Hedgehog Facts and FAQs

This article will provide you with lots of fascinating hedgehog facts; learn about their natural history and behaviour and find out how the hedgehog is faring in Britain. Discover ways to make your garden attractive to these spiny creatures and other ways to get involved with hedgehog conservation and monitoring. Plus, get tips on some further reading and view a great range of hedgehog houses and other gifts.

Hedgehog Facts and FAQs. Image by Milo Bostock.
The hedgehog is a unique and much-loved garden visitor in Britain. Image by Milo Bostock via Flickr Creative Commons (CC by 2.0)

Hedgehog natural history and biology

The hedgehog found in Britain has the scientific name Erinaceus europaeus. This is the same species that can be found around Europe and, with the exception of some of the Scottish islands, they are present almost everywhere in Britain. Hedgehogs have even adapted well to urban habitats where they feed and nest in our wilder areas, parks and gardens. In more rural areas they utilise woodland edges and hedgerows where food and nesting spaces are plentiful.

A fully grown hedgehog measures approximately 260mm from nose to tail and can weigh in excess of 1.1kg, although this may be considerably less at certain times of year. The body of the hedgehog is covered in 25mm long spines which provide protection from predators: when threatened hedgehogs will roll into a tight ball with their more vulnerable face, belly and limbs tucked carefully inside.

Hedgehogs are omnivorous, feeding preferentially on beetles, caterpillars and earthworms, as well as slugs and snails. For this reason they are often referred to as the ‘gardener’s friend’. During the night they will travel long distances, eating as they go, before finding somewhere safe and sheltered to sleep during the day. A single hedgehog may travel up to 2km in a single night!

Between November and the end of March, hedgehogs hibernate to conserve their energy, as there is very little food available for them during these months.

Current status of hedgehogs in the UK

In the mid-1990s the JNCC produced a review of British mammals, in which the population of hedgehogs in Britain was estimated at 1.55 million. Since then citizen science schemes such as the BTOs Breeding Birds Survey and Garden Birdwatch, together with PTES’ Mammals on Roads and Living with Mammals have all contributed data to the picture, reporting significant declines in both rural and urban areas.

This picture is a cause for concern, not only for the hedgehog itself but because, as a generalist species, their presence is a good indicator of ecosystem health. Their declines suggest a loss of key soil invertebrates and important landscape features such as hedgerows as well a reduction in habitat connectivity.

As a result of these declines, the hedgehog was made a priority species in 2007 as part of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Encouraging hedgehogs in your garden

Many modern gardens are designed to be aesthetically pleasing but are not hospitable for local wildlife. Tidy lawns and well maintained fencing, although neat to human eyes, provide little to attract the humble hedgehog. However, there are a few simple tips you can follow to make your more garden more appealing to them:

• Attempt to keep some areas wild and overgrown, as this will provide secure nesting and feeding spaces.

• If you have a garden fence, cut a hole at the bottom measuring 13 x 13cm as this will allow hedgehogs to pass through on their nightly wanderings. You could also remove a brick from the bottom of a wall or dig a channel underneath.

• Try not to use pesticides or slug pellets, as these are poisonous to other animals as well as slugs.

• Provide a shallow dish of fresh water along with some dog or cat food, some chopped unsalted peanuts or some sunflower hearts.

• Make or buy a hedgehog home. This will provide a safe and warm space for hedgehogs to hibernate throughout the winter, and also for a female to raise her young in the spring and summer.

• Take care when mowing or strimming your lawn, particularly if your grass is very long to begin with.

Other ways to help

• Contribute to Hedgehog Street’s Big Hedgehog Map – by pledging to make a hedgehog hole in your garden wall or fence then registering this on the map, you can contribute to the network of hedgehog-friendly gardens that is being created all around the UK. You can also report a hedgehog sighting for addition to the map.

• Join the British Hedgehog Preservation Society – as well as raising awareness of hedgehogs and the challenges they face, the BHPS also helps to fund research into hedgehog behaviour and provides financial support to hedgehog carers.

• Take part in a citizen science project – schemes such as the BTOs Breeding Birds Survey and Garden Birdwatch, together with PTES’ Mammals on Roads and Living with Mammals surveys, provide essential data about our local wildlife, all of which would be impossible to collect on such a large scale without the help of 1000s of volunteers.

Recommended reading

Hedgehogs

Hedgehogs
Pat Morris

Presents scientific and down-to-earth information about one of Britain’s best-loved wild creatures, the bumbling and endearing hedgehog. The principal ‘popular’ book on the hedgehog for over thirty years.

 

Hedgehog

Hedgehog
Hugh Warwick

The Romans regarded it as a weather prophet, and modern gardeners depend on it to keep their gardens free of pests. Hedgehog explores how the characteristics of this small creature have propelled it to the top of a number of polls of people’s favourite animals.

 

The Hedgehog

The Hedgehog
Pat Morris

This Mammal Society booklet is written by UK hedgehog expert Pat Morris. It includes lots of general information on the biology and behaviour of the hedgehog.

 

 

Hedgehog houses and gifts

From left to right:
Hogitat Hedgehog House and Care Pack
Igloo Hedgehog Home
Hedgehog Nest Box
Eco Hedgehog Feeding Station

From left to right:
Hedgehog Feeding Bowl
Hedgehog Mug
Hedgehog Soft Toy

 

Made by NHBS – The Ichthyoplankton Net

These bespoke nets, made by NHBS, are being used by ZSL in an ongoing project to monitor juvenile and larval fish populations in the Thames.
The Ichthyoplankton Net

Earlier this year we were contacted by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) who were interested in working with us to make a bespoke aquatic survey net.

Their specifications required the net to have a square frame with a four point bridle and connections for a flow meter. It also needed to have a diving vane which would ensure that it could be towed stably at a set depth, and a screw on cod end with a bag made from 53µm and 250µm mesh. Following these guidelines, our engineer and seamstress got to work and within a couple of weeks a detailed specification was agreed. The nets were then manufactured and two were sent to ZSL in February.

First draft of the net design

Several months later we were delighted to receive some photos from Anna Cucknell, who manages ZSL’s work on fish conservation in the Thames, showing the nets in use.

 

 

“It was great to work with NHBS, who listened to our specific needs to design bespoke sampling nets for juvenile fish, and used their experience to adapt our designs to fit our needs. Our juvenile fish surveys on the Thames are the first of their kind, in scale and resolution and we hope the results from which will be applicable in the Thames and further afield to help drive conservation and better management of our estuaries for all fish species”.
Anna Cucknell, Thames Project Manager, Zoological Society of London

Ichthyoplankton Net in the Thames
Nets are towed both at the surface and at a depth of two metres. Combined with data from seine and intertidal nets, these surveys provide a comprehensive picture of larval and juvenile fish populations.
Fish Conservation in the Thames

The nets we made for ZSL are being used for an ongoing project to monitor the use of the Thames by juvenile fish.

The Tidal Thames is home to more than 100 fish species including many that are commercially important such as Dover sole and European seabass. It also provides critically important habitat for rarer species, including European smelt and European eel.

Like most estuaries, the Thames provides invaluable spawning, migratory and nursery grounds but, despite this, the region is poorly studied. The ZSL project hopes to remedy this by providing essential information about the health of fish populations in the estuary, and to assess how these are affected by water quality and local developments.

Boat-based sampling for juvenile fish

The project, funded by Tideway, involves both boat-based and foreshore sampling and, excitingly, also provides an opportunity for volunteers to get involved via its citizen science scheme. Volunteers can help with a variety of tasks including measuring, identifying and counting the fish.

For more information about the Tidal Thames fish conservation project, head over to the ZSL website

Interested in getting involved? Sign up here to volunteer.

Have a bespoke project in mind? Contact our engineer, Thomas to discuss your requirements (email thomashk@nhbs.com or phone 01803 865913).

 

Top 10 Bat Boxes for New Builds and Developments

Schwegler 1WI Bat BoxLooking for a bat box but don’t know which one to buy? This article is the third in a three part series designed to help you to make the right choice. Here you will find our top 10 boxes for incorporating into the masonry of a new build or development. The previous two posts feature the best boxes for trees and woodland and for walls and fences.

For each box listed you will also find helpful information such as its dimensions and weight and the box type (e.g. whether it is for summer use, for hibernation or for access into an existing roost space).

The Glossary below provides a guide to the key terms used in the descriptions.

• Woodcrete/WoodStone: A blend of wood, concrete and clay which is very durable. Is is also breathable and helps to maintain a stable temperature inside the box.
• Summer: Summer boxes are suitable for the warmer months but are less likely to be used over the winter.
• Hibernation: Designed to be larger and better insulated, hibernation boxes will provide a safe and warm space for bats over the winter.
• Maternity: Suitable for the formation of colonies and raising of young.
• Access: Provides an entrance to an existing roof space such as a wall cavity or loft.
• Crevice: Provides one or more narrow roost space. Species which prefer this type of box include common, soprano and Nathusius pipistrelle, Brandt’s and whiskered bats.
• Cavity: Provides a more spacious roost space. Bats such as brown long-eared, Daubenton’s and Natterer’s bats prefer cavity boxes.
• Large cavity: These boxes allow space for flight within the roost which is preferred by brown long-eared bats in particular.


Schwegler 1FR Bat Tube1. Schwegler 1FR Bat Tube

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 47.5 x 20 x 12.5cm; 9.8kg
• Box type: Cavity, summer

 

Habibat Bat Box2. Habibat Bat Box

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Dimensions: 44 x 21.5 x 10.2cm; 13.8kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

Ibstock Enclosed Bat Box B3. Ibstock Enclosed Bat Box B: Small

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Dimensions: 21.5 x 21.5 x 10.5cm; 5.8kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

Schwegler 1FE Bat Access Panel4. Schwegler 1FE Bat Access Panel

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 30 x 30 x 8cm; 5.1kg
• Box type: Large cavity, access

 

Bat Access Tile Set5. Bat Access Tile Set

• Made from: Clay
• Dimensions: 25.5 x 16cm; 3.5kg
• Box type: Cavity/crevice, access

 

Bat Brick6. Bat Brick

• Made from: Brick
• Dimensions: 6 x 21.5 x 10cm; 1.9kg
• Box type: Cavity, access

Build-in WoodStone Bat Box7. Build-in WoodStone Bat Box

• Made from: WoodStone
• Dimensions: 50 x 22 x 14cm; 6.2kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

Schwegler 1WI Bat Box8. Schwegler 1WI Bat Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 54.5 x 34.5 x 9.5cm; 15kg
• Box type: Crevice, hibernation and maternity

 

Ibstock Enclosed Bat Box C9. Ibstock Enclosed Bat Box C: Small

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Dimensions: 21.5 x 21.5 x 10.5cm; 6.7kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

Habibat Bat Access Slate10. Habibat Bat Access Slate

• Made from: Slate
• Dimensions: 41.8 x 37.5 x 8cm; 1.3kg
• Box type: Large cavity, access

Browse our full range of build-in bat boxes.


The full range of nest boxes can be found in our online shop, as well as a useful nest box price list which can be downloaded as a pdf.

 

Top 10 Bat Boxes for Walls and Fences

Improved Cavity Bat BoxLooking for a bat box but don’t know which one to buy? This article is the second in a three part series designed to help you to make the right choice.

Here you will find our top 10 boxes for installing on an external wall or fence. The first and third posts cover the best options for installing on a tree in a garden, park or woodland and for building into a new build or development.

For each box you will also find helpful information such as its dimensions and weight and the box type (e.g. whether it is for summer use, for hibernation or for access into an existing roost space).

The Glossary below provides a guide to the key terms used in the descriptions.

• Woodcrete/WoodStone: A blend of wood, concrete and clay which is very durable. Is is also breathable and helps to maintain a stable temperature inside the box.
• Summer: Summer boxes are suitable for the warmer months but are less likely to be used over the winter.
• Hibernation: Designed to be larger and better insulated, hibernation boxes will provide a safe and warm space for bats over the winter.
• Maternity: Suitable for the formation of colonies and raising of young.
• Access: Provides an entrance to an existing roof space such as a wall cavity or loft.
• Crevice: Provides one or more narrow roost space. Species which prefer this type of box include common, soprano and Nathusius pipistrelle, Brandt’s and whiskered bats.
• Cavity: Provides a more spacious roost space. Bats such as brown long-eared, Daubenton’s and Natterer’s bats prefer cavity boxes.
• Large cavity: These boxes allow space for flight within the roost which is preferred by brown long-eared bats in particular.


Schwegler 1FF Bat Box1. Schwegler 1FF Bat Box

• Made from: Woodcrete and wood
• Dimensions: 43 x 27 x 14cm; 9.5kg
• Box type: Cavity; summer

 

Schwegler 1FQ Bat Roost2. Schwegler 1FQ Bat Roost

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 60 x 35 x 9cm; 15.8kg
• Box type: Crevice, maternity

 

Schwegler 2FE Bat Shelter3. Schwegler 2FE Wall-Mounted Bat Shelter

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 30 x 25 x 5cm; 2.5kg
• Box type: Cavity, hibernation

 

Chavenage Bat Box4. Chavenage Bat Box

• Made from: FSC Wood
• Dimensions: 38 x 18 x 10cm; 1.2kg
• Box type: Cavity, summer

 

Schwegler 1WQ Bat Roost5. Schwegler 1WQ Summer & Winter Bat Roost

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 58 x 38 x 12cm; 22kg
• Box type: Crevice, hibernation and maternity

 

Improved Cavity Bat Box6. Improved Cavity Bat Box

• Made from: FSC Plywood
• Dimensions: 38 x 24 x 15cm; 1.5kg
• Box type: Cavity, summer

 

Slimline Wooden Bat Box7. Slimline Wooden Bat Box

• Made from: FSC Wood
• Dimensions: 40 x 14 x 12cm; 1.9kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

Beaumaris WoodStone Bat Box8. Beaumaris WoodStone Bat Box: Midi

• Made from: WoodStone
• Dimensions: 65 x 40 x 28cm; 4.4kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

Improved Roost Maternity Bat Box9. Improved Roost Maternity Bat Box

• Made from: FSC Plywood
• Dimensions: 49 x 26 x 13cm; 6.6kg
• Box type: Crevice, maternity

 

Low Profile WoodStone Bat Box10. Low Profile WoodStone Bat Box

• Made from: WoodStone
• Dimensions: 44 x 29 x 9cm; 4.7kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

Browse our full range of bat boxes for external walls.

Top 10 Bat Boxes for Trees and Woodland

Schwegler 2F Bat Box front panel with one of its residents.

Looking for a bat box but don’t know which one to buy? This article is the first in a three part series designed to help you to make the right choice.

The following two posts will cover our bestselling boxes for walls and fences and for building into a new build or development.

Here you will find our top 10 boxes for installing on a tree, in a garden, park or woodland. For each box you will also find helpful information such as its dimensions and weight and the box type (e.g. whether it is for summer use, for hibernation or for access into an existing roost space).

The Glossary below provides a guide to the key terms used in the descriptions.

• Woodcrete/WoodStone: A blend of wood, concrete and clay which is very durable. Is is also breathable and helps to maintain a stable temperature inside the box.
• Summer: Summer boxes are suitable for the warmer months but are less likely to be used over the winter.
• Hibernation: Designed to be larger and better insulated, hibernation boxes will provide a safe and warm space for bats over the winter.
• Maternity: Suitable for the formation of colonies and raising of young.
• Access: Provides an entrance to an existing roof space such as a wall cavity or loft.
• Crevice: Provides one or more narrow roost space. Species which prefer this type of box include common, soprano and Nathusius pipistrelle, Brandt’s and whiskered bats.
• Cavity: Provides a more spacious roost space. Bats such as brown long-eared, Daubenton’s and Natterer’s bats prefer cavity boxes.
• Large cavity: These boxes allow space for flight within the roost which is preferred by brown long-eared bats in particular.


1. 2F Schwegler Bat Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 33 x 16 x 16cm; 4kg
• Box type: Cavity, summer

 

2. 2FN Schwegler Bat Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 36 x 16 x 16cm; 4.3kg
• Box type: Cavity, summer

 

3. Improved Crevice Bat Box (Double Crevice)

• Made from: FSC Plywood
• Dimensions: 33 x 16 x 13cm; 2kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

4. NHBS Kent Bat Box

• Made from: Wood
• Dimensions: 47.5 x 24 x 17cm; 3.5kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

5. Chavenage Bat Box

• Made from: FSC Wood
• Dimensions: 38 x 18 x 10cm; 1.2kg
• Box type: Cavity, summer

 

6. 1FS Schwegler Large Colony Bat Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 44 x 38 x 38cm; 10kg
• Box type: Large cavity, hibernation and maternity

 

7. Double Chamber Bat Box

• Made from: FSC Wood
• Dimensions: 31.3 x 16 x 16cm; 1.8kg
• Box type: Crevice, summer

 

8. 1FD Schwegler Bat Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 36 x 16 x 16cm; 4.8kg
• Box type: Large cavity, summer

 

9. Improved Cavity Bat Box

• Made from: FSC Plywood
• Dimensions: 38 x 24 x 15cm; 1.5kg
• Box type: Cavity, summer

 

10. Schwegler 1FW Bat Hibernation Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Dimensions: 50 x 38 x 38cm; 28kg
• Box type: Cavity, hibernation and maternity

 

Browse our full range of bat boxes for trees and woodland.


The full range of NHBS bat boxes can be found in our online shop, as well as a useful nest box price list which can be downloaded as a pdf.

 

Top 10 Bird Boxes for New Builds and Developments

Vivara Pro House Sparrow Nest BoxThis is the final post in a three part series, designed to help you choose from our bestselling bird boxes. All of the boxes listed below are suitable for building into the masonry of a new build or development.

The previous two posts provide suggestions of boxes suitable for positioning on a tree in a garden, park or woodland, and for siting on a wall or fence.

For each box we have provided a quick guide to the material that it is made from, the entrance hole size and the species that the box is suitable for.


Schwegler 1SP Sparrow Terrace1. Schwegler 1SP Sparrow Terrace

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 6 x oval (32 x 50mm)
• Suitable for: House sparrows, redstart, spotted flycatchers

Vivara Pro House Sparrow Nest Box2. Vivara Pro WoodStone House Sparrow Nest Box

• Made from: WoodStone
• Entrance: 2 x oval (32 x 50mm)
• Suitable for: House sparrows, tree sparrows

Schwegler No. 16 Swift Box3. No. 16 Schwegler Swift Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 70 x 30mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

4. Schwegler Brick Nest BoxesSchwegler Brick Nest Boxes

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 32mm, small oval (55 x 33mm) or large oval (110 x 80mm)
• Suitable for: 32mm – great tits, blue tits, marsh tits, coal tits, crested tits, redstart, nuthatches, tree sparrows and house sparrows; small oval – swifts; large oval – redstart, pied wagtail, spotted flycatchers

Build-in WoodStone Bat Box5. WoodStone Build-in Swift Nest Box A

• Made from: WoodStone
• Entrance: 65 x 30mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

 

Swift Box Smooth Brick

6. Swift Box – Smooth Brick

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Entrance: 65 x 33mm
• Swifts

 

Ibstock Eco Habitat for Swifts7. Ibstock Eco-Habitat for Swifts

• Made from: Concrete
• Entrance: 52 x 30mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

 

Sparrow Box Smooth Brick8. Sparrow Box – Smooth Brick

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Entrance: 32mm
• Suitable for: House sparrows

 

Terraced Sparrow Box Smooth Brick

9. Terraced Sparrow Box – Smooth Brick

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Entrance: 3 x 32mm
• Suitable for: House sparrows

 

Starling Box Smooth Brick

10. Starling Box – Smooth Brick

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Entrance: 45mm
• Suitable for: Starlings

 

Browse our full range of build-in nest boxes.


The full range of nest boxes can be found in our online shop, as well as a useful nest box price list which can be downloaded as a pdf.

 

Top 10 Bird Boxes for Walls and Fences

Vivara Pro WoodStone House Martin NestWelcome to the second in a series of three posts designed to help you choose the best bird box for your garden or other outdoor space.

This article includes a list of our top 10 bird boxes for positioning on a wall or fence. The first and third posts cover the best options for installing on a tree in a garden, park or woodland and for building into a new build or development.

For each box we have provided a quick guide to the material that it is made from, the entrance hole size and the species that the box is suitable for.


Traditional Wooden Bird Box1. Traditional Wooden Bird Nest Box

• Made from: European redwood (FSC)
• Entrance: 25mm or 32mm
• Suitable for: 25mm – blue tits, coal tits, marsh tits, crested tits; 32mm – great tits, nuthatches, tree sparrows, house sparrows

2. Schwegler 1SP Sparrow TerraceSchwegler 1SP Sparrow Terrace

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 6 x oval (32 x 50mm)
• Suitable for: House sparrows, redstart, spotted flycatchers

House Martin Nests3. House Martin Nests

• Made from: WoodStone and plywood
• Entrance: 70 x 30mm
• Suitable for: House martins

WoodStone Swift Nest Box4. WoodStone Swift Nest Box

• Made from: WoodStone
• Entrance: 70 x 30mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

 

Schwegler 9a House Martin Nest5. Schwegler 9A House Martin Nest

• Made from: Woodcrete and chipboard
• Entrance: 70 x 25mm
• Suitable for: House martins

Sparrow Terrace Nest Box6. Sparrow Terrace Nest Box

• Made from: Exterior grade plywood (FSC)
• Entrance: Three, 32mm
• Suitable for: House sparrows, tree sparrows

FSC Wooden Swift Box7. FSC Wooden Swift Box

• Made from: Softwood (FSC)
• Entrance: 28 x 65mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

 

Schwegler 17a Swift Nest Box

8. No. 17A Schwegler Swift Nest Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 32 x 70mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

Eco Barn Owl Nest Box9. Eco Barn Owl Nest Box

• Made from: Recycled plastic
• Entrance: 120 x 130mm
• Suitable for: Barn Owls

 

Vivara Pro Seville Nest Box10. Vivara Pro Seville 32mm WoodStone Nest Box

• Made from: WoodStone
• Entrance: 32mm
• Suitable for: Coal tits, blue tits, marsh tits, crested tits, redstart, nuthatches, pied flycatchers, house sparrows, tree sparrows

Browse our full range of nest boxes for external walls and fences.


The full range of nest boxes can be found in our online shop, as well as a useful nest box price list which can be downloaded as a pdf.

 

Big Butterfly Count 2017

The peacock butterfly, with its striking eyes on the hindwings, is a common visitor to British gardens. Inachis Io by Maja Dumat is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The 2017 Big Butterfly Count, organised by Butterfly Conservation, runs from 14th July to 6th August.

This nationwide survey, launched in 2010 and conducted annually, is the world’s largest survey of butterflies; in 2016 over 36,000 people took part! The survey aims to investigate trends in butterfly and moth species and will help guide conservation efforts within the UK.

Taking part is easy – simply set a timer for 15 minutes and then count the butterflies you see during this time. Counts are best undertaken on a dry, sunny day and good places to conduct the survey are in your garden or in a local park or woodland.

If you are counting from one place, count the maximum number of each species that you can see at a single time. (This ensures that you don’t count the same butterfly more than once). If you are doing your count while walking, then simply total up the number of each species that you see during the 15 minutes. The final step is to submit your results online or via the iOS or Android app.

For lots more information, head over to the Big Butterfly Count website where you can download an identification sheet, submit your sightings and view the 2017 results map. Check out the video below for an great introduction from Nick Baker.

NHBS stocks a full range of butterfly survey equipment, including nets, binoculars, collecting pots and field guides. Need some advice? Contact our customer services team on +44 (0)1803 865913 or email customer.services@nhbs.com

 

 

Inheritors of the Earth: An interview with Chris D. Thomas

The author shows on a field trip in Sabah
Chris D. Thomas on a field expedition in Danum Valley, Sabah, 2015.

Chris D. Thomas is a Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of York and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in July 2012. He has an interest in understanding how humans have changed the biological world, and how we might protect the biodiversity that remains. His first book, Inheritors of the Earth, is a very interesting and thought-provoking read on the current mass extinction crisis, and conservation philosophy in general, focusing on the proverbial winners, and calling out conservationists for holding viewpoints that seem more driven by nostalgia than by logical thinking about the biological future of our planet. Sure to ruffle some feathers, NHBS nevertheless believes that this book makes an important contribution, and that his arguments are more balanced than a cursory glance might suggest. We contacted Chris with a list of questions that arose after reading it.

1. In your book, you quite rightly argue that, despite species going extinct, there are species who are benefitting from our presence and the changes we have wrought to our ecosystems. You acknowledge that our influences largely seem to result in an accelerated introduction of species in new areas. Will the net result of this great reshuffling not be a world that is suited only to generalist species (the proverbial rats and pigeons) at the expense of specialists?

This is not quite how I see it. Take your two examples. The Asian brown rat was a regular rodent (granted it was omnivorous, but so are many other rodents), before it hitched a lift with us around the world. Today, the brown rat mainly lives in and around human habitation and farmland, except on islands that lack native rodents, so you could simply call it a specialist on human-modified environments. The feral or town pigeon originated as a specialist cliff-nesting pigeon (the rock dove) in western Europe, the Mediterranean, and into western Asia. It is still a cliff-nesting bird, living on our buildings. Neither the feral pigeon nor the brown rats are unusually generalised, relative to many other birds and mammals. It is their proximity to us that makes us think of them as generalists.  I don’t think we should synonymise ‘successful’ or ‘living in human-modified environments’ with being a ‘generalist’.

2. In Chapter 6, “Heirs to the World”, you mention that most current conservation efforts focus on trying to defend the losers. You argue that, though honourable, it will be more effective to back the winners, i.e. those species that will make up future biological communities. An important theme in the recent book Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want it Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future is that the loss of wild crop varieties through extinction is threatening our future food supply. Many of these wild varieties might have the potential of providing new food sources when our current crop varieties will inevitably succumb to new insect pests or pathogens, or can provide other benefits (e.g. pharmaceuticals). This is why projects such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and other seed banks are so important. Do you see any value in the conservation of threatened species, or is this crying over spilt milk?

I argue that we should in most instances continue to protect ‘species’. Rare species may become common and hence fulfil important roles in future ecosystems, and species that we currently ignore (or have not yet discovered) may become economically, medically or socially important to us in the future. Hanging onto as many species as possible is not a preservationist agenda, but rather a means of maintaining the building blocks of future ecosystems, fuelling biological changes that will take place in the coming centuries. Similar arguments apply to rare genes that belong to wild relatives of plants and livestock that we already use. They provide long-term resilience and flexibility.

3. In Chapter 11, “Noah’s Earth”, you call for a new conservation philosophy that acknowledges that life is a process, not a final product. In your view, this philosophy would rest on four overarching principles: a) accept change, b) maintain flexibility for future change by conserving species wherever possible, c) accept that humans are natural and that anything we do is part of the evolutionary history of life (this includes not shying back from employing any and all solutions at our disposal, including genetic techniques – none of them will make the world less natural), d) live within our natural boundaries. In the remainder of that chapter you elaborate on the first three principles, but not the fourth. How do you envision realising this fourth principle?

As I say: “We know that we cannot expect the bounty to continue if we carry on killing animals faster than they can breed or cut forests down faster than they grow. This strategy failed when our ancestors drove most of the world’s largest land animals to extinction, and it has played out in the last few centuries as whale and fish populations have collapsed under the pressure of over-harvesting. We need a resilient and sustainable approach. We should aim for maximum efficiency, by which I mean that we should pursue strategies that fulfil all human needs – and, where possible, desires – of every citizen on Earth while generating the least possible collateral damage to the global environment.”

Harvesting a species faster than the survivors can reproduce can be thought of as a relatively ‘hard’ natural boundary (once a species is extinct, it is no longer a resource), but other bounds are much softer (a forest with one fewer species still grows), and hence we often need to specify tolerable levels of change, rather than catastrophic points of no return. These issues deserve book-length treatment on their own, which is why I did (deliberately) somewhat duck the issues!

When I refer to the ‘least possible collateral damage to the global environment’, I am thinking about the development of technological and social ‘game changers’. For example, most meat production is based on filling our fields and barns with cows, sheep and chickens, which we then kill for food. If we could switch to the consumption of ‘factory-grown’ cultured meats, powered by renewable energy, it would dramatically reduce pressure on the land; although admittedly not by as much as if we all became vegetarians.

4. Your book makes many valid points as to how our current thinking around species conservation is in conflict with itself, or simply illogical (e.g. the distinction between native and invasive species, because, seen over long enough time scales, species distribution has always fluctuated. Or the idea that there is no one period in the history of life that we can take as a benchmark of the idealised pristine state the world should be in. Or simply the idea that conservation means “freezing” the world in its current (or a former) state – after all, the only constant of life on our planet has always been change). You also, provocatively I would say, argue that many island species that have gone extinct were effectively already evolutionary dead ends, having evolved in environments free from predators and pathogens. We have merely hastened their demise, but they would eventually have gone extinct anyway. Should we really give up on them?

I don’t think it is particularly controversial (or provocative, therefore) to say that most flightless and disease-susceptible terrestrial birds (as opposed to seabirds) that live on oceanic islands represent evolutionary dead-ends, on a time scale of ten or so million years. What are the alternatives? They would never be able to establish viable populations on continents because pathogens and predators are present. Confined to their island homes, they would eventually have died out, either when the islands eroded away, or when additional continental species arrived without human intervention (for example Darwin’s finches have ‘only’ been on the Galapagos for two to three million years). In most cases, we have accelerated the extinction of such species but not altered their eventual fate.

What we should do with the few remaining survivors is another issue. What I argue in Inheritors of the Earth is that we should think quite broadly. Can we introduce new genes to disease-susceptible birds that will make them resistant (for example to save the remaining Hawaiian honeycreepers)?  Can we cross predator-susceptible birds with related species that reproduce fast enough to survive the new levels of predation (for example to save New Zealand black stilts)?  Could we introduce new strains of bird malaria that are less potent, and displace the existing fatal ones? In other words, can we make the endangered island forms more resistant in some way and the continental invaders less virulent, so that long-term coexistence becomes possible? If not, then maybe we should indeed abandon some of the losers, and contemplate releasing continental walking birds (which can resist pathogens and predators) and pollinators, rather than dwell too long attempting to recreate a biological world that was inherently unstable.

Inheritors of the Earth5. One argument in favour of trying to conserve the “charismatic megafauna”, such as elephants and rhinos, are that they function as flagship species, and that conservation efforts aimed at them can benefit whole ecosystems. In your book, you don’t really go into this. What are your thoughts on the concept of flagship species, especially in light of your argument that “defending the losers” is ultimately a lost cause?

I am generally in favour of large, flagship species because they require large areas to protect, and this indirectly benefits many other species (though flagship conservation is not sufficient because it may miss areas of endemism). They are also culturally important to conservationists as well as to the general public, gaining public and political support for conservation. The giant panda has been globally important, and critical to the conservation of Chinese forests, despite being a slightly ‘dodgy species’!

When I discuss losers, remember that I then add the question “can we turn them into winners” (or at least into survivors). For the large megafauna that still survive, this is easy. We can choose not to hunt them to extinction any longer. It is already the case that large birds and large mammals are tending to recover in Europe and North America, and this is also true of the Great Whales. They were losers in the context of historic human culture, and there is no necessary reason why they ‘must be’ losers. Once ivory and rhino horn ‘culture’ is turned around, there will be nothing ‘wrong’ with these species either.

6. If you were put in charge of a major conservation organisation, say WWF, what would you do differently? Would you, for example, have greenlighted their recent campaign to try and protect the last remaining individual vaquitas (the threatened porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California)?

I’m not going to answer your first question because that would be a whole new book (or job if they offer it to me!). I’ll just say that, on day one, I would request a review of activities, and for every measure currently being undertaken to prevent change or decline, I would ask for the staff to develop an additional measures to promote changes that would increase diversity (or the status of an endangered species).

As for the vaquita, I am no expert. However, it is evolutionary distinct, and it is a perfectly viable species if we were stop killing it (including through gillnets). It is not a species that one should necessarily give up on. More broadly, it is a symptom of the mismanagement of the world’s marine resources. We sorted out farming on land a long time ago, but we are still more or less acting as hunter-gatherers in the marine realm. It is hopelessly inefficient.

If I had an infinite supply of money, I would be looking to invest in fish farms (they can be locally damaging, but humans still need food), and I would also invest in new GM crops which produce fish oils so that the farmed fish could be fed on terrestrial plants rather than ‘wild caught’ marine resources. Beyond that, I would invest in cultured fish meat (factory grown muscles), further reducing the need to catch wild fish. The aim would be for virtually all fish consumed in the year 2100 to be farmed or, ideally, cultured as tissues in factories.

Whether or not the vaquita itself can be saved, these strategies are all about generating permanent means of providing a global supply of fish meat without causing anything like as much collateral damage as takes place at present.

7. As mentioned above, I think your book makes excellent arguments. And yet, reading it also brought with it a certain sense of unease. It almost feels a bit defeatist, as if we might just as well give up on fighting to save threatened species and just go with the flow. I can see this argument not being popular. A lot of people feel we have a moral responsibility, as an intelligent, thinking species, to not drive other species over the edge, and to put a stop to our destructive ways. Isn’t saying “everything we do is natural, we are just another step in the evolution of life” a bit of a cop out?

I’ll leave others to discuss morals!

Saying that everything is natural, including all conservation actions we take, allows us to take ‘affirmative action’ for wildlife in a manner that some conservationists would historically have been nervous about (“I can’t do that, it would not be natural”). So, I see it as an opening up of new conservation opportunities, not a cop out.

8. It is perhaps a bit early to ask you how the book has been received. But, clearly, when a book like this is written, it is often based on years of work and research that has led up to it. These ideas did not just appear. So, how have your viewpoints been received so far?

The response to the book seems good so far, but it is far too early to judge. You are right, I have put some of these views out there previously, and they have received a mixture of responses. Many people seem very supportive. However, invasive species biologists are mostly negative, I think fearing that non-native species legislation could be undermined, more than genuinely questioning the biological thesis (that may just be my interpretation). There are also those, such as E. O. Wilson, who consider that I and others are being Anthropocene apologists. I understand their point, but we cannot simply continue to wish that we live in an unchanged world. We have to develop an understanding of biology, and an approach to conservation, that works with change rather than against it.

9. Obviously, there are many parties in our society who stand to gain a great deal from ignoring conservation concerns and steam-rolling ahead with “business as usual”, continuing to destroy natural habitats for corporate gains. With this book now poised to be published, do you not worry that your narrative will be hijacked, the way has happened with the debate surrounding climate change? I can already see people using your arguments to legitimise their actions, arguing along the lines of “this biologist said that the extinction crisis really isn’t such a big deal. See? Lots of species doing really well!”. Have you considered strategies to prevent this from happening?

I nearly didn’t put fingers to keyboard for this very reason. However, if we build a case for conservation based on a loss-only view of the world, eventually it will fall. The edifice is already creaking. A more balanced view that admits to the reality of biological gains as well as losses should, in the end, lead to more rational decision-making.

In terms of conservation, I have stated my own views. In the Epilogue, I write: “If [existing conservation] efforts were abandoned, the extinction rate would escalate. A major task of conservation is to keep the losses towards the lower end of the likely range – as well as to encourage biological gains. Although I have been advocating a more flexible approach to the environment, and specifically to conservation, nothing I have said should be used to undermine attempts to save existing species or maintain protected areas.

As for the extinction ‘big deal’, biological gains of the Anthropocene do not let us off the hook. A simple linear extrapolation of the current rate of extinction wipes out about three-quarters of all species in the next ten millennia. This is risky, given that species represent our planet’s biological parachute. All future ecosystems will be formed from the descendants of existing species, and we do not know which of today’s currently-rare species will be important components of future ecosystems (especially if humans alter the planet in yet another, unexpected way). Letting rare species go could have major long-term consequences. My advice would be not to discard the biological building blocks of our planet lightly.

Inheritors of the Earth is available to order from NHBS

The Importance of Nest Sites for Birds and Bees

Changes in land use can result in strong competition between species that have historically survived alongside eachother, such as goldfinches and chaffinches. Goldfinch by Tony Smith is licenced under CC BY 2.0.

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 species 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.

Head over to www.nhbs.com for our full range of bird nest boxes and insect nesting aids, or download our full nest box price list.