Bowland Beth dramatises the short life of an English hen harrier between 2011 and 2012 and immerses the reader in the day-to-day regimen of her life. Interweaved with her story is the larger tale of the species fight for survival under the constant threat of persecution. In this article our book specialist, Nigel Jones, talks to the author, David Cobham, about the plight of the hen harrier and his hopes for the future of this glorious bird.
There are numerous organisations and NGOs in the book who want the same outcome for the hen harrier, but who seem to be in conflict as to how to achieve their aims. What strategy do you think would enable all these groups to speak with one voice; do you think this would help when confronting powerful lobby groups such as the landowners and their connections in government?
The problem lies in some organisations wanting an outright ban on driven grouse shooting. That is not going to happen as has already been demonstrated. What we all have to work for is a system of licensing driven grouse moor shooting. Controlled by DEFRA a driven grouse moor would be licensed to operate and granted the subsidies that are substantial. If a case of illegal killing was proven in court the license for driven grouse shooting would be revoked for 3 years. I believe this would get a majority backing.
The hen harrier in your book is named Beth. I encounter some people who disapprove of naming animals, they claim this is anthropomorphism and inappropriate to conservation. What would you say to those people?
Mark Avery in his review of my book saw exactly what I was trying to do. Ring numbers or tag numbers are impersonal. By giving them names it makes us feel closer to the birds. The news that Bowland Beth has died is much more heart wrenching than that 834759 has died.
Sadly, I have never seen a hen harrier. Your description of them is written with such a passion akin to awe that I am now determined to see one of these birds for myself. What chance does an everyday person like myself have of seeing a hen harrier in the wild?
A survey last year reported that there were 4 breeding pairs of hen harriers in England – none of them on grouse moors. The best time to see hen harriers is in the winter when there is a considerable influx of hen harriers from the Scandinavian countries. They pitch up from October on the east of England and can be seen as they come into roost in reed beds on the coast or in damp areas with shelter from silver birches inland. They return north to breed in mid-March.
The landowners say they need to make an income from the moors, and driven grouse shooting is the only way they can do this. They will put the case for local employment and, like the debate around foxhunting, accuse opponents of not understanding ‘the countryside.’ Do you think a ban on driven grouse shooting is the only way to force the landowners hand, or do you think working alongside landowners to assist with techniques such as brood management and diversionary feeding is the best way to proceed?
Brood management is just one of six measures in DEFRA’s save the hen harrier project. It is a concession to the grouse moor owners. This is how it will work. First, when a nest is found on a grouse moor, diversionary feeding must be tried. This involves feeding day old chicks during the six week period when hen harriers take grouse chicks. They are placed on a plank supported by trestles about 30 metres from the nest. Trials at Langholm showed that this method reduces chick predation by 86%. If another hen harrier nests within 10 km of the original nest then brood management comes into play. The clutch of eggs is removed and hatched in an incubator. They are taught to feed. When they can feed themselves they are placed in an aviary out on the moor. Monitored by experts they will be given a “soft” release and continue to be fed until they are self sustaining.
If the trial is shown to fail due to illegal killing it will cease immediately.
I’m quite cynical about this. I think a lot gamekeepers won’t allow a hen harrier to nest on their moor and furthermore there are not enough hen harriers breeding on grouse moors in England to justify this procedure.
There are some conservationists that advocate adopting a more laissez-faire approach to extinction, moving priorities to bio-abundance rather than biodiversity and accepting that extinction and invasive species are part of the evolutionary process. What are your thought regarding this way of thinking?
I quote directly from my book. An extract from The Diversity of Life by Professor Edward O. Wilson: “We should not knowingly allow any species or race to go extinct. There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the ages of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us”. The hen harrier was extinct as a breeding bird in England in 2013. Its fate lies in our hands now.
Despite the hen harrier being a totem and emblematic of a battle between conservationists and those wishing to preserve a ‘rural way of life;’ a quick straw-poll I conducted indicated little knowledge of the bird. However, with more knowledge, I believe the majority would care about the hen harrier. How can the plight of the hen harrier compete in a media blizzard of often superficial and meaningless content?
When Bowland Beth was shot we believe she had just found a mate. Her femur was fractured, six of her tail feathers cut through and her femoral artery nicked. She picked herself up and flew unsteadily off, streaming blood behind her. Her vision blurred and she crashed into heather. Don’t tell me that birds don’t feel pain. She must have been in exquisite pain. I know about pain. I broke my femur last October, and lay there for six hours before I was found. That is the bond I have with Bowland Beth.
Do you believe satellite tagging is a good way to monitor hen harriers, and if so why?
Illegal killing of hen harriers continues. There is an arms race – sophisticated satellite tagging versus state of the art weaponry. Since 2007 36 hen harriers satellite tagged by Natural England have “disappeared”. Bowland Beth was one of them. The Hawk and Owl Trust satellite tagged two hen harriers last year. The male, Rowan, was shot last October in the north of England. His leg was smashed and he was able to fly some distance before collapsing in the heather. Sorrel, a female, is alive and well and flourishing in Scotland.
Protecting the hen harrier requires dedication, passion and commitment to the cause of conservation, often from volunteers working long hours in all weathers. What would you say to inspire a future generation of conservationist to take up the baton?
To watch a young hen harrier successfully fledge from her nest and set out into the unknown is the start of a Great Adventure. Sharing this knowledge with other weary volunteers who have probably not seen anything all day re-invigorates them, gives them the impetus to go out again and search for that elusive V-shaped image of a hen harrier, searching up and down, for its favourite prey, short-tailed field voles.
Bowland Beth: The Life of an English Hen Harrier, written by David Cobham and illustrated by Dan Powell, is published by William Collins and is available in hardback.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Co-authors James Eaton and Nick Brickle share some of their birding insights and in-depth knowledge of the region’s avifauna in this interview with NHBS.
Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in birding and what drew you to this region in particular?
James – My Grandmother gave me a copy of Benson’s Observer’s Book of Birds when I was six, and, wanting to see some of the birds in the illustrations in real life, my father agreed to take me to the local nature reserve to look for them, and from that point on it became an obsession!
Nick – Similar story. I got hooked before I was 10 years old, partly thanks to Choughs, Peregrines and my dad’s old binoculars on family holidays to Pembrokeshire. Ten years later and I found myself surveying White-winged Ducks in Sumatra and never looked back.
What inspired you to create a field guide that covers the entire Indonesian Archipelago? It must have been quite a challenge to cover such a diverse region.
All four of us are pretty obsessed with the region’s birds, both as a hobby and professionally, and all of us have travelled pretty widely in the region over many years. During this time the region has gone from having no bird field guide at all, to having a variety of books covering different parts of it; some now already long out of print. We all decided it was time to put our passion into a project that could do justice to the spectacular diversity to be found here, and so agreed to work together to create the new guide.
Could you explain a little about the unique biogeography of the region which makes it such a biodiversity hotspot?
Hard to sum it up in a sentence! It’s a fantastic combination of Asian and Australasian bird families, spread across 1000s of islands, with Wallace’s famous line running down the middle, and spectacular endemism throughout. For more, read the biogeographical history section in the introduction to the field guide!
Who is your target audience for the book?
Anyone with an interest in the birds of the region! Visiting and resident birdwatchers are the obvious user, but given that it includes over 13% of the world’s birds, anyone with an interest in birds should enjoy it. In due course we also hope to produce an Indonesian language version of the guide, so as to make it more accessible to the growing number of local birdwatchers.
For someone visiting the area for the first time, what are some of the most exciting sites, and the key species that you recommend looking out for?
Where to start! Within Indonesia, the best places for an introduction are probably the mountains and forests of West Java, which are easy to visit from Jakarta, and where many of the most sought after Javan endemics can be seen; or perhaps North Sulawesi, where a trip to see hornbills, endemic kingfishers and Maleo can be combined with beaches and diving; or Bali, where one of Indonesia’s rarest and most spectacular birds – the Bali Starling – can be seen with a short trip from the beach resorts.
Another choice for an easy introduction is the Malaysian state of Sabah in the north of Borneo. Here many spectacular and endemic birds can be seen from the comfort of first-rate hotels, including Great Argus and the completely unique Bristlehead. After that, the opportunities are limitless!
How do you kit yourself out for a birdwatching trip to the region, and can you recommend a great birding gadget or app?
At the simplest, you don’t need much more than a pair of binoculars (and maybe a rain coat or umbrella!). Beyond that it depends a bit on where you are going and what you’d like to see: a telescope can be useful, but is rarely essential, sound playback or recording equipment can be very useful, a camera if you like to take photos, camping equipment if you plan to visit very remote regions. If you plan to explore off the beaten track (and there are lots of parts of the region that qualify as this!) then a phone and google maps can be a surprisingly useful way to look for patches of forest, and then all you need to do is try and make your way towards them!
Do you have any favourites among the species in the guide? Are there any that proved particularly elusive or challenging to observe?
James – Difficult question, can I give two answers? One would be Helmeted Hornbill. Such an iconic bird that symbolises the region’s rainforests. You know when you hear the bird’s incredible mechanical laughing call you are in the rainforest, but equally you are reminded how it is disappearing from many areas due to illegal hunting for its casque. Another would be Bornean Ground Cuckoo. Once a mysterious bird, largely unknown due to its shy nature, feeding on the rainforest floor, but now as our understanding of the species has grown it is possible to see it. Nothing gets the adrenalin pumping quite as much as looking for this species.
Nick – Too many to choose from! For me it would have to be something that walks on the ground… pretty much any pitta, pheasant or partridge is a candidate. Maybe Banded Pitta (any of the three species…)? Or the spectacular Ivory breasted Pitta? Then of course there is Rail Babbler… Actually, more often than not my favourite is the last new species that I have seen, or the next new one that I want to see!
With so many endemic species, there must be some that fill very specific ecological niches?
Endemism is very high in the region, and many species are only found within very small ranges, such as Boano Monarch on an island only 20km wide, or Sangihe Island, only 40km long at its widest point, and with five endemic bird species. Damar Flycatcher too, found in the dark understorey of a tiny island that requires two days’ boat travel from the nearest city. Kinabalu Grasshopper Warbler is only found on the top of two mountain tops in Borneo. When it comes to specific niches, however, small island endemics are often the opposite, in that they often expand their niche due to the absence of competitors. Birds filling very specific niches are probably more a feature of the large islands groups like Borneo and Sumatra, where the overall diversity is much greater.
It is quite well publicised that one of the biggest threats to the conservation of all Indonesian species is rapid deforestation to create palm oil plantations. Are there other threats to bird species which also need to be highlighted?
Deforestation is a big issue. There has been a huge loss of forest over the last decades, but vast areas still remain, and their value is finally starting to be more widely recognised. Hunting for the captive bird trade also remains a huge threat, particularly to those species most desired as pets, such as songbirds and parrots. Local and international groups are working hard to try and reduce this trade, in particular the public demand, but there is still much work to be done to change attitudes.
How can the international community help to support conservation efforts?
As birdwatchers one of the simplest and best things you can do is to visit the region and go birdwatching! Coming here, spending time, spending money, staying in local hotels, eating local food, using local guides, all serves to create a value to the forests and the wildlife that lives in them. This is not lost on local people or the regional governments. Beyond that think carefully about the products you buy from the region, to make sure they come from sustainable and fair sources. If you have money invested make sure that is not going to support destructive or exploitative practices in the region. Finally, support a good cause! There are many, many local NGOs established and emerging in Indonesia and the wider region, all working and lobbying hard to protect the region’s forest and wildlife. Your support will help them achieve this.
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.
Michael Scott is a nature writer and cruise ship speaker who has had an interest in botany since his undergraduate studies at Aberdeen University. His latest book, Mountain Flowers, is an extensive and engrossing survey of Britain’s montane flora. Michael expands on the story of Diapensia (see below) in the August 2016 issue of British Wildlife.
Tell us about the book and who might find it interesting.
I suppose it’s aimed mostly at people who already have some general interest in the wild flowers of Britain. Perhaps they already know something about the flora of lowland areas but don’t quite know where to begin seeking out the more elusive species that grow at higher altitudes in the British mountains. The book describes the key places to visit and some of the characteristic species at each site. It also describes the ecological requirements of each species, and I’d really hope that will encourage people to explore more widely in the mountains and hopefully make new discoveries there.
Many of the mountain areas of Britain are stunningly beautiful, and I would be thrilled if people who love mountains were also encouraged to read the book and discover more about these wonderful wild areas and about the colourful plants that grow beneath their feet as they hike the fells or ‘bag their Munros’. I’ve tried to select photos for the book that are as attractive and compelling as possible to inspire readers to explore and investigate – or just to act as a wonderful souvenir of holidays in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands or wherever.
I best sum up my objective for the book at the end of chapter one: “If I can persuade a few… hillwalkers to slow their relentless pace, to look around them as they climb, to venture off the beaten path and explore an interesting-looking crag or delve into the watery runnels that seep from the tops – in other words, to enjoy seeing a hill, rather than just conquering it – then this book will have been truly worthwhile.”
How did you first become interested in botany?
I grew up near Edinburgh Zoo and from an early age spent all my spare time in the zoo getting to know the animals. By the age of 8, I’d decided I wanted to be a zoologist when I grew up – which I thought meant going around the world looking at zoos! That enthusiasm never waned, and I went to Aberdeen University to study zoology. In first year we also had to study botany, and I found that new and fascinating. I knew that plants lay at the foot of all food chains, and therefore that plants were key to how the natural world worked, so I switched over to doing my degree in botany. I was lucky that the university had a field station at Bettyhill on the north coast of Scotland, and some of the first plants I got to know there were montane species growing at unusually low altitudes in the relative sub-arctic climate of the far north. Then, in Honours year, we had an amazing field trip to Obergurgl in the Alps, and I have been hooked on mountain flowers ever since.
You are now lucky enough to spend a lot of your time as a quest speaker on cruise ships around the world; how might you go about getting passengers interested in Britain’s mountain flowers?
It’s funny that you should ask that, because I’m just about to go off on a cruise to Nova Scotia in Canada, and on one of the four days when we sail back across the Atlantic to Liverpool I’m planning a talk called The Lure of Mountain Flowers. I think I’m going to start that with the story of a birdwatcher called Charles Tebbutt, who is best known for his book on the birds of (distinctly unmountainous!) Huntingdonshire. In July 1951, he was walking on a rugged hillside in Inverness-shire, when he spotted a plant at his feet that he didn’t recognise. He collected a few samples of the flowers and leaves, which he sent to various botanic gardens and he was promptly told, with some excitement, that he had discovered a rather handsome flower called Diapensia* which had never previously been recorded in Britain.
That may be 60 years ago now, but I think it shows that there might still be exciting discoveries to be made in the British mountains – and that you don’t need to be a professional botanist to make them! I’ll then go on to a series of beautiful scenic photographs, just to remind folk how beautiful our mountains are, then I’ll show some of our most attractive mountain plants to prove just how much they add to the allure of the hills. That will lead into the mystery stories behind these plants: I’ll speculate why Diapensia is still only known from that single, rather unremarkable hillside and what that might have to do with Norwegian commandos. I’ll tell the story of two attractive little plants that cling to survival in Snowdonia, and why a relative of the garden pinks is known from only two very different sites, one a crag in Lake District and the other a hillside of shattered rocks in Angus. There are plenty of ‘ripping yarns’ from mountain botany to interest cruise ship passengers – and I hope they will also inspire readers of my book.
(* Incidentally, I apologise to any keen botanists reading this who, like me, know many plants better by their scientific names. As in the book, I’m not quoting scientific names here because I don’t want to scare off readers who aren’t botanists – and those of us who are botanists probably have plenty of books in which we can check the scientific names if we need them).
What distinguishes a mountain flower and how many such species occur in Britain?
That’s a really good question. Many of them are species which also grow in the Alpine regions of central Europe or in the Arctic regions of the far north, so they are categorised broadly as ‘arctic-alpines’ – a term that will be familiar to most gardeners. But Britain lies in a special position off the west coast of Europe and its climate is tempered by winds that come off the Atlantic. As a result, many alpine species grow here at dramatically lower altitudes than where they occur in the Alps, and some arctic species also grow here, far south of their normal latitudes. Several species meet on the mountain cliffs of the Lake District or the southern Highlands of Scotland that grow together nowhere else in the world (which makes these especially important conservation sites in an international perspective). I also list in the book several species that grow in Britain at their northernmost or their southernmost sites in the world.
So, although I could define a mountain plant as one that grows typically above, say, 1,500 feet, that doesn’t always work in Britain because many of these come down almost to sea-level on the wind-battered north coast of Scotland or on the Western and Northern Isles – and that’s what makes British mountain botanising so intriguing. In fact, I almost reverse the argument in the book. I have selected 152 species that I regard as typically montane, then, for the purposes of the book, I define mountains as places where these plants grow – and these range from unexpected places like The Lizard in Cornwall, right up to the island of Unst in Shetland.
Tell us more about the unique conditions in the UK and their effect on mountain flower distribution.
The important thing to recognise is that many of our montane species have been clinging to survival on remote mountain ledges since just after the end of the last Ice Age. They survive there because of the chance juxtaposition of the right kind of rock and soil and a local microclimate that mimics the conditions to which they are adapted elsewhere in the high mountains of Europe or the high Arctic. It is vitally important that we try to understand why they survive there and continue to monitor their populations, because these are the plants that will give us the first warning of changes that are likely to happen on a much bigger scale in the Alps and the Arctic because of climate change. They are vital “miners’ canaries” for what lies ahead – plus I think Britain would be infinitely the poorer were we to lose them from our hills.
How have 21st century developments in botanical research affected our understanding of mountain flower ecology?
Hmm… In the strictest sense of botanical research, the latest genetic studies have sometimes made life a bit more difficult, especially for ageing botanists like me! It has changed our understanding of the relationships between species which in turn has led to a lot of changes in scientific names and how species fit into our concepts of plant families. It has also shown that one or two of what we thought were good mountain species are actually just variants of much commoner species, highly adapted to the mountain environment.
What has increased hugely over the 60 years since the last major account of British mountain flowers was published is our knowledge of the distribution of our mountain flowers, thanks to the hard work of hundreds of botanists in recording schemes masterminded by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI). The BSBI published increasingly comprehensive atlases showing the distribution of our native plants in 1962 and in 2002, and recorders are now hard at work gathering data for the next Atlas 2020 project, due to be completed in three years’ time, while, all round the country, enthusiastic botanists have compiled and published detailed accounts of the plants of their local counties or areas. I was given privileged access to the BSBI’s online databases in compiling the information in my book, and I am hugely grateful for that.
What I now want is for readers to prove me wrong! From the BSBI databases, I have tried to note the northernmost and the southernmost sites from where the key montane species have been recorded, and the highest and lowest altitudes at which they have been found, but I am sure keen readers could find new records beyond these extremes – and report them, I hope, to their local botanical recorder. I have reported on sites from which certain species appear to have died out, and I would be thrilled if that encouraged readers to go out and re-find the plants there.
What is the biggest conservation threat to mountain flowers in the UK?
I imagine most informed readers of the NHBS newsletter would expect me to say climate change was the biggest threat to mountain plants, and, in the long term, there is no doubt that climate change is a huge threat. But, as I have tried to show in the book, the impact of climate change on the mountain environment in the short to middle term is difficult to predict with any certainty and may not immediately be as disastrous as we fear.
What is beyond doubt is that, if we are to give montane plants any chance of adapting to the changes ahead, we need to get much better at managing our hills and mountains. Overgrazing by red deer is a huge problem across most of Scotland. The regular burning of moorland areas that are managed for the sport shooting of red grouse or to produce a ‘spring bite’ for sheep tends to encourage a few resilient species at the expense of many other, more delicate plants. Yet some mountain habitats also benefit from restricted amounts of grazing, and if continuing financial challenges lead to further declines of extensive sheep farming in the uplands that could become a big problem too. The challenge lies in getting the right balance between these conflicting priorities – and I’m afraid the decision by the people of England and Wales to leave the European Union (the EU has been a huge help in establishing conservation priorities in Britain) is not going to make that any easier.
Tell us about some specific species you find particularly interesting and that feature in the book.
In the book I have selected 18 species, most of which are rarities, whose distribution and survival particularly intrigues me. I call them “Three-star Mountain Enigmas” for reasons I explain in the book and I give an extended account of each of them. For some of these species, I hope to shed insight, based on the scientific researches of dedicated mountain botanists; for others, I can only pose questions, in the hope of inspiring someone to find an answer. And there are plenty of puzzles in our mountains. Why, for example, is Alpine Rockcress found only in a single corrie in Scotland, when it grows almost as a weed in disturbed ground in the Alps and Arctic? Why (and how) is Iceland Purslane dispersed all the way from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego, yet in Britain it only grows on gravelly slopes on the Isles of Skye and Mull?
In the book, I suggest that Alpine Sowthistle is restricted to tiny populations on just four remote cliffs in the eastern Highlands of Scotland because humans have almost completely destroyed the mountain woods in which it once grew (and where it still flourishes in the Alps and Scandinavia), and I show how the 2001 outbreak of Foot-and-mouth Disease revealed how Marsh Saxifrage and Alpine Foxtail grass are actually much commoner than we ever realised.
For someone interested in a bit of amateur research, where are some of the best spots for finding mountain flowers?
I’d always say that the best place to start is the montane site that is nearest to home, whether that’s the Brecon Beacons, the Peak District, the Pentland Hills or wherever – they’re all covered in the book. Then you can make regular visits through the spring and summer to find each of the local species in full flower and follow them through the season to catch them in seed too (there are some species which you can only identify with certainty if you can find their fruits as well as their flowers) – although I should add that, by the time you read this, it is probably a bit late in the year already for mountain plants, so buy the book and start planning for next year!
Once you have got to know the commoner montane species for your local patch, you can perhaps plan a holiday further afield to one of the real mountain hotspots, like Snowdonia or Upper Teesdale, the Breadalbane hills of Perthshire or the Cairngorm Mountains of Inverness-shire. One spot that I particularly recommend in the book is the area around the Glenshee Ski Area, south of Braemar in Aberdeenshire. The A93 road from Blairgowrie to Braemar rises here to 670m (around 2,200 feet), so montane species grow right beside the car park, but the area is already so well-used by skiers that you needn’t worry too much about damaging the vegetation – and there are some really special plants for plant explorers to find.
It is currently the school summer holiday period – any tips for getting kids interested in botany?
Another great question. Kids like action, and it’s the perfect time of year to show plants in action. Find the different kinds of fruits that plants produce and see how they are dispersed. Find the winged fruits (called samaras) of a sycamore tree or the ‘keys’ of an ash tree and work out how they spread. Who can get their fruit to travel furthest? Find some dandelion ‘clocks’. Don’t just see how may blows it takes to remove all the seeds from the ‘clock’; instead try to follow one of the seeds on its little parachute and find out how far it travels. If you can find a patch of Rosebay Willowherb, investigate how it spreads its seeds. If a riverside near you has been invaded by Himalayan Balsam (aka Policeman’s Helmet); see if you can work out how its explosive fruits have made it a successful ‘Alien Invader’ (in this case from India, not from Outer Space). How do the wild relatives of garden peas and strawberries spread – and what about potatoes? If you want to get really yucky, you might want to ask kids why they think tomato plants sometimes start growing beside sewage treatment plants!
If you have a boggy area nearby, see if you can find Common Butterwort growing there and investigate how its sticky leaves trap little insects which the plant then dissolves and absorbs to get the nutrients it needs to grow. Even better, see if you can find Common Sundew whose leaves are covered in red hairs which curve over to trap little insects caught by the sticky surface of the leaves. Then go online to discover how Venus Flytraps, Pitcher Plants and other insectivorous plants trap their prey – there are some great websites aimed at youngsters about these plants.
The BioEcoSS TubeTrap is a new product for ecologists and researchers conducting mammal surveys. The innovative design is the work of data consultant Simon Poulton, who told us more about his company and his revolutionary new small mammal trap.
Tell us a little about your organisation and how you got started. BioEcoSS Ltd is a consultancy specialising in all aspects of ecological data handling and analysis. I became a consultant after taking voluntary severance from ADAS, which was the scientific and advisory arm of the old MAFF – precursor to DEFRA, for the youngsters among you. I had worked for them for 14 years, developing from basic wildlife advice through to coordinating the national monitoring of Environmentally Sensitive Areas and other agri-environment schemes. Change was in the air, with ADAS becoming a “Next-Steps Agency”. So, I decided to go it alone, allowing me to concentrate more on the practical side of database design and statistical analysis – rather than managing teams and editing their reports. It also allowed me to select my clients to focus more on the taxa that I was interested in – primarily mammals and birds.
Why the name? Well, when I set up as a consultant I had a very loyal spaniel call Bess. Struggling to come up with a descriptive name that had “ecology” and “statistics” in it, a mischievous friend took one look at the adoring dog at my feet, and suggested BESS. So, I became Biological & Ecological Statistical Services! Bit of a stretch – but it caught on. Then when I converted to a limited company five years later, I thought I’d better have something a bit more respectable – so BioEcoSS Ltd was born.
Over the last 18 years, I’ve had a good number of clients, including universities, NGOs such as the Mammal Society, Vincent Wildlife Trust & BTO and government departments such as Natural England, CCW and JNCC. My work has generally fallen into two types:
a) ecological database design, and
b) statistical analysis of existing datasets.
However, in all my projects, I’ve tried to emphasise the importance of incorporating these aspects at the project planning stage – very often they’re not! So, it’s not unusual for clients to turn up with a dataset that’s been stored in a spreadsheet, riven with errors, and with a survey design that just doesn’t give them the power they need to detect change or spatial variation. I do what I can, but it would be so much better if these aspects were considered more carefully at the outset as part of an integrated design – sorry, that’s a bit of a lecture!
What was the original inspiration behind the TubeTrap?
About six or seven years ago, when I was on the council of the Mammal Society, we were discussing the setting up of a national small mammal monitoring scheme. The then chair, Dr Johnny Birks (very well-known to all mammalogists), lent back in his chair and sighed “It’s such a shame we don’t have a good trap at a reasonable price!”. We all agreed that we would have to focus on non-invasive methods for a large-scale, mass-participation survey – which is not a bad thing anyway – but there was still a need for trapping to provide high quality data.
On the train home I started thinking about this idea. Database design is a very creative and practical process –understanding the requirements of the user and combining these with practical and intuitive solutions. And I felt I was fairly practical – good with wood and I seem to be forever re-plumbing my house! As the son of an engineer, I thought I might be able to come up with a good design for a mouse trap. After all, I had been using the trusty Longworth and even some old Shermans for over 25 years, so I knew their faults and limitations.
So over the next 18 months I set out to build a prototype. I was certain that injection moulding was the answer to producing large numbers of cheap traps and I was very lucky to get some financial help from the, now sadly defunct, Manufacturing Advisory Service. I also fell on my feet by finding two incredibly helpful and innovative small companies in the West Midlands; an injection tool-making company (BFT Engineering) and an injection moulding company (BTF Polymers). (The names are purely coincidental – they’re not related in any way – but they continue to cause me total confusion!) These guys were enormously helpful in designing the tools and producing prototypes for testing. So – TubeTraps are entirely British made!
How does the TubeTrap compare to other small mammal traps on the market?
Well! What do you expect me to say – pretty good I reckon! Seriously –I think there are three primary aspects to the efficacy of a small mammal trap:
1) How well do they catch?
2) How humane are they?
3) How practical are they to use?
In the UK the main competitor is, obviously, the Longworth. This has remained virtually unchanged over the last 50 years so, in an evolutionary sense, it must be pretty well adapted to what it does. I’ve carried out some comparative trials (as have six or seven users) which shows that TubeTraps catch just as well as Longworths. As the number of trials increases, there’s even some evidence that they are better at catching very small animals such as pygmy shrews and harvest mice. I’m hoping that two students from UEA will be trialling the traps this autumn to provide enough data to show this is statistically significant. I’ve not compared them directly with Shermans or Trip Traps, but people have told me, anecdotally, that TubeTraps have a higher capture-rate.
Part of the design was to make a trap that was as humane as possible. Obviously, the correct setting and use of traps goes a long way to ensure the survival of captured animals – in particular, live invertebrate food for shrews is essential, as is regular checking. But I wanted the TubeTrap to help prevent exposure of animals, so the use of plastic and the double-walled nest-box provide much better insulation. I’ve also had a bit of a theory about shrew deaths. A very light animal (say a pygmy or juvenile common shrew) enters a trap without tripping it, scoffs all the food and then leaves. Along comes an adult shrew, trips the door and finds a trap with no food. Result – starvation. So I think the very sensitive and stable mechanism of TubeTraps will help prevent this situation.
The practicality aspects of the design were very important, especially setting the trap and cleaning. The nestbox and tunnel parts of the trap snap together very intuitively and are virtually impossible to pop open accidentally – unlike a poorly set Longworth. The smooth, cylindrical profile of the trap makes it very easy to push into dense vegetation and remove for emptying. Again – in the past, I’ve popped open Longworths when pulling them out of hedgerows as the corners of the nest box or the hook of the pin hinge catches on a bramble. The TubeTrap’s white doors are very easy to see, even in poor light, so it’s much easier to check when they are closed. So too with the pre-bait lock – it has a very visual appearance, so it’s much more difficult to leave a trap locked open by mistake. The round profile of the nestbox and the flat base of the tunnel with no side-walls make them very easy to clean. Finally – and possibly most importantly, all parts of the trap snap together, so it’s very easy to replace any damaged parts. I always carry a few spare triggers (which can get chewed) and the elastic springs for replacement in the field.
Development of the TubeTrap is continuous and I’m pleased to say that NHBS is stocking the new Mark II version. This has a more stable trip mechanism, which is counter-balanced, making it much more difficult to accidentally trip when knocked or jolted. This also makes it easier to set TubeTraps in awkward places or above-ground attached to branches or poles. There was an issue in the original design with surface-tension from rainwater holding the doors open, but a number of modifications in the new Mark II trap have addressed this.
How and where have TubeTraps been used and what is the most interesting species you have caught?
TubeTraps have been used by a number of universities, county mammal groups and wildlife trusts. As far as I know, they are being used for mammal research, survey and monitoring. Also, I know that the trusts have used them for training and open-days, so they’re proving versatile.
As you may have gathered from some of the time periods I mentioned earlier, I’m getting a bit long-in-the-tooth! But, a few years ago I finally started the PhD (at UEA) that I’d never got around to doing. I’m looking at altitudinal variation in small mammal communities in the central Himalayas of Nepal – using 120 of my traps of course! I’ve done three seasons’ fieldwork and caught 795 animals at altitudes from 1300m to 4200m. The traps have performed very well and have been catching hundreds of tiny shrews, as well as some pretty hefty rats weighing over 100g. The CarryCases have also been fantastic, not just for carrying the traps, but as dissection and dinner tables! There’s no doubt in my mind that the best animal I have caught is a tiny shrew called Episoriculus leucops – only 5g in weight, but with the longest tail you’ve ever seen (pic above).
What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?
That’s a tricky question! I think just because of the size of the project and its subject – the Environmental Monitoring Database for Natural England. I’ve worked on this for over ten years, bringing together into a single database all the agri-environment monitoring data carried out since 1987. There are over 4.25 million data items in this database, which makes it a unique resource. But how can I not mention the work I’ve done with excellent conservation organisations such as the Mammal Society (scoping and setting up the national small mammal monitoring scheme with Phoebe Carter and Johnny Birks) or the Vincent Wildlife Trust (analysing their fantastic dataset on batbox usage collected by the tireless Colin Morris and his colleagues).
But, I also hope I’ve made a real contribution in Nepal, mostly by giving young ecologists hands-on experience of fieldwork, statistical advice and training that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I should say that this has been a two-way process and I’ve had fantastic support from them (Hari Basnet, Sagar Dahal, Hem Kathuwal and others). I would also like to mention my friends and colleagues, Laxman Poudyal, Sujan Maharjan, Hem Sagar Baral, Sharad Singh and Dibesh Karmacharya – who have all helped in this reciprocal process. And – most importantly – the porters, whose superhuman efforts at carrying traps, collecting water and wood, cooking amazing food and generally remaining completely cheerful made this work possible.
What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Another tricky one! I’ve had a long-lasting love affair with India and Nepal, so I should say the tigers I saw in Kanha and Ranthambore National Parks, or Indian one-horned rhinos in Kazirangha or the fantastic nilgai in Sariska. But, actually, the most thrilling was probably five years ago at 3500m in Nepal when my colleagues and I came across a very (I mean VERY) fresh set of prints of himalayan black bear only a few meters from our camp-site. That certainly caused a stir amongst the porters! Then again – the most sublime moment was probably during that expedition, being out just before dawn, when the koklass pheasants started calling. Their harsh cries carry for hundreds of metres through the gloom – the Nepalis’ literal interpretation is “How are you, Uncle?”. It’s a spine-tingling memory just thinking about it.
Any new inventions in the pipeline?
I might have! Actually, a client from Ireland recently asked if I could produce traps with shrew holes. It had been on my mind for a while, so I made 30 doors with shrew holes for her. She’s trialling them now and if they work well, I’ll make them generally available. The benefit of putting the holes in the doors is that you can easily snap these out and replace them with standard doors if you don’t want the shrew holes.
I do have another idea, but I’m keeping my cards close to my chest at the moment. Suffice it to say – if it works it could revolutionise small mammal trapping – I’m saying no more!
Tell us a little about your organisation and how you got started.
Third Wheel Ringing Supplies has been trading for about two years and comprises myself and my wife, Mary. We make a small range of equipment for ringers, specialising in traps and particularly trying to fill gaps in the market. Traditionally much of this sort of equipment has either been knocked together by ringers themselves or imported (expensively) from Europe or North America.
Our range is still very small, but it is gradually expanding as we develop more products. Product development is very slow however as, with bird safety being so important, any new product has to be extensively tested before it can be offered for sale. Nevertheless a slightly expanded product range should be launched in the coming months. Our manufacturing ethos is based on quality; never knowingly making sub-standard equipment in the quest for cheaper production costs. Hence our products are not the cheapest available, but they might be the best.
The business started when I took voluntary redundancy from my job. Having worked for (among others) The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Local Authorities as a nature reserves manager for 30 years, I was ready for a change. I’ve always liked making things and have a good grounding in engineering which, together with my interest in bird ringing, led onto me making various bits of ringing equipment for my own use and thence onto a small business, making equipment for other ringers.
Why Third Wheel? Well, we had to call it something and, having a slight obsession with classic motorcycles, particularly those with sidecars, the name seemed to fit us as a family.
What challenges do you face as an organisation working in the ecology sector?
One of our biggest challenges has been to persuade ringers not to rely so heavily on mist nets all the time. Although mist nets are very effective for many species and situations, they still have their limitations and traps can often be just as effective or, for some species, the only method of capture. Increasing numbers of ringers are starting to appreciate the value of different trap designs and, as traps form the mainstay of our business, we see this as a good thing!
What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?
On a purely personal level, Third Wheel’s most important achievement has been that, after only two years of trading, it seems to be working as a business. Although I have a passion for what I do, it still has to pay the bills and, for the time being at least, it is doing just that.
It has also been particularly gratifying to have our equipment used to great effect in a number of research projects worldwide. In addition to various projects in Europe, Third Wheel traps are used for chickadee research in Florida, grey jay research in Alaska and snow bunting research in the Canadian Arctic.
Nearer home, highlights have been a customer who caught a dunnock within 7 minutes of the postman delivering one of our traps and another who, on taking delivery of a new prototype, caught 55 linnets on the first morning.
What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Having been pursuing wildlife for nearly my whole life, I’ve been lucky enough to have many memorable wildlife encounters, which makes choosing a favourite rather tricky.
I’ve visited Svalbard (what we used to call Spitsbergen) in the High Arctic many times, as a leader of study tours. Here the memorable wildlife moments come thick and fast with polar bear, Arctic fox, beluga whale and countless breeding auks, wildfowl and waders against a stunning scenic backdrop.
On the bird ringing side of things, my best and most memorable ringing sessions have been catches of wigeon, teal and other wintering wildfowl as part of a cannon netting team. Wigeon are amazing little ducks and to ring one in Devon which probably breeds in central Russia is a real privilege.
Your book is proving to be a huge success – what prompted you to write it, and who is your target audience?
It mostly came about from the grass courses I’ve run for the last seven years, during which I built up a huge body of observational evidence on grasses, from chatting to people and just spending a lot of time looking at them. Teaching plants is fantastic as it really makes you be concise about why things are what they are, plus you get to see what people muddle up; things you might never think yourself.
In addition I felt there was a niche for an affordable, portable, and easy to use book. It definitely won’t suit everyone, but I hope that people who might have been put off by some of the more weighty tomes might find this a good way in (which certainly applies to me). It won’t teach you every grass, but hopefully it will make people feel much more confident about the ones you tend to encounter regularly.
How did you become interested in grasses?
During my early years of being a botanist I was terrified of grasses and it took me a long while to get a handle on them. This came about from spending time with other friendly botanists and gleaning as much as I could from them. Once I had got better at them (and I’m still a long way from mastering them) I was really keen to share this knowledge with other people. I did my first grasses course at the Kingcombe Centre 7 years ago, which I was absolutely terrified about running, but it went OK, and it all moved from there. I now run about 18 grasses courses a year, which I absolutely love doing, and all the proceeds from these go into our species conservation programme, meaning a single day’s training can fund a species programme for a year.
What defines the graminoids, and how can the three groups – grasses, rushes, and sedges – be distinguished?
It’s a difficult term, graminoids! I’m very guilty of calling them grasses, which of course only some of them (the Poaceae) are. I also tend to commit the grave sin of talking about wildflowers and grasses (especially when describing courses) when of course grasses are in fact flowers. Their key characters are that they are all monocots, and exclusively wind pollinated.
Telling them apart can be relatively easy, the rushes tend to have waxy round stems, the sedges are tussocky with separate female and male inflorescences, and the grasses are, well… grassy looking? But there are so many exceptions to this! Just today I was running a course where someone muddled up Slender Rush with Remote Sedge, and I realised that these two look almost identical from a distance!
What is the importance of the graminoids in the ecosystem at large?
Graminoids are exceptionally useful as indicator species, with many of them showing incredible affinity to certain soil types, nutrient levels and pH. If you walk into a field and see a shiny green swath of Perennial Ryegrass you know you’re unlikely to be finding overwhelming levels of biodiversity. Go into another field and find a clump of Meadow Oatgrass and you know you’re in for a long haul of finding other species.
As it says on the Species Recovery Trust website, over the past 200 years, over 400 species have been lost from England alone. Do you think enough is being done to halt biodiversity loss in the UK?
Tricky question! We have an incredibly large and diverse conservation sector in the UK, full of talented and passionate individuals devoting their lives to saving the planet. And yet we are still losing species at an alarming rate. When I was born, just over 40 years ago, the world had twice as many species as it does now, so this is not a historical problem we can blame on previous generations, this is the here and now of how humans are choosing to live our lives and harm our planet.
These are clearly difficult times financially, and clearly every sector is feeling the pain of budget cuts, however it is upsetting to see the way biodiversity has almost dropped off current political agendas (the environment was barely mentioned at all in the referendum debates) so I do worry that people, and governments, are just not doing enough. It is now fairly widely accepted that we are living through (and causing) a sixth mass global extinction event, which should be the biggest story and policy issue anyone is talking about, and yet species conservation still seems to be a niche market!
What does it take to re-establish a species like Starved Wood-sedge, which is one of the Trust’s Species Recovery Projects?
Starved Wood-sedge (SWS) has two native sites in the UK, and we’re working hard at both of these over a long time period to steadily improve the conditions, bringing more light in through coppicing and canopy reduction, and trying to encourage seedling establishment through ground scarification. SWS has an interesting bit of trivia in that it has the largest utricles (seeds) of any native sedges which should make it very easy to grow, but recently we started to think these large seeds may be their downfall as they are so susceptible to vole and mouse predation – but it’s hard to know for sure. We have established and continue to closely work on the two re-introduction sites, where we used plants grown up by Kew Gardens to establish new populations, and we are keen to establish one more in the next decade in a more traditionally managed wood to look at how the species would fare in active coppice rotation.
If you could put one policy change in place today to enhance species conservation what would it be?
I’m not sure, my current rather grassroots view is I’m not sure if conservation isn’t dying a death by policy. A few years back I spent the best part of two years of my life working on Biodiversity Opportunity Areas, only to see these being replaced by IBDAs (which I’ve now forgotten what it stands for) only to see these superseded by NIAs. I then had somewhat of a personal crisis that in all that time, even though I’d been instrumental in producing some very interesting maps of core area and buffer zones and opportunity areas, I’d done absolutely nothing to help species on the ground. I think it was during this same time that Deptford Pink went extinct in Somerset and Dorset too, which I still feel pretty bad about.
The problem with policies, and ministers, and successive governments is that they never last for that long. While not disputing that our current democracy is a wonderful thing, and obviously I feel lucky to live in a country where we can all vote and potentially change things we like, if you superimpose governments and policies on top of the Anthropocene (the current geological age where humans have gained the ability to start fundamentally changing the planet, both in terms of biodiversity and climate) then the two simply don’t match up in terms of the timescales we need to be operating on to bring a meaningful change to biodiversity loss. And it goes without saying that when government budget cuts occur it will always be the environment sector that will suffer, and this obviously has a terrible net effect on projects that are up and running and are suddenly suspended.
Without wanting to sound too ‘big society’ I think the meaningful changes we are seeing are from individuals, either making a big difference in their jobs in the environment sector, or simple volunteering, spending a few days a year clearing bramble from around a rare species, counting butterflies on a transect, monitoring their local bat populations. For me, that is where change is happening, not in government policy units.
How would you encourage a young nature lover or student to take an interest in the subject of grasses?
I’m lucky to have two young children to try this out on, and I must say they are now budding graminologists. I think the starting point is everyone likes knowing what things are and naming them, whether it’s music, works of art, types of lorry. We are on the whole naturally inquisitive beings, so I just tend to show people things and encourage them to go off and find more like them. Add to that some stripy pyjama bottoms (Yorkshire Fog), Batman’s Helmet (Timothy), Floating Sugarpuffs (Quaking Grass) and Spiky Porcupines (Meadow Oatgrass) and the whole thing becomes pretty fun! Incidentally there are equivalent adult versions of these too, which are unmentionable here…
What is the most surprising, odd, or unexpected fact you can share about grasses?
Grasses have a profound link with humanity. 4 million years ago the spread of grasses in the savannas of East Africa is now believed to be the main driver in our primate ancestors coming down from the trees and developing a bipedal habit to move between patches of shrinking forest while keeping a watch out for predators. 40,000 years ago we saw the birth of agriculture with the development of early crops, the decline of hunter gatherer lifestyles and the start of the society we live in today (gluten intolerance sufferers probably think this is where it all started to go wrong). And all because we learnt to collect seed from promising looking grasses, and start planting in quantities we could harvest.
Tell us more about the plant identification courses. What are these all about and how people can get involved?
When we set up The Species Recovery Trust we knew that funding projects over a long term basis (all our work plans are 50 years long) was going to be a challenge, so we set about seeking ways to bring in modest sums of unrestricted funding over that period of time, for which running training courses was an obvious contender. This was combined with my passion for teaching plants, and then finding other people who shared this view. We’ve now been able to build up a team of some of the best tutors in the country, who combine their expert knowledge with running courses that are extremely fun and really help people get to grips with a range of subjects.
By automating the booking process (which works most of the time) we can also keep our prices extremely competitive, as well as offer discounted places for students and unemployed people who are desperate to get into the sector. On alternate years we offer one ‘golden ticket’ which enables one winner to attend 10 training courses for free, which will give people a huge helping hand in their conservation careers.
All the information on the courses can be found on the training courses page of The Species Recovery Trust website.
Can you tell us about any interesting projects you are involved with at the moment?
We have a great project running on Spiked Rampion at the moment, and after 6 years we now have the highest number of plants ever recorded, all due to a fantastic steering group of the good and great from Kew, Forestry Commission, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and East Sussex County Council, along with some very committed local volunteers. It’s been a lot of work but proved a great example of many organisations joining up with a single achievable aim of saving a really rather special plant from extinction.
This summer is going to see a network of data loggers placed around the New Forest as part of a project to re-discover the New Forest Cicada, that we’re working on with Buglife and Southampton University. There are real concerns about whether this species is already extinct, but as it spends most of its life underground and only emerges and sings for a short period it is a good contender for the UK’s most elusive species.
Neil Middleton is an entrepreneurial ecologist who is the managing director of consultancy Echoes Ecology Ltd, and Time For Bespoke Solutions Ltd, a company that provides management consultancy and people development solutions.
The number of times I see people who have paid lots of money and spent a huge amount of their time being educated and trained to work within our sector, only to find that so many of the things that differentiate the mediocre from the brilliant just haven’t been covered. I spend a lot of my time being asked by people for advice and guidance, and felt that no one else had attempted to tackle the subject matter from the perspective of an ecologist. I found this quite irritating and eventually decided that if no-one else was going to try and help, then I would.
Office success… isn’t it all a good work ethic and common sense?
In part, most definitely – I would not deny that. But if it is as simple as that why do so many people struggle to deliver a number of the ‘non-ecological’ aspects of their work to the highest level. And what is a good work ethic and common sense? Has anyone ever described that to you in the role you are in? Do you know, specifically, the things you should be focusing on and the pitfalls you should be avoiding. Do you know how to manage your time better, be more professional, be better organised? Who in your working environment is assisting you in a structured way with these things? Other types of business within the service sector (which is where ecological consultancy sits) spend huge amounts of time and resources training their people on some of the material I am writing about here. For some reason this isn’t that evident within ecology. As I say in the book – sitting in today’s ecological consultancies we have ecologists who are managing people, dealing with customers, project planning, marketing products, producing financial reports… They are expected to perform all of these responsibilities, and many more, to a high level, as well as the ecological aspects of their role. How many of them have been given training or proper guidance about how to perform these non-ecology aspects of their role to a high level?
Would you mind telling us about your worst office etiquette blunder?!
It makes me shudder thinking about the number of blunders I have made over my working life, and still do. I will keep it ecological.
I once got into a lift with a bloke who used to be my YOC leader about thirty years earlier (for those youngsters out there, the YOC used to be the junior branch of the RSPB). It just so happened that many years later, coincidentally, we were both working for the same insurance company. He didn’t normally work from our office. I saw him in the distance and quickened my step in order to catch up with him, so that we could share the lift. I said good afternoon, asked him how he was and then proceeded to tell him all about this excellent spot I had found for watching raptors (he was a member of his local raptor group after all). Anyway, it turns out he was in the building to meet with our regional manager (Tracey), who, as it happens, was also my boss’s boss. So being helpful I took him to Tracey’s room, continuing to tell him about some of my latest bird sightings.
They met, and Tracey welcomed him by saying, “Brilliant to meet you again John.” The guy I had been talking to – or at least I had thought I had been talking to – wasn’t called John! Yes I had just met some random stranger (considerably more senior to myself in the business) in the lift and had swamped him with ornithological anecdotes. The bloke didn’t know me at all, but remained polite throughout, and thought he had just met some nutter in the lift. I doubt that he would have ever been able to tell a Kestrel from a Griffon Vulture, let alone a Sparrowhawk from a Goshawk. And after Tracey had finished her meeting? Yes I was called in to explain myself, as John had obviously told her all about it. Before long everyone on the floor had heard about what had happened.
Sounds painful! In your experience, what are the three most common office faux pas people might make?
In no particular order, and in haste, these are today’s examples. Ask me tomorrow and I would come up with a different list, I am sure.
Failure to communicate effectively. For example, not saying the right thing to the right person at the right time. Almost everything that goes wrong in a work setting (or for that matter personal settings) boils down to poor communication or no communication.
Doing the wrong things in the wrong order when under pressure. Time is evaporating and you are wasting the remaining time doing stuff that isn’t going to get you to where you need to be.
Not preparing enough. To fail to prepare, is very much to prepare to fail. Too often people aren’t very good at playing ‘consequences.’ They don’t think what is going to happen next, and then after that, and so on. This means that a few steps down the line when something unexpected happens they are caught off guard. If only they had thought it through and prepared properly to begin with, that unexpected situation should’ve been precisely one of the scenarios they should’ve accounted for days, or even weeks, earlier.
Say I’m an ecology graduate passionate about reversing habitat loss and saving endangered species. How does this book help animals?
If you want to be successful working with a subject you are passionate about, and do this to a high level, and therefore in your example, help animals as much as you can, then this book talks about the skills that, quite possibly, will make you considerably more effective, more professional, a better communicator, more organised, a better team player, and much more. Ask yourself – are you happy at being merely OK at what you do, or do you want to make the best use of your time in order to have the greatest positive impact upon the things you are passionate about? So I would challenge you to keep buying all the books about the animals you are so passionate about, and yes you will undoubtedly learn more about the technical aspects of your role, but this book (at less than twenty quid and a handful of hours) will open the door to many of the tools you can use to turn that knowledge and passion into the actionable events that will make the difference. I am afraid to say that passion and knowledge alone are rarely enough.
If I may I would also like to say that the material in the book is not just for new entrants into the role. There is so much in here that is equally applicable to more experienced ecologists, managers and those in a training role within our sector. There is already an excellent book about How to Become and Ecological Consultant(Searle, S. M., 2011). This new book is the next step in the process and could easily have been called ‘How to succeed now you have a job, and in doing so perform at the highest level.’
How would you describe the unique challenges facing graduating ecologists in 2016, and in what ways do you think today’s graduates differ from those of ten or fifteen years ago?
The one thing that has been evident throughout the last decade is that, in the main, people qualifying from colleges or universities just aren’t work ready to enter many ecological consultancies. It is the ever present scenario, ‘You can’t get a job without experience. But how do I get the experience without a job?’ Many of the people we see coming into our own business for interviews have been told very little, if anything, about the consultancy sector, and even less about the business skills they will need in order to give themselves any chance of success. I find this quite frustrating as ecological consultancy work is probably one of the more realistic career options that people going through an appropriate university degree can hope to pursue.
Also, for someone to spend all of that time and expense gaining a qualification that so often tells them so little about the natural world in their own country is disappointing. We see many people that may know quite a bit about overseas mammals or habitat for example, but would struggle to identify a water vole! There are exceptions to this, but based on the CVs we have passing regularly through our inboxes, they are very much exceptions.
As managing director of two companies, as well as a bestselling author, time management must be a well worn tool in your kit bag. What’s your top time management tip?
Everything in this world is affordable or available at some level apart from time itself. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how many people you have in your team, whether or not you are the best at what you do. Once a moment has passed you can never get it back, you can never go back to yesterday and undo the thing that prevents you doing what you should be achieving today.
My top tip – treat time as the most precious commodity you have available to yourself, organise it well, be protective over it and use it well. Make sure you spend your time doing things that make a difference – if there is no benefit to spending time on something then stop doing it. No benefit, no point. One of the ways I focus on this is, when I go to bed each night I list in my head what I will achieve tomorrow – and nine times out of ten I do it. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes other things get in the way (often in fact) – but I don’t go to bed the following night regretting how I have spent my time today, and I don’t make excuses. We all are equally rich with the time we have immediately in front of us. The choice is, how do you choose to use it to best effect?
And what three daily habits would you encourage any office worker to take up starting tomorrow?
Look at what you have on in your diary for tomorrow and next week, today – and not tomorrow morning. If you don’t have a diary, then get one, use it, and keep it with you at all times. Don’t have separate diaries for personal and business. You can only be in one place at any one time. People keeping two diaries tend to be unable to commit to things because their other diary is at home, or at some point make errors that needn’t have been made. I have a whole section about this in the book and I don’t sit on the fence about it.
Every phone call you have with a colleague, a customer or a supplier – immediately follow it up with an email. Get into this habit and you will protect yourself and the business from someone saying in the future that they didn’t agree to that, or they hadn’t understood what you meant at the time etc. You will never know which one of these every day conversations will come back to bite you, but beyond doubt one or two of them will. When that happens you will regret not doing that email. You know you are right, but you can’t prove it, and now others are doubting you. Don’t regret it, it’s a controllable – do the email.
Be on time, every time – without fail. People that keep time well tend to be organised, professional and of course in the right place at the right time. Too often first impressions and daily tasks are tarnished or ineffectively handled because someone is late. It’s not professional and it certainly is disrespectful to others.
If there is one thing you wish you had known at the beginning of your career, what would it have been?
How important all of these business-related skills are to giving yourself a chance of being better at what you do. In my own world at that time I thought it was just down to being technically good enough, and gaining experience. It isn’t. Being technically brilliant doesn’t make you the best person at the job – being effective does. This is what the book is about. I am trying to enable others to realise, earlier on, many of the things that no-one told me about at the beginning.
There is a big marketing dilemma with this book. Firstly, those people who already know some of this stuff will buy it and probably learn some new stuff to add to their tool box. Then, those who are struggling might think it’s worth a shot – can’t do me any harm. But many more will feel that they don’t need it. They are getting on just fine as they are, and they don’t know what they don’t know. These are the ones that may benefit the most, irrespective of what stage in their career they are at. If you are one of these people, and you are the only one in your team that reads the book – then immediately you have an edge. Conversely if everyone in your team has read it and you haven’t – well… To summarise, I wish I had read this book 35 years ago.
What would be one of the most challenging training situations you encounter on a regular basis?
Referring to my office blunder answer – it’s now time to fess up! I am good at remembering names, and pretty good at remembering faces, but an Achilles heel is most definitely putting the two things together at the right time. This is an area that I find myself constantly having to focus time and effort on. Put an audience in front of me and I have various tricks I adopt to help reduce the chances of me getting someone’s name wrong. Occasionally though, regretfully, I make a mistake and have to apologise.
How has self-development been important to you in your life?
If you stop developing you stop improving, you stop getting better and you stop learning. After that… then is there really much point in doing what you are doing? You may as well say to yourself – ‘well this is as good as I will ever be and I am going to stop trying to be better.’ I am sure that there are lots of happy people out there who from a professional perspective are able to be like that. I find that approach odd and uncomfortable, and as such I just want to keep learning how to avoid making mistakes, or when that fails, learning what I could do next time that would result in a better outcome.
Who or what has had the most impact on your success?
Who? – So many people, ranging from people I currently work with, all the way back to when I was in the insurance sector and before that in the leisure and catering sector. I am where I am now (we all are!) because of who we have listened to and looked up to in the past.
What? – Not being afraid to push myself in a professional setting. If something seems beyond me or too difficult or almost impossible I would rather try and fail (failure gives you the ammunition to do it better next time!) than wonder, what if? It is quite daunting doing something like writing a book. I suspect many people don’t do things because they think they can’t, or they don’t want to risk making a fool of themselves, or are overly concerned what others might think. My advice would be, whatever you set your sights on – go for it. The worst that will happen is that you will learn a lot about yourself. The best that could happen should be self-evident. The one certainty is that if you don’t try it you will achieve nothing, learn nothing and always wonder ‘what if?’
What are you looking forward to in 2016?
At the moment improving my running technique, lots of bat work and my holiday in the south of France in August (I will have my diary with me though!), when I can do some batting and birding for pleasure, and spend good times with my partner, Aileen, who inspires me to be the best version of myself that I can be. But don’t tell her about the batting and birding bit – she thinks it’s a holiday; not a self-development opportunity.
James Lowen is a wildlife writer, editor, guide and photographer. Immersed in all aspects of natural history from a young age, he has spent several years leading wildlife tours in South America and Antarctica. Now back in Britain, he continues to express his passion for bringing nature to life for the non-specialist, and has turned his attention to British wildlife. A Summer of British Wildlife: 100 Great Days Out Watching Wildlife – his second book on the subject – is out now.
How did you come to write this book?
The concept of A Summer of British Wildlife grew out of my previous book for Bradt Travel Guides, 52 Wildlife Weekends: A Year of British Wildlife-Watching Breaks (also available from NHBS). Whilst writing that guide, I realised that Britain in summer possesses such an abundance of natural riches that I could not possibly squeeze them all into a single book! In his review of 52 Wildlife Weekends for British Wildlife magazine, celebrity wildlife-blogger Mark Avery suggested that I might have lavished summer with ‘long weekends’. That got me thinking about the 100 best wildlife experiences that Britain has to offer over each and every summer.
How did you choose what to include in the book?
Good question. There was so much to write about that I could probably have produced this book three times over! In whittling down the worthy longlist, I took account of principles such as how best to cover the breadth of British wildlife experiences (from bumblebees to basking sharks, orchid-rich meadows to seabird skyscrapers), geographical spread (the days out stretch between Scilly and Shetland), and the likely interest for families (using my 5-year-old daughter as a barometer). Fundamentally, however, I had to be personally excited by the experience: if not, I wouldn’t be able to inspire others to travel.
There is a strong ethical element to wildlife travel these days – how does the book support that?
This is not a guide to particular travel operators or service providers, which is how ethical considerations are typically framed nowadays. Instead, the book takes a wider approach to ethics. By focusing on Britain, I commend ‘staycations’, which largely avoid the greenhouse gas emissions of aircraft travel. By encouraging people to visit reserves run by particular wildlife charities, I encourage people to reward those land-managers with their custom. I stress the guiding principle of responsible wildlife-watching, namely that the welfare and conservation of species supercedes our enjoyment of them. Following advice from reserve managers, I remain silent about wildlife experiences about which I would love to have written; red helleborine and spiny seahorse are notable examples. Finally, by homing in on children’s interests, I seek to inspire the next generation of wildlife-watchers. If our offspring do not love wildlife, there will not only be no wildlife travel (ethical or otherwise) in future… there will be no wildlife either.
Can anyone enjoy this book or do you need lots of outdoor gear?
You don’t need any outdoor gear to enjoy nature. Just some combination of locomotion, eyes and ears. Clearly, some specialist outdoor gear can help – whether binoculars, digital cameras or moth traps – so if you want an enhanced experience, you might want to browse the NHBS equipment catalogue.
What stands out about the book as a read?
You should probably ask a reader that, rather than the author! Everyone will have their own take on what stands out from the book, just as they have their own idea of what stands out in the spectrum of British wildlife. But I will convey some thoughts from the very first review of the book, by naturalist Amy-Jane Beer in BBC Wildlife magazine (April 2016 issue). Amy-Jane says that the book “will fuel your imagination, frame your desires and simplify your logistics for the summer ahead”. Amy-Jane considers that the book “maintains a lovely tone, necessarily practical but also occasionally poetic – a friendly, encouraging and knowledgable companion”. She concludes that the guide is “an ideal addition to any family bookshelf, though it should also spend plenty of time in your backpack or glove compartment”.
Are the experiences in the book weatherproof?
Ha! Most are yes, which is just as well given the erratic nature of British weather. Where particular weather is key, such as searching for mountain ringlet (a rare butterfly) in Perthshire, I make this clear. Of course, some days benefit from inclement times, such as looking for windblown shearwaters off the Cornish coast!
Are there any unexpected, unusual, or surprising entries in the book?
What will flabbergast one person may appear mundane to another, so that is hard to answer. I cover what I feel to be the very best of British wildlife, but that doesn’t mean it is all universally well known. So I suspect that some eyes may open wide at my suggestion to spend a morning looking for the globally threatened tansy beetle near York, or to combine a family day on the beach with watching dune tiger-beetles scurry along the sand. Some may also be amused at my cheek in proposing that we go looking for red grouse in the Peak District on August 11, the day before the hunting season commences.
How does Britain compare to the rest of the world as a wildlife destination?
I have gone wildlife-watching in about 60 countries worldwide, and have written books about the wildlife of Antarctica and Brazil. When I returned to Britain from four years living in Argentina, I thought I would be bored by British wildlife. Not a bit of it. This book, and its predecessor (52 Wildlife Weekends) are testament to the exhilaration that I feel every single time I set foot outside my door in search of wildlife. There are 60,000 species of ‘thing’ in Britain, and I have seen just 3% of them. There is loads more out there that I need to track down!
Where are you going for your summer holidays this year?
As a family, we plan to spend lots of time exploring our new home county of Norfolk: camping, kayaking and walking our way through the wilds.
What do you like to read on your travels?
I am usually too busy watching wildlife while travelling to actually read anything. But I always take a book for the journey. On my last trip (to wintry Japan; see my images here), I read George Monbiot’s Feral. On my next trip (a family holiday to Spain) I will be taking the memoir of my childhood hero, Chris Packham: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar.