Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Interview with Lars Svensson and Hadoram Shirihai

Handbook of Western Palearctic BirdsThe much anticipated Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines has been eighteen years in the making and after extensive research, exhaustive travel and years of dedication, it will finally be available at the end of July 2018. We were lucky enough to catch up with the authors Lars Svensson and Hadoram Shirihai to ask them some questions just weeks before the book is due to be published.

In this exclusive interview, Lars and Hadoram share their ambitions, endeavours and aspirations for this landmark publication.

Eighteen years in the making, The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines is one of the few truly remarkable publishing projects in ornithology. How does this work compare to the Birds of the Western Palearctic series published between 1977 and 1994 by Oxford University Press?

Lars: Let us say that in my case only 15 of these 18 years were spent on the new handbook. I was involved in doing the second edition of the Collins Bird Guide and some other minor projects as well within the time span. But even so, 15 years is a long time for one single book project! Still, if you would ask around among authors behind more ambitious handbooks and group monographs I am sure most would agree that it takes longer than many anticipate to create reference books of this kind. For me, the first edition of the ringers’ guide took at least seven years to create and the Bird Guide about twelve (and then I did not have to paint a single plate; Killian and Dan did that work so excellently!).

The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds (HWPB) focuses on identification, vocalisations, ageing and sexing, moult, geographical variation and taxonomy, with brief summaries of summer and winter ranges, whereas BWP covers also social pattern and behaviour, breeding biology, population size and food, all in a very detailed and scholarly fashion with local variations and references. You could say that HWPB is tailor-made for the ordinary birdwatcher and twitcher who wants an up-to-date summary of what is known about identification, ageing, sexing and taxonomy of each species. This does not say that it could not be useful also for museum workers and other professionals!

There are a few other important differences. We, Hadoram Shirihai and I, decided it was time for a handbook entirely illustrated with photographs. Camera standards had developed significantly in the 90s, and through the internet more and more brilliant bird photographs were shared. The potential was clearly there to portray all species within a large region with all plumages and geographical variation covered in photographs. Secondly, we thought it was a good opportunity to give brief summaries of the various subspecies that were deemed distinct enough to be upheld. Many subspecies in the contemporary handbooks and checklists we thought were extremely subtle or even impossible to separate from neighbouring subspecies, and we set off to independently check the validity of all subspecies in museum collections. Applying the so-called ‘75% rule’ (meaning that at least 3/4 of all individuals should be possible to distinguish based on morphology) we ended up discarding c. 15% of all subspecies as synonyms compared to other handbooks and major checklists.

Hadoram: At least as I see it, BWP was made some 20-30 years ago when it was still possible to squeeze information into one project – on distribution, population estimates, atlas, ecology, seasonal biology, behaviour, voice, and so on, as well as identification and variation (but with generally only very basic illustrations, paintings) – and to be satisfied with it!

With so much new information on identification, vocalisations, ageing and sexing, moult, geographical variation and taxonomy (and in parallel the development of revolutionary digital photography), an updated modern handbook of these issues was needed.

In order to illustrate these issues properly and fully, it required a lot of space, for 5-49 images per species (depending on extent of variation). Just for the Passerines it required two volumes, that includes c 5000 images, made by some 800 photographers! Surely it then becomes the most complete photographic handbook for any region.

 What was the biggest challenge in accomplishing this benchmark work?

Lars: To assemble the many photographs (there are well over 4000 photographs together in the two passerine volumes) and to achieve full coverage of male and female, young and adult, sometimes also in both spring and autumn, plus examples of distinct subspecies, was of course a major challenge. Hadoram was in charge of this and did a great job, and we got good support from our publisher setting up a home page for the project where photographers could see what we still needed photographs of. Thanks to the prolonged production, many gaps (if not all!) were filled during our course.

But the biggest challenge was undoubtedly to manage our goal to independently examine all commonly described subspecies. This led us to visit about 15 different museums with for me sometimes biannual sessions both in Tring and New York (the two largest bird skin collections in the world) with visits also to Paris, Stockholm, Leiden, Berlin, Copenhagen, Moscow, Almaty and Bonn, to name some other places. Hadoram made targeted visits also to the museums in Vienna and Tel Aviv to seek answers to specific questions. Apart from the considerable expenses for these travels that we took on, the main difficulty was to find enough specimens of some rarer subspecies. Our aim was to examine at least 12 specimens of each sex of each named subspecies. We managed this for the vast majority, and sometimes examined series of each sex in three figure numbers, but for a very few we could not reach the minimum level. However, we did our best and we state sample sizes for all taxa in the handbook.

Hadoram: Lars described in his answers very well, the combined efforts with the museum collections work and building the photographic collections and selections for the project.

I may add that the biggest challenge and achievement of this handbook is that it provides to field users masses of new and updated information on variation that is now – 1. available, and – 2. more visible due to improved optics and digital photography. But at the same time, in a balanced approach and focus about what also observers can see and use. In other words, HWPB provides the observer with much new information that he can see and analyse while examining a bird in the field, or when processing their images back home.

You have worked in the field for many years, what would you highlight as the most profound change to the practice of identifying and recording birds? What will be the biggest challenge for ornithologists in years to come?

Lars: Digital photography and the existence of internet and websites for documentation and discussion of bird images are the main changes compared to when I started as a birdwatcher. This has speeded up the exchange of news and knowledge in a remarkable way. True, field-guides and birding journals keep offering better and better advice on tricky identification problems, and optical aids have developed to a much higher standard than say 50 years ago. But the new cameras with stabilised lenses and autofocus have meant a lot and have enabled so-called ‘ordinary’ birders to take excellent photographs. This has broadened the cadre of photographers and multiplied the production of top class images of previously rarely photographed species. Which of course made HWPB possible. The handbook is a wonderful testimony to the high standard of bird photography today, also beyond the ranks of so-called professional photographers.

The biggest challenge in years to come will be to identify the new species, which are nowadays nearly always the result of taxonomic decisions and splits of an existing species containing rather distinct geographical variation. Thus previous subspecies are elevated to full species, and by the very nature of it they are often look-alikes.

Linked to this is the problem of different species concepts when various authorities or published checklists are consulted. Although one universally adopted taxonomic list could seem desirable for facilitated communication and for consistent conservation efforts between countries, differences of opinion have always had the positive effect of generating more research and interest. So taxonomic agreement is recommendable up to a point.

What’s next for you? 

Lars: I have planned for many years now to revise my ringers’ guide and produce a fifth edition of it. It is now taxonomically obsolete, but works quite well as to ageing and sexing if you asked me. Amazingly, this book has been alone on the market for over 40 years, and only got its first challenger the other year. After all, the first edition was published in 1970. Now a lot of the offered advice could be improved or refined, and I have started to spend time at the Ottenby Bird Observatory to sharpen up my eyes and knowledge again.

And of course there are the non-passerines for HWPB to do as well. I will not be a true retired man for many years to come yet! I am guaranteed an interesting and varied old age!

I also confess to holding a lifelong interest in bird vocalisation, and I do spend time with my Telinga parabolic microphone and recorder trying to obtain missing sounds, or to improve what I already have. A very relaxing way of birding for me, although I cannot help noticing how disturbance from anthropogenic noise is making good recordings harder and harder to achieve.

Then birds are not everything in my life (but much!). I am a keen Bordeaux wine admirer, and I still play some golf. In other words I am not idle. There is not a day in my life that is not full of activities.

Hadoram: Before I get too old…I am now focusing on completing two main projects for the same publisher:

The HWPB Non-Passerines: it will also come in two volumes, but this time around we are inviting a group of expert authors, with the idea to publish one volume every 3 or 4 years.

The Tubenoses Monograph: already more than 20 years in the making. By now I have seen at sea (and often also on land with live birds) all the taxa, including all species and subspecies of albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters and storm petrels of the world (and examined most of the largest collections too). So I am now writing it with my co-author Vincent Bretagnolle and Tim Worfolk (artist) who has already illustrated many of the plates.

Written by two of the world’s most respected ornithologists, this landmark handbook has been highly anticipated for many years and, as of publication, will be the most complete and comprehensive photographic guide to the passerines of the Western Palearctic.

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines (2 Volume Set)

Hardback | #152433
ISBN-13: 9780713645712
Available for pre-order
Due July 2018 
Pre-pub offer £130.00 £150.00

Start to Identify Grasses: An Interview With Faith Anstey

Faith Anstey is the author of the Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families and Flowers in the Field: How to Find, Identify and Enjoy Wild Flowers.  In her latest book, Start to Identify Grasses, Faith turns her attention to grasses.

Faith Anstey
Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families
Start to Identify Grasses

 

 

Faith has coined the word ‘kleidophobia’ to mean ‘a fear of keys’, and it surely applies to many enthusiasts who would like to become more proficient at identifying plants, but are put off by the complexity of the customary botanical system of keys. So she has developed new ways of approaching ID that keep those daunting keys to a minimum.

To mark her new book and to encourage more people to discover the botanical wonders around them, we asked Faith a few questions about her writing and her life-long passion for botany.

What makes your books different from the usual field guides?

My books are not field guides at all. A field guide gives you a list of plant names, with pictures and descriptions, sometimes with a brief introduction. My books are all introduction: to field botany in general, to plant families and to grasses (maybe sedges and rushes next year . . .). A beginner armed only with a field guide has either to work their way from scratch through complicated keys, or to play snap: plant in one hand, book in the other; turn the pages until you find a picture that matches – ‘snap!’ By contrast, my books lead you into plant identification by logical routes, showing you where to look and what to look for. Their aim is to show you how to do ID for yourself.

What field guides would you recommend to use with your own guides?

Collins Wild Flower Guide

My personal favourite for beginners and improvers is the Collins Wildflower Guide (2016). This covers the whole range of wild plants including grasses, sedges and so on. It has keys that are well-organised and relatively easy to follow, and the ‘pics and scrips’ are accurate and helpful. Of course, Stace (3rd edition) is the botanists’ bible but it is rather daunting for beginners. I am also a great fan of Marjorie Blamey’s paintings in, for example, Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland. For more detailed help with grasses & co, Francis Rose’s Colour Identification Guide has excellent keys and illustrations, suitable for most levels of experience.

What would be your best advice to anybody wishing to take their first steps towards identifying plants?

If you possibly can, go on a workshop for a day, a weekend or even a whole week. Having a real live person giving enthusiastic teaching, someone to answer all your questions and fresh plants to study is the best thing you can do. Look for a local botany or natural history group you can join, and go on their field meetings. When you get even a little more serious about your study, join Plantlife and/or the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. Identiplant is a very good online course but it is not really suitable for absolute beginners. Be a bit careful with apps and websites: some are incredibly complex, some seem to be aimed at five-year-olds, others are just inaccurate and misleading. The best ID websites I am aware of are run by the BSBI, the Natural History Museum and The Open University.

What are the easiest mistakes a beginner can make when trying to identify plants?

The most common mistake is to look only at the ‘flower’ – the showy bit with colourful petals – to try and identify it. To really pin it down, you need to study the whole plant: how the flowers are arranged, characteristics of the leaves and stem, how and where the plant is growing, and even what time of year it is. So long as there is plenty, please don’t be afraid to pick some to take home and study. The general rule on public land is: if there are 20 of the plant in question you can pick one, if 40, two and so on. Try to take the complete plant from ground level up – but don’t uproot it: that’s how the Victorians brought so many species to their knees. Photographs can be a big help, but remember to take several: whole plant, close-up of the flower, details of a leaf and so on.

What is the main threat to the diversity of wild flowers and grasses and what can be done to mitigate any decline?

The main threat is not people picking a few to study, or even simply to enjoy at home. Climate change is, of course, a threat in one sense, but I believe we shouldn’t necessarily dread the rise of ‘aliens’ from warmer climates which are now able to establish themselves here. Every plant in Britain was once an alien, after the last Ice Age ended, and I would rather learn to live with change than blindly try to turn the clock back. There may be a few exceptions like Japanese Knotweed, but their evils are often exaggerated and some natives like bracken can be equally invasive. The real problem we face is habitat loss: to house-building and industry, land drainage, vast monocultural fields without headlands, destruction of ancient forests and so on. And this is an area where watchfulness and action really can make a difference.

Have you ever had any bad or unusual experiences while out identifying plants?

Well, I nearly drowned once. I was botanising on my own in Glen Lyon, beside the rushing ‘white water’ of the River Lyon. There were plenty of large rocks above the water level that I thought I could use as stepping stones across the river. But I lost my footing on a slippery rock and was instantly immersed in the icy torrent. Luckily I was obeying the three-holds rule and my two hands were still clinging firmly to rocks. I quickly realised that, with heavy boots on, if I didn’t get up on a rock fairly soon I was likely to be swept to my doom. No good screaming either: the roar of the water would make that a fruitless exercise. Twice I heaved on my arms and failed to get clear of the water, but on the third try I managed to haul myself out and eventually get back to the bank. The first thing I examined was the sodden notebook in my waterlogged pocket, but my botanical notes were still legible, so it was a happy ending!

Faith’s new book Start to Identify Grasses is available now from NHBS

Start to Identify Grasses
Paperback | May 2018
£3.50

 

 

 

Also by Faith Anstey…

Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families
Paperback | January 2016
£5.99

 

 

Flowers in the Field: How to Find, Identify and Enjoy Wild Flowers
Paperback | May 2010
£12.99

 

 

Great offers on further reading for improvers and experts alike…

Collins Wild Flower Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
Paperback | 2016 | £18.99 £24.99
Hardback | 2016 | £29.99 £39.99

 

 

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
Paperback | May 2013
£13.99 £18.99

 

 

 

New Flora of the British Isles
Paperback | 2010
£59.99

 

 

 

Colour Identification Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of the British Isles and North-Western Europe
Paperback | 1989
£39.99 £49.99

 

 

Faith Anstey in Ardnamurchan, Scotland

Enjoy your time in the field discovering and identifying the wild plants around you…

 

 

Please note that all prices stated in this blog post are correct at the time of publishing but are subject to change at any time. 

Curlew Moon: An interview with Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell is an award-winning writer and producer who is well-known for her work with BBC Radio producing programmes on natural history and environmental issues; including their Natural Histories, Shared Planet and Saving Species series.

Her new book, Curlew Moon, documents her 500-mile journey from the west coast of Ireland to the east of England to raise awareness and funds for the Curlew, now one of the UK’s most threatened birds. Part travel diary and part natural history, the book is also a beautiful exploration of the way in which the Curlew appears in local myths, culture and language.

We were delighted to chat with Mary about the book and about her fight to save the UK Curlew population before it’s too late.

Curlew MoonI guess I’ll start with the obvious question – why Curlews? What is it about them that captivates you and has made you dedicate so much time and energy to raising awareness for their conservation?

That’s perhaps the most difficult question. I honestly don’t know why Curlews in particular, other than I love the way they look, how they sound and where they live. Those calls over wetland and meadow or over mountain slopes are soul-grabbing. W S Graham described the Curlew’s call as a ‘love-weep’ a melancholic, yearning, beautiful sound. I grew up in the Staffordshire Moorlands and back then, in the 70s, they were common, so perhaps they infiltrated my brain! What I found on the walk is that many people feel the same. To know them is to love them. And over the last few years, as I became aware of what was happening not out on the savannah or in a rainforest, but right here under our noses, I decided to try to help. A contract with the BBC Natural History unit came to an end and the next day I started to plan the walk.

Curlew MoonWhere I live in North Wales, on the banks of the Menai Straights, the sight and sound of curlew are very common. Living somewhere like this, you could easily believe that they are both abundant and thriving here in the UK. Do you think that this, along with a lack of understanding of their complete natural history (e.g. the types of habitat they require to breed, food sources and predator pressures) contributes to masking the problems they face?

For sure that is the case. The UK and Ireland population of Curlew are boosted by winter visitors. From August to March as many as 150,000 Curlews rest up and feed ready for the breeding season. But come the warmer months most disappear back to N Germany, Scandinavia or Finland, leaving our own breeding birds thinly scattered. Also, as Curlew don’t breed until they are at least 2 years old, juveniles may well spend all year on the coast. The story of loss is in the fields and meadows. A Curlew’s life is complicated, and we are only just getting to grips with that. It needs whole landscapes to feed, roost, nest and over-winter. They bind the coast to the mountains and country to country. It’s hard to understand, but worth the effort. They really are fascinating.

Curlew MoonPoetry features heavily in the book and I absolutely loved how you explore the myriad ways in which the curlew features in the myths, legends and cultures of the areas you passed through. (I am currently in the process of moving to Clynnog Fawr so I was particularly thrilled with the tale of St. Beuno!). Why did you choose to style the book in this way rather than writing a more prosaic natural history and travel diary?

I think being a producer on Radio 4’s Natural Histories for two series deepened my understanding of just how much the life around us has contributed to art, literature, poetry, science, folklore and spirituality. For all of our time as humans on earth we have looked at the natural world and forged connections. We still do that today. Part of the reason for the walk was to discover how curlews have inspired us. I had known about the lovely story of St Beuno and the Curlew for a long time – enchanted by it – so I knew there must be more out there. And there certainly is!

Particularly at a time where it seems that we are encouraged to value wildlife primarily for how it can benefit us, and ‘ecosystem services’ type approaches aim to put a monetary value on our wild spaces and creatures, do you think the arts have an important role in highlighting and championing those species that might otherwise fade away without notice?

Yes of course, anything that helps us to re-engage with nature is vital, be that through arts or science or economics. People are complicated – each of us has so many facets, rolled into one being. We are consumers, parents, children, lovers, friends. We are both rational and irrational, emotional and calculating, loving and full of division. Spiritual, religious, atheist, agnostic, often all at the same time. The arts understand this complexity and great art touches all those facets. The role of the arts in our lives is incalculable, so it isn’t surprising it doesn’t appear on a financial spreadsheet. I’m not sure I could write a straight natural history of any animal, bird or plant. I will always want to delve into its connection to our lives.

Curlew MoonWith any conservation work, it can sometimes feel as though you are swimming against the tide, with every move forward followed by two moves back. Especially with a species such as the Curlew, where there seem to be so many challenges to overcome, how do you maintain the hope required to keep fighting and how do you prevent yourself from succumbing to despair?

I touch on this a bit in the book – in the section where I walk though the middle of England with a friend who is an ex- Dominican friar, a gay activist and a writer, Mark Dowd.  He helped put my feelings into context. This wasn’t a walk that will necessarily produce tangible proof of more Curlews on the ground within 5 years. Rather it is in the realm of hope –  that something good will emerge at some point. It was a walk of trust, that if you put yourself on the line, people will respond. And so I didn’t walk with the aim that there would be a 20% increase in curlews in the UK and Ireland by 2020 (although that would be great), rather it was underpinned by a hope that people will be more aware of what needs to be done and will act on it. The series of workshops I organised with help from so many good people also gave me hope. We may fail, we may yet lose curlews from large areas, but, as David Attenborough once said, “As long as I can look into the eyes of my grandchildren and say I honestly did what I could, then that is all I can do.” I agree with that.

My final question is of a more practical nature, as I’m fascinated by people who take time out of their lives to undertake challenging journeys. Are you a seasoned long-distance walker or is this the first walk of this length you have undertaken? How did you prepare for it, both physically and mentally?

I used to do a lot of walking, but then children came along and life changed. So for 20 years I didn’t do much. But determination takes you a long way – and going to the gym. I just felt ready for the challenge and was so sure it was the right thing to do. But I did suffer from blisters! Still, a small price to pay and a good excuse to buy new boots for my most recent long distance walk – 230 miles through the Sierra Nevada in California along the John Muir Trail. That was tough, it made 500 miles along footpaths look like a stroll in the park.

Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell is published by William Collins and is available from NHBS. You can read more about Mary and her work at www.curlewmedia.com.

Signed copies of the book are available while stocks last.

 

Seeds of Science: An interview with Mark Lynas

photo of Mark Lynas
Mark Lynas

Mark Lynas is an author, journalist and environmental activist. He has previously written books on climate change (including High Tide: News from a Warming World and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet) and the Anthropocene (The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans). A one-time anti-GMO activist, Mark changed his mind on genetically modified organisms while researching his books on climate change. Seeds of Science: Why We Got it so Wrong on GMOs chronicles Mark’s conversion and examines the widespread opposition to GMOs and the damage this is doing. I contacted Mark to talk more with him about GMOs, and about his new title, which is published this week.

We have been domesticating crops for millennia, and you write that radiation is an accepted method to induce genetic mutations. Such plants can even be labelled “organic”. Effectively, there is a continuum from very crude tools (domestication) to more precise ones nowadays to achieve the same end goal: plants with traits that we desire. Why has recombinant DNA technology been singled out by activists?

I think that if mutagenesis by radiation were invented tomorrow, Friends of the Earth would be up in arms. I suspect that it really is a matter of grandfathering with these kinds of technologies. The newer ones get opposed because they seem too new, for want of a better way of putting it, too innovative and too artificial, whereas we are comfortable with the older ones because they have always been there. As I say in the book, your pet dog is genetically modified from the original wolf, otherwise you would not let it anywhere near your children. But if a scientist in a labcoat were to propose to genetically modify a wolf directly in the laboratory, in order to give it a pug nose and make it unable to breathe properly, I am sure there would be all kinds of hullabaloo. So, it is about being comfortable with something that has become traditional, which maybe was innovative decades or centuries ago, but has become part of our established normality.

These things are socially constructed debates, they are not really a result of scientific innovation directly, they are a result of interest groups deciding that they are opposed to specific innovations for specific reasons. So, there has not been any significant opposition to the use of genetically modified bacteria or micro-organisms to produce insulin for diabetics, or rennet for cheese, or multiple other biotechnological applications. It is very much about opposition to some kind of perceived adulteration of the purity and authenticity of food, especially because food has got such powerful cultural and deeply political meaning.

I would include seeds in that as well. So, the concept of the seed is a very politically significant one. The idea that farmers must control seeds, that seeds are a kind of inherited genetic common property that have been enclosed and privatised by corporations – for people with particular political views these are very powerful concerns.

Effectively, we have been consuming GMOs for millennia, ever since we started eating domesticated plants, with no ill effect on our health. Has the health scare not wasted tremendous amounts of time and money in unnecessary research that, as we could have known beforehand, showed that there is no danger to consuming GMOs?

The health scare is something I was never involved in promoting. Looking back at the things I wrote, I alluded to it a couple of times, but it certainly was never a central concern.

As I explain the book, realising there was a scientific consensus on GMO safety which was equivalent to the consensus on climate change was a big part of why I changed my mind. While I do not claim that science can answer all of the political and economical questions, if we could all at least agree that this technique is as safe as any other, and probably safer in terms of changing crop genetics to be honest, then we can move on to talk about the other topics sensibly. But so long as you have got activists out there, particularly in developing countries, spreading rumours and myths about GMOs causing cancer and sterility then I think that that is so objectionable that it has to be opposed directly, just as we do with anti-vaccine campaigners which are out there doing real damage to public health.

So, do you think that the argument that we have been eating animals and plants that have been genetically modified through domestication with no ill harm is one that will resonate with activists?

No, because it is not about the facts. You can present evidence until you are blue in the face, but that hardly changes anybody’s minds. You have to look at why there is this opposition, and the reason it has persisted for so long is that is has become an article of faith for a lot of people with a particular ideological bias. And that is not just on the left. Yes, there is an anti-corporate aspect to this, but it is also found on the right. It has recently come to light that the Russians have been promoting anti-GMO memes as a way of undermining public trust and the integrity of Western science. And you can see it from the extreme right in France: Le Pen is anti-Monsanto and anti-GMO. The same goes for the far-right and the far-left in Italy. It has become a kind of populist rallying cry which can be put in the context of this wider loss of trust in elites and intellectual expertise generally, which is a story of our modern times. It saddens me that the environmental movement is part of this shift towards post-truth, at least in the GMO sense, but it just goes to show that it is not resulting from any singular political perspective

In the Q&A session of your 2013 talk at the Oxford Farming Conference, you mention that the opposition to GMOs is effectively a proxy war against modern agricultural methods.  Why do people not make a distinction between the tool (genetic modification) and the wielder (in most discussions this ends up being big agricultural companies such as Monsanto)?

I am not even sure it is the business practices of Monsanto in any real sense. If you ask people what it is that Monsanto supposedly does, you will often get a lot of internet-generated myths. I included a whole chapter on Monsanto in the book, precisely because I felt that this was an elephant in the room that needed to be dealt with, and I needed to go through some of the anti-Monsanto memes out there and try and identify what was real and what was not. So, yes, I think there is a conflation between GMOs and modern agriculture in general with certain people in the West. This is quite an elite phenomenon; certain foodie types feel that the food system is failing them. It is kind of conflated with packaging, supermarkets and being disconnected from the local and the authentic. So, it is a kind of wider Romantic movement against what is perceived to be the dominance of technology in modern life. There is a nostalgic appeal to what the traditional farm was – with the farmer in overalls, chewing straw and getting his hands dirty – which is not there with the image of a modern farmer sitting high up in a cab of a combine harvester on Facebook while his machine is driven by GPS or even robotics. It does not have the same emotional appeal to it. So, I think there is this feeling of alienation with the modern food system in general, which I think has driven a lot of this opposition.

Seeds of Science cover

One reason I can think of why people oppose GMOs is a lack of understanding the science. How much are current high-school curricula paying attention to basic genetics, especially in the context of biotechnology in agriculture? Can we do more here and in the future see a new generation of better-informed citizens?

Well, that would be nice, but I do not think that it is essential any more than people need to understand immunology in order to have their children vaccinated. Yes, I am a passionate supporter of increasing science literacy, and I think it is important for a functioning democracy in a very general sense that we have a population who understands at least the basics. But it would not help – this is a political controversy. Even increasing science literacy does not help to diffuse it, because it is not really about the science. The scientists are not disagreeing on any of this. It is the same with climate change where people with different political viewpoints then claim to differ on the science. Presenting more scientific evidence does not help to resolve it, we have to make sure that the evidence is not steamrolled by emotional appeals by people who have an ideological interest in diminishing public understanding of science.

 You seem intent on putting an end to the polarised discussion and the trench warfare as you call it. I believe this is a large part of why you wrote this book. With this book about to be published, what more can we expect to see from yourself and others to try and bring the two sides closer together?

As I say towards the end of the book, the first draft was an angry book about how evil the anti-GMO movement is and decrying all that. And then I threw that away and rewrote it because I did not want to deepen the polarisation. I wanted to make a more honest attempt to understand where people are coming from who still oppose this technology. I felt it was incumbent on me as a former activist myself to do that in as humble a way as possible. So, I went back and talked to people who are still activists who I used to work with back in the day and I tried to give them a fair hearing. I think it is important that we recognise what these concerns are and that they are genuinely held. It is very easy to characterise your opponent as being evil or corrupt. However, people who oppose GMOs think they are doing the right thing. You can say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but if we at least do each other the honour of recognising that we are all trying to make the world a better place, then maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle by respecting each other’s concerns and worldviews so we can try and figure out what we have in common.

