John Wilkinson, Science Programme Manager with ARC Trust, on amphibian conservation

john-wilkinsonThe Amphibian Survey and Monitoring Handbook is the latest volume in the Conservation Handbooks series, tackling all aspects of amphibian survey. Author John Wilkinson is Science Programme Manager with The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC Trust).

What is your background in herpetology and what have been some of the highlights of your work?

After university, where my undergraduate dissertation was on amphibian diversity in Northern Italy, I worked on some short-term academic contracts before getting a job coordinating the international response to global amphibian declines with the IUCN SSC Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force (now the Amphibian Specialist Group). I learnt a lot there about the complexities of amphibian declines and the importance of systematic surveys.

A recent highlight of my conservation work was the discovery, building on my PhD research, that toads on the Channel Island of Jersey are a completely different species than those in mainland Britain – they’re actually Bufo spinosus, a species that evolved in Iberia millions of years ago whilst English toads were spreading out of the Balkans. Most importantly, their ecology is very different and they therefore require different conservation measures!

Could you tell us about any major trends that have been discovered by the monitoring schemes you have been involved with?

Part of my work is coordinating the UK National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme (NARRS), which has so far highlighted the serious declines of British adders and changes in the relative abundance of our smaller newts (palmate newts seem relatively more widespread than in former national surveys, possibly indicating a change in quality in Britain’s ponds).

How does a decline in amphibian and reptile biodiversity affect ecosystems?

These creatures are hugely important for many ecosystems as they occupy key niches in the middle of the food chain: as well as being important prey for a wide range of species from otters to marsh harriers, they are themselves important predators, consuming millions of pest invertebrates every year. Healthy amphibian populations in particular are therefore important to human food production and population losses have economic implications as well as resulting in more pesticide use.

What can be done to reverse this decline which is pervasive worldwide?

Though numerous factors cause declines, habitat loss and fragmentation is still the most significant problem. Local planning must take into account the need to keep breeding and foraging habitats connected to boost population resilience – as well as incorporating habitat into landscape-level schemes. At ARC, we’re leading the way on using predictive modelling and GIS techniques to model the effects of development and produce the best outcomes for amphibians (and other species).

If you were given the chance to implement one policy, today, in support of amphibian & reptile conservation, anywhere in the world, what would it be?

It would be easiest to come up with a list! I will, however, highlight a problem in the UK: our widespread amphibians have NO real protection under the law – though the NERC act outlines a “duty to consider” declining species like toads in development. ALL our amphibians and reptiles need full legal protection which is enforced, and which includes their habitats – otherwise developers can continue to fill in ponds and disconnect populations at will. Our widespread species are really a lot more threatened than the most highly-protected ones (the effects of this can already be seen with recent declines in the adder and toad)!

How can the general public get involved with projects to help their local herpetofauna?

  • Join a local Amphibian and Reptile Group (ARG) and ask them if they can participate in NARRS, as a group, to ensure their local information is considered nationally.
  • Build a pond and make a compost heap.
  • Volunteer to help create and manage habitats through ARC and/or other bodies such as local wildlife trusts.
  • Always report sightings of amphibians and reptiles (see www.recordpool.org.uk) – this will help their conservation.
  • Take local councils, conservation bodies (or anyone else!) to task when any local sites are planned for development or disconnection!

Amphibian Survey and Monitoring Handbook

Find out more about the Amphibian Survey and Monitoring Handbook

On the importance of pollinators in East Africa: an interview with Whitley Gold Award winner Dino Martins

Dino MartinsDr Dino Martins is an entomologist and evolutionary biologist with a PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University. He is also well-known in his native East Africa where he works to educate farmers about the importance of the conservation of pollinators. It is this work that recently won Dr Martins the prestigious Whitley Gold Award presented by the Friends and Scottish Friends of the Whitley Fund for Nature. His book, The Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa has just been published by Random House Struik. What’s more, he takes great photos, the majority of those in the book being his own.

Congratulations on winning the award – how did you become involved in entomology, and what does this award mean to you personally?

I am very honoured and deeply humbled – I take this award as recognition for the immense contribution by pollinators (mainly insects) and small-scale farmers in rural areas around the world to biodiversity. So I am receiving it I feel on their behalf. My earliest memories are of insects, as I spent a lot of time watching and chasing after them as a child. This award will enable me to scale up our work on the conservation of pollinators in East Africa, and also raise further awareness among farmers, school children and the general public on how this important ecosystem service puts food on our plates and nutrition in our bodies.

You  work extensively with the East African farmers, educating them about the importance of pollinators for healthy crop yields – what is your main message to them?

Cuckoo wasp and lycaenid butterfly on coriander flowers in Turkana, Northern Kenya – photo credit: Dino Martins
Cuckoo wasp and lycaenid butterfly on coriander flowers in Turkana, Northern Kenya – photo credit: Dino Martins

Our main message to farmers is to celebrate the biodiversity that underpins the life support systems of the planet. Farmers are our greatest allies in the conservation of biodiversity in East Africa. Most of the forest habitats, for example, are surrounded by small-scale farmers whose actions can go a long way to either protect or degrade the forests, and of course the many endemic species they are home to. We want to get farmers and everyone to understand the connection between their own lives, food production and wild insects. We do a simple experiment where we bag one flower and leave one open to insects, then watch what develops over the next few days or weeks depending on the crop. It is always uplifting to see the moment a light goes on in the farmers’ eyes when they see the connection between insects visiting the flowers and the yields they enjoy. Working to help conserve pollinators and restore habitats has seen yields increase up to ten-fold on some crops, such as passionfruit and watermelon.

Entomology may be perceived as a less glamorous area related to wildlife conservation, but it is so essential globally – what is the appeal, and the importance of your field for world biodiversity?

