South West Marine Ecosystems Webinar Programme 2022: The State of the South West’s Seas

The South West Marine Ecosystem conference series has been running for more than a decade, bringing together those involved in marine conservation, scientists and managers to share information to improve understanding, future monitoring and management.

This series of webinars on the state of the south-west’s seas presented a number of topics, including cetaceans, climate change, seals, south-west fisheries in 2021, marine and coastal birds, fish and turtles, oceanography and plankton, seashore and seabed, water quality and marine protected areas. These webinars give a well-rounded update on the south-west marine ecosystem, its processes, challenges and successes. We were very pleased to be able to support and attend this series of webinars. Below is a summary of some of the engaging and thought-provoking talks from what was an insightful and educational programme.


The Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT), who work to survey, record and process data for the identification and monitoring of seals within the south-west, discussed the current state of the grey and common (harbour) seal populations in the region. The webinar highlighted the threats seals face in south-west waters, including entangling and disturbances. There was a large number of disturbances seen in 2021, with almost 1,500 seals affected. These disturbances can be caused by a number of human activities, including noisy walkers, dogs, beachgoers, kayaks, SUPs, small watercraft, commercial fishing boats and local trip boats. The impact of instances such as entanglement and disturbances are cumulative, having severe consequences on the survivability of seals.

Grey seal by Jo Garbutt via Flickr

Marine impact deniers, apathy, misconceptions and the general prioritisation of humans over wildlife seriously impact the conservation efforts for seals in the UK, but CSGRT are working to counteract this within the south west. Through conservation activities, censuses and public awareness campaigns, the CSGRT has managed to promote best practices amongst a number of companies to reduce their chances of causing disturbances. They have also been working with Natural England and National Trust to install trail cameras, checked and monitored by a local volunteer, to record the response of seals to the presence of people.

Common seal by Joe Hayhurst via Flickr
Marine and Coastal Birds:

The south-west marine ecosystem is home to a vast number of seabirds. Regionally, there is also a mixed picture of the health of seabird populations, with population recovery and decline in different species across Lundy, the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.

In 2021, RSPB staff and volunteers reassessed the abundance and distribution of cliff-nesting seabird populations on Lundy, forty years after the initial census in 1981. They found over 27,000 breeding seabirds on the island, mainly auks and Manx shearwaters. In 2000, the seabird population was approximately 6,000, but since the removal of rats in 2004 populations have been able to make an amazing recovery. Historically, however, the area supported around 80,000 birds, suggesting that further conservation efforts and surveys are needed.

Razorbill with a chick by Ianpreston via Flickr

In the Isles of Scilly, rat removal on certain islands has also contributed to an increase in some seabird numbers and breeding success, such as for the Manx shearwater. The number of breeding pairs of kittiwakes, however, has been declining over the last few decades, and last year, for the first time in living memory, there were no kittiwakes nesting on the Isles of Scilly.

In Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, certain seabirds are also declining, including a steep decline in the main wintering population of black-necked grebes in Carrick Roads, Cornwall. There is no obvious reason for this decline, as there are fewer disturbances and better management of the area.  In Exmouth, Devon, occupied kittiwake nests have been increasing since 2000, but their breeding success has been reducing since 2018, from an average of 1.05 to 0.43 overall across all 3 plots monitored. In Dorset, several species are struggling, even with close management and conservation. On Chesil Beach, only 3 little tern chicks successfully fledged from 48 nests, 155 eggs and 102 chicks.

Little tern chicks by Andy Morffew via Flickr

In the near future, there are several key areas that need addressing to help seabird conservation efforts in the south west. More standardised recording is needed in key estuarine sites, to ensure that there is proper data on populations such as the black-necked grebes. Additionally, there needs to be closer monitoring and increased take-up of nest recording for widespread seabirds, as well as management of possible tourism disturbance.

Seashore and Seabed:

Using information harvested from observations on social media and other sources, Keith Hiscock of the Marine Biological Association presented the state of the seashore and seabed of south-west seas in 2021. By comparing current sightings with previous records, such as the recording of Poecilochaetus serpens in 2021, where it was previously noted in 1902, the persistence of species and biodiversity within these areas can be analysed. They were able to see the gains and losses of species on the seashore and seabed, for example lower numbers of crawfish (Palinurus elephas) in areas where significant numbers had been seen in the last few years, and increases in abundance and extent of other species, including Zostera noltii and Z. marina.

Pacific oyster by Tim Binns via Flickr

They were also able to note the presence of new species within areas of the south west, including the Mediterranean feather duster worm (Sabella spallanzanii), and the increasing abundance and extent of non-native species, such as the Pacific oyster (Magallana gigas). The number of non-native species within south west waters has continued to grow, with the range and abundance of some species already present also increasing. The very slight increase in the presence of warm water species suggests that ocean warming is having an effect, but it is not having a marked impact on biota composition. Overall, this webinar called for a better process for the systematic recording of events and change in south-west seas.

Our thoughts

This year’s webinar programme was an enlightening insight into the ecosystem of the south west, as well as the ongoing conservation efforts undertaken by multiple different groups and volunteers across the region. For those who were unable to attend the live lectures this year, recordings of each are available on the South West Marine Ecosystems youtube channel. Further information about conferences can be found on their website, along with an archive of their previous conferences.

The NHBS Introduction to Habitats: Grassland

Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors via Flickr

Grassland habitats are areas of vegetation dominated by grasses. Similarly to heathland, grassland can be divided into lowland and upland (above 200m). The type of sediment can also be used to classify grassland habitats, such as calcareous (lime-rich soils), acidic (sands, gravels and siliceous rocks) and neutral (clay and loam soils). They are often maintained by human intervention, through mowing, fertilising, drainage, burning or chemical treatments, as well as livestock grazing. They can also be maintained by natural processes such as grazing or browsing, or due to exposed conditions at the coast or at high altitudes where shrub and tree growth is limited.

Grassland can also be separated into unimproved, semi-improved and improved. This refers to the amount of agricultural interference in the habitat. Improved grasslands have undergone high modification or intensive agriculture, and thus typically have fewer species with a limited variety of grasses and flowering plants. (white clover, perennial ryegrass and other agricultural species usually cover more than 50% of improved grasslands). These habitats are covered more in-depth in another blog: The NHBS Introduction to Habitats: Farmland.

Semi-improved grassland is a transition category between improved and unimproved grasslands that have undergone some modification through the use of, for example, fertilisers, herbicides and grazing. These habitats have a reduced range of plant species compared to unimproved grassland but a wider diversity than improved grassland.

Unimproved grassland, also termed species-rich, has not been artificially fertilised, ploughed or reseeded. Grassland habitats are considered to be species-rich if they have more than fifteen plant species per square metre, a wildflower and sedge cover of more than 30% (excluding creeping buttercup, white clover and invasive weed species), and less than 10% cover of white clover and perennial ryegrass. Species-rich grassland habitats not only support a large number of flora species but also many fauna species such as invertebrates and birds. They improve and maintain the health of soils, protect against soil erosion, sequester carbon and provide food for browsing and grazing species such as deer and livestock.

Other examples of grassland habitats include lowland meadows, upland hay meadows, montane grasslands, purple moor-grass and rush pasture, marshy grassland, wet grassland and calaminarian grassland.

What species can you find here?

The number and type of flora species found in grasslands depends on the type and health of the habitat. Unimproved, species-rich habitats can support a huge variety of grasses, wildflowers and other vegetation. They all provide food and shelter for the many different fauna species that can be found in grasslands.

Crested dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus)

Peter O’Connor via Flickr

Grassland is dominated by grass cover and the species of grasses present can depend on factors such as soil type, altitude, level of agricultural improvement and maintenance routine. Crested dog’s-tail is found in many grassland habitats. It is a wiry, tufted grass that grows between 15–60 cm tall and is a traditional grazing grass. It is a common species that prefers lowland grassland and is the foodplant of many caterpillar species, such as the large skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus).

Quaking-grass (Briza media)

David Evans via Flickr

Another grass species is quaking-grass, with purple and green heart-shaped flower heads on delicate stems that appear to ‘quake’ or quiver in the breeze. Resembling miniature hops, this plant is also called totter grass, dithery dock, jiggle-joggles, earthquakes and toddling grass. The seeds of this species are a source of food for many bird species, such as yellowhammers and house sparrows.

Grasses are important foraging plants and their leaves and grain are eaten by a wide variety of species, such as small mammals, livestock, deer and many invertebrates. They also provide shelter and nesting materials, often used as the base or weaving material for many bird nests. Grasses can also help to stabilise the soil.

Cowslip (Primula veris)

Matt Brown via Flickr

There are thousands of wildflower species in grassland habitats, providing an important nectar and pollen source for many invertebrate species. Cowslip favours dry, calcareous grassland, but is also found in woodland, hedgerows and road verges. It flowers from April to May and its yellow, bell-shaped flowers are encased in a long, green tube-shaped calyx and grow in clusters. The flowers all face one side of the plant and have five petals, each with a small indent on the top edge. Cowslip is particularly important as it is an early food source for many pollinators.

Eyebright (Euphrasia sp.)

johndal via Flickr

Another example of a wildflower species found in grassland habitats is eyebright. There are multiple eyebright species, including many hybrids, and identification in the field is often difficult. They’re semi-parasitic, feeding on the nutrients of the roots of nearby grasses. This can help control the spread of more aggressive grass species, allowing other wildflowers to grow.

For more examples of wildflowers, check out our guide to UK wild flower identification.


Fungi form an important part of grassland habitats, playing a vital role by breaking down organic matter in the soil and facilitating the cycling of nutrients. They also food for many different species, including insects, mammals, gastropods like slugs and snails, nematodes, bacteria and even other fungi.

Scarlet waxcap (Hygrocybe coccinea)

Stu’s Images via Flickr

Waxcaps are associated with unimproved grasslands that have a short sward and are nutrient-poor, moss-rich and long-established, and occur in both upland and lowland areas. Due to changes in agricultural practices, these habitats have been declining in Europe, and conservation efforts have been made to protect them. These waxcap grasslands are also home to other fungi species including agarics, clavarioid fungi and earthtongues.

Sometimes called the scarlet hood or righteous red waxy cap, the scarlet waxcap can be found across the Northern Hemisphere. They’re found in fields, open woodland, lawns and roadside but they prefer unimproved grassland, where no fertiliser, chemical treatment or ploughing has occurred.

White Spindles/Fairy Fingers (Clavaria fragilis)

Dr. Hans-Günter Wagner via Flickr

This species is an upright fungus consisting of tubular, unbranched basidiocarps (the fruiting body). They are white with browning at the tips and are very fragile, with smooth, soft and somewhat brittle flesh. They also occur in waxcap grassland and other old, unimproved grasslands.

Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus)

Mature: Lukas Large via Flickr (cropped). Immature: Simon via Flickr

This fungus, also known as lawyer’s wig, is very common in parklands, grasslands and lawns, with a tall, shaggy cap that begins white before turning browner and grey with age. The cap opens to a bell shape as the gills turn from white to pink and then black, dissolving from the base of the cap until it’s almost completely gone. This dissolving fruitbody breaks down into a black fluid that is full of fungal spores, aiding dispersal. This fluid was historically used as an ink substitute.


Diverse grasslands can provide habitats for a wide variety of wildlife. There is a lot of cross over between grassland and farmland species, due to much agricultural land being improved grassland habitats. Grassland is home to several species of birds, such as ground-nesting species and birds of prey. They also support small mammals, reptiles and many grazing and browsing species, such as deer, rabbits and wild horses. They are also important habitats for a huge number of invertebrates, with wildflower-rich habitats supporting many pollinator species.

Common field grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus)

Tim Worfolk via Flickr

This common and widespread species feeds on grasses and other plants. They prefer dry habitats and are found in grassland, heathland and agricultural areas, but tend to occur in higher densities in ungrazed areas. Many invertebrate species play important roles in grassland habitats, allowing air penetration and nutrient cycling in the soils and the breakdown of dead organic material. They are also prey for species such as birds, reptiles and some small mammals.

Marbled white (Melanargia galathea)

Topside: xulescu_g via Flickr
Underside: Peter Stenzel via Flickr

Butterflies are another group of invertebrates that are common in grassland habitats, particularly species-rich grasslands, due to the presence of many food plants and shelter provided by scattered scrub. Although some species can be found in multiple different grassland types, the habitat can sometimes be characterised by the presence of different butterfly and moth assemblages.

The marbled white is found in unimproved grassland with tall sward, as well as gardens, road verges and railway embankments, and is widespread in southern Britain. Its range has been expanding northwards and eastwards. Its caterpillars rely on red fescue (Festuca rubra) as a foodplant, as well as sheep’s fescue (F. ovina), Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus) and tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum).

Bloody-nosed Beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa)

Stoutcob via Flickr

Beetles often make up a large percentage of invertebrate assemblages in grassland habitats. They play many important roles in grassland ecosystems, as plant feeders, prey, predators, parasites and scavengers, recycling nutrients from organic matter both into the soil and through the food chain. Bloody nosed beetles are black, flightless beetles that are often found in grasslands and coastal areas, particularly in the south and central UK. Their common name comes from their peculiar defence mechanism. They secrete foul-tasting, bright red hemolymph (a fluid analogous to blood) from their mouth when threatened.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

caroline legg via Flickr

Many birds nest in grassland habitats, such as vulnerable wading birds (lapwing and curlew) and the skylark. A small bird, the skylark has a streaky brown plumage with a small crest. It is listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 (BoCC 4) red list due to its recent population declines. These declines have been associated with agricultural intensification and the resultant reduction of grassland availability and suitability of farmland habitats for breeding and foraging. Birds such as the skylark use grassland as foraging grounds, feeding on seeds and insects. They are prey for other species such as birds of prey and foxes.

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Ron Knight via Flickr

Several predator species utilise grassland habitats, namely foxes, weasels, stoats and some birds of prey. A number of birds of prey use grasslands to hunt for small mammals and other prey species. Kestrels predate almost exclusively on small mammals, such as voles, shrews and mice. They also occasionally prey on birds, particularly fledglings during the early weeks of summer, as well as bats, lizards and some invertebrates.

Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)

Bengt Nyman via Flickr

The UK has six deer species, although only two are native: red and roe deer. Fallow deer are thought to have been introduced by the Normans and the three other species, Reeves’ muntjac, Chinese water deer and sika, were introduced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For more information on these species, check out our guide to UK deer identification.

Roe deer are small deer, with a reddish-brown colour during summer and a paler or black colouration in winter. They have a large white rump that becomes less obvious during the winter. Many grassland habitats are maintained by grazing and browsing, where species such as deer feed on the shoots of trees and scrub species that would otherwise encroach on the habitat. In many countries, deer populations are controlled by predators such as wolves, to help reduce the extent of their impact on grasslands. Other habitats are then able to develop, allowing the expansion of woodland, shrubland and heathland. The UK does not have any large predators anymore, however, therefore deer populations are managed through culling to prevent overgrazing.

For more information on other species that may occur in grassland habitats, including reptiles, moths, bumblebees and other mammal and bird species that may occur in grassland habitats, check out some of our other guides to UK species identification.


Species-rich grasslands are highly threatened habitats, as most grassland in the UK is improved or semi-improved. The main threats to grassland habitats are agricultural improvement and development. Ploughing, re-sowing, intensive grazing or mowing and heavy use of fertilisers can fundamentally change soil type and quality. This, along with clearing for development, reduces the quality and area of habitat, which would impact the number and range of flora and fauna they can support. Heavy recreational use can also impact grasslands, particularly fragile vegetation.

Another threat is encroachment from scrub and trees because of abandonment, incorrect or lax maintenance or intentional efforts to increase woodland cover. Woodland is often prioritised over grassland (that is not used for agriculture), as it is seen as more environmentally important, particularly in relation to carbon sequestration. The consequent fragmentation of grasslands is a threat in itself, as habitat patches that are too small or isolated may no longer be able to support viable populations of some species.

Areas of significance

Grassland can be found across the UK but there are some areas of significance such as the Culm grasslands and Rhôs pastures (purple moor grass and rush pastures), East Anglian Breckland and areas of the new forest (lowland dry acid grassland) and the Keen of Hamar in Shetland (calaminarian grassland).

Further reading and useful equipment

Guide to Grassland Plants 1


Check out other Field Studies Council Fold-out Guides



Grassland Fungi: A Field Guide





Grassland Restoration and Management






Opticron Hand Lens: 23mm 15x Magnification

£14.50 £16.50

Check out our guide to hand lenses and our full range.


Advanced Bug Hunting Kit

£59.99 £65.60




Q2 Quadrat





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

Author Interview with Danielle J. Whittaker: The Secret Perfume of Birds

In The Secret Perfume of Birds, evolutionary biologist Danielle Whittaker reveals how she came to dispel the widespread myth that birds cannot smell. Mixing science, history and memoir writing, Whittaker offers a humorous and compelling narrative to describe how birds smell and how scent is important for all animals. The book offers readers a rare opportunity to witness the unfolding journey of scientific research and the surprising discoveries it can make.

Danielle kindly agreed to answer some of our questions below.

How did you find yourself studying the science of avian scent?

I was originally studying how birds might choose their mates on the basis of certain immune genes, following the idea that animals could prefer mates with different genes than their own, leading to offspring with stronger immune systems. I was struggling to sequence these genes, and I complained to a colleague who happened to be studying bird brains. He said, “I don’t know why you’d study that in birds – information about those genes is sensed by smell, and birds don’t have much of a sense of smell.” I had never heard that before, and the idea that a whole group of animals would lack such an important sense seemed absurd to me. So, I started investigating.

The idea that birds lack a sense of smell has persisted for more than a century despite being disproved by yourself and others. How did you navigate tackling long-held assumptions in the scientific community?

I conducted rather slow, incremental research, following where the questions led me. I started out with simple, clearly defined experiments to test the birds’ reaction to odours from other birds. Then moved on to working with chemists to analyze the information content present in the odours given off by birds. Little by little, the scientists who heard about work in this area started to pay attention, and soon more people started researching bird smells!

Pink-sided juncos, female (left) and male (right)

I found the most fascinating part of your research to be the discovery that bird scents are linked to their microbiomes. How did you come to look into bacteria and could you expand on their important role?

When I first talked about my research with my now-collaborator Kevin Theis, he looked at the list of compounds I had found in bird odours and said, “those types of compounds are by-products of microbial metabolism. Have you looked at whether symbiotic bacteria are producing these odours?” I had never thought about that possibility before! Kevin studied the bacteria in hyena scent glands and how they produce the odours used by hyenas when they scent mark. Kevin and I teamed up to study the question in birds and we found out that he was right.

Danielle holding a male lance-tailed manakin in Panama

In this book, you demonstrated the importance of scent in bird reproduction. I wonder if human-related impacts on our environment are influencing changes to the unique scents of different species, with consequences for their reproductive success – is there any current research being done on this?

I am hoping to look at whether adapting to living in urban environments has affected the microbiome, and thus the scent, of bird populations compared to their non-urban counterparts. It’s very interesting to think about the long term consequences of such changes, but I don’t think there is much research about that yet in any animal.

Your work focuses on the dark-eyed junco, a bird commonly seen in North America. Is there a particular reason why you chose to study this species and do you have any plans to study other birds in this way?

I was a postdoc in Dr. Ellen Ketterson’s lab at Indiana University, and she has maintained a long-term study of dark-eyed juncos for many years. I quickly found that juncos were very easy to work with, and I appreciate that, in many ways, their biology and behavior makes them ‘typical’ northern hemisphere songbirds – which means they are a good model for understanding lots of bird species. I have studied odours in other species as well, in particular the lance-tailed manakin in Panamá. I am always interested in new birds!

Banded male Oregon junco

Where will your research take you next? Do you have any plans for further books?

Right now, I’m interested in how social behavior changes animal microbiomes through bacteria sharing, and how that might affect odours. I’m also interested in looking at how microbiomes and odours have changed in urban populations of juncos. Beyond my junco research, my professional life has taken yet another unexpected turn, and I am transitioning to a new job as managing director of the Centre for Oldest Ice Exploration (COLDEX) at Oregon State University, where they study Antarctic ice cores to learn about ancient climate change. Maybe I’ll get to visit Antarctica and write about my new adventures!

The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent
Hardback | £20.50



This Week in Biodiversity News – 14th March 2022

A new study has found plants that humans don’t need will ‘lose’ in the face of humanity. Around 46,292 species out of the 86,592 vascular plants studied were categorised as ‘losers’ or ‘potential losers’, many of which are not considered to be useful to humans. Due to this, plant communities of the future will likely be more homogenised. The findings cover less than 30% of all known plant species, highlighting that more work is needed in this field.

A project by the environmental group ‘The Nature Conservancy’ aims to undo the ‘degradation’ of a Kentucky stream. The Long Branch stream was straightened decades ago, altering the flow and natural biodiversity along with increasing erosion. Contractors had previously re-created the natural bends, pools and riffles of the stream, placing rocks, tree root wads and burlap material at some places along the banks. Workers are now planting trees along a section of the stream with the hopes of providing better habitat for a small fish called the Buck darter, which is found only in this watershed.

The UN has launched biodiversity talks on a deal to protect nature. The negotiations began in Geneva on Monday with the deal due for approval later this year. Almost 200 countries plan to adopt a global framework to safeguard nature by mid-century, with a milestone of 30% protected by 2030.

A Squat lobster was seen on Shackleton’s Endurance ship, potentially the first Munidopsis species recorded in the Weddell Sea. It is hard to be certain due to the resolution of the released images but Dr Huw Griffiths from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) suggested the animal could be from the Munidopsis genus, which contains over 200 known species.

In The Field: Kowa TSN-501 Spotting Scope

As spring starts getting into swing, it’s time to begin looking forward to the summer birding season. With the gradual relaxation of international travel rules and things seeming to get safer, many of us are considering birding trips for the first time in years. Whether the venue be the sea cliffs of Anglesey, the wide mud flats of Essex and Suffolk or the dramatic heights of the Pyrenees, having the right kit for the job is at the forefront of every birder’s mind.

Kowa Optics holds an interesting place among birding brands. In the UK, at least, they have seemingly not had the name recognition of other big-brand, high-end optics suppliers until recently, and yet their reputation among serious hobbyists is largely unrivalled. Uniquely, Kowa have pioneered the construction of spotting scope lenses from pure fluorite crystal, a hard-to-work-with material that is peerless in its light dispersing properties. Though this technology comes with a hefty additional price tag, the quality of image that it produces has made waves across the birding sphere.

In addition to their high-end, pure fluorite optics, Kowa offers a range of more entry level equipment for those looking to acquire a quality scope or pair of binoculars at a competitive price. Among their more popular offerings are two compact spotting scopes – the entry level multi-coated TSN-500 series and the high-end, pure fluorite crystal TSN-550 series. The TSN-500 20x-40x range is a veteran of the birding market, having been around in one form or another for years now, but are updated fairly regularly in keeping with new technological advances. Compact, robust, and with a great reputation, they have a strong appeal for travelling birders and outdoor sportspeople. We were thrilled to get our hands on the Kowa TSN-501 – the angled model in the range – to see how it performs.

First Impressions

When the box is opened, the first thing you notice about the TSN-501 is how truly compact it is. Somehow, promotional images just don’t do it justice. At less than 25cm long and weighing in at just 400g, portability certainly won’t be an issue. There was much oohing in the NHBS office when it was unboxed.

The plastic casing is good quality and feels pleasant in the hand. The neoprene cover that can be purchased separately is well worth it too, providing that little bit of extra protection that will allow you to carry the TSN-501 around with confidence.

The lens caps are secure, though they don’t have the provision to be attached to the body when not in place. The focus wheel is placed comfortably so that the user can turn it while steadying the scope with their palm. It’s beautifully smooth, with no discernible kickback and minimal resistance. The image can be magnified between 20x and 40x by rotating the eyepiece – this was quite stiff on the model tested, but while this could be frustrating it does ensure that the zoom doesn’t shift during use. There are no click-stops, as is fairly usual among spotting scopes, but two white markers indicate when the magnification is at 25x and 35x respectively.

The extendable eyecup is made from softer rubber and is comfortable on the eye. It is also fine enough that it is possible to use a phone or similar device to take photographs through the lens at a pinch. This can be made easier with Kowa’s extensive range of digiscoping accessories.

How We Tested

One rather cold day in March we took the Kowa TSN-501 angled scope down to the River Dart that runs alongside NHBS’s offices in Devon. Alongside some casual birding while we had the chance, we set up a more formal test of its capabilities, with natural markers chosen at intervals to see how the optics perform at different ranges. We also made sure to note how performance differed when the objects viewed were backed by the bright sky, reflective water and darker ground. Effects such as chromatic aberration – the fringing of a dark object with a faint halo of colour – can be particularly pronounced against bright backgrounds, so it was important to test the unit in a range of conditions.

We used a Velbon CX 444 tripod – a rather heavy model that felt like overkill for such a light scope! Still, it attached painlessly and securely, thanks to Kowa’s universal tripod mount, and helped offset any shaking that the wind might have caused.

What We Found

The Kowa TSN-501 performed well for us, providing a consistently clear, bright and fairly aberration-free viewing experience across all conditions tested. Unavoidably, it does have a small field of view, especially when zoomed in to 40x, so it’s best used in conjunction with a pair of binoculars.

That said, the quality of the image really can’t be overstated for a scope of this price. I found it to be easily comparable with full-size scopes of a similar price and probably rivalling those of higher price brackets too. It doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of ED (extra-low dispersal) glass but is about as good an image as you’ll find in non-ED optics. The colours are well represented, and the image is clear and bright with excellent contrast. You’d struggle to follow a bird in flight, and there is noticeable distortion around the periphery of the image, but for observing stationary or slower moving subjects, it makes an ideal tool. I had no trouble following mergansers as they moved across the surface of the water, or wagtails hopping across the weir. During the trial, I wondered whether it might especially suit ornithological surveyors or other professionals who need to identify species rather than make detailed observations at the highest image quality possible.

It is waterproofed and nitrogen-filled, so regular use in adverse conditions shouldn’t be an issue, and its compact nature makes it ideal for carrying in a kit bag. As stated earlier, it really makes a difference to have the neoprene case, providing an extra level of protection when travelling over rougher ground.

Our opinion

The Kowa TSN-501 is a really quite remarkable little piece of kit. For a reasonably priced, compact travel scope, it provides a clear, bright image, despite the small lens aperture. Although it struggles at long range and in conditions where a wide field of view is necessary, it represents an excellent choice for the travelling birder on a budget.

It’s easy to see why Kowa have built such a reputation among birders. Above all else, the little TSN-501 represents impressive value for the money spent. Plenty of much larger scopes for the same price or higher would struggle to offer the same image quality, and few compact scopes come anywhere close. It will never be a substitute for a good-quality, full-sized spotting scope with ED optics, but among non-ED optics, it stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd. If you are looking for something reasonably priced to put in hand luggage, transport in the glove compartment during a long trip or just to offer a bit more power than a pair of binoculars while remaining portable, there aren’t many better choices out there.

Kowa TSN-501 can be found here. Our full range of spotting and field scopes can be found here.

If you have any questions about our range or would like some advice on the right product for you then please contact us via email at or phone on 01803 865913.


SCOTLAND: The Big Picture: Q&A with Peter Cairns

In response to the growing climate and biodiversity crisis, SCOTLAND: The Big Picture is working to drive the recovery of nature across Scotland through rewilding. Using positive storytelling, they hope to inform and inspire change, while also enabling practical rewildling through partnerships and collaborations. They see a role for everyone in creating a wilder Scotland, with a vision of a vast network of rewilded land and water where wildlife and people flourish.

Executive Director, Peter Cairns, has kindly taken the time to answer a few questions for us.

Peter Cairns © Nigel Atkinson / Wild Images

Could you tell us about the work that SCOTLAND: The Big Picture does and how the charity began?

Our core team has been involved in environmental communications for more than two decades so when the rewilding story really started to gain momentum in Scotland, probably about a decade ago, we were well placed to document it. The ‘R’ word (rewilding) remains contentious to this day, but as we embraced it at an early stage, we gradually – and unwittingly – became the voice of the movement, or at least one of them. That gave us a platform and in 2019, we became a fully-fledged charity, working to drive the recovery of nature across Scotland through rewilding, in response to the growing climate and biodiversity crises.

One part of your vision is creating a future for Scotland where people thrive, but development and industry can sometimes be in contention with wildlife. How do you think a nature-based economy could allow for long-term restoration of habitats without negatively impacting communities?

Pitching people against nature helps neither. We need to look for new ways to marry our economic systems with our ecological systems.

We believe the transformational recovery of nature can only be achieved with the support of local communities – rewilding will only work if people can see social, cultural and economic benefits that work in tandem with ecological recovery.

The original principles of rewilding were founded on the ‘3C’s’ – cores, corridors and carnivores, and there’s no reason why such a model can’t be explored in Scotland. ‘Cores’ means areas that are effectively given over to nature, allowing natural processes to shape and govern the land. Around these could be buffer zones, where a high degree of ecological functionality is maintained, but a range of nature-based economic activities, such as payments for natural capital, wild produce and diverse nature-based experiences, help support vibrant communities.

Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) feeding on red deer carcass, Assynt, Scotland © Peter Cairns

SCOTLAND: The Big Picture was a founding member of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance, how have you found the reception of this alliance amongst organisations? Are they generally in favour of large-scale rewilding in Scotland?

Rewilding has come to mean different things to different people and that can be a challenge, but it also provides opportunity for it to be rolled out at different scales and settings, while still making a valuable contribution to nature recovery. The members of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance are all at different stages on their journey, but all recognise that the traditional models of conservation have failed to arrest and reverse ecological decline, and are committed to a fresh, more ambitious, more holistic approach.

Outside of the Alliance, there is a growing appetite for change across Scotland, as land managers look at the social, political and economic horizon, and realise that business as usual is not an option.

Your upcoming feature-length documentary, Riverwoods, reveals the perilous state of Scotland’s salmon and presents the inextricable relationship between fish and forests. What are the main threats to this species and Scotland’s rivers, and why is salmon such a valuable species for forest ecosystems?

Atlantic salmon is a modern-day canary in the mine – an indicator of ecosystem health. The reasons for its spectacular decline, like so many species, are many and complex, and this film doesn’t attempt to address them all. Instead, Riverwoods tells the story of salmon – young salmon in particular -in our rivers, and carries a simple message: The health of our rivers and all the life within them, is directly dependent on the health of the landscapes through which they flow.

Glenfeshie © James Shooter

Perhaps to set the scene, I can quote from a recent article we produced on this very subject:

6,000 years ago, a rich, dynamic woodland ecosystem stretched across 60% of Scotland’s land area. These were diverse forests of Scots pine, oak, rowan, birch, aspen and willow; a complex community of shrubs and bushes, tall trees, tiny trees, dead and dying trees, all intertwined in a constantly evolving system.

Flanking Scotland’s rivers and lochs, these woodlands were shaped by beavers, creating fresh coppice growth, new wetlands and backwaters, raising the water table and toppling insect-laden trees into and alongside the river. The decaying timber provided food and sanctuary for more invertebrates, as well as casting dappled shade across the river’s surface.

Spent salmon, exhausted after an epic journey from freshwater to sea and back again, fed brown bears, wolves, eagles, ospreys and otters, before the precious marine nutrients found in their carcasses, were taken up by the soil nourishing fresh plant and tree growth.

In other parts of the world, the connectivity between river, forest and ocean, and the bountiful runs of salmon that still persist, creates a living, breathing, working system. Here in Scotland, just 3% of our native forest remains, clinging on in isolated, lonely fragments and despite their reputation for beauty and drama, the glens through which our rivers run, are often bare and treeless, reflecting the centuries of ecological decline that we have come to accept as normal.

Pine marten (Martes martes) foraging in pine woodland, Glenfeshie, Scotland © Peter Cairns/

How do you think Scotland’s river catchments can be restored? What changes need to take place?

Fundamentally, we need to perceive and manage river catchments as a complete ecological system and not as a series of individual species and habitats. No species exists in isolation and again, the health of our rivers is dependent on the health of the surrounding landscape.

More immediately, many of Scotland’s rivers are getting warmer, some approaching the lethal limit for young salmon, so these fish are crying out for the trees that once shaded and nourished them. The roots of trees like alder and willow, which can live in the water, protect fish from the sun and provide hidey-holes during high flow events. Tree roots help stabilise riverbanks and woody structures like fallen trees in the river, create deep pools and riffles providing salmon with the structurally diverse riverbeds they favour. A lack of overhanging trees also reduces insect numbers which in turn, means less food falling from branches into the mouths of hungry fish.

For people inspired by your work, how would you suggest they get involved?

We normally recommend 3 actions:

WILD YOUR SPACE: It’s easy to imagine rewilding at a landscape scale but this is a journey that offers space for everyone. Parks, gardens and public spaces can all make a valuable contribution to a landscape rich in nature and passionate individuals and communities are already working together to create more space for bats, bees and butterflies. Everyone can get involved.

MAKE SOME NOISE: Rewilding is as much a change in mindset as it is a physical change to the land or sea, so it’s good to talk. Most people don’t realise that Scotland has become a nature-depleted nation. Talk to family, friends and work colleagues about the potential of a rewilded Scotland for nature, climate and people. Encourage them to join our Big Picture community.

PUT YOUR MONEY TO WORK: There are many ways to invest in rewilding. You can support businesses such as local farms that are working to restore wildlife, or nature tourism operators who donate part of their revenues to rewilding. And of course, you can help make more rewilding happen by supporting organisations like SCOTLAND: The Big Picture.

Red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, two backlit on pine branch, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland © Mark Hamblin/

You can find out more about SCOTLAND: The Big Picture from their website and by following them on Facebook and Twitter.


NatureBureau: Publisher of the Month

Based in Berkshire, NatureBureau publishes a wide range of books, including internationally important handbooks and atlases alongside highly localised UK field guides. Publishing under the imprint of Pisces Publications, they are renowned for their beautifully designed and well-researched books. We are happy to announce NatureBureau as our Publisher of the Month for March.

Browse a selection of NatureBureau titles below, or explore their entire range here.


A Comprehensive Guide to Insects of Britain & Ireland
Flexibound | £21.95 £28.95

With updated maps and over 2,800 colour photographs throughout, this expanded edition covers over 2,300 species, supporting by comprehensive sections on all insect groups, including beetles, flies, ants, bees and wasps. The concise text gives information on behaviour as well as their current conservation status and pointers are given to help avoid misidentification with species of similar appearance.


Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies
Hardback | £26.99 £34.99

With detailed descriptions and photos of the adult, egg, caterpillar and chrysalis of each species, this book reveals in detail the fascinating life cycles of the 59 butterfly species that are considered resident or regular migrants to Britain and Ireland. It provides unique insights into a hidden world and is illustrated with over 1,300 high-quality colour photos.

Read our interview with the authors.


A Photographic Guide to Insects of Southern Europe & the Mediterranean
Flexibound | £21.99 £27.50

This new guide, the first of its kind, features many of the large, spectacular insects a visitor to southern Europe and the Mediterranean is likely to encounter. The guide covers 1,500 insect species, including many endemics, and represents all the major groups of this region.


European Bryaceae: A Guide to the Species of the Moss Family Bryaceae in Western & Central Europe and Macaronesia
Hardback | £27.99 £37.50

Based on 22 years of research carried out in the field and in herbaria, this is the first detailed floristic work on the family to adopt the current taxonomy derived from DNA sequence data. It provides a timely review of morphological characters of the species in relation to their phylogeny and species delimitation based on the latest molecular analyses.


Atlas of Britain & Ireland’s Larger Moths
Hardback | £29.99 £38.50

This guide includes accounts for 866 macro-moth species, each with a distribution map showing current and historical occurrences, trends, status, a phenology chart and colour image. Distribution maps are also provided for a further 25 species that have not been recorded since 1970.



The Bumblebee Book: A Guide to Britain & Ireland’s Bumblebees
Hardback | £19.99 £24.95

The Bumblebee Book covers all 27 bumblebee species occurring in Britain and Ireland, illustrated by photographs that show their full range of variation, including the striking island races. Each species has a detailed description with up-to-date distribution maps and notes on the life cycle, flowers visited and habitats used.


Butterflies of Cornwall: Atlas for the Twenty-First Century
Hardback | £23.99 £29.95

The book maps the ebb and flow of butterfly populations in Cornwall, including national rarities such as the Marsh Fritillary and the Silver-studded Blue. It covers a description of all 37 of Cornwall’s resident and regular migrant butterflies and 12 occasional visitors, including their ecology, life cycle, population trends and geographical distribution, as well as passages on the best places to see butterflies in Cornwall and how butterflies are recorded and conserved.


Moths of the West Midlands: Birmingham & the Black Country, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire
Flexibound | £17.99 £23.50

This is the first book to cover all of the 600 macro moth species in the West Midlands and many of the regularly recorded micro moths. This guide is illustrated with over 700 photographs and also includes up-to-date distribution maps, habitat descriptions, adult flight periods and larval food plants.

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

This Week in Biodiversity News – 28th February 2022

A number of previously locally extinct mammals in the Sturt National Park, New South Wales, are now thriving in their feral-free zones, and researchers are amazed by how quickly they have repopulated. With the exclusion of feral cats from enclosures, mulgaras, bilbies and Shark Bay bandicoots have all seen population increases since their translocations. There are also plans to reintroduce another species this year, the golden bandicoot. While this is promising news, ANU ecologist professor David Lindenmayer stated that, while the feral-free zones are helping to conserve animals, both state and federal governments need to do more, including increasing funding and ensuring collaboration between scientists, conservation groups and politicians.

Fulford’s new flood defences have been specifically designed so as not to harm European eels, a critically endangered species. As a small number of eels were found during the initial survey work, particular measures had to be taken to meet strict regulations on protecting them. Specially designed water pumps, which can start and stop slowly as well as operate at a slow speed, will reduce the chances of eels being drawn into propeller blades.

Singapore’s wildlife parks saw 900 animal births in 2021, which is almost double the number that occured in 2020. More than 160 species had newborns last year, inlcuding 44 which are listed as Threatened under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. These included the Sundra slow loris, Negros bleeding-heart dove, golden mantellas, false gharial, giant panda and the Sakishima grass lizard.

A new report from IPPC warns that many of the impacts of global warming are now “irreversible”. Four months on from COP26, this is the second of three reviews from the world’s foremost body of climate researchers, and looks at the causes, impacts and solutions of climate change. It shows that climate change is impacting humans and other species far worse than previously indicated, with more than 40% of the world’s population “highly vulnerable” to climate. However, authors of the report say that there is still a small amount of time left to avoid the very worst.

2021 Countryside Management Association Photo Competition

Countryside Management Association (CMA) is the largest organisation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that supports the work of conservation, access and recreation professionals in the natural greenspace and countryside sector. They also have close ties to the Scottish Countryside Rangers Association (SCRA), Scotland’s own association.

Through networking, training and continuing professional development, CMA supports and champions the development of staff, students and volunteers that are involved in the management, interpretation and public enjoyment of natural greenspaces and the countryside. They promote the value and importance of these areas and their management to the general public, government and other organisations, while also providing organisations who are involved in management with helpful and relevant information.

Last year, the CMA ran a photo competition celebrating the work of professionals in the field and shared inspirational photos of staff and volunteers undertaking work to protect, enhance and interpret these important areas. Participants were encouraged to submit images of work involving anything from habitat management, estate work, and wildlife survey and monitoring to leading events and school visits, and engaging with visitors and volunteers. The competition ran from May 2021 to 7th January 2022. We teamed up with CMA to offer some fantastic prizes: a £100 voucher for first prize and £50 vouchers for two runners-up. 


Winner: Robert Ballard

The winning entry was taken by Robert Ballard, a ranger at Stover Country Park near Newton Abbot in Devon. His black and white image is a portrait of several volunteers undertaking some pond maintenance. Ponds and lakes are important habitats, supporting a wide range of species. Maintaining and enhancing them has a number of ecological benefits, including increasing wildlife diversity, improving water quality, reducing pond edge or lake shoreline erosion and creating better habitats for aquatic species.

First runner up: Jo Maddox

First runner up was Jo Maddox’s image of conservation work with a city background. CMA liked this image as they are currently seeking to promote and represent greater diversity in their membership, and to highlight urban greenspace management in particular. Urban green spaces, such as gardens, parks and woodlands, provide a vital habitat for wildlife, as well as numerous benefits to people living in urban areas. The management of these areas can help to improve and maintain ecosystem health and biodiversity.

Second runner up: Aam Hersey

Second runner up was Aam Hersey’s socially distanced hedge workers, which CMA thought was of the moment. Hedgerows are dynamic and invaluable habitats, providing food, shelter and breeding sites for species such as yellowhammers, great tits and dunnocks. Hedgerows are made up of a wide range of flora groups, often thought as different layers, including the shrub layer, tree layer, base, margin and ditch. Woody species like hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel make up the tree layer. Smaller woody species, shrubs and climbers, for example bramble, honeysuckle and ivy, are part of the shrub layer, which can also include young trees. The base, margin or ditch parts of a hedgerow can be bare ground, grass or be occupied by wildflowers such as herb robert, wood sage and red campion or thick herbaceous vegetation like cow parsley and common hogweed. Each of these components can support different wildlife, therefore hedgerow management is vital to maintain and promote this biodiversity.

Countryside Management Association

For more information on Countryside Management Assocation, please visit Here you will find information on membership, training and events.

Trail Camera Tips and Troubleshooting: Part 1

Trail cameras are a widely popular solution to monitoring elusive or nocturnal wildlife for both professionals and wildlife enthusiasts alike.

Modern trail cameras tend to be very reliable and are designed to be highly user-friendly. However, there are a few things we would suggest to ensure your camera performs to the best of it’s ability. These are the initial steps we advise to take if you are experiencing issues with your camera, and these can often resolve or at least identify the problem. For tips on how and where to set up your trail camera, check out part 2 of this series.


Try a set of new batteries

Most minor troubles with trail cameras are due to the batteries not providing enough power. This can be down to the type of batteries being used or simply that they are getting low and need replacing. If you are experiencing black night-time images, short night-time videos, or no night-time captures are being taken at all then the first thing to check should be your batteries.

Battery meters on trail cameras are not always accurate, so we suggest checking your batteries with a tester/voltage meter prior to use if possible. This is particularly important for professional usage.

Choose Lithium batteries if at all possible 

We, and many trail camera manufacturers, highly recommend Lithium batteries as the best option for performance. The Energizer Ultimate Lithium are particularly well thought of, and as such are included in our Starter Bundles (see individual product pages).

Lithium batteries have a significantly longer lifespan than most other types e.g. alkaline and rechargeable NiMH, while also performing more reliably for a number of reasons that are explained below.

Trail cameras generally require 1.5 volts (V) from each AA battery to perform at their full potential. When the voltage begins to drop you may start experiencing issues such as those mentioned above. One of the main benefits of Lithium batteries is that they maintain their voltage until the end of their usable lifespan when it then rapidly drops off. In contrast, Alkaline batteries experience a pretty consistent voltage loss throughout their lifespan, meaning they can drop below 1.5V rather quickly after deployment.

Unfortunately, we do not recommend rechargeable AA batteries (NiMH). At only 1.2V, rechargeable batteries are unlikely to power the camera reliably or for long. If rechargeable batteries are still the preferred option, it is important that the batteries offer at least 2500mAh. Some camera models have been designed to work more effectively with rechargeable batteries, for example the Recon Force Elite HP4, however the performance is still unlikely to be comparable to use with Lithium batteries.

Be prepared for batteries to die more quickly in cold weather

During colder winter months, you should expect your batteries to discharge more rapidly and the battery life to therefore be reduced. At lower temperatures the chemical reactions accruing in the battery are slowed down, diminishing its power.

Alkaline batteries are particularly troublesome in this regard as they contain a water-based electrolyte, which means they seriously struggle as temperatures approach freezing. Again, Lithium batteries are the superior choice and can withstand significantly colder conditions while still performing fantastically, albeit slightly diminished in comparison to use in more mild conditions.

SD cards

SD (Secure Digital) cards are available in a wide variety of sizes and speeds. Generally speaking, we find a 32GB, class 10 SD card a very suitable choice, and this is what is included in our trail camera Starter Bundles. It is worth reading the manual of your chosen trail camera to check for any compatibility requirements or maximum size capacities.

Format your SD card 

Formatting your SD card is an important step when starting with a new camera, or if experiencing SD error alerts on your camera. It is important to be aware that formatting your card will erase all data, so any important videos or images should be transferred elsewhere beforehand.

There are two options for formatting your SD card: using a computer with an SD card reader or via the trail camera itself. When using a computer, simply look for the SD card in your file explorer/file finder, right-click and select ‘Format’. The majority of trail cameras also provide an in-built option to format your SD card via the settings menu. For the brands we offer, the menu options are likely to appear under the following titles (or similar):

Browning –  ‘Delete all’

Bushnell and Spypoint – ‘Format’

Check your SD card is not locked

A common error message seen with trail cameras is ‘missing SD card’. If an SD card is inserted in the camera but the error message is showing nonetheless, it is worth checking if the card is ‘locked’.

Modern SD cards include a small plastic lock switch (seen on the left side of the image) that allows the user to prevent any data being written or images deleted from the card. Simply slide the switch into the unlock position and check if the error message disappears when you re-insert the card.


Return the camera to the default settings 

When a trail camera is not behaving as it should or how the user would like, we would recommend resetting the camera to the original factory settings. This can be easily done through the menu on the trail camera and is likely to be named ‘default settings’, ‘default’, or similar.

For further advice on settings and placement of your camera, please see Part 2 of our Trail Camera Tips and Troubleshooting series, coming soon…


We recommend taking the following steps prior to using your camera for the first time, or if you experience any unexpected problems:

  • Use a brand new set of Lithium batteries
  • Reformat your SD card (and check it is not locked!)
  • Reset your camera to it’s default settings

If you have any questions about our range or would like some advice on the use of your trail camera, please feel free to get in touch with our Wildlife Equipment Specialist team via email at