How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution
Written by Lee Alan Dugatkin & Lyudmila Trut
Published in March 2017 by Chicago University Press
How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) tells a remarkable story about a remarkable long-term experiment you will most likely never have heard of. I hadn’t, despite my background in evolutionary biology. When the announcement for it crossed my desk a month or so ago, its subtitle immediately grabbed my attention.
For more than 60 years, Russian scientists have been cross-breeding captive foxes in Siberia, selecting for tameness, in a bid to learn more about the evolutionary history of animal domestication. Written by evolutionary biologist and science historian Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, who has been part of this experiment for close to six decades, it tells the story from its inception.
Back in 1952, geneticist Dmitri Belyaev had many questions regarding domestication. Though the breeding techniques were well understood, how did domestication start? The wild ancestors of today’s domestic animals would have likely run away or attacked humans, so what changed to make domestication possible? Being the lead scientist at a state laboratory that helped fur breeders produce more beautiful and luxurious fox pelts, he had both the knowledge and the means to tackle these questions. His plan? Experimentally mimic the evolution of the wolf into the dog using its close genetic cousin the fox. It was bold, both in its timescale, likely needing years – even decades – to yield results, but also in its timing. You see, Russia was still under the communist rule of Stalin, and one of his protegees, the poorly educated agronomist Trofim Lysenko, was waging a war on the “western” science of genetics. Scientists were expelled, imprisoned, and even murdered over their career choice. But Belyaev, having lost a brother this way, refused to back down. Far from Lysenko’s prying eyes in Moscow, in the frozen wilderness of Siberia, he started his breeding experiments, purporting to improve breeding rates in case anyone did come asking. Lyudmila joined him in 1958, and this book is their story.
It’s a story of science, and the authors do a good job distilling the findings into a reader-friendly format. The results are fascinating as the foxes rapidly evolve from wild animals to tamer and tamer companions that crave human interaction, undergoing a raft of subtle morphological changes in the process. But it’s also very much a human story. Of the women, often local peasants, who came to work at the fox farm, not necessarily understanding the science, but showing immense dedication to the cause. Of the researchers, who developed a deep love for, and connection with the generations of foxes, who rapidly became more dog-like in their behaviour and appearances.
It’s a story of persistence against all odds; the experiments are running to this day and have survived Stalin’s brutal regime, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with all the economic turmoil that that caused. And it’s a story of an opportunity most scientists can only dream of: being able to follow up on previous findings and answering questions raised by previous experiments. Uniquely, this played out during (or perhaps was able to keep going because of) a period in which our knowledge of genetics, and the technologies available, kept on developing. The measuring of neurochemicals, epigenetics, PCR, genome mapping, next-generation sequencing… as new questions were being generated, so new techniques became available to probe deeper into the mysteries of the domestication.
The book makes for fascinating reading and is hard to put down once you start it. Highly recommended.
eDNA or environmental DNA is genetic material found in the environment. This DNA comes from organisms in various forms including (but not limited to) faeces, mucus, gametes, shed skin or hair. Although eDNA degrades over time, it can persist long enough for its presence to be tested from environmental samples.
eDNA sampling for Great Crested Newts
Sampling and testing of eDNA in pond water is a relatively new, but increasingly popular, method of determining presence of Great Crested Newts. Provided that the sampling and analysis protocol complies with DEFRA guidance and that samples are collected between 15th April and 30th June, then eDNA test results are accepted by Natural England and Natural Resources Wales.
Unlike traditional methods of bottle trapping or torch searches, collecting pond water samples for eDNA analysis has very low impact on newts and other pond inhabitants. It also has obvious benefits in terms of labour time, and ecologists are less restricted to specific times of day for surveying. It could also provide a more accurate method of determining the presence of Great Crested Newts which are notably difficult to survey reliably. The technique is not without limitations, however, and can be problematic in ponds with large amounts of algae or sediment or where accessibility is a problem.
How do you collect and analyse eDNA samples?
The sampling process involves the use of a sterile ladle to collect 20 samples of pond water which are then mixed together in a bag. A small volume of this pond water is then added to each of six tubes containing a preservative solution and control DNA. These tubes are returned to the lab where quantitative PCR (qPCR) is used to amplify and measure the GCN DNA (if present), thus determining the presence of GCN eDNA in the samples.
NHBS and Nature Metrics
This spring, NHBS will be working with Nature Metrics to provide a complete GCN eDNA analysis service. Combining our expertise in sourcing, packing and shipping equipment with the excellent laboratory proficiency of Nature Metrics, this partnership will allow both teams to focus fully on our strengths in order to provide a fast and efficient service.
For more information about Nature Metrics and the eDNA, Metabarcoding and Metagenomics services they can provide, please visit www.naturemetrics.co.uk
The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.
How did you first become interested in bird senses?
Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.
What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?
I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.
Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?
Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats. Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.
Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems. I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.
An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?
Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets. These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.
How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?
It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.
Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?
Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites. Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.
Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?
Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.
Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.
Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?
Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.
Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes. They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.
In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?
We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.
Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.
It’s that time of year again. Spring has sprung earlier than ever, and the survey season will very soon be under way. In this post we look at some of the fantastic new bat detectors due for release this spring.
The Anabat Swift from Titley Scientific is based on the excellent design of the Anabat Express and records in full spectrum as well as zero crossing. Users can choose between sample rates of 320 or 500kHz and a built-in GPS receiver automatically sets the clock, calculates sunrise and sunset times and records the location of the device.
Echo Meter Touch 2
The Echo Meter Touch 2 is perfect for bat enthusiasts and students and will let you record, listen to and identify bat calls in real-time on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. All you need is your iOS device, your Echo Meter Touch 2 and the Echo Meter Touch App which is a free download from the iTunes store.
Echo Meter Touch 2 Pro
Designed for consultants and professional bat workers, the Echo Meter Touch 2 Pro has all the great features of the Echo Meter Touch 2 but with additional user options such as an adjustable sample rate (256kHz and 384kHz), adjustable gain and advanced trigger settings.
The compact Batcorder Mini has a very simple user interface with just a single button to start and stop recording. Calls are recorded in full spectrum onto the built-in memory (64GB) and the internal lithium-ion battery is chargeable by USB. A built-in GPS receiver sets the time, date and location.
Ultramic384 Ultrasound Microphone
This high performance ultrasound microphone will connect to a USB port for real time listening and can also be used as a stand-alone recorder when used with a USB battery. An internal microSD card slot allows data to be recorded.
The Batcorder GSM is designed for use at a wind turbine site and includes a microphone disk which is inserted directly into the turbine nacelle. The unit runs off mains power from the turbine and a GSM function lets you receive status messages, reassuring you that everything is recording correctly. A Raspberry Pi setup also lets you backup your files to a memory drive and download data directly or over an internet connection.
Our full range of bat detectors can be found at www.nhbs.com
Pond dipping is an excellent activity for children of all ages and is a great way to introduce them to a wide range of plants, insects and amphibians. It also offers an opportunity to learn about food chains and food webs as well as discovering variations in lifecycles and the effects of pollution on aquatic life.
For school groups, a pond dipping trip will satisfy many of the criteria for learning about life processes and living things, and it can also be used to provide inspiration for art, maths or English projects. Younger children will enjoy drawing or painting pictures of the creatures they find, as well as writing stories about their experiences.
Don’t forget though that pond dipping isn’t just for children. Ponds, pools and small lakes are an integral part of our ecosystem and surveying the plant and animal diversity within them is an important way of assessing their health. If you are interested in volunteering as a pond surveyor, take a look at the Freshwater Habitats Trust website for more information.
How to pond dip:
Half fill a tray or bucket with water and set aside. Do the same with your collecting pots and/or magnifying pots (if using).
Use a net to dip into the pond. Sweeping in a figure of eight will ensure that you retain the catch in the net. Areas around the edge of the pond, especially near vegetation, tend to be the most productive. Take care not to scoop up mud from the bottom of the pond, as this will clog up your net and make it difficult to see what you have caught.
Gently turn the net inside out into the tray. Once everything has settled, you should be able to view a fascinating selection of pond-dwelling creatures. A pipette can be used to transfer individual specimens to a magnifying pot for a closer look.
When you have finished, make sure to return all water and inhabitants to the pond. Trays, pots and nets should be rinsed and dried thoroughly before storage. If you are going to be using nets in different ponds then sterilising using a broad spectrum disinfectant will help prevent the spread of disease.
Please note: Children should always be well supervised and aware of health and safety rules when working near water. Suitable clothing should be worn; wellington boots or other sturdy footwear are recommended.
Pond dipping equipment:
At NHBS we stock both individual and class sized pond dipping kits. These contain nets, trays, pots, magnifier and pipettes, as well as the excellent (and waterproof!) Freshwater Name Trail which will help you to identify the key animals found in UK ponds. Or why not choose from our top 10 list of equipment and books for pond dipping:
Made at our workshop in Devon, the Pond Net is a high quality, lightweight net with a removable bag for cleaning. The bag is made from woven 1mm mesh which is ideal for pond dipping. Also available in a telescopic version.
Find out the names of the insects, plants, amphibians and repiles that you see. Features three of the FSC’s popular fold-out charts: Reptiles and Amphibians (frogs, toads, newts, slow worms, lizards and snakes), Freshwater Name Trail (classic pond dipping guide) and Commoner Water Plants (from lilypads to water mint). Also includes a card-sized magnifier.
This set of 10 Bug Pots is perfect for pond dipping, as well as general nature studies. Each pot has a 2.5x magnifying lid and a measurement grid of 5mm squares on the base. They are ideal for storing and observing specimens.
Through beautiful full-page illustrations accompanied by key information about each creature, the First Book of Pond Life will help to encourage young children’s interest in the outside world and the wildlife around them. Covers 35 of the most common pond species. Also includes a spotter’s chart for children to fill in and links to internet-based activities.
A simple and affordable pond net. Knotless mesh is guaranteed not to run if holed and, importantly, will not harm specimens which are collected in the net. A plastic handle makes it very lightweight. Available in three sizes.
Suitable for adults and older children, this books introduces some of the less familiar and microscopic species found in ponds such as diatoms, desmids and rotifers. Along with excellent photographs, the book provides useful identification keys so that readers can identify, explore and study this microscopic world. This book is due for publication March 2017.
Small pipettes are extremely handy for sorting through and picking up tiny creatures found when pond dipping. They can also be used to transfer samples to microscope slides to look at the microscopic specimens found. These 3ml pipettes are available singly or in packs of 10 or 100.
These sampling containers are made from see-through rigid polystyrene and have secure screw-on lids. They are recommended for liquids and so are ideal for keeping specimens when pond dipping or rock pooling. Available either singly or in packs of 10, 30 or 100. Different sizes of pot can also be purchased.
Packed with information on more than 190 species of animal and plant that inhabit ponds, pools and small lakes in northern Europe. Among the fascinating animals featured are freshwater sponges, hydras, water bears, worms, leeches, water snails, dragonflies and damselflies, frogs and toads, bats, fish, birds, water voles and otter.
In this brief guide we will take a look at the main types and designs of moth traps. We will also address many of our most frequently asked questions, including why you will no longer find Mercury Vapour traps for sale at www.nhbs.com
Robinson Moth Traps
Robinson Traps are the preferred choice amongst many serious entomologists because they offer the highest retention rates. On a very good night you may catch in excess of 500 moths. They tend to be more expensive that other types of trap, however, and they are also quite large. They also cannot be collapsed down for storage or transport. The Robinson Trap is available with twin actinic bulbs and is powered by 240V mains electricity.
Skinner Moth Traps
Skinner Moth Traps will attract a similar number of moths to Robinson Traps. However, they are less efficient at holding the catch. The main advantages of Skinner Traps are price and portability, and they also let you access your catch whilst the trap is running. Skinner Traps collapse down quickly and easily when not in use, making them very easy to store and transport. They are available with actinic electrics and can be provided with either 240V (mains powered) or 12V (battery powered) control panels. Lucent traps have a clever design with all components fitting neatly into a suitcase-style case.
Heath Moth Traps
The traditional Heath Moth Trap has a small actinic tube mounted vertically within three vanes that work together to attract and then deflect moths downwards into the holding chamber below. The traps are very lightweight and portable and are usually powered by a 12V battery or generator, although mains powered traps are also available. Variations on the Heath Trap design include the “Plastic Bucket” model which allows the trap to be packed away and carried conveniently. Although catches from Heath Traps tend to be less than for Robinson and Skinner traps, due to their lower wattage bulbs, their affordability and portability makes them great choices for beginners or for use in the field.
Moth Collecting Tents
Moth Collecting Tents provide a unique alternative to traditional style moth traps and are ideal for educational use or group trapping events. They consist of a large white fabric structure which is fitted with a UV light source. Moths which are attracted by the light settle on the white fabric and can be observed or collected for study. As the collecting area is large and accessible, it is easy for many individuals to view the specimens at the same time. However, tents and sheets do not have the same retention rates as traditional box-type traps.
Moth Trapping FAQs
What kind of trap is best for garden or educational use?
The design of the Skinner Trap means that you can access the catch without having to switch off the bulb. This is particularly useful if you are looking at your catch over the course of the evening, rather than leaving the trap all night and returning to it in the morning. Skinner Traps also have the added benefit of collapsing down, making them easier to store.
Which trap is best for unattended trapping?
The Robinson Trap is the only trap that will retain the whole catch after dawn. Some moths will escape from other trap designs.
Which trap is most portable?
Heath Traps are the smallest and easiest to transport. They can also run off a 12V battery, allowing them to be used in remote sites. The Safari and Ranger Moth Traps are the smallest and lightest traps we sell, so are ideal for travelling, however, they do require mains electricity (or a generator) to run.
Why can I no longer find Mercury Vapour traps on your website?
Mercury Vapour bulbs have recently been phased out as part of the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive. Therefore, we have removed the traps from our range and are now focussing on actinic replacements. If you have a Mercury Vapour trap and would like to convert it to run with actinic electrics, please get in touch with us to have a chat about this.
What are actinic bulbs?
Actinic bulbs product a small amount of UV light alongside the visible light which makes them more “attractive” to moths. They are not as bright as Mercury Vapour bulbs but because they don’t get as hot they are much safer to use, particularly for public and attended trapping events. They are also much less of a disturbance to neighbours if you are using the trap in your garden.
What is the difference in catch rates between the different traps?
The Robinson Trap and Skinner Trap will attract a similar number of moths but the Robinson has the highest retention rate of the two. Heath Traps will retain fewer moths but will still attract the same range of species. You can therefore obtain similar results trapping for a longer period or over several nights in the same area.
Following the acquisition of EFE & GB Nets earlier this year, NHBS now manufactures a wide range of plankton nets at our workshop in Devon. Nets are available with an opening diameter of 250mm, 300mm or 500mm and with mesh sizes ranging from 10µm to 500µm.
250mm and 300mm diameter nets
250mm and 300mm diameter nets have a stainless steel frame to which a 500mm long bag is attached. They are supplied with a harness and seven metre long towing line which can be used to tow the net behind a boat or from a suitable bank or jetty.
The standard cod end is fitted with a filter in the same mesh size as the main part of the bag. However, various alternatives can be selected at the time of ordering. Options include a clear extension tube, collecting bottle, tap valve or large filter fitted in place of the standard filter. It is also possible to have weight loops added to the end of the net (weights not included) or a stainless steel swivel to be used on the harness in place of the standard nylon ring.
The heavy duty upgrade uses heavy duty nylon for the net collar and cod end collar and also includes fully taped seams.
500mm diameter nets
500mm diameter nets have a stainless steel frame and 1900mm long bag and a three point harness with swivel connector. All seams are reinforced and the collar is made from industrial nylon for added strength and durability. The cod end of the bag is fitted with a heavy duty screw-on filter in the same mesh size as the bag. This net is not supplied with a towing rope and so users will need to supply their own rope or chain which can be fitted to the harness.
As with the smaller plankton nets, various adaptations are available in order to create a net which is suited to your sampling needs. A flexible cod end extension allows a greater sample volume to be collected and also lets you connect a different filter type. A replacement cod end cap provides a closed ended option and results in a sample size of 700ml and a quick release bag is ideal for collecting fry or elver or for when a rapid changeover of bags is required.
Net bags and the educational plankton net
As well as standard plankton nets, we also stock a range of plankton net bags designed to fit onto the professional hand net frame. These fit onto the frame in the same way as the standard hand net bags, and have a detachable screw-on filter in the centre. An educational plankton net with 150µm mesh is also available for school use or for those who require an economical net for trial sampling.
Butterfly Conservation and NHBS have recently launched the new Butterfly Conservation online shop in partnership. You can browse and buy from a fantastic range of books, gifts and equipment. Every sale raises funds to support conservation work to protect vulnerable butterflies and moths across the UK.
The popular Butterfly Conservation Christmas Cards are available now. Spread some festive cheer this Christmas and help protect butterflies and moths at the same time. All the cards are printed on FSC recycled card and are blank inside so you can add your own greeting.
About the Butterfly Conservation and NHBS partnership
Butterfly Conservation is the UK charity dedicated to saving butterflies and moths. Butterflies and moths are key indicators of the health of our environment. They connect us to nature and contribute to our wellbeing. With over 30 nature reserves across the United Kingdom, Butterfly Conservation works in many ways to conserve butterflies and moths and improve their habitats, creating a better environment for us all.
“NHBS offer the world’s largest selection of wildlife, science and conservation books, and have expanded their range to include ecology and biodiversity survey equipment and gifts. They have a fantastic reputation for customer service and quality items, and we are thrilled to be able to offer our members and supporters the chance to purchase a wider selection of items whilst still being able to raise vital funds for our conservation work.”
NHBS have worked with Redfern Natural History Productions for many years now and we were delighted to help out with this special project when Stewart McPherson approached us about it.
Thanks to the very generous sponsorship of Lord Ashcroft, Redfern were recently able to donate one copy of Stewart McPherson’s latest book Britain’s Treasure Islands: A Journey to the UK Overseas Territories to every secondary school in the UK and across the overseas territories. At NHBS we organised the packing and delivery of each of these books, which in total was 5250 copies.
The UK Overseas Territories are home to thousands of species of animals and plants in habitats ranging from coral reefs to tropical rainforests, polar landscapes and deserts.
In Britain’s Treasure Islands (aired as a three-part documentary on BBC4 in April, with the book accompanying the series), Stewart McPherson showcases this incredible variety of wildlife, explores the human culture and history of the islands, and documents his adventures in these remarkable lands.
This is a monumental work of over 700 pages, with more than 1,150 full colour images and 17 specially-commissioned gatefold maps on parchment paper showing the geography of each territory.
To send a copy of this wonderful book to every school, NHBS received 47 pallets of books directly from the printers, used seven pallets of specially designed cardboard boxes and 6039 metres of bubble wrap!
Eventually when all the books were packed the couriers took away 53 pallets of books from NHBS’ warehouse in Totnes, Devon over the course of a week.
The packing process took six people three and a half weeks to complete! You can watch the video below for a behind the scenes look at how this all happened.
Michael Scott is a nature writer and cruise ship speaker who has had an interest in botany since his undergraduate studies at Aberdeen University. His latest book, Mountain Flowers, is an extensive and engrossing survey of Britain’s montane flora. Michael expands on the story of Diapensia (see below) in the August 2016 issue of British Wildlife.
Tell us about the book and who might find it interesting.
I suppose it’s aimed mostly at people who already have some general interest in the wild flowers of Britain. Perhaps they already know something about the flora of lowland areas but don’t quite know where to begin seeking out the more elusive species that grow at higher altitudes in the British mountains. The book describes the key places to visit and some of the characteristic species at each site. It also describes the ecological requirements of each species, and I’d really hope that will encourage people to explore more widely in the mountains and hopefully make new discoveries there.
Many of the mountain areas of Britain are stunningly beautiful, and I would be thrilled if people who love mountains were also encouraged to read the book and discover more about these wonderful wild areas and about the colourful plants that grow beneath their feet as they hike the fells or ‘bag their Munros’. I’ve tried to select photos for the book that are as attractive and compelling as possible to inspire readers to explore and investigate – or just to act as a wonderful souvenir of holidays in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands or wherever.
I best sum up my objective for the book at the end of chapter one: “If I can persuade a few… hillwalkers to slow their relentless pace, to look around them as they climb, to venture off the beaten path and explore an interesting-looking crag or delve into the watery runnels that seep from the tops – in other words, to enjoy seeing a hill, rather than just conquering it – then this book will have been truly worthwhile.”
How did you first become interested in botany?
I grew up near Edinburgh Zoo and from an early age spent all my spare time in the zoo getting to know the animals. By the age of 8, I’d decided I wanted to be a zoologist when I grew up – which I thought meant going around the world looking at zoos! That enthusiasm never waned, and I went to Aberdeen University to study zoology. In first year we also had to study botany, and I found that new and fascinating. I knew that plants lay at the foot of all food chains, and therefore that plants were key to how the natural world worked, so I switched over to doing my degree in botany. I was lucky that the university had a field station at Bettyhill on the north coast of Scotland, and some of the first plants I got to know there were montane species growing at unusually low altitudes in the relative sub-arctic climate of the far north. Then, in Honours year, we had an amazing field trip to Obergurgl in the Alps, and I have been hooked on mountain flowers ever since.
You are now lucky enough to spend a lot of your time as a quest speaker on cruise ships around the world; how might you go about getting passengers interested in Britain’s mountain flowers?
It’s funny that you should ask that, because I’m just about to go off on a cruise to Nova Scotia in Canada, and on one of the four days when we sail back across the Atlantic to Liverpool I’m planning a talk called The Lure of Mountain Flowers. I think I’m going to start that with the story of a birdwatcher called Charles Tebbutt, who is best known for his book on the birds of (distinctly unmountainous!) Huntingdonshire. In July 1951, he was walking on a rugged hillside in Inverness-shire, when he spotted a plant at his feet that he didn’t recognise. He collected a few samples of the flowers and leaves, which he sent to various botanic gardens and he was promptly told, with some excitement, that he had discovered a rather handsome flower called Diapensia* which had never previously been recorded in Britain.
That may be 60 years ago now, but I think it shows that there might still be exciting discoveries to be made in the British mountains – and that you don’t need to be a professional botanist to make them! I’ll then go on to a series of beautiful scenic photographs, just to remind folk how beautiful our mountains are, then I’ll show some of our most attractive mountain plants to prove just how much they add to the allure of the hills. That will lead into the mystery stories behind these plants: I’ll speculate why Diapensia is still only known from that single, rather unremarkable hillside and what that might have to do with Norwegian commandos. I’ll tell the story of two attractive little plants that cling to survival in Snowdonia, and why a relative of the garden pinks is known from only two very different sites, one a crag in Lake District and the other a hillside of shattered rocks in Angus. There are plenty of ‘ripping yarns’ from mountain botany to interest cruise ship passengers – and I hope they will also inspire readers of my book.
(* Incidentally, I apologise to any keen botanists reading this who, like me, know many plants better by their scientific names. As in the book, I’m not quoting scientific names here because I don’t want to scare off readers who aren’t botanists – and those of us who are botanists probably have plenty of books in which we can check the scientific names if we need them).
What distinguishes a mountain flower and how many such species occur in Britain?
That’s a really good question. Many of them are species which also grow in the Alpine regions of central Europe or in the Arctic regions of the far north, so they are categorised broadly as ‘arctic-alpines’ – a term that will be familiar to most gardeners. But Britain lies in a special position off the west coast of Europe and its climate is tempered by winds that come off the Atlantic. As a result, many alpine species grow here at dramatically lower altitudes than where they occur in the Alps, and some arctic species also grow here, far south of their normal latitudes. Several species meet on the mountain cliffs of the Lake District or the southern Highlands of Scotland that grow together nowhere else in the world (which makes these especially important conservation sites in an international perspective). I also list in the book several species that grow in Britain at their northernmost or their southernmost sites in the world.
So, although I could define a mountain plant as one that grows typically above, say, 1,500 feet, that doesn’t always work in Britain because many of these come down almost to sea-level on the wind-battered north coast of Scotland or on the Western and Northern Isles – and that’s what makes British mountain botanising so intriguing. In fact, I almost reverse the argument in the book. I have selected 152 species that I regard as typically montane, then, for the purposes of the book, I define mountains as places where these plants grow – and these range from unexpected places like The Lizard in Cornwall, right up to the island of Unst in Shetland.
Tell us more about the unique conditions in the UK and their effect on mountain flower distribution.
The important thing to recognise is that many of our montane species have been clinging to survival on remote mountain ledges since just after the end of the last Ice Age. They survive there because of the chance juxtaposition of the right kind of rock and soil and a local microclimate that mimics the conditions to which they are adapted elsewhere in the high mountains of Europe or the high Arctic. It is vitally important that we try to understand why they survive there and continue to monitor their populations, because these are the plants that will give us the first warning of changes that are likely to happen on a much bigger scale in the Alps and the Arctic because of climate change. They are vital “miners’ canaries” for what lies ahead – plus I think Britain would be infinitely the poorer were we to lose them from our hills.
How have 21st century developments in botanical research affected our understanding of mountain flower ecology?
Hmm… In the strictest sense of botanical research, the latest genetic studies have sometimes made life a bit more difficult, especially for ageing botanists like me! It has changed our understanding of the relationships between species which in turn has led to a lot of changes in scientific names and how species fit into our concepts of plant families. It has also shown that one or two of what we thought were good mountain species are actually just variants of much commoner species, highly adapted to the mountain environment.
What has increased hugely over the 60 years since the last major account of British mountain flowers was published is our knowledge of the distribution of our mountain flowers, thanks to the hard work of hundreds of botanists in recording schemes masterminded by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI). The BSBI published increasingly comprehensive atlases showing the distribution of our native plants in 1962 and in 2002, and recorders are now hard at work gathering data for the next Atlas 2020 project, due to be completed in three years’ time, while, all round the country, enthusiastic botanists have compiled and published detailed accounts of the plants of their local counties or areas. I was given privileged access to the BSBI’s online databases in compiling the information in my book, and I am hugely grateful for that.
What I now want is for readers to prove me wrong! From the BSBI databases, I have tried to note the northernmost and the southernmost sites from where the key montane species have been recorded, and the highest and lowest altitudes at which they have been found, but I am sure keen readers could find new records beyond these extremes – and report them, I hope, to their local botanical recorder. I have reported on sites from which certain species appear to have died out, and I would be thrilled if that encouraged readers to go out and re-find the plants there.
What is the biggest conservation threat to mountain flowers in the UK?
I imagine most informed readers of the NHBS newsletter would expect me to say climate change was the biggest threat to mountain plants, and, in the long term, there is no doubt that climate change is a huge threat. But, as I have tried to show in the book, the impact of climate change on the mountain environment in the short to middle term is difficult to predict with any certainty and may not immediately be as disastrous as we fear.
What is beyond doubt is that, if we are to give montane plants any chance of adapting to the changes ahead, we need to get much better at managing our hills and mountains. Overgrazing by red deer is a huge problem across most of Scotland. The regular burning of moorland areas that are managed for the sport shooting of red grouse or to produce a ‘spring bite’ for sheep tends to encourage a few resilient species at the expense of many other, more delicate plants. Yet some mountain habitats also benefit from restricted amounts of grazing, and if continuing financial challenges lead to further declines of extensive sheep farming in the uplands that could become a big problem too. The challenge lies in getting the right balance between these conflicting priorities – and I’m afraid the decision by the people of England and Wales to leave the European Union (the EU has been a huge help in establishing conservation priorities in Britain) is not going to make that any easier.
Tell us about some specific species you find particularly interesting and that feature in the book.
In the book I have selected 18 species, most of which are rarities, whose distribution and survival particularly intrigues me. I call them “Three-star Mountain Enigmas” for reasons I explain in the book and I give an extended account of each of them. For some of these species, I hope to shed insight, based on the scientific researches of dedicated mountain botanists; for others, I can only pose questions, in the hope of inspiring someone to find an answer. And there are plenty of puzzles in our mountains. Why, for example, is Alpine Rockcress found only in a single corrie in Scotland, when it grows almost as a weed in disturbed ground in the Alps and Arctic? Why (and how) is Iceland Purslane dispersed all the way from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego, yet in Britain it only grows on gravelly slopes on the Isles of Skye and Mull?
In the book, I suggest that Alpine Sowthistle is restricted to tiny populations on just four remote cliffs in the eastern Highlands of Scotland because humans have almost completely destroyed the mountain woods in which it once grew (and where it still flourishes in the Alps and Scandinavia), and I show how the 2001 outbreak of Foot-and-mouth Disease revealed how Marsh Saxifrage and Alpine Foxtail grass are actually much commoner than we ever realised.
For someone interested in a bit of amateur research, where are some of the best spots for finding mountain flowers?
I’d always say that the best place to start is the montane site that is nearest to home, whether that’s the Brecon Beacons, the Peak District, the Pentland Hills or wherever – they’re all covered in the book. Then you can make regular visits through the spring and summer to find each of the local species in full flower and follow them through the season to catch them in seed too (there are some species which you can only identify with certainty if you can find their fruits as well as their flowers) – although I should add that, by the time you read this, it is probably a bit late in the year already for mountain plants, so buy the book and start planning for next year!
Once you have got to know the commoner montane species for your local patch, you can perhaps plan a holiday further afield to one of the real mountain hotspots, like Snowdonia or Upper Teesdale, the Breadalbane hills of Perthshire or the Cairngorm Mountains of Inverness-shire. One spot that I particularly recommend in the book is the area around the Glenshee Ski Area, south of Braemar in Aberdeenshire. The A93 road from Blairgowrie to Braemar rises here to 670m (around 2,200 feet), so montane species grow right beside the car park, but the area is already so well-used by skiers that you needn’t worry too much about damaging the vegetation – and there are some really special plants for plant explorers to find.
It is currently the school summer holiday period – any tips for getting kids interested in botany?
Another great question. Kids like action, and it’s the perfect time of year to show plants in action. Find the different kinds of fruits that plants produce and see how they are dispersed. Find the winged fruits (called samaras) of a sycamore tree or the ‘keys’ of an ash tree and work out how they spread. Who can get their fruit to travel furthest? Find some dandelion ‘clocks’. Don’t just see how may blows it takes to remove all the seeds from the ‘clock’; instead try to follow one of the seeds on its little parachute and find out how far it travels. If you can find a patch of Rosebay Willowherb, investigate how it spreads its seeds. If a riverside near you has been invaded by Himalayan Balsam (aka Policeman’s Helmet); see if you can work out how its explosive fruits have made it a successful ‘Alien Invader’ (in this case from India, not from Outer Space). How do the wild relatives of garden peas and strawberries spread – and what about potatoes? If you want to get really yucky, you might want to ask kids why they think tomato plants sometimes start growing beside sewage treatment plants!
If you have a boggy area nearby, see if you can find Common Butterwort growing there and investigate how its sticky leaves trap little insects which the plant then dissolves and absorbs to get the nutrients it needs to grow. Even better, see if you can find Common Sundew whose leaves are covered in red hairs which curve over to trap little insects caught by the sticky surface of the leaves. Then go online to discover how Venus Flytraps, Pitcher Plants and other insectivorous plants trap their prey – there are some great websites aimed at youngsters about these plants.