Honeybee on the blackjack weed (Bidens pilosa) in the Kerio Valley Kenya - photo credit: Dino Martins
Honeybee on the blackjack weed (Bidens pilosa) in the Kerio Valley, Kenya – photo credit: Dino Martins

As Professor E. O. Wilson stated so eloquently some time ago: “Insects are the little creatures that run the world”. This is more true than ever in Africa where the large mammals are important, but also depend on insects that pollinate wild plants, disperse seeds, help build soil and recycle nutrients through the whole ecosystem. Understanding biodiversity is essential for sustainable development and conservation in Africa today. I feel that we are uncovering a previously ‘hidden’, somewhat unrecognised sphere of biodiversity: that of the rural farming landscape. When farmers create hedgerows of natural plants, protect patches of forest or grassland, or work together to create on-farm habitats we are finding that some of these landscapes are especially rich in pollinators. For example, on one mango farm in the Kerio Valley we have recorded over 1,000 different species of flower-visiting insects. This farmer harvests up to 12,000 mangoes weekly that earn him thousands of dollars. Without pollinating insects there would be no income on this farm. Watermelon farming brings in over 10 million US $ annually to just one county (Baringo) in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Scaling this up globally means that a huge part of our food production and especially high-value crops like nuts and berries are dependent on wild insects.

Do you feel confident that enough is being done to protect our pollinators?

There is a lot of interest in pollinators today that has come about from regional initiatives, including the Global Pollination Project managed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. There is also an on-going assessment of pollinators by the IPBES (I am a coordinating lead author for one of the chapters). Locally, many farmers, gardeners, beekeepers and enthusiasts are working to create habitats, provide nesting sites and learn about the pollinators around them. This is very inspiring and heart-warming to see. In East Africa, where we have a huge diversity of bees and other insects, one of the challenges is actually just identifying them, and this is where we are working with farmers – so that they can recognise that the diversity on their farms is of direct benefit to them and their families. Major challenges remain in terms of better understanding and managing pesticides and also farming in ways that are compatible with nature while scaling up food production worldwide.

pocket insects east africaWhat is coming up for you next, following this award, and the publication of your book, Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa?

I am back in Kenya now after an amazing few weeks in London. I am very much looking forward to getting back into working with farmers and completing a number of other books including ‘The Bees of East Africa: A Natural History’, and ‘The Butterflies of Eastern Africa’ with Steve Collins. A book we launched digitally on pollinators is also due to be printed shortly, but can also be downloaded here.

The Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa is being very well-received here and abroad, and I have had hundreds of messages saying how exciting it is to finally have a book on insects for the region. On the work front I have just been appointed the Director of the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya and am looking forward to getting more entomology projects going there.

The Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa is available now from NHBS

Ecology gifts raise money for key UK conservation charities

Creature Candy mugsLizzie Barker is a working ecological consultant, and the creator of gift and homeware design company, Creature Candy. This newly-launched enterprise produces quality British-made products featuring hand-drawn illustrations of wildlife. As well as raising profits for the Bat Conservation Trust, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and Butterfly Conservation, Creature Candy also intends to raise awareness around the conservation of our endangered and protected wildlife. We asked Lizzie how it all came about:

What are your background and current interests as an ecologist?

I studied Zoology between 2007 and 2010 at Aberystwyth University and graduated with a first degree. I then went on to work at Darwin Ecology in September 2010 as a consultant ecologist and have been there ever since. It’s a great company to work for and my job is very varied, although I specialise in bats. I hold a Natural England bat and great crested newt survey licence, but I also survey for dormice, badgers and reptiles. I love the spring and summer months so I can get outdoors and explore the English countryside for wildlife.

Creature Candy printsWhat’s the story behind Creature Candy?

I wanted to take more of a proactive role in wildlife conservation and raise money for the charities that I work so closely with as a consultant. Two years ago (whilst sitting on my sun lounger in Portugal) I came up with the idea of Creature Candy. I not only wanted to raise money for the charities, but also raise awareness of Britain’s declining & protected wildlife species, and to inspire people to take active roles in conservation. It was also incredibly important to me to change perceptions of bats, which is why my first design was a beautiful, charismatic brown long-eared bat illustrated in its true form, not a typical black silhouette with red eyes and fangs! It was also a priority to produce all our products with a “Made in England” stamp on them, which I think is very appealing in today’s market dominated by mass produced imported products.

How do you find the time to be an ecologist and an entrepreneur?

It’s a very hard balance to achieve. On a typical day, I switch off from the ecological consultancy world at 5pm, make myself a cup of tea and re-enter my office as the Director of Creature Candy. I then usually work for a few hours each night on marketing, processing orders and accounting, before spending some time with my husband before bed. It’s very important to find time for a social life and to relax, and I’m sometime guilty of over-working. However my husband is very supportive and I couldn’t manage the business without that support.

Can you tell us more about the artwork, and what’s to come for the range?

Our illustrations are hand drawn by my friend Jo Medlicott. Jo is a very talented artist and draws inspiration for our designs from photography and the natural world. Our next design is likely to be a red squirrel or a bird and we would like to introduce aprons and fine bone china jugs into the product range. The rest is top secret!Creature Candy moth tea towel

Browse Creature Candy products at NHBS

Anne Bebbington on botanical illustration and her new book, Understanding the Flowering Plants

Dr. Anne Bebbington trained as a botanist and worked for over 30 years for the Field Studies Council and as an environmental educator. Also an outstanding botanical illustrator, her career has traced a path between the two complementary fields, and she is a past President of the Institute of Analytical Plant Illustration.  Her new book is a testament to this dual expertise.

What came first for you, botany or illustration – and how have the two interwoven throughout your career?

From an early age natural history, drawing and painting were always my favourite occupations. At university I was lucky to be able to study both botany and zoology and found that drawing the plants and animals we studied was for me the best way of describing and understanding them. After specializing in plant ecology I joined the Field Studies Council. As well as teaching environmental studies at all levels from primary pupils to undergraduates, I tutored many wild flower courses for adults both in Britain and further afield in Europe, Canada and Australia. My interest and expertise in illustration always formed an important part of my work, particularly in producing handouts and identification aids, and running short botanical illustration courses. In retirement I work as a freelance natural history illustrator but also continue to share my enthusiasm for plants running workshops and giving talks to both natural history groups and garden clubs.

You are a founder member and past President of the Institute for Analytical Plant Illustration. Tell us more about this organization?

The Institute of Analytical Plant Illustration (IAPI) promotes interest in the diversity and understanding of plants through illustration. It was founded in 2004 by the late Michael Hickey, an excellent teacher, botanist and skilled analytical illustrator. Its aim is to encourage and facilitate collaboration between botanists and artists by organizing talks, running workshops and field meetings, and setting up projects which members can contribute to.

In 2010, with IAPI support, I got together with Mary Brewin, a skilled artist, to provide a course of ten workshops combining botanical tuition with an opportunity to develop and practice appropriate illustration techniques. We hoped it would help members to:

  • gain a better understanding of plants to inform their practice of the art of botanical illustration.
  • develop and refine illustration techniques appropriate to different botanical subjects.
  • encourage enthusiastic beginners to gain botanical knowledge and some basic art skills.

This course was very successful and raised great interest and in the last four years has resulted in the running of further courses and workshops both for IAPI and other groups and organizations.

What is the place of botanical illustration in scientific research?

Botanical illustration both in the form of photography but also drawings and painting is integral to all aspects of scientific research.

Are there any botanical subjects that you are particularly inspired to work from?

I am particularly interested in the way that plants interact with their environment and how the intricacy of their structure plays a part in their success and survival. I frequently work with my husband, a zoologist and photographer, investigating the interactions between plants and animals, particularly insects. Close observation and drawing plants out in the field is also something I really enjoy.

What are you currently engaged with in terms of your botanical illustration career?

I am currently looking at the detailed internal structure of flowers in relation to their pollination mechanisms by producing illustrations in the form of half flowers.

It’s a beautiful book and a wonderful resource for botanical information – who is the book written for?

The book should be accessible to anyone, even those with little or no scientific background. It was written for:

  • botanical artists and photographers  who wish to gain a better understanding of the Flowering Plants to inform their practice of the art of botanical illustration.
  • anyone who works with or just enjoys plants and wants to know more about them.

Understanding the Flowering Plants: A Practical Guide for Botanical Illustrators is published by Crowood Press and is available now.

Available now

Brock Fenton on the mystery and science of bats

Bats: A World of Science and MysteryBrock Fenton is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology, Western University, Ontario, Canada. His research programme involves using bats to explore the interfaces between animal behaviour, ecology and evolution. As co-author of the exciting new book, Bats: A World of Science and Mystery, we thought it would be interesting to pose him a few bat-related questions:

How did you become involved with bat research as a career?

As an undergraduate student I was attracted to bats by the abundance of things to learn about them. Part of this I experienced by looking in caves for hibernating bats that had been banded elsewhere. The other part was the library, books about bats (Bats by G.M. Allen; Nerve Cells and Insect Behaviour by Kenneth D. Roeder) and articles in journals. My main research focus now is on bat evolution, behaviour and echolocation.

In evolutionary terms, what is a bat, and how have they come to represent around 20% of all mammal species?

Bats are mammals capable of powered flight. Flight gives them mobility and their small size makes them inconspicuous. Bats fill a variety of trophic roles as consumers of insects, plant products, as well as other animals (from fish to other bats and birds), and even blood. I suspect that a combination of mobility, small size and flexibility is responsible for their evolutionary success. The blood-feeding vampire bats are among the best examples of this success.

Is it possible to define the character of a bat, and a typical day in the life?

I had not thought of “character”. Bats are mainly nocturnal, so operation at night is a key characteristic. They are long-lived (some species over 30 years in the wild), and high energy, requiring large quantities of food to fuel their activities. Although bats typically emerge (from their daytime roosts or hiding places) at dusk, they probably come and go from their roosts during the night. In the northern hemisphere and some other temperate parts of the world, bats use delayed fertilization to ensure that young are born when food is abundant.

The title of the book includes the word ‘mystery’ – what do we remain in the dark about regarding these nocturnal creatures?

There are about 1260 species of living bats. The largest weigh about 1500 grams, but most species are under 50 grams.  Bats survive because they are hard to find by day. The combination of secretive and small size makes most species of bats hard to study. This means that people who study bats regularly make astonishing discoveries about them. In spite of some concerns about the possible role of bats in public health, most species have no direct impact on humans. Lack of direct connection to humans means that bats are sidelined when it comes to some main stream areas of interest, particularly those relating to human health.

What are the world conservation priorities for bats at the moment, and can you highlight any projects that are doing interesting work?

Bats are “typical” wildlife, mainly negatively effected by the habitat consequences of expanding human populations and demand for resources. In Northeastern North America, White-nosed Syndrome has killed literally millions of bats. Around the world turbines at “wind farms” also kill bats, but not on the scale of WNS. Research into White-nosed Syndrome and bats’ responses to turbines are important for the future of bats. Other research into the role that bats may play as reservoirs for diseases also is important for the image of bats. The last part of the book speaks about some of the unanswered questions about bats that appeal to the authors.

Who is this book aimed at?

We hope that this book will appeal to anyone interested in biodiversity and natural history. This could be the person interested in evolution or echolocation, conservation or social behaviour. We also hope that it appeals to those intrigued by flight, by where bats live and what they eat. It is not intended to be a text book about bats.

Bats: A World of Science and Mystery is published in November 2014

Order now

 

Birds and Climate Change – authors James Pearce-Higgins & Rhys E. Green discuss the impacts and responses

Birds and Climate Change: Impacts and Conservation Responses has just been published by Cambridge University Press. This key topic is given a broad critical review by James Pearce-Higgins, a Principal Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, and Rhys E. Green, Principal Research Biologist at The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Honorary Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge. We asked them a few questions about the priorities and processes involved.

Birds and Climate Change: Impacts and Conservation ResponsesGiven this is such a vast subject, is it possible to summarize what we know currently about the impacts of climate change on birds – and also how we know it?

There has been an increasing wealth of scientific information published in recent decades, documenting the impacts that climate change has had on birds, which we review in the first part of the book. One of the best documented impacts is that the timing of spring migration and breeding outside of the tropics has become earlier in response to warming. There is also strong evidence that the abundance within bird populations has changed in response to changes in climatic variables through time. This has occurred through a range of different mechanisms. In response to climate change, these processes have led to significant changes in the composition of bird communities through time, and to shifts in species’ distributions, which have tended to move poleward by an average of over 7 km per decade.

The precise impacts of climate change vary across the globe, with changes in temperature being much more important in temperate and higher latitudes, whilst variation in rainfall is the most important cause of change in the tropics, and to long-distance migrants. Although there is a burgeoning evidence base about climate change impacts on birds, much of this research is from Europe and North America. We show in a key graph how little research effort there has been in the tropics, where we have shown the ecological processes are different, and where the majority of bird species are found. Long-term monitoring of bird populations, breeding and migration are an important resource for climate change studies. These studies have been done both by volunteer enthusiasts and academics, but mostly in the Northern Hemisphere and outside the tropics. Addressing this monitoring and research gap should be a high priority.

Much of the long-term monitoring data required to study the impacts of climate change upon birds is necessarily collected by volunteers (citizen scientists) because this ensures that the data are sufficiently extensive and sustainable in the long-term. Thus, information about the changes in the timing of migration and breeding is collected through bird observatories and schemes like the BTO’s nest record scheme, whilst large-scale information about bird populations and distributions is collected by standardised monitoring by volunteer birdwatchers, such as through annual breeding bird surveys and periodic atlases. Ringing (banding) and nest record schemes provide information about birth and death rates, which can help identify the processes behind these changes. These data are complemented by professional studies which are often more intensive and particularly have helped to understand the ecological mechanisms of change.

What sort of conservation responses are available?

The second part of the book examines potential conservation responses to climate change. The first step in this is to predict the future impacts of climate change on birds, which is covered by its own chapter. Here we link projected range changes and extinction risk to the amount of climate change, and show that increasing amounts of climate change will threaten an increasing number of species. We then review the options for adapting conservation action to climate change, building on a range of tools already used by conservationists. These include deciding which species and places are priorities for conservation, the protection and management of a network of core sites, habitat protection and creation to enhance connectivity, management of the wider landscape to reduce other threats and more intensive methods such as translocations. We believe that it is important to build on the foundations of existing conservation management, so that the threat of climate change does not divert resources away from existing and important conservation action. Reducing the impact of other threats on species will increase their ability to cope with a changing climate and may be sufficient, in some cases, to compensate for the negative effects of climate change.

Maintaining and extending the existing protected area network, alongside initiatives to improve the management of sites in that network, will be vital in helping species adapt to climate change. For example, protected areas can provide opportunities for colonisation of areas where the climate has become suitable for a species because of climate change. However, we recognize that with increasing magnitude of climate change, this adaptation challenge will become more difficult, and require more radical solutions. The final chapter in this section also considers the additional complication that the ways in which greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, and other climate change mitigation, will also have a significant impact on bird conservation. Some renewable energy options are likely to have negative impacts on birds, whereas prevention of the release of carbon stored in forests and bogs because of inappropriate land use change, such as deforestation and drainage, is likely to be beneficial for the bird species which inhabit those habitats.

Can you give some specific examples of responses underway, and what sort of levels of success these are demonstrating?

There has been recent criticism that because climate change will result in shifts in where species are found, that a static network of protected areas will no longer be useful. However, a number of recent studies are reviewed which demonstrate that by protecting large areas of extensive semi-natural habitat, protected areas in fact ensure the existence of suitable areas of habitat for species to move into. This has been particularly demonstrated for wetland and heathland nature reserves in the UK. There has also been much discussion about the potential for the creation of stepping stones and corridors to help create more connected landscapes through which species may move more easily. This literature is also discussed, which demonstrates that these interventions may benefit 30% of bird species studied, or fewer. Indeed, for the most sensitive habitat-specialists, such as tropical forest specialists, about 50% of a landscape may need to remain forested to ensure connectivity. Evidence is also building for the potential to manage sites appropriately to increase their resilience to climate change. In particular, the blocking of drainage ditches in the UK uplands may raise water levels and reduce the vulnerability of peatland ecosystems to summer drought, which will benefit a range of upland bird species, such as the golden plover.

Global change demands global responsiveness – how much agreement is there over the priorities?

Priority setting will be an important aspect of conservation responses to climate change, and a range of different ways in which priorities may be assessed exist. We review a number of these in the book, as well as suggesting a number of ecological traits likely to be associated with species vulnerability to climate change. Whilst there are an increasing number of examples of these being applied to particular regions or countries, there remains a lack of consensus over priorities across continents or biogeographical areas. The need to address this is recognized, and as discussed in the chapter on conservation in a changing climate, there is potential to use existing policy instruments, such as intergovernmental agreements, to achieve this. Given the potential threat that human responses to climate change may also pose to birds, whether the impacts of renewable energy generation, or other potential changes in land-use and other sectors discussed briefly in the final chapter of the book, this consensus needs to extend to other areas in order to be effective.

What future developments are on the horizon in extinction risk assessment, and are you positive about the potential impact of conservation responses overall?

One of the most significant chapters in the book reviews the literature predicting the effects of climate change on birds, and provides guidance for how this should be used. There is considerable potential to extend these to include information about population size, rather than just occurrence, and to make them more process-based, incorporating information about demographic rates and the mechanisms by which climate change may affect the species of interest. This has been achieved in a small number of cases, producing models which may be useful to inform future decision making about conservation responses to climate change. Such development will be particularly valuable, because it will help to assess the likely potential impact of conservation responses, relative to the likely magnitude of future climate change. However, this detail comes at a cost, and will not be feasible for most, or even many species.

Birds and Climate Change: Impacts and Conservation Responses

 

 

A Sparrowhawk’s Lament author David Cobham interviewed by NHBS

A Sparrowhawk's Lament jacket imageOur readers may be familiar with you as the director of the 1979 film, Tarka the Otter, so your conservation credentials go back a long way. What first stirred you to get involved with the plight of our wildlife?

In the late sixties I made several films for the Midland Bank showing the advice they gave to farmers enabling them to reorganize their farms, specialize and make them more profitable. This always involved pulling out hedgerows, filling in ponds and knocking down old barns. Not very good for wildlife. I tried to get them to make a conservation film but they were not interested. In 1970 I met Henry Williamson, who wrote Tarka the Otter, and asked him if he’d be interested in writing a film for the BBC Natural History Unit called “The Vanishing Hedgerows”. The film would be based on his experience of farming in Norfolk between 1936 and 1946. Farming with horsepower initially, then the first tractor and finally pesticides. Running through the film was the story of the plight of the Grey Partridge. The film was a great success and won a conservation prize at the Montreux film festival.

Your new book, A Sparrowhawk’s Lament, explores the state of Britain’s birds of prey. How are they getting on, and what are the main threats to their survival?

The Hen Harrier’s existence as a British breeding bird of prey hangs in the balance. The main threat is persecution by gamekeepers on grouse moors. It is coordinated throughout the Pennine chain. All predators, not only Hen Harriers, are exterminated. As a result there was no successful breeding in 2013. There is a chance that prospects may improve in 2014. Nevertheless this spectacular bird must not be allowed to become extinct as a British breeding bird. It is estimated that there is territory for up to 300 pairs of Hen Harriers on the Pennine chain. Poisoning of birds of prey is still prevalent throughout the British Isles. Red Kites, Golden Eagles and Common Buzzards are the main targets.

Illustration by Bruce Pearson
Illustration by Bruce Pearson
Did you spend much time roaming the countryside encountering these magnificent birds during the research process of the book? You must have met some interesting human characters too on your travels?

I spent three years researching and writing A Sparrowhawk’s Lament. Some of it came out of films I had made for the BBC and Channel 4. For instance I made 3 films on the Peregrine Falcon: one in Scotland, two in Cornwall. On them I worked with two experts, Roy Dennis in Scotland, and the late Dick Treleaven in Cornwall. I did travel to Scotland to meet up with Roy Dennis and glean some of his vast experience with Ospreys and Golden Eagles and I went to Mull to talk to Dave Sexton about the successful re-introduction of the White-tailed Eagles in Scotland. In the North of England I saw Merlin and Honey Buzzards and I talked to my cousin George Winn Darley who owns a grouse moor. Stephen Murphy of Natural England showed me round the Forest of Bowland which was once the stronghold of breeding Hen Harriers. There I was priviledged to hear his first hand account of the death of Bowland Betty. In the Midlands I met Tim Mackrill who took over the Osprey re-introduction at Rutland Water. Nearby at Rockingham I spent time with Steve Thornton and Derek Holman who’d been involved with the Red Kite release on the Forestry Comission land there. They also showed me nesting Hobbys at Lilford Hall. In Norfolk there was plenty of opportunity on our Hawk and Owl Trust reserve to see Marsh Harriers, Goshawks and Sparrowhawks. David Lyles showed me where to watch nesting Montagu’s Harriers on his land. On Salisbury Plain I met up with Nigel Lewis and watched him ringing young Kestrels and in the West Country Robin Prytherch took me round his Common Buzzard study area in the Gordano Valley near Bristol. Finally, Steve Roberts blew away some of the mysteries surrounding that extraordinary bird, the Honey Buzzard.

I also talked to a great number of wildlife cameramen. Mike Richards, Hugh Miles, John Aitchison, Simon King, Chris Knights, Martin Hayward Smith and Manny Hinge shared their often gruelling experiences with me.

Finally, there were many enthusiasts, amateur and professional who took time to talk to me and impart their knowledge. In particular, I must mention the late Derek Ratcliffe, Robert Kenward and Ian Newton.

What is the significance of the title A Sparrowhawk’s Lament?

As a film maker I was always keen to find a hook to catch the audience’s attention. If you didn’t they had the easy option of switching off. So before I wrote a word I knew I had to have a hook. Quite by chance I found my hook while I was in hospital for an operation. I was literally waiting to go down to the theatre when my wife came in with an armful of books for me to read. One of them was the Penguin Book of Bird Poetry. My wife left and I flicked through the pages. To my amazement I found an anonymous fifteenth century poem in which a male Sparrowhawk was complaining that the fear of death worried him. In the fifteenth century Sparrowhawks were protected – they were the hawks that a holywater clerk was allowed to fly. Did the Sparrowhawk have a crystal ball to forsee the future – persecution and pesticides? So that was the hook and the first chapter is a detective story seeking out from what it was that the male Sparrowhawk was fearful of dying.

How has our relationship with birds of prey changed in this country over the centuries?
Illustration by Bruce Pearson
Illustration by Bruce Pearson

For over three thousand years Man trained birds of prey to put food on the table. With the introduction of the double barrelled shotgun that relationship was severed. The 1831 Game Act let loose a period of persecution beyond belief. By 1916 five birds of prey were extinct in the British Isles – the Goshawk, Marsh Harrier, Osprey, Honey Buzzard and White-tailed Sea Eagle. Gradually, the swell of public opinion, nauseated by this senseless, selfish slaughter, held sway. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was formed and the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 afforded  full protection for all British birds of prey. In recent years the BBC TV programmes, Springwatch and Autumnwatch, have gone to great lengths to champion the role of birds of prey in our environment and to show in a sympathetic way the difficulties they experience  in finding a mate, nesting, providing enough food for their offspring and finally in migrating to their winter quarters.

What are the current priorities now for conservation of our birds of prey, and how might this book inspire people to get involved?

The top priority at the moment is to ensure that the Hen Harrier does not become extinct as a breeding bird in England. It is on a knife-edge at the moment. Publicise the horrific cruelty of pole traps and poisoning. We need more Wildlife Crime Police Officers. We need to strengthen the law so that landowners are made to accept the responsibility for any crime against birds of prey that occurs on their land.

The Sparrowhawk’s fear of death in that fifteenth century poem, which I have called A Sparrowhawk’s Lament, inspired me to find out the true state of British breeding birds of prey, exactly how they were faring. I hope that some of the experiences that I have had will influence young and old to revere our birds of prey and join an organisation such as the Hawk and Owl Trust which are dedicated to the conservation of all birds of prey. They are thrilling birds. Whether you  revel in the sky splitting stoop of the Peregrine or the ground hugging dash of the Sparrowhawk the world would be a poorer place without them.

A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey are Faring

 

 

Cold Blood author Richard Kerridge on reptiles and amphibians, and the ‘new nature writing’

Cold Blood jacket imageTell us about where you grew up and what inspired your early adventures with reptiles and amphibians.

I grew up in the south London suburbs, and some of my earliest memories involve images of animals – on television, in books and on the little picture cards I collected from tea packets. The wild animals of Africa and India fascinated me. I loved natural history books and stories about expeditions to find tigers and elephants. One of my fantasies was that I had a pet tiger, a huge male who would leap out and scare away boys who were trying to bully me. In my daydreams, as I walked home from school, the tiger would pad along beside me, out of sight behind the hedges.

But what could I actually encounter? Did England have any exciting animals to match the elephants and tigers? I read about otters, badgers and hawks, but they were far from my suburban experience, with its garden ponds and overgrown corners and strips. Foxes were elusive twilight animals. Reptiles and amphibians, however, were dramatic wild animals that could be found near my home. If I scaled down, the tangles of pondweed and banks of gorse and heather became forest and savannah, and the newts and lizards formidable megafauna. The theatricality of suddenly seeing one of these animals was important – the thrill, the intensity, of trying to edge closer without scaring away what at that moment always seemed to be the most vivid lizard yet, or the deepest-black newt. For me the animals represented the wildness that I felt was all around me, all around London, and all around Britain. They were emissaries from all the lakes, heaths, streams, scrubland, grassland and forest of the world.

Do you still have a bath tub full of lizards, frogs and snakes in your back garden?

For decades I didn’t keep any, after coming to feel in late adolescence that our hobby had been cruel and clumsy. By this time I was preoccupied with literature and politics, and teenage social and sexual life. And then I went to university to study literature, and was moving house every year. Throughout all this, the reptiles and amphibians still lived in brackeny parts of my mind, and I was always glad to see a real one.

After the contract had been secured for the book, I made an exception, and acquired some captive-bred hatchling European Green Lizards, which I keep in the garden, not in a bath but a large vivarium made of special Perspex that does not block UV light. The impulse to get them was part of the spirit of starting the book. And I do love having them. I always liked this species, which used to be sold commonly in British pet shops and lives wild on mainland Britain in one feral colony. They are an extraordinary powdery green. The young ones I have are beginning to come into adult colours.

How did your investigations develop? Since 1996 you have been Course Director of the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University – were you ever tempted to go into biology as a career?

I couldn’t have. At fourteen, when I had to choose my O-Level subjects, it was either Biology or History. You couldn’t do both, and History and English were my best subjects. I wasn’t good at sciences, and in those days people were mostly identified at about that age as either artists or scientists. If you were good at one, you didn’t have to worry about the other – that was the message.

My strongest interest, anyway, is in the emotional significance that wild nature has in people’s lives. Our conventional ways of talking and writing about natural history have in recent decades been rather shy of sophisticated emotional language. A split between scientific and artistic ways of thinking has occurred in popular natural history too, since the middle of the twentieth century. The ‘new nature writing’ is attempting, among other things, to bridge that gap, and to explore the ways in which the love of wild nature relates to other life experiences and to shared culture.

For those less keen on the reptile and amphibian fauna, could you share some fascinating facts that might break the ice?

The horror and fear that these animals arouse, snakes especially, is part of their glamour. They provoke strong reactions and feature regularly in thrillers when some sort of eerie spine-tingling villain is required. The fear is fascination. But, to break the ice, I would ask people to see the beauty of each animal’s relationship to its environment – the exquisite way in which a snake or lizard acquires and concentrates the subtle colours of heather, sand and bracken, and receives on its tongue the changing chemical information in the air. They are spirits of their places.

What prompted you to write the book, and do you think nature writing has a place in reorientating people’s attitudes towards wildlife, and the environmental and ecological concerns of our time?

The book has been inside me since childhood. At last – with support from my agent and editor, and inspired by seeing many students do it – I found the confidence to let the writing come. Nature writing has a part to play, I hope. There is a surge of this kind of writing in Britain at present. We are in what has been called ‘the nature writing moment’, and I don’t think the timing is accidental. It seems likely to me that people’s renewed interest in this genre comes from unease about environmental problems and the failure of our political system to respond to them – climate change most obviously, but other disturbing trends also, such as collapsing bird and fish populations and the prospect of a new industrialization of farming. People who read these books may be looking to find out what is happening to wild nature now, and what sort of meaning it can have in our lives. What happened over the proposed sell-off of public forests a couple of years ago was another sign. Politicians had forgotten that people cared about such things. Nature writing is no longer escapist, if that was ever a fair accusation. It is a genre that confronts some of our most important and contemporary challenges.

What advice would you share with amateur naturalists keen to explore the cold blooded inhabitants of their local patch?

Have a look at the Reptiles and Amphibians of the UK website and the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust website. Make an online search pairing the name of your region with the name of the species you want to see. Or go out to any wetland or heathery heath near your home. For reptiles, choose a sunny day before 10.00 am or after 4.00 pm. Approach banks and verges quietly, watching for movements. When you get your eye in, you see animals you would not previously have noticed. Look under logs and pieces of wood, and especially flat pieces of metal. Slow worms often hide there, and sometimes snakes and toads. Shine a torch into ponds after dark. Expect surprises.

Cold Blood: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians

 

 

Tim Birkhead on Ten Thousand Birds, and his top 5 ornithology classics

Tim Birkhead is a professor of zoology at the University of Sheffield. A researcher and educator he regularly gives public talks, is a distinguished columnist, and has written many books including The Wisdom of Birds and Bird Sense. His new book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin is out now.

Ten Thousand Birds jacket imageHow did you first become interested in ornithology?

My father was a bird watcher, so I became interested from an early age. I can remember looking at a song thrush nest at the age of about three, bird watching from about the age five, and finally getting a pair of binoculars when I was about twelve. That was a breakthrough! I often marvel at my persistence at bird watching without binoculars, but I know that several of my ornithological colleagues did the same.

Could you introduce your new book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, and describe what the publication of the book means to you?

The study of the history of twentieth-century ornithology has clearly seemed like a daunting task to the handful of ornithologists who have written about the history of ornithology as a whole. There’s just so much information. I decided it must be possible, although having made that decision, it took me a further year to decide how to tackle it, both in terms of reviewing what has been done, and writing about it in a way that was engaging.

It could have been done through the most eminent ornithologists, but the book would then have been little more than a succession of biographies. It could also have been done decade by decade – describing major discoveries in chronological order, but so many great ornithologists spanned several decades that that would have been messy and dull. As a biologist I liked the idea of biological themes: migration, song, population ecology and so on. Themes was what we went with. It meant writing a historical review of each topic – which my co-authors and I found both entertaining and educational. We learned a lot writing this book.

Our emphasis throughout is try to bring history to life by telling stories about the wonderful, extraordinary, sometimes crazily driven individuals that have contributed to our ever expanding knowledge about birds. Have a look at our website myriadbirds.com.

Ten Thousand Birds internal image
Otto Lilienthal’s analysis of the aerodynamically important dimensions of storks.

 

Any favourite stories from the book?

This is hard – ornithologists were (are) so idiosyncratic there are many great stories. I suppose one iconic story that I grew up with was the intellectual battle between David Lack (Oxford) and Vero Wynne-Edwards (Aberdeen) about the way bird populations are regulated. Wynne-Edwards thought that populations were controlled by their own behaviour and showed restraint – by laying fewer eggs or not breeding at all – when food was short, for the good of the population or species. Lack on the other hand promoted an individual selection point of view and suggested that when food was short those that bred successfully left more copies of their genes in future generations. Lack of course won. What was remarkable about Wynne-Edwards was how convinced he was by his own idea… and so wrong! By being wrong however, he stimulated other biologists to focus very sharply on the way natural selection worked, and that lead to a new and very productive way of thinking, described in the chapter on behavioural ecology.

A second story: I like the idea that in the 1940s biologists and ornithologists were utterly convinced that no organism had a magnetic sense. Yet within 20 or 30 years the fact that birds used the earth’s magnetic field to find their way around became one of the hottest topics in ornithology – and still is thanks to the development of geolocators and GPS devices for tracking birds and exemplified by the BTO’s wonderful and highly publicized studies of migration by Common Cuckoos. The revolution in bird migration studies is tremendously exciting and the discoveries of some of the long-distance, non-stop migrations are breath-taking.

Ten Thousand Birds internal image
A pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying.
From within your personal interest in ornithology, is there an area that particularly appeals, species-, or geozone-wise?

I have studied Common Guillemots on Skomer Island, Wales since 1972, over 40 years now: they’d be disappointed if I didn’t name them my absolute favourite. I know them better than any other species. But I also love hummingbirds and the oilbird is among the most bizarre of birds I’ve ever encountered, like something out a Harry Potter novel and with super senses too. But top of my list is the Eurasian Bullfinch: its mental abilities (rarely apparent except in captivity) are truly extraordinary, and it has the most unbird-like sperm of any bird I’ve ever studied.

Ten Thousand Birds available now

 

 

Tim Birkhead’s Top 5 ornithology classics:

(Please note these classic texts, with the exception of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, are out of print and not available from NHBS (try antiquarian book dealers or the website abebooks.com) – but we think this list makes interesting reading!)

Lack, D. 1968. Ecological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds. Methuen.
Arguably the most inspiring ornithology book and written by the most inspiring ornithologist of the 20th-century. I read it as an undergraduate and was mesmerized. Inspired by John Hurrell Crook’s comparative study of weaverbirds, David Lack used Crook’s novel approach to produce an inspirational synthesis of all that was known about the ecology and behaviour of birds. The result is a clear, engaging, insightful overview of bird biology up until 1968, further enhanced by Robert Gillmor’s superb drawings. When we were writing Ten Thousand Birds and we asked senior ornithologists which ornithology book they most valued, it was this one, and another written by David Lack.

Snow, D. W. 1985. The Web of Adaptation. Cornell University Press.
David and Barbara Snow worked in South America and at the Asa Wright Centre on Trinidad studying manakins, cotingas and the bellbird. The Asa Wright is a magical place and well worth a visit. David Snow writes beautifully, and this book discusses how a diet of easily acquired fruit fosters a sexually liberated, lekking lifestyle. This wonderful little book has not enjoyed the recognition it deserved.

Del Hoyo, J;  Elliott, A;  Sargatal, J. 1992-2013. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions.
One of the first encyclopedias of ornithology, and certainly the first scientific one, was written by John Ray and Francis Willughby and published in 1676 (in Latin) and in 1678 (in English). The most recent encyclopedia of ornithology, the absolutely magnificent Handbook of the Birds of the World, is remarkably similar, despite an interval of over 300 years. This tells us a lot about how smart Ray and Willughby were about communicating their knowledge, but also that despite massive changes in publishing, readers still value clear writing, superb images, and comprehensive coverage. The major difference of course is that Williughby and Ray thought there might only be about 500 species of birds in the world in 1660, and we now know that there are around 10,000. Inevitably, 10,000 birds requires more text, but in addition, we know so much more about birds today. When we wrote Ten Thousand Birds: Ornitholgy Since Darwin, we estimated the number of publications on birds there had been since Darwin’s day – the answer is a staggering 400,000.  del Hoyo et al have done a magnificent job in summarising much of that information in this landmark publication.

Thomson, A. L. 1964. New Dictionary of Birds. Nelson: London.
I discovered this book when I was as an undergraduate in Newcastle in 1971. It seemed shockingly expensive at the time, but what an investment! I used it as the (unofficial) course text book throughout my entire zoology undergraduate degree because it provided excellent concise accounts of all major topics: genetics, ecology, behaviour.

Heinrich, B. 1989. Ravens in Winter. Summit Books: New Milford.
No other book so evocatively captures the masochistic rigours of fieldwork. This is a celebration of both field ornithology and the ultimate corvid. Heinrich himself was extraordinary: a professional biologist who was still running marathons in his 70s and who writes accessibly and engaging about birds.

In search of Odonata: an interview with ‘Dragonflight’ author Marianne Taylor

National Dragonfly Week is fast approaching, so in our quest for things Odonata-related we interviewed Marianne Taylor – author of Dragonflight: In Search of Britain’s Dragonflies and Damselflies. The book documents the author’s adventures around Britain over two summers, in search of as many species as possible…

Dragonflight: In Search of Britain's Dragonflies and Damselflies jacket imageAs a keen wildlife watcher from an early age, what drew you in particular to the passion for dragonflies which led to the writing of this book?

I have always enjoyed seeing dragonflies and damselflies when I was out birdwatching, but it wasn’t until I began taking wildlife photographs seriously, in 2009-2010, that I started to really appreciate Odonata. Photography has made me want to look at all wildlife in new ways, and I found the forms of dragons and damsels very appealing. I also quickly developed an interest in taking flight photographs – initially of birds but that quickly expanded to include everything that flies. As relatively large targets, dragonflies make challenging but very satisfying subjects for flight photography. And my geeky need to catalogue all my images correctly forced me to take on the challenge of properly identifying every dragon and damsel that I photographed. Learning about identification went hand-in-hand with learning distribution, behaviour and other aspects of their ecology.

You have spent two summers immersed in dragonfly and damselfly-spotting – and have encountered the majority of established British species.  How has such a dedicated involvement over a set period added to your knowledge of the natural history of your subject? Any surprising discoveries? There must be nothing like prolonged in-the-field focus for gaining an intimate appreciation of their behaviour…

I’d certainly not say I’m any expert, but I have learned a huge amount in the last two years, both from books as I ‘revised’ my subject, and from first-hand observation. I can now answer most questions put to me about Odonata by interested laypeople. What has surprised me most is the complexity of their behaviour, in particular territorial and courtship behaviour. I was also absolutely fascinated to see damselflies apparently ‘mobbing’ large dragonflies – if that’s really what it was, that is a sophisticated response to a  dangerous predator that I would never have expected to see from an insect. I would love to learn more about Odonata intelligence. I am quite convinced that they have some awareness of, and interest in, humans! I would also love to know more about their behaviour prior to adulthood.

Do you have a favourite, or stand-out, Odonata encounter from the book?

The morning spent at Strumpshaw Fen is what comes to mind – the Norfolk Hawker (see gallery – below) that finally gave itself up after a very long search, quickly followed by the utterly charming female Scarce Chaser that was, hands down, my favourite individual dragonfly from the whole two years. Two new species in the space of half an hour, both of them allowing prolonged and close-range observation. I was also really impressed by the damselflies (I only mentioned one in the book but there were several) which I picked out of spiders’ webs – it was great to have the opportunity to study them very closely and watch how deftly they cleaned the spider silk from themselves before going on their way.

Have you continued your search this year?

I have continued to watch and enjoy Odonata on my local patch and elsewhere when weather has permitted. I was also lucky enough to visit Sri Lanka in April, where I photographed and identified as many of the amazingly diverse local Odonata as I could. I have not sought out any new species in Britain so far this year, but that may be about to change as a new colony of Red-veined Darters has been found not far from home, and I’m hoping to pay them a visit next week. I am also very much hoping that RSPB Rainham Marshes will draw in another Southern Migrant Hawker this summer/autumn and that I’ll get to see it this time!

And finally what would be your top tips for aspiring dragon/damsel enthusiasts who want to encounter more of these magnificent beasts for themselves?

Establish a garden pond – even a small one may well be used by the commoner damsels. Always walk slowly and check low-level waterside vegetation – this is where resting and newly emerged dragons and damsels may be found, and they will let you look at them much more closely than the more mature and lively ones will. Try to spend a couple of hours at least at a site, as most species behave differently at different times of day – for example, many only engage in courtship behaviour during the warmest hours of the day. Remember that the chaser, skimmer and darter dragons in particular are creatures of habit and like to visit the same perching spots again and again, so if you disturb one from its perch, just loiter nearby and it will probably come back. To improve your chances of seeing scarcer species, regularly check the sightings pages at the British Dragonfly Society’s website to check where and when they are being seen. Take photographs! It helps greatly with identification to have a static image you can study at length, and you can get excellent macro images from most point-and-shoot digital cameras these days.

Dragonflight available now from NHBS

Check out our recommended kit and field guides for successful dragonfly-spotting

Visit Marianne Taylor’s photography and wildlife blog, The Wild Side

Gallery of images from Dragonflight, taken by Marianne Taylor: