Vaquita: An interview with Brooke Bessesen

Brooke Bessesen, author of Vaquita

In Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico’s Upper Gulf region to uncover the story behind the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Through interviews with townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists, she teases apart a complex story filled with villains and heroes, a story whose outcome is unclear.

In this post we chat with Brooke about her investigations in Mexico, local and international efforts to save the vaquita and the current status of this diminutive porpoise.

The vaquita entered the collective imagination (or at least, my imagination) when it became world news somewhere in 2017 and there was talk of trying to catch the last remaining individuals, something which you describe at the end of your story. Going back to the beginning though, how did you cross the path of this little porpoise?

I first heard about vaquita during a visit to CEDO, an educational research station in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. I was enchanted to discover this beautiful little porpoise was endemic to the Upper Gulf of California, mere hours south of my home, yet saddened to learn it was already critically endangered. I still have the t-shirt I bought that day to support vaquita conservation. That was 2008 when the population estimate was 245.

The last update I could find was an interview in March 2018 on Mongabay with Andrea Crosta, director of the international wildlife trade watchdog group Elephant Action League. He mentioned there might be only a dozen vaquita left. Do you know what the situation is like now?

The last official population estimate was <30, but that was from 2016. With an annual rate of decline upwards of 50 percent, the number is surely much lower. If only we were able to watch the numbers go down in real time, we would all be forced to emotionally experience this sickening loss. But I think there is a (legitimate) fear that if an updated estimate revealed the number to be in or near single digits, key institutions might announce the species a lost cause and pull up stakes. If pecuniary support disappears, it’s game-over. Vaquita has graced the planet for millions of years—we cannot give up the battle to prevent its extinction so long as any number remain.

Once your investigation on the ground in Mexico gets going, tensions quickly run high. This is where conservation clashes with the hard reality of humans trying to make a living. Corruption, intimidation and threats are not uncommon. Was there ever a point that you were close to pulling out because the situation became too dangerous?

Truth told, my nerves were prickling from start to finish. The emotional fatigue was intense. But having witnessed the gruesome death of Ps2 [the designation given one of the Vaquita carcasses that washed up, ed.], I simply could not turn back. Then as the humanitarian crisis became clear and I was meeting families struggling to raise children in the fray, I was even more committed to telling this story. When courage wavered, I only had to remind myself of the host of social scientists, biologists, activists, and law-abiding fishermen working so bravely for the cause.

You describe a widespread indifference to the vaquita. I have the feeling a lot of this is cultural. Do you think a change in attitude can ever be effected? Or is the combination of poverty and the need to make a living completely at loggerheads with this?

I see two main obstacles to solving the vaquita crisis: corruption and poverty. In that order, because until local citizens can trust their military and police officers to rightfully enforce law, and until Pesca [Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute and its National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries, ed.] authorizes legal, sustainable fishing methods instead of providing loopholes for poachers, there will be no economic stability in the region. Money is pouring into the pockets of crime bosses while upstanding folks barely get by. Focused on either greed or survival, nobody has much capacity to care about porpoise conservation. That said, I do believe change can be effected. Several NGOs are already connecting with the communities in meaningful ways, and mind-sets are slowly shifting. If Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who goes by the nickname Amlo, manages to abolish corruption as he has promised to do, civic finances will balance out and efforts to care for vaquita will find better footing.

As the story progresses, more and more foreign interests enter this story. Sea Shepherd starts patrolling the waters, and Leonardo DiCaprio also gets involved, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Mexican president to try and turn the tide. What was the reaction of Mexicans on the ground to this kind of foreign involvement? Are we seen as sentimental, spoiled, rich Westerners who can afford unrealistic attitudes?

Since the majority of environmentalists working in the Upper Gulf are Mexican, and even Leonardo DiCaprio had the alliance of Carlos Slim, the socio-political divide does not seem to be so much between nationalists and foreigners as between fishermen and environmentalists. Fishermen who openly expressed distain for “outsiders” disrupting business meant Sea Shepherd, for sure, but they also meant scientists and conservationists from places like Mexico City, Ensenada, and La Paz. Some of the locals I spoke with or followed on Facebook did seem troubled by the amount of resources being spent on vaquita while their own human families suffered. They felt the environmentalists were not appreciating the strain and fear of their jobless circumstances. Then again, a good percentage voiced gratitude for the efforts being made to protect vaquita as a national treasure and seemed to feel part of an important crusade for their country and their community.

