With re-written keys, additional species, phenology and many new identification characters, this second edition of The Vegetative Key to the British Flora will be an essential tool for anyone wishing to identify plants when no flowers or fruits are available.
Author John Poland has taken time to answer a few question about the making of this eagerly waited update.
Could you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in botany?
I grew up in urban Lancashire but luckily nature and ‘weeds’ are everywhere. The Lake District was a weekend camping haunt as a child so my curiosity of the natural world never disappeared.
I think the i-spy/Find 50 books that adorned bookshops at the time fostered this interest as I was always hunting for the rarities, sometimes even successfully! Later, local natural history societies and national societies such as the BSBI and Wild Flower Society were great at mentoring and developing more advanced ID skills.
My day job is in ecological consultancy which combines a passion for the natural world with protecting it for others to enjoy. Botany doesn’t always get the prominence it deserves but it plays such an important role in our environment.
Why did you consider producing a second edition of The Vegetative Key to the British Flora and how long has it been in preparation?
The second edition was started the day the first edition was in my hands in 2009! It was a good first attempt, but there is always much to learn and many diagnostic characters were overlooked. This volume aims to correct this by evolving a more definitive ID guide based on 10 years of extensive testing by many botanists. Writing The Field Key to Winter Twigs gave me a new perspective on key-designing concepts so some of these have been applied to the new Veg Key to make it easier for users.
Can you advise on the best ways to use this book?
Always read the keys and never try to pre-empt a question! In this edition, every key has been revised to make ID easier and more accurate.
What kit or equipment can you recommend to aid identification of plants in the vegetative state?
It’s mostly very basic (and inexpensive). A x20 hand lens is best in the field and an x15 LED magnifier is great when working indoors. A measuring loupe is a handy tool and easier to use than a microscrope for fine measurements.
Is there one easy mistake that can be made when identifying plants in their vegetative state?
Perhaps overlooking hair type or presence/absence of latex and stomata. These need careful interpretation but it gets much easier with practice, honest! The key works using obvious characters to start with before getting down to the nitty-gritty. I try to give both simple and technical characters to give the user confidence of getting a correct answer.
Have you got any future projects planned that you can tell us about?
There is always plenty to do in botany. I’m already working on including the entire British Flora. Neophytes are hitching a ride all the time and hortal plants constantly jumping over the garden wall. Perhaps a book on evergreen trees and shrubs would be useful for winter botany but I’m only on the bare bones of that key at the moment…
The legendary Moult and Ageing of European Passerines returns in a completely revised second edition. This is the must-have reference for bird ringers, ornithologists, and anyone fascinated by feathers.
Bloomsbury’s publisher, Jim Martin has asked the authors Lukas Jenni and Raffael Winkler to share their thoughts about this eagerly awaited second edition.
How did the two of you first come to be interested in ageing birds?
Back in the seventies, Raffael was collecting data on skull pneumatization of live birds at the ringing station Col de Bretolet in the Swiss Alps as part of his PhD thesis, and Lukas was a young birder and wannabe ringer. We met at the Basel Ornithological Society, and began to collaborate. At that time ‘skulling’ was a new ageing method; we found as we worked that several plumage ageing criteria were either unreliable or simply wrong. We then started to record more precisely the extent of the post-juvenile moult.
What drove you to keep up your work in counting the moulted and unmoulted feathers of thousands of birds?
We were both fascinated by the large variation in the extent of moult we found, both between species and between individual birds of a species. We wanted to discover the reasons for this variability. And we also wanted to tackle the ‘either/or’ criteria that prevailed for ageing birds at the time – for example, tail feathers might be recorded as either pointed or rounded, but if a young bird had moulted some tail feathers they would have some of each. Ringers were using fixed ‘recipes’ for ageing that did not account for the moult process and its variability.
When did you decide to collate your findings into a book?
Lukas became head of the Swiss Ringing Scheme in 1979, and we both held many ageing courses for ringers, and produced numerous fact-sheets for them. The basis of these was Lars Svensson’s famous Identification Guide to European Passerines; each new edition of this formidable work was eagerly awaited. However, we realised that explaining verbalised differences – for example, such as between buffish-grey and greyish-buff – was a little difficult. It was much easier to teach ringers with the help of wing preparations and skins from the Natural History Museum, Basel. Finally, we decided to take photographs of these elements, with a view to producing a guide to ageing. This eventually became the first edition of Moult and Ageing of European Passerines, which was published in 1994.
The new second edition is publishing in January 2020. This book is more than an ageing guide. What made you develop the sections on moult strategies?
During our work on moult, we realised how complex the moults of passerines are and how incomplete our understanding of moult still is. We felt that a full review is needed for two reasons. First to demonstrate how important moult is in the life of a bird and how moult interacts with other events of the annual cycle. Second to enhance the understanding of the plumage ageing criteria, and to enable ringers to discover new ones.
This will be expanded on in your follow-up book, The Biology of Moult in Birds, which will be coming out in the summer. For Moult and Ageing, how did you take the many excellent photographs of the wings of live birds?
We developed a simple system of a camera with a ring-flash mounted on a tripod, and put the wing of the bird on an oblique grey board, fixed at the wrist with double-sided adhesive tape (we should add that the birds were completely unharmed by the process). This sounds simple, but the tedious part was to put all the feathers and feather vanes in a perfect order, one that satisfied our sense of aesthetic perfection! We then realised that we needed help, and we employed several people over the years to operate as ‘feather beautician’ and photographer.
Physically, it’s quite a big book, and not easy to use in the field. What was the thinking behind that?
We pondered for a long time about this. We finally decided on such a large format so that the reader can see many photographs on one page for direct comparison. A smaller format would have entailed smaller photographs, or continuously turning pages, or both.
How do you think this book will be received?
We were really surprised at the reception for the first edition, how quickly it sold out, and the enormous price second-hand copies went on to fetch. We therefore decided to do a second edition long ago, but it has taken us many years of research, and so has materialised only now. We thoroughly revised the first part of the book about the moult strategies, we’ve included a schematic table of the moults of all European passerines and added pictorial schemes of the various moult strategies, and we have also added 16 new species to the species accounts. The book was printed in Switzerland, so we could supervise the printing. We are glad that the quality of the photographs is now ’pretty good’ (complying with English understatement) or ‘phenomenal’ (following American usage), and we hope that readers will feel the same.
Thank you Lukas and Raffael, and good luck with the new book.
Mark Carwardine has taken the time to sign a limited number of first edition copies of the Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises and answer our questions about the book, his life studying whales and humanity’s role in their survival.
In your recent books, you’ve given us an insight into the world of whale watching. What motivated you to study cetaceans?
I’d just finished studying zoology at university (I couldn’t have done anything else – all I’d ever wanted to do since I can remember was to work with animals) and I had my first whale encounter. I was 21 years old, on a half-day trip from Long Beach, California, when a grey whale suddenly breached right in front of me. In my mind’s eye, I can see it leaping out of the water and remember deciding – at that very moment – that I wanted to spend as much of my life with whales as possible. Now I am a self-confessed whale addict and need to see a whale at regular intervals just to survive normal daily life.
Also, I think it is an incredibly exciting time to be a cetologist. These enigmatic marine mammals are incredibly difficult to study – they often live in remote areas far out to sea and spend most of their lives out of sight underwater – yet we now have access to space-age technology that, at last, is revealing some of their best-kept secrets
You must have many stories about whales, dolphins and porpoises. What is your most memorable encounter with cetaceans?
I think it would have to be with the friendly grey whales in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, on the west coast of Mexico. These 14-15-metre whales literally nudge the sides of our small whale-watching boats and lie there waiting to be tickled, scratched and splashed. Incidentally, if you’re wondering if it’s a good policy to encourage people to touch wild whales, consider this: if you don’t scratch and tickle them, the whales simply go and find a boat-load of people who will. Even the local scientists approve.
Yet it’s hard to believe that these very same grey whales once had a reputation for being ferocious and dangerous; when they were being hunted they fought back – chasing the whaling boats, lifting them out of the water like big rubber ducks, ramming them with their heads and dashing them to pieces with their tails. Nowadays, they positively welcome tourists into their breeding lagoon. Somehow, they seem to understand that we come in peace and, far from smashing our small boats to smithereens, they are very gentle and welcome us with open flippers. They seem to have forgiven us for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty – and trust us, when we don’t really deserve to be trusted. It’s a humbling experience, to say the least. I’m very lucky – I have been to San Ignacio more than 70 times over the years – but it still blows me away. It’s got to be one of the greatest wildlife encounters on Earth.
Whales and other cetaceans are beloved worldwide, what is it about these charismatic creatures that humans connect with so strongly?
No one ever says, ‘I can’t remember if I’ve seen a whale’. A close encounter with one of the most enigmatic, gargantuan and downright remarkable creatures on the planet is a life-changing experience for most people. At the risk of sounding irrational and unscientific, a close encounter with a whale simply makes you feel good. Actually, it’s more than that. Just a brief flirtation with a whale is often all it takes to turn normal, quiet, unflappable people into delirious, jabbering extroverts. On the best whale watching trips, almost everyone becomes the life and soul of the party. Grown men and women dance around the deck, break into song, burst into tears, slap one another on the back and do all the things that normal, quiet, unflappable people are not supposed to do. I have seen it so many times.
It’s not really surprising: whales and dolphins are shrouded in mystery, yet the little we do know about them is both astonishing and awe-inspiring. They include the largest animal on Earth (the blue whale – the length of a Boeing 737) and some of the oldest animals on Earth (one bowhead whale was 211 years old when it was killed by aboriginal whalers – who knows how much longer it might have lived?) as well as the deepest diving mammal, the mammal with the longest known migration, the loudest singer, the largest carnivorous animal, and many other astonishing record-breakers.
What advice would you give to the naturalist interested in cetaceans and wanting to learn more?
Read my new Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (I couldn’t say anything else, could I?)! It includes everything you could possibly want to know about all 90 species.
What was the most challenging thing for you when creating this guide?
Well, it dominated my life for six years. I used to lie awake at night, worrying about whether to describe something as ‘blue-grey’ or ‘grey-blue’. I decided to go back to original sources for everything, which meant reading 11,000-12,000 scientific papers, poring over decades of my own field notes, and studying untold numbers of photographs and video clips. I also corresponded with species experts all over the world; they were all incredibly generous with their information and advice, often giving me new data before it has been published in the scientific press. I worked with three outstanding artists, too – Martin Camm (who did most of the illustrations), Toni Llobet and Rebecca Robinson – who, between them, produced more than 1,000 original and meticulous artworks. And as for the distribution maps… some of those took several days each. But, I have to say, it’s incredibly satisfying to see it all come together in this one book.
What are your concerns or hopes for the future of cetaceans?
Sad to say, human impact has now reached every square kilometre of the Earth’s oceans. In particular, commercial whaling and other forms of hunting, entanglement in fishing nets and myriad other conflicts with fisheries, overfishing, pollution, habitat degradation and disturbance, underwater noise, ingestion of marine debris, ship strikes and climate change are some of the main threats being faced by whales, dolphins and porpoises around the world. We’ve already lost the Yangtze river dolphin, from China. The next to go is likely to be the vaquita, a tiny porpoise from the extreme northern end of the Gulf of California in western Mexico; there are probably just 10 survivors clinging on against all the odds. But the good news is that, with proper protection, we can make a difference. Whaling pushed the humpback whale to a population low of fewer than 10,000, but now there are at least 140,000 and counting.
You say this will be your last book: now this guide is complete, are there any other projects in the pipeline?
Ah, yes, I did promise my family and friends that this would be my last book (by way of an excuse for never having any free time)! It feels like the culmination of a life’s work with whales and dolphins – and it will be my sixtieth book, which seems like a nice round number to finish on. But the trouble is that I love writing and have lots more ideas! In fact, I am working on a photographic book about the polar regions with the landscape photographer Joe Cornish (he is providing the landscape pictures, me the wildlife ones) – so I’ve already broken the promise. Apart from that, I’ve been setting up some new whale watching trips and am planning to do more radio programmes (I’ve missed doing radio), among many other things; and, of course, there is an awful lot to do on the conservation front that will keep me busy for a long time yet.
This outstanding new handbook to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises is a comprehensive and authoritative guide to these fascinating mammals.
With almost 1,000 detailed, annotated illustrations, this new handbook describes all 90 species and subspecies.
NHBS recently attended Butterfly Conservation’s 2019 AGM in Shrewsbury. The event was highly enjoyable, with many excellent speakers, and we were excited to unveil the brand new NHBS Moth Trap at our stall; lookout for a blog post on this new product shortly.
During the day we also caught up with Peter Eeles, creator of the UK Butterflies website and author of the ground-breaking Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies to talk about his fascination with Lepidoptera and the process of writing this incredible book. Peter was also kind enough to sign a number of copies of his book which are now available to purchase here.
1) Could you tell us something about your background and how you first became interested in butterflies?
I grew up on the southern side of Cheltenham, on the edge of the Cotswolds, an area rich in butterflies and other wildlife. It was all rather idyllic and I remember with some fondness the time spent out in the countryside with my fellow explorers! My father and my ‘uncle Fred’ encouraged this interest, but it was watching a Garden Tiger moth emerge from its chrysalis, and seeing scores of Red Admiral feeding on rotting plums, that tipped me over the edge and into a butterfly-filled life.
2) How long did it take you to put Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies together?
Two years to write, 20 years to obtain the photos needed, and a lifetime of study! I should say that the book would not have seen the light of day were it not for the contributions of many others, especially members of UK Butterflies (a website that I set up in 2002), the team at Butterfly Conservation, and various experts in their chosen field, such as David Simcox, project manager of the Large Blue reintroduction programme.
3) In your introduction to the book, you detail its aims in relation to Frohawk’s landmark text, Natural History of British Butterflies. You say that Frohawk is one of your heroes: was his work the driving force for you wanting to take on your own project?
I wouldn’t say it was the driving force, but it was certainly a huge inspiration in terms of understanding the ‘art of the possible’, and the amount of field observation and research that would be needed. The driving force was a desire to produce something different yet useful, especially a work that would contribute, in some small way, to the conservation of our butterfly fauna. Something ‘clicked’ when I read several research papers that relied on the identification of a particular larval instar (the period between moults), and I realised that anything that could help the army of butterfly recorders identify each instar and the immature stages more generally would be a great help, with the potential to open up a whole new dimension of butterfly recording.
4) What was the most challenging butterfly lifecycle to document?
That’s a harder question to answer than you might think! Chequered Skipper was challenging due to the amount of travel involved, although a work placement in Glasgow for two years, on and off, really helped! Mountain Ringlet was a challenge due to the remoteness of its sites, its short flight period and its tendency to disappear deep into grass tussocks in anything other than very bright conditions. The Large Blue, which spends most of its life in an ant nest, was always going to be a challenge, and my thanks go to David Simcox, Jeremy Thomas and Sarah Meredith for their help with this tricky subject.
5) There is evidence that butterflies are already being influenced by climate change – what worries you the most about this? Are there any species that you will be excited about seeing more frequently in the UK in the future?
My biggest concern is with less mobile species that are unable to move to suitable patches in our increasingly fragmented landscape, as their habitat becomes unsuitable, or is lost due to development or agriculture. Conversely, it would be nice to see semi-regular visitors, such as the Long-tailed Blue and continental Swallowtail, gain a foothold, just as the Red Admiral and Clouded Yellow can now be considered resident, with records of successful overwintering each year in southern England.
6) Have you any new book projects in mind for the future?
With detailed descriptions and photos of the adult, egg, caterpillar and chrysalis of each species, this book reveals in detail the fascinating life cycles of the 59 butterfly species that are considered resident in – or regular migrants – to Britain and Ireland.
Richard Mabey is often referred to as the father of modern nature writing. His latest book is a retrospective of occasional writings compiled by the author over the last couple of decades. In the author’s words; ‘a sketchy reflection of a life’s work does emerge‘ He has taken time to sign copies of his latest book and answer our questions about fifty years of nature writing.
1. Could you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in nature?
I was one of that generation of kids allowed to run wild out of doors. We had a hundred-acre abandoned landscape park at the end of the garden, and in it, I saw my first barn owls, smelt my first storm-splintered wood and ate my first hawthorn leaves. Later I was a boy-birder, and by my teenage years began attaching huge symbolic importance to them. The first chiffchaff had to sing in a particular ash clump, the first swifts had to appear on May Day, and I held my blazer collar for luck on the walk to school to will them back. I did my first nature scribblings then, essays and over-romantic poems, shamelessly aping Richard Jefferies and Dylan Thomas.
I went to Oxford to read biochemistry despite never having done a mite of formal biology- but recoiled in horror from the curriculum and changed to philosophy and politics in my first fortnight. I’ve never regretted the change, for the perspective it gave me, or for the fact that school made me just about scientifically literate.
2. Your new book looks back over a life’s work and features a collection of ‘occasional writing’; how did you decide which works to include?
I realised I had got a good portion of the work already done. Over the past 20 years, I’ve done a fair amount of writing – essays, introductions to other writers’ books, radio programmes – which contain autobiographical elements. So, a long think piece I wrote for the Guardian about the history of foraging in Europe contains an account of how I came to write my own contribution, my first book, Food for Free. A BBC Radio 3 talk I delivered live from Bristol (as part of a Nature and Music festival) became an exploration of the relation between birdsong and human music. I worked a lot on most of the pieces, extending them and cutting out overlaps, and strung them together so that they made a rough sketch of a working life.
3. Is there one ‘nature writer’ that has been an inspiration to you?
There are dozens. But the one who struck most sparks is Annie Dillard. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) uncoiled new mycorrhizal links between imagination and the physical world. Pilgrim is a poetic interrogation of evolution, done through an acute contemplation of the natural life of a remote Appalachian creek. Why should anything – light, love, leaf – be the way it is? Dillard’s style is mischievous, gleeful, explosive- just like creation itself. I’ve long been a fan of American nature writing- Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, Gary Snyder, back to the master Henry Thoreau. The States’ vast untrammelled landscapes seem to nourish a similar freedom in its writers, in contrast to our own corseted acres. The British writers who have most inspired me tend to be radicals who set themselves against this ordered and orderly back cloth; eg John Clare and his poems of solidarity with commoners of all species; Kenneth Allsop, firing broadsides through conventional “country writing” in the 1970s.
4. Do you think the genre of nature writing has changed during the time you have been writing?
I’ve been writing for more than fifty years, so have the luxury of a long view. But I think the idea that the nature writing of the last ten years is in some essential way “new” suggests a great forgetting of our tradition. Current nature writing is a very broad church, from lyrical science to introspective memoir. Yet even the most conspicuous trait – the personal “journey” – has deep roots. I’m no fan of his work but think of Gavin Maxwell in the 60s or John Buxton in the 40s and WH Hudson at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the most exciting trends is the emergence of fiction with strong affinities to the agendas of nature writing, as in Richard Powers’ astounding epic The Overstory (but this too was happening in pre-WW2 fiction).
5. You have won awards and many accolades for your writing; what is your proudest achievement as a nature writer?
I think it would have to be Flora Britannica (1986) not least because it incorporates the voices and stories of many thousands of contributors as well as my own. When I set out my plan to try and survey where wild plants stood in our culture in the late 20th C, I was met with heavy scepticism at first. “Nowhere” was the implied response. When the contributions began to pour in from the general public they were heart lifting, not just for their passion but their diversity. There was very little of the rehashed Victoriana usually passed off as “folklore”. Instead we had deeply felt personal stories from individuals, families, children’s gangs, about the importance of wild plants in their lives: plants used in weddings, and tossed onto a parent’s coffin; outrageously inventive playground games with invasive aliens; favourite local trees used as landmarks, hideaways, sites for lovers’ trysts.
The four years I spent working on this book were certainly the most rewarding of my writing life. I toured the UK meeting contributors, looking at locations, and then in the long writing process (it is a quarter of a million words long) trying to relate these contemporary experiences to the plants’ social histories and ecologies.
6. The loss of nature seems to be more prominent as a newsworthy subject; do you think nature writing can help towards restoring nature and if so how?
The language of loss is as hard to create as to read. I know I’m far from alone in finding that my head and my heart can pull in opposing directions. My intellectual understanding of the terrible collapse of nightingale populations cannot co-exist with the rapturous in-the-moment experience of listening to its song. But I’m encouraged by what has been happening in the last couple of years when the crises of climate change and extinction seem to have revealed not just the vulnerability of the natural world but a new appreciation of its resilient vitality. To paraphrase Amitav Ghosh is his powerful book The Great Derangement (about the implications of ecological catastrophe on writing) it is as if the improbable events that are happening to us have brought about a recognition that humans have never been alone, but live alongside beings who share with us elements we have always assumed were uniquely ours: sentience, will and above all agency. The challenge writers face is how to express this more-than-human agenda in human words.
7. Have you got any future projects planned that you can tell us about?
Age creeps on, and ideas are scarcer fruits. I have no particular plans but hope I’m not written out. Maybe I’ll do a short philosophical meditation on the concept of human-nature “neighbourliness” which I begin to explore in Turning the Boat for Home. Ideas from readers most welcome!
In The Hidden World of the Fox, Adele Brand shows us how this familiar yet enigmatic animal has thrived in ancient wildwood and adapted to life in the supermarket car parks and busy railway stations of our towns and cities.
Ecologist and author, Adele Brand has devoted much of her life to studying foxes and has a wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience to share about these often misunderstood animals.
1. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in foxes?
The Surrey countryside is an education of its own. I grew up there, learning that the hills I loved were home to more than people. Foxes have always been around me: loping across roads at dusk, hunting for voles near the local horses, and every glimpse into their lives cemented my interest. Their vivid personalities, their incredible adaptability in coping with nearly any habitat, the complexity of their social lives – foxes always provide rich study material. I am now an ecologist who has worked with mammals from Mexican jaguars to Surrey dormice, but I continue to monitor my local foxes and the landscape in which they live.
2. People often have polar-opposite opinions of foxes: why do you think foxes evoke such an emotional response?
Foxes touch human emotions. Of all our wild mammals, they are the easiest to get to know as recognisable individuals, and observing the ups and downs of their lives builds strong empathy. Many people who feed and watch garden foxes give them names and feel that they are an important part of their lives. On the other hand, some people have a strong ideological view that foxes (and sometimes wildlife in general) simply doesn’t belong near civilisation. When foxes behave in ways which would be reprehensible in a human – killing multiple chickens, scattering rubbish, etc. – they are often judged as they are indeed human. In my experience, a person’s attitude towards the fox is likely to reflect their general beliefs about nature; someone who has experienced damage but considers wildlife of intrinsic worth is actually likely to be more tolerant than a person who dislikes them on principle but has never experienced harm.
3. If anybody wanted to observe foxes, how would they go about it and what equipment, if any, would they need?
To see a fox, to an extent you need to think like a fox: the voles, blackberries and rabbits that it seeks are particularly abundant in woodland edges and rough grassland. Foxes are very much creatures of edge habitats so scanning these places – plus hedgerows – with powerful binoculars (I use 10 x 50) is a good start. While foxes can be active at any hour, they are most frequently crepuscular, so dawn and dusk are good times. Fields that are intensively grazed or have heavy recreational pressure are less promising sites. I would also recommend a good tracking book because being able to identify fox footprints, fur and scat will greatly increase understanding of how they are using the landscape. Additionally, it is worthwhile to keep alert even in unconventional places for wildlife watching. I have often seen rural foxes while travelling by train, for example.
4. Do foxes pose any ‘real’ danger to humans and pets?
There is an undercurrent of concern about foxes posing a risk to people. It is worth remembering that they are smaller than they can appear at a distance and in general have no interest in approaching us. A fox that sits down and watches is not ‘bold’ or ‘brazen’; it is assessing the situation and will bolt for a gap under the fence if it feels threatened. That said, trying to ‘tame’ them with hand-feeding or encouraging them indoors can lead to problematic encounters. I would always encourage people to enjoy watching their local foxes, but also to keep them wild.
Pets are a mixed issue. Clearly, rabbits, guinea pigs and chickens need to be kept in secure pens. Cats and foxes typically ignore each other, but kittens and very elderly cats are more vulnerable to everything in the outside world.
5. Despite the best efforts of humans, foxes are survivors; however, do you think their future is secure?
Interesting question. The conservation status of red foxes globally is secure, but with caveats. Foxes have become extinct in South Korea due to poaching and habitat loss, while in the USA, the Sierra Nevada subspecies is critically endangered. There is some evidence that the British population is declining, although they remain widespread. They have survived the industrialisation of farming, but they are not unaffected by it. A rural landscape that has thick, species-rich hedgerows, wildlife margins in arable fields, and less fragmentation from development would benefit foxes along with many much rarer species.
6.While writing your book and observing foxes; was there one surprising fact or discovery that you didn’t know previously?
The unlikely relationship between foxes and Mediterranean hackberry: seeds from this plant germinate earlier and are much more likely to survive if they pass through the intestinal tract of a fox and are excreted in its droppings.
Do you have any new projects in the pipeline that you’d like to tell us about?
At the moment, I’m continuing to study how foxes are affected by the changing land uses in the Surrey Hills. I’m particularly interested in how the intensity of grazing from livestock and horses changes their habitat use.
Adele Brand shines a light on one of Britain’s most familiar yet enigmatic animals, showing us how the astonishing senses, intelligence and behaviour that allowed foxes to thrive in the ancient wildwood now help them survive in our cities and towns.
We recently received the sad news that the prolific and talented botanical artist, Marjorie Blamey had died, aged 101.
Author and naturalist Peter Marren, looks back her achievements and her invaluable contribution to botany.
Marjorie Blamey, who died in September, aged 101, will be well-known to many as the artist of distinguished botanical field guides. Her paintings of wild flowers, trees and ferns are not only scientifically accurate but a joy to see in their fresh colours and lifelike arrangements. Her main aim, she once said, was to make plants look alive, and she achieved it by painting freshly gathered specimens, not, as many botanical artists did, by trying to breathe life into pressed ones.
Locating and painting around 2,000 different species for each field guide was quite a task. Marjorie and her husband Philip used to tour Europe in a motorised caravan, getting up at dawn to begin painting specimens gathered the previous afternoon, kept fresh in boxes lined with damp paper (at home she used the fridge or even the bath). In her prime she could get through a dozen watercolour paintings by lunch. Few botanical artists have worked so fast, and yet maintained such consistent quality.
Her big break was the Collins Guide to Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe (1974) – known as ‘Fitter and Blamey’ – which was translated into many European languages and sold a million copies. It was followed by field guides to alpine flowers and Mediterranean flowers, vital identification guides to green tours ever since, and the large-format IllustratedFlora of Britain and Northern Europe (1989) which she wrote with her friend and mentor Christopher Grey-Wilson, and considered her best work. Her last field guide was the ambitious Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (2003) – or ‘Fitter, Fitter and Blamey’ – whose 4,000-odd colour illustrations she completed at the age of 85 (adding yet more paintings to the revised edition ten years later).
Despite her extraordinary output, Marjorie came to botanical painting surprisingly late. Although she had shown obvious talent in her youth – where she also became an accomplished actress, photographer and, after the outbreak of the Second World War, nurse and ambulance driver – she had largely given up painting to run a dairy farm in Cornwall with her husband, by whom she had four children. She was in her 40s when she began to paint local wild flowers. A friend persuaded her to exhibit, and one thing led to another: a book of magnolias, followed by the first of her field guides.
Marjorie Blamey was modest about her talent. She seems to have loved the life of botanical travel, working all hours to complete her assignments. When you consider that the latest Collins Flower Guide took four artists a number of years to complete, and it took Keble Martin a whole lifetime to finish The Concise British Flora, her total of around 12,000 flower paintings for five major field guides, plus other work, begun in her 50s and ending in her 90s, is a record that will, I suspect, never be exceeded.
The first volume was published over a decade ago and Volume 9: Bats completes this hugely important reference series to the mammals of the world.
We asked publishers Josep del Hoyo and Albert Martinez to share their thoughts about the conception, production and fruition of this and the earlier Handbook of the Birds of the World series.
1. What inspired you to embark on the Handbook of the Mammals of the World series?
JOSEP: Well, in this case, our inspiration was very clearly the series’ predecessor: the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW). When we started on the Handbook of the Mammals of the World (HMW), we had already published 12 volumes of HBW and the results were encouraging, both in terms of enthusiastic reviews and commercial success. So, we thought it would be worthwhile to try to produce a sort of “sister series” covering all the mammals of the world. We saw it as natural that there should be a Handbook to properly treat all the animals forming part of the same Class to which we, as humans, belong. We were aware that while the number of professionals dedicated to mammals were high, that the number of amateur people interested in the group would be much lower than the equivalent public in birdwatching, so the series would be commercially riskier. But we were convinced of the project’s importance for science and conservation, so we decided to look for some support to make it happen.
We were extremely fortunate to find this support in the form of two Chief Editors for the series that were essential for its success. On one hand, celebrated primatologist Russ Mittermeier joined the project, bringing his own knowledge to the series, as well as achieving important funding, most notably from Conservation International, to get the project off its feet. Russ also enlisted the involvement of IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, further emphasising the importance of conservation in the series, and drawing from the expertise of many of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Specialist Groups.
On the other hand, Don Wilson, at the time Chairman of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology and Curator of the Division of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, generously volunteered his time and effort to help the project, and this continued throughout the series in many different facets. For example, Don’s help was especially useful for finding and contacting the specialists to author the chapters, as well as for providing a strong taxonomic base with his book Wilson & Reeder (2005), Mammal Species of the World. A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed).
We are very grateful to both Russ and Don, and to the other Chief Editors and external supporters who made the project possible.
2. Volume 1 was Carnivores, a very charismatic order of mammals; when this was published in 2009, did you already know how many volumes the series would contain, and in what order they would be published?
ALBERT: We proposed Carnivores as an exploratory volume to study the viability of the project as we felt that it could be one of the volumes with the greatest interest for the readers.
When the first volume was published and once it was proven that the series was viable, we agreed shortly after with the Chief Editors, Don Wilson and Russ Mittermeier, on the total number of volumes in the series—eight—and their order. In the first preparatory meetings it was quickly decided not to follow a strictly phylogenetic sequence, and so, for instance, walruses, seals, and sea lions were treated along with the rest of sea mammals and not in the Carnivores volume.
The most important departure from the original plan was the need to split rodents into two volumes: Volume 6 and Volumes 7, in order to maintain the level of detail that had characterised the previous volumes. This decision was made after direct consultation with HMW subscribers (of 1840 respondents, 92% favoured two volumes). So, the series was extended from eight to nine volumes.
3. Could you provide a rough idea about how much hard work goes into publishing a single volume in the series?
ALBERT: The work is immense and summary numbers for the series are impressive (c.8000 pages, 443 colour plates, 5300 photos, 6400 range maps, 10,000s of references), as is the number of the people involved: 312 authors of texts, 10 artists, and more than a thousand photographers from all over the World.
The editing process for a single volume lasts between one-and-half and two years, it begins with the commission of the different families to the authors of texts and the plates to the artists. The in-house editing phase has lasted about a year in the last volumes. The first three volumes appeared with a cadence of two years, but from HMW4 on we have managed to publish a volume per year without fail.
4. Is there a certain family or order of mammals you are particularly fascinated by?
ALBERT: It is difficult to choose, but maybe Carnivores, Hoofed Mammals, or Primates. Also Marsupials as they are really exotic and give us a very clear idea of the big conservation threats that face island species or species with reduced ranges. Looking at the distribution maps you become very aware of the high number of species with tiny distributions and those that only survive thanks to strict conservation measures.
5. What challenges did you face along the road to completion of this series?
ALBERT: During the 11 years of editing the HMW series (2009–2019) and with so many people involved, we have faced all kinds of difficulties with authors, artists, and editors (illnesses, accidents… and even Brexit at the end!). Especially complicated has been the instability in the taxonomy with habitual last-minute changes in the final stages of the editing process (e.g. new species described, rearrangements in the sequence of the species due to improvements in the knowledge of phylogenies, etc), which have forced us to completely redo already laid-out families many times. Despite such challenges, I want to highlight the impressive enthusiasm and dedication which all the participants have shown for this project.
It is very rewarding to see the commitment and effort that many experts have put into the project, having themselves seen in the HMW series an important achievement in their field of work. The selfless collaboration that we have received from a multitude of specialists not directly involved in the project has helped us in many ways, like providing material to allow the artists to draw rare species.
6. What do you hope will be the legacy of the Handbook of the Birds of the World and the Handbook of the Mammals of the World series?
JOSEP: Since we finished the HBW series some years ago (2013), we now have a better perspective on what this legacy may be. We have some indications that show that HBW, which covered all the birds of the world for the first time ever, represents a “before and after” in knowledge and interest in birds. It is true that before HBW there was a good deal of interest in birds in parts of the world like Europe, North America, Australia or South Africa, but in many other parts of the world, including in Tropical Regions with the richest biodiversity, there was a clear lack of even the most basic information. So we think the existence of the series has helped a bit to balance this situation, and has been an influence so that now many more people are interested not only in birds of their own country, region or local patch, but also at the global level, which we are convinced is good, eventually, for conservation.
With the HMW series, which we are just finishing now, we think similar effects will appear. While with birds the interest across the families was more or less regular, mammals have an added complication that some groups receive much more attention than others. So we think that the volumes dedicated to groups like rodents and, especially, the last one dedicated to bats, will be important for bringing together the knowledge that was much more disperse and less accessible, in a single, comprehensive treatment. This will also show where there are still gaps in the knowledge to encourage further study.
7. How do you feel about the imminent fruition of over ten years of publishing the Handbook of the Mammals of the World series – do you have any new projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
JOSEP: Well, we have several big projects that we are studying carefully, but we are also aware that the number of people interested in other groups of biodiversity is many times smaller than those interested in birds and even in mammals. But a number of good possibilities do exist, particularly if there is an awareness that such coverage gives a push to the knowledge and conservation of the group.
Meanwhile, we are still very busy with birds and mammals. For birds we published the HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World in two volumes and we are already working on the equivalent illustrated checklist for the mammals. Also, given the important patrimony we hold of the illustrations of all the birds of the world, we have started the Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides Collection, which is producing good results, and we hope we can pursue a similar line with mammals. In this way, the two Handbook series can help us create field guides to countries for which they are none, thus, raising awareness and knowledge, which in turn can lead to greater local conservation.
Tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the weird and wonderful?
My interest in the natural world started from a young age. As a child, I used to read books about unusual animals and watched a lot of nature documentaries (my favourites were those narrated by Sir David Attenborough). I started researching strange lesser-known animals after I finished school, and had the idea of creating a Twitter account to showcase these fascinating species. So I set up the @StrangeAnimaIs Twitter account in 2013, where I posted facts and pictures of these obscure creatures, pointing out any conservation issues associated with them. I started my biosciences degree the same year, at the University of Exeter, and specialised in animal biology in my final year. My modules included marine biology, ecology and animal psychology, and my dissertation title was based on the decline of pollinators and the government’s response to this ecological crisis. I was fascinated learning about these topics and it grew my passion for the subject.
Your book is full of very different animals – how do you come across such an eclectic group of animals?
I originally started the research for my book back in 2013, when I first created my Twitter account. Over the years, I have discovered many animal facts and pictures, which I post on @StrangeAnimaIs. When I started planning my book, I went through all my previous tweets and picked out what I thought were the weirdest animals. I wanted a range of species in the book, including an even mix of amphibians, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals and arthropods. After making a list of all the species I wanted to write about, I set about finding as much information as I could on each animal, trawling through websites, books and scientific papers. Using the reference material, I compiled notes on these animals and then typed them up in the format of my book.
What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?
My biggest challenge was staying focused whilst writing. About halfway through the book, I was struggling to carry on and lost my motivation. By this point, I had been writing in my free time for almost four months and it was getting too much, and I didn’t have much time to myself. I decided to take a break, and didn’t do any writing for a few months. That was what I needed and when I went back to it later, I was a lot more motivated, and managed to finish the rest of the book over the next couple of months.
Many of the oddities that depict a strange animal are useful adaptations, what is your most memorable of these adaptations?
There are quite a few animals in the book that have some really fascinating adaptations. My three favourites are probably the Suriname toad, aye-aye and the isopod Cymothoa exigua.
The Suriname Toad is a unique amphibian from South America, which has developed a rather interesting method for raising its young. After mating, the male implants the fertilised eggs into the female’s back, where they settle into pockets. Skin grows over the eggs, keeping them safe until they hatch weeks later as fully formed frogs.
The Aye-aye is an endangered primate from the island of Madagascar. They have an incredible adaptation for finding food, where they tap their elongated middle finger on branches and listen out for the vibrations. When they detect a grub, they will bite a hole in the bark with their rodent-like teeth, and insert their finger to skewer the grub. This foraging method is called percussive foraging and it’s extremely rare in mammals.
The parasitic isopod Cymothoa exigua has a horrifying lifecycle, where they enter the gills of fish as males. Here, one of them will develop into a female, and travel through the fish into its mouth. Then the isopod causes the fish’s tongue to atrophy and fall off, and then attaches itself to the newly formed stump. From now on, the isopod acts as the fish’s tongue (it’s the only known parasite to completely replace a host’s organ), grinding up food for its host and feeding on scraps of food.
Your Twitter feed is full of great information, do you have any advice for anyone wanting to start up a successful twitter profile?
I would say the best way to grow an account on Twitter is to come up with a good theme for the account and then post regular content that fits in with that theme. Go for something that you are passionate about, because if you’re not interested in it, then others won’t be either. Interacting with followers and similar accounts is also a great way to increase engagement. Another piece of advice I would give is to stick with it, even if the audience growth is slow! My account had just 200 followers for a good part of a year, but I kept going and eventually this audience grew to over 40,000. Combined with my other accounts @NatureIsWeird and @Extinct_AnimaIs, I now have a combined reach of 200,000 people.
Do you have any future projects or aspirations?
I have actually just started writing my next book, which is going to be about lesser-known extinct animals. This is going to be based on my other Twitter account, called @Extinct_AnimaIs and will feature a range of obscure animals (not just dinosaurs) that once roamed the earth. There are so many bizarre creatures, it’s actually hard to believe that some of them actually existed. After doing some research into extinct species for my Twitter account, I have become fascinated by them and I would love to share this with people. I think this is a perfect time to get another book out there, after the success of A Book of Rather Strange Animals.
I am also looking at getting into a career in conservation, and hope to secure a role in this area soon.
Award winning Blue Planet II and Planet Earth II cameraman Gavin Thurston took some time to sign copies and answer our question about his new book, Journeys in the Wild and his adventures filming the world’s most charismatic animals in spectacular and remote locations.
1. Could you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in filming and photographing wildlife?
My first childhood memories are when growing up in Petersfield in Hampshire. A green and leafy part of England. My sister and I used to go and stay with my grandparents who lived near the village of Selbourne close to the South Downs. This was home to the 18th Century literary naturalist Gilbert White. My Granny had a shared interest in nature and had great knowledge of the wildflowers, butterflies and trees of the area. I believe it was her enthusiasm that set the seed to grow a passion for nature in my inquisitive young mind. As a young frustrated artist, I found an outlet in photography, and later on, in moving images, combining the two passions to spend much of my career filming wildlife.
2. What inspired you to write your book?
Mostly due to my career. I have had so many wonderful experiences and adventures around our planet. I have witnessed more of nature’s wonders than anyone has the right to do. When I told stories to family or friends the most common response was ‘You should write a book!’. So, before I got too decrepit to remember the details, I tried to get on with it. It’s only when I was contacted out of the blue by commissioning editor Emily Barrett, from Orion Publishing, with a book offer, that I signed a contract and then had to bloody well get on and finish it!
3. What contribution does wildlife photography and filming make to conservation?
Hopefully the films I work on help to instill in viewers both an interest and then a passion for the natural world. Just as my Granny did for me by showing me the beauty and intricacies of nature firsthand. Once someone takes an interest in what wilderness and wildlife we have left, then there’s more chance that they will take measures to reduce their impact on Earth. The more passionate and driven viewers may well then go on to either donate, campaign or volunteer on conservation projects. It’s only once we know what is out there and why we stand to lose it, that an informed audience can then make a choice on how to stop the decline of habitat and biodiversity.
4. If someone was inspired to pursue a career filming wildlife, what advice would you give them to get started?
Spend as much time observing nature as you can. Get outside and see it for yourself. Explore and discover. Take photographs, or if you have the talent, then sketch the natural world. Britain has an amazing variety of species. Animals and insects are playing out life and death dramas all around us daily. Teach yourself how to document these engaging stories. Most teenagers have a smart phone these days, and most of these phones have pretty good cameras for photos and videos. Get out there and use them. Discover the natural world and your hidden talent.
5. What is your favourite habitat to film in and why?
I can’t say I can pin down a favourite habitat. I love nature’s variety. Whether that’s dark, dense tropical forest or a rugged coastline, snowy Arctic expanse or vast sandy desert. All I can say is that I’m a big fan of truly wild places. The less human influence or signs the better.
6. What is the biggest challenge when filming wildlife in the field?
The biggest challenge is to do the animals and habitats justice on screen without affecting or influencing their often already difficult lives.
7. When writing your book and looking back over your career, was there one incident or animal encounter that stood out as exceptional?
I have experienced many extraordinary animal encounters, so it is difficult to single out one. There are a few in my book, so read ‘Journeys in the Wild’ and judge for yourself!
8. Have you got any future projects planned that you can tell us about?
In this age on non-disclosure agreements I can’t say too much about future projects. I can hint though at one project I’ve been working on for the last year with Sir David Attenborough. It is conservation led, and hopefully will have far reaching influence on how we humans need to change our habits to try and restore natural balance on our planet. Watch this space…