Big Butterfly Count 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Importance of Nest Sites for Birds and Bees

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

Over the last century, land use in the UK has changed drastically. Small mixed-crop farms, traditionally separated by lanes, hedgerows and wild meadows have been replaced with larger, more specialised facilities. At the same time, the density of grazing animals such as sheep and cattle has also risen substantially. This combination of land-use change and agricultural intensification has contributed significantly to habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, and has led to huge, often dire, changes for the wildlife that call these places home.

Understanding these processes is of huge importance to conservationists, and a considerable amount of research has been conducted into the broad scale effects of land use changes on biodiversity. It is less well understood, however, why seemingly similar species can be affected to a different extent by local changes in their habitat.

A recent study, conducted by Dr Andrew Higginson at the University of Exeter, suggests that competition for nesting space may be a key factor in the differences observed. His study used a mathematical model to predict the likely outcome when populations of birds and bees are faced with a reduction in suitable nesting sites. Results indicated that larger, earlier-nesting species tend to fare better in these conditions, but at the expense of smaller, later-nesting species who, in the real world, would either fail to find a nesting site or be forced into using a poor quality or risky location.

Dr Higginson’s results illustrate that, whilst two or more similar species can co-exist together very happily when there are sufficient nesting spaces available, as soon as these become limited, competition and conflict become inevitable. In severe situations, species that have historically thrived in the same environment may suddenly find themselves battling for survival.

A key message from the study was that conservation efforts should ensure that priority is given to the creation and maintenance of suitable nesting sites. Conservation practices often focus on provision of food for wildlife, such as planting wildflowers for bees and providing food for our garden birds. Preserving and creating safe and accessible places for these animals to nest, however, is just as critical if we are to ensure their continued survival.

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

 

Grasses, sedges and rushes: an interview with Dominic Price

Dominic Price
Dominic Price near some grass in a valley mire

Dominic Price is the author of this summer’s botanical bestseller, A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes. He is also director of The Species Recovery Trust, a botanical tutor, and an all-round advocate for conservation.

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.

A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and RushesIn 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?

Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes
Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

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?

Large utricles (seeds) of Starved Wood-sedge (Carex depauperata) - photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust
Large utricles (seeds) of Starved Wood-sedge (Carex depauperata) – photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust

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?

Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes
Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

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?

Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) - photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust
Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) – photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust

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.

A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes is available from NHBS

A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

James Lowen is your guide to A Summer of British Wildlife

James Lowen, author of A Summer of British Wildlife: 100 Great Days Out Watching Wildlife
James Lowen

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?

A Summer of British Wildlife: 100 Great Days Out Watching Wildlife
Cornwall – basking shark

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?

A Summer of British Wildlife: 100 Great Days Out Watching Wildlife
North & East Yorkshire – tansy beetle

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.

James Lowen
@JLowenWildlifewww.jameslowen.com

A Summer of British Wildlife: 100 Great Days Out Watching Wildlife

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Summer of British Wildlife: 100 Great Days Out Watching Wildlife is available now from NHBS

How bird atlases swept the world… with a little help from their friends

The bird atlas movement that has swept the world in the last 40 years is surely one of the great recent achievements of citizen science.

More than 400 have been published since the 1970s and it is possible more people have been involved as volunteers than in any other form of biological data collection.

But it was not birders but botanists who pioneered the biological atlas, with the now familiar grid-based dot-maps. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Atlas of the British flora was a revelation when it appeared in 1962; half-a-century later American ornithologist Walter Ellison would describe it as the “great-grandfather of the hundreds of natural history grid-based atlases that were to follow in the next few decades as the atlas movement swept over the face of the Earth”.

1962 Atlas of the British flora - the great-grandfather of all natural history atlases
1962 Atlas – the great-grandfather of the natural history atlas

The story is nicely told in C.D. Preston’s paper Following the BSBI’s lead: the influence of the Atlas of the British flora, 1962-2012. Planning had begun in 1950 and from the start it was intended to be a scientific exercise. The atlas in fact had little impact on science, which had to wait until computers that could analyse the amount of data atlases generate became widely available, but it did have an immediate impact on conservation – leading directly to the first British Red Data Book.  

Speaking at the atlas’ launch, Max Nicholson, then head of the Nature Conservancy, described it as a great leap forward. And –  we can imagine the great Twentieth Century conservationist had his tongue firmly in his cheek – suggested the ornithologists had been put to shame by the botanists.

Tony Norris, another of Britain’s conservation greats, responded when he and members of the West Midland Bird Club produced the Atlas of the Breeding Birds in the West Midlands in 1970.

1970 West Midlands atlas; image courtesy BTO
1970 West Midlands atlas; image courtesy BTO

The first grid-based bird atlas, modelled on the format pioneered by the botanists, covered the English counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and inspired the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, published in 1976.

The 1976 bird atlas was followed by The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland (1986), The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland (1994), and, bringing things right up to date, the Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland (2013). The fieldwork led to any number of county and regional atlases to various parts of Britain and Ireland – a recent post on the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013 prompted this look at bird atlases.  

1976 British and Iriah atlas; image courtesy BTO
1976 British and Irish atlas; image courtesy BTO

Dawn Balmer, the BTO’s head of surveys, guesses at least 60,000 volunteers have contributed in Britain and Ireland alone over the last 40 years, 40,000 on the most recent atlas. Some take holidays in remote places in order to fill gaps, some make expedition-like trips to remote islands, some embark on marathon mountain bike journeys to record birds in inaccessible parts of the Scottish Highlands.

She said: “The atlas only gets finished because people do amazing things. Every time there is a new atlas you are engaging people in citizen science… it is quite addictive, people become atlas addicts.”

By the turn of the 21st Century there were also British atlases to butterflies, moths, bryophytes, reptiles and amphibians, spiders, dragonflies, molluscs, leeches and ticks. Freshwater fish followed soon after, and after that fleas, the latter the product of a 50-year labour by schoolteacher and wartime Spitfire pilot Bob George.

All stemmed from the Atlas of the British flora, which perceptive contemporary reviewers recognised had a significance beyond the British Isles.

Grid-based dot-maps were promoted by the European Ornithological Atlas Committee, formed in 1971 – the idea of using grid squares, for many years a solely military pre-occupation, had originally come from the Netherlands.

Bird atlases for France and Denmark appeared in 1976. The first American bird atlas, to Vermont, was published in 1985; by 1990 all the Atlantic coastal states from Maine to Virginia had completed fieldwork for bird atlases.

Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont (second edition, 2013)
Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont (second edition, 2013)

At the last count there were more than 400 national or regional bird atlases from nearly 50 countries, the majority in Europe and North America. There were fewer covering Africa and the Pacific, where all but one come from Australia, and only a handful from Asia, the Middle East and South America.

The original Atlas of the British flora contained another gift: it included pre-1930 records – not as far away in time then as it appears to be now – of uncommon species as open circles and contemporary records as black dots, making it immediately clear many species were in decline.

A standout feature of the 1994 New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland was a huge reduction in the breeding range of farmland birds since fieldwork for the earlier atlases had been done. The 2013 atlas revealed upland birds and wading birds – according to Balmer the extent of the latter’s problems came as a particular shock – were under far more pressure than previously recognised.

“It is about the bigger picture and you only get that from having these large scale surveys periodically,” Balmer said. “It really helps you identify species which are showing the greatest change over time and it can highlight groups that are real conservation challenges.”

Browse the range of recent regional bird atlases published in the wake of the BTO Bird Atlas 2007-11.

 

NHBS acquires British Wildlife and Conservation Land Management magazines

In March 2016, NHBS acquired the two magazines British Wildlife and Conservation Land Management from Bloomsbury Publishing.

Since itBritish Wildlife 27(3)s launch in 1989, British Wildlife has established its position as the leading natural history magazine in the UK, providing essential reading for both enthusiasts and professional naturalists and wildlife conservationists. There is no other publication that offers such high-quality, authoritative, well-researched and accessible articles on such a wide range of subjects.

 

OrigiConservation Land Management 13(4)nally published by Natural England, Conservation Land Management is a quarterly magazine designed for those involved in managing land. Articles focus on a wide range of issues, using up-to-date case studies to support practical solutions. Additional information, including costings, materials and equipment, is presented in easy-to-follow boxes and diagrams.

 

Both magazines were published until 2013 by British Wildlife Publishing under the direction of Andrew Branson, and have now found a permanent home with NHBS.

NHBS founder Bernard Mercer about the acquisition of British Wildlife:
“We are thrilled and honoured to be the publisher of one of the great assets of the British wildlife, natural history, conservation and ecology world, and will do all in our power to continue the high-quality papers, articles, news and opinion for which it is known.”

The administration of the magazines will move to NHBS over the coming weeks; if you are a subscriber to British Wildlife or Conservation Land Management, please rest assured that there will be no interruption to your subscription.

Doomsday for Devon’s birds?

Curlew in flight by Smudge 3000 via Flickr under license CC BY-SA 2.0
Curlew in flight – attribution at end of post

My Atlas of Breeding Birds in Devon has a pale blue cover, a black-and-white picture of a stonechat on the front, and a price tag of £1.50. It is more than 40 years old.

The atlas, based on fieldwork from five breeding seasons, spanning 1968 to 1972, was described, somewhat inevitably, as an ‘ornithological Domesday Book’, from which changes in the status of the county’s breeding birds could be measured.

So how does the data, published in 1974, measure up to the new Devon Bird Atlas, published this year?

1970s vintage...
1970s vintage…
Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013
… This year’s model

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuckoo and starling were recorded everywhere in the old atlas, yellowhammer everywhere except Lundy. All three are now missing from large parts of the county.

The skylark was abundant throughout Devon then. Today it is scarce or absent from large areas, mainly farmland.

The skylark’s modern strongholds are Dartmoor and Exmoor and the new atlas says: “If present trends continue… the glorious song-flight will become less and less familiar in intensively farmed areas.”

The plight of the lapwing is even more pronounced. In the old atlas it was a widely distributed breeding species, despite a decline that had been noted since the 1930s; the new atlas records lapwing breeding in only three places, two of them at the RSPB’s Exe estuary reserves, the other on the southern fringe of Dartmoor.

Grey partridge was recorded breeding almost everywhere in the old atlas; now it is confirmed in only two places.

Dr Humphrey Sitters edited the old atlas, and in the preface to the new one says more agri-environment schemes are needed, but will only be put into effect if people who know what is going on “present the data we have collected and batter the politicians and bureaucrats into submission.

“Therefore, ultimately, if we lose our breeding birds it is as much our fault as everyone else involved.”

Species whose numbers have increased include siskin, Dartford warbler, Cetti’s warbler and great crested grebe.

Cetti’s warbler was not in the old atlas, the first British breeding record is from Kent in 1973 – it may now be present at all suitable sites in Devon.

There was little evidence great crested grebe bred in Devon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Numbers have since expanded, although it is doubtful more than 15 pairs successfully bred between 2007 and 2013, the years when data for the new atlas was collected.

The old atlas does not map where peregrine was breeding. During the fieldwork years only one or two pairs managed to rear young and the bird’s future, then blighted by pesticides and egg collectors, was too uncertain to risk identifying nests.

Today it is recorded as ‘possible, probable or confirmed’ almost everywhere, although in small numbers. Persecution is still with us, however, and the new atlas again tries to mask the actual nesting sites.

The sorriest story is possibly the curlew’s. It was breeding in more than half of Devon in the old atlas, although in small numbers – curlew had still not recovered from the historically cold winter of 1962/63, a trait then shared by many other species. Now breeding pairs are down to single figures, and the new atlas says the “future of the curlew as a breeding species in Devon looks bleak”.

The great landscape historian and great Devonian W.G. Hoskins described a Blackdown Hills parish, in the east of the county, as “a country of deep, winding lanes running from one ancient farmstead to another, haunted by buzzards in the valleys and by curlews on the heaths above, and full of flowers”.

The buzzards are still there but will we again be able to hear the curlew?

The old atlas grew from the BTO/Irish Wildbird Conservancy Atlas Project 1968-72, the new Devon Bird Atlas from the BTO’s Bird Atlas project 2007-11, which resulted in Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland. A large number of other regional and county bird atlases are also available and NHBS has prepared a list showing upcoming titles.Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013

Buy a copy of the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013

Main image: Curlew in flight by Smudge 9000 via Flickr under license CC BY-SA 2.0 (image cropped to remove border)

Andrew Branson: the voice at the pulsating heart of the British wildlife movement

Andrew Branson talks to NHBS about how the UK’s biodiversity fared during his British Wildlife magazine years…

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You don’t expect Andrew Branson to begin a review of how the UK’s wildlife has fared in the last quarter-century by quoting Margaret Thatcher.

Responding to emerging worldwide concern about climate change in 1990, the then Prime Minister said that as well as needing cooperation and imagination to tackle the threat, ‘We shall need statesmanship of a rare order’.

“Sadly, that is just what we don’t have,” Branson says, tweaking the message to embrace the natural world as a whole.

The previous year Branson had founded the magazine British Wildlife, described by one writer as the ‘pulsating heart of the British wildlife movement’.

The magazine, along with British Wildlife Publishing books, made Branson, according to a 2014 article in The Independent, the thinking conservationist’s candidate to rank alongside Sir David Attenborough as the person in Britain who has done most for the natural world in the last 25 years.

Many of the big issues of the late-1980s, including planting conifers on peat bogs, grubbing-up hedgerows, and river pollution, to name just three, were high on the agenda of the Government’s own conservation bodies.

But those organisations are shadows of their former selves and are unlikely to have the same influence today, Branson said. They have been cut and restructured to such an extent that they can no longer speak to Government with a strong or independent voice and are now more about delivery and process.

During the same period membership of conservation NGOs, such as the Wildlife Trusts and RSPB, has mushroomed, although none has the same statutory clout as the Government bodies.

For Branson, the rise of the NGOs is one of the period’s success stories. They are better informed than they were, he said, and better at applying scientific research on the ground. Indeed, he makes special mention of the scientists, who have done some “fantastic work on species and habitats”.

Branson uses the bittern as an example, where over the last quarter of a century numbers of ‘booming males’ have risen from around 20 to more than 150 in 2015.

“That is a powerful example of conservation action for a particular species. They have put in the research, put in the ground work, and come up with a result.”

The flip-side is that beyond protected sites, wildlife is in trouble. According to the 2013 State of Nature report, around 60 per cent of species have declined.

Branson says: “The statistic that really hits you is that the UK has lost 44 million breeding birds since England last won the World Cup in 1966, and these losses are down to the general countryside being more intensively farmed, to loss of habitat, and the effects of aerial and water-borne pollution.”

On his local riverside walk in 1989 he would regularly see turtle doves and water voles. Now they are gone. The turtle dove is at risk of becoming extinct in Britain.

“These changes can be subtle. People see cattle grazing in a grassy field and think ‘that is fine’. But a while ago that same field may have held 50 or 60 species of plant, whereas now it may have only four or five.”

Generally, the public’s understanding of the problems is now greater than in 1989 but politicians need to wake up, he said. The current government, in particular, appears to have little clue when it comes to wildlife and the countryside. Time for some real ‘statesmanship’ he muses.

Branson sold British Wildlife Publishing two years ago, but is still busy working with wildlife groups in his home county of Dorset.

 

Trees in Winter: another way of seeing

Winter oak refelctions 01 (Image by Jim Champion, via Flickr Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0)
Image credit: see below

Winter woodland has a bare, skeletal charm all of its own, and a walk in the woods is a good time to try to put names to those familiar trees.

Suddenly leafless but not as anonymous as we sometimes think, with a little practice it is surprisingly easy to begin to place those barren winter twigs.

Here is a quick, and by no means definitive, guide to identifying six of the UK’s more common deciduous trees in winter, chosen at random on a midwinter ramble in my local woods.

Oak (below): A rugged twig with fat, oval orange-brown alternate buds, and a characteristic cluster of buds at the tip. The twig of the sessile oak is less rugged than pedunculate oak, but be careful the two species often hybridise and it can be tricky to tell the difference.

Oak

Ash: A twig that looks as if it means business, with black buds in opposite pairs and an unmistakable, fat terminal bud covered in black scales.

Ash

Beech: A slender, rather delicate twig with long, alternate and markedly pointed brown buds. Hornbeam is very similar but the buds hug the twig rather than point outwards, and the twig is noticeably more zigzagged.

Beech

Hazel: The twig is downy all over – although you may need a hand lens to see this clearly – with alternate, pale green to reddish-brown, smallish buds. Catkins are not at the end of the twig, unlike in birch species.

Hazel

Field maple: Hairy twig and buds – again a hand lens is useful – with tiny reddish-brown buds, always in opposite pairs. The terminal bud often has smaller buds on either side, sometimes appearing to be a triple end bud.

Field Maple

Sycamore: Another sturdy twig, with plump pale green buds in opposite pairs. The large green bud scales on the terminal bud are easy to see.

Sycamore

I use an elderly copy of the Forestry Commission’s Know Your Broadleaves for Christine Darter’s fabulous drawings of winter twigs; David Streeter and Rosamond Richardson’s similarly dated Discovering Hedgerows has a useful key.

The stand out recent work is Dominic Price and Leif Bersweden’s Winter Trees: A Photographic Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs one of the Field Studies Council’s AIDGAP Guides, which covers 36 of the common broadleaved tree and shrub species likely to be found in the UK, as well as a few rarer ones. With pictures of bark as well as twigs, and notes on habitat, winter tree-ID suddenly seems much easier. Author royalties from the book go to the Species Recovery Trust

Winter Trees: A Photographic Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs

Main image: Winter oak refelctions 01 (Image by Jim Champion, via Flickr Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0)

Britain’s Butterflies: some good news but mostly bad

Marsh Fritillary
The Marsh Fritillary is just one of the species currently experiencing long-term decline. Image by Mark Searle.

News that three-quarters of the UK’s butterfly species have declined in the last four decades despite intensive conservation efforts comes as a disturbing jolt.

Climate change and pesticides may be playing a more harmful role than previously thought, according to The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015, which can be read here.

Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, behind the annual report, also blame habitat deterioration due to agricultural intensification and changing woodland management, particularly for those butterflies who only live in particular habitats.

This year’s findings reveal a clear north-south split, with butterflies in England declining and those in Scotland showing no long-term trend. Less severe habitat loss in the north and different effects of climate change are thought to be among the reasons.

Image by Mark Searle.

For some species the situation is stark. The long-term decline of Wood White, White Admiral and Marsh Fritillary shows no sign of slowing, while once widespread species such as the Essex Skipper and Small Heath are now amongst the UK’s most severely declining butterflies.

The Wall, once a common farmland butterfly in southern Britain, has suffered a 25 per cent decline since 2005, the once abundant Gatekeeper a 44 per cent decline in the same period, while numbers of Small Skipper have been below average every year this century.

Sorry reading but there is a silver(ish) lining – and the report’s authors believe conservation efforts may be beginning to help.

The UK’s most endangered butterfly, the High Brown Fritillary, has been fairly stable in the last decade, while numbers of threatened Duke of Burgundy Fritillary, Pearl-Bordered Fritillary, Dingy Skipper and Silver-Studded Blue have increased.

Red Admiral
Image by Mark Searle.

Many common migrant species such as Clouded Yellow, Red Admiral, and Painted Lady, have increased dramatically. While rarer migrants such as the Scarce Tortoiseshell and Long-Tailed Blue have also been arriving in the UK in unprecedented numbers.