Over the last century, land use in the UK has changed drastically. Small mixed-crop farms, traditionally separated by lanes, hedgerows and wild meadows have been replaced with larger, more specialised facilities. At the same time, the density of grazing animals such as sheep and cattle has also risen substantially. This combination of land-use change and agricultural intensification has contributed significantly to habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, and has led to huge, often dire, changes for the wildlife that call these places home.
Understanding these processes is of huge importance to conservationists, and a considerable amount of research has been conducted into the broad scale effects of land use changes on biodiversity. It is less well understood, however, why seemingly similar species can be affected to a different extent by local changes in their habitat.
A recent study, conducted by Dr Andrew Higginson at the University of Exeter, suggests that competition for nesting space may be a key factor in the differences observed. His study used a mathematical model to predict the likely outcome when populations of birds and bees are faced with a reduction in suitable nesting sites. Results indicated that larger, earlier-nesting species tend to fare better in these conditions, but at the expense of smaller, later-nesting conspecifics who, in the real world, would either fail to find a nesting site or be forced into using a poor quality or risky location.
Dr Higginson’s results illustrate that, whilst two or more similar species can co-exist together very happily when there are sufficient nesting spaces available, as soon as these become limited, competition and conflict become inevitable. In severe situations, species that have historically thrived in the same environment may suddenly find themselves battling for survival.
A key message from the study was that conservation efforts should ensure that priority is given to the creation and maintenance of suitable nesting sites. Conservation practices often focus on provision of food for wildlife, such as planting wildflowers for bees and providing food for our garden birds. Preserving and creating safe and accessible places for these animals to nest, however, is just as critical if we are to ensure their continued survival.
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.
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.”
Tell us a little about your organisation and how you got started.
Third Wheel Ringing Supplies has been trading for about two years and comprises myself and my wife, Mary. We make a small range of equipment for ringers, specialising in traps and particularly trying to fill gaps in the market. Traditionally much of this sort of equipment has either been knocked together by ringers themselves or imported (expensively) from Europe or North America.
Our range is still very small, but it is gradually expanding as we develop more products. Product development is very slow however as, with bird safety being so important, any new product has to be extensively tested before it can be offered for sale. Nevertheless a slightly expanded product range should be launched in the coming months. Our manufacturing ethos is based on quality; never knowingly making sub-standard equipment in the quest for cheaper production costs. Hence our products are not the cheapest available, but they might be the best.
The business started when I took voluntary redundancy from my job. Having worked for (among others) The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Local Authorities as a nature reserves manager for 30 years, I was ready for a change. I’ve always liked making things and have a good grounding in engineering which, together with my interest in bird ringing, led onto me making various bits of ringing equipment for my own use and thence onto a small business, making equipment for other ringers.
Why Third Wheel? Well, we had to call it something and, having a slight obsession with classic motorcycles, particularly those with sidecars, the name seemed to fit us as a family.
What challenges do you face as an organisation working in the ecology sector?
One of our biggest challenges has been to persuade ringers not to rely so heavily on mist nets all the time. Although mist nets are very effective for many species and situations, they still have their limitations and traps can often be just as effective or, for some species, the only method of capture. Increasing numbers of ringers are starting to appreciate the value of different trap designs and, as traps form the mainstay of our business, we see this as a good thing!
What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?
On a purely personal level, Third Wheel’s most important achievement has been that, after only two years of trading, it seems to be working as a business. Although I have a passion for what I do, it still has to pay the bills and, for the time being at least, it is doing just that.
It has also been particularly gratifying to have our equipment used to great effect in a number of research projects worldwide. In addition to various projects in Europe, Third Wheel traps are used for chickadee research in Florida, grey jay research in Alaska and snow bunting research in the Canadian Arctic.
Nearer home, highlights have been a customer who caught a dunnock within 7 minutes of the postman delivering one of our traps and another who, on taking delivery of a new prototype, caught 55 linnets on the first morning.
What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Having been pursuing wildlife for nearly my whole life, I’ve been lucky enough to have many memorable wildlife encounters, which makes choosing a favourite rather tricky.
I’ve visited Svalbard (what we used to call Spitsbergen) in the High Arctic many times, as a leader of study tours. Here the memorable wildlife moments come thick and fast with polar bear, Arctic fox, beluga whale and countless breeding auks, wildfowl and waders against a stunning scenic backdrop.
On the bird ringing side of things, my best and most memorable ringing sessions have been catches of wigeon, teal and other wintering wildfowl as part of a cannon netting team. Wigeon are amazing little ducks and to ring one in Devon which probably breeds in central Russia is a real privilege.
Your book is proving to be a huge success – what prompted you to write it, and who is your target audience?
It mostly came about from the grass courses I’ve run for the last seven years, during which I built up a huge body of observational evidence on grasses, from chatting to people and just spending a lot of time looking at them. Teaching plants is fantastic as it really makes you be concise about why things are what they are, plus you get to see what people muddle up; things you might never think yourself.
In addition I felt there was a niche for an affordable, portable, and easy to use book. It definitely won’t suit everyone, but I hope that people who might have been put off by some of the more weighty tomes might find this a good way in (which certainly applies to me). It won’t teach you every grass, but hopefully it will make people feel much more confident about the ones you tend to encounter regularly.
How did you become interested in grasses?
During my early years of being a botanist I was terrified of grasses and it took me a long while to get a handle on them. This came about from spending time with other friendly botanists and gleaning as much as I could from them. Once I had got better at them (and I’m still a long way from mastering them) I was really keen to share this knowledge with other people. I did my first grasses course at the Kingcombe Centre 7 years ago, which I was absolutely terrified about running, but it went OK, and it all moved from there. I now run about 18 grasses courses a year, which I absolutely love doing, and all the proceeds from these go into our species conservation programme, meaning a single day’s training can fund a species programme for a year.
What defines the graminoids, and how can the three groups – grasses, rushes, and sedges – be distinguished?
It’s a difficult term, graminoids! I’m very guilty of calling them grasses, which of course only some of them (the Poaceae) are. I also tend to commit the grave sin of talking about wildflowers and grasses (especially when describing courses) when of course grasses are in fact flowers. Their key characters are that they are all monocots, and exclusively wind pollinated.
Telling them apart can be relatively easy, the rushes tend to have waxy round stems, the sedges are tussocky with separate female and male inflorescences, and the grasses are, well… grassy looking? But there are so many exceptions to this! Just today I was running a course where someone muddled up Slender Rush with Remote Sedge, and I realised that these two look almost identical from a distance!
What is the importance of the graminoids in the ecosystem at large?
Graminoids are exceptionally useful as indicator species, with many of them showing incredible affinity to certain soil types, nutrient levels and pH. If you walk into a field and see a shiny green swath of Perennial Ryegrass you know you’re unlikely to be finding overwhelming levels of biodiversity. Go into another field and find a clump of Meadow Oatgrass and you know you’re in for a long haul of finding other species.
As it says on the Species Recovery Trust website, over the past 200 years, over 400 species have been lost from England alone. Do you think enough is being done to halt biodiversity loss in the UK?
Tricky question! We have an incredibly large and diverse conservation sector in the UK, full of talented and passionate individuals devoting their lives to saving the planet. And yet we are still losing species at an alarming rate. When I was born, just over 40 years ago, the world had twice as many species as it does now, so this is not a historical problem we can blame on previous generations, this is the here and now of how humans are choosing to live our lives and harm our planet.
These are clearly difficult times financially, and clearly every sector is feeling the pain of budget cuts, however it is upsetting to see the way biodiversity has almost dropped off current political agendas (the environment was barely mentioned at all in the referendum debates) so I do worry that people, and governments, are just not doing enough. It is now fairly widely accepted that we are living through (and causing) a sixth mass global extinction event, which should be the biggest story and policy issue anyone is talking about, and yet species conservation still seems to be a niche market!
What does it take to re-establish a species like Starved Wood-sedge, which is one of the Trust’s Species Recovery Projects?
Starved Wood-sedge (SWS) has two native sites in the UK, and we’re working hard at both of these over a long time period to steadily improve the conditions, bringing more light in through coppicing and canopy reduction, and trying to encourage seedling establishment through ground scarification. SWS has an interesting bit of trivia in that it has the largest utricles (seeds) of any native sedges which should make it very easy to grow, but recently we started to think these large seeds may be their downfall as they are so susceptible to vole and mouse predation – but it’s hard to know for sure. We have established and continue to closely work on the two re-introduction sites, where we used plants grown up by Kew Gardens to establish new populations, and we are keen to establish one more in the next decade in a more traditionally managed wood to look at how the species would fare in active coppice rotation.
If you could put one policy change in place today to enhance species conservation what would it be?
I’m not sure, my current rather grassroots view is I’m not sure if conservation isn’t dying a death by policy. A few years back I spent the best part of two years of my life working on Biodiversity Opportunity Areas, only to see these being replaced by IBDAs (which I’ve now forgotten what it stands for) only to see these superseded by NIAs. I then had somewhat of a personal crisis that in all that time, even though I’d been instrumental in producing some very interesting maps of core area and buffer zones and opportunity areas, I’d done absolutely nothing to help species on the ground. I think it was during this same time that Deptford Pink went extinct in Somerset and Dorset too, which I still feel pretty bad about.
The problem with policies, and ministers, and successive governments is that they never last for that long. While not disputing that our current democracy is a wonderful thing, and obviously I feel lucky to live in a country where we can all vote and potentially change things we like, if you superimpose governments and policies on top of the Anthropocene (the current geological age where humans have gained the ability to start fundamentally changing the planet, both in terms of biodiversity and climate) then the two simply don’t match up in terms of the timescales we need to be operating on to bring a meaningful change to biodiversity loss. And it goes without saying that when government budget cuts occur it will always be the environment sector that will suffer, and this obviously has a terrible net effect on projects that are up and running and are suddenly suspended.
Without wanting to sound too ‘big society’ I think the meaningful changes we are seeing are from individuals, either making a big difference in their jobs in the environment sector, or simple volunteering, spending a few days a year clearing bramble from around a rare species, counting butterflies on a transect, monitoring their local bat populations. For me, that is where change is happening, not in government policy units.
How would you encourage a young nature lover or student to take an interest in the subject of grasses?
I’m lucky to have two young children to try this out on, and I must say they are now budding graminologists. I think the starting point is everyone likes knowing what things are and naming them, whether it’s music, works of art, types of lorry. We are on the whole naturally inquisitive beings, so I just tend to show people things and encourage them to go off and find more like them. Add to that some stripy pyjama bottoms (Yorkshire Fog), Batman’s Helmet (Timothy), Floating Sugarpuffs (Quaking Grass) and Spiky Porcupines (Meadow Oatgrass) and the whole thing becomes pretty fun! Incidentally there are equivalent adult versions of these too, which are unmentionable here…
What is the most surprising, odd, or unexpected fact you can share about grasses?
Grasses have a profound link with humanity. 4 million years ago the spread of grasses in the savannas of East Africa is now believed to be the main driver in our primate ancestors coming down from the trees and developing a bipedal habit to move between patches of shrinking forest while keeping a watch out for predators. 40,000 years ago we saw the birth of agriculture with the development of early crops, the decline of hunter gatherer lifestyles and the start of the society we live in today (gluten intolerance sufferers probably think this is where it all started to go wrong). And all because we learnt to collect seed from promising looking grasses, and start planting in quantities we could harvest.
Tell us more about the plant identification courses. What are these all about and how people can get involved?
When we set up The Species Recovery Trust we knew that funding projects over a long term basis (all our work plans are 50 years long) was going to be a challenge, so we set about seeking ways to bring in modest sums of unrestricted funding over that period of time, for which running training courses was an obvious contender. This was combined with my passion for teaching plants, and then finding other people who shared this view. We’ve now been able to build up a team of some of the best tutors in the country, who combine their expert knowledge with running courses that are extremely fun and really help people get to grips with a range of subjects.
By automating the booking process (which works most of the time) we can also keep our prices extremely competitive, as well as offer discounted places for students and unemployed people who are desperate to get into the sector. On alternate years we offer one ‘golden ticket’ which enables one winner to attend 10 training courses for free, which will give people a huge helping hand in their conservation careers.
All the information on the courses can be found on the training courses page of The Species Recovery Trust website.
Can you tell us about any interesting projects you are involved with at the moment?
We have a great project running on Spiked Rampion at the moment, and after 6 years we now have the highest number of plants ever recorded, all due to a fantastic steering group of the good and great from Kew, Forestry Commission, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and East Sussex County Council, along with some very committed local volunteers. It’s been a lot of work but proved a great example of many organisations joining up with a single achievable aim of saving a really rather special plant from extinction.
This summer is going to see a network of data loggers placed around the New Forest as part of a project to re-discover the New Forest Cicada, that we’re working on with Buglife and Southampton University. There are real concerns about whether this species is already extinct, but as it spends most of its life underground and only emerges and sings for a short period it is a good contender for the UK’s most elusive species.
With a topic such as seeds and Ivy Press’s reputation for beautiful books you would be forgiven for thinking that this might be another coffee-table book in the same vein as the successful series of books published by Papadakis on seeds, pollen, and fruit. Although richly illustrated, Seeds: Safeguarding Our Future is very much a popular introduction to the biology of plants, focusing on seeds in particular, with pithy chapters covering evolution of plants, reproduction, seed dispersal, and germination. The subtitle gives away the angle this book takes though, with the first chapter on the importance of seeds to humanity, and the final chapter on how we might use seed biodiversity to ensure our own survival in the future. Though modern agriculture can feed many, its monoculture approach has also led to the loss of a large amount of genetic diversity. The dangers this could pose, especially with the impact of a changing climate, is a theme that runs throughout the book. Each chapter ends with a profile of a well-known plant and a profile of one of the many seed banks around the world that operate to conserve and catalogue the genetic diversity of plants.
Carolyn Fry is well-placed to write on this topic, having previously published books on Kew’s Millenium Seed Bank Project and on plant hunters. Furthermore, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens have endorsed the book and several of their experts have contributed expert advice. The book is a good primer on plant biology, and I noticed the short sections on, for example, reproduction were a great way to brush up on my slightly forgotten textbook knowledge. The seed bank profiles, pretty much one for each continent, are interesting little sections, highlighting the important work done here to safeguard against future threats to agricultural crops. Though shortly mentioned in the final chapter, I would have loved to have seen the futuristic Svalbard Global Seed Vault profiled in the same way. As a planetary back-up of agricultural seed collections around the world, this surely is one of the most impressive and intriguing seed banks.
All in all this is an excellent introduction to seed biology with a focus on conservation and agricultural importance, executed to Ivy Press’s typical high production standards.
The bird atlas movement that has swept the world in the last 40 years is surely one of the great recent achievements of citizen science.
More than 400 have been published since the 1970s and it is possible more people have been involved as volunteers than in any other form of biological data collection.
But it was not birders but botanists who pioneered the biological atlas, with the now familiar grid-based dot-maps. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Atlas of the British flora was a revelation when it appeared in 1962; half-a-century later American ornithologist Walter Ellison would describe it as the “great-grandfather of the hundreds of natural history grid-based atlases that were to follow in the next few decades as the atlas movement swept over the face of the Earth”.
The story is nicely told in C.D. Preston’s paper Following the BSBI’s lead: the influence of the Atlas of the British flora, 1962-2012. Planning had begun in 1950 and from the start it was intended to be a scientific exercise. The atlas in fact had little impact on science, which had to wait until computers that could analyse the amount of data atlases generate became widely available, but it did have an immediate impact on conservation – leading directly to the first British Red Data Book.
Speaking at the atlas’ launch, Max Nicholson, then head of the Nature Conservancy, described it as a great leap forward. And – we can imagine the great Twentieth Century conservationist had his tongue firmly in his cheek – suggested the ornithologists had been put to shame by the botanists.
Tony Norris, another of Britain’s conservation greats, responded when he and members of the West Midland Bird Club produced the Atlas of the Breeding Birds in the West Midlands in 1970.
The first grid-based bird atlas, modelled on the format pioneered by the botanists, covered the English counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and inspired the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, published in 1976.
The 1976 bird atlas was followed by The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland (1986), The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland (1994), and, bringing things right up to date, the Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland(2013). The fieldwork led to any number of county and regional atlases to various parts of Britain and Ireland – a recent post on the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013prompted this look at bird atlases.
Dawn Balmer, the BTO’s head of surveys, guesses at least 60,000 volunteers have contributed in Britain and Ireland alone over the last 40 years, 40,000 on the most recent atlas. Some take holidays in remote places in order to fill gaps, some make expedition-like trips to remote islands, some embark on marathon mountain bike journeys to record birds in inaccessible parts of the Scottish Highlands.
She said: “The atlas only gets finished because people do amazing things. Every time there is a new atlas you are engaging people in citizen science… it is quite addictive, people become atlas addicts.”
By the turn of the 21st Century there were also British atlases to butterflies, moths, bryophytes, reptiles and amphibians, spiders, dragonflies, molluscs, leeches and ticks. Freshwater fish followed soon after, and after that fleas, the latter the product of a 50-year labour by schoolteacher and wartime Spitfire pilot Bob George.
All stemmed from the Atlas of the British flora, which perceptive contemporary reviewers recognised had a significance beyond the British Isles.
Grid-based dot-maps were promoted by the European Ornithological Atlas Committee, formed in 1971 – the idea of using grid squares, for many years a solely military pre-occupation, had originally come from the Netherlands.
Bird atlases for France and Denmark appeared in 1976. The first American bird atlas, to Vermont, was published in 1985; by 1990 all the Atlantic coastal states from Maine to Virginia had completed fieldwork for bird atlases.
At the last count there were more than 400 national or regional bird atlases from nearly 50 countries, the majority in Europe and North America. There were fewer covering Africa and the Pacific, where all but one come from Australia, and only a handful from Asia, the Middle East and South America.
The original Atlas of the British flora contained another gift: it included pre-1930 records – not as far away in time then as it appears to be now – of uncommon species as open circles and contemporary records as black dots, making it immediately clear many species were in decline.
A standout feature of the 1994 New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland was a huge reduction in the breeding range of farmland birds since fieldwork for the earlier atlases had been done. The 2013 atlas revealed upland birds and wading birds – according to Balmer the extent of the latter’s problems came as a particular shock – were under far more pressure than previously recognised.
“It is about the bigger picture and you only get that from having these large scale surveys periodically,” Balmer said. “It really helps you identify species which are showing the greatest change over time and it can highlight groups that are real conservation challenges.”
My Atlas of Breeding Birds in Devon has a pale blue cover, a black-and-white picture of a stonechat on the front, and a price tag of £1.50. It is more than 40 years old.
The atlas, based on fieldwork from five breeding seasons, spanning 1968 to 1972, was described, somewhat inevitably, as an ‘ornithological Domesday Book’, from which changes in the status of the county’s breeding birds could be measured.
So how does the data, published in 1974, measure up to the new Devon Bird Atlas, published this year?
Cuckoo and starling were recorded everywhere in the old atlas, yellowhammer everywhere except Lundy. All three are now missing from large parts of the county.
The skylark was abundant throughout Devon then. Today it is scarce or absent from large areas, mainly farmland.
The skylark’s modern strongholds are Dartmoor and Exmoor and the new atlas says: “If present trends continue… the glorious song-flight will become less and less familiar in intensively farmed areas.”
The plight of the lapwing is even more pronounced. In the old atlas it was a widely distributed breeding species, despite a decline that had been noted since the 1930s; the new atlas records lapwing breeding in only three places, two of them at the RSPB’s Exe estuary reserves, the other on the southern fringe of Dartmoor.
Grey partridge was recorded breeding almost everywhere in the old atlas; now it is confirmed in only two places.
Dr Humphrey Sitters edited the old atlas, and in the preface to the new one says more agri-environment schemes are needed, but will only be put into effect if people who know what is going on “present the data we have collected and batter the politicians and bureaucrats into submission.
“Therefore, ultimately, if we lose our breeding birds it is as much our fault as everyone else involved.”
Species whose numbers have increased include siskin, Dartford warbler, Cetti’s warbler and great crested grebe.
Cetti’s warbler was not in the old atlas, the first British breeding record is from Kent in 1973 – it may now be present at all suitable sites in Devon.
There was little evidence great crested grebe bred in Devon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Numbers have since expanded, although it is doubtful more than 15 pairs successfully bred between 2007 and 2013, the years when data for the new atlas was collected.
The old atlas does not map where peregrine was breeding. During the fieldwork years only one or two pairs managed to rear young and the bird’s future, then blighted by pesticides and egg collectors, was too uncertain to risk identifying nests.
Today it is recorded as ‘possible, probable or confirmed’ almost everywhere, although in small numbers. Persecution is still with us, however, and the new atlas again tries to mask the actual nesting sites.
The sorriest story is possibly the curlew’s. It was breeding in more than half of Devon in the old atlas, although in small numbers – curlew had still not recovered from the historically cold winter of 1962/63, a trait then shared by many other species. Now breeding pairs are down to single figures, and the new atlas says the “future of the curlew as a breeding species in Devon looks bleak”.
The great landscape historian and great Devonian W.G. Hoskins described a Blackdown Hills parish, in the east of the county, as “a country of deep, winding lanes running from one ancient farmstead to another, haunted by buzzards in the valleys and by curlews on the heaths above, and full of flowers”.
The buzzards are still there but will we again be able to hear the curlew?
Andrew Branson talks to NHBS about how the UK’s biodiversity fared during his British Wildlife magazine years…
You don’t expect Andrew Branson to begin a review of how the UK’s wildlife has fared in the last quarter-century by quoting Margaret Thatcher.
Responding to emerging worldwide concern about climate change in 1990, the then Prime Minister said that as well as needing cooperation and imagination to tackle the threat, ‘We shall need statesmanship of a rare order’.
“Sadly, that is just what we don’t have,” Branson says, tweaking the message to embrace the natural world as a whole.
The previous year Branson had founded the magazine British Wildlife, described by one writer as the ‘pulsating heart of the British wildlife movement’.
The magazine, along with British Wildlife Publishing books, made Branson, according to a 2014 article in The Independent, the thinking conservationist’s candidate to rank alongside Sir David Attenborough as the person in Britain who has done most for the natural world in the last 25 years.
Many of the big issues of the late-1980s, including planting conifers on peat bogs, grubbing-up hedgerows, and river pollution, to name just three, were high on the agenda of the Government’s own conservation bodies.
But those organisations are shadows of their former selves and are unlikely to have the same influence today, Branson said. They have been cut and restructured to such an extent that they can no longer speak to Government with a strong or independent voice and are now more about delivery and process.
During the same period membership of conservation NGOs, such as the Wildlife Trusts and RSPB, has mushroomed, although none has the same statutory clout as the Government bodies.
For Branson, the rise of the NGOs is one of the period’s success stories. They are better informed than they were, he said, and better at applying scientific research on the ground. Indeed, he makes special mention of the scientists, who have done some “fantastic work on species and habitats”.
Branson uses the bittern as an example, where over the last quarter of a century numbers of ‘booming males’ have risen from around 20 to more than 150 in 2015.
“That is a powerful example of conservation action for a particular species. They have put in the research, put in the ground work, and come up with a result.”
The flip-side is that beyond protected sites, wildlife is in trouble. According to the 2013 State of Nature report, around 60 per cent of species have declined.
Branson says: “The statistic that really hits you is that the UK has lost 44 million breeding birds since England last won the World Cup in 1966, and these losses are down to the general countryside being more intensively farmed, to loss of habitat, and the effects of aerial and water-borne pollution.”
On his local riverside walk in 1989 he would regularly see turtle doves and water voles. Now they are gone. The turtle dove is at risk of becoming extinct in Britain.
“These changes can be subtle. People see cattle grazing in a grassy field and think ‘that is fine’. But a while ago that same field may have held 50 or 60 species of plant, whereas now it may have only four or five.”
Generally, the public’s understanding of the problems is now greater than in 1989 but politicians need to wake up, he said. The current government, in particular, appears to have little clue when it comes to wildlife and the countryside. Time for some real ‘statesmanship’ he muses.
Branson sold British Wildlife Publishing two years ago, but is still busy working with wildlife groups in his home county of Dorset.
Winter woodland has a bare, skeletal charm all of its own, and a walk in the woods is a good time to try to put names to those familiar trees.
Suddenly leafless but not as anonymous as we sometimes think, with a little practice it is surprisingly easy to begin to place those barren winter twigs.
Here is a quick, and by no means definitive, guide to identifying six of the UK’s more common deciduous trees in winter, chosen at random on a midwinter ramble in my local woods.
Oak (below): A rugged twig with fat, oval orange-brown alternate buds, and a characteristic cluster of buds at the tip. The twig of the sessile oak is less rugged than pedunculate oak, but be careful the two species often hybridise and it can be tricky to tell the difference.
Ash: A twig that looks as if it means business, with black buds in opposite pairs and an unmistakable, fat terminal bud covered in black scales.
Beech: A slender, rather delicate twig with long, alternate and markedly pointed brown buds. Hornbeam is very similar but the buds hug the twig rather than point outwards, and the twig is noticeably more zigzagged.
Hazel: The twig is downy all over – although you may need a hand lens to see this clearly – with alternate, pale green to reddish-brown, smallish buds. Catkins are not at the end of the twig, unlike in birch species.
Field maple: Hairy twig and buds – again a hand lens is useful – with tiny reddish-brown buds, always in opposite pairs. The terminal bud often has smaller buds on either side, sometimes appearing to be a triple end bud.
Sycamore: Another sturdy twig, with plump pale green buds in opposite pairs. The large green bud scales on the terminal bud are easy to see.
I use an elderly copy of the Forestry Commission’s Know Your Broadleaves for Christine Darter’s fabulous drawings of winter twigs; David Streeter and Rosamond Richardson’s similarly dated Discovering Hedgerows has a useful key.
The stand out recent work is Dominic Price and Leif Bersweden’s Winter Trees: A Photographic Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs one of the Field Studies Council’s AIDGAP Guides, which covers 36 of the common broadleaved tree and shrub species likely to be found in the UK, as well as a few rarer ones. With pictures of bark as well as twigs, and notes on habitat, winter tree-ID suddenly seems much easier. Author royalties from the book go to the Species Recovery Trust.