as far as we are aware. But with small sized plots sensitive management is vital, for instance; if you don’t manage that important grassy ride, over time succession will take hold and that habitat (in our case) would be overrun with bramble and bracken, therefore the grasses would die off and displacement of species will happen. Our grassy rides are alive with insect life and as far as we are concerned these areas are a priority within our plot. When you see how small an area our grassy rides are and you see how many species they are supporting such as: leaf hoppers, beetles, bees, hoverflies, moths, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies you can then understand how vitally important these small areas are. I would say our biggest challenge is still ahead of us. In 2012 the main plot was clear felled and in 2013 the holding company planted over 2000 young sitka spruce trees. These are now over eight years old and growing rapidly in amongst the birch, sweet chestnut, beech and a few other species. Being on an easterly facing slope (after all it is Devon) we are giving careful consideration to future extraction of timber and to what extent the damage would be. We are mindful not to ruin everything that we have done over the years. so the plan will be (in conjunction with the Forestry Commission) to convert over to native woodland. We will still retain some sitka for the goldcrests and siskins, but these will be in the area towards the top of the plot, whereby future extraction damage will be minimal.
Sitka are awful trees to work on as they are very prickly to handle. Even though they are only young it’s incredibly hard work felling them and dragging them around to produce dead hedging. Our adjoining plot is a mature stand of Douglas fir of 3.5 acres and that has recently been thinned. The remaining stems will grow on for a further 5 to 10 years, with the extra light they will grow in girth and not height. We have tagged a random 30 stems and will monitor their growth rate annually. This is one commercial aspect to our project, we plan to nurture a healthy self seeded understory within this stand and re plant where necessary in the future when it’s felled.
Was there a particular plant or animal that you wished to see return to the woodland?
Yes, the nightjar, they are in the area this season which is great, last summer they were on our plot and we regularly saw two of them. Having your own woodland is one thing but having nightjar in your woodland is a priceless dream. We spent many summer evenings there watching them, calling them in with a recording of their call (yes that works). On a couple of occasions early in the nightjar season, June I think, they landed in front of us on a tubex shelter, attracted to anything white due to the males having white markings on their wing and tails. Our sleepy dogs got their attention and flew in to check us out. The video is on the website, it’s not brilliant as it was recorded on my phone, but a wonderful experience nonetheless. We observed them through to the end of July and on each occasion the sightings consisted of a brief checking us out and churring away like they do. A truly amazing bird that due to its nocturnal habits has not been an easy species to study. They like young plantations up to approximately ten years of age as after that the canopy has closed in. They also like birch and sweet chestnut, both of which we have in abundance. We are coppicing the sweet chestnut which will give a more diverse structure to the woodland and also has many benefits to other wildlife as well as giving longevity to the tree itself. The nightjars arrive in May and have normally disappeared by the end of August and sometimes into September. Once the young have fledged they will migrate. Our thinning works of the Douglas fir overran into May and we are certain that that level of disturbance (the sound and vibration of over 200 mature fir being felled) made them look elsewhere for a suitable nest site for this season. High hopes for next year!
In what ways can you draw an income from the project and how do you ensure that those ways are sustainable?
Part of the plot is mature Douglas fir, so over the years there will be an income from the felling of those but there also comes obligation and costs to re-plant. This area is 3.5 acres and we are hoping that at least 20% of that area will self-seed and will therefore not need re-planting. After 14 years of running a taxi company we have decided to pass it on to someone else as we want to concentrate on our woodland which will also involve craft sales. We plan to sell at an occasional local market, selling wooden products such as pendants, necklaces, key rings, hand made cards, Christmas decorations and fairy houses. All of the wood used will be from the bi product of our habitat work and therefore very sustainable. We are not skilled wood turners, I would describe our woody crafts as rustic. We also hope to offer guided visits for small groups of people who either want to immerse themselves into an incredibly diverse 8 acre plot of woodland that doesn’t have any public access( that’s called forest bathing nowadays), or groups and individuals that would like to visit to look at our management practises, it could also be for specialist groups to study bats, birds, butterflies etc. Although the craft sales will be necessary we do hope that the tours can be a success too as we will have great pleasure in sharing this unique place in South Devon.
What would you say has been the project’s biggest success story so far?
This has to be the three small wildlife ponds created in the spring of last year. Our philosophy has always been that our work creates a biodiversity gain. The ponds are a totally new feature to the wood and therefore a totally new habitat with the nearest water course being in the bottom of the valley.
The ponds are host to pond skaters, diving beetles, water boatmen, frogs, toads and a few species of dragonfly. The mosquito larvae they produce is a food source for the seven recorded species of bats that we have there. The frogspawn and toadspawn this year was amazing. This is boosting the sites biodiversity and that feels great. The Devon Wildlife Trust’s, Batworks Grant, helped with the costs of the ponds which was very welcome indeed, because so far we have funded all the costs ourselves. The top pond was also designed with a very shallow gradient at one end so that any feeding nightjar can swoop in and get a drink on the wing.
The other success is our plantings, since Nov 2018 we have planted over 400 additional trees, shrubs and hedging. From scots pine to broad leaved privet, all-in-all over 20 new species have been planted. The hedging area consists of field maple, hazel, dog rose, dog wood, crab apple, blackthorn and hawthorn, and is growing well, albeit slowly. Once mature this will provide an incredible food source and habitat for many species. We also sought advice from a consultant ecologist on behalf of Butterfly Conservation, they recommended planting broad leaved privet, wild privet and alder buckthorn all of which will provide a valuable food source for many species of butterflies, insects and moths. The alder buckthorn being the food plant for the brimstone butterfly caterpillar.
Can you offer any advice to anybody wanting to undertake a similar project?
There is a misconception that when you purchase some woodland in the UK that you are legally bound to manage your plot, but this is not the case. Currently you can do as much or as little as you want, there are legalities regarding volume of timber that you are allowed to cut down, and rightly so. Personally speaking I think there should be some sort of stewardship course involved with any woodland purchase, but generally speaking people who buy woodland do have the environments best interests at heart. Neither myself nor Tamara are formally qualified in land management or woodland management, but what we do have in bucket loads is the passion, and when it is your passion you absorb information like a sponge. If you are interested in purchasing some woodland please make sure you do a lot of reading up first, SWOG ( small woodland owners group) is a great resource. Think about things like how far are you willing to travel to get to your woodland, our journey takes 25 minutes but I know of some owners who live a couple of hours away and then that restricts those little journeys when you just want to go there for an hour or two. Think about public access and rights of way, access, species of trees on site, how neglected the woodland is because that may dictate how much physical work maybe required. I know owners that have a couple of acres of plantation and therefore their management work is negligible. Think about orientation, diversity and age of species and the potential value of the timber there. Getting a flat site is not easy and virtually impossible in Devon, some come with streams etc. You would need to appoint a solicitor as the conveyancing is similar to house buying but much more straight forward.
We would say to anyone interested in purchasing some woodland to definitely do it, it is an amazing thing to do, yes we can buy fancy cars and gadgets and go on expensive holidays but owning your own little piece of nature is a priceless thing to do. It’s more like guardianship than ownership, but you will have a lot of control over the future of that plot.
Love nature, it will never fail you.
Do you have any long-term plans for the future of Woodland Wildlife?
Well where do we start here? If money was no object we would like to deer fence large parts of our woodland to allow natural regeneration to occur unhindered. But money is an object so we will improvise and mitigate the grazing as much as possible. Luckily we are not overrun with roe deer but there are a few around. The damage they do to new growth is staggering.
Over time we would like to see part of our main plot restored back to its natural former state which was wooded heath. Around 1800 the wider woodland was mapped as a Down which would correspond with our small patches of heather and large amounts of gorse and bracken. Dry lowland heathland is a scarce habitat these days and we would like to re-nature that habitat along with keeping the coppiced sweet chestnut, birch and beech. The plan will be for the main plot to remain an open woodland with pockets of heath and grassy rides. We will keep some sitka on the higher parts of the plot.
This winter will involve widening the lower part of the North to South ride which is quite overgrown, creating a ride that will traverse the contours from the West to East ride. This will involve the felling of a lot more young sitka but it will kick start the project of connecting up some of our micro habitats. We are keen to provide a suitable site for the migrating nightjar and the wintering woodcock and this will involve a lot of physical work. Any major works such as this needs careful consideration for the future resilience of the woodland. All of our plantings have been carefully selected with the future in mind for example, the scots pine (although slow growing) is a fantastic tree that supports a large amount of wildlife plus once established will cope well with periods of dry weather. We have also planted some juniper and these trees will also cope admirably in dryer conditions and therefore the challenges of climate change. The naturalised species such as birch, beech, gorse, heather, bramble and bracken will naturally cope with dryer summers.
With regards to Woodland Wildlife as a business, we hope that the occasional small group or individual will continue to visit to experience this magnificent site. We aim to continue with the craft sales into the future. We aim to continue to document our species and our works. The emphasis will be on small groups as we are keen to prevent compaction of soils.
To find out more about Steve and Tamara’s fascinating project you can follow them on facebook and visit their website
Further Reading on managing woodlands for wildlife and people.
Managing Your Woodland for Wildlife
By: David Blakesley, Peter Buckley and Tharada Blakesley
Paperback| May 2016| £12.99
From conserving deadwood to putting up bat boxes: this book will appeal to small woodland owners wishing to improve woodland for wildlife.
Woodland Creation for Wildlife and People in a Changing Climate: Principles and Practice
By: David Blakesley and Peter Buckley
Paperback | July 2010| £5.99£24.95
This book presents a comprehensive and richly-illustrated guide to the principles and practice of woodland creation for wildlife and people.
A Journey in Landscape Restoration: Carrifran Wildwood and Beyond
Edited by: Philip Ashmole and Myrtle Ashmole
Paperback | June 2020| £16.99£18.99
An inspirational account of the rewilding of Carrifran Wildwood, showing what can happen when locals take charge of landscape restoration.
The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood
By: John Lewis-Stempel
Paperback | March 2019| £9.99
A lyrical diary of four years spent managing three and half acres of mixed woodland in south west Herefordshire.
All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.