I say this in learning from the experience of climate change where I have been guilty of this as much as anyone. Through shouting and fighting we have just polarised the situation, and I think it is further away from being solvable now than it probably was back in the late nineties when I started working on it.

Seeds of Science is available to order from NHBS

A Natural History of Churchyards

Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards, an interview with Stefan Buczacki

The unique features of churchyards mean that they offer a valuable niche for many species. Enclosed churchyard in particular provide a time-capsule and a window into the components of an ancient British landscape. Well known botanist, mycologist and broadcaster Stefan Buczacki has written a passionate call-to-arms for the future conservation of this important and vital habitat.

Stefan has answered a few questions regarding the natural history of churchyards and what we can do to conserve them.

You refer to a Modern Canon Law, derived from an older law of 1603 that all churchyards should be ‘duly fenced.’ How important was that law in creating the churchyards we’ve inherited?

 

Hugely important because although some churchyards had been enclosed from earlier times, the Canon Law making it essential was what kept churchyards isolated/insulated from changes in the surrounding countryside.

I was fascinated by the ‘ancient countryside’ lying to the east and west of a broad swathe from The Humber, then south to The Wash and on to The New Forest: could you expand on that division you describe?

 

The division into Planned and Ancient Countryside has been known and written about since at least the sixteenth century but the geographical limits I mentioned really date from the area where the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were so important. The more formal Planned Countryside landscape has been described as having been ‘laid out hurriedly in a drawing office at the enclosure of each parish’ whereas the fields of Ancient Countryside have ‘the irregularity resulting from centuries of ‘do it yourself’ enclosure and piecemeal alteration’.

If cemeteries, particularly enclosed cemeteries offer a ‘time capsule’ are there any current development or initiatives you can think of that future generations will consider as a similar natural heritage?

 

A difficult one but I suppose the closest might be SSSIs and comparable wild life reserves. National Parks might be thought candidates, but they are too large and too closely managed.

Managing a cemetery in a way that keeps everyone happy seems an impossible job. Last August I was photographing a meadow that had sprung up at a cemetery, when another photographer mentioned how disgusting it was. I was slightly bemused until the man explained he was a town councillor and was disgusted that the cemetery was unmaintained – “an insult to the dead” was how he described it – I thought it looked fantastic! whatever your opinion, how can we achieve common-ground between such diametrically opposed views?

Only by gentle education and by informed churchyard support groups giving guidance and instruction to the wider community. The other side of the coin to that you describe – and equally damaging – is where a churchyard support group itself believes that by creating a neat and tidy herbaceous border in their churchyard to attract butterflies they are doing something worthwhile! A little learning is a dangerous thing.

A whole chapter is devoted to the yew tree; such a familiar sight in so many churchyards. There are many theories as to why yews were so often planted within churchyards. From all the theories in your book, which one do you think has the most credence?

 

That Christianity inherited and then mimicked pre-Christian/Pagan activity without knowing – as we still do not – what its original significance might have been. There is so little documentary evidence from pre-Christian times.

All the significant flora and fauna of churchyards their own chapters or sections; from fungi, lichen and plants, to birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals? Which class, order or even species do you think has the closest association with churchyards and therefore the most to gain or lose from churchyard’s future conservation status?

Without question lichens; because there are just so many species largely or even wholly dependant on the churchyard environment – the gravestones and church buildings.

With church attendance declining and the future of churchyard maintenance an increasingly secular concern; could you give a brief first-steps outline as to how an individual or a group might set about conserving and even improving the natural history of their local churchyard?

Without doubt, the first step should be to conduct a survey of what is there already; and be aware this is not a task for well-intentioned parishioners unless they have some specialist knowledge. The County Wildlife Trusts would be my first port of call as they will have all the necessary specialist contacts. Then it will be a matter – with the specialist guidance – of developing a conservation management plan.

If someone, or a group become custodians of a churchyard what five key actions or augmentations would you most recommend and what two actions would you recommend against?

 

  1. Discuss the project with your vicar/priest/diocese to explain your goals and obtain their support. Show them my book!
  2. By whatever means are available [parish magazine, website, email…] contact the parish community at large to explain that you hope [do not be too dogmatic or prescriptive at this stage] to take the churchyard ‘in hand’ and ask for volunteers – but do not allow well-meaning mavericks to launch out on their own. And continue to keep people informed.
  3. See my answer to Question 7 – and undertake a survey.
  4. As some people will be keen to do something positive straightaway, use manual/physical [not chemical methods] to set about removing ivy that is enveloping gravestones and any but very large trees. It should be left on boundary walls and to some degree on large old trees – provided it has not completely taken over the crown – but nowhere else.
  5. Use a rotary mower set fairly high to cut the grass; again until the management plan is developed.
  6. Set up properly constructed compost bins for all organic debris – and I mean bins, not piles of rubbish.

 

  1. Do not plant anything either native or alien unless under proper guidance – least of all do not scatter packets of wild flower seed. You could be introducing genetic contamination of fragile ancient populations.
  2. Stop using any chemicals – fertiliser or pesticide – in the churchyard; at least until the management plan has been developed.

Stefan’s book Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards was published in March 2018 is currently available on special offer at NHBS.

Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards
Hardback | March 2018
£12.99 £14.99

 

 

 

Further reading on lichen in churchyards…

 

A Field Key to Common Churchyard Lichens
Spiralbound | Jan 2014
£9.99

 

 

Guide to Common Churchyard Lichens
Unbound | Dec 2004
£2.99

 

Please note: All prices stated in this article are correct at the time of posting and are subject to change at any time.

Owl Sense: An interview with Miriam Darlington

We currently have a limited number of signed copies available!

Author photograph by Richard Austin

For most of her life, Miriam Darlington has obsessively tracked and studied wildlife. Qualified in modern languages, nature writing and field ecology, she is a Nature Notebook columnist at The Times. Her first book, Otter Country was published in 2012 and her latest book, Owl Sense was recently Book Of Week on BBC Radio 4.

We recently chatted to Miriam concerning her quest for wild encounters with UK and European owls.  

Owl Sense

It seems the main threat to barn owl numbers is the way our landscape has changed regarding commercial development and farming methods. What do you think is the single most important action regarding land management that could halt their decline and get their numbers growing sustainably?

 

It is all about protecting the owls’ habitat. As field vole and small mammal specialists the owls need rough grassland, where the small mammals live. The rough grassland needs to be protected, and wide enough strips around the field margins maintained and left so that a deep, soft litter layer of dead grasses can build up. This litter layer is essential for voles to tunnel through; this is what they need to survive, so it is all about helping farmers to be aware of this and funding them to manage this type of wildlife-friendly grasslands. Nesting sites are also vital; as mature trees are not replaced, and barns are unsympathetically converted, the owls will have no roosts and no nesting sites. Barn Owls need specialised, sheltered nest boxes in farm buildings. If they can feed, they can breed, and if they can breed they will continue to grace our countryside.

The volunteer work you undertook with The Barn Owl Trust was very interesting, but seemed quite intrusive to these reclusive, easily alarmed birds. What can you say to assuage my concerns? 

 

The Barn Owl site surveys that I observed and described may seem like an intrusion, but it was a vital part of the BOT’s conservation work and always carried out with the utmost care. I would describe it as a necessary intrusion, as it was part of a 10-yearly survey, an information gathering exercise altogether essential for our knowledge of how many owls are breeding in Devon and the South West. The status and numbers of occupied sites were ascertained, and farmers, landowners and general public could be advised accordingly; nest boxes were repaired or replaced, risks assessed and owners given invaluable conservation advice. I described an incident in the book where an owl flew out of the barn we were surveying, demonstrating that owls are very sensitive, the utmost care is always taken, and the laws around the protection of owls are very strict. We were working in warm, dry conditions and no harm came to the owls. The Barn Owl Trust work under licence from Natural England, knowing that if any owl is inadvertently disturbed, they will usually quickly return to their roost. However, with the risks in mind, the greatest care and respect as well as a strict protocol was always followed when surveying sites . We had to work quietly and quickly, counting, ringing and weighing young as rapidly as possible with no time wasted. Adult owls often roost away from the nest due to it being full of pestering young, so they were usually unaffected by our visit. In other cases, the adult owl(s) looked but stayed put as they were well hidden. In some cases, for instance busy working farm barns, the owls are used to all sorts of noise, machinery and disruption, and were completely habituated, and not disturbed at all. Most of the time the adult owls I saw were vigilant, rather than stressed. The young have no idea what is happening and become biddable when approached. All-in-all, the value of the data we gathered would far outweigh any small intrusions. But the general public should be aware that it is illegal to recklessly enter a nesting site without a licence, especially with the knowledge that owls are breeding there.

Historically, owls were viewed as harbingers of doom. This seems to have been replaced by the commercial ‘cutifying’ of owls. Can this still be considered a sort-of reverence – is this the best regard wild animals can now expect?

 

No, I feel we need more than that; we need to respect their wildness, not their cuteness. Humans need to remember to keep our distance; the owls are not there for our enjoyment after all, but as a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. It helps to attract our attention that they are beautiful and charismatic, and it can be thrilling to catch sight of one, but I don’t feel that simply seeing them as cute is any help at all. We need a deeper respect for them than that. We need to care for, respect and understand their needs, but I think reverence is probably too much to ask! I would say sympathy is important, and that should be taught/encouraged in schools.

I found the descriptions of Eagle Owls foraging around waste dumps quite disconcerting. Away from their natural environment, sustaining themselves on human waste seems a sad fate for any animal, let alone a magnificent eagle owl. Am I being overly sentimental and unrealistic?

Yes, it’s easy to see only ugliness there, and it seems like a shame, yes perhaps it is disconcerting, but it shows these creatures are adaptable. It is not desperation, it is opportunistic…and they were feeding on rats, not human waste, so it was probably win-win.

Staying with human and wild animal interactions, you mention recent new builds and the impact they can have. As the rate of new builds is unlikely to decline, do you think developers could do more to take wildlife into account and, if so, what would these measures look like and how would they be enforced?

I believe developers are legally obliged now, and have been for some years, by local authorities, to survey for wildlife and to mitigate for any wildlife found to be breeding there. I visited a site on the edge of my town recently where some of the houses had bat boxes and swift boxes. It is legally enforced already, but many people may be unaware of this.

Captive owls are increasingly popular, and you wrote a reflective passage concerning a little owl called Murray. Even naming a wild animal is anathema to many conservationists. However, your initial concern about a captive owl seemed to diminish as you saw the effect it had on the audience. Do you think displaying captive birds can help conservation efforts?

It is very complex. I don’t think keeping and displaying captive wild animals is the best idea, ultimately. Humans have been domesticating animals for millennia however and it is interesting to look at the long view. Although I am very uncomfortable with keeping wild animals as pets, I have witnessed two things: 1. That when they are kept properly by experienced professionals, they do not seem to suffer and can lead long and relatively safe and healthy lives; and 2. that they can have benefits; increased sympathy and understanding for the species, aspirational opportunities for marginalised people, help for suffering or socially isolated people. I’m not a scientist however. I don’t feel qualified to make the final decision on this. It’s easy to pontificate about the morality of it all, and to see the risks, but not so easy to untangle the costs to the animal and the benefits, economic, emotional and otherwise to some humans. In the end, when we wanted an animal for my family, we got a domestic dog, not an owl. I think that’s the best one could wish for, in the circumstances.

In your previous book Otter Country you describe the places you are in with as much awe as the animal you are hoping to see – the same with Owl Sense. Is it the wild place or its occupiers that move us? Even the government’s recent 25 Year Environment Plan alludes to the mental and physical health benefits natural spaces can provide; do you think conservation efforts would be better focused on wild places for their own sake or concentrate on the fauna and flora that inhabits them?

You can’t separate the two. The habitat comes first, but any expert will tell you that the animals are inseparable from their natural habitats. Look at what happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yosemite. The whole ecosystem began to restore itself when the wolves came back. My philosophy is to describe both; I feel passionately about the connections of the whole ecosystem, including the humans in it. I want to engender understanding and sympathy for that inseparableness. For most people, however, I expect going to a countryside place or a wild place is the most important, and encountering a wild animal, or knowing that there is a possibility of it will come second. I have focussed on owls and employed them as ambassadors, and animals can certainly attract public sympathy, but I suspect it is ownership of the land, stewardship of the land, the economic, health and social impacts of the land, that might win us the argument.

Your journey to Serbia to see the long-eared owls was amazing.  So many owls, living in apparent harmony in close proximity to humans. As these spaces develop, however, this balance will of course shift, and not in favour of the owls.  The only hope offered seemed to be tourism and, ironically, hunters preserving the landscape. Do you see these two options as the only solutions to ensuring the long-term survival of long-eared owls in Serbia?

Yes. I wouldn’t call it harmony necessarily, more like tolerance! The owls have been coming to the towns for many, many years and that will not change as long as the roost trees are preserved and farming does not intensify too quickly. As with Barn Owls, the owls need to fly out into the fields as they feed on the small rodents and small birds in the farmland.. this may become threatened with changes in farming as the country becomes more prosperous. Ecotourism will probably protect the state of things, as with the large owl roosts that are so spectacular; this economically deprived country needs every help it can get. The local people have caught on to this, but the authorities have some way to go with supporting it and fully and sustainably harnessing it. They key would be to harness ecotourism wholeheartedly. And yes, the hunters wish to preserve the habitats, which is excellent. It seems like the best arrangement, in the circumstances, and probably quite sustainable.

Your French guide, Gilles alluded to a dislike towards bird watchers (les ornithos) in the provinces.  He said that, while in the countryside, he couldn’t leave his bird book on show in the car as people would slash his tyres. Things aren’t so bad here in the UK, but do you consider being a conservationist akin to being a radical and a subversive? – has protecting the environment fully entered the consciousness of the mainstream?

I think it has entered mainstream consciousness, and has some superb advocates now, but the activists should never let down their guard; we all need activists keeping an eye because right now we can never afford to be complacent – complacency is a very human trait and one that has brought us into this mess. We need to be constantly asking questions, constantly probing, curious and vigilant, and if that is a form of activism, I’m with the activists. It’s about questions and sometimes challenges, I think that’s what the best journalism, environmentalism, nature writing, scientists and conservationists do best.

You make it clear that the decision to leave the EU is not what you would have wished for. Aside from potentially losing a connection with mainland Europe, do you envisage any pro and cons for the UK environment regarding Brexit?

 

I’m not enough of an expert to be able to answer that. I was mortified to find that Britain was going to separate itself from what appeared to be a friendly and well-meaning, beneficial alliance, especially in terms of conservation regulations, but am completely naïve about the economic and the conservation implications for the future – I think we just have to continue working to call our leaders to account, and never lose sight of our priorities.


Owl Sense
Hardback | February 2018
£12.99 £15.99

 

 

 

 

Otter Country
Paperback | May 2013
£7.99 £9.99

 

 

 

Miriam’s writing centres on the tension, overlaps and relationships between science, poetry, nature writing and the changing ecology of human-animal relations.  On a personal note I thought Owl Sense fulfilled this challenging undertaking.  The personal and evocative writing, all underpinned by the ecology, biology and historical significance of these amazing animals made this a joy to read.

Miriam Darlington signing stock at NHBS

Miriam called into NHBS to sign our stock; these will be available only while stocks last.

NHBS currently have price-offers on Owl Sense and Miriam’s previous book Otter Country.

Please note: Prices stated in this blogpost are correct as of 15th February 2018 and may be subject to change at any time.

The Plant Messiah: An interview with Carlos Magdalena

Carlos MagdalenaCarlos Magdalena is a botanical horticulturist at Kew Gardens, famous for his pioneering work with waterlilies and his never-tiring efforts to save some of the world’s rarest species from extinction. In his book, The Plant Messiah, Carlos shares stories of his travels and his work at Kew and, in doing so, opens our eyes to the delicate wonder of plants and the perils that many of them are now facing.

We recently caught up with Carlos to chat about plant conservation, his views on extinction and lots more.


The Plant MessiahIn your book you describe your trips to some incredible places – most of which have resulted in the collection of valuable herbarium specimens and seeds for growing or storage. Where does the impetus for these projects come from? Do you get to choose the species and/or projects that you work on or are these assigned to you?

They can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, they are assigned to me, like the projects in Peru and Bolivia: there is a need for a horticulturist capable of speaking Spanish, with experience in propagation of tropical plants and therefore, they contact me and from there we start the ball rolling. However, there is always the personal interest, though this works in an indirect way. Because I have been interested for years in tropical waterlilies, especially those from Australia, I had built up masses of knowledge, contacts and experience and therefore one day, someone needs someone with those skills and they want you to join in their projects. My endeavours in Mauritius started when seeds were set in a Ramosmania plant in a glasshouse in London. After this happened, there was a need to bring back this species to the island. Since this was a very genuine reason that could be solved at a very low cost, funding was allocated soon to travel and then, any time I go, I return with many more species that need working on to secure them ex-situ so you establish a working relationship with the country. There is so much work to be done that at the end of the day, money and time are the limits to be honest, but especially, funding is the main issue I have.

The Plant MessiahMany of the methods you use for germinating seeds and propagating plants have been considered unorthodox, and this is undoubtedly one of the reasons behind your outstanding achievements. Did you find that your peers and colleagues were initially suspicious of your techniques and approach, or did you always feel supported in your methods?

I guess they are not that unorthodox after all, I will say is more in the lines of ‘if something does not work, let’s try something else’, which is a bit unorthodox but also the sensible thing to do in those cases. I guess it is always tricky to swim against the ‘mantras’ or certain situations where is easier to stick to ‘oh, it won’t work because it cannot be done’ but even when I can be a victim of this myself, I try to do my best to think that you never know if you don’t try. Horticulture is a bit complicated since there are so many aspects to take into account. Science has a big part to play in it, but there is also that bit that is more like cooking, not witchery, but no white lab coat stuff either.
In cultivation, there are too many factors, compost types, light, humidity, temperature, temperature fluctuation, pests, seasons, fertilizers, nutrient levels, and so on and so forth. It is very difficult sometimes to come from an answer as result of traditional science when trying to work out what are the best parameters for each of the 400,000 known species of plants. Good basic science knowledge is vital, but the capacity of guessing, the ability to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes, to be capable of observing very small changes in the general looking of a plant (which I guess involves good photographic memory) are equally important, throwing in a bit of ‘gut feeling’ as it can help too! Sometimes first you manage to grow a plant by ‘play it by the ear’ and if you succeed and manage to grow many, then you can do the empirical work in a more traditional scientific manner, but first, it has to grow!

Many of the processes you describe in your book are very labour intensive and appear to involve a certain amount of trial and error. With the understanding that time is of the essence for many of the species you work with, and that availability of seeds may be severely limited, how do you cope with the prolonged uncertainty and pressure that must surely exist when attempting to germinate seeds or propagate cuttings?

You try to do the obvious first. Sometimes you know that something works very well with that family, so you will try that first. If it does not work you need to come up with a theory of ‘what happened’ and then create a scenario that tries to prevent that situation happening again. When quantities of seeds are abundant, then that makes things easier since you can try many things at once. With very small quantities of material this is not possible, so you try to use safer options. Seeds that cannot be dried die if you dry them. Seeds that need to be dried to germinate can stay wet for a period after harvesting, so if the seeds have not been dried already, I may sow them without drying in a way that I can recover it later to try a dry, then wet method. If something can be undone, sometimes takes preference over some action that cannot be undone. If that fails, then try plan B. if everything fails and there is no more material, you had that experience so that next time something is available you can try something else. However, were the seeds non-viable? Were they too old? It can be a bit tricky to get the whole picture sometimes. There are quite a few general rules that help, the difficulty is to spot the exceptions to the rule. In these cases, experience is the mother of science and not the other way around, but then, you have to be sure that whatever change you want to do make sense from a natural science point of view.

You frequently state in your book that extinction is unacceptable. How do you feel about the proposals by some ecologists that our modifications to the planet have in fact stimulated evolution, and that extinctions and non-native invasions are just part of a natural process, albeit it one that our actions may have accelerated?

First, I think that even if something is naturally going extinct, it should be preserved. No-one questions that we preserve items such as cathedrals or classic paintings under the excuse that ‘oh well, naturally they will fall apart and disintegrate in time’. They are an immeasurable resource and relevant part of our heritage. Regarding the invasive introductions…this is complex and cannot be summarized in a simple statement like the one above. There are species that naturalize and do not create a massive change, they just integrate as another item in the system, others occupy heavily pre-damaged ecosystems, so in fact, and they are a symptom rather than an illness of the damaged ecosystem. Look at Buddleia and its preference for cracks in concrete, brownfields, and decaying urban environments. Conservation is in a way altruistic (every species should have the right to live, just because it is a species), but also is an act of egoism and self-preservation because they are so useful to us in many ways. The more that we can keep, the more biodiverse the planet will be. As earlier stated, it is a very complex issue. What is the impact of invasive plants on CO2 absorption? Not sure what the answer to that is, but I bet that in some cases they are sequestering CO2, but not for all the species nor all the situations either. Avoiding extinctions should be always high on our agendas. We can aim to preserve many species long term, even if we still allow for lots of human changes taking place, but only if we can stop climate change and we manage the land properly. If we think ‘yeah, is all part of a natural process’ then we have to admit that burning fossil fuels is as natural as flying rabbits from Spain to the Antipodes, and also, that climate change will lead to a mass extinction but then, it will recover in a few million years later? No thanks, I rather keep the world as it is, beautiful and biodiverse, because guess what, nearly all of it is avoidable. Key word here: avoidable.

Animal conservationists often bemoan the fact that it is difficult to get the public interested in the “non-charismatic megafauna”. So, while the whales, tigers and pandas of the world have plenty of public attention and support, the plankton, toads and flies are often neglected. Do you feel this problem exists within the sphere of plant conservation too? Are the beautiful “charismatic” plants given attention over the less visually striking species? Or do you think that plants as a whole are neglected? As an extension of this, how do you think we should go about getting the public to care about the conservation of plants?

Firstly, yes, I think that plant conservation is low on people’s minds when compared with furry large animals. True that. But to be fair, a subspecies of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011 and all the populations of this emblematic mammal are declining badly despite its cuteness, so there is work to be done with animals for sure.
I think we need to understand that plants are more important to our survival, and to the animal species survival than we think they do. With plants, we need to know them better before we can truly appreciate them. There is no Rhino without savannah and we need to look at the savannah more like a vegetation community rather than a background setting for Rhinos. Plants are the green glue that sticks the planet ecosystems together. We need to look at the system more, but systems are made of components and we cannot lose them if we want to keep the system going. It is always easier to attract funding and interest to showy plant species. Sad but true, but on the other hand, many stunning looking species are threatened and nothing much has been done. We need to raise the game in all departments of conservation. At the end of the day, it is the planet that we are protecting, not single species only. I have the feeling that avoiding plant extinction is easier than animal extinction, at least ex-situ. Yet, there are more instances of animals being reintroduced to the wild than plants. Sometimes, you need to introduce animals to recover the vegetation, i.e wolves rather than planting trees. Sometimes you may need to plant trees to reconnect two populations of large mammals. Fisheries rely heavily on seagrass and mangrove forest. Those two marine habitats fix massive amounts of CO2. Does global warming affects Panda’s favourite food? Rather than focus on animal vs plant conservation, we need to do this: to focus on single species so that they do not go extinct but also make sure that the worlds ecosystems are functioning. Easier said than done, but I refuse to accept that ‘cannot be done’. It is all avoidable.

Finally, is there a plant, either extant or presumed extinct, that you dream of seeing during your lifetime?

Only one? The trouble here is what to choose…there is so many things I do not want to miss in my life time. Never seen the redwood forest, I’ve never been to South Africa, Madagascar, New Guinea, Socotra…just to name a few incredible biodiverse areas that contain 100s of interesting ‘must see’ species. The discovery of a living fossil plant in the likes of Ginkgo or the Wollemy pine would always be very exciting…indeed the reappearance of an extinct species is always uplifting, however, if I have to choose, I go for the ‘extinction avoidance’. Mostly because, if I’m aware it is about to happen, and when it happens, it is so depressing. So I choose this: to produce and germinate seeds of Hyophorbe amaricaulis from Mauritius. Only one palm tree left, and decades of failures mean that is likely it will go extinct during my lifetime. I’m aware of this, and I cannot bear the thought of waking up one day to the news that a cyclone has split it in half.


The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena is published by Penguin Books and is available from NHBS in hardback. The paperback version is due for publication in April 2018.

Behind More Binoculars: An interview with the authors

Behind More BinocularsBehind More Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers is the second book of interviews with birders. They are chosen to encompass a varied range of perspectives and approaches to birding.

We caught up with the authors, Keith Betton and Mark Avery, to ask them some questions about this insightful, humorous, thought-provoking and thoroughly unique approach to getting to the core of what makes birders tick.


Many of the interviewees’ route into birding was roaming the countryside near their homes during their childhood, often in rural locations. With parents now reluctant to let their children stray and wild spaces less common, do you think this presents a problem and if so, what is the best route now for children to discover and connect with the natural world?

Keith: I do see this as a problem for many young people who want to experience nature. Also, it is now more complicated for schools to organise nature rambles because of the health and safety checks that need to be made. There are still great local groups organised by RSPB Wildlife Explorers and some of the Wildlife Trusts – but just going out on your own is no longer an easy option.

Mark: It is a bit of a problem – but arguably the problem is in the parents’ heads. Looking back, I think I was a bit too cautious with my children and I was a lot less cautious than many parents. It is to do with what is normal – when I was a kid I headed out into the countryside all day and apart from a few bruises and grazes never came to any harm, but very few children get that delicious freedom these days.

I was encouraged that so many birders end up working in wildlife/conservation. What do you think inspires a young birder to move into conservation and not just focus on birds?

Keith: This is more a question for Mark I think. But they need to have passion for the bigger picture of conservation and not be thinking about earning much money.

Mark: Doing something that you feel is worthwhile and working with kindred spirits is a great way to spend your working life. You spend a lot of time at work – why not get a real kick out of it!

Behind More BinocularsAs the title suggests, all the interviewees were using binoculars and telescopes from quite an early age. I had binoculars from an early age (ostensibly for plane-spotting) but preferred to use my normal sight. Is it possible to be a birder without binoculars? Can you think of the gains and losses from using the naked eye instead of magnification?

Keith: The likes of Gilbert White in the 1700s made do without binoculars as they had not been invented, but today they are easy to obtain and don’t have to cost a fortune. Using all of your senses to detect nature is important, but unless you can see the details of the plumage you are missing out on so much.

Mark: Ears are important too. I’ve sometimes recorded how many species I detect and identify by sound before sight and it’s usually about 40% of them on a walk around my local area. Being attuned to nature comes with time. I have been walking down a busy noisy street in London and heard a bird call way above my head (often a Grey Wagtail – a bird with a loud simple flight call) and looked up to see it. No-one else paid it any attention of course. If I’d seen anyone else looking up I’d have known they were birders.

There is lots of travelling in this book; I’m going to avoid the obvious question regarding carbon footprint and concentrate on the positive. Jon Hornbuckle’s alarmingly dangerous travel adventures also resulted in him helping protect endangered birds and forests in Peru. What are the benefits travelling birders can bring to the birding and conservation movements?

Keith: If there were no people watching birds and wildlife in many of the world’s national parks then I think a significant number would be turned over to agriculture. If we all travelled everywhere the world’s carbon emissions would increase to the extent that climate change would accelerate further. But if birders travel to conservation areas then the local people have a reason to want those areas to be saved.

Mark: No, the obvious question is the best one. Why do nature lovers travel so much when they know it harms nature? Beats me!

In the ‘Last Thoughts’ chapter of the book you mention that the demographic for birders is rather mature and mainly men. You claim this gender balance is improving and bearing that in mind, what do you think a similar book to yours would look like in twenty years time?

Keith: While the gender imbalance is shifting I doubt it will ever reach 50/50, so such a book would probably still contain more accounts from males than females. The average age in both of our books was around 50-60, and partly that’s because you want to talk about what people have done in the past – and older people have more stories to tell. But it would be good to move that average age down a bit!

Mark: I think the differences in birding and nature conservation in 20 years’ time will be more interesting than the gender of who is talking about them. But I hope and expect a more even gender balance.

Behind More BinocularsThere was often some discussion about ‘boots on the ground’ verses ‘reports and research’ approach to birds and conservation. What are your thought about the right balance between meetings, media and marketing strategies verses getting your hands dirty in ‘the field’?

Keith: You need both – but the danger is that too much money can be devoted to discussing a conservation plan and then not enough to make the plan happen. One of my biggest concerns is the obsession with safety audits before even a simple action. I was really struck by Roy Dennis’s account of being at an Osprey nest tree that was at risk of falling down and just needed a few nails and strips of timber to keep it in place. None of the staff sent to inspect it could fix the tree as there had not been a full safety audit, so Roy just climbed up and did it himself. That’s boots on the ground (well boots on the tree actually!).

Mark: Conservation needs both. I started as a scientist working in the field – and loved it. But if you work for an organisation, and you rise up the hierarchy, you are going to spend more time wearing a tie, sitting in meetings and less in the rain with sore feet. We really do need people with a wide variety of skills to change the world. I do think though, well I would wouldn’t I, that having some senior people who have come through the ranks and know what it is like out in the field and at the base of the organisation is a good thing?

I really enjoyed Barbara Young’s interview, she had so much energy and conviction. I imagine her strident views and no-nonsense approach shook a few people up and she was convinced that nature conservation is a political issue. Do you agree – should nature conservation be more political, should birders and anglers for example see common ground, put differences aside and be a stronger political voice – should they even back a political party which shares their values or is that too far a step? If it is too far a step, how do you think the voice of birders and conservationists can be heard in the modern media blizzard that everyone is subjected to?

Keith: I’ll let Mark answer

Mark: Nature conservation is self-evidently political because it depends on altering people’s behaviour (and often they don’t want to change). You can’t increase Skylark numbers much without influencing hundreds or thousands of farmers. It’s difficult to talk to them all and persuade them to farm differently, but a change in incentives or legal requirements can get to lots of them. And that’s politics! Whether you use a stick or a carrot is politics. I don’t for a moment claim that birdwatchers must be political, but nature conservationists have to influence politics to have much impact. And the organisations to which we pay our subscriptions have to do a better job, as came out in a couple of interviews, at making that case. I don’t think that birders and anglers have completely overlapping views, but they do have partly overlapping needs – and that’s why they should work closer together on some issues (even if they fight like cats on others).

I can see why searching for rarities would be so addictive and many of the interviewees are very keen on recording them: what rarities do you expect to see turning up on these shores and which birds might go from rare to common in the UK over the next ten years?

Keith: Already in the last ten years my main birding area (Hampshire) has lost Yellow Wagtail and Tree Sparrow as a breeding species, and soon we may lose Willow Tit and Wood Warbler. We are likely to gain Great White Egret and Cattle Egret as breeders in the next ten years. As for real vagrants I think we’ll just keep getting a few new ones, although species that are declining in Europe (such as Aquatic Warbler) will turn up much less often.

Mark: Experience shows that we aren’t very good at getting these guesses right! Pass!

My final question maybe should have been my first, but can you tell me what inspired you to start interviewing birders in the first place?

Keith: It struck me that some of the real trailblazers of ornithology (such as Phil Hollom) were not going to be able to share their stories for much longer and so I sat down and got him to tell me about his life. Mark had a similar idea and came up with the idea for Behind the Binoculars. He wanted to interview me for the book. I agreed, and as it was still an early idea I suggested some other people who might be interesting to interview. In the end we realised we both had lots of ideas, and we agreed to work as a team.

Mark: They are interesting – sometimes peculiar, sometimes inspirational but interesting all the same.


About the authors

Keith Betton is a keen world birder, having seen over 8,000 species in over 100 countries.  In the UK he is heavily involved in bird monitoring, where he is a County Recorder. He has been a Council member of both the  RSPB and the BTO, currently Vice President of the latter.

Dr Mark Avery, many moons ago, worked for the RSPB and for 13 years was its Conservation Director.  He is now a writer, blogger and environmental campaigner and is prominent in the discussions over the future of driven grouse shooting in the UK.

 

 

 


Behind More Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers is available to order from NHBS

Signed Copies Available

NHBS attended the recent BTO Conference and Keith has kindly signed some stock of Behind More Binoculars; we have a very limited stock, so should you order, please state ‘signed copy’ in the comments and we will do our best. If you want to catch up on the first volume of interviews we currently have a special offer on the hardback edition.

From all of us at NHBS, we wish you plenty of happy and successful birding adventures in 2018.

 

Improbable Destinies: An interview with Jonathan B. Losos

Jonathan B. Losos with his favourite research subject: the green anole

Jonathan B. Losos is an evolutionary biologist, currently at Harvard University. He is best known for his research on speciation in Caribbean anoles, a genus of iguanian lizards. Previously, he has authored Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. His latest book, Improbable Destinies: How Predictable is Evolution?  is an incredibly enjoyable romp through evolutionary biology, examining the phenomenon of convergent evolution (i.e. the process by which different organisms have evolved the same or similar traits independently over time), and asks the question: how repeatable is evolution really? After reading this book recently (see also the review I left for the book) I contacted Jonathan to talk some more convergent evolution with him.

1. As a biologist, I can understand your fascination with convergent evolution. But to introduce yourself to the readers, what drew you to study this one topic out of all the fascinating aspects of evolution? Was this interest there from the beginning, or did you chance on it as your research progressed?

I’ve been interested in convergence ever since I learned about evolution because convergence of species living in similar environments is such a great demonstration of the power of natural selection. However, when I conducted my doctoral work on Caribbean Anolis lizards, I truly became fascinated by the phenomenon.

2. In your preface, you write how your PhD project on lizard diversification in the Caribbean supported ideas on convergent evolution. Right after writing up your thesis, Gould published his book Wonderful Life, in which he stressed the importance of contingency, arguing that evolution is unpredictable. You write you were taken with his book. How did you go about reconciling Gould’s views with your own?

Evolutionary biology is unlike most sciences in that it is a historical science. We can’t just do a key experiment or derive an equation and solve the problem. Rather, like detectives, we have to build the best case to understand what happened in the past. In addition, as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, life finds a way. In fact, evolution occurs in myriad different ways – almost any way of evolving you can imagine has occurred somewhere, some time. In this way, evolution is an inductive sciencewe can’t derive general rules for first principles; rather, we have to go out in nature and develop many case studies. Only in that way can we recognize the general patterns from the interesting exceptions.

It is in this light that I reconciled my one research on Anolis lizards, which indicated that evolution has travelled very much the same course four times on the different islands of the Greater Antilles (the large islands of the Caribbean), with Gould’s ideas that evolution, for the most part, is unpredictable and unrepeatable. I considered the Anolis situation to be one of the exceptions, fascinating, but out of the ordinary.

3. Part two of your book describes a plethora of field studies, including your own work on Anolis lizards, which by and large show that evolution is repeatable. Some people, botanists especially, have raised the objection that such findings could also come about by phenotypic plasticity. You have addressed this objection yourself experimentally and found that phenotypic plasticity only plays a limited role. Have others done the same, and is this something that is routinely considered and excluded as a possible explanation in this kind of research?