Related to this, the West has outsourced the production of many things to countries overseas and so many of us are far removed from the harmful impact that our desire for food and stuff has on the environment. Deforestation in the Amazon to graze livestock for hamburgers is one such long-distance connection that comes to mind. The vaquita has also suffered from the impact of shrimp trawlers. No doubt many who shed tears over the vaquita will happily gorge themselves on said shrimps without ever making the link. Do you think that globalisation has in that regard served to polarise the debate where wildlife and nature conservation is concerned?

Yes, this is a really important point. It’s easy to point fingers, but we are all complicit in the destruction of ocean life. Anyone who eats fish or shrimp caught in gillnets—or trawls, or longlines—is funding the slaughter of cetaceans and sea turtles and myriad other animals. It’s a painful truth. The root of the problem is that most of us don’t know, and don’t care to ask, where the seafood on our dinner plate came from. This is not intended to be accusatory, as I, too, am finding my way in this era of culinary disconnect. I just know the first step is to quit pretending we are bystanders.

One side of the story I found missing from your book was that of the demand for totoaba swim bladders in China. I imagine it might have been too dangerous or time-consuming (or both) to expand your investigation to China as well. How important and how feasible do you think it is to tackle the problem from that side? Without a demand for totoaba bladders, the vaquita wouldn’t face the threats of gillnets after all.

I think it’s imperative to attack the totoaba trade from the consumer side, with the goal of systematically eliminating the demand for swim bladders. As for feasibility, I’m less confident. Time and distance prevented me from effectively researching the situation in China, but from what I’ve read, the cultural, political, and economic trappings there are just as complicated as they are in Mexico. I’m pleased to know efforts are underway. It also must be said, though, that ending the totoaba trade is not a sure-fire resolution for vaquita because fishermen in the Upper Gulf traditionally use gillnets for a range of legal fish.

With the book now written, are you still involved in efforts to protect the vaquita?

Knowing what I know now, it’s unthinkable to walk away from vaquita. I was down in San Felipe last month, exchanging summer c-pods and catching up on the latest news. Everyone is nurturing the flicker of hope that Amlo will take action to save his national marine mammal by cleaning up the corruption that has stymied vaquita conservation.

Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez is due for publication in September 2018 and is currently available at the pre-publication price of £19.99 (RRP £22.99).

 

Hedgehog Awareness Week 2018

The hedgehog is one of the nation’s favourite garden visitors. However, due to severe declines in their numbers, they are now a priority species in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan. Image by Peter O’Connor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Hedgehog Awareness Week runs from 6th – 12th May and is organised by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

Here are seven ways that you can get involved this year:

1. Donate to the BHPS by texting HHOG18 £5 to 70070, or donate via their Just Giving page. The BHPS is a charity that relies solely on membership and donations. They provide advice to the public on how to care for and encourage local hedgehogs and they maintain a national list of hedgehog rehabilitators. They also raise awareness and support for hedgehogs and fund research into the behaviour and conservation of hedgehogs in the UK.

2. Hold a coffee morning or other fundraising event to raise funds for hedgehogs. Make sure you tag any posts about your event on social media with #hedgehogweek and don’t forget to let BHPS know what you’re doing, so they can keep up-to-date with everything that’s going on around the country.

3. Post some leaflets in your local area letting people know how to care for hedgehogs in their garden and what to do if they find an injured hog. Lots of leaflets can be downloaded from the information section on the BHPS website.

4. Contact your local council or tool hire centre and ask them to put free warning stickers on all of their strimmers.

5. Educate yourself about hedgehogs and their needs. Take a look at our Hedgehog Facts & FAQs blogpost for lots of information or treat yourself to one of the great books about hedgehogs available from NHBS:

The Hedgehog

Hedgehogs

Hedgehog

 

 

 

 

 

A Prickly AffairHedgehog RehabilitationHedgehog New Naturalist

 

 

 

 

 

From left to right, top to bottom:
The Hedgehog – Pat Morris
Hedgehogs – Pat Morris
Hedgehog – High Warwick
A Prickly Affair – Hugh Warwick
Hedgehog Rehabilitation – Kay Bullen
Hedgehog New Naturalist – Pat Morris (Due June 2018)

6. Make your garden hedgehog-friendly: Attempt to keep some areas wild and overgrown and, 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. Provide a shallow dish of fresh water along with some dog or cat food, some chopped unsalted peanuts or some sunflower hearts. Finally, 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.

Igloo Hedgehog Home

Hedgehog Nest Box

Eco Hedgehog Nest Box

 

 

 


From left to right:

Igloo Hedgehog Home
Hedgehog Nest Box
Eco Hedgehog Nest Box

7. Find out if hedgehogs are visiting your garden with our brand new Mammal Footprint Tunnel. Simple to set up and safe for children (and animals), the tunnel is a fun way to collect tracks of hedgehogs and other small mammals in your garden.

Get involved in National Mammal Week

This year National Mammal week takes place from 21st – 29th October. Organised by the Mammal Society, this event is an opportunity to increase awareness of mammals and to highlight some of the challenges that they face. Keep reading for eight exciting ways to get involved with Mammal conservation in Britain today.

Brown Hare by Sheppy 9000 via Flickr Creative Commons. National Mammal Week 2017.
The brown hare can achieve running speeds of up to 45mph in order to avoid predators. Image by Sheppy 9000 via Flickr Creative Commons (CC by 2.0)

Submit your mammal-related sightings to the Mammal Atlas

Sightings of any mammals in the UK can be submitted to the Mammal Society website for inclusion in the Mammal Atlas. Schemes such as this allow a huge amount of data to be collected and collated – much more than would ever be possible by paid researchers or surveyors.

Download the mammal tracker app

Submitting your sightings is even easier with the Mammal Tracker app. Free to download, this app will allow you to upload photos, descriptions, sounds and annotated images of the mammals you have encountered, and provides a quick way of sending these to the Mammal Society for inclusion in the Atlas. Available for iOS and Android phones.

Contribute to the Hedgehog-watch Survey

Following the success of the 2016 Hedgehog-watch survey, this year the Mammal Society are conducting research into the effect of garden lighting on hedgehog feeding behaviour. The survey is sponsored by Kent Mammal Group, Cornwall Mammal Group, Devon Mammal Group and Dan Brown at Natural World Consultants and will involve citizen scientists filming hedgehogs in their gardens in the presence and absence of artifical lighting. Email atlas@themammalsociety.org to enquire about this survey.

Join your local mammal group

Local mammal groups bring people together in their shared passion for mammals. Most run a series of events throughout the year, including walks, talks and training courses, and they are a great chance to meet other people nearby who are excited to learn about and protect mammals in the UK. Use the Mammal Society map to find a group in your local area.

Enter the amateur mammal photographer of the year competition

The amateur Mammal Photographer of the Year competition is judged each year in the spring at the Mammal Society Spring Conference. This year’s competition opens on the 21st October to coincide with National Mammal Week. Head over to the Mammal Society website for details of how to submit your entry, and check out the winning photographs from this year’s contest.

Learn about Britain’s mammals

At the Mammal Society species hub you can download a useful fact sheet for more than 30 UK mammals. The society also publish a wide range of books including the excellent species series, the popular How to Find and Identify Mammals and the beautifully illustrated Mammals of the British Isles. For ecologists and researchers, UK BAP Mammals and The Water Vole Mitigation Handbook are useful additions to the bookshelf.

Attend a Mammal Society event

Mammal groups around the country will be running events to mark National Mammal Week. Take a look at the website or Facebook page of your local group to find out what’s going on, or head over to the events calendar on the Mammal Society website.

