Author interview: Benedict Macdonald

Did you know that 94% of Britain isn’t built upon, that Snowdonia is larger and emptier than the Maasai Mara National Reserve, or that Scotland’s deer estates alone cover an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park?  Britain has all the empty space it needs for an epic wildlife recovery.  So what’s stopping it from happening in our country – and how can we turn things around? 

Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds is a bold roadmap to reverse the decline of bird populations in Britain, suggesting we need to restore ecosystems, rather than modify farmland.

Author, Benedict Macdonald offered his valuable time to answer our questions about his important new contribution to the discussion of rewilding.

Rebirding Author: Benedict McDonald

What inspired you to become so passionate about restoring natural ecosystems?

In 2014, I began writing Rebirding in the certain knowledge that conservation in this country is failing, the birdsong around us is dying out every year, yet we have all the resources, skill and wildlife lobby to turn things around. I hope that in its small way, Rebirding will do for the UK what Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet is beginning to do for worldwide conservation – to make people realise that nature is essential, profitable and saveable, even now – and that we have all the resources and skill to do so.

Tell us a little about your background and how you became interested in the natural world?

I never remember the moment of first being fascinated by nature, but I do remember that by the time I was five, I would make weekend visits to Berkeley Castle Butterfly Farm and was entranced by watching the butterflies drinking salts from my fingertips, and I began a collection of ones passed to me by the lady running it – after they had died.  Then early trips to the Welsh coast, and Norfolk, transformed that interest into a lifelong love of birds as well.  From there, their plight has drawn me into understanding and studying ecosystems and a far wider understanding of protecting nature.  Since then, my love of the natural world, both as a naturalist and a TV director, has now taken me to over forty countries.

At 14, I first remember telling someone at a dinner party that I wanted to work in wildlife television. Since graduating from university, I’ve been lucky to work on a range of programmes such as Springwatch, The One Show and The Hunt for the BBC.  Last week, aged 31, I attended the premiere of Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet for Netflix, launching in the Natural History Museum in London. This is the largest conservation series ever made. I work as the researcher and a field director for the Jungles and Grasslands episodes, directing a number of sequences including desert-nesting Socotra cormorants, the secret life of the Alcon Blue butterfly, and the remarkable lives of the world’s only tool-using Orangutans.

In your opinion, what is the most detrimental practice to the wildlife of Britain?

We are often sold the untruth that what happens to British land is necessary for food production. This is almost entirely untrue.  Only the profitable arable farms of the south, and east of our island, provide a bounty of food for our children.  Dairy lawns and sheep farms in fact create tiny volumes of our daily diet relative to the land area they use. For example, 88% of Wales grows lamb, an optional food resource. 

Of the epic wastage, however, the grouse moor is the ultimate. Eight percent of Britain’s land is burned for the creation of 0.0008% of its jobs and a contribution of just 0.005% to our GDP.  For hundreds of years, thousands of beautiful wild animals have been removed, just so that Red Grouse can be turned into living clay pigeons and killed in their thousands once a year.  Even hunters from other countries find this wasteful and disgusting.  This area covers an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park – blocking jobs and wildlife alike on an epic scale. Hunting estates in Finland or Sweden, by contrast, juggle the ambition of hunters to shoot a few animals with ecosystems of immense beauty and variety.

Wildlife and commerce are often presented as being in conflict, do you think this is a fair assessment, or can land stewardship that favours biodiversity over profit be of economic benefit?

This is surely the greatest imaginary conflict of our time, successful insinuated, perhaps, by the damaging economies that prevent nature from reaching its full economic potential in our country.  In truth, wildlife IS commerce.  Nature IS money. 

Every year, even without a single charismatic megafauna such as Bison, Elk or Lynx running wild in our country, without a ‘Yellowstone’ or ‘Maasai Mara’, the English adult population make just over 3 billion visits to the natural environment each year, spending £21 billion as they do so. In Scotland, nature-based tourism is estimated to produce £1.4 billion per year, along with 39,000 FTE jobs. 

In contrast, the current models of upland farming demand money from us to survive, but they do not reciprocate jobs, income or natural capital – this is life on benefits and there is no future for young people in it.  In contrast, wherever nature is allowed to flourish, it’s capital potential is wondrous.  In 2009, the RSPB’s lovely but very small reserves brought £66 million to local economies, and created 1,872 FTE jobs. This is more than all of England’s grouse moors, but in just a fraction of their land area.

Right now, however, we are just seeing snapshots of how nature can power and rekindle communities. In Rebirding we often look to other countries to see how true ecosystems could transform economies on a far greater scale.   The final myth that we kick into touch is that Britain is short of space, 94% of our country is not built upon. Most of this area does not create essential food supplies – and is jobs-poor.

Is there one single practise or cultural shift that would be of most benefit to restoring natural ecosystems?

The Forestry Commission is the largest single land manager in Britain.  It now needs to split its forests in two – rewilding key estates like the New Forest and the Forest of Dean: cutting down the spruce and replanting with native trees, then, crucially, leaving large native animals such as Beavers, Elk, cattle and horses to become the foresters.  Economies in these forests would be driven through ecotourism revenues and perhaps some hunting.  Elsewhere, timber forests would remain.  It is hard to think of one single decision that could effect a greater transformation on British land than a decision to return Britain’s once world-class oak-lands to our nation.  Another, however, would be if Scotland’s deer estates, which again cover an area twice the size of Yellowstone, could be incentivised to rewild and regrow their trees.  Hunting could remain – but in this regrowing wilderness would be the potential for Elk, Lynx, Wildcats and a huge expansion in woodland species like Capercaillie. 

Are you optimistic for the future of Britain’s wildlife?

Yes – but only if our conservationists act with the same pragmatism and determination as those who have prevented land reform for decades.  In my closing chapter, I’ve argued that whilst farming unions behave with absolute conviction and coherence, our nature charities often simply say that a few more Skylarks would be nice.  Only if we can unlock the economic arguments of nature, and harness the millions of voices effectively, will we see large areas rewilded in our country.  It is the social and economic transformation that nature provides that needs to be realised – but for that, you need space, and power over land.  At that moment, things will change. In my lifetime, I genuinely believe that after many fierce battles, we will see Dalmatian Pelicans flying over Somerset, and huge areas of Scotland, Wales and upland England slowly returned to a wilder state.  But without absolute conviction this is possible, it will never come to pass.

Benedict Macdonald’s book is out now as part of our Spring Promotion

To discover further reading on the past, present and future of the British countryside, browse our collection.

Rocky Shores: an interview with John Archer-Thomson and Julian Cremona

Rocky Shores is the seventh installment of the popular British Wildlife Collection.

Image result for rocky shores bloomsbury

The exciting environment of the rocky shore receives a space in the limelight with this new volume. The authors guide the reader through all aspects of the rocky shore including geology, ecology and natural history. It would make a fantastic addition to any naturalist’s book shelf.

 

 

John Archer-Thomson

John Archer-Thomson and Julian Cremona have spent their lives in environmental education and conservation. They are a former deputy head and head respectively of the Field Studies Council’s Dale Fort Field Centre in Pembrokeshire. John is now a freelance coastal ecologist, photographer, writer and tutor, while Julian is the author of several books on exploration, nature and photography.

Julian Cremona

To introduce the authors and their book, we took the opportunity to talk to them about their inspiration for this volume and ask for tips for how we can get involved with rocky shores. Both authors will be signing copies which are available to pre-order on the NHBS website.

What drew you both to this habitat and inspired the production of this fascinating book?

©John Archer-Thomson

As we say in Chapter 1, we were both born near the coast and grew up loving the sea and so were always drawn to the intertidal, especially as many of the inhabitants are quite weird. From the earliest days with the Dorset Wildlife Trust John enjoyed communicating his love of the shore and the importance of its conservation and the need to respect the natural world. As a child Julian collected all manner of natural material from the shore and after graduation taught seashore ecology in Dorset. We see Rocky Shores as an extension of this mission.

How did you even begin to write this book on such a wide-ranging topic?Forty years of running inter-tidal field courses tends to focus attention on making shores accessible to newcomers, we approached the book from a similar standpoint. John particularly likes molluscs, seaweeds and lichens; Julian, all types of invertebrates especially insects, and as ecologists we love the way the component parts of the system interact, John is also particularly interested in how humans are affecting the shore while Julian has spent much of his life travelling the coast of the British Isles. Thus certain chapters suggested themselves!

What was your most exciting find on a rocky shore that people should look out for in the future?

©Julian Cremona

For John it has to be echinoderms in general and Julian likes the more microscopic life living amongst seaweeds in rock pools. We don’t quite know why, but the little pseudoscorpion called Neobisium maritimum always causes excitement for both of us. They are tiny, only a few millimetres long, quite uncommon and may be found by observing the Black Lichen Lichina pygmaea in which they sometimes hide.

I recommend this book as a fantastic in-depth overview, but what would you suggest readers do to further their rocky shore learning?

John runs a “Rocky shore invertebrates” course for the Field Studies Council at Dale Fort Field Centre. This looks at the ecology of the shore, zonation patterns, adaptations of organisms to this extreme environment and of course the ‘plant’ (and planktonic) life that supports this biodiversity: come on this. Alternatively, there are fold out (FSC) keys for a more do-it-yourself approach, in fact, two of these have been produced by Julian’s daughter Clare Cremona including the Rocky Shore Trail. In 2014 Julian produced a large book called Seashores: an Ecological Guide, which has a huge number of photos to help with the identification of commonly found species and explains how they interact on the shore. A Complete guide to British Coastal Wildlife by Collins and the excellent A student’s guide to the seashore by Fish & Fish. For a more academic, but still very readable, account try The Biology of Rocky Shores by Little et al, Oxford Press.

Although adaptable, rocky shore inhabitants are not invincible, what do you think is the biggest threat to the rocky shore ecosystem and are some species more at risk than others?

©John Archer-Thomson

That’s easy: us. There are too many human beings gobbling up habitat, consuming resources, changing the climate, raising sea levels, acidifying the ocean, over-fishing, polluting with plastic, agricultural and industrial chemicals and so on. Stressed ecosystems tend to be species poor but there are often large numbers of a few fast growing, tolerant species that do well. Northern, cold water species are already suffering range contractions as the climate warms, whereas the opposite is true of southern, high temperature tolerant forms, including invasive species from warmer climes.

Staying on the theme of the future, what is next for you both – another book perhaps?

For John this would be intertidal and sublittoral monitoring and photography. Running courses for the FSC. Talks for local natural history groups. Magazine articles and an update of “Photographing Pembrokeshire” by John & Sally Archer-Thomson, Apple iBooks. Julian has a trio of specialist photography books being published by Crowood press. The first two on extreme close-up photography have already appeared and the third will be published at the beginning of April. He continues to develop new ways to photograph wildlife, especially the “very small”. Coupled with this 2019 includes running further workshops, lecturing and travel – for the wildlife!

Other books by Julian Cremona

Extreme Close-Up Photography and Focus Stacking – Julian Cremona

Beyond Extreme Close-Up Photography – Julian Cremona

Rocky Shores is published by Bloomsbury Publishing and signed copies are available for pre-order, while stocks last.

Field Guide to the Ladybirds of Britain and Ireland:

To the general naturalist, ladybirds are arguably the most familiar group of beetles and an up-to-date field guide has been long overdue. Now, after exhaustive research and diligent illustrations, this brand new field guide covering all 47 species of ladybird occurring in Britain and Ireland is finally available.

 

 

The authors Helen E. Roy and Peter Brown and illustrator, Richard Lewington signing the hardback edition exclusively for NHBS. Available while stocks last…

They also found time to answer a few questions regarding the making of this definitive field guide to the ladybirds of Britain and Ireland.

With all the research, detailed illustrations, and accessible format design of this guide, how long has this project been in the making?

 

As the illustrations of the adults, larvae and pupae were all made from living specimens, collected in the wild, we needed at least two seasons to collect them all, and for Richard to illustrate them.

Ladybirds are a niche set of organisms which can be often overlooked, where did the inspiration to produce this field guide come from?

The brightly coloured ladybirds are an extremely popular group of insects but the small so-called inconspicuous ladybirds are under-recorded. Similarly, the larvae and pupae of ladybirds are less well known. We hope that this field guide, adding to the popular series of field guides published by Bloomsbury, will encourage recording of all ladybirds in all life stages. It is also a celebration of the amazing contributions to the UK Ladybird Survey from so many people.

Field guides can provide an essential tool to assist monitoring and conservation efforts of species. Could you explain why our ladybirds may need to be monitored?

Ladybirds, like all insects, respond to environmental change in different ways. Some species are expanding in range but many others are struggling. Understanding these patterns and trends is extremely important for informing conservation and decision-making. Many species of ladybird are beneficial, providing pest control of common garden and agricultural pests such as aphids and scale insects, and so it is important to consider the changing dynamics of these important species. How ladybirds are responding to climate change is another important aspect that the monitoring data will show.

Each illustration is so detailed, what is the process for reproducing a ladybird so accurately?

Detail and accuracy are the two most important considerations when producing illustrations for a field guide and working from actual specimens, rather than from photographs, is essential. Only then can measured drawings be made for correct anatomical details. Photos can be used as a supplement and museum specimens are also helpful if live material is unavailable.

With each book or field guide you hear of unexpected challenges. What was the biggest challenge in creating this field guide?

 

As the larval and pupal stages of ladybirds are quite short in duration, the main challenge for Richard was having to illustrate them as soon as he received them, often by post. The larvae also needed to be fed, at the same time ensuring the carnivorous species were kept apart, as many are cannibalistic. The inconspicuous species were the most challenging to illustrate as they are tiny, most around 2–4mm long, and covered in minute hairs, which often form diagnostically important patterns on their wing cases.
It has been such a pleasure to work together – we have all learnt from one another along the way. It has been inspiring to hear from Richard about the microscopic details of some of the little ladybirds that had previously gone unnoticed by us.

Helen E. Roy (Author)

Peter Brown (Author)

Richard Lewington (Illustrator)

 

 

Professor Helen Roy’s research at the Biological Records Centre focuses on the effects of environmental change on insect populations and communities, and she is particularly interested in the dynamics of invasive species and their effects on native biodiversity.

Dr Peter Brown is an ecologist and senior lecturer in zoology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. His research focuses on three main areas: ladybirds, non-native species and citizen science.

Richard Lewington is regarded as being one of the finest wildlife illustrators. His meticulous paintings of insects and other wildlife are the mainstay of many of the modern classics of field-guide art, including the Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland and the Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland.

 

Field Guide to the Ladybirds of Britain and Ireland

By: Helen E. Roy (Author), Peter Brown (Author), Richard Lewington (Illustrator)

Paperback | Nov 2018 |  ISBN 9781472935687                    £19.99 £24.99                                                                              Hardback | Nov 2018 |  ISBN 9781472935670                    £37.99 £44.99

 

 

 

 

 

 

Browse all our Ladybird books

 

Steller’s Sea Eagle: An interview with Richard Sale

Standing a metre tall, with a wingspan approaching three metres, the Steller’s Sea Eagle is a magnificent and impressive bird.

Published in November, Richard Sale’s new book is the first English-language study of this bird of prey.  A translation of an earlier Russian book written by Masterov and Romanov, the English version benefits from significant updates and a wealth of new photographs.

We recently chatted with Richard about the Steller’s Sea Eagle, his passion for birds and his love of the Arctic.

In your author biography you are described as a physicist with a PhD in astrophysics. Is physics still a part of your life or do you now devote all of your time to your writing and natural history studies?

Physics will always be a part of my life. I started out as a working physicist, at first as a glaciologist in Switzerland because they paid me to stay in the mountains where I could climb on my days off. Then I moved back to the UK to work. After a few years I left full-time employment and started a consultancy which allowed me to share physics with my love of birds and of snow and ice.

You obviously have a huge passion for birds, and you also spend much of your time studying Arctic ecology. Where did these twin passions come from?

The love of birds started with my father who was a birdwatcher. Our holidays were geared around the breeding season and we went to the moors rather than the beach. He taught me to really watch birds, not just to be able to name them but to able to understand their habits. My other love as a kid was climbing; at first rock faces, then mountains. The love of snow and ice and birds led naturally to wanting to visit the Arctic. After the first trip I really didn’t want to go anywhere else, especially as I am no lover of hot weather.

How did the collaboration for Steller’s Sea Eagle come about? Were you approached to work on the English version of the book or is it something that you yourself instigated?

I had visited Kamchatka in summer and winter and been in the field with Yevgeni Lobkov, one the experts on Kamchatka’s Steller’s. I subsequently went to Hokkaido several times to see the eagles on the sea ice. Then I found the Russian book and corresponded with Michael Romanov. That led to the idea of translating it into English, so I obtained the English rights from the Russian publisher. At first the idea was just to translate the Russian book, but by questioning Michael and Vladimir about sections of text, and then suggesting that we include my work on flight characteristics, the two of them suggested I should be co-author as the book was now looking substantially different from the original.

Can you describe your first sighting of a Steller’s Sea Eagle? How did it make you feel?

I mentioned Yevgeni Lobkov above. He and I took a trip along the Zupanova River in a Zodiac and I remember the first time a Steller’s came over us. It was low down and seemed to blot out the light because of its size. No one who sees a Steller’s can avoid being impressed and I was immediately enraptured.

I was intrigued to read that you have worked with a captive Steller’s Sea Eagle here in the UK. Can you tell us more about this experience?

Once in the Arctic, on Bylot Island, I was watching a Gyrfalcon hunting Arctic Ground Squirrels and because of the terrain, a narrow valley, I could see the falcon was not stooping in a straight line. That led to investigating the physiology of falcon eyes, and to designing a small unit with gps, tri-axial accelerometers, magnetometers and gyros (and other bits) to fly on falconry birds to study how they fly. I managed to get the weight down to a few grams – though that hardly mattered when I found someone flying a captive Steller’s in England as it weighed 5kg. It was flying the units on that bird that is in the new book. Atlas, the eagle, was flown in demonstrations for the public and allowed me to investigate wing beat frequencies, speed etc. It was great fun as he was such a docile bird, a real gentle giant, and being allowed to get so close to him was marvellous.

It seems that two of the main pressures on the Steller’s Sea Eagle are fossil fuel exploration from humans and predation from brown bears. Are there currently any population estimates for the species, and are you hopeful for their future survival?

The situation is not good. The company drilling for oil and gas have been helpful in taking enormous care over onshore works near breeding sites and are to be commended for that. But the fact is that, as human activities of all sorts have expanded close to Steller’s habitats (most of which are well away from the oil/gas exploration sites), the population has gone into decline. We can overcome bear predation by fitting anti-bear devices to trees. We can erect artificial nest and roost sites. But despite all of this, at the moment the population numbers are slowly coming down, probably as a result of global warming, though we are not yet definite about that. Hopefully the population will stabilise but only time will tell if our efforts have been sufficient.

Within a given year, how much time do you spend travelling and how much writing? Do you enjoy each part of the process equally?

Age is catching up with me now and so I spend less time in the Arctic than I did (when I could be there for many weeks during the breeding season). But I still get into the field regularly – particularly at the moment with my units flying on falconry birds and with studies on Merlins in Iceland, Scotland and Hobbies in England and Wales. But I also spend a lot of time in the library reading about birds and, sadly, the damage we are causing them through industrialisation and climate change. As everyone knows, there is hardly any money to be made nowadays as a writer of books on natural history and related topics, but I also enjoy the process of writing and preparing books for publication.

Another of your books, The Arctic, is due for publication in December. What’s next for you? Do you have another project in the pipeline?

That book is an updated, but shortened, version of one I produced some years ago with new photographs by myself and a Norwegian photographer I bumped into one winter out on the sea ice of Svalbard. We have made several journeys together since and stay in close touch as we share a love of the Arctic. The next will likely be an updated and expanded version of the one I produced on the Merlin. Merlins are my favourite raptor. Falcons are, in general, warm-weather birds. The exceptions are the Gyrfalcons, which are the largest falcons, the Peregrine (which lives more or less everywhere) and is also large, and the tiny Merlin. I am as entranced by these little birds making a living in the harshest climates as I am by the huge Steller’s.

“When it is -35 C and you are on a snow scooter at 40 kph you look like this or, you are frostbitten in seconds”

Richard Sale is a physicist with a PhD in astrophysics, who now devotes his time to studying Arctic ecology and the flight dynamics of raptors. With Eugene Potapov he co-authored The Gyrfalcon monograph which won the US Wildlife Society Book of the Year in 2006. His other books include The Snowy OwlWildlife of the Arctic and the New Naturalist title Falcons.

Browse all ornithology and Arctic ecology books by Richard Sale.

 

 

 

 

Steller’s Sea Eagle:  The first English-language study of this bird of prey, is published in November.

Hardback | Nov 2018 | ISBN-13: 9780957173231

£39.99

 

The Arctic:  A condensed and updated edition of an earlier work with new photographs, is published in December.

Paperback | Dec 2018 | ISBN-13: 9781849953429

£24.99

Please note that all prices are correct at the time of posting and are subject to change at any time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Landfill: An interview with Tim Dee

Landfill is the story of gulls. Often derided as ‘bin chickens’ these complex birds are a surprising success story, exploiting and enjoying a niche created by our own waste-making behaviours.

In Landfill, Tim Dee has written an honest, funny and intelligent ode to these inquisitive, resourceful and daring birds. Their story is interwoven with our own – it is a nature book for our times.

We asked Tim a few questions regarding his fascination with gulls and his thoughts about these ubiquitous and canny survivors.

Why did you choose to write about Gulls?

I’ve been a birdwatcher for fifty years and grew up in a simpler world of gulls. They were mostly still ‘seagulls’ then – marine species – and there were only a handful regularly occurring in Britain. Thirty years ago – but without me fully clocking it at the time – gulls in Britain got more obvious and more interesting. Gulls became urban birds then, like never before – moving to breed in our cities and feeding on our rubbish dumps and stealing our chips – and they were also taxonomically reappraised so that the few species I thought I knew became a dozen or more species to search for and to learn to identify.  These changes and the ways the birds have continued to live as often the wildest creature closest to our contemporary lives made them interesting to me, troubling even, and I started trying to work out what was going on.

J.A. Baker, the author of Peregrine and perhaps the founder of nature writing once wrote ‘science can never be enough; emotion and sentiment will always rule.’ Public perceptions of gulls range from dislike all the way to loathing. Is there anything that might make us more accepting of gulls and their place among us?

I think they hold a mirror up to us. They have flown in our slipstream in the last 100 years, coming ashore first to feed on fish guts, then following ploughs, and more recently finding life in our leftovers on city streets and rubbish dumps. They have found a way to live alongside us. Most birds have gone in the opposite direction. Instead of admiring the gulls for getting good at various human-like activities (surviving in the jostle of cities, shifting to new places where opportunities arise, making do in strapped times) we have derided them. I think we fear them with a dark loathing and, in an atavistic way, other animals that we see as succeeding.  This is quite wrong. We have made the world the gulls have adapted to and we should look to our own debased and wasteful existence before hating other species for getting on with their lives. They might teach us about ourselves if we could learn how to know them properly. The gullers in Landfill know this and I have tried to write the book for the gulls as much as about them.

Gulls have proved to be adaptable, especially regarding human interaction; what changes have they already accomplished and what do you envisage for them in the next fifty or even one hundred years?

There has been a gull moment and it looks like it is coming to an end. Urban gulls – living in cities and eating our food waste on dumps – are a product of urbanising humanity and the throwaway decades of the 1960s-1990s. Nowadays the large species (herring and lesser black-backed above all) have two largely separate populations – one urban and one still marine. The seaside gulls are threatened species now and not doing well. At the moment the urban birds are still expanding their range and populations (there is remarkably little traffic between the two populations). But food waste recycling is increasingly efficient in the UK and little or no putrifiable waste is soon meant to be arriving on dumps. The food source is ending for the gulls. We don’t yet know what will happen. It seems likely that the numbers of the birds (100,000 pairs of urban herring and lesser black-backed gulls in Britain it is thought) cannot be sustained without this food source. It is good for us to be recyclers and to be less wasteful but the gulls may well not be so pleased.

With their increased visibility in towns and cities, what might be their impact on the urban wildlife that is already established there?

I’ve seen them eating a starling chick, others have seen them eating human hair outside a barber shop. The slum avifauna as it has been called is a dynamic one. Urban human life drives change in the leftover wildlife that can survive in the hectic built up world. Gulls take pigeons. And rats. But it is tough times for all species in these environments. On the rubbish dumps I have visited to ring gulls a super bold landfill red fox will take black-headed gulls if we are not careful to throw the ringed birds back into the air. Marginal living is hard for all. And in these shifting landscapes in states of permanent rebuild no one can tell who is going win out.

During your research for Landfill can you think of one stand-out surprising fact or discovery that you didn’t previously know?

Cities are warmer and safer and more nutritious for gulls than their original habitats; lesser black-backed gulls used to be migratory birds in Britain but seem to be evolving into sedentary birds; Caspian gulls are storming out of Eastern Europe, but are running out of their own species to mate with so are hybridising with others: nothing sits still for long in nature. Evolution is relentless, and the gulls are telling us how it is.

Are there plans for, or are you currently embarking on any new writing projects?

A nicer book in some ways I hope – I am writing about the spring in Europe following migratory birds north from south of the Sahara to the top of Arctic Scandinavia. Spring moves at about walking pace north and it is my favourite time of year. I have tried to walk the season from south to north in time with swallows and wheatears and nightjars and redstarts. And not many gulls, though I love them now too of course.

 

 

 

 

Tim Dee has been a birdwatcher for most of his life and written about them for twenty years.  As well as Landfill, he is the author of The Running Sky and Four Fields and is the editor of Ground Works.

Landfill is part of our Best of Winter collection and is available at the special offer price of £13.99 until the end of December 2018.

Hardback | Oct 2018 | ISBN-13: 9781908213624   £13.99 £15.99

 

 

Climate Change and British Wildlife: an interview with Trevor Beebee

Climate Change and British Wildlife is the sixth installment of the popular British Wildlife Collection. In this timely text, Trevor Beebee takes advantage of our long history of wildlife monitoring to examine the effects that climate change has played so far on British species and their ecosystems. He also considers what the future may hold for them in a constantly warming environment.

Trevor Beebee is Emeritus Professor of Evolution, Behaviour and Environment at the University of Sussex, Trustee of the Herpetological Conservation and Amphibian Conservation Research Trusts and President of the British Herpetological Society. He is also author of the Amphibians and Reptiles Naturalists’ Handbook and co-author of the Amphibian Habitat Management Handbook.

Last week, Trevor visited NHBS to sign copies of Climate Change and British Wildlife (signed copies are exclusively available from NHBS). We also took the opportunity to chat him about the background behind the book, his thoughts on conservation and his hopes for the future of British wildlife. Read the full conversation below.

Where did the impetus and inspiration for this book come from? Is it a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?

It started in the garden some 40 years ago. For me, first arrivals of newts in the ponds were a welcome indicator that spring was on the way and I logged the dates year on year. It gradually dawned on me that the differences were not random but that arrivals were becoming increasingly early. Climate change seemed the obvious cause, and as evidence accumulated from so many diverse studies, it seemed like a good subject to write about.

The research required to cover so many taxonomic groups so comprehensively must have been immense. How long did you work on this book, including research, writing and editing?

The book took about a year to write. Electronic access to scientific journals made the research much easier and quicker than it would have been 20 years ago. Editing also took quite a while, greatly assisted by the perceptive advice of Katy Roper (my Bloomsbury editor).

The book covers plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, fungi, lichens and microbes as well as communities and individual ecosystems. Are there any of these that you feel are particularly at risk? Or conversely, are there any that you feel are more robust and are likely to better weather the effects of continued climate change?

It became evident as I researched that cold-adapted species including Arctic-alpine plants and fish such as the Vendace are in trouble, and that worrying trend is likely to generate declines or even extinctions in the coming decades. The ecology of the North Sea is also undergoing dramatic changes, some of which have precipitated seabird declines, especially of species such as Kittiwakes that rely heavily on sand eels. At the other extreme, mature woodland seems relatively resilient to climate change.

We have a rich history of wildlife monitoring and recording in the UK, much of which is undertaken by volunteers. Why do you think this is?

I believe that the media can take much of the credit for stimulating these activities. The end of the second world war was followed by the publication of a plethora of natural history books, from the I-Spy series (I still have a copy of ‘Ponds and Streams’), through the Observer series to the flagship New Naturalists. Then came television, with pioneers such as Peter Scott and David Attenborough in the 1950s. We’ve never looked back, with Springwatch today regularly attracting two million or more viewers. Brilliant!

Do you think that a thorough understanding of long-term monitoring and datasets can and should inform our decisions about where to focus conservation efforts?

Yes indeed, and fortunately such datasets are steadily increasing. The recent State of Nature reports have relied heavily on them, and they provide solid evidence that decision-makers can hardly ignore. One proviso though. For some species, especially rare ones, it is still difficult to obtain the necessary information. It would be a great mistake to ignore the plight of plants or animals clearly in difficulty simply because we don’t have robust monitoring data.

How did you feel after writing this book? Are you optimistic or despondent about the future for British wildlife?

Relieved! Sadly, though, not at all optimistic. There are some well-publicised success stories, such as the resurgence of several raptors, but more than fifty percent of Britain’s wildlife species are in continuous decline and there’s no sign of an end to that. Climate change is a problem for some, but it’s not the main one. Postwar agricultural intensification is the major villain, and it carries on regardless.

What single policy change would you like to see to alter the future of conservation in the UK?

A serious commitment to change farming practices into ones that sustain our rich wildlife heritage. Research shows that this is possible without dramatic impacts on food production, despite the claims of the agrochemical industry. With a human population the size of that in the UK it will never be possible to provide enough food without imports and it’s about time that was accepted by farmers and politicians alike.

Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have another book in the pipeline?

The book I would like to write is one on the impact of overpopulation on British wildlife. It’s a sensitive subject but one clearly recognised by naturalists of the calibre of David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and Chris Packham, among others. The most serious issues, including intensive farming practices, relate directly to the number of people dependent on them.

Climate Change and British Wildlife is published by British Wildlife Publishing and is available from NHBS. 

Signed copies of the book are available, while stocks last.

Unnatural Selection: An interview with Katrina van Grouw

Katrina van Grouw, author of Unnatural Selection

After her incredibly successful book The Unfeathered Bird, Katrina van Grouw has recently finished Unnatural Selection, a beautiful combination of art, science and history. In this book, she celebrates the rapid changes breeders can bring about in domesticated animals. This was a topic of great interest to Charles Darwin, and it is no coincidence that Unnatural Selection is published on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.

In this post we talk with Katrina about her background, the work that goes into making a book and plans for the future

On your website, you write that you always had an interest in natural history, but that your talent in drawing made your teachers push you to pursue an art career, rather than studying biology. Did you ever consider a career as a scientific illustrator, something for which there must have been more of a market back then than there is now? If not, when and how did you decide to start combining your passion for biology with your talent as an artist?

No, I didn’t. There are several reasons for this; some a result of indoctrination, and others, decisions of my own.

There were two revelatory moments which brought art and science together for me and set the path for what was to come. Once when I’d rejected art and was sliding down a greasy pole into oblivion. And another, when I was an art student seeking direction. The first was at a zoo, and the second at a museum, and both were as vivid as a flash of light from the sky.

Even with art and natural history combined in my work, however, it was always in a fine art sense and never as an illustrator. I still don’t really identify with the term. Being an illustrator usually involves working to someone else’s brief and taking instructions from a non-illustrator about how the work should be done. I’m too self-obsessed for that! I lack imagination when it comes to commissioned work and can’t seem to generate much passion for other people’s projects, though I have the greatest respect for people who can do these things. I’m basically just no good at it!

Unnatural Selection intenal image 1You worked as curator of the bird skin collection of the London Natural History Museum. How did you end up there after an art degree?

How I ended up there is quite a long story. I do have a degree in art (two actually) but I also spent many years gaining valuable skills in practical ornithology that were precisely what the NHM needed; a combination of skills that was lacking in all the other applicants for the post.

I’d taught myself to prepare study skins and was good at it. I knew my way around the inside of a bird and had written a Masters’ thesis on bird anatomy (albeit aimed at artists). I was a qualified ringer who’d held an A class ringing permit for many years, which meant that I could age and sex birds accurately and knew how to take precise measurements consistent with other field workers. I’d taken part in ornithological expeditions in Africa and South America, so I had some first-hand experience of non-European birds. I’d worked in other museums. And I was a birder.

It’s a sad fact that one’s education often defines how a person is categorised for the remainder of their life, but self-taught skills, and hands-on experience can be worth far, far more. People often assume that artists can only ‘do art’ and nothing more, and that only people with a science degree are able to ‘do science’. A great many people are able to do both (though fewer questions are raised when it’s a qualified scientist who turns his/her hand to art!)

Unnatural Selection intenal image 2Your previous book, The Unfeathered Bird, took some 25 years from conception to publication, mostly as you found it very difficult to find a publisher. How did you manage to convince Princeton University Press to publish this book after so many rejections?

The quick answer is, because Princeton University Press is a publisher of vision and wisdom! (And no, they didn’t pay me to say that).

The full story is that the majority of publishers I approached had entrenched preconceptions about what an anatomy book should be and were unable to envisage anything that wasn’t a highly academic technical manual aimed at a niche audience. The book I had in mind was geared toward a much broader spectrum of bird lovers, including and especially bird artists. Additionally, I wanted it to be beautifully produced and aesthetically pleasing. So it wasn’t so much a problem of not being able to find a publisher, but not being able to find a publisher willing to think outside of the box. To answer the question: I didn’t actually need to convince Princeton –a fortuitous meeting lead to a great collaboration.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 3Your response to critics of breeding has been to counter their objection by saying “look at what nature has done to the sword-billed hummingbird!” which I thought was a sharp response. However, an animal welfare advocate might counter this argument by pointing out that natural selection can only push sword-billed hummingbirds so far. If this adaptation – the extension of the bill to retrieve nectar from ever deeper flower corollas – becomes maladaptive it will be selected against. Breeders, however, can select for traits that are maladaptive, because these animals grow up in an artificial environment where they are relieved of the pressures of natural selection. The shortened snouts and breathing problems of short-nosed dog breeds such as boxers come to mind. Obviously, if these traits become too extreme, the animals will not survive until reproductive age, but we can push them into a zone of discomfort and suffering through artificial breeding. What would your response to this be?

I’m an animal welfare advocate too. It’s difficult not to be when you keep animals and care for them every day. I too will freely admit that there are exhibition breeds in which artificial selection appears to have gone too far, resulting in health problems or discomfort. I can also appreciate that these problems might have their roots deeply embedded in history and culture and might be difficult to rectify without tearing down systems that would have devastating consequences to the entire fancy.

(Incidentally, the suffering of poultry selectively bred for the commercial meat industry is on a scale many thousands of times greater than the relatively low numbers of extreme pedigree breeds.)

The process of selecting out these physical defects will be a slow one and I think it’s important to support the work of breeders in this task. We can support them by trying to understand more about their world and by ceasing to attack them in gutter-press fashion with pseudo-scientific terms we don’t fully understand.

My book Unnatural Selection isn’t intended to voice personal opinions about animal welfare however. As the title suggests, it’s a book about evolution, based on and elaborating on the analogy that Darwin made between natural and artificial selection. For that reason I’ve discussed selective breeding solely within this evolutionary and historical context. It’s not that I was deliberately avoiding welfare issues; they simply weren’t relevant to the points I was discussing.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 4You write that the work on Unnatural Selection took six years of full-time work, around the clock. How long do you typically take to complete an illustration? And how do you manage to support yourself during this period, do you have freelance illustrations assignments on the side?

If I’m in-practice I can usually complete a full-page illustration in two or three days. There are 425 illustrations in Unnatural Selection, not forgetting the 84,000 words of text (somehow people always forget the text…). Not to mention thousands of hours’ research and background reading. Working like this is all-consuming, and definitely very unhealthy.

The fact is that non-fiction books taking so long to produce will never, ever, pay for themselves. Luckily Husband works full time, so we don’t actually starve, though I’d prefer to be able to contribute more financially to the household.

I would love to supplement my books with a part time job, but it certainly wouldn’t be illustrating! I dislike illustrating for other authors. I actually get far more pleasure from writing and I’m equally good at it, though this side of me is unfortunately often eclipsed by the artwork.

People talk in airy-fairy terms about the freedom and personal reward of being an artist transcending material gain, but it’s not like that at all. It’s not the actual poverty that’s damaging, but the feeling of inadequacy you get from working so hard, with such integrity, for so long, yet making no money.

The things that make it worthwhile are making those books exist at the end of it all, and having people tell me how grateful they are.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 5With two books now published by Princeton University Press, you seem to have started a very successful collaboration. How has the reception of this book been so far? Have you received nominations for prizes?

Boy, I’d love to win a prize! It’s still early days yet, so I’m ever-hopeful. To be honest though, I suspect I’m not the sort of person who wins prizes. Prizes seem to be dished out to academics and people whose career has been rather more conventional than mine. Like my books, I rather defy taxonomy and, even though we communicate science exceedingly well, few institutions would be brave enough to award a science writing prize to a self-taught scientist.

That’s not to say that we’re unpopular; quite the opposite. I’m proud to say that The Unfeathered Bird was embraced by a huge range of people: birders, naturalists, painters, sculptors, taxidermists, poets, mask makers, puppeteers, aviators, falconers, bibliophiles, palaeontologists, zookeepers, creature-designers and animatronics-people, academic biologists and vets! The pictures have been used in a trendy Berlin cocktail bar, on Diesel t-shirts, and tattooed onto several people’s bodies, and I get very genuine letters of thanks from all manner of people, from university professors and 12-year old boys and girls.

Unnatural Selection is a far better book than The Unfeathered Bird. It has better art and better science and, unlike The Unfeathered Bird in which the images take the lead, Unnatural Selection is very much led by good scientific and historical text, with the images serving solely to illuminate and enhance what’s being said. Everyone who’s seen it so far says it’s stunning, and the reviews have all been excellent. I hope the scientific community will take it seriously and not dismiss it as merely a quaint and witty book with good pictures. It’s so much more than that.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 6Will you continue to work on more books in the future? And are you already willing to reveal what you are working on next?

In answer to your first question: definitely—though if you’d asked me that toward the end of The Unfeathered Bird I would probably have said no. That book was supposed to have been a one-off, and I’d been looking forward to resuming work as an artist afterwards. However, when the time came I found that I’d moved on. Producing pictures for their own sake no longer ‘did it for me’. Books, on the other hand tick all the boxes: creatively, intellectually; at every level.

It’s important to understand that these are not ‘art books’—they’re not collections of artwork made into a book. The book itself is the work of art, not the individual illustrations. They’re science books nevertheless. For me the challenge is communicating science in the best possible way and finding just the right unique angle for each book. I’m especially proud of Unnatural Selection which I think is the finest and most original thing I’ve ever created.

Unfortunately, large illustrated books take many years to produce so I probably won’t have sufficient time left to bring more than two or maybe three more into existence. After all, I’m no spring chicken.

I’ve already signed a contract with Princeton and begun work on a greatly expanded second edition of The Unfeathered Bird. The new book will have 400 pages (that’s 96 more than the first edition) and will include a lot of new material on bird evolution from feathered dinosaurs (which of course will be unfeathered feathered dinosaurs, if you see what I mean). There’ll be lots of new and replacement illustrations and the text will be completely re-written. The science will be better, but the book will still accessible to anyone and devoid of jargon. However, this shouldn’t put people off buying the original version—the new edition will be virtually a different book.

I’m also intending to write an autobiography/memoir type book focusing on the relationship between art, science, and illustration, and will be looking for a publisher for that. This won’t be illustrated though, so it would be a comparatively quick one!

Unnatural Selection has been published in June 2018 and is currently on offer for £26.99 (RRP £34.99).

 

Vaquita: An interview with Brooke Bessesen

Brooke Bessesen, author of Vaquita

In Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico’s Upper Gulf region to uncover the story behind the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Through interviews with townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists, she teases apart a complex story filled with villains and heroes, a story whose outcome is unclear.

In this post we chat with Brooke about her investigations in Mexico, local and international efforts to save the vaquita and the current status of this diminutive porpoise.

The vaquita entered the collective imagination (or at least, my imagination) when it became world news somewhere in 2017 and there was talk of trying to catch the last remaining individuals, something which you describe at the end of your story. Going back to the beginning though, how did you cross the path of this little porpoise?

I first heard about vaquita during a visit to CEDO, an educational research station in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. I was enchanted to discover this beautiful little porpoise was endemic to the Upper Gulf of California, mere hours south of my home, yet saddened to learn it was already critically endangered. I still have the t-shirt I bought that day to support vaquita conservation. That was 2008 when the population estimate was 245.

The last update I could find was an interview in March 2018 on Mongabay with Andrea Crosta, director of the international wildlife trade watchdog group Elephant Action League. He mentioned there might be only a dozen vaquita left. Do you know what the situation is like now?

The last official population estimate was <30, but that was from 2016. With an annual rate of decline upwards of 50 percent, the number is surely much lower. If only we were able to watch the numbers go down in real time, we would all be forced to emotionally experience this sickening loss. But I think there is a (legitimate) fear that if an updated estimate revealed the number to be in or near single digits, key institutions might announce the species a lost cause and pull up stakes. If pecuniary support disappears, it’s game-over. Vaquita has graced the planet for millions of years—we cannot give up the battle to prevent its extinction so long as any number remain.

Once your investigation on the ground in Mexico gets going, tensions quickly run high. This is where conservation clashes with the hard reality of humans trying to make a living. Corruption, intimidation and threats are not uncommon. Was there ever a point that you were close to pulling out because the situation became too dangerous?

Truth told, my nerves were prickling from start to finish. The emotional fatigue was intense. But having witnessed the gruesome death of Ps2 [the designation given one of the Vaquita carcasses that washed up, ed.], I simply could not turn back. Then as the humanitarian crisis became clear and I was meeting families struggling to raise children in the fray, I was even more committed to telling this story. When courage wavered, I only had to remind myself of the host of social scientists, biologists, activists, and law-abiding fishermen working so bravely for the cause.

You describe a widespread indifference to the vaquita. I have the feeling a lot of this is cultural. Do you think a change in attitude can ever be effected? Or is the combination of poverty and the need to make a living completely at loggerheads with this?

I see two main obstacles to solving the vaquita crisis: corruption and poverty. In that order, because until local citizens can trust their military and police officers to rightfully enforce law, and until Pesca [Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute and its National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries, ed.] authorizes legal, sustainable fishing methods instead of providing loopholes for poachers, there will be no economic stability in the region. Money is pouring into the pockets of crime bosses while upstanding folks barely get by. Focused on either greed or survival, nobody has much capacity to care about porpoise conservation. That said, I do believe change can be effected. Several NGOs are already connecting with the communities in meaningful ways, and mind-sets are slowly shifting. If Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who goes by the nickname Amlo, manages to abolish corruption as he has promised to do, civic finances will balance out and efforts to care for vaquita will find better footing.

As the story progresses, more and more foreign interests enter this story. Sea Shepherd starts patrolling the waters, and Leonardo DiCaprio also gets involved, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Mexican president to try and turn the tide. What was the reaction of Mexicans on the ground to this kind of foreign involvement? Are we seen as sentimental, spoiled, rich Westerners who can afford unrealistic attitudes?

Since the majority of environmentalists working in the Upper Gulf are Mexican, and even Leonardo DiCaprio had the alliance of Carlos Slim, the socio-political divide does not seem to be so much between nationalists and foreigners as between fishermen and environmentalists. Fishermen who openly expressed distain for “outsiders” disrupting business meant Sea Shepherd, for sure, but they also meant scientists and conservationists from places like Mexico City, Ensenada, and La Paz. Some of the locals I spoke with or followed on Facebook did seem troubled by the amount of resources being spent on vaquita while their own human families suffered. They felt the environmentalists were not appreciating the strain and fear of their jobless circumstances. Then again, a good percentage voiced gratitude for the efforts being made to protect vaquita as a national treasure and seemed to feel part of an important crusade for their country and their community.

Related to this, the West has outsourced the production of many things to countries overseas and so many of us are far removed from the harmful impact that our desire for food and stuff has on the environment. Deforestation in the Amazon to graze livestock for hamburgers is one such long-distance connection that comes to mind. The vaquita has also suffered from the impact of shrimp trawlers. No doubt many who shed tears over the vaquita will happily gorge themselves on said shrimps without ever making the link. Do you think that globalisation has in that regard served to polarise the debate where wildlife and nature conservation is concerned?

Yes, this is a really important point. It’s easy to point fingers, but we are all complicit in the destruction of ocean life. Anyone who eats fish or shrimp caught in gillnets—or trawls, or longlines—is funding the slaughter of cetaceans and sea turtles and myriad other animals. It’s a painful truth. The root of the problem is that most of us don’t know, and don’t care to ask, where the seafood on our dinner plate came from. This is not intended to be accusatory, as I, too, am finding my way in this era of culinary disconnect. I just know the first step is to quit pretending we are bystanders.

One side of the story I found missing from your book was that of the demand for totoaba swim bladders in China. I imagine it might have been too dangerous or time-consuming (or both) to expand your investigation to China as well. How important and how feasible do you think it is to tackle the problem from that side? Without a demand for totoaba bladders, the vaquita wouldn’t face the threats of gillnets after all.

I think it’s imperative to attack the totoaba trade from the consumer side, with the goal of systematically eliminating the demand for swim bladders. As for feasibility, I’m less confident. Time and distance prevented me from effectively researching the situation in China, but from what I’ve read, the cultural, political, and economic trappings there are just as complicated as they are in Mexico. I’m pleased to know efforts are underway. It also must be said, though, that ending the totoaba trade is not a sure-fire resolution for vaquita because fishermen in the Upper Gulf traditionally use gillnets for a range of legal fish.

With the book now written, are you still involved in efforts to protect the vaquita?

Knowing what I know now, it’s unthinkable to walk away from vaquita. I was down in San Felipe last month, exchanging summer c-pods and catching up on the latest news. Everyone is nurturing the flicker of hope that Amlo will take action to save his national marine mammal by cleaning up the corruption that has stymied vaquita conservation.

Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez is due for publication in September 2018 and is currently available at the pre-publication price of £19.99 (RRP £22.99).

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What was the biggest challenge in accomplishing this benchmark work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for you? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start to Identify Grasses: An Interview With Faith Anstey

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

Faith Anstey

Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families

Start to Identify Grasses

 

 

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

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

What makes your books different from the usual field guides?

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

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

Collins Wild Flower Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start to Identify Grasses
Paperback | May 2018
£3.50

 

 

 

Also by Faith Anstey…

Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families
Paperback | January 2016
£5.99

 

 

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

 

 

Great offers on further reading for improvers and experts alike…

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

New Flora of the British Isles
Paperback | 2010
£59.99

 

 

 

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

 

 

Faith Anstey in Ardnamurchan, Scotland

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

 

 

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