Phenotypic plasticity – the ability of genetically identical individuals to produce different phenotypes when exposed to different environmental conditions – has long been known. However, until recently, it was mostly considered to be noise in the system, non-adaptive phenomena that mostly served to prevent natural selection from producing evolutionary change (the reason being that natural selection might favor one variant, but if different variants in a species were genetically identical, then selection wouldn’t lead to any evolutionary change). However, in recent years we have realized that plasticity may be an important part of the evolutionary process. Although phenotypic variation (i.e., variation in traits such as anatomy, physiology) among individuals in a population may not be genetically based, the ability of a species to produce different phenotypes in different conditions is itself a genetically based trait that may evolve adaptively. Thus, species may evolve to exhibit great phenotypic variation as a response to living in many different environments. As a result, the amount of research on phenotypic plasticity has skyrocketed in the last two decades.

Improbable Destinies

4. Towards the end of Part Two, you point out another weak point of most field experiments. They generally start off with genetically related populations and so are likely to be predisposed to generate parallel evolutionary responses. Furthermore, statistical analyses might filter out the exceptions to the rule. Has experimental work by now moved on to using genetically dissimilar starting populations to investigate if convergent evolution is powerful enough to funnel different populations towards the same evolutionary outcome?

I wouldn’t say that this is a weak point of field experiments. Rather, it is a consequence of the hypothesis that is being tested. If you want to understand why guppies evolve to be more colourful in the absence of predators, then the appropriate experiment is to create multiple replicate populations of guppies in different conditions and see what happens. But, as I wrote in the book, we would expect very similar, closely-related populations to evolve similar adaptive responses to the same questions. One approach would be to conduct parallel experiments on many different species of fish to see the extent to which they adapt in similar ways (or in differing ways). Right now, I’m unaware of anyone doing this. However, different researchers sometimes ask the same question with different species, and this is the most likely way we will be able to address this question.

5. Part Three of your book looks at long-term laboratory experiments with bacteria. It seems here too, results initially suggested convergent evolution is the rule. Until exceptions starting cropping up on the longer term. Does the answer to the question whether evolution is repeatable depend on the timescale over which you look? Are we too focused on the short-term if we conclude that convergent evolution is the rule, rather than the exception?

That’s a keen observation. In Rich Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiment, the story after 14 years was that evolution is pretty repeatable. Then, 30,000+ generations into the experiment, one of 12 experimental lines evolved a very different adaptation, one that still hasn’t been matched in the other 11 lines after another 14 years. So, yes, the longer one conducts a study, the greater the chance that rare, unique adaptations will occur (and we must remember that 30,000 generations are a drop in the evolutionary bucket). On the other hand, as Rich Lenski himself says, if the LTEE is continued long enoughmaybe for 300,000 generations – then perhaps the other 11 populations will discover the new adaptive solution as well. So, yes, definitely, these studies need to be continued much longer. Most studies today, LTEE’s fame and influence notwithstanding, are much shorter in length (note: Loses and Lenski edited the book How Evolution Shapes Our Lives. ed.).

6. You conclude your book by saying that in the short term evolution is predictable, but that the world of biological possibilities is a vast one, and that in the long term, chance events have had a large impact. Given the many books dedicated to the topic of convergent evolution, and the way it speaks to people’s imagination, do you think we have overestimated the importance of this mechanism? Are we too keen on seeing patterns where there are none?

Well, we need a bit of historical perspective on this question. Until recently, we thought of convergent evolution as relatively rare. Great examples of the power of natural selection, worthy of being in biology textbooks, but not at all common. Now, thanks to the work of Simon Conway Morris and others, we realize that convergence is much more pervasive than we used to believe. This has been a valid contribution to our understanding of evolution. Nonetheless, some workers have gone too far, in my estimation, in emphasizing the importance and prevalence of convergent evolution. It is a common and important aspect of evolution, but it is not the only story.

Improbable Destinies is available to order from NHBS

Flight Lines: Interview with Mike Toms

The Flight Lines Project is a collaboration between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). Using a unique combination of art, stories and science, this project aims to explore the lives of migrant birds and to highlight the challenges they face in a rapidly changing world.

In this interview with Flight Lines author, Mike Toms, we talk about the relationship between art and science, the importance of volunteer ornithologists and cultural differences in our attitudes to birds.


Flight Lines author, Mike Toms

I’m curious about the perceived division between the arts and the sciences. While it’s true that many artists portray images of the natural world in their work, there are not many situations where artists and scientists are required to work together towards a common aim. Flight Lines is obviously a wonderful example of this – where did the idea for the project come from and what do you consider to be the most important thing that came out of it?

There is growing evidence that audiences exposed to science and conservation messages through the creative arts are more likely to show meaningful change in their understanding, which suggests that those of us working in research should seek now opportunities to communicate the impact of our work. Flight Lines was made possible by the generous legacy left by Penny Hollow and the kindness of her executors. Penny, a long-standing BTO member was a regular at the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) exhibitions, a great supporter and a lay member of the SWLA. The bringing together of artists and scientists to raise the profile of our migrant birds was a fitting tribute to her interests and something that we had been looking do alongside our programme of research into migrant birds. Not only has the project enabled us to tell the stories of our summer visitors to new audiences but it has also helped to underline how art and science can work together to effect change.

Flight LinesOur knowledge of where our migrant birds disappear to each year has vastly increased with the development of ever smaller and more advanced tracking devices and locators. What do you think will be the next big technological advancement in the study of bird migration?

It is the arrival of smaller and smaller devices that has revolutionised our understanding of the movements of migrant birds. The level of information that can now be collected through the use of GPS-tags and satellite-tags means that we can identify the sites and habitats used by migrant birds throughout the year. In some cases, such as with those tags that communicate via the mobile phone or satellite network, the information collected can be presented to the public in near real time, greatly adding to wider engagement with the science that is being undertaken. For the smallest birds, the tags used have to be retrieved the following year in order to download the data. As miniaturisation continues, we will soon be able to track the movements of Swallows, House Martins, Whitethroats and other small migrants in near real time. That will be a significant advancement for our understanding.

Whinchat, Blakeney by Richard JohnsonIn the UK I think it would be fair to say that we have an above average obsession with birds and their welfare. This is in stark contrast to many of the countries you discuss in the book, where birds are often viewed mainly as food or hunting trophies. What do you think is responsible for this difference in attitudes?

It is incredibly important to recognise the cultural differences that exist between countries in terms of how birds are viewed. Many of these are deeply rooted and extend back through generations, each shaped by local beliefs and opportunities, by living conditions and by trade. The hunting of migrant birds in North Africa, for example, is shaped by at least three different drivers: some are hunted for food by people living in very poor communities; others are hunted because of cultural beliefs, and many are hunted because there is a sizeable market for such commodities within the Middle East. It is important that we recognise how attitudes towards birds differ across the globe so that we can deliver approaches to conservation that are sensitive and appropriate.

Flight Lines trip to Senegal, West AfricaThe subject of supplementary feeding is currently a hot topic with the recent publication of an article in Science showing how great tits’ beaks have changed size due to the use of garden feeders. However, the messages we receive about feeding our garden birds are very mixed. Do you think the amount of supplementary feeding that occurs in the UK is a good thing overall?

The provision of supplementary food is one of the most common deliberate interactions between people and wild birds, supporting a wild bird care industry within the UK worth an estimated £210 million each year. Despite the huge amount of supplementary food provided in gardens we know surprisingly little about its impacts, which is one of the reasons why the BTO has been funding research into this topic over many years. Supplementary feeding may increase the overwinter survival of small birds, shape the communities of birds living alongside us and alter migration patterns and behaviour. It may also change the dynamics of competition between species or aid the spread of new and emerging diseases. Before we can say whether or not it is a good thing we need to improve our understanding of the associated costs and benefits, and look at these in relation to other human-bird interactions, such as climate and habitat change.

Scissor stone curlew by Harriet MeadCitizen science schemes are an incredibly powerful force in terms of obtaining large quantities of data and you frequently mention in your book how much of our knowledge about bird populations comes from the tireless efforts of volunteers. Do you think that being involved with a citizen science project is also empowering to the individual and can help to break down some of the boundaries between “professional” scientists and amateurs, making science and research more accessible to them?

The terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ are often used incorrectly, suggesting that staff are professionals while volunteers are amateurs, when what is really meant is that staff get paid and volunteers don’t . Many volunteers are experts in their field, sometimes the expert, and the right approach to citizen science should recognise this. We know from various research studies that volunteers participate in citizen science for a whole host of different reasons, some linked to internal values – such as feeling good about yourself – and some to external – such as sharing expertise, contributing towards charitable objectives. A well run citizen science project should make the science being carried out more accessible to participants, enabling them to see how their contribution is being used to answer a particular research question and empowering them to recognise the impact that their involvement is facilitating.

Do you feel that your art is influenced by your love of birds and wildlife and, conversely, do you feel that your art affects your appreciation of the natural world?

Some of my writing – the prose and poetry – is influenced by the natural world and by the sense of place. This feeling for the natural world is equally evident when I am participating in BTO surveys, especially the Nest Record Scheme, where significant time is spent immersed in nature, watching birds and their behaviour in order to find and monitor nesting attempts.


Flight Lines is published by the British Trust for Ornithology and is available to buy from NHBS.