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 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.
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 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 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.
Moth Night 2017 takes place from Thursday 12th to Saturday 14th October. Organised by Atropos and Butterfly Conservation, this annual event aims to increase public awareness of moths and also to provide an organised period of recording by moth enthusiasts around the UK. The theme of the 2017 Moth Night is “Ivy and Sugaring”.
Why “Ivy and Sugaring”?
During September and October, ivy blossom provides a major source of nectar and pollen and so attracts a wide range of insects including honey bees, late-season butterflies, hoverflies and moths. Searching ivy blossom by torchlight is therefore a useful way of finding and surveying moths at this time of year and can be particularly productive between mid-September and mid-October. Sites should be scoped out during the daytime and then visited again at least one hour following dusk, using a torch to locate and identify the moths.
Sugaring is a useful technique for attracting moth species that may not be easy to catch using a moth trap. (It is also a good alternative if you don’t have access to a light trap). It involves painting a tree trunk or wooden post with a sweet sticky mixture and then going back after dark to see what has arrived. As many moth species feed on nectar, sap and honeydew, the sweet sugaring mix is particularly attractive to them. This useful guide from Butterfly Conservation includes a recipe, as well as lots of information about other methods of surveying moths without a moth trap.
How do I take part in Moth Night?
You can take part in Moth Night in any way you choose. If you have a moth trap then you can run this in your or garden or further afield. If you don’t have your own trap then you can look for moths that are attracted to your windows from the house lights, go for a walk to search local ivy blossom, or you might want to attend or organise a public event. For details of events in your area, take a look at the map on the Moth Night website.
Where and how do I submit my sightings?
Records of the moths you have seen should be submitted via the Moth Night online recording form. All of this information will be incorporated into the national dataset, helping to providing a comprehensive view of moth populations and distributions around the country. Full details and a list of FAQs about submitting your results can be viewed on the Moth Night website.
Help! What species of moth is this?
A good moth guide is invaluable for both the beginner and seasoned moth enthusiast. Below you will find a list of some of our best-loved moth ID guides:
Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland Paul Waring & Martin Townsend
Alongside the comprehensive text descriptions, moths are illustrated in their natural resting postures. There are also paintings of different forms, underwings and other details to help with identification.
Concise Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland Martin Townsend & Paul Waring
This is a great practical solution for every active moth enthusiast and is ideal for use in the field. Concise field descriptions written by leading moth experts Paul Waring and Martin Townsend feature opposite colour plates illustrated by Richard Lewington.
Field Guide to the Micro Moths of Great Britain and Ireland Phil Sterling & Mark Parsons
The most comprehensive field guide to micro-moths ever published, making this fascinating and important group of insects accessible to the general naturalist. It describes all the families of micro-moth and covers 1033 species with beautiful art and photographs.
Britain’s Day-Flying Moths David Newland, Robert Still & Andy Swash
This concise photographic field guide will help you identify any of the 155 day-flying moths found in Britain and Ireland. Combining stunning photographs, authoritative text, and an easy-to-use design, Britain’s Day-Flying Moths makes a perfect travelling companion.
Can you recommend a moth trap?
For an introduction to the main types of moth traps and answers to our most frequently asked moth trap questions, take a look a the NHBS Guide to Moth Traps. We have also included a list here of some of our best-selling traps.
6W 12V Portable Heath Moth Trap
This small compact 6W moth trap runs from a 12 volt rechargeable battery with a minimum rating of 12Ah. The trap is lightweight and can be fully dismantled for easy transport.
Flatpack Skinner Moth Trap with Electrics
Constructed from FSC certified European birch plywood, this trap slots together easily without the need for any tools. It has a 240V lighting system fitted and includes a 25W blue black bulb.
Mobile 15W Actinic Skinner Moth Trap
This trap is particularly suitable for garden use. Easily assembled, it folds flat for storage or transportation. It is designed so you can access the catch whilst the bulb is still on.
Twin 30W Actinic Robinson Moth Trap
The Robinson is the traditional design of moth trap, and offers maxiumum catch rates and retention. This trap is particularly suited to unattended overnight operation.
The 2017 UK Fungus Day will take place on Sunday 8th October. This event is organised to raise awareness and educate the public about the importance of fungi, and also to bring together scientists, artists and naturalists who are involved with fungi as part of their work or hobby.