Follow the Mammal Society on social media

Like the Mammal Society Facebook page, follow @Mammal_Society on Twitter and search the tags #NationalMammals and #mammalweek to keep up to date with all the news and events.

 

Hedgehog Facts and FAQs

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

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

Hedgehog natural history and biology

The hedgehog found in Britain has the scientific name Erinaceus europaeus. With the exception of some of the Scottish islands, they are present almost everywhere in Britain. Hedgehogs have 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 they may weigh considerably less than this at certain times of the 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 face, belly and limbs tucked carefully inside.

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

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

Current status of hedgehogs in the UK

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

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

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

Encouraging hedgehogs in your garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other ways to help

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

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

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

• Educate yourself about hedgehogs in the UK. Take a look at one of the excellent books below, or do some research online. This great guide provides lots of information about looking after the hedgehogs in your garden.

Recommended reading

Hedgehogs

Hedgehogs
Pat Morris

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

 

Hedgehog

Hedgehog
Hugh Warwick

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

 

The Hedgehog

The Hedgehog
Pat Morris

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

 

 

Hedgehog houses and gifts

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

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

 

Red Squirrel Awareness Week

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.

Red by herdiephoto
The diminutive red squirrel has a distinctive profile, with its tufted ears and bushy tail. Red by herdiephoto is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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.

For more information about Red Squirrel Awareness Week, check out the Wildlife Trusts website.


Red Squirrel Books and Gifts

Red SquirrelsRed Squirrels: Ecology, Conservation and Management in Europe
Paperback | July 2015

 

 

 

On the Trail of Red Squirrels

On the Trail of Red Squirrels
Hardback | Oct 2013

 

 

 

Belinda

Belinda: The Forest How Red Squirrel
Hardback | June 2017

 

 

 

 

Red Squirrel Nest Box

Red Squirrel Nest Box
FSC Timber

 

 

Red Squirrel House

Red Squirrel House
Plywood

 

 

 

Red Squirrel Soft Toy

Red Squirrel Soft Toy
Suitable for ages 0+

The NHBS Guide to Whale and Dolphin Watching

Public sighting records are important for UK cetacean conservation. Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins by Jo Garbutt is licenced under CC BY 2.0

Catching a glimpse of a whale or dolphin whilst visiting the coast is a uniquely memorable experience and a few hours spent whale and dolphin watching is fun for all age groups. Plus, your sightings can really make a difference and will add to the growing body of survey data collected for the UK coastline.

Keep reading for some tips on when and where to watch whales and dolphins, how to get started and where to report your sightings.

When and where should I watch cetaceans and what am I likely to see?

The best time for spotting cetaceans is between April and October when visitors to our coastal waters are at their highest. Some areas are undoubtedly better than others for catching a glimpse of these elusive animals: Devon, Cornwall and Cardigan Bay in Wales are good places to go, as well as the coasts of northern Scotland.

Twenty-nine species of cetacean have been recorded in UK waters, and some areas of our coastline are home to permanent populations of dolphins. The most commonly reported species are bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises and minke whales, although rarer visitors have included killer whales, humpback whales and striped dolphins.

Of course, cetaceans aren’t the only things you will see. Keep your eyes peeled for seals too and enjoy the seabirds and beautiful views at the same time!

How do I get started watching whales and dolphins?

For most people, watching cetaceans from the land (rather than from a boat) will be the most convenient and economical option. Any place where you can sit comfortably with a good view of the sea will suffice, but if you can make your way to a cliff top then this will provide a better vantage point. Calm, overcast days tend to be the best for spotting cetaceans as the combination of swell, choppy waves and surface reflections can make fins all but impossible to see. For the same reason, the hours following dusk and prior to dawn are the best times of day to go.

A watch is conducted by scanning the surface of the water with the naked eye, switching to binoculars periodically or whenever you notice a disturbance at the surface. As soon as you see something that may be a whale or dolphin, concentrate your binoculars in that area, making sure to scan a little way around in case it surfaces again nearby. Another good technique is to look out for seabirds circling or diving as this may indicate cetaceans feeding just below the surface.

Any binoculars (or a scope and tripod) can be used for sea watches. If you are looking for binoculars specifically for this activity, however, make sure to go with a model that has a large objective lens diameter as this will improve the light transmission and will help with viewing in lower light conditions.

For researchers studying marine mammals, items such as thermal imaging scopes and hydrophones are useful additions to the surveying toolbox and will allow them to find and identify cetaceans in a greater range of conditions as well as enabling more detailed investigation of behaviour.

Where do I submit my sightings?

Several organisations in the UK offer online sighting forms where you can submit information about whales, dolphins and porpoises that you have confidently identified during your watch. Take a look at the Sea Watch Foundation, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, or the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit websites for sighting forms. Other regional groups such as the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and Norfolk Cetaceans also collect local sightings so it might be worth finding out if there is an active recording group near to where you live.

Check out the NHBS website for a great range of binoculars and scopes, as well as other handy field kit such as waterproof clipboards and notebooks. Also have a look at these two field guides to help with identifying whales and dolphins.

Guide to the UK Cetaceans and Seals
Guide to the UK Cetaceans and Seals
Whales, Dolphins and Seals: A Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World
Whales, Dolphins and Seals: A Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World

 

The NHBS Guide to Small Mammal Trapping

Field vole (Microtus agrestis)

Small mammals form a vital component of our terrestrial ecosystems, both by contributing to overall biodiversity and providing prey for carnivores such as owls, pine martens and weasels. Survey data for many of our small mammal species is insufficient for them to be assessed as part of the UK BAP process and so supporting our national monitoring programme is incredibly important.

One of the most common ways of monitoring small mammals is through the use of live traps. These allow a range of species to be monitored simultaneously, and also allow biometric data such as weight and sex to be collected. In addition, estimates of population size and structure can be calculated using capture-mark-recapture (CMR) techniques. The use of live traps is also a great way for getting volunteers involved and providing them with an up-close experience of the animals they are passionate about.

Live-catch techniques, however, do have a few disadvantages in that populations can be affected by disturbance or mortality. Live-trapping is also unsuitable in certain areas (such as urban or busy rural regions) and requires a relatively large amount of time and expenditure.

Here we will take a look at some of the most commonly available live-traps used for small mammal survey.

Longworth Trap

Longworth Small Mammal Trap

The Longworth trap is made from aluminium which makes it lightweight for field use. This trap has been widely used in the UK for many years.

The trap consists of two parts: a tunnel which contains the door tripping mechanism, and a nest box, which is attached to the back of the tunnel. The nest box provides a large space for food and bedding material to ensure that the trapped animal is comfortable until release.

Advantages
• Widely used for many years; well documented in scientific literature
• Lightweight and durable
• Sensitivity of the trip mechanism can be adjusted
• Door can be locked open for pre-baiting

Disadvantages:
• Expensive
• Replacement parts not available
• Larger species can occasionally trip the trap without being caught
• Pygmy shrews may be too light to trigger the trap mechanism

Sherman Trap

Sherman Trap

Sherman traps work by use of a triggered platform which causes the door to shut when the animal enters. It folds down to a size and shape which is easy to transport.

Sherman traps are available in a range of different sizes to suit the species that you are hoping to catch. They can be purchased in aluminium or as a galvanised version which is more resistant to rusting.

Advantages:
• Lightweight and foldable – easy to transport and store
• Different sizes available, including long versions
• Easy to clean

Disadvantages:
• Difficult to add bedding/food as this interferes with the trap mechanism
• Traps may distort over time with repeated folding
• Danger of long tails being trapped in the door

 

Economy Mammal Trip-Trap

Economy Mammal Trip-Trap

The Economy Trip-Trap provides a cheaper alternative to other mammal traps.  It has a traditional treadle design which closes the door behind the animal when it enters the trap.

This lightweight trap is suitable for short-term or occasional use and is also popular for trapping mice indoors either for surveying or for relocation.

Advantages:
• Cheap and lightweight
• Transparent for easy inspection
• Good for indoor use

Disadvantages:
• Doesn’t work well in wet/humid conditions
• Can’t pre-bait or change trigger sensitivity
• Trapped animals may chew through the trap

Pitfall Traps

P2.5 litre Plastic Bucketitfall Traps consist of a container which is sunk into the ground, into which small mammals can be caught. Traps can be baited if required and drift fencing can also be used to direct animals into the trap.

Small cans or buckets make ideal pitfall traps. If using buckets, lids can be fitted when not in use, which means that traps can remain in situ for extended periods of time.

Advantages:
• Able to catch multiple individuals
• Low maintenance

Disadvantages:
• More labour intensive than box traps to set up
• Trapped animals may attack eachother or be eaten by predators
• May become waterlogged in damp areas or in bad weather

Other survey methods

Other methods of surveying for small mammals include the analysis of owl pellets for mammal remains and the use of dormouse nest tubes. Hair and footprint tubes are also useful as well as searching for field signs such as tracks and faeces.

A comprehensive monitoring programme will most likely involve a combination of these methods, depending on the availability of participants and volunteers and the type of habitat present locally.

If you are interested in becoming involved in mammal survey in the UK, take a look at the Mammal Society website where you will find information on local recording groups, training opportunities and the latest mammal-related research.

Our full range of mammal traps can be found on our website.

 

Book Review – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

Written by Lee Alan Dugatkin & Lyudmila Trut

Published in March 2017 by Chicago University Press

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) tells a remarkable story about a remarkable long-term experiment you will most likely never have heard of. I hadn’t, despite my background in evolutionary biology. When the announcement for it crossed my desk a month or so ago, its subtitle immediately grabbed my attention.

For more than 60 years, Russian scientists have been cross-breeding captive foxes in Siberia, selecting for tameness, in a bid to learn more about the evolutionary history of animal domestication. Written by evolutionary biologist and science historian Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, who has been part of this experiment for close to six decades, it tells the story from its inception.

Back in 1952, geneticist Dmitri Belyaev had many questions regarding domestication. Though the breeding techniques were well understood, how did domestication start? The wild ancestors of today’s domestic animals would have likely run away or attacked humans, so what changed to make domestication possible? Being the lead scientist at a state laboratory that helped fur breeders produce more beautiful and luxurious fox pelts, he had both the knowledge and the means to tackle these questions. His plan? Experimentally mimic the evolution of the wolf into the dog using its close genetic cousin the fox. It was bold, both in its timescale, likely needing years – even decades – to yield results, but also in its timing. You see, Russia was still under the communist rule of Stalin, and one of his protegees, the poorly educated agronomist Trofim Lysenko, was waging a war on the “western” science of genetics. Scientists were expelled, imprisoned, and even murdered over their career choice. But Belyaev, having lost a brother this way, refused to back down. Far from Lysenko’s prying eyes in Moscow, in the frozen wilderness of Siberia, he started his breeding experiments, purporting to improve breeding rates in case anyone did come asking. Lyudmila joined him in 1958, and this book is their story.

It’s a story of science, and the authors do a good job distilling the findings into a reader-friendly format. The results are fascinating as the foxes rapidly evolve from wild animals to tamer and tamer companions that crave human interaction, undergoing a raft of subtle morphological changes in the process. But it’s also very much a human story. Of the women, often local peasants, who came to work at the fox farm, not necessarily understanding the science, but showing immense dedication to the cause. Of the researchers, who developed a deep love for, and connection with the generations of foxes, who rapidly became more dog-like in their behaviour and appearances.

It’s a story of persistence against all odds; the experiments are running to this day and have survived Stalin’s brutal regime, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with all the economic turmoil that that caused. And it’s a story of an opportunity most scientists can only dream of: being able to follow up on previous findings and answering questions raised by previous experiments. Uniquely, this played out during (or perhaps was able to keep going because of) a period in which our knowledge of genetics, and the technologies available, kept on developing. The measuring of neurochemicals, epigenetics, PCR, genome mapping, next-generation sequencing… as new questions were being generated, so new techniques became available to probe deeper into the mysteries of the domestication.

The book makes for fascinating reading and is hard to put down once you start it. Highly recommended.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is available to order from NHBS.

Ecologist Derek Gow on beaver reintroductions in the UK

Ecologist Derek Gow (The Derek Gow Consultancy) is the co-author of The Eurasian Beaver, published in January 2015. His involvement with Devon Wildlife Trust’s trial reintroduction and the Tayside beaver reintroduction makes him uniquely placed to discuss the topic of beaver reintroductions in the UK.

The Eurasian BeaverHow would the presence of healthy beaver populations enhance the UK’s landscape and biodiversity?

In Eurasia and North America beavers are the keystone species around which all other wetland life revolves. Their simple dam building and tree felling activities trigger a whole range of complex changes in their surrounding environments which clearly result in greatly enhanced levels of biodiversity and biomass. In landscapes which are semi-natural the cascade of dynamic changes they produce harbours the potential for breathtakingly spectacular results, such as the return of the black stork. While in highly manipulated, human engineered environments they can literally breathe life back into the land.

You are involved with the Devon Beaver Project, which has created a test environment to see how reintroduced beavers would affect their local ecosystem. Can you tell us more about this project, and what results it has produced so far?

The initial stage of the Devon Beaver Trial was designed to evaluate from ground zero the impact of a beaver family in an enclosed area of wet-woodland of approximately 3ha. Between 2011 and 2015 the beavers created a series of approximately 14 major dam systems on a 200 metre length of a seasonally flowing water course at the northern end of the site. They maintain long dams in the winter when water is abundant and short dams in the summer when water is scarce. At the time of writing their impoundments are capable of retaining approximately 1000 tonnes of water, none of which would have seasonally remained on site without them. The return of the beaver has been accompanied by a proliferation of wildlife. Flowering and other vascular plant communities now abound on site. On warm sunny days meadow browns, marbled whites and a host of other butterflies flit through its open woodlands. Dragonflies and damselflies occur in ever greater numbers while amphibians such as common frogs have increased in numbers fiftyfold. Juvenile common lizards hunt through the deadwood understory while marsh tits, spotted flycatchers, greater spotted woodpeckers, tree creepers and redpolls hunt insects in the trees. Water fowl have moved into occupy environments which formerly did not exist. Red and roe deer jump the perimeter fence to drink in its pools.

It is an absolutely amazing project and a brilliant site.

What does a reintroduction look like in practical terms? Can you break down the logistics of species reintroduction?

Well if you ask the Germans its simple: you get lots of beavers – 40 plus per release, drive along the road, spot a likely location, and let them go. A crude system which works! Reintroductions in Britain are often subject to a large degree of politics, which can be frustrating as this is a species well understood throughout its natural range which simply offers so much. We could do much better. To date, beaver reintroduction has been a haphazard affair with major public spats between those that wish them to remain and those that are opposed – the history of the Tayside and Devon beavers demonstrate this well. Given that this species was last present in Britain outside of our living memory, it is assumed that licensed releases require a scientific demonstration of how this animal will impact a British landscape – as though it will be any different from what our European and American counterparts have already demonstrated. In realistic terms, in Britain an official reintroduction would involve a small number of animals, released into a specific site, with thorough scientific monitoring of impact and public opinion. Though we may take heart that beavers are now back in our landscape, the process to full restoration is likely to be slow and cautious.

What precedent does the approval of the River Otter beaver population set for reintroductions as a wider concept? Are we likely to see lynx roaming wild any time soon?

We need to learn to live with and tolerate beavers before I think we can accomplish anything more adventurous in Britain. If we can’t move forward with reintroducing this charismatic rodent that has such significant impacts on its environment, and can single-handedly do so much to restore our wetlands, then we need to be seriously realistic about our collective ability to accept top predators on this island – no matter how nostalgic or headline grabbing the notion of lynx may be.

What would you say to people who consider reintroduction to be somehow against the natural order of things?

When you consider our contemporary British landscapes and their land-use practices, which are entirely dictated by human activity, they represent little in the way of natural order. In truth they are not ecosystems and we are probably grasping at straws to even describe what’s left as tattered fragments blowing in the wind. Instead we have a wealth of isolated areas of biological richness, generally produced as a result of relict human activities which are difficult to maintain and increasingly vulnerable and fragile. Do we accept that these nature zoos are it, or do we try to foster and encourage a process whereby we change the pattern of the landscape we have made to make it better for people and wildlife alike? Reintroductions, where human activities have caused the past extinction or diminution of a species in Britain, are simply a tool we should employ with competent ease where the circumstances justify its use.

We recently heard the news about the successful litter of kits produced by the River Otter beavers. What did this news mean to you personally? 

Brilliant!! It’s been a long time coming. Let’s move on now from these vital but small and isolated pockets of beavers and see the full restoration of this incredible species.


 

Also available now

Nature's Architect: The Beaver's Return to Our Wild LandscapesNature’s Architect: The Beaver’s Return to Our Wild Landscapes is the latest book from leading nature writer Jim Crumley. The book explores the natural history of the beaver, and Crumley makes his case in favour of beaver reintroduction.

 

 

How to choose the trail camera that’s right for you

Bushnell Dipper
This video of a dipper was taken with a Bushnell Trophy Cam and is a great example of what can be captured with an entry level camera.

UPDATE November 2017 – This post has been updated to reflect the trail cameras currently available.

Trail camera technology is developing all the time and the range of products on the market constantly expanding. While this is exciting, it can also be incredibly confusing, especially when you’re trying to choose which model is best suited to your needs.

Here are six things you should consider when trying to choose the trail camera that’s right for you:

1. Type of LEDs

The infrared LEDs on a trail camera provide the illumination needed to take pictures at night. Generally speaking, these come in two types: standard or low glow. Standard LEDs have a shorter wavelength which means that they will emit a small amount of visible light when activated. This will be seen as a small red flash. Low glow LEDs, having a longer wavelength, do not produce this tell-tale red glow so have obvious benefits for wildlife photography. Low glow types, however, will have a shorter range than standard LEDs.

2. Trigger speed

Trigger speed is the time taken for an image or video to be recorded after the infrared motion sensor has been triggered. If your subject is fast moving then a quicker trigger speed will help to ensure you capture great images. Fastest trigger speeds are currently around 0.07 seconds (e.g. the Spypoint Force-11D).

3. Picture and video resolution

As with any type of camera, image and video resolution are important, and the image quality you require will depend on what you will be using your footage for, along with your budget. Most trail cameras will give you the option to alter the resolution using compression or interpolation methods. This can be useful if you are deploying your camera for long periods, when memory card capacity may become an issue. It also means, however, that you should check the resolution of the camera image sensor as the advertised megapixel value often relates to the interpolated resolution (* see note below for a definition of interpolation).

4. Does it have a viewing screen?

Having an image preview screen in your trail camera is beneficial in two ways: Firstly, it allows you to quickly check the images that you have recorded without having to remove the SD card or plug it into a laptop. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it lets you take a few test images. By walking (or running) in front of the camera and checking the image captured, you can be assured that your camera angle and position is exactly right. The Bushnell Aggressor range and Spypoint Force-11D all have a good sized viewing screen.

5. Camera settings

All trail cameras will give you some control over the capture settings. Most will allow you to change the number of images taken per trigger as well as the length of video recorded. It is usually possible, as well, to specify the delay between photos and/or trigger events. Time lapse options allow you to take photographs at regular intervals between hours of your choice, and some cameras, such as those in the Bushnell range, can be set with two separate time lapse windows. This is useful if you are interested in both dusk and dawn activities.

6. Wireless functionality

Cameras with wireless functionality will send images directly to your mobile phone or email account. This offers huge time saving benefits, as well as reducing the amount of disturbance at your survey site. Several cameras now have wireless capabilities, and some will even allow you to alter your camera settings remotely. An activated SIM card is required to use these features. All of the cameras in the Ltl Acorn range are available with wireless capabilities.

 * Interpolation is where the software inside the camera produces a larger image by adding pixels. These extra pixels are created by application of an algorithm which uses adjacent pixels to create the most likely colour.