Inheritors of the Earth: An interview with Chris D. Thomas

The author shows on a field trip in Sabah
Chris D. Thomas on a field expedition in Danum Valley, Sabah, 2015.

Chris D. Thomas is a Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of York and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in July 2012. He has an interest in understanding how humans have changed the biological world, and how we might protect the biodiversity that remains. His first book, Inheritors of the Earth, is a very interesting and thought-provoking read on the current mass extinction crisis, and conservation philosophy in general, focusing on the proverbial winners, and calling out conservationists for holding viewpoints that seem more driven by nostalgia than by logical thinking about the biological future of our planet. Sure to ruffle some feathers, NHBS nevertheless believes that this book makes an important contribution, and that his arguments are more balanced than a cursory glance might suggest. We contacted Chris with a list of questions that arose after reading it.

1. In your book, you quite rightly argue that, despite species going extinct, there are species who are benefitting from our presence and the changes we have wrought to our ecosystems. You acknowledge that our influences largely seem to result in an accelerated introduction of species in new areas. Will the net result of this great reshuffling not be a world that is suited only to generalist species (the proverbial rats and pigeons) at the expense of specialists?

This is not quite how I see it. Take your two examples. The Asian brown rat was a regular rodent (granted it was omnivorous, but so are many other rodents), before it hitched a lift with us around the world. Today, the brown rat mainly lives in and around human habitation and farmland, except on islands that lack native rodents, so you could simply call it a specialist on human-modified environments. The feral or town pigeon originated as a specialist cliff-nesting pigeon (the rock dove) in western Europe, the Mediterranean, and into western Asia. It is still a cliff-nesting bird, living on our buildings. Neither the feral pigeon nor the brown rats are unusually generalised, relative to many other birds and mammals. It is their proximity to us that makes us think of them as generalists.  I don’t think we should synonymise ‘successful’ or ‘living in human-modified environments’ with being a ‘generalist’.

2. In Chapter 6, “Heirs to the World”, you mention that most current conservation efforts focus on trying to defend the losers. You argue that, though honourable, it will be more effective to back the winners, i.e. those species that will make up future biological communities. An important theme in the recent book Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want it Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future is that the loss of wild crop varieties through extinction is threatening our future food supply. Many of these wild varieties might have the potential of providing new food sources when our current crop varieties will inevitably succumb to new insect pests or pathogens, or can provide other benefits (e.g. pharmaceuticals). This is why projects such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and other seed banks are so important. Do you see any value in the conservation of threatened species, or is this crying over spilt milk?

I argue that we should in most instances continue to protect ‘species’. Rare species may become common and hence fulfil important roles in future ecosystems, and species that we currently ignore (or have not yet discovered) may become economically, medically or socially important to us in the future. Hanging onto as many species as possible is not a preservationist agenda, but rather a means of maintaining the building blocks of future ecosystems, fuelling biological changes that will take place in the coming centuries. Similar arguments apply to rare genes that belong to wild relatives of plants and livestock that we already use. They provide long-term resilience and flexibility.

3. In Chapter 11, “Noah’s Earth”, you call for a new conservation philosophy that acknowledges that life is a process, not a final product. In your view, this philosophy would rest on four overarching principles: a) accept change, b) maintain flexibility for future change by conserving species wherever possible, c) accept that humans are natural and that anything we do is part of the evolutionary history of life (this includes not shying back from employing any and all solutions at our disposal, including genetic techniques – none of them will make the world less natural), d) live within our natural boundaries. In the remainder of that chapter you elaborate on the first three principles, but not the fourth. How do you envision realising this fourth principle?

As I say: “We know that we cannot expect the bounty to continue if we carry on killing animals faster than they can breed or cut forests down faster than they grow. This strategy failed when our ancestors drove most of the world’s largest land animals to extinction, and it has played out in the last few centuries as whale and fish populations have collapsed under the pressure of over-harvesting. We need a resilient and sustainable approach. We should aim for maximum efficiency, by which I mean that we should pursue strategies that fulfil all human needs – and, where possible, desires – of every citizen on Earth while generating the least possible collateral damage to the global environment.”

Harvesting a species faster than the survivors can reproduce can be thought of as a relatively ‘hard’ natural boundary (once a species is extinct, it is no longer a resource), but other bounds are much softer (a forest with one fewer species still grows), and hence we often need to specify tolerable levels of change, rather than catastrophic points of no return. These issues deserve book-length treatment on their own, which is why I did (deliberately) somewhat duck the issues!

When I refer to the ‘least possible collateral damage to the global environment’, I am thinking about the development of technological and social ‘game changers’. For example, most meat production is based on filling our fields and barns with cows, sheep and chickens, which we then kill for food. If we could switch to the consumption of ‘factory-grown’ cultured meats, powered by renewable energy, it would dramatically reduce pressure on the land; although admittedly not by as much as if we all became vegetarians.

4. Your book makes many valid points as to how our current thinking around species conservation is in conflict with itself, or simply illogical (e.g. the distinction between native and invasive species, because, seen over long enough time scales, species distribution has always fluctuated. Or the idea that there is no one period in the history of life that we can take as a benchmark of the idealised pristine state the world should be in. Or simply the idea that conservation means “freezing” the world in its current (or a former) state – after all, the only constant of life on our planet has always been change). You also, provocatively I would say, argue that many island species that have gone extinct were effectively already evolutionary dead ends, having evolved in environments free from predators and pathogens. We have merely hastened their demise, but they would eventually have gone extinct anyway. Should we really give up on them?

I don’t think it is particularly controversial (or provocative, therefore) to say that most flightless and disease-susceptible terrestrial birds (as opposed to seabirds) that live on oceanic islands represent evolutionary dead-ends, on a time scale of ten or so million years. What are the alternatives? They would never be able to establish viable populations on continents because pathogens and predators are present. Confined to their island homes, they would eventually have died out, either when the islands eroded away, or when additional continental species arrived without human intervention (for example Darwin’s finches have ‘only’ been on the Galapagos for two to three million years). In most cases, we have accelerated the extinction of such species but not altered their eventual fate.

What we should do with the few remaining survivors is another issue. What I argue in Inheritors of the Earth is that we should think quite broadly. Can we introduce new genes to disease-susceptible birds that will make them resistant (for example to save the remaining Hawaiian honeycreepers)?  Can we cross predator-susceptible birds with related species that reproduce fast enough to survive the new levels of predation (for example to save New Zealand black stilts)?  Could we introduce new strains of bird malaria that are less potent, and displace the existing fatal ones? In other words, can we make the endangered island forms more resistant in some way and the continental invaders less virulent, so that long-term coexistence becomes possible? If not, then maybe we should indeed abandon some of the losers, and contemplate releasing continental walking birds (which can resist pathogens and predators) and pollinators, rather than dwell too long attempting to recreate a biological world that was inherently unstable.

Inheritors of the Earth5. One argument in favour of trying to conserve the “charismatic megafauna”, such as elephants and rhinos, are that they function as flagship species, and that conservation efforts aimed at them can benefit whole ecosystems. In your book, you don’t really go into this. What are your thoughts on the concept of flagship species, especially in light of your argument that “defending the losers” is ultimately a lost cause?

I am generally in favour of large, flagship species because they require large areas to protect, and this indirectly benefits many other species (though flagship conservation is not sufficient because it may miss areas of endemism). They are also culturally important to conservationists as well as to the general public, gaining public and political support for conservation. The giant panda has been globally important, and critical to the conservation of Chinese forests, despite being a slightly ‘dodgy species’!

When I discuss losers, remember that I then add the question “can we turn them into winners” (or at least into survivors). For the large megafauna that still survive, this is easy. We can choose not to hunt them to extinction any longer. It is already the case that large birds and large mammals are tending to recover in Europe and North America, and this is also true of the Great Whales. They were losers in the context of historic human culture, and there is no necessary reason why they ‘must be’ losers. Once ivory and rhino horn ‘culture’ is turned around, there will be nothing ‘wrong’ with these species either.

6. If you were put in charge of a major conservation organisation, say WWF, what would you do differently? Would you, for example, have greenlighted their recent campaign to try and protect the last remaining individual vaquitas (the threatened porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California)?

I’m not going to answer your first question because that would be a whole new book (or job if they offer it to me!). I’ll just say that, on day one, I would request a review of activities, and for every measure currently being undertaken to prevent change or decline, I would ask for the staff to develop an additional measures to promote changes that would increase diversity (or the status of an endangered species).

As for the vaquita, I am no expert. However, it is evolutionary distinct, and it is a perfectly viable species if we were stop killing it (including through gillnets). It is not a species that one should necessarily give up on. More broadly, it is a symptom of the mismanagement of the world’s marine resources. We sorted out farming on land a long time ago, but we are still more or less acting as hunter-gatherers in the marine realm. It is hopelessly inefficient.

If I had an infinite supply of money, I would be looking to invest in fish farms (they can be locally damaging, but humans still need food), and I would also invest in new GM crops which produce fish oils so that the farmed fish could be fed on terrestrial plants rather than ‘wild caught’ marine resources. Beyond that, I would invest in cultured fish meat (factory grown muscles), further reducing the need to catch wild fish. The aim would be for virtually all fish consumed in the year 2100 to be farmed or, ideally, cultured as tissues in factories.

Whether or not the vaquita itself can be saved, these strategies are all about generating permanent means of providing a global supply of fish meat without causing anything like as much collateral damage as takes place at present.

7. As mentioned above, I think your book makes excellent arguments. And yet, reading it also brought with it a certain sense of unease. It almost feels a bit defeatist, as if we might just as well give up on fighting to save threatened species and just go with the flow. I can see this argument not being popular. A lot of people feel we have a moral responsibility, as an intelligent, thinking species, to not drive other species over the edge, and to put a stop to our destructive ways. Isn’t saying “everything we do is natural, we are just another step in the evolution of life” a bit of a cop out?

I’ll leave others to discuss morals!

Saying that everything is natural, including all conservation actions we take, allows us to take ‘affirmative action’ for wildlife in a manner that some conservationists would historically have been nervous about (“I can’t do that, it would not be natural”). So, I see it as an opening up of new conservation opportunities, not a cop out.

8. It is perhaps a bit early to ask you how the book has been received. But, clearly, when a book like this is written, it is often based on years of work and research that has led up to it. These ideas did not just appear. So, how have your viewpoints been received so far?

The response to the book seems good so far, but it is far too early to judge. You are right, I have put some of these views out there previously, and they have received a mixture of responses. Many people seem very supportive. However, invasive species biologists are mostly negative, I think fearing that non-native species legislation could be undermined, more than genuinely questioning the biological thesis (that may just be my interpretation). There are also those, such as E. O. Wilson, who consider that I and others are being Anthropocene apologists. I understand their point, but we cannot simply continue to wish that we live in an unchanged world. We have to develop an understanding of biology, and an approach to conservation, that works with change rather than against it.

9. Obviously, there are many parties in our society who stand to gain a great deal from ignoring conservation concerns and steam-rolling ahead with “business as usual”, continuing to destroy natural habitats for corporate gains. With this book now poised to be published, do you not worry that your narrative will be hijacked, the way has happened with the debate surrounding climate change? I can already see people using your arguments to legitimise their actions, arguing along the lines of “this biologist said that the extinction crisis really isn’t such a big deal. See? Lots of species doing really well!”. Have you considered strategies to prevent this from happening?

I nearly didn’t put fingers to keyboard for this very reason. However, if we build a case for conservation based on a loss-only view of the world, eventually it will fall. The edifice is already creaking. A more balanced view that admits to the reality of biological gains as well as losses should, in the end, lead to more rational decision-making.

In terms of conservation, I have stated my own views. In the Epilogue, I write: “If [existing conservation] efforts were abandoned, the extinction rate would escalate. A major task of conservation is to keep the losses towards the lower end of the likely range – as well as to encourage biological gains. Although I have been advocating a more flexible approach to the environment, and specifically to conservation, nothing I have said should be used to undermine attempts to save existing species or maintain protected areas.

As for the extinction ‘big deal’, biological gains of the Anthropocene do not let us off the hook. A simple linear extrapolation of the current rate of extinction wipes out about three-quarters of all species in the next ten millennia. This is risky, given that species represent our planet’s biological parachute. All future ecosystems will be formed from the descendants of existing species, and we do not know which of today’s currently-rare species will be important components of future ecosystems (especially if humans alter the planet in yet another, unexpected way). Letting rare species go could have major long-term consequences. My advice would be not to discard the biological building blocks of our planet lightly.

Inheritors of the Earth is available to order from NHBS

The Sensory Ecology of Birds: Interview with Graham Martin

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.


Professor Graham Martin – Author of The Sensory Ecology of Birds

How did you first become interested in bird senses?

Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.

What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?

I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.

Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?

Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats.  Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.

Sensory adaptations to overcome the challenges of being nocturnal in two species, the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) and Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems.  I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.

An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?

Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets.  These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.

How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?

It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.

Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?

Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites.  Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.

Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?

Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.

White-headed vulture – photo credit: Graham Martin

Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.

Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?

Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes.  They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.

In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?

We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.

Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is available now from NHBS

CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring: An interview with Susan Young

Susan Young – Author of CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring

Susan Young is a writer and photographer with a background in physics and engineering. She is the author of the fantastic CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring published earlier this year. This great handbook provides lots of practical information on the use of CCTV for survey and research.

Your book on CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring, published earlier this year, is packed full of practical information for the researcher or amateur naturalist interested in using CCTV to monitor wildlife. Could you explain a little bit about your professional background and how you came to write this book?

I have had a very varied career and have always tended to look for new ways to do things. After graduating, I worked using applied physics in the manufacture of aero engines, and later, after a Masters in Engineering Management, worked in a large electronics company. For the last 15 years I have been a writer and (mainly) wildlife photographer, and found my experience of great value with the more technical aspects of photography.

After using various photographic systems for recording wildlife, I came to believe that CCTV had many applications for both the amateur and professional naturalist. As I have always enjoyed doing something different, I spent the last few years researching CCTV systems for use with wildlife.

I wanted to test CCTV in more formal environments and thus I volunteered for Natural England and the Wildlife Trust. With Natural England I have been researching the use of an underwater system for studying fish in rural rivers, and have also developed a system for monitoring rock pool life. With the Woodland Trust I have developed a portable CCTV system for bat monitoring, which is being used for a research project at the moment, and which can greatly reduce the need for night emergence surveys.

With this research I became convinced that there were many applications where CCTV could be of great benefit, but that the lack of clear, relevant technical information was a barrier to wider use. The more I discovered about CCTV, the greater my enthusiasm for the subject, and the greater the number of applications that became apparent. For this reason I decided to write CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring with the aim of encouraging wider use of what I believe is a valuable tool.

Do you feel that there is a need to bridge the knowledge gap between manufacturers/engineers and the individuals using field equipment? As an extension of this, do you feel that it would improve the quality of research or survey data if people had a better understanding of the functions and limitations of their kit?

In meeting both professional and amateur naturalists, I have often heard it said that manufacturers/engineers do not understand their problems. Without that understanding, they are unable to advise on the areas of use. In addition, the biological sciences are not generally taught with an emphasis on technology, which can leave graduates unfamiliar with technical language. Companies such as NHBS and, hopefully, books like mine, can help to bridge what is a very large gap in communication.

I feel very strongly that there could be great steps forward in research and survey methods if people were more aware of the possibilities of their equipment, together with an understanding of the limitations. For the keen naturalist, there is also a great number of applications for filming for pleasure.

We have found trail cameras to be extremely popular both with amateur naturalists and researchers. How do you feel these compare with CCTV systems and in what types of situations would you recommend each of them?

This is a difficult question to answer briefly!

I have used trail cameras for many years and without doubt they are of great value for indicating the presence of wildlife, especially in remote areas, but their short filming time makes them less practical for monitoring. CCTV is much more flexible and responsive, and has the capability of giving higher quality images, especially at night. CCTV can be used with underwater cameras, and with cameras that fit into small spaces such as bird or mammal boxes.

One of the main advantages of a CCTV system is that it can be set up to record at certain times as well as being triggered by motion or event. The wide range of CCTV cameras means that variable focus lenses can be used, allowing one to zoom in to the subject, noise reduction can produce clean images and features such as ‘smart IR’ prevent over exposure of nearby objects, a problem with night images with trail cameras.

If mains power is available, the advantages of CCTV become more apparent. Recent technology means that HD cameras can be used, giving high quality HD videos, and images can be viewed live on a monitor. If the internet is also available, images can be viewed remotely by smartphone, tablet or PC.

HD analogue video (AHD or, more recently, HD-TVI) is an amazing step forward in CCTV, giving videos of great quality at a reasonable cost and without the complexity of more traditional HD methods which require some knowledge of computer networks.

You have a vast amount of experience in the field using CCTV and must have collected huge amounts of footage from this. How does it make you feel when you are reviewing your videos and come across something amazing? Do you have a single favourite video or image?

There is nothing to beat the excitement of coming across a video of something unexpected. The otter swimming underwater was caught by accident while filming fish and is very short, but still very exciting, and something I never really expected to get, although I was always hoping. I try to plan a CCTV session to reduce the number of ‘empty’ videos and to make sure that I review small numbers without letting them build up over days. That way, the excitement is always there.

Finally – if you could set up a CCTV system anywhere in the world, where would you choose?

I would choose the UK. UK wildlife is very elusive and offers a great challenge. I am an ‘otterholic’ and would love to set up cameras on the Shetland islands. I have photographed otters with a DSLR, but there is nothing to beat the excitement of filming otters in action.

CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring is available from NHBS.


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 – 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