On the 8th October a range of public engagement activities involving science and the arts will run concurrently across the UK and will include fungal forays and talks by scientists as well as craft workshops and events for children.
What have fungi ever done for us?
The fungi are a group of eukaryotic organisms that include the yeasts, molds and mildews, as well as the larger mushrooms and toadstools that we more typically associate with the name. They are abundant worldwide and play a vital role in ecosystem processes. Most trees and plants rely on a symbiotic relationship with fungi around their root systems whereby the fungi provide key nutrients to the plant, in return receiving sugars that are produced by the plant’s photosynthesis. They are extremely important for the recycling of dead matter and help to make vital nutrients available for new growth. Humans also rely on many types of fungi for food or medicine – imagine a life without bread, beer or penicillin. A certain type of fungi is even used to flavour chocolate!
How do I get involved in Fungus Day?
On the 8th October a series of events will be held around the UK at botanic gardens, museums, science centres, universities and nature reserves.
Interested in the science and biology of fungi? Why not head along to a talk by an expert or researcher? Want to learn to identify mushrooms and toadstools in the field? – join a fungal foray and see the spectacular specimens that are popping up everywhere this autumn. Are you into arts and crafts? There’s even something for you – go out and meet some of the artists that are inspired by (or even use!) fungi in their work.
Can you recommend some good fungi books and field equipment?
Below you will find a great selection of fungi field guides, as well as some other interesting reads. For those who want to take their identification skills to the next level, we have also included a selection of hand lenses and microscopes.
The Fungi Name Trail: A Key to Commoner Fungi FSC | Pamphlet
A key to some of the more easily recognised fungi present in Britain’s woods and fields. The name trial takes you through a series of yes or no questions to help you identify your fungi.
Collins Fungi Guide: The Most Complete Field Guide to the Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain & Ireland Stefan Buczacki | Paperback
Nearly 2400 species are illustrated in full colour, with detailed notes on how to correctly identify them, including details of similar, confusing species.
Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain & Europe, Volume 1 Geoffrey Kibby | Hardback
Set to become the essential illustrated mycological encyclopedia for the next 25 years, this book is also clear, user friendly and will appeal to a wide range of readers. Unsurpassed in both illustrative and descriptive detail.
Mushrooms Peter Marren | Hardback
Written in Marren’s inimitable style, Mushrooms provides a refreshingly candid view of the diversity of fungi and our relationship with this intriguing group, exploring such subjects as the naming of fungi, their importance in natural ecosystems and fungal forays.
Red Squirrel Awareness Week runs from 23rd September to 1st October. If you are lucky enough to live near a population of these captivating mammals, now is a great time to venture out to see them.
The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is smaller than its grey counterpart and, as the name suggests, has reddish-brown fur and tufted ears. They are most often found in coniferous forests where they feed and nest high in the tree canopies. More than 75% of red squirrels in the UK reside in Scotland, with only a few small populations surviving further south, most notably in the Lake District, Northumberland, Lancashire, Anglesey, Dorset and the Isle of Wight. The red squirrel is classified as a priority species in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan.
The map below shows some of the best places to go to see red squirrels. If you’re lucky enough to spot one, don’t forget to report it to the local Wildlife Trust, as these sightings provide valuable data on how the squirrels are faring.
If you don’t live near to any red squirrels then there are plenty of other ways to get involved. Adopting a squirrel provides vital funds for improving and protecting red squirrel habitat and for essential surveying and monitoring. Or you can watch them from the comfort of your armchair with the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife Webcam.
Bowland Beth dramatises the short life of an English hen harrier between 2011 and 2012 and immerses the reader in the day-to-day regimen of her life. Interweaved with her story is the larger tale of the species fight for survival under the constant threat of persecution. In this article our book specialist, Nigel Jones, talks to the author, David Cobham, about the plight of the hen harrier and his hopes for the future of this glorious bird.
There are numerous organisations and NGOs in the book who want the same outcome for the hen harrier, but who seem to be in conflict as to how to achieve their aims. What strategy do you think would enable all these groups to speak with one voice; do you think this would help when confronting powerful lobby groups such as the landowners and their connections in government?
The problem lies in some organisations wanting an outright ban on driven grouse shooting. That is not going to happen as has already been demonstrated. What we all have to work for is a system of licensing driven grouse moor shooting. Controlled by DEFRA a driven grouse moor would be licensed to operate and granted the subsidies that are substantial. If a case of illegal killing was proven in court the license for driven grouse shooting would be revoked for 3 years. I believe this would get a majority backing.
The hen harrier in your book is named Beth. I encounter some people who disapprove of naming animals, they claim this is anthropomorphism and inappropriate to conservation. What would you say to those people?
Mark Avery in his review of my book saw exactly what I was trying to do. Ring numbers or tag numbers are impersonal. By giving them names it makes us feel closer to the birds. The news that Bowland Beth has died is much more heart wrenching than that 834759 has died.
Sadly, I have never seen a hen harrier. Your description of them is written with such a passion akin to awe that I am now determined to see one of these birds for myself. What chance does an everyday person like myself have of seeing a hen harrier in the wild?
A survey last year reported that there were 4 breeding pairs of hen harriers in England – none of them on grouse moors. The best time to see hen harriers is in the winter when there is a considerable influx of hen harriers from the Scandinavian countries. They pitch up from October on the east of England and can be seen as they come into roost in reed beds on the coast or in damp areas with shelter from silver birches inland. They return north to breed in mid-March.
The landowners say they need to make an income from the moors, and driven grouse shooting is the only way they can do this. They will put the case for local employment and, like the debate around foxhunting, accuse opponents of not understanding ‘the countryside.’ Do you think a ban on driven grouse shooting is the only way to force the landowners hand, or do you think working alongside landowners to assist with techniques such as brood management and diversionary feeding is the best way to proceed?
Brood management is just one of six measures in DEFRA’s save the hen harrier project. It is a concession to the grouse moor owners. This is how it will work. First, when a nest is found on a grouse moor, diversionary feeding must be tried. This involves feeding day old chicks during the six week period when hen harriers take grouse chicks. They are placed on a plank supported by trestles about 30 metres from the nest. Trials at Langholm showed that this method reduces chick predation by 86%. If another hen harrier nests within 10 km of the original nest then brood management comes into play. The clutch of eggs is removed and hatched in an incubator. They are taught to feed. When they can feed themselves they are placed in an aviary out on the moor. Monitored by experts they will be given a “soft” release and continue to be fed until they are self sustaining.
If the trial is shown to fail due to illegal killing it will cease immediately.
I’m quite cynical about this. I think a lot gamekeepers won’t allow a hen harrier to nest on their moor and furthermore there are not enough hen harriers breeding on grouse moors in England to justify this procedure.
There are some conservationists that advocate adopting a more laissez-faire approach to extinction, moving priorities to bio-abundance rather than biodiversity and accepting that extinction and invasive species are part of the evolutionary process. What are your thought regarding this way of thinking?
I quote directly from my book. An extract from The Diversity of Life by Professor Edward O. Wilson: “We should not knowingly allow any species or race to go extinct. There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the ages of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us”. The hen harrier was extinct as a breeding bird in England in 2013. Its fate lies in our hands now.
Despite the hen harrier being a totem and emblematic of a battle between conservationists and those wishing to preserve a ‘rural way of life;’ a quick straw-poll I conducted indicated little knowledge of the bird. However, with more knowledge, I believe the majority would care about the hen harrier. How can the plight of the hen harrier compete in a media blizzard of often superficial and meaningless content?
When Bowland Beth was shot we believe she had just found a mate. Her femur was fractured, six of her tail feathers cut through and her femoral artery nicked. She picked herself up and flew unsteadily off, streaming blood behind her. Her vision blurred and she crashed into heather. Don’t tell me that birds don’t feel pain. She must have been in exquisite pain. I know about pain. I broke my femur last October, and lay there for six hours before I was found. That is the bond I have with Bowland Beth.
Do you believe satellite tagging is a good way to monitor hen harriers, and if so why?
Illegal killing of hen harriers continues. There is an arms race – sophisticated satellite tagging versus state of the art weaponry. Since 2007 36 hen harriers satellite tagged by Natural England have “disappeared”. Bowland Beth was one of them. The Hawk and Owl Trust satellite tagged two hen harriers last year. The male, Rowan, was shot last October in the north of England. His leg was smashed and he was able to fly some distance before collapsing in the heather. Sorrel, a female, is alive and well and flourishing in Scotland.
Protecting the hen harrier requires dedication, passion and commitment to the cause of conservation, often from volunteers working long hours in all weathers. What would you say to inspire a future generation of conservationist to take up the baton?
To watch a young hen harrier successfully fledge from her nest and set out into the unknown is the start of a Great Adventure. Sharing this knowledge with other weary volunteers who have probably not seen anything all day re-invigorates them, gives them the impetus to go out again and search for that elusive V-shaped image of a hen harrier, searching up and down, for its favourite prey, short-tailed field voles.
Bowland Beth: The Life of an English Hen Harrier, written by David Cobham and illustrated by Dan Powell, is published by William Collins and is available in hardback.
The Great British Beach Clean, organised by the Marine Conservation Society and sponsored by Waitrose, takes place every year in September and is part of the larger Beachwatch programme of events which run throughout the year. The GBBC incorporates both the Great Channel Islands Beach Clean and the Great Northern Irish Beach Clean and this year it runs from 15th – 18th September.
This four day event consists of a huge number of organised clean-ups which will take place all around the UK, Northern Ireland and the Channel Isles. During these events, teams of volunteers work to collect litter from 100 metre long sections of beach, recording the number and types of items found as they go. Any litter which is branded with a company logo is also recorded, as well as items which obviously originate from other countries.
The data collected during these events is collated by the Marine Conservation Society in an annual report. This information is used to raise awareness of the issue and to create campaigns and lobby companies to tackle the litter problem at the source. The data also feeds into the International Coastal Cleanup and is shared with other organisations and academics who are studying the problem of coastal pollution.
Want to get involved? Visit the Marine Conservation Society website to search for an event near you and sign up as a volunteer. If you can’t find any events near to where you live, then why not organise one yourself? Full step-by-step guides are available for both organisers and volunteers.
The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline Paperback | September 2015 This book will answer your questions and satisfy your curiosity about the treasures found cast up on the beach strandline, whether it is a beautiful seashell, a spent egg-case, a frond of seaweed or an exotic ocean voyager.
Collins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife Paperback | June 2012
Discover over 400 species of animals and plants found in the coastal regions of Britain and make the most of your explorations. This informative book is illustrated with beautiful photographs throughout, and is the perfect seashore companion.
Seasearch Guide to Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland Paperback | June 2017
This photographic guide aims to de-mystify seaweed identification for the non-specialist. Produced as part of the Seasearch project which offers training in the identification of marine life and habitats and encourages recording by volunteers.
RSPB Handbook of the Seashore Paperback | May 2013
This useful handbook will help you to identify and learn about the life cycles and anatomy of the species you discover at the seashore. It also features information on the tidal cycle and conservation and climate change concerns as well as advice on where to look for specimens.
The Rocky Shore Name Trail (Waterproof) Unbound | April 2016
An eight-panel laminated fold-out chart designed to help you identify the seashore animals, lichens and seaweeds that you are most likely to see in the UK. It also describes some of the major environmental factors that influence them.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Your book is proving to be a huge success – what prompted you to write it, and who is your target audience?
It mostly came about from the grass courses I’ve run for the last seven years, during which I built up a huge body of observational evidence on grasses, from chatting to people and just spending a lot of time looking at them. Teaching plants is fantastic as it really makes you be concise about why things are what they are, plus you get to see what people muddle up; things you might never think yourself.
In addition I felt there was a niche for an affordable, portable, and easy to use book. It definitely won’t suit everyone, but I hope that people who might have been put off by some of the more weighty tomes might find this a good way in (which certainly applies to me). It won’t teach you every grass, but hopefully it will make people feel much more confident about the ones you tend to encounter regularly.
How did you become interested in grasses?
During my early years of being a botanist I was terrified of grasses and it took me a long while to get a handle on them. This came about from spending time with other friendly botanists and gleaning as much as I could from them. Once I had got better at them (and I’m still a long way from mastering them) I was really keen to share this knowledge with other people. I did my first grasses course at the Kingcombe Centre 7 years ago, which I was absolutely terrified about running, but it went OK, and it all moved from there. I now run about 18 grasses courses a year, which I absolutely love doing, and all the proceeds from these go into our species conservation programme, meaning a single day’s training can fund a species programme for a year.
What defines the graminoids, and how can the three groups – grasses, rushes, and sedges – be distinguished?
It’s a difficult term, graminoids! I’m very guilty of calling them grasses, which of course only some of them (the Poaceae) are. I also tend to commit the grave sin of talking about wildflowers and grasses (especially when describing courses) when of course grasses are in fact flowers. Their key characters are that they are all monocots, and exclusively wind pollinated.
Telling them apart can be relatively easy, the rushes tend to have waxy round stems, the sedges are tussocky with separate female and male inflorescences, and the grasses are, well… grassy looking? But there are so many exceptions to this! Just today I was running a course where someone muddled up Slender Rush with Remote Sedge, and I realised that these two look almost identical from a distance!
What is the importance of the graminoids in the ecosystem at large?
Graminoids are exceptionally useful as indicator species, with many of them showing incredible affinity to certain soil types, nutrient levels and pH. If you walk into a field and see a shiny green swath of Perennial Ryegrass you know you’re unlikely to be finding overwhelming levels of biodiversity. Go into another field and find a clump of Meadow Oatgrass and you know you’re in for a long haul of finding other species.
As it says on the Species Recovery Trust website, over the past 200 years, over 400 species have been lost from England alone. Do you think enough is being done to halt biodiversity loss in the UK?
Tricky question! We have an incredibly large and diverse conservation sector in the UK, full of talented and passionate individuals devoting their lives to saving the planet. And yet we are still losing species at an alarming rate. When I was born, just over 40 years ago, the world had twice as many species as it does now, so this is not a historical problem we can blame on previous generations, this is the here and now of how humans are choosing to live our lives and harm our planet.
These are clearly difficult times financially, and clearly every sector is feeling the pain of budget cuts, however it is upsetting to see the way biodiversity has almost dropped off current political agendas (the environment was barely mentioned at all in the referendum debates) so I do worry that people, and governments, are just not doing enough. It is now fairly widely accepted that we are living through (and causing) a sixth mass global extinction event, which should be the biggest story and policy issue anyone is talking about, and yet species conservation still seems to be a niche market!
What does it take to re-establish a species like Starved Wood-sedge, which is one of the Trust’s Species Recovery Projects?
Starved Wood-sedge (SWS) has two native sites in the UK, and we’re working hard at both of these over a long time period to steadily improve the conditions, bringing more light in through coppicing and canopy reduction, and trying to encourage seedling establishment through ground scarification. SWS has an interesting bit of trivia in that it has the largest utricles (seeds) of any native sedges which should make it very easy to grow, but recently we started to think these large seeds may be their downfall as they are so susceptible to vole and mouse predation – but it’s hard to know for sure. We have established and continue to closely work on the two re-introduction sites, where we used plants grown up by Kew Gardens to establish new populations, and we are keen to establish one more in the next decade in a more traditionally managed wood to look at how the species would fare in active coppice rotation.
If you could put one policy change in place today to enhance species conservation what would it be?
I’m not sure, my current rather grassroots view is I’m not sure if conservation isn’t dying a death by policy. A few years back I spent the best part of two years of my life working on Biodiversity Opportunity Areas, only to see these being replaced by IBDAs (which I’ve now forgotten what it stands for) only to see these superseded by NIAs. I then had somewhat of a personal crisis that in all that time, even though I’d been instrumental in producing some very interesting maps of core area and buffer zones and opportunity areas, I’d done absolutely nothing to help species on the ground. I think it was during this same time that Deptford Pink went extinct in Somerset and Dorset too, which I still feel pretty bad about.
The problem with policies, and ministers, and successive governments is that they never last for that long. While not disputing that our current democracy is a wonderful thing, and obviously I feel lucky to live in a country where we can all vote and potentially change things we like, if you superimpose governments and policies on top of the Anthropocene (the current geological age where humans have gained the ability to start fundamentally changing the planet, both in terms of biodiversity and climate) then the two simply don’t match up in terms of the timescales we need to be operating on to bring a meaningful change to biodiversity loss. And it goes without saying that when government budget cuts occur it will always be the environment sector that will suffer, and this obviously has a terrible net effect on projects that are up and running and are suddenly suspended.
Without wanting to sound too ‘big society’ I think the meaningful changes we are seeing are from individuals, either making a big difference in their jobs in the environment sector, or simple volunteering, spending a few days a year clearing bramble from around a rare species, counting butterflies on a transect, monitoring their local bat populations. For me, that is where change is happening, not in government policy units.
How would you encourage a young nature lover or student to take an interest in the subject of grasses?
I’m lucky to have two young children to try this out on, and I must say they are now budding graminologists. I think the starting point is everyone likes knowing what things are and naming them, whether it’s music, works of art, types of lorry. We are on the whole naturally inquisitive beings, so I just tend to show people things and encourage them to go off and find more like them. Add to that some stripy pyjama bottoms (Yorkshire Fog), Batman’s Helmet (Timothy), Floating Sugarpuffs (Quaking Grass) and Spiky Porcupines (Meadow Oatgrass) and the whole thing becomes pretty fun! Incidentally there are equivalent adult versions of these too, which are unmentionable here…
What is the most surprising, odd, or unexpected fact you can share about grasses?
Grasses have a profound link with humanity. 4 million years ago the spread of grasses in the savannas of East Africa is now believed to be the main driver in our primate ancestors coming down from the trees and developing a bipedal habit to move between patches of shrinking forest while keeping a watch out for predators. 40,000 years ago we saw the birth of agriculture with the development of early crops, the decline of hunter gatherer lifestyles and the start of the society we live in today (gluten intolerance sufferers probably think this is where it all started to go wrong). And all because we learnt to collect seed from promising looking grasses, and start planting in quantities we could harvest.
Tell us more about the plant identification courses. What are these all about and how people can get involved?
When we set up The Species Recovery Trust we knew that funding projects over a long term basis (all our work plans are 50 years long) was going to be a challenge, so we set about seeking ways to bring in modest sums of unrestricted funding over that period of time, for which running training courses was an obvious contender. This was combined with my passion for teaching plants, and then finding other people who shared this view. We’ve now been able to build up a team of some of the best tutors in the country, who combine their expert knowledge with running courses that are extremely fun and really help people get to grips with a range of subjects.
By automating the booking process (which works most of the time) we can also keep our prices extremely competitive, as well as offer discounted places for students and unemployed people who are desperate to get into the sector. On alternate years we offer one ‘golden ticket’ which enables one winner to attend 10 training courses for free, which will give people a huge helping hand in their conservation careers.
All the information on the courses can be found on the training courses page of The Species Recovery Trust website.
Can you tell us about any interesting projects you are involved with at the moment?
We have a great project running on Spiked Rampion at the moment, and after 6 years we now have the highest number of plants ever recorded, all due to a fantastic steering group of the good and great from Kew, Forestry Commission, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and East Sussex County Council, along with some very committed local volunteers. It’s been a lot of work but proved a great example of many organisations joining up with a single achievable aim of saving a really rather special plant from extinction.
This summer is going to see a network of data loggers placed around the New Forest as part of a project to re-discover the New Forest Cicada, that we’re working on with Buglife and Southampton University. There are real concerns about whether this species is already extinct, but as it spends most of its life underground and only emerges and sings for a short period it is a good contender for the UK’s most elusive species.
James Lowen is a wildlife writer, editor, guide and photographer. Immersed in all aspects of natural history from a young age, he has spent several years leading wildlife tours in South America and Antarctica. Now back in Britain, he continues to express his passion for bringing nature to life for the non-specialist, and has turned his attention to British wildlife. A Summer of British Wildlife: 100 Great Days Out Watching Wildlife – his second book on the subject – is out now.
How did you come to write this book?
The concept of A Summer of British Wildlife grew out of my previous book for Bradt Travel Guides, 52 Wildlife Weekends: A Year of British Wildlife-Watching Breaks (also available from NHBS). Whilst writing that guide, I realised that Britain in summer possesses such an abundance of natural riches that I could not possibly squeeze them all into a single book! In his review of 52 Wildlife Weekends for British Wildlife magazine, celebrity wildlife-blogger Mark Avery suggested that I might have lavished summer with ‘long weekends’. That got me thinking about the 100 best wildlife experiences that Britain has to offer over each and every summer.
How did you choose what to include in the book?
Good question. There was so much to write about that I could probably have produced this book three times over! In whittling down the worthy longlist, I took account of principles such as how best to cover the breadth of British wildlife experiences (from bumblebees to basking sharks, orchid-rich meadows to seabird skyscrapers), geographical spread (the days out stretch between Scilly and Shetland), and the likely interest for families (using my 5-year-old daughter as a barometer). Fundamentally, however, I had to be personally excited by the experience: if not, I wouldn’t be able to inspire others to travel.
There is a strong ethical element to wildlife travel these days – how does the book support that?
This is not a guide to particular travel operators or service providers, which is how ethical considerations are typically framed nowadays. Instead, the book takes a wider approach to ethics. By focusing on Britain, I commend ‘staycations’, which largely avoid the greenhouse gas emissions of aircraft travel. By encouraging people to visit reserves run by particular wildlife charities, I encourage people to reward those land-managers with their custom. I stress the guiding principle of responsible wildlife-watching, namely that the welfare and conservation of species supercedes our enjoyment of them. Following advice from reserve managers, I remain silent about wildlife experiences about which I would love to have written; red helleborine and spiny seahorse are notable examples. Finally, by homing in on children’s interests, I seek to inspire the next generation of wildlife-watchers. If our offspring do not love wildlife, there will not only be no wildlife travel (ethical or otherwise) in future… there will be no wildlife either.
Can anyone enjoy this book or do you need lots of outdoor gear?
You don’t need any outdoor gear to enjoy nature. Just some combination of locomotion, eyes and ears. Clearly, some specialist outdoor gear can help – whether binoculars, digital cameras or moth traps – so if you want an enhanced experience, you might want to browse the NHBS equipment catalogue.
What stands out about the book as a read?
You should probably ask a reader that, rather than the author! Everyone will have their own take on what stands out from the book, just as they have their own idea of what stands out in the spectrum of British wildlife. But I will convey some thoughts from the very first review of the book, by naturalist Amy-Jane Beer in BBC Wildlife magazine (April 2016 issue). Amy-Jane says that the book “will fuel your imagination, frame your desires and simplify your logistics for the summer ahead”. Amy-Jane considers that the book “maintains a lovely tone, necessarily practical but also occasionally poetic – a friendly, encouraging and knowledgable companion”. She concludes that the guide is “an ideal addition to any family bookshelf, though it should also spend plenty of time in your backpack or glove compartment”.
Are the experiences in the book weatherproof?
Ha! Most are yes, which is just as well given the erratic nature of British weather. Where particular weather is key, such as searching for mountain ringlet (a rare butterfly) in Perthshire, I make this clear. Of course, some days benefit from inclement times, such as looking for windblown shearwaters off the Cornish coast!
Are there any unexpected, unusual, or surprising entries in the book?
What will flabbergast one person may appear mundane to another, so that is hard to answer. I cover what I feel to be the very best of British wildlife, but that doesn’t mean it is all universally well known. So I suspect that some eyes may open wide at my suggestion to spend a morning looking for the globally threatened tansy beetle near York, or to combine a family day on the beach with watching dune tiger-beetles scurry along the sand. Some may also be amused at my cheek in proposing that we go looking for red grouse in the Peak District on August 11, the day before the hunting season commences.
How does Britain compare to the rest of the world as a wildlife destination?
I have gone wildlife-watching in about 60 countries worldwide, and have written books about the wildlife of Antarctica and Brazil. When I returned to Britain from four years living in Argentina, I thought I would be bored by British wildlife. Not a bit of it. This book, and its predecessor (52 Wildlife Weekends) are testament to the exhilaration that I feel every single time I set foot outside my door in search of wildlife. There are 60,000 species of ‘thing’ in Britain, and I have seen just 3% of them. There is loads more out there that I need to track down!
Where are you going for your summer holidays this year?
As a family, we plan to spend lots of time exploring our new home county of Norfolk: camping, kayaking and walking our way through the wilds.
What do you like to read on your travels?
I am usually too busy watching wildlife while travelling to actually read anything. But I always take a book for the journey. On my last trip (to wintry Japan; see my images here), I read George Monbiot’s Feral. On my next trip (a family holiday to Spain) I will be taking the memoir of my childhood hero, Chris Packham: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar.