Daringly innovative when it opened in 1848, the Palm House in Kew Gardens remains one of the most beautiful glass buildings in the world today
In Palace of Palms, Kate Teltscher tells the extraordinary story of its creation and of the Victorians’ obsession with the palms that filled it: a story of breathtaking ambition and scientific discovery and, crucially, of the remarkable men whose vision it was.
Cultural historian and author, Kate Teltscher kindly took some time to answer our questions about her new book and sign a limited number of bookplates.
Can you tell us something about your background and what motivated you to write Palace of Palms?
I’ve visited Kew since my childhood and have always loved the Palm House. It’s such a magnificent building, and just astounds you, the moment that you enter the Gardens. It’s so sleek and elegant, and modern-looking. As soon as you push open the door, the heat hits you, and you’re inside this tropical world. The architecture and plants combine to form this astonishing spectacle. The whole Gardens are landscaped around the Palm House, and the three long vistas at the back mean that you’re always catching sight of the Palm House as you walk the grounds. I wanted to find out why the Palm House was at the centre of Kew. Why was it the first building to be commissioned when Kew became a public institution? As a cultural historian, I was interested in the story that the Palm House could tell about Britain and botany, about palms and empire. And then in the course of my research I became fascinated by the characters that I discovered: the ambitious first Director, the self-taught engineer, and the surly yet devoted Curator.
The historical period in your book has been described as ‘The Golden Age of Botany.’ Do you think this description is justified?
The period certainly saw the birth of modern botany and many plant collecting expeditions, but the idea of a ‘golden age’ seems outdated now. The phrase tends to obscure or gild botany’s connection with commerce and empire. From its very foundation as a public garden, Kew had close links with colonial gardens across the empire. John Lindley, the botanist who wrote a government report on Kew, proposed that the colonies would offer up their natural resources to Britain to aid ‘the mother country in every thing that is useful in the vegetable kingdom’. Kew was seen as the co-ordinating hub of a network of colonial gardens in India, Australia, the Indian Ocean and the West Indies, that would exchange information and plants across the globe. Transplanting medicinal plants, economic and food crops across continents, Kew engineered environmental and social change worldwide.
Why were palms so important to the Victorians?
The Victorians inherited the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’ notion that palms were the ‘princes of the vegetable kingdom’. They were regarded as the noblest of all plants, far surpassing all European vegetation. For the public educator, Charles Knight, they combined ‘the highest imaginable beauty with the utmost imaginable utility’. They provided every necessity of life: food, drink, oil, clothes, shelter, weapons, tools and books. They were so bountiful that Linnaeus imagined that early humanity had subsisted entirely on palms. As Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal put it: the question is not ‘What do they afford us? But what is there that they do not?’
Your book is full of intrigue, exploration and innovation. During your research was there one fact or event that stood out as been particularly remarkable?
I was particularly struck by the change in status of palm oil between the 1840s and today. Industrial chemists had recently discovered the properties of palm oil that would, in our own time, make it one of the most ubiquitous of vegetable oils. In the nineteenth century, palm oil was used as axle grease on the railways and, combined with coconut oil, as a constituent of soap and candles. The oil palm grew in the areas of West Africa previously dominated by the slave trade. The trade in palm oil, it was argued, was the most effective means to combat human trafficking. In contrast to current fears that palm oil production is a major cause of deforestation and involves child and forced labour, the Victorians viewed palm oil as an ethical product, with unlimited manufacturing possibilities.
How do you envisage the future of the Palm House, the finest surviving Victorian glass and iron building in the world?
I understand from Aimée Felton, the architect who compiled a report on the Palm House, that despite the constant humidity of the interior, the actual structure is in reasonably good shape. These days, I guess, the Palm House does not look so big. Some of the tallest palms can never reach maturity because the Palm House roof is not high enough; they have to be cut down so that they don’t break through the glass. Obviously modern plant houses, like the Eden Project biospheres or the Norman Foster-designed Great Glass House at the National Botanic Garden of Wales may be larger or wider. But what I find interesting is that these plant houses, like the Palm House, are daring, experimental structures. The Palm House really functioned as the model for glasshouses across the globe throughout the nineteenth century: in Copenhagen, Adelaide, Brussels, San Francisco, Vienna and New York. From a contemporary point of view, the Palm House is often seen as a forerunner of twentieth-century modernism. It offers a perfect union of form and function, with its clean lines and organic shape. In recent years, the Palm House has provided the inspiration for one of London’s current icons: the London Eye. I expect that it will go on inspiring architects and engineers for years to come!
Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?
I’m hoping to work more with Kew, in particular a project to digitise an early record book that documents all the plants that were received and sent out from Kew at the end of the eighteenth century. Since Kew was the first point of entry for many plants into Britain, and also sent plants to colonial botanic gardens all over the world, this record book is central to our understanding of the circulation of plant species, both nationally and globally. Kew really is a place of infinite riches, for the visitor and historian alike!
Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew
By: Kate Teltscher
Hardback | July 2020| £19.99£25.00
The extraordinary history of the magnificent Victorian Palace of Palms in the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.
All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.
Hosted by the Freshwater Biological Association, the Riverfly Partnership represents a network of organisations whose aims are to protect the water quality of our rivers, further the understanding of riverfly populations and actively conserve riverfly habitats. This is achieved via a range of ongoing projects which utilise citizen scientists to monitor invertebrates, water chemistry, physical habitat, pollution and hydromorphological functioning in order to gain a picture of overall river health.
Ben Fitch is the national project manager for the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative, one of the projects run by the Riverfly Partnership. This week we chatted to him about the Partnership and their projects, the importance of riverflies and how Covid-19 has affected his working life over the recent months.
If one were to canvas general public opinion about flies, many people would likely think of those which they consider to be pests, such as house flies, mosquitos, greenfly, blackfly and horseflies. How would you explain to a non-specialist how important riverflies are and why we should care about them?
First of all, I would say that all insects are essential to life on this planet, with species fulfilling important roles within ecosystems – even those ‘pesky’ flies as some may see them.
Next, I would highlight the fact that freshwater is a precious natural resource upon which all life on Earth depends. Humans are certainly no exception to that rule, but it is because of us that freshwater is under considerable and continuous threat.
I would go on to explain that riverflies contain three groups of insects, namely mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. More than 280 species of riverflies have been recorded in the UK, most of which spend the greater part of their life beneath the surface of still or running freshwater as larvae, before emerging from the water as winged adults. Riverflies should be present in running and still freshwater bodies across the UK throughout the year, they are at the heart of freshwater ecosystems and are a vital link in the aquatic food chain as a food source for fish and birds.
Importantly, riverflies are sensitive to changes in water quality, for example chemical or organic pollution, which makes them excellent indicators of the health of a freshwater body (they are often referred to as the canaries of our rivers). Thus, by monitoring them regularly, it is possible to identify and manage pollution issues, deter would-be polluters, and protect our freshwater ecosystems.
Does Britain have any endemic or particularly rare riverflies?
There are eight rare and threatened riverfly species that have been designated as conservation priorities by the UK Government. The eight species, listed as follows, are categorised as being of Principal Importance:
Northern February red (Brachyptera putata): a stonefly that occurs only in Britain. It is found mainly in Scottish upland streams.
Rare medium stonefly (Isogenus nubecula): only known to occur in the Welsh River Dee and may now be extinct.
Scarce grey flag (Hydropsyche bulgaromanorum): a large caddisfly only known from stony areas on the River Arun in Sussex.
Scarce brown sedge (Ironoquia dubia): a caddisfly only known from three southern English sites. There are no recent records for this species.
Small grey sedge (Glossosoma intermedium) a caddisfly that has been found in only four Lake District streams. There are no recent records for this species.
Window-winged sedge (Hagenella clathrata) an orange mottled caddisfly that lives in pools on bogs and heathland at about ten sites in the UK.
Southern iron blue (Baetis niger): a widespread mayfly species whose abundance appears to have declined in some areas by as much as 80% in recent decades.
Yellow mayfly (Potamanthus luteus): an attractive, bright yellow mayfly that is found mainly on the River Wye in the Welsh borders.
[I would like to give great thanks to Craig Macadam, Conservation Director at Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, for permitting me to use information from the Buglife website in parts of this interview, particularly above. To find out more about why bugs are essential to our planet and all life on it, visit: https://www.buglife.org.uk].
The Riverfly Partnership coordinates a number of projects looking at lots of different measurements of river health. These include surveying invertebrates, physical habitat, hydromorphological features and pollution events. What happens to the data that is collected in these projects? Who uses it and what for?
Firstly, I should clarify that the Riverfly Partnership (RP) is hosted by the Freshwater Biological Association and is a network of more than 100 partner organisations representing anglers, conservationists, entomologists, scientists, water course managers, and relevant authorities. RP carries out work according to its core aims: to protect the water quality of our rivers, to further the understanding of riverfly populations, and to conserve riverfly habitats.
As your question states, RP is involved in a number of citizen science freshwater monitoring initiatives. Here is a summary of those initiatives along with how data is collected, stored, and used in each case:
Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI)
The Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) is a project that enables trained volunteers, such as anglers and conservationists, to protect river water quality by regularly monitoring eight pollution sensitive aquatic invertebrate groups. Data is recorded in the field before being uploaded to the national online ARMI database (once checked and verified, ARMI data is available under the terms of the Open Government Licence). ARMI complements the work carried out by statutory agency staff across the UK, such as the Environment Agency in England, primarily by reporting pollution incidents to and sharing ARMI data with those agencies directly.
Urban Riverfly includes an additional six aquatic invertebrate groups to the eight used in the original ARMI scheme and can be used across a number of different river systems, but especially modified rivers and those influenced by conurbations. Urban Riverfly data is recorded in the field by trained citizen scientists, hosted locally through Riverfly Hubs, and used by Catchment Partnerships to inform catchment management and direct conservation action.
Extended Riverfly uses 33 invertebrate groups, including the eight ARMI groups, to provide a more nuanced picture of river water quality according to different stressors. Extended Riverfly data is collected, stored, and used similarly to that of Urban Riverfly.
Hosted by the Earthwatch Institute, Freshwater Watch is a global initiative for monitoring water quality and water chemistry. Data is recorded in the field and submitted online by trained citizen scientists, after which experts provide analysis and feedback to monitors and present evidence to decision- and policy-makers worldwide.
The Modular River Survey, or MoRPh, enables citizen scientists and professionals to be trained to assess and record physical habitat and hydromorphological functioning in their local rivers and streams. Data is hosted online by Cartographer and is used by Catchment Partnerships to inform catchment management and direct conservation action.
The Outfall Safari is a citizen science method devised to systematically survey outfalls in urban rivers in order to identify pollution and notify the relevant authorities (sharing data accordingly). It was created by the Citizen Crane project team in partnership with staff from Thames Water and the Environment Agency, and is regarded by the Environment Agency as best practice.
SmartRivers, hosted by Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC), takes citizen science invertebrate monitoring to the highest resolution. Species data are recorded in the field then stored in S&TC’s database. S&TC staff process SmartRivers data through their unique calculator and provide data analysis that identifies specific water quality stressors in the river and pinpoints where they are occurring. S&TC use SmartRivers data to provide evidence that can help prevent pollution occurring in the first place. This evidence can also inform how to concentrate management efforts locally to achieve the best environmental outcomes.
Like many people across the UK, you have been furloughed as a result of the global Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic since March 2020, so are not legally permitted to work. As such, we are grateful to you for agreeing to do this interview in a voluntary capacity. Can you describe your role within the Riverfly Partnership and what a typical work day looks like for you?
My working role for the Riverfly Partnership is as the national project manager of the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI). The Riverfly Partnership receives funding support for the role from the Environment Agency (rod licence revenue and the Water Environment Improvement Fund). I have also been a committed and active ARMI volunteer monitor since 2009.
At the moment, I would not describe my days as ‘typical’ for the reasons outlined in your question. I have not been able to work since late March, neither has it been possible to carry out ARMI sampling for the larger part of the same period. I am grateful, however, for the excellent ongoing support provided by the Freshwater Biological Association and I hope to be able to return to work in the near future, as soon as government advice permits and once it is deemed safe for me to do so. In the meantime, I have greatly enjoyed spending more time with my family which has largely centred around home educating our two children whilst my wife, as a key worker, has continued to work throughout.
A typical day prior to the current situation was always incredibly busy! My key responsibilities revolve around supporting and expand the ARMI network, including communications, publications, presentations, training delivery, tutor support, tutor/training workshop observations and QA, tutor development, database and website management, and much, much more. I wouldn’t feel right at this point if I didn’t thank every single ARMI volunteer, participant, partner, and supporter for their incredible commitment towards protecting our rivers. I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues Alex Domenge, Steve Brooks, Bill Brierley, Roger Handford, Lesley Hadwin, Kirsty Hadwin, Paul Knight, Nick Measham, Tom Miles, along with every RP Board member, every Extended / Urban Riverfly Working Group member, and every contact at the Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales, and Northern Ireland Environment Agency. As you can see the work that I am involved in has partnership at its core.
If people want to get involved with riverfly monitoring (or any of your citizen science projects) how would you suggest they get started? Do they need prior knowledge/experience of freshwater sampling or species ID?
Volunteering, as a river monitor or riverfly recorder, is not only an excellent way to protect the health of your local river, but also to contribute towards direct conservation action, local communities, scientific data and evidence, and sustainability.
New volunteers are always welcome and no prior knowledge or experience is necessary.
Individuals interested in becoming a volunteer Riverfly monitor should register their interest with their local Riverfly hub coordinator. To find out who that is please use the contact us page on the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org
Individuals interested in becoming a riverfly recorder should visit the Riverfly Recording Schemes (RRS) page of the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org/Recording_Schemes where details about the schemes and RRS coordinator contact information can be found.
Organisations interested in joining the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) must have a member who is prepared to act as a local coordinator (to serve as a contact point between the EA / SEPA / NRW / NIEA and the monitoring group) and have members attend an official ARMI workshop. The workshop includes presentations, practical demonstrations and active participation. For more information please contact us via the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org
For information about freshwater invertebrate and freshwater ecology training courses, I can highly recommend the Freshwater Biological Association: https://www.fba.org.uk
What conservation actions or changes would you like to see happen in your lifetime that would have a significant (and positive) impact on river health and biodiversity?
I could list many here but I am going to go with two, off the bat:
Serious, long term political commitment to the natural world and conservation thereof
If you had to tell people to google a photo of one species of riverfly which would you choose? (perhaps because it is ecologically important or just because it looks interesting!)
If I had to choose one, it would be of a flat-bodied mayfly larva (species Ecdyonurus dispar – Autumn Dun) because new volunteers often remark that it looks like an alien! If that stirs your curiosity, type ‘Ecdyonurus dispar’ in to your internet search engine of choice. If you can find an image of the white spot variant that is particularly striking.
I would also like to share this beautiful image, simply named ‘Mayfly’, photographed by Jon Hawkins. This was the winning entry to the most recent RP Photography Competition and I think it deserves to be seen! (Reproduced with kind permission of the Riverfly Partnership, copyright Jon Hawkins.)
(a) Mayfly by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
(b) Caddisfly by Magnus Hagdorn via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
(c) River Exe by Adrian Scottow via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Neil Middleton is the owner of BatAbility Courses & Tuition, a training organisation that delivers bat-related skills development to customers throughout the UK and beyond. He has studied bats for over 25 years with a particular focus on their acoustic behaviour. Neil is the lead author of the popular Social Calls of the Bats of Britain and Ireland (2014) and in 2016 he wrote The Effective Ecologist which tackles the challenges facing ecologists as they endeavour to perform to the highest standard within their working environment.
His latest book, Is That a Bat?, published in January, provides a technical, yet accessible, guide to understanding and categorising non-bat sounds. Including a downloadable audio library, this ground-breaking book is designed to help bat workers be more confident in analysing their recordings, and also discusses the wider conservation benefits of studying non-bat sounds.
We recently caught up with Neil to chat about the book and about nocturnal sounds and their analysis.
Where did the idea for this book come from? And do you feel that this is a subject/area of study which has been largely overlooked?
The idea came from a number of different directions during the years prior to my starting work on this project. As someone doing lots of sound analysis for bats and also seeing the kind of queries that would get sent to me, it was apparent that bat workers spent at least some time, unproductively, trying to work out what species of bat it was, when it turned out not to be a bat at all.
Additionally, whilst working in darkness we often hear other sounds that get ignored or written off as ‘of no interest’. These sounds (eg a Schedule 1 bird species) could actually be very relevant to the project we are working on and the reason why ecologists are being sent to a site in the first place. Saying ‘I don’t know. It’s not a bat, so it doesn’t matter’ isn’t really the best approach to take. When people see something, they tend to react more positively, as opposed to when they hear an unfamiliar sound. In darkness, however, sound is usually all you get. So, this put ‘in the frame’ the thoughts I had regarding audible sound encountered during darkness.
Finally, I had been asked many times over the years, questions such as, ‘do mice make high frequency sounds?’ Until relatively recently I didn’t have a proper answer to that question and probably, to be honest, didn’t even think that I cared or that it mattered when it came to doing bat work. I could not have been more wrong. Not only mice, but all of our small terrestrial mammals make ultrasonic sounds that can get picked up by bat detectors, and many produce sounds that are quite similar to some of the echolocation pulses or social calls produced by bats.
Having written this book (and completed the immense amount of research that it has inevitably involved) do you now find yourself looking at and treating your own recorded data differently?
Oh yes, most definitely. I am now very nervous about being certain about anything slightly unusual. When I deliver presentations, I often use the expression, ‘You only know what you know’. I feel this underpins my whole thought process now, as it also follows therefore that ‘You don’t know what you don’t know, and how much there is still to find out’. I honestly think, in some respects, we are only scratching the surface when it comes to our knowledge of bat-related sound, as well as all of the other species and things that make noise within a bat’s soundscape. I think we are sometimes far too sure of ourselves for our own good.
Following on from that, it also has consequences to our, sometimes misguided, reliance on automated classifiers. I get quite unsettled when I hear some people talking about complex stuff (eg separating Myotis species with high degrees of confidence) in such an authoritative manner. I have always preferred a more cautious approach, and even more so now. If anything, having now done this project, I would say that I have backtracked, in some respects quite far, from stuff that I once thought I knew reasonably well.
How do you feel about auto-ID software? Do you have concerns that it gives users a false sense of confidence in their results? And do you feel that, as technology becomes more advanced, it might be at the expense of expertise in both fieldcraft and analysis?
To answer the last part of this question first, yes on both accounts. I go into quite a lot of detail within the book as to why I think this way. The pages in the book regarding these areas were written and revisited many times during the process. When I look at my first draft of those pages (which I still have) it is interesting for me to see the journey I have been on and how my thinking changed during the process.
My viewpoint on automated classifiers at the start was quite negative in all respects. In some respects, the classifier challenge isn’t related purely to bats. If only it was, it would be so much easier. I was horrified to find classifiers confidently identifying lots of non-bat-related sounds as bats. This was the point for me where this work moved well into the ‘essential reading for bat workers’ category, as opposed to a ‘nice to know’. I remember that day extremely well. I was in a hotel room, near Gatwick, doing analysis of harvest mouse calls. They looked a bit like common pipistrelles, and the three classifiers I used that day all agreed! After publication, I was especially pleased to see that some of the reviews have very much labelled it as ‘essential reading’, for a number of reasons (ie not just the scenario discussed here).
But putting all that aside, for the moment, my final conclusion (for the time being?) is that there are definitely better classifiers than others, and there are different ways in which classifiers do things that will produce different results. I also feel that classifiers used sensibly, by experienced people (ie those who possess all the ‘essential’ knowledge), with audits in place, can be extremely powerful and useful. However, just like a human, a classifier has got so many things loaded against it arriving at the right answer (much of which is discussed in the book). So, it is fair to say that classifiers can come up with completely wrong answers. It is also fair to say that humans, even with experience, can also come up with completely wrong answers.
Therefore, neither approach is perfect, but the thing I now feel strongest about isn’t the classifiers themselves but, firstly, the lack of training people get in understanding how these systems work ‘behind the scenes’. And secondly, the lack of technical knowledge and experience of bat-related acoustics demonstrated by some of those who use these systems. I think it is too easy for organisations to give this important and often complicated work to junior members of the team, furnishing them with classifiers etc. It is then as easy for an inexperienced person to use these systems, write reports and influence decisions that are being made, without they themselves (or their bosses) appreciating that perhaps they or the classifier is getting it wrong (back to ‘You only know what you know’). Ultimately, during any project, the human decides (or at least they should). They decide what classifier to use. They decide the methods to use. They decide to blindly accept what the system is telling them, or not. They decide to do a proper manual audit of the results, or not. They decide what goes into a report and whether or not to be cautious with their interpretation. In the book I say something along the following lines:
‘Our bat detectors and associated software should be regarded as educated idiots. Very intelligent, but on occasions totally lacking any common sense. There is one part of the process, however, where ‘common sense’ needs to be applied. This is the part where a human decides what to do next. You need to keep pressing that ‘Common Sense’ button before jumping in with wrong conclusions and inappropriate decisions.’
Too many people blame a classifier for making mistakes, when in fact we should perhaps be collectively looking in the mirror. It is a tool, and like any tool there are right ways and wrong ways, right times and wrong times, to use it. ‘It’s a bad workman who blames his tools’. I think if you use a good classifier appropriately, and the methods/results are audited by an experienced person, the combination of the two, each allowing for the other’s weaknesses, can work well.
Do you think that increased awareness of the other noises recorded during bat surveys has wider implications for conservation? For example, can you provide us with a situation where bat survey recordings might be useful for other species/purposes?
Definitely. This is one of the main threads within this work and the examples are numerous. We live in a country which, relatively speaking, isn’t that diverse when it comes to night-time species (bats, other mammals, birds, insects…). But even in the British Isles we have bush crickets, moths, birds, shrews, voles etc that can all be identified either audibly or from the analysis of bat detector recordings. Now take this approach into more diverse parts of the world. We haven’t really begun to scratch many of the surfaces, as far as I can tell. Even just looking at the UK, I don’t believe for one second that ‘Is That A Bat?’ is anywhere close to the total picture of what we may encounter acoustically during darkness. There is so much more to find out and this knowledge will almost certainly lead to better decision making and associated benefits for conservation.
Bat survey technology is constantly progressing, and there is a lot of recording equipment and analysis software on the market. It’s not surprising that it can be confusing for even the most experienced ecologist. What advice would you give to an aspiring bat worker who wants to gain experience and skill?
Listen and learn from lots of different experienced people. Take all of their thoughts and blend these with your own developing technical knowledge and experience. Understanding how bat echolocation works and how this links to behaviour is an essential foundation that should be in place before someone begins to attempt to identify bat calls to a species or group level. For example, the answer is often as much to do with where a bat is (relative to surroundings), as it is to do with what a bat is.
Be wary of anyone who tells you they can identify every bat call, or that the system they use is always right. Don’t be afraid to just call it what you know it is (eg Myotis), as opposed to trying to always get it diagnostically to species level (eg it’s a whiskered bat). In any case, for some jobs you won’t need to know the precise species on every occasion. Why risk your credibility when there is no reason to do so. When you start appreciating the reasons why you can’t identify every bat, you are beginning to become an experienced and respected bat worker. People who don’t really understand this subject are afraid not to identify everything. People who really understand this subject know that everything can’t be identified (not at this stage anyway!).
What was the most interesting, bizarre or unexpected non-bat sound you came across during the research and writing of this book?
I think my favourite is the Long-Eared Owl juvenile call, when slowed down 10 times. This is something many bat workers do with bat calls in order to make them audible, and with an unusual recording it might be how you would first listen to it before realising that it’s not a bat. It still makes me smile, for no scientific reason whatsoever. It just reminds me of ‘Casey Jones & The Cannonball Express’ (the whistle from his steam engine). I know some of your younger readers will need to Google ‘Casey Jones’.
Finally – a question we ask all our authors – what is next for you? Do you have plans for further books?
Yes, two others. But I am scared to say too much at the moment for a number of reasons, including that once you say out loud what you are doing, the pressure is then piled on to get it done. I am just recovering from this one! So, I need some time to carefully consider which of the two ideas comes next and how to marry up the huge amount of time it takes to produce a book with other commitments.
Also by Neil Middleton:
Social Calls of the Bats of Britain and Ireland #212405
Brings together the current state of knowledge of social calls relating to the bat species occurring within Britain and Ireland, with some additional examples from species represented elsewhere in Europe. Includes access to a downloadable library of calls to be used in conjunction with the book.
The Effective Ecologist #226648
The Effective Ecologist shows you how to be more effective in your role, providing you with the skills and effective behaviours within the workplace that will enable your development as an ecologist. It explains what it means to be effective in the workplace and describes positive behaviours and how they can be adopted.
In this wonderful new book, Patrick Barkham draws on his own experience as a parent, a forest school volunteer and from his own childhood spent roaming outdoors to explore the positive effects rekindling children’s relationship with nature can have.
Patrick has kindly answered our questions about his new book and provided a limited number of signed bookplates, which will be included with this book on a first come first served basis.
1. What made you decide to write Wild Child
Having children is obviously a life-changing moment for every parent and I found myself suddenly fascinated by children and newly keen to write about them. I was aware of all the anxiety around children being on screens all the time but I hadn’t actually fully considered this historic moment in western child-rearing. We have become an indoor species in the blink of an eye, and I wanted to explore the implications of that, and how we as parents, grandparents, teachers and guardians might give children the gift of more time outdoors. I also wanted to celebrate “ordinary” neighbourhood nature of the kind we can all encounter.
2. What do you see as the main difference between your childhood and your children’s?
I grew up in the countryside in the 1980s and roamed freely with friends on quiet country lanes and the local common. When my twins became eight, it suddenly struck me that they had never been off on their own, in the countryside, without adults in view or close by. What’s more, almost no parent would regard this as strange. In fact, allowing eight-year-olds to roam without adult supervision would be seen as a dereliction of duty, according to the values of modern parenting.
My experience is pretty universal – studies confirm that children’s “home range” has shrank to their private space – their house and garden (if they have one). Childhood is now tightly regulated by adults. This has benefits – it’s never been safer for a child – but also grave drawbacks, including a loss of creativity and a loss of opportunities for children to form their own bonds with wild nature. Our lives are much poorer without intimate relationships with other species. We are also less likely to take action to tackle the biodiversity crisis if we have no direct experience of, and feeling for, other forms of life whether plant, animal or fungi!
3. What do you think children most gain from being close to nature?
Joy, excitement, fun, ceaseless stimulation, sensitivity, companionship, solace, comfort, peace – all the things we get from it too. There’s a huge body of scientific evidence now showing the mental and physical benefits of time in green spaces, and increasing evidence that the more “wild” or biodiverse those spaces, the better they are for us. We need nature, and of course as the dominant species on the planet we need to learn to appreciate, value and protect it.
4. Are you hopeful your children will be part of a new culture where nature is part of everyone’s life, not just seen as a town and country or even a ‘class’ divide?
We have to hope, but I’m also realistic. British society is becoming increasingly urbanised. Traffic – a major and rational obstacle to children playing freely outside – is still growing. Consumption shows little sign of slowing. And yet without any real government backing, there is a newly vibrant movement to add more nature to people’s lives – the rise of the forest school movement for instance. Wildlife charities are doing heroic education work too. But we still need massive, societal changes to reconfigure our species’ relationship with nature. We need a new kind of schooling, new (government) support for urban wild spaces, and far more wildlife-friendly planning rules for new housing.
Just on class – debates about children and nature are seen as a middle-class concern, and they tend to be because poorer families are too focused on putting food on the table. But we need to give all people better access to nature and wild spaces – this is a free source of good health (and occasionally even food) and it benefits poorer people more than the wealthy who can purchase wild experiences.
5. I was fascinated to read how resistance to pathogens can be enhanced by exposure to more biodiversity; can you precis that a little here?
We are only beginning to scientifically understand the influence of billions of micro-organisms, or microbiota on our lives. We have more bacteria in our guts than human cells in our bodies. Most are harmless, some are useful and a few may be dangerous pathogens. Our immune system is rather like a computer with hardware and software but no data. Early in life, it must rapidly collect data from diverse microbial sources, learning which are harmful and which are beneficial. If our body encounters a diverse range of different bacteria, particularly when young, we are more likely to recognise and respond to novel viruses.
This is not the popular but mistaken idea that we’ve become “too clean”. Hygiene is vital for good health. But, rather, urban living does not deliver us the diversity of microbes that we need. So we’re witnessing an explosion of allergies such as hay fever and illnesses related to failing immunity or inappropriate inflammatory responses such as Crohn’s disease.
Studies have shown that people living in “traditional” ways – in the countryside, more closely with animals – have fewer such illnesses. Microbiologists’ prescriptions for healthier children include a varied diet including a far wider range of vegetables but also more exposure to diverse green space. Scientists have proven the benefits of exposure to soil organisms in mice but this has yet to be fully explored for humans. It is a fair hypothesis, however, to expect that more biodiverse places contain a wider range of microbiota, and be better for us than manicured monocultures.
6. Although of little comfort to the thousands of people terribly affected by COVID – 19, do you think the forced change of pace and restrictions on movement has presented any opportunities for the appreciation of nature?
For those of us lucky enough to have gardens or easy access to green space, lockdown has been a wonderful moment to enjoy wildlife. Without traffic noise, the spring dawn chorus has been sensational! Lockdown has also revealed that poorer and ethnic minority communities have less access to green space. So this is an incredible moment of revelation and opportunity. Why can’t we have monthly Sundays when we all vow not to use our cars? Why can’t a new generation of urban parks and wild spaces be part of the post-coronavirus settlement, just as National Parks were introduced after the Second World War? We can now see, hear and taste a post-peak oil world, where we consume less, travel less, and live more. It could be so beautiful.
7. Do all your friends and colleagues share your enthusiasm for forest school?
No they don’t, and this is great because it means I have to win them over! Forest School is a concept imported from Denmark in the 1990s, we have a Forest Schools Association charity, and the idea is based around principles of child-led games and education in a woodland setting, with a camp fire. But there is also a growth in other forms of equally good outdoor learning.
All these different kinds of forest school are seen as playing in the woods – nice, but hardly essential to young people’s lives, or equipping them for the global race. It is up to people like me – and hopefully you – to show them some of the evidence that children are more creative, more resilient, with improved concentration and show better attainment in conventional schooling if they are given more free play outside, and in wild spaces.
8. Would you encourage people with the time to get involved with forest school, and if so, how would it benefit them?
I began volunteering at an outdoor nursery where my children went, and I was astounded by how well I felt after a day outdoors. It delivered the kind of sustained high you get after a day walking in the mountains or really hard gardening. Most of us office-workers aren’t familiar with outdoor labour!
I still volunteer most weeks at the forest school session run by my local state primary school (despite financial challenges, many state schools are now offering pupils some forest schooling). Children are the nicest workmates – they are so honest and enthusiastic, and they respond to the outside almost universally with something like unconfined joy.
In three years volunteering at forest schools I have honestly only twice encountered seriously unhappy children, and that’s usually because they aren’t wearing enough and are cold. I would urge anyone with time on their hands to give it a try – what’s more important than educating our children? And I think you will love it!
9. I like the ‘Things to Do with Children Outdoors’ appendix at the back of the book; was there one or two favourite pastimes that were the most accessible and rewarding that you could recommend?
I’d just like to declare a basic principle: children don’t need leading, or teaching – what they most require is for us adults to facilitate free play outdoors. They need to experience wildlife themselves, without too many rules, without too much moralising, without being told “don’t touch – it’s rare/delicate/about to become extinct”. Obviously a bit of guidance is good but let them choose their own adventure. And they will.
Apart from that, my children love different things. I enjoy going nest-hunting and butterfly-hunting with Esme, collecting shells and conkers with Milly and making dens with Ted. As we play outside, we keep an eye on what’s happening around us, and something exciting – the flash of a sparrowhawk, the scuttle of a rabbit – always unfolds.
10. Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?
I am very excited to be writing the official biography of Roger Deakin, the nature writer and author of Waterlog and Wildwood. Most of us writers lead incredibly boring lives but Roger didn’t. I’m also researching a book for a TV series about wildlife and editing an anthology of British nature writing called The Wild Isles, which will be published next spring. It has been agonising having to choose between so many gorgeous and important pieces of writing!
Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature
Hardback, May 2020, £13.99£16.99
Patrick Barkham draws on his own experience as a parent and a forest school volunteer to explore the relationship between children and nature.
Patrick Barkham was born in 1975 in Norfolk and educated at Cambridge University. His first book, The Butterfly Isles, was shortlisted for the 2011 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize. His next book Badgerlands, was hailed by Chris Packham as “a must read for all Britain’s naturalists” and was shortlisted for both the 2014 RSL Ondaatje Prize and the inaugural Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing.
Matthew Oates has taken time to answer our questions about his book and about the beautiful and elusive butterfly, that if lucky enough, we can glimpse through fissures in its tree top world
You describe the Purple Emperor as the most ‘cherished prize’ among Victorian butterfly collectors, while you personally have chosen to devote much of your life to studying this species. What is it about this butterfly that makes it so alluring?
This butterfly is all about mystique. It exists within a different dimension to us, but one which we desire to experience and understand. It is a unique being, capable of doing anything – which means it is unpredictable and utterly captivating. Make no mistake, the Purple Emperor is addictive – but this is a positive addiction, which provides depth of experience tinged with great humour. No one forgets their first Purple Emperor, the experience leaves you wanting more.
2. How has our understanding of the Purple Emperor changed in the half century since your first encounter with ‘his imperial majesty’?
Much of our so-called knowledge was actually mythology and assumption. Oh, the power of assumption, even in ecology! So much of what was considered true, and real, has proven to be utterly wrong; not least because the Purple Emperor, and nature more generally, continually moves the goalposts. Nothing is ever static in nature, perhaps especially with insects.
3. You tell of some of the remarkable lengths that butterfly enthusiasts have gone to in pursuit of the Purple Emperor. What is the most unusual technique you have used when searching for this species?
There is a long history of extreme endeavour here. This is the one butterfly the Victorian collectors most assiduously sought, to form the centrepiece of their precious collections. The Purple Emperor has generated some of the most extreme eccentric behaviour in human history. Collectors used to obtain specimens of this canopy-dwelling butterfly by means of the ‘high net’, a butterfly net attached to a pole often ten metres long. There is a long history of baiting Purple Emperors too, exploiting the male’s attraction to festering messes – the juices of dung, offal, and worse. I helped develop the practice of baiting for Purple Emperors using (relatively inoffensive) shrimp paste, and also pioneered The Emperor’s Breakfast (as shown on TV, several times).
4. It is heartening to read of a species whose populations are on the increase. Can the story of the Purple Emperor offer any lessons for the conservation of other wildlife in Britain?
Yes, definitely! This is proving to be a highly mobile species with good powers of colonisation and, in consequence, recovery. It is becoming a suburban species, and is certainly not the ancient forest inhabitant we once thought it was. Above all, the Purple Emperor is a good news story, at a time of horrific loss and adverse change. It provides hope at a time when we need hope.
5. What do you plan next in your studies of the Purple Emperor? Are there mysteries that you are still hoping to solve?
The journey is by no means over. My book is merely the launching pad towards proper ecological understanding. I sincerely hope it generates the necessary detailed scientific research, and have suggested areas where that need to be conducted. I’ve merely done the spade work. My job now is to help landowners and others to give this magnificent butterfly the future it deserves.
Tim Dee is a naturalist, radio producer, and author of Fourfields, The Running Sky and Landfill. His latest book, Greenery, is a poetic hymn to spring time, a masterpiece of nature writing that is deeply informed and profoundly beautiful.
Between the winter and the summer solstice in Europe, spring moves north at about the speed of swallow flight. That is also close to human walking pace. In the light of these happy coincidences, Greenery recounts how Tim Dee travels with the season and its migratory birds, out of Africa from their wintering quarters in South Africa, through their staging places in Chad and Ethiopia, across the colossal and incomprehensible Sahara, and on into Europe. Tim Dee has answered questions about this remarkable journey.
For those who don’t know, you have published three other major titles on green spaces and birds- Landfill, The Running Sky, and Four Fields. Following from these, how did the idea to travel with spring and its migratory birds come about? And how does Greenery differ from your previous books?
My last book was Landfill, a sort of junkyard travel-guide to the gulls that now thrive on our waste and in the middle of our towns and cities. Inevitably it was dirty and messy and botched: modern nature is like that. It has to find ways and means to live alongside us – we who are the most-botched species of all. I admire the gulls and I was fascinated by the gullers – watchers of gulls – who spend time in wretched places like landfill sites in order to connect with their quarry, but afterwards I needed some fresher air to live in and some wilder life to watch, and so the spring, which has always been my favoured season, appealed, and most especially some witnessing of the movement of passage migrant birds that make the European spring for birdwatchers. When I discovered that spring moves north through Europe at somewhere between the speed a swallows flies at and the speed we might walk at (about 4 km an hour), I knew that I had to try to follow the birds and the season for as long and as far as I could. So, I start with barn swallows in the European midwinter in midsummer South Africa and I end with the same species, who knows perhaps even the same individuals, in midsummer arctic Norway. Who wouldn’t want to have as much spring as possible?
By travelling north you poetically write about the birds that come and go; from observing redstarts in Lake Lagano, Ethiopia, to enjoying the dawn chorus in a reedbed in Somerset. What can be learned from birds in migration, and how is migration changing for them?
Studying and thinking about migration tugs at our notions of home. Migratory animals carry their homes with them. Yet, when I first saw barn swallows in South Africa I couldn’t see them as anything but away from their home. In fact, of course, they were perfectly at home: they were meant to be there and able to be fully alive there. Ever since migration has been observed, birdwatchers have ceaselessly wondered where the birds have come from, where they are going, how they know where to go and how they know how to live at the other end of the world. Migration has always intrigued – Homer makes poetry from it, Aristotle discusses it, the Bible and the Koran make parables for life from it. Nowadays we know more and more of its facts – know for example that a migrant redstart may literally return to the same tree in sub-Saharan Africa in its wintertime just as it flies to the same oak in a wooded coombe in Exmoor every spring of its life; but we also begin to understand (and face up to) how much our activities are tugging at the world’s time and making migration and a bird’s swapping of one tree for another harder and harder. This is what phenological mismatch is all about: the unseasonal time that our activities are creating.
You explore time and movement in this book. In a very fast-paced world, where few have the time to slow down and connect to the seasons, how has journeying with spring changed you? Was there anything specific you were looking for and anything you found?
To try to have more spring has been my mantra, to go looking for signs of new life even before a calendar year has ended, like a mistle thrush singing in November and thereby meaning therefore to have spring again, or rooks visiting their old nests each day from the autumn onwards with a literal view to their future; and to travel when possible both south from Britain to Mediterranean Europe where spring arrives earlier and then north towards the Arctic Europe where spring lasts longer. Hearing a pied flycatcher still singing in northern Norway when the same species are silent in their British breeding woods feels like a life-bonus, feels like more of life, which can only be good. We are only given one springtime in our own lives but the return of the season and the cyclical round or rondure of the natural year is a marvellous tonic and corrective to the linearity of our one-direction journey. Again, who would say no to that – to a bit of time travel and season stretch in order to stay with the season of becoming and of re-energy. Greenery is an anagram of re-energy: I was thrilled to discover that.
When most people think of spring they think of new life, new beginnings, however you eloquently write “spring means more to me with every year that passes and takes me deeper into my own autumn.” Could you elaborate more on this, what does springtime mean to you?
There’s that lyric to a song: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone…. And I think as we get older the morning of life, the world’s morning as D H Lawrence called spring, feels more and more poignant and uplifting. We are headed only one way but, hey presto, here are new shoots, and green beginnings once more, and then a chiffchaff, fetching an echo out of a wood, as Gilbert White noticed them doing in Eighteenth Century Selborne in Hampshire. My eyesight has got worse, my hearing is half-baffled, I move increasingly with a wobble, but the injection of new birds from the south, the heavenly racket of their song, and seeing them at home in their new places is a forever tonic, like an effervescing vitamin C tablet, or a pick-me-up, or a fillip – life is worth living among those that are living it most, and spring visiting birds are the most alive – active, mobile, purposeful, committed – things that I know.
As you explore life and death, love and grief through springtime, is there anything in particular you would like for people to take away from this book?
I think we all spend a lot of time ignoring time, shut away from the weather, heating our lives, conditioning our air, eating strawberries out of season, yet I know that we all, almost all of us at least, notice the spring, want it, anticipate it, lift our faces to the first splash of sun after grey skies, talk about snowdrops, look out for the first swifts, and so on… We are reminded of spring by spring itself coming around, it schools us in life and growth, in beginnings and becomings; and in my book I just want to underline that reminder and encourage us all to take in what can be taken in, and to keep in step with the passing of time and so live happily in time and on time too. Look at the birds that do that so well; I have done that and it has helped me live.
Stephen Moss is a naturalist, broadcaster, television producer and author. He is the original producer of the BAFTA award-winning series Springwatch and has worked with David Attenborough, Chris Packham, Alan Titchmarsh, and other leading naturalists. Passionate about communicating the wonders of nature, he also lectures in Nature and Travel Writing at Bath Spa University. Originally from London, he lives with his family on the Somerset Levels and is President of the Somerset Wildlife Trust.
What inspired you to write about the ‘hidden havens’ for Britain’s Wildlife?
I’ve always been fascinated by these forgotten and secret places, that are often overlooked when it comes to protecting habitats and wildlife. As I say in the book, I first got my passion for the natural world by visiting the gravel pits near my suburban home; today I live near the Avalon Marshes in Somerset, another post-industrial habitat, created from disused peat diggings. During my career at the BBC Natural History Unit, I often filmed at these edgeland locations, as they harbour such a range of interesting wildlife, and are often more accessible to people than classic nature reserves in the countryside.
Of all the places you visited, which habitat surprised you the most regarding its biodiversity?
That’s a tricky one, as I think they all surprised me in some way or another. The Avalon Marshes is probably the most packed with wildlife – three species of egrets, marsh harriers, bitterns and the famous starling murmurations on winter evenings – but I also loved the Montiaghs (in rural Northern Ireland, where peat was dug by hand), Parc Slip in South Wales (a former open-cast coal mine) and best of all, Canvey Wick in Essex, Britain’s first brownfield nature reserve, and a paradise for invertebrates including rare dragonflies and damselflies.
Your book features exceptional and inspirational people that have found ways to make the most unlikely places wildlife friendly. Is it possible to highlight just one project that has succeeded against the odds?
Again, the Avalon Marshes stands out: once the peat had been removed, we were left with an ugly, scarred and wildlife-free landscape, which it was suggested could be used as a landfill site for Bristol’s domestic waste. Thanks to a local campaign, they were instead turned into nature reserves; thirty years later this is one of the best places for wildlife in the whole of the UK. Others include Canvey Wick, which again could have fallen to the developers; the roadside verges of Blandford Forum in Dorset, which are now awash with wildflowers and butterflies each summer; and the RSPB’s Window on Wildlife at Belfast Docks, home to breeding Arctic Terns.
Is there one habitat that you think hasn’t reached its wildlife friendly potential?
That’s easy! The rest of the ‘official’ countryside – the 70% of the UK that is used for farming. Of course we need to produce food, but not at the expense of wildlife, which is what is happening on the vast majority of farms at the moment. Some visionary farmers are working with conservationists to buck the trend – for instance, the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Project in Wiltshire – but most are simply fulfilling the consumer and supermarkets’ demands for cheap food, whatever the cost to the environment.
You have been writing for many years and unfortunately, wildlife has suffered a substantial decline over the last few decades. Has your recent experience writing The Accidental Countryside left you more optimistic or more pessimistic regarding the future of wildlife in the UK?
I’d love to live in a country where the sites I feature in The Accidental Countryside are not important because the wider countryside has been transformed into a haven for wildlife. But I’m not holding my breath, despite the things we hear from the government. Now, more than ever, we need to understand that a healthy, wildlife-filled environment is not some ‘bolt-on extra’ to our lives, but essential – to the health and well-being of nature, of ourselves, and of course for the planet as a whole. So I have to be optimistic: there is no other choice!
Are there any books or projects that you are currently working on that you can tell us about?
Yes, I am just about to deliver the third in my series of ‘Bird Biographies’ for Square Peg (Part of Penguin Random House). Following bestselling books on the Robin and the Wren, I am now writing about that classic sign of spring and summer, the Swallow. I am a late convert to Swallows – only since I moved from London to rural Somerset in middle age have I grown to appreciate this classic bird of the British countryside. Writing this book, I have also grown to appreciate that the swallow is, as the writer Collingwood Ingram once noted, “beyond doubt the best known, and certainly the best loved, species in the world.”
What made you pursue a career as a wildlife cameraman? From an early age I developed an interest in natural history and photography, particularly of birds. I was fortunate in being able to turn a passionate hobby into a profession from early beginnings with the RSPB Film Unit.
How did you manage a work-life balance when your work took you far away for significantly long periods?
My wife, although working herself, was able to run things at home in my absence.
Today, there is GPS and the internet: 30 years ago that technology wasn’t as advanced. What difficulties did that present and how were they overcome? (I’m trying not to say, did you ever get ‘lost’?)
In the early years of my career, before mobile phones, we would often be out of contact for many days, or weeks, when out in the field camping. On some trips, we did have the use of the early satellite phones, so at least there was some contact. Having a local biologist that was familiar with the terrain was essential, otherwise getting lost was a real possibility. It did happen in Australia when I was lost on my own in a tropical forest for several hours, quite scary!
Was there one exceptional location you filmed in that stood out from all the rest?
Alaska particularly has many special memories. I spent over a year there working on three 50 minute programmes. If I had to choose one location, it would be the McNeil River in SE Alaska; here brown bears gather in summer to feed on salmon moving upriver to spawn. Sometimes, over 50 bears can be seen in the river, and standing shoulder to shoulder use various different techniques to capture the fish that are so essential to put on fat for their winter hibernation.
What does ‘Untangling the Knot’ in the title of your book refer to?
Some years ago I worked on a film called ‘Untangling the Knot’, which was about the bird, the Red Knot. It has a long migration from its wintering grounds in South America to breeding grounds in the high Arctic of Canada. So ‘Untangling the Knot’ was the story of the feeding habits, complex migration routes, and remote breeding areas of these great travellers.
If someone was inspired to pursue a career filming wildlife, what advice would you give them to get started?
When I started my filming career in 1978 everything was shot on film, which was expensive, as was the equipment to shoot it with. The only way to prove your ability was to shoot a sequence and try to get it seen by wildlife producers at the BBC Natural History Unit or the RSPB film Unit. There were not any wildlife film courses back then. Now there are many more people interested in becoming wildlife cameramen, so the competition is great. What advice would I give? One advantage now with the proliferation of video cameras at low cost is that it is possible to go out and shoot a sequence at no great expense. Choose a subject that you have good knowledge of and try to shoot it differently from what has been done before, then get it seen by someone within the business. If you have access to a scarce or unusual subject, even better, especially if it is on your doorstep (always check licence requirements). You can of course try and get a placement on a ‘wildlife film making’ course but that doesn’t mean a job at the end of it. Virtually all cameramen are freelance, so work is never guaranteed. Good luck.
Can you recall any one moment or experience in your career that encapsulates all that being a wildlife cameraman involved?
I think the most rewarding experience was filming Birds of Paradise in New Guinea. Sitting in my tiny mosquito-filled hide in the pitch-black, 150 feet off the ground, I wondered quite what I was doing there. Then as the dawn began to break and the chorus of tropical birds started I knew why. Shortly afterwards as the first Greater Birds of Paradise appeared the excitement was overpowering. Several males with their golden plumes were bouncing around just 60 feet in front of me, courting the growing number of females nearby. This made all the 3.00 am starts, the long walks through the forest and the exhausting tree climbing worthwhile.
What are your current plans and are there any future projects you can tell us about?
I am now retired from filming, and although I have been trying to get a film off the ground on the Albatross, it is difficult to get the substantial funding for these projects. For the last 2 years I have been writing the book and having exhibitions of my photographic work.
We recently became aware of a fantastic series of manuals that give readers instructions on how to clean, prepare, and articulate animal skeletons. We caught up with the author, Lee Post, a self-professed bone man, to ask him more about these guides and his work.
Hello Lee, thanks for the opportunity to ask you some questions. How does one become a bone builder? Was this always something you were interested in or did you fall into this more or less by accident?
As a child, growing up, I was a classic nature nerd. My room looked more like a Victorian curio cabinet than some place someone might actually sleep. Anything related to the animal kingdom was something I was interested in collecting. The ultimate treasures were bones and skulls. But I had never thought about articulating anything myself. My passion for articulating skeletons grew out of a move to a small town in Alaska that had a very progressive little natural history museum. I had a part-time job in the winter and volunteered the rest of my time at this museum. I was given an opportunity to research and articulate a 17 foot Stejnegers Beaked Whale the staff had collected and cleaned. That was my first winter project. My research into how to articulate that skeleton came to a lot of dead ends and some questionable advice. I could find nothing in print on building whale skeletons. With a background in bicycle mechanics and carpentry, and a lot of suggestions from local craftsmen and women, I got that skeleton together, and from then on I never stopped working with bones. Collecting, cleaning, building, illustrating, curating. It was being in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances. In other words, a total accident.
What made you decide to write manuals on constructing and articulating skeletons?
For years I’d been cleaning and articulating a skeleton or two each year. This led to a 3-year Pratt Museum, Homer High School collaborative project, in which I worked at the school with all kinds of interested students. We articulated a 41 foot long sperm whale in the school, and the
following year students worked on about a dozen other skeleton projects, ranging from sea otters to a moose, to porpoises, to a porcupine. The exhibited work they did in their school was open to the public over the following couple of summers. Teachers and educators from lots of places that saw those exhibits wanted to know how they could do similar projects with their students. I had kept a notebook on almost every skeleton I worked on and from those made some crude, hand-lettered, illustrated manuals on how to prepare and build animal skeletons. My day job was working in a bookstore, and there were no books in print on working with bones. This was 20 years ago. Later, an intersection of those hand-printed, photocopied notes, and me, and a talented lady (now my wife) who knew how to do desktop publishing, resulted in the birth of the Bone Building Books about 15 years ago.
Who buys these guides? Do you find that they are used by museum curators, or mostly by individual naturalists? And what has the feedback been?
The manuals were originally written for teachers and students who wanted to do a museum quality skeleton on a limited budget, with materials they
should be able to find even in a small town. Over the years, the manuals have been enlarged and corrected and improved each time I have worked on that type of skeleton. I’m always trying different materials and testing new techniques. Today they are used by everyone from teachers to museum workers, to home hobbyists to University projects with students. The other group of people who were getting these were bone collectors and zoo archaeologists who really just wanted to look at the pictures. They had no interest in the articles or in building a skeleton. And the manuals didn’t even have a centerfold. The feedback has been very enthusiastic. For many hobbyists and home naturalists who have wanted to get accurate information on how to prepare the bones and build the skeletons, these have been their bibles. When people get stuck, they often e-mail me. That’s often a clue I didn’t explain something well enough, and the next revision will try to remedy that.
What advice do you have for aspiring bone builders?
Don’t plan on doing this for a career. You would likely starve. But if this is your interest and passion, there is enough information out there these days that you should definitely pursue that interest. There are no skeleton police. There are no university degrees in this. Many of the best skeleton articulations of land mammals are being done by home hobbyists. You too could be doing that.
From the short video clip of Indie Alaska that I saw, it seems you teach courses to students. Do you also offer workshops for museum professionals?
Many of my favorite projects have been done with groups of interns and docents in museums and marine-life centers. On occasion, the paid staff have joined in, but usually, the staff has too much other work to be able to take the time off to do much hands-on work building a large skeleton. My favorite projects are when I have an enthusiastic group of volunteers and an organization with someone who wants to organize a large skeleton build project. Then, I get to teach and be the foreman and boss around the volunteers, who get the thrill of working with real bones and being part of a team that builds a world-class skeleton.
Are there any particularly challenging skeletons you worked on, or any particular animal skeletons you would still love to tackle?
I’m still sorting out sea turtle skeletons. They have very unusual bones. I’ll be trying to figure out a crocodile skeleton soon. I’m always interested in working on new marine mammal species. They are the animals I have the most experience with.
You have now written nine guides to specific animals and animal groups, plus a general reference book, the Bone Builder’s Notebook. Are there plans to write any more guides?
I’m doing a lot of illustration work on bird bones. I can imagine these might
one day get compiled into some type of identification guide to bird bones. I’m also getting more and more requests for information on articulating reptiles. I live in Alaska, and there is a serious lack of reptiles in my area. However, I’ll be working on some large reptiles in Mexico in the near future, and I never know when I’ll get so inspired that I might try to write something useful on how those bones fit together.
Red Sixty Seven features our most vulnerable bird species, beautifully illustrated by some amazing wildlife artists. All of the publishers profits from the sale of this book will be donated to BTO and RSPB to further their work on red listed birds.
Contributors include Chris Packham, Ann Cleeves, David Lindo, and Patrick Barkham.
This book should not exist.
In an ideal world this book, and the official Red List of the most vulnerable birds in the UK it is based on, would not be needed. But the world is far from ideal and our bird populations are declining at an alarming rate. In the past few years alone the once widespread Wryneck has ceased breeding in the UK altogether and has dropped off the list completely. Which species will be next?
Editor, Kit Jewitt has taken some time to answer a few questions about the Red Sixty Seven book project and the list itself.
Of all the birds on the Red List which do you think is most vulnerable?
If I had to choose one, it would be the Hen Harrier. Not only do they have to deal with all of the natural challenges they face, they also have to contend with persecution from criminals within the grouse shooting industry, which evidence now suggests is the main cause of their decline in numbers. The fact that 72% of tagged Hen Harriers are confirmed or considered likely to have been illegally killed is a national disgrace. However, in terms of the recent rate of decline I would also suggest Turtle Dove is a species of highest concern.
Many people will be surprised to see herring gull on the list, could you expand on how this seemingly ubiquitous bird has made the list?
Herring Gull populations in coastal areas have dropped by over 50% in my lifetime. This is largely due to the lack of food at coastal sites, with overfishing of UK coastal waters and warming seas caused by climate change likely to be the main reasons for the reduced amount of food available to gulls and other seabirds. They are adaptable, intelligent birds though, so moving to inland areas, or areas where humans create waste for them to eat has been a way for some populations to survive.
Have any birds managed to move away from the Red List to Amber over the last year or so, and which birds are the most recent additions?
Nineteen species were added to the red list for the first time when it was last updated in 2015, and one species, Merlin, moved back onto the list. Breeding seabirds, such as Puffin, Kittiwake and Shag are now included, and with the additions of species such as Woodcock, Nightingale and Pied Flycatcher there are now more woodland birds on the list than any other habitat. Two species, Bittern and Nightjar, have moved from the red to amber lists thanks to the creation and management of suitable habitat, stimulated by species action plans.
We know how we as individuals can help garden birds, but the list contains a high proportion of iconic water birds. How can we as individuals help preserve the many waders and ducks that are on the list?
Many projects being conducted by BTO, RSPB WWT and others help waders, seabirds and ducks, so fundraising for these is vitally important. My main motivation behind the Red Sixty Seven project was to do something to help these declining birds, by spreading the word and raising money for conservationists on the ground. By highlighting the red list far and wide, more people will care and will then hopefully start their own fundraising for BTO’s Operation Wader or Curlew appeal, or WWTs Black-tailed Godwits appeal, or whichever scheme chimes with them. I can’t run marathons or undertake extreme endurance like my friend Jonny Rankin, who has raised over £19,000 for Turtle Doves, so I had to think of a different way of fundraising!
Farmland bird species also make up a large part of the list. Can you see any hope for securing the future of our most rapidly declining farmland species?
The change in farming and land management practices over the last 40 years, including the use of pesticides and changes in crops grown have ultimately reduced the amount of appropriate habitat, and food sources for our farmland birds. Post Brexit, there is an opportunity for the government to make changes to policy to help our farmland wildlife. I just hope they take full advantage of it.
We love the idea of using the power of beautiful words and paintings to deliver a conservation message. Do you think that engaging the reader emotionally can result in more concrete conservation actions being taken?
I hope so! As well as raising funds for crucial work to help red-listed species, I hope Red Sixty Seven brings the list and the plight of these birds to a wider audience, inspiring other people to take action themselves, whatever that might be. The artwork and stories within the book bring home the message in a very accessible way, and you are left under no illusion that we must do something. There is a poignant sting in the tale at the end of the book; an ‘In Memoriam’ section devoted to the birds we have lost as breeding species in recent years. This book is a call-to-arms.
All of the profits from the sale of this book will be donated to BTO and RSPB to further their work on red listed birds.