Author Interview with Richard Sale: The Common Kestrel

Once a familiar sight motionless above road verges, the population of kestrels has sharply declined, a decline which continues as the intensification of agriculture and the populations of other raptors increases.

Richard Sales comprehensive new study investigates the decline, after first exploring all aspects of the kestrels’ life, from plumage and diet through breeding to survival.

The book includes data from Richard’s recently completed four-year study in which video cameras were installed to watch breeding behaviour in a barn in southern England.

Richard visited us to sign copies of his new book and answer our questions about how his expertise in physics and engineering have been used to find out more about this illustrious falcon.

Richard Sales and Skua at Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I am from Somerset and have maintained my West Country accent all my life, though I haven’t lived there for many years. I did physics as an undergraduate, then did an MSc in theoretical physics (studying energy loss from general relativistic stars), then a PhD in astrophysics flying a large (50kg) gamma-ray telescope suspended under a 3 million cubic foot balloon filled with hydrogen. The telescope flew at 105,000ft and discovered the first-ever gammar-ray pulsar. I then worked as a glaciologist in Switzerland for a while, and then took a job in the UK power industry.

Kai, the male falconry Kestrel used in the experimental flights.

When did you develop an interest in birds?

My father was bird lover and tailored our family holidays around the breeding season, so we went to Exmoor to watch buzzards and so on, rarely going anywhere near a beach and more often than not learning how to survive in poor weather. Both my brother and myself believe we owe our interest in birds to those trips. My father taught us how to watch birds, not just to learn their names so we could impress other people, but to really watch them. That has stayed with me ever since. I was more academic than my brother (who is a chemist – not a pharmacist, a chemist) and Dad wanted me to study zoology, but I chose physics. I also chose climbing as a primary hobby when I was teenager, first rock faces, then mountains, which is why I finished up in Switzerland when I was offered a post that allowed me to live at the Jungfraujoch and climb every weekend.

We lost our grant money in Switzerland, so I had to find another job. But as the years went by birds became more and more important to me. The dual love of birds, and snow and ice drew me to the Arctic and eventually I took very early retirement – I was only in my 40s – so I could spend more time travelling in the Arctic, supporting myself by starting a physics consultancy and writing books. One of the first Arctic-based books was a Poyser on Gyrfalcons which I co-authored with a Russian friend, Eugene Potapov. For that book I was watching gyrs in the Canadian Arctic. There was breeding pair and I watched the male hunting Arctic Ground Squirrels. He was coming from very high and a long way off and I noticed that he was not travelling in a straight line and couldn’t understand why not since the shortest route is the quickest. That lead me to investigate the eyes of falcons and also to build my own Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) so I could track hunting falconry birds.

Has data from the Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) you have developed been used in your books?

I flew my first generation IMUs on all four UK breeding falcons – each time on falconry birds. The unit I flew used the satellites to give me track position and had a barometer for height data (as height from satellites is only accurate if there are a lot of satellites in view, which is sometimes not the case on Scottish moors where I was flying on peregrines). The IMU also had a tri-axial accelerometer, gyro and magnetometer. All the data was stored on a flash drive on the bird so I crossed my fingers each time I flew one that the bird would come back.
In 2018 I co-authored a monograph on Steller’s Sea Eagles, the world’s largest eagle, with two Russian colleagues, and was lucky enough to find a captive Steller’s in this country which I could fly the unit on. That was a seriously interesting time. Steller’s are huge. I remember seeing them for the first time in the wild – in Kamchatka – which was awesome, but the size only became apparent when I saw them above sea ice over the Sea of Okhotsk when they flew with White-tailed Eagles. The White-tailed Eagles are the biggest raptors we see over here, but they were dwarfed by the Steller’s.

I also flew the unit on Merlins for the book published earlier this year. By then I was flying second generation units. These are much smaller, weighing only 3g, and much faster, tracking at 13Hz and collecting tri-axial data at up 1.6kHz. How much I can reduce the weight is important because every additional gram affects the bird in some way, and so particularly for Merlins getting the weight down is vital. Speed of data acquisition is also important because Hobbies, for instance, are incredibly agile and so the unit has to be fast to follow every twist and turn. Flying on a hunting Merlin was a strange experience. On the first flight we put the IMU on, released the bird and it flew 60m and attacked a Blackbird in a hedge. After a short fight the Blackbird escaped. For the rest of that day and several other days, the Merlin didn’t catch anything.

Why did you choose Kestrels as the subject for your latest book?

The UK is very lucky in the four falcons we have as breeding species. Peregrines are renowned for their high-speed stoops, Merlins for their fast chases and ringing flights, Hobbies for their agile flights after dragonflies and Kestrels for their ‘hovering’ search for mammals. A different hunting technique for each. I was particularly interested in Kestrels as in hovering – the official term for the technique is now ‘flight-hunting’ – the head must be held stationary for successful hunting so the body has to absorb the phenomenal forces caused by gravity, beating wings and the drag of gusting wind. I was anxious to investigate how they did it.

Did you encounter any challenges collecting data for your new book: Kestrel?

It required a lot of very sensitive equipment and some skilled operators. We borrowed two hi-speed cameras insured for £250,000 and set them up head-on and side-on to a flight-hunting falconry male Kestrel which carried the IMU. The cameras were running at 800fps and were filming 4k images, vast amounts of data were being collected and stored. The unit on the bird was collecting tri-axial data at 800Hz. It was also collecting satellite timing data, so to align wing, eye and head position we had to have a special time code generator which took a signal from the same satellites and stamped each frame of the film with a time measured in microseconds. The results are impressive in terms of how stable the head and eye position are. We are now preparing a paper for the scientific literature of body orientation relative to head position. It would have been good to have had that in the book as well, but the maths is so complex it is hard to make it easily accessible.

Your book features a four-year study to observe breeding behaviour; can you tell us anything about the methods and findings?

For four successive years we set up an array of video cameras filming breeding Kestrels in a barn in Hampshire. We had one camera filming the comings and goings of the adults and, later the fledglings, and two cameras in the nest box watching egg laying, incubation, hatching and chick growth. We filmed 24 hours every day, turning on IR lights to film at night. We measured egg laying intervals to the nearest minute, found accurate hatch times and watched every prey delivery. We also set up live traps where we knew the male hunted so we could weigh the local voles and mice and estimate how many kgs of rodent it takes to make 1kg of Kestrel. The filming was interesting – over the years the adults brought in slow worms, lizards, frogs and moths, as well as voles, mice and shrews. One male also brought in a weasel. This has long been suspected, but never-before filmed.

Can you tell us about any projects you are currently working on?

Because of COVID there is less money about, and writing books also takes lots of time and hard work. I have already decided I will not do a Peregrine book as there are already enough on the market (though none of them cover flight dynamics the way I would). I had planned to do a Hobby book because their flight is so fascinating, but if 2021 is another COVID year l might not be able to.

The Common Kestrel
By: Richard Sale
Hardback | September 2020| £49.99

Investigates all aspects of the Kestrels’ life, from plumage and diet through breeding to survival: also includes a four-year study in which video cameras capture breeding behaviour. Further studies also investigated the flight  using the modern technology of inertial measurement units allied to excellent photography.

 

Richard Sale has also authored two other titles with Snowfinch Publishing: The Merlin and Steller’s Sea Eagle (with Vladimir Borisovich Masterov and Michael S Romanov)

 

You can browse all titles by Richard Sale here

 

An interview with Derek Gow: Bringing Back the Beaver

Derek Gow has written an inspirational and often riotously funny firsthand account of how the movement to rewild the British landscape with beavers has arguably become the single most dramatic and subversive nature conservation act of the modern era.

Derek has taken time to answer a few questions about his new book and the role beavers can have in restoring nature.

Derek Gow © Chris Robbins

Could you tell us a little about your background and where the motivation for this book comes from?

I was born in Dundee in a council house. My grandfather’s generation had been farmers but my parents were not. I have always had a huge interest in nature which developed as I grew older. In time I began a career in farming and while aspects of this life were appealing, I became less enamoured with the impact of farming on the natural world and the savage repercussions of its consequence. I read all Gerald Durrell’s books when small, attended his field course on Jersey in 2000 and from that point on, initially as a manger for several wildlife centres focused on native wildlife and then ultimately, on my own farm, began to pioneer opportunities for wildlife restoration.

You have a clear affection for beavers; will a more emotive dialogue help spread the idea of restoring nature to a broader base, or do you think the science will win hearts and minds?

I think it’s a combination of both. You need science to back a case for their sentient restoration on the back of all the credible good they do, but you also need people to feel emotionally linked. They are the most wonderful of creature’s – creators of landscapes which are brim-full of life. They are caring for their offspring and while savagely territorial with other beavers, are commonly as individuals, largely benign. We did appalling things to them in the past and in effort to forge a better future I see no harm in explaining to people just how critical it is that we consider other species as individuals of worth and importance with characters as well.

There are so many organisations involved; some still going, some now inoperative: DEFRA, IUCN, SNH, EN, NCC, CLA etc. How do you manage to reach a consensus across all those organisations, and do you think the voice for restoring nature needs streamlining?

Yes it needs streamlining, but we need to be much bolder and much less deferential. In the commercial world if individuals or organisations perform poorly then they are dismissed or they disappear as entities. In nature conservation we are way too good at ignoring duffers and making excuses for their mistakes. This situation however uncomfortable is simply no good and at a time of ecological crisis potentially fatal. We must be bullish in our approach to progress while still retaining what reasonable allies there are. The pace of restoration should be swift rather than slow. There is no reason whatsoever for delay.

The activities of beavers such as: felling trees and potentially flooding arable land sound quite alarming to a lot of people. How are those issues addressed when proposing to reintroduce beavers?

Simple. We published a management handbook in 2016 which you chaps help sell and promote. Beavers are a very well understood species in both continental Europe and North America all we need to do is co-opt the sensible programmes of management and understanding which have been applied there to here, stop gibbering and making up excuses and move on. There is nothing they do which we can’t counteract if we wish to do so. A wider programme of education to promote better understanding is an essential first step.

Beavers seem to be a benchmark to define our future relationship with wild creatures. Does your campaign stop at beavers, or would you like to see other ‘lost’ species reintroduced to Britain?

I think that lynx should be restored with reasonable haste if living space which is suitably large with an adequate abundance of prey sufficient to maintain a viable population exists. I think wildcats must be restored in England and in Wales. Other candidates would be species like the great bustard, wild boar, golden, white tailed eagles and common crane; in a wider range, the burbot, black stork/more whites, vultures and many other amphibians, reptiles and insects. I think a dialogue should begin about learning to relive with the wolf now. If we want to have future forests which the deer can’t destroy we will need this predator very much.

Does Brexit and the eventual demise of the Common Agricultural Policy offer any hope for a more nature sensitive approach to farming in the UK?

Yes it does. We can do it our way now but we must recognise that very much good has come from the EU habitats directive and that our way should seek to exceed and surmount this legislation and not just become a tawdry box ticking exercise in excuse manufacturing and prevarication.

With beavers now established in Devon on the River Otter, how do you see that project developing in the next five years?

The beaver population there will expand for sure to number many 100’s over time. Many other rivers should become the focus of further reintroductions as a result of the excellent field work and research carried out on the Otter by a broad range of partnership bodies. The project and its results demonstrate quite graphically that beavers are entirely tolerable in a modern cultural English landscape with a degree of low level intervention and that their engineering activities enable an abundance of other wildlife to flourish.

Have you any projects you are currently involved in, or planning that you can tell us about?

Together with a range of other organisations I am working to form a wood cat project which will culminate in the reintroduction of the wildcat in Devon. The old English name was the wood cat and those of us involved think therefore that this is a more appropriate escutcheon. Next year I will be releasing white storks on my farm and rewilding over 150 acres of land which I own. In March 2021 I will complete work on a new book for Chelsea Green titled The Hunt for the Iron Wolf which will detail the history of this species in the UK.

Bringing Back the Beaver: The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways
By: Derek Gow
Hardback | September 2020| £19.99

Derek Gow’s inspirational first-hand account of beaver reintroduction across England and Scotland.

 

Derek Gow © Chris Robbins

Derek Gow is a farmer and nature conservationist. Born in Dundee in 1965, he left school when he was 17 and worked in agriculture for five years. Inspired by the writing of Gerald Durrell, all of whose books he has read – thoroughly – he jumped at the chance to manage a European wildlife park in central Scotland in the late 1990s before moving on to develop two nature centres in England. He now lives with his children, Maysie and Kyle, on a 300-acre farm on the Devon/Cornwall border which he is in the process of rewilding. Derek has played a significant role in the reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver, the water vole and the white stork in England. He is currently working on a reintroduction project for the wildcat.

Browse more books about this keystone species

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures. An interview with Merlin Sheldrake

Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and a writer with a background in plant sciences, microbiology and ecology. He received a Ph.D. in tropical ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama.

Merlin’s just published book, Entangled Life explores the incredible world of fungi and how it has shaped and continues to influence the world we live in

Merlin Sheldrake and truffle

Merlin kindly agreed to answer our questions about his book and these incredible organisms.

Could you tell us a little about your background?

As an undergraduate I studied plant and microbial sciences. I then moved over into the humanities for my masters degree in the history and philosophy of science, where I focused on the history of Amazonian ethnobotany – the study of the relationships between humans and plants. I then shifted back into the sciences for my PhD, conducting research into the ecology of mycorrhizal fungi in tropical forests in Panama. There’s a strange disciplinary barrier between the sciences and the humanities which I’ve long found frustrating – and artificial – and for much of my education I’ve tried to find the places where it is less well-maintained and has become more porous.

Where did the motivation for this book come from?

Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants and can link plants together in shared networks sometimes known as the ‘wood wide web’. These fungi allowed the ancestors of plants to move out of freshwater and onto land, some 500 million years ago, and without them the planet would be unrecognisable. At school I had been taught to think of plants as autonomous individuals, but they turned out to be the product of a complex tangle of relationships: mycorrhizal fungi are a more ancient part of planthood than wood, leaves, flowers, or even roots. What we call plants are really algae that have evolved to farm fungi, and fungi that have evolved to farm algae – and this ancient relationship lies at the base of the food chains that sustain nearly all life on land. The more I studied these organisms and their intimate relationships, the more I realised that thinking about fungi makes the world look different. Entangled Life arose from this enquiry, and my sense of vertigo at the realisation that we’re only just beginning to understand this mind-bending kingdom of life.

Fungi appear to make decisions but has no ‘mind’ in the way we would understand. How can you best explain how ‘mycelial minds’ make sense of their environment?

Mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi: for the most part fungi live their lives as branching, fusing networks of tubular cells known as mycelium. Mycelial co-ordination is difficult to understand because there is no centre of control. If we cut off our head or stop our heart, we’re finished. A mycelial network has no head and no brain. Fungi, like plants, are decentralised organisms. Control is dispersed: mycelial co-ordination takes place both everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. These networks can sprawl over tens or even hundreds of metres and are subject to an unceasing flood of sensory information. And somehow, without a brain, fungi are able to integrate these many data streams, make decisions, and determine suitable courses of action. How they coordinate themselves remains a puzzle. There are a few options. Some researchers suggest that mycelial networks might transmit developmental cues using changes in pressure or flow – because mycelium is a continuous hydraulic network like a car’s braking system, a sudden change in pressure in one part could, in principle, be felt rapidly everywhere else. Some have observed that metabolic activity – such as the accumulation and release of compounds within hyphal compartments – can take place in regular pulses that could help to synchronise behaviour across a network. Others have found that the mycelium of some fungal species is electrically excitable and conducts spikes of electrical activity along hyphae, analogous to the electrical impulses in animal nerve cells, which could allow different parts of a network to stay in touch with themselves.

A common or shared mycorrhizal network seems to be a model for all ecology, yet outside of a few specialists is relatively under-researched and tends to be plant-centrist; why do you think is that is the case?

If you show someone a picture of a forest containing a jaguar and ask people to describe the image, most would describe the jaguar and say nothing about the bustle of plant life that makes up most of the scene. Our tendency to overlook plants in favour of animals has been termed ‘plant-blindness’. I think a similar phenomenon – fungus-blindness – sometimes plays out when we think about shared mycorrhizal networks. Plants are larger and easier for us to see and so our attention is naturally drawn to them. Plants are also more familiar units of life, which makes it easier for us to tell stories featuring them. Fungal networks are intuitively and conceptually slippery, and more difficult for us to make sense of.

Mycroremediation; the use of fungi to restore the biological health of soil has long been understood, but rarely used in large-scale applications. Do you think that will change in the future?

I hope so! Fungi are metabolic wizards with astonishing talents for breaking down stubborn substances, from lignin, wood’s toughest component, to rock, crude oil, polyurethane plastics and the explosive TNT. Despite its promise, however, mycoremediation is no simple fix. Just because a given fungal strain behaves in a certain way in a dish doesn’t mean it will do the same thing when introduced to the rumpus of a contaminated ecosystem. Fungi have needs – such as oxygen or additional food sources – that must be taken into account. Moreover, decomposition takes place in stages, achieved by a succession of fungi and bacteria, each able to pick up where the previous ones left off. It is naive to imagine that a lab-trained fungal strain will be able to hustle effectively in a new environment and remediate a site by itself. Some of the most promising applications of mycoremediation under development involve redirecting our waste streams so that material can be processed in fungal facilities before it hits the landfill. These approaches strike me as the most promising because they involve a larger scale re-evaluation of our dysfunctional philosophy of waste. By building systems in which fungi intercept pollutants before they spill into the environment we can start to deal with the causes of pollution rather than just the symptoms.

Some radical mycologists declare that ‘fungi can save the world!’ How credible do you think some of their claims are?

Fungi have been shaping the planet and its biospheres for over a billion years and will no doubt continue to do so. And there are certainly many ways that we might partner with fungi to help us to adapt to life on a damaged planet. As in any field that holds great promise there’s hype and some big claims floating around, some more credible than others. Then again, we don’t know nearly enough about fungi as we should. Their lives are endlessly surprising, and even many of their well-established behaviours and characteristics can seem incredible at first hearing.

Entangled Life has taken years of research and investigation. Allowing for a well-earned rest, have you any future projects you can tell us about?

I have plenty of studies to write up, and a number of research questions I’m exploring. I have yet to emerge from this tangled enquiry and don’t imagine that I will any time soon. Fungi have received a tiny fraction of the attention given to animals or plants and there are wide open questions whichever way one looks.

 

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures
By: Merlin Sheldrake
Hardback | September 2020| £16.99 £20.00

An immersive trip into the largely unknown world of fungi, showing just how otherworldly and amazing this neglected group of organisms is.

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

An interview with Erica McAlister

Entomologist Erica McAlister is the senior curator for Diptera at the Natural History Museum, London. In 2017, she authored the very successful book The Secret Life of Flies which looked at their diverse lifestyles. Now she returns with The Inside out of Flies, which is a great popular science book marvelling at their anatomy.

We took the opportunity to ask her some questions about why flies matter to us all.

First off, tell us a little bit about how you got started. Why study flies? Having read your book now, I agree that they are fascinating and beautiful, but presumably, you did not know this when you started?

I have always been interested in nature, but I was more fascinated by the smaller creatures – the ones everyone else seemed to ignore. Insects were an obvious choice and I combined my love for them with my love of ecology from the beginning. Although I had worked with ants and beetles, it was the flies that properly tickled my fancy as they were the most diverse in life cycles and ecological function, and so the most interesting. They got everywhere, they did everything and they were wonderful to observe. I have a liking for all things natural – from decomposing dung heaps to parasitic lifestyles – both of which involve the fabulous flies.

You are quite involved in public outreach, speaking on radio programmes and giving public talks. Most people regard flies with a certain amount of disgust. Do you find it is easy to change people’s perceptions? 

Generally, yes. Most people just think about one or two examples of the thousands of species of flies such as the nuisance fliers or the transmitters of disease. So when I  tell them about the hoverflies, the bee flies, the chocolate pollinators, the forensic detectives, the scuba divers and so on, that opens up a whole new world to most people, and when I go on to talk about their gardens being alive with these beneficial creatures, you can see a change in many folks. Flies are animals and are essential for many ecosystems – it is odd that many naturalists seem to want to forget this!

The Inside Out of Flies spread 1After two decades of researching them, has your own attitude towards them changed?

Nope. In fact, I feel that I have got worse in my obsession with them as I realise that I have so much to learn and not enough time. Initially I was fascinated by their ecology, then their looks, then their behaviour, but there is also their genetics, their mechanics and many more other areas that we need to explore and understand. The more I have read and studied the more I realise that we have still so much to learn.

Your 2017 book The Secret Life of Flies was very well received. The design of your new book The Inside Out of Flies suggests it is a companion to the first book. Why write a second book?

Because there is so much more to write about them. We have thousands of books about mammals and there are just over 6100 of them. There are more flies in the UK than that and living in more extreme environments – the flies have adapted to all sorts of weird and wonderful habitats with a whole range of morphological changes to help them not just cope but thrive. The first book focused on their feeding ecology, this one is about their morphology, but there is still much, much more that I have left out from both of these subjects (I get emails all the time telling me so!)

The Inside Out of Flies spread 2You mention many people seem to think adult flies lack brains, this misconception being fuelled by watching them fly into windows again and again. This may seem like a very mundane question but why, indeed, do they do this?

This is a common question – but the answer is not really known. Firstly, the glass could be disorientating the flies as it blocks out UV-B which are used by the flies to help them navigate. The actual glass may be perceived as something different to them – they would realise that it was some form of wall due to the change in air currents, but we don’t know as yet what and presumably it could be multiple factors. There are many footprints of previous insects that have crawled across that pane and maybe there are hints about food sources (flies taste with their feet) that further distracts them. There is still so much about these creatures that we don’t know.

As you go through each body segment of a fly’s body in this book, you show that there is astounding variation in traits, and you back this up with some fantastic photography. One striking example was of a soldier fly species, Platyna hastata, whose abdomen is almost as wide as it is long, you affectionately call them fat-bottomed flies. Is this another example of sexual selection run rampant?

In flies – there are so many examples of extreme sexual selection and I discuss this throughout the book – from eyestalks to flags on their abdomen to hidden internal modifications. One of my favourites is the fly Drosophila bifurcata that has sperm that is 5.8 cm long and the actual adult male is but a few millimetres!

The Inside Out of Flies spread 3You explain how insect taxonomists use morphological details such as the position and numbers of hairs on their body to define species. I have not been involved in this sort of work myself, but I have always wondered, how stable are such characters? And on how many samples do you base your decisions before you decide they are robust and useful traits? Is there a risk of over-inflating species count because of variation in traits?

Ahhh there is the dilemma that many a taxonomist has faced – is it a true species??? The NHM collection has many thousands of species but often the specimen that the species was described from is the only specimen that anyone has of that species! Only time will tell if it is a true species. However, many of these characters are very stable with many of the bristle arrangements having been around for thousands of years. There is a risk of over-inflating species but then again there is a risk of under-inflating – and taxonomists fall into two groups – the splitters or the lumpers depending upon what they feel are important characters. What we do know for certain is that the sexually derived characters – the genital structures change at a faster rate and so this is why we appear to be obsessed with such things!

There are some fantastic examples in this book of the applied aspects coming out of dipterology as a field of study, with forensic entomology and miniature robotics being good examples. What are some of the most exciting applied developments that you think will make a splash in the near future?

Oh, what a question! I feel that we are on the cusp of many exciting developments – especially in aeronautics and medicine. Personally, I am loving the development of smart needles – the idea of bending these around sensitive structures is incredible and so very useful. But as technology develops so does our ability to look at these creatures and try to mimic their millennia-old adaptations.

The Inside Out of Flies spread 4
I imagine some aspects of entomology rely on decades- and centuries-old methods from when the field got started. Simultaneously, like most academic disciplines, the field has benefited from technological advances. How have new technologies changed how you work and the sorts of questions you ask? 

Yes, absolutely. I can ask so much more from the specimens in the collection at the Natural History Museum now, even though the flies may have been dead for hundreds of years. I can image them inside and out and in doing so I can see what pollen is in their guts or around their mouthparts; I can analyse their DNA and see how the populations developed or when insecticide resistance developed; and I can transfer all of this information around the world in seconds – no longer is research hindered by physical distance or financial constraints as much as it once was. And on a general level, I and many others have the resources of millions of people making observations and taking photos which massively adds to our knowledge. New technologies have made scientists out of all of us.

One of the more remarkable and little-appreciated things you draw attention to is that flies are an important group of pollinators worldwide. There has been much public concern regarding bees, pollination, and the future of our crops. Do we have reason to be concerned about the ecological function provided by pollinating flies?

We need to care about flies as much as all of the other insects that are more commonly talked about. Not only are the adults amazing pollinators but the larvae of many of these species are also carrying out key ecological roles such as predation or decomposition. And often it is only the flies that are the pollinators, especially in the more extreme habitats or crops. If you don’t look after the flies, you will find the world bereft of many food products that everyone loves such as chocolate.

Lastly, has the pandemic influenced your work and that of those around you? 

I would say yes. Hopefully, more people have realised how important the natural world is. I have spent the last couple of moths answering questions and identifying flies that folks would not have spent time observing before, and I have seen appreciation grow in all things fly. I think we have realised that we need to work more in balance with our environment and so the work that I, and millions of other entomologists undertake, is now seen with a new appreciation – we are not just going around looking at pretty flies, but are trying to help understand our climate and the impact the changes are having on it, our food security, and the impact of disease and vectors to name but a few examples.

The Inside Out of FliesThe Inside Out of Flies
By: Erica McAlister
Hardback | September 2020| £12.99 £14.99

 

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

An interview with Iolo Williams

Iolo Williams in Snowdonia

Iolo Williams was born and brought up in mid Wales. After gaining an ecology degree he worked for the RSPB for almost 15 years as Species Officer for Wales. In the late 1990s Iolo left the Society to work full-time in the media, presenting in both Welsh and English.  He co-presented Springwatch 2020 and is a tireless campaigner for wildlife and conservation.

We caught up with Iolo and asked him a few questions on: lockdown, rewilding, Brexit and the future for nature.

Wales has a variety of landscapes and environments; do you have a favourite habitat?

With Chris Packham in the Cairngorms

I was born and brought up in mid-Wales and grew up in a small village called Llanwddyn (Lake Vyrnwy), which was a fantastic area with a mixture of habitats. But, where I am happiest really is up on the high ground: up on the mountains, up on the moorland, enjoying not just the solitude and the scenery, but some of the amazing wildlife, such as: black grouse, merlin and hen harrier. You have also got sundews, butterworts, and bog asphodel; all amazing and well adapted to these harsh conditions. So that’s where I’m happiest really – when I want a day by myself, away from everyone, that’s where I head for.

Do you think ecotourism and nature capital have a role to play in wildlife conservation?

Iolo with two rare Welsh clearwing moths

I think ecotourism is absolutely vital for the future survival of our wildlife and our habitats, and ourselves too. It’s only when we educate people, it’s only when people see what’s out there, it’s only then that people grow to appreciate it and will then fight to ensure that it survives for their children and for future generations. So, I do believe it’s a vital part of conservation and education.

But of course ecotourism does involve travel, which is a dilemma. I travel a lot less than I used to and off-set it as much as I can, but I learned a lesson whilst visiting Chitwan National Park in Nepal and lamenting my carbon footprint involved to get there. The head ranger heard me and said, ‘Listen, if you didn’t come here, there wouldn’t be a national park. The government wants the wood, wants to log these trees you see here. It wants to drain this wetland to grow cash crops. But it’s only because of the money you bring in that we are able to protect and enhance this national park: the Indian one-horned rhino, the Asiatic elephant, the tigers and all the other wildlife that’s here.’ So, it is a dilemma, but to stop that overnight would be disastrous for wildlife worldwide.
The pros, do out-weigh the cons – as long as we are sensible about it; we need to stop needless travel, we need to utilise public transport wherever we can, and in a rural area like mid Wales it’s often not even possible – more often than not I have to take the car. A change must come from individuals, but more than anything the change has got to come from government – we need a better public transport system.
Ecotourism can also provide sustainable jobs. I’ve just come back from Mull; the eagles bring in a huge amount of capital every year. Mull would probably grind to a halt without ecotourism. Yes, you have agriculture there and farming, but by far the biggest employer in Mull is green tourism. People come to Mull to see eagles, to see otters, to see minke whales, basking sharks, and all of these charismatic species. Morally, we shouldn’t have to put the economic argument forward, we should be looking after wildlife for its own sake. But when you are dealing with developers and ministers, you have to put the economic argument forward.

Are you a supporter of rewilding and do you think it is a sustainable use of land?

Hen harrier chick in the nest

I am in principle, but say ‘rewilding’ to a lot of people and they say, “ah, they’re going to bring back wolves and bears, and I don’t want wolves and bears. My children will be mauled” etc. While that’s not true it’s also not true that’s what rewilding is all about. It’s really about the restoration of habitats, it is about what Isabella Tree and her husband have done at Knepp, which works fantastically well. Places like the Cambrian Mountains have fantastic wildlife like pine martens, goshawks, red squirrels etc, but vast areas of the Cambrian Mountains are a green desert. So, the potential for rewilding; just a few trees, maybe restoring the lost peat bogs etc. is vast and the knock-on effects for capturing carbon and preventing flooding all makes so much sense. But of course, the people in power want to make more money for themselves and their acquaintances and a lot of them don’t want to consider embracing this approach.

Does Brexit and the end of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) present any opportunities?

Firstly, I voted against Brexit, I think it will be an unmitigated disaster. It was the tabloid papers stirring the pot of xenophobia that prevented the real issues being properly discussed. Most of the farmers around me here voted for Brexit because they were fed up with what they saw as European bureaucracy. Of course, now the reality is biting, many farmers I speak to now wish they hadn’t, especially now as their MP has voted to allow cheap, low standard foods from the US into the country. Despite what we sometimes read, the food standards in the UK are very high and to lower those standards is stabbing farmers in the back.

However, in the long-term Brexit can offer an opportunity. If we had a better government in power, I would be optimistic about those opportunities because there is no doubt the CAP has been a most destructive policy from an environmental point of view. It really should have been reformed at least twenty years ago and now is an opportunity to do that, but with the current government’s track record with the environment makes me believe not much will change. We are up against a very powerful agricultural lobby. The big fertiliser companies, the big pesticide companies, the big machinery companies all of these are a massively powerful lobby and this government will listen to their argument not the environmentalist’s.

Has lockdown presented people with an opportunity to connect with nature?

I hear people saying how wildlife benefitted hugely from lockdown, and I think temporarily it did. One simple example is far fewer hedgehogs killed on the roads, of course now lockdown is eased I’m seeing dead hedgehogs on the roads all over again. Also, roadside verges not being mown or mowed late had a knock-on effect that was huge!! Flowers, bees, butterflies all in abundance. Some councils have seen this, taken note, and said – okay fantastic, we are going to reduce mowing from now-on. Others have carried on mowing and mowing, which is an absolutely dreadful policy for wildlife. Lockdown has really tested people, especially from a mental health point of view, but during lockdown the birds, flowers and butterflies have brought so much joy to families. Nature has been there for us through this traumatic time and we must remember that when these restrictions are over.

The one long term benefit I’m hoping lockdown will have is that a seed has been planted in a lot of youngsters and adults where they will think: remember last year when we walked this lane and there was all those flowers and we saw that lovely white and orange butterfly, let’s go and see if it’s all there again. So, hopefully for many people that seed has been planted.

 

Discover Iolo’s favourite ‘Wild Places’ in these two titles from Seren Books

Wild Places UK: The UK’s Top 40 Nature Sites
By: Iolo Williams
Paperback | December 2019| £15.99 £19.99

From Hermaness on Shetland to the London Wetland Centre. Iolo Williams picks his favourite forty wildlife sites in the UK

 

Wild Places: Wales’ Top 40 Nature Sites
By: Iolo Williams
Paperback | October 2016| £15.99 £19.99

Naturalist Iolo Williams picks his favourite forty from the many nature reserves throughout Wales

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

All photographs © Iolo Williams.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Malaysia & Singapore: an interview with the authors.

This comprehensive, clearly illustrated field guide, looks at all 815 bird species of Malaysia and Singapore. The main identifying features of each species are described and key facts cover size, voice, range and status and habitat. Distribution maps provide a view of where the birds can be found. The book also includes information on taxonomy and nomenclature, the breeding cycle, migration, conservation and key bird-watching sites of the region. This guide is essential for any naturalist interested in this region of the world.

Recording and observing such a rich diversity of birds, with over 800 species of birds including endemics in abundance is a huge undertaking.  How does such a daunting project come to fruition?  We asked contributors: Lim Kim Seng, Yong Ding Li and Lim Kim Chuah to answer some questions about themselves and the creation of A Field Guide to the Birds of Malaysia & Singapore

 Can you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds within ornithology and conservation?

Lim Kim Seng

Kim Seng – I started birding when I was about ten years old. I grew up in a family farm in Sembawang, in the northern countryside of Singapore. Together with my four other brothers, we explored the streams, hills and swamps and grew to love nature. One day, I saw a large kingfisher with a brown head, bright red beak and blue wings. It was my first Stork-billed Kingfisher and I was hooked. I was able to identify it through a book that I found in our National Library Natural History Section. Five years on, I joined the then Malayan Nature Society (now Nature Society (Singapore)) as a student member and just four years later, I led my first official society birdwatching outing at Rifle Range Road, together with my other birding brother Kim Chuah. With the help of other dedicated members, I learned a lot and was able to play my part in nature conservation, documentation, research and outreach, and have been an active member since then.

Yong Ding Li

Ding Li – I have been birdwatching since my primary school days, after finding what I later discovered, to be Magpie Robins near my home in Kuala Lumpur. Subsequent visits to the mangroves of Kuala Selangor introduced me to the colourful world of birdwatching. Through various research projects, I have professionally studied birds in diverse settings ranging from Malaysian rainforests and the mountain forests of Sulawesi (Indonesia), to Australian woodlands. I now work full-time for BirdLife International, coordinating projects on bird conservation in Southeast Asia.

Lim Kim Chuah

Kim Chuah – I grew up in a farm in rural Singapore in the ’60s and the surrounding woodlands and marshes were my playground. During my many sojourns into the wilderness, I started to notice some of the birds that lived around me – White-breasted Waterhen, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Common Tailorbird etc. That’s how I became interested in birds and it became my life-long passion. I’ve been volunteering in the Bird Group of the Nature Society (Singapore) since I was an undergrad. I participated in many of the birdwatching activities organized by the Bird Group including regular bird census and bird surveys. The data we collect helps towards a better understanding of birdlife in Singapore and is useful in building our case for better protection of habitats in Singapore.

How long has this project been in the making?

Kim Seng – My friend Dana Gardner, the illustrator of this book, got me interested in doing another book. We had successfully collaborated on a first field guide to the birds of Singapore in 1997 and were keen to work together again. Dana had a friend who was a publisher and we decided to a do a single volume field guide to the birds of the whole of Malaysia, since none existed. This was in 2010. Unfortunately, our publisher pulled out not long after that and we were left stranded. Luckily, through my fellow collaborators – Kim Chuah and Ding Li – we managed to get John Beaufoy interested in our project. A contract was signed in 2016 and as they say, the rest is history!

 What was the biggest challenge in creating this field guide?

Kim Seng – Each of us had different ideas on how to do the book and also other personal commitments. We as the writers also had to contend with differences in writing styles. Luckily, we decided to stick with a standard format, came up with a list of who was writing what chapters and what bird families and managed to more or less stick to our deadlines. Another challenge was the impressive work done by our illustrator. He had to do illustrations of all 829 species all by himself. To ensure accuracy, he would send us completed plates for comment, and we duly responded if changes were needed. Not an easy task, as we were based in Singapore and he, in the USA.

What features do you hope will make your field guide stand out from any others?

Kim Seng – This book is compact and contains all the necessary information you need to identify any bird species you see in the listed countries. The text is crisp and the illustrations accurate and there is also a detailed site and habitat guide to get birders to the most interesting places quickly and see those fascinating birds, based on the authors’ many years in the field.

Have the travel restriction due to COVID – 19 presented any threats or opportunities for the avifauna of Malaysia and Singapore?

Kim Seng – Well, COVID-19 has placed tremendous restrictions on travel in both Malaysia and Singapore. You could bird in certain areas but only with social distancing and other safe practices in place. Initially, we could only look at the birds from our balconies or backyards but this was an opportunity for some of us to study some of the neglected urban birds and understand a little better. I actually published two blogs based on my observations of urban birds from my balcony! In the last couple of months, restrictions have been eased and we are allowed to go birding in our favourite birding places, but I’m still waiting for the day when I can travel freely and bird in Malaysia again.

 Do you think eco-tourism is beneficial to conservation?

Kim Seng – Definitely. I believe ecotourism brings a lot of attention to the tremendous beauty and biodiversity of the natural habitats in both countries. It also brings revenue and employment opportunities to the local community who in turn will help to protect these wonderful places for a long time to come.

 What in your view are the best reasons to visit Malaysia and Singapore if you are a birdwatcher or an ornithologist?

Kim Seng – Three reasons – good birds, good food and good company. All three are never in short supply in these two amazingly friendly countries. The people are generally very friendly and the variety of local food is really incredible. Of course, the fascinating diversity of birds, with over 800 species of birds and Bornean, Peninsular and Sunda endemics in abundance are dreams to savour for birdwatchers and ornithologists alike.

Are you working on any other projects you can tell us about?

Kim Seng – I am currently working at putting up an adult learner’s module or course on “Birdwatching for Beginners”. It’s something I had worked on in the past and I want to continue my work in getting people of all ages interested in birdwatching as I believe it is a healthy and useful pastime. It should be fun as there are outdoor trips as well.

Ding Li – I am currently working with a team of designers to develop a board game on the migratory bird species of Asia. Such a concept to promote bird conservation has not been done in this region, so I am quite excited to see the final project materialise. I am also working with a team of international researchers to review the state of all of Asia’s migratory birds. If all goes well, this will be published in early 2021, and will bring together lots of new insights from all over the region and how migratory birds can be better conserved.

Kim Chuah – I am currently organising the 36th Singapore Bird Race. It will be interesting to see how we can organise the race during this pandemic. We will use the social media and available digital tools to make the race as exciting as in previous years. I am also working on action plans to better protect and conserve the critically endangered Straw-headed Bulbul in Singapore.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Malaysia & Singapore
By: Lim Kim Seng, Yong Ding Li, Lim Kim Chuah, Dana Gardner(Illustrator)
Paperback | August 2020| £19.99 £24.99

A fully comprehensive field guide to the 815 bird species of Malaysia and Singapore. Published by: John Beaufoy Publishing

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

 

 

Author Interview with Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates: Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden

The orchard has been a traditional component of the British landscape for many centuries. However, subsidies have led to the destruction of  older traditional orchards to make way for more intensive farming and now only a fraction remain.

The value of these orchards for wildlife has long been underestimated. Ben Macdonald and Nick Gates spent years visiting a traditional orchard across all seasons observing its imperilled and overlooked abundance of life.

Ben and Nick have taken time to answer our questions about their book and this remarkably fertile habitat. We also have a limited amount of signed bookplates – available while stocks last.

Could you tell us a little about your backgrounds?

Nick Gates

Nick Gates (NG): I grew up in West Sussex, and could usually be found building a dam across a stream or out catching grasshoppers and slow worms on the Ashdown Forest somewhere. I ended up reading Natural Sciences at Cambridge and, similar to Ben, have now found myself making wildlife documentaries. But I adore spending time in the field, and am forever looking for new areas to explore, new behaviours to interpret and new species to learn about.

Benedict McDonald

Benedict Macdonald (BM): I grew up north of Bristol, and my fascination with nature began with raising butterflies at school, which then took me onto my great passion for birds. I took a different route to Nick, studying English at Oxford to improve my journalistic skills before moving into the natural history film industry. The love of birds remains – and it was indeed the search for breeding lesser-spotted woodpeckers for the BTO’s Bird Atlas that, one magical morning, led me to the Orchard.

Where did the motivation for this book come from? Are Orchards a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?

NG: The project actually started as a photographic record, nest-box project and field diary. We certainly didn’t envisage when first visiting the orchard that one day we’d be able to convert our passion for it into a book. As the years went by, and we uncovered more of the orchard’s stories each season, we realised we had built up a library of magical stories about this special place – and the book idea was born.

You divided the book into chapters by each month; was this something you planned all along and why did month-by-month fit the narrative of the orchard so well?

BM: As any pair of naturalists will tell you, the skills you have are similar but often complimentary. In January, for example, much of the expertise lies in tracking small mammals around the orchard, and reading prints etched in the snow – one of Nick’s favourite past-times. May is all about birdsong and concealed nests, and spoke deeply to my own love of birds. But make no mistake – every month is special in the orchard. The players are always on the move.

NG: Having spent six years visiting the orchard across all seasons, it was clear that its stories were deeply rooted around the lifecycles of the apple and perry pear trees – which themselves have a very defined year. Once the book idea became a reality, it seemed the most natural way to introduce our audience to the orchard world. As Ben and I both often travel abroad on our respective filming trips, it also worked really well when dividing the chapter structure, as we each had unique experiences from certain months that we wanted to share.

The neighbouring orchard is run intensively and very differently to the orchard you studied; what would you say are the practical advantages of being less intensive?

NG: The major benefit appears to be maintenance. Spraying an orchard many times a season requires expensive inputs in machinery, as well as the manual labour required to continually prune each tree to a very defined shape to make the spraying as efficient as possible. In an unsprayed orchard, many different age classes of trees can thrive alongside each other. If an elderly tree is lost to a storm, it is easy to leave some of the deadwood and replace it nearby with a new young specimen. But the biggest benefit is that with an intact food chain, your costly pesticide inputs are replaced with spotted flycatchers and redstarts, which arrive for free each year and willingly hoover up all manner of insects that enjoy nibbling fruit trees!

BM: The summer migrants are critical to the success of the orchard – but the residents play an invaluable role. Throughout the winter, various species of tits, finches and woodpeckers, especially lesser-spotted, are all rooting out potentially harmful insects from the bark of the orchard’s trees. And as Nick puts it, treecreepers act as tree ‘dentists’, removing lots of tiny insects that could eventually end up reducing the lifespan of the trees.

The orchard you observed rewarded you with plenty of surprising stories and scenarios. Was there one single episode that stood out for you?

BM: For me, it was when we finally solved the mystery of the goshawk’s larder. Our generation has grown up with the idea that goshawks are limited to big woods and often those dark, silent plantations. The idea a goshawk could be hunting our orchard didn’t even occur to us at first, even after we found pheasant after pheasant neatly plucked. It was only when the pair decided to display right overhead one March that, like an Agatha Christie novel, it all came together.

NG: I have been out in the field looking for interesting stories in the natural world for as long as I can remember, so it is always rewarding coming across something unexpected. The best thing about the orchard, is that this just seems to happen so regularly! But if I had to single out one, I’d say my biggest surprise was the day I excitedly returned to photograph the coal tit family nesting in a pear tree, only to find the entrance to their nest firmly blocked with a rather unfortunate wood mouse. Having most likely scoffed the nest contents, it couldn’t fit back through the hole it had entered through. It was one of the most extraordinarily bizarre things I’ve yet chanced upon in the natural world.

Do you think a separation from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can create any opportunities for wildlife and biodiversity?

NG: Yes. The CAP model has ample opportunity for reform, and I hope that this is reflected in whatever system is adopted post Brexit. A model that rewards land owners for improving the biodiversity on their land is long overdue, as is a system that recognises carbon capture. There are certainly massive opportunities for British biodiversity – it is now up to those in positions of decision making to ensure they chose the correct advisers to inform these new policies.

BM: The Common Agricultural Policy has paid for enormous destruction of the countryside, and even models such as orchards that should be profitable to farmers – not just wildlife. In my view, we actually need a specific orchard subsidy. It seems mad that we can continue to pay for sheep grazing to denude hillsides and accelerate the flow of water off the hills, yet we cannot pay our farmers to grow apples. But this subsidy has to happen soon: orchards are vanishing fast.

Installing a wildlife pond is often sited as being the best way to add biodiversity to a garden; for those lucky enough to have the space, would you recommend planting an orchard for a similar reason?

NG: Absolutely. With something like a pond, you tend to see the rewards within just a few months of installing it, as the first newts and dragonflies arrive to breed in the new water source. Whilst fruit trees can take a few years to start blossoming and become increasingly valuable for your local wildlife, they mature incredibly quickly relative to most other tree species. Apples and pears are usually producing blossom and a crop in five to seven years, and by 40 years of age are well on their way to becoming an ‘ancient orchard’. Also, fruit trees, particularly those grafted to dwarf rootstock, don’t actually need a lot of room – and considering it only takes half a dozen trees to be called an orchard – most public green spaces could host a small wildlife orchard that would be of great help to local biodiversity.

After a well-earned rest, are there any plans or works-in-progress that you can tell us about?

NG: Ben and I have a few ideas for co-authored projects in the future but our next respective titles will both be individually written. I am currently working on a book about an urban wildlife garden…watch this space!

BM: As I approach the end of writing my third book, Cornerstones – for Bloomsbury (published January 2022), I have to be honest that a writing break is in order. Both writing and publicity are fantastic to be involved in but they do take a lot of time. Perhaps I can put my feet up and read Nick’s wildlife gardening book!

 

Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden
By: Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates
Hardback | August 2020| £16.99 £19.99

Ben Macdonald and Nick Gates spent years visiting a traditional orchard across all seasons observing its imperilled and overlooked abundance of life. If we can favour traditional methods and harvesting, the benefit will not only be for wildlife but for people too.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

 

Woodland Flowers: an interview with Keith J Kirby

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future is the eighth instalment of the popular British Wildlife Collection. In this insightful and original account, Keith Kirby explores the woodland plants of Britain living in the shade of their bigger relatives. They add so much to woodland’s biodiversity and beauty and tell us stories about the history of woodland, its past management, and how that has changed – not always for the better.

Keith Kirby signing Woodland Flowers

 

Author, Keith Kirby has taken the time to sign limited copies of Woodland Flower and has answered our questions about the book, and the flowers that enhance our woodlands.

 

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I grew up in a village in Essex and spent much of my childhood playing in the fields, along the riverbank and in small woods behind our house. I was interested in natural history but not really a serious naturalist. Sometime in my teens I decided I wanted to be a forester and ended up doing a degree in Agricultural and Forest Sciences in Oxford. That introduced me to ‘ecology’ and led to a doctoral study of the growth of brambles in Wytham Woods. From there I spent a couple of years doing woodland and general habitat surveys before getting a permanent post in 1979 with the Nature Conservancy Council as a woodland ecologist. I stayed in that post (NCC became English Nature, became Natural England) through to 2012, then retired back to Oxford and picked up my plant research interests in Wytham Woods again.

Where did the motivation for this book come from? Are woodland flowers a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?

Much of my work with NCC and its successor bodies involved considering the woodland ground flora: we used them as one indicator of the value of sites, as guides to what was changing in terms of woodland management and the woodland environment more generally; some species such as bramble and bracken could also be a problem when we were trying to get regeneration. There was not then the time to pull the different strands together, so when I was back in Oxford I thought I should give it a go.

Have you noticed any unusual changes within woodland flora this Spring following the lockdown? Has it helped or hindered?

I would not really expect to see a direct effect of lockdown on the plants: often their growth is determined by reserves laid down the previous year and a few months is not very long when you consider that many woodland plants – not just the trees – can live for several decades. There could be indirect effects, for example if less disturbance in woods means that deer produce more fawns, so more hungry mouths to nibble away at the flora in future.

Germander Speedwell, a species that spreads quite quickly into new hedges.

Although adaptable, woodlands are clearly not invincible. What do you think is the greatest threat to woodland ecosystems?

In the longer-term (25-50 yrs) climate change. The micro-climate at ground level in a wood has not changed as much as out in the open because of the sheltering effect of the tree layer, but it will do eventually and this will lead to a re-assortment of which species can thrive in different parts of the country.
In the medium term (10-25 years) I suspect that we are going to see more and more evidence of change from the build-up of nitrogen in forest soils from the emissions from cars, modern farming etc. I am picking up signs that this is happening in Wytham.
The immediate threat – and it affects our ability to deal with the medium and longer-term issues as well – comes from the impact of high numbers of deer in the countryside. They limit tree regeneration and make woodland management more difficult as well having direct effects on the ground flora species themselves. At Wytham we saw during the eighties and nineties a complete shift from a flora of herbs and bramble to grass-dominated cover. That is being reversed – we are fortunate in being able to manage the deer population there – but in many other woods deer numbers are too high. This means for example that it will be difficult to get the regeneration of species such as oak, beech or hazel that will be needed over the next few years to fill the gaps in the canopy left as Ash Dieback progresses.

What single policy change would you like to see to help counter this threat?

Through history trees and woods (and hence the woodland flora) have survived best where they are valued by society: so we need to encourage greater use of wood as a material in buildings, as fuel, as a feedstock for industry; as well as promoting woodland as places for recreation, to help with water management, for carbon sequestration, and as a source of inspiration.

The tricky question of ‘nativeness’ – Oxlip outcompeted by dense Pendulous Sedge patches.

As you note in the book, there’s currently a lot of interest in rewilding. What role do you think rewilding can play in the future of UK woodlands?

From the answer to the previous question it will be obvious that I want to see a lot of woods being managed to provide the materials that society needs; moreover many of our woodland plants can thrive under such conditions – if management is done carefully – as they have done for centuries. Rewilding though also has a great role to play in future conservation alongside actively managed woods (as long as we can get away from the endless debates about the meaning of the term itself). Rewilding leads to different types of woodland structures and composition, a different set of dynamics in the landscape, some of which may be analogous to what may have existed 6,000 years ago, but other combinations will be completely new. New mixtures of woodland plants (and animals) will come to be associated with rewilded treescapes that will also be a response to the changed environmental conditions. Exactly what will emerge unpredictable and there will be interesting challenges ahead for land managers, regulators and conservation advisers – we are not in the UK going to be able to be completely ‘hands-off’ even in the wildest of rewilding.
Rewilding is however one of the reasons why I am cautiously optimistic we can yet pass on a reasonable legacy of woodland flowers.

Now that the book is finished, and after a well-earned rest, are there any plans or works-in-progress that you can tell us about?

My first priority has been to try to catch up on writing-up the results from long-term studies of the flora in Wytham Woods and The Warburg Reserve near Henley. Also once the country has opened up a bit more after Covid-19 I plan to spend time to spend some more time with the wood beneath the trees; so I have been drawing up a list of woods across the country that I want to go and visit again.

Woodland Flowers, published by Bloomsbury is out now. We have a very limited amount of signed stock, available while stocks last.

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future
By: Keith J Kirby
Hardback | August 2020| £29.99 £34.99

In this insightful and original account, Keith Kirby explores the woodland plants of Britain.

 

 

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future is the eighth instalment of the popular British Wildlife Collection.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Editor Interview: Tim Burt, Curious About Nature

Curious About Nature provides a passionate voice in support of fieldwork and its role in ecological research. Comprising a series of chapters written by forty diverse contributors, this inspiring book hopes to encourage both new and seasoned ecologists to pursue outdoor learning and research as often and fully as possible.

Tim Burt (who edited the book alongside Des Thompson), recently took the time to answer some of our questions.


Editor Tim Burt, in the field.

Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds and how you came to be collaborating on this book.

We have both been involved with the Field Studies Council since 2006 when Des joined the Board of Trustees (I have been a trustee since 1982), but we had worked together before then, for example, a conference on the future of the British uplands held in Durham in 1999.

What are your first memories of fieldwork?

As I note in my essay in Curious about Nature, I came under the spell of an inspirational teacher at secondary school, Jim Hanwell. My first memory of fieldwork is being sent to measure the width of the main road outside the school gate to compare with the width of the red line printed on the OS map. Not something that would be done these days given health and safety concerns, but nevertheless I was hooked! Jim’s main influence was in physical geography, geomorphology especially, with many field trips to the Mendips and even an expedition to Spain and Portugal.

Some of the most well-known and respected scientists in history have had an incredibly varied range of interests and passions. Take Darwin, for example, who not only studied plants and animals, but also geology, anthropology, taxidermy and medicine. Do you think that, in modern times, we no longer celebrate or respect the ‘generally curious’ and instead expect people to be much more specialist in their areas of expertise?

Specialist research is inevitable in these very competitive days; departments compete via research assessment rankings and individuals must build their CVs to gain promotion. But in my experience, the best academics retain a breadth of interest; in physical geography this invariably combines fieldwork with other skills back at the department.

Editor Des Thompson

You currently hold the positions of President (Tim) and Chairman (Des) of the Field Studies Council and, as such, must both feel passionate about the education of field skills. With increases in health and safety concerns alongside reduced funding for outdoor activities, have you observed a change in child and youth education over the past decades in terms of the amount of fieldwork that takes place?

Health and safety concerns can (and must) be sorted out; it is continued funding that puts field trips at risk. The value of outdoor education is important for all sorts of reasons, not just academic knowledge and understanding. There is a real threat at the moment, with next year’s focus on getting schoolchildren back in the classroom. Senior administrators must be convinced of the value of investing in fieldwork, otherwise it is an easy cost to cut. But at what eventual “cost”?

Editor, Tim Burt

At NHBS we sell a lot of equipment that is purposely designed to limit the amount of time that researchers and naturalists have to spend in the field – such as motion-activated trail cameras. While these are the preferred choice for many researchers, do you think that there benefits to traditional, observational fieldwork that cannot be replicated by collecting data remotely?

Field equipment has always been necessary, even in the days of clockwork mechanisms and pen-and-ink chart recorders. Today’s digital equipment expands the possibilities, not limits them. But it is still vital to be out in the field, curious about what is happening and what you can see – this is how new ideas are generated. There is no substitute for standing on a hillside, thinking about the landscape in front of you, especially if you happen to be somewhere very different to England like the badlands of southern Utah!

Do you have a favourite fieldwork pioneer (included in the book or not) whose story you find particularly inspiring?

People always think of Charles Darwin as a biologist, but he was equally a geologist on the Beagle, and his geological observations during his circumnavigation of the globe remain fascinating to read, for example, his thoughts about the formation of coral reefs and atolls. He was very much a follower of Charles Lyell in his appreciation of the dynamic nature of the Earth’s surface.

Finally – what are you each working on currently? And do you have plans for further books?

We do have plans for a further book together, an elaboration of Curious about Nature, with a working title In the footsteps of Gilbert White. For my part, I have been drafting chapters for Durham weather and climate since 1841, to be published by OUP. Last year I co-authored a book (with Stephen Burt, no relation) about the weather records at the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, so the new book is complementary to that, with much the same structure, but clearly a different regional focus. I ran the Oxford weather station for 10 years and have been in charge of the Durham station since 2000.


Curious About Nature is edited by Tim Burt and Des Thompson and is published by Cambridge University Press. It is available from nhbs.com in paperback and hardback.

Author Interview: Andrew G. Duff, Beetles of Britain and Ireland Vol 3

In our latest Q&A we talk to Andrew Duff, keen naturalist and author of the new book Beetles of Britain and Ireland Volume 3, which joins a monumental 4-volume identification guide to to the adult Coleoptera of the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland, and the British Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man. By bringing together reliable modern keys and using the latest taxonomic arrangement and nomenclature, it is hoped that budding coleopterists will more quickly learn how to identify beetles and gain added confidence in their identifications.

Andrew has taken his time to answer our questions about his book and about the fascinating world of beetles.

 Aside from the most conspicuous species, beetles seldom seem to attract as much attention as some other insect orders. What is it that has drawn you to study this group? 

My initial attraction to beetles was by coming across some of the larger and more colourful species, as you might expect. The first occasion was in about the late 1970s. I was out birdwatching with my oldest and best friend, the Ruislip naturalist Mike Grigson, when he found a species of dor beetle. These are large black beetles, often found wandering in the open on heaths and moors. They have the most striking metallic blue undersides. Picking one up, Mike said to me: “beetles are really beautiful ”, and I can still picture him saying it. The next occasion was when I was assistant warden at the Asham Wood reserve on the Mendip Hills in Somerset, in the summer of 1982. The warden, Jim Kemp, was an expert mycologist with a side interest in beetles. One day we were on the reserve and he pointed out a black-and-yellow longhorn beetle sat on an umbel. I thought it was very exotic-looking, every bit as worthy of a naturalist’s attention as butterflies and orchids! So I resolved to find out more about the beetles found in Asham Wood. Bristol Reference Library had a copy of Norman Joy’s Practical Handbook of British Beetles and it was obvious that I needed to buy it. Once I had my own copy of ‘Joy’, there was no stopping me. I started finding beetles and was able to identify most of them. The more you study beetles, the more you realise that all of them have their own special kind of beauty, and this is what ultimately led me to become a coleopterist. That, and the intellectual challenge of identifying small brown beetles, are what continue to inspire me. 

 What motivated you to write and publish Beetles of Britain and Ireland?

Joy’s Practical Handbook of British Beetles was the standard beetle identification guide for at least two generations of British coleopterists, ever since its publication in 1932. Joy’s book provided concise keys to every British beetle in a handy two-volume set, one volume of text and one of line drawings. The trouble with this idea is that the keys were oversimplified and misleading because of all the detail that wasn’t included. By the 1980s ‘Joy’ was already long past its ‘best before date’. Talk started about somebody producing a successor set of volumes and the late Peter Skidmore made a start—after his death I was fortunate to obtain his draft keys and drawings, and in particular have made much use of his drawings in my book. Peter Hodge and Richard Jones then published New British Beetles: species not in Joy’s practical handbook (BENHS, 1995). This was a fantastic achievement because it brought together in one place a list of the species not included in ‘Joy’, as well as notice of recent changes in nomenclature and of some errors in his keys. But it was still only a stop-gap measure.

By around 2008 still nothing had been produced by anyone else. I reckoned it might be achievable and began to discuss with other coleopterists the idea of writing a new series of volumes. The turning point was a discussion with Mark Telfer at a BENHS Annual Exhibition in London. My main concern was over the use of previously published drawings in scientific papers, but Mark reassured me that provided the drawings were properly credited and that the book was clearly an original work in its text and design then it should not fall foul of any copyright issues. By 2010 I’d already made a start on Beetles of Britain and Ireland and in the summer of that year took early retirement so that I could work on it more or less full time. My own professional background is as a technical author in the world of IT and from the 1980s onwards I’d had extensive experience of what used to be grandly called desktop publishing, what we would now call simply word processing! I’d decided to go down the self-publishing route so that I could ensure the production values matched what I thought coleopterists would want: a book which was laid out clearly and would stand up to a lot of wear. It’s really for others to judge whether my volumes meet the needs and expectations of most coleopterists, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well they’ve been received.

 How did production of this book compare to the previous volumes in the series? Was it difficult to bring together information on so many families exhibiting such a diversity of life histories?

As this is the third volume to have been completed I’d already learnt a lot about the best way to collate all of the material and summarise it, while trying to make as few mistakes as possible. The previous two volumes (vols. 1 and 4) were written in a rather erratic fashion, so that at any one time some sections would be more or less complete while others would not even have been started. This time I was determined to be more disciplined by starting with the first family, completing a draft which included the family introduction, keys to genera and species, and all of the line art illustrations, before going on the next family and doing the same again. In a way, having many families was an advantage because it meant I could use a ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy by breaking down a fauna of 1088 species into 69 smaller chunks. The fact that there are so many families in this volume didn’t generate any special problems, indeed families with only a few species like the stag beetles, glow-worms and net-winged beetles are relatively straightforward to document. But some of the family introductions were a challenge, insofar as some families are poorly defined taxonomically and hard to characterise in a way which would be accessible to amateur coleopterists. For example the darkling beetles (Tenebrionidae) exhibit a bewildering diversity which makes it well nigh impossible to say why a particular species is or is not assigned to this family. I made extensive use of the two-volume American Beetles (Arnett et al., 2002), which contains succinct summaries of nearly all of our beetle families, and this made my job a lot easier. But at the end of the day, the family diagnoses are not as important as the keys to genera and species. Most coleopterists won’t be coming to a particular family chapter as a result of methodically working through the key to families in volume 1. I imagine that in most cases people start by comparing their beetle with the colour plates, getting a shrewd idea as to what family it belongs to, and then going straight to the keys to genera and species. Picture-matching will always have its place in natural history, and I hope that Udo Schmidt’s 473 colour photos in this volume will be put to good use.

 This volume covers some of our most familiar beetles – the ladybirds and chafers, for example. What advice would you give to anyone seeking to extend their interest beyond these well-known families to the more ‘obscure’ groups? 

I would say that it largely depends on what kind of naturalist you are. What I mean by this is that there are two main ways of studying beetles, and you have to decide which path is right for you. On the one hand, many naturalists take photographs of beetles and by using the Internet or an expert validation service such as iRecord (www.brc.ac.uk/irecord/) they can usually achieve reliable identifications, at least to genus level, for medium-sized and large beetles. Some spectacular finds of beetles new to Britain have been found by general naturalists posting their images on the Internet, a very recent example being the flower-visiting chafer Valgus hemipterus, first posted to iRecord in April 2019 and already given the full works treatment in my volume 3. The problems start as soon as you try to identify smaller and more obscure beetles, because most of them are simply not identifiable from photographs. It’s not their small size and lack of bright colour patterns as such, so much as the need to view the underside, or the fore legs from a particular angle, or the head from the front, or the body orthogonally from directly above to ascertain the precise shape, which makes field photography impractical as a way to identify small beetles. So what you need to do is to go down the second path and start a beetle collection. This enables you to examine your specimen with a bright light source under a good stereomicroscope, turn it over to examine the underside, stretch out its legs to look for the pattern of teeth and spines, straighten it to measure its length and width, and if you’re feeling brave dissect out the genitalia which often provide the only definitive way to arrive at a species identification. Many naturalists balk at the thought of collecting beetles, but I would argue that the scientific value of having a comprehensive species list for a site outweighs any squeamishness I might feel about taking an insect’s life. In any case, my guilt is assuaged by the fact that insects are being eaten in their trillions every day, everywhere, by all manner of insectivorous animals and plants, so that the additional negative effect of my collection on beetle populations is vanishingly small.

Could you tell us a little about the process of compiling keys for the identification of the more challenging species? Were you able to draw upon the existing literature, or did you have to create them from scratch?

Some of the genera treated in this volume have been giving problems for coleopterists ever since the scientific study of beetles began. These are genera with a number of very similar, small and plain species that appear to have few distinguishing features. Nine genera in particular stand out for me as being conventionally ‘difficult’: Contacyphon, Dryops, Cryptophagus, Atomaria, Epuraea, Carpophilus, Meligethes, Corticaria and Mordellistena. It was always going to be a challenge for me to provide workable keys to these ‘nightmare nine’ genera, but I was keen to give it a go. It helps that I take a perverse interest in very difficult identification challenges, so I was motivated to come up with keys which would work. Fortunately I was able to pull together information from a variety of different sources until I had draft keys which could be put out for testing. The testing went through a number of iterations and by reworking the keys—for example adding my own illustrations, simplfying or reorganising couplets, or adding new couplets to account for ambiguous characters—they were gradually improved until I was happy with them. A second source of difficulty concerned the aphodiine group of dung beetles. The formerly very specious genus Aphodius was recently broken up into 27 smaller genera, and our leading dung beetle expert, Darren Mann, recommended to me that we should adopt the new taxonomy. This meant that I needed to construct a completely new key to genera, and that took a great deal of time and effort searching for characters. Incidentally I’d like to pay special thanks to Steve Lane and Mark Telfer for their advice and help with these difficult genera; I owe them both a great deal for their encouragement and support. The keys to challenging genera in this volume will certainly not be the last word on the subject, but I believe they are an improvement on previous keys.

 When gathering information on habitat and biology of the various families, did you notice any glaring omissions? Are there any families that could particularly benefit from further study?

Some of the families treated in this volume are well understood, in terms of their identification, ecology and distribution in Britain and Ireland. The scarab beetle family-group, jewel beetles, click beetle family-group, glow-worms, soldier beetles, ladybirds, oil beetles and cardinal beetles are all popular groups and have been reasonably well studied, while the ladybirds have received a huge amount of attention! But that accounts for just 13 of the 69 families treated in volume 3, and the remaining 56 families are in general much less well known. Modern identification keys in English already existed for some of the other families but for most the information is very basic. I would say that the biggest gap in our understanding concerns the synanthropic and stored-product beetles. Not only do amateur coleopterists rarely come across these species, but the information that has been gathered (mostly by food hygiene inspectors) has not been made publicly available. In a few cases it’s not even clear which country a species has been found in, and all we know is that it has been found at some time, somewhere in Britain. I would like to think that this group will one day be much better documented.

A particular favourite of mine are the silken fungus beetles (Cryptophagidae). This family contains two of the ‘nightmare nine’ genera: Cryptophagus with 35 species and Atomaria with 44 species. I’ve tried hard to produce workable new keys for these two genera, but their identification is never going to be easy and it will be necessary to validate records for a long time to come. But I hope that at least this family will begin to benefit from a greater level of interest, on the back of my new keys.

 There will be one more volume to come before this monumental series is complete – are you able to provide an estimation as to when that will come to fruition?

Volume 2 covers just one huge family: the rove beetles (Staphylinidae). This has been left until last for two good reasons. Firstly, the subfamily Aleocharinae, and in particular the hundreds of species in the tribe Athetini, are so poorly understood that it’s just not clear where the generic limits are drawn. This means I will have my work cut out trying to construct a new key to Aleocharinae genera. Preferably the key won’t involve dissecting out the mouthparts and examining them under a compound microscope, as we are expected to do now! Secondly, it has to be admitted that rove beetles are not the most exciting to look at. As publisher as well as lead author of my series of volumes it was always going to be difficult to sell a book which didn’t contain a lot of colourful plates. My plan all along, then, was to leave the rove beetles until last, in the hope that people would buy the book in order to complete their set! Volume 2 has already been started, and Udo has been working hard on the colour plates, but there is still a mountain to climb to complete the Athetini keys and illustrations to my satisfaction. My best estimate currently is that it will be published no later than 2024. Once that is done, and if I still have my wits about me, I suppose I’ll have to think about revised editions of the earlier volumes!

 

Beetles of Britain and Ireland: Volume 3 Geotrupidae to Scraptiidae

By: Andrew G.Duff
Hardback | Due July 2020| £109.00

 

 

 

Browse the rest of the Beetles of Britain and Ireland series on the NHBS website

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.