Steller’s Sea Eagle: An interview with Richard Sale

Standing a metre tall, with a wingspan approaching three metres, the Steller’s Sea Eagle is a magnificent and impressive bird.

Published in November, Richard Sale’s new book is the first English-language study of this bird of prey.  A translation of an earlier Russian book written by Masterov and Romanov, the English version benefits from significant updates and a wealth of new photographs.

We recently chatted with Richard about the Steller’s Sea Eagle, his passion for birds and his love of the Arctic.

In your author biography you are described as a physicist with a PhD in astrophysics. Is physics still a part of your life or do you now devote all of your time to your writing and natural history studies?

Physics will always be a part of my life. I started out as a working physicist, at first as a glaciologist in Switzerland because they paid me to stay in the mountains where I could climb on my days off. Then I moved back to the UK to work. After a few years I left full-time employment and started a consultancy which allowed me to share physics with my love of birds and of snow and ice.

You obviously have a huge passion for birds, and you also spend much of your time studying Arctic ecology. Where did these twin passions come from?

The love of birds started with my father who was a birdwatcher. Our holidays were geared around the breeding season and we went to the moors rather than the beach. He taught me to really watch birds, not just to be able to name them but to able to understand their habits. My other love as a kid was climbing; at first rock faces, then mountains. The love of snow and ice and birds led naturally to wanting to visit the Arctic. After the first trip I really didn’t want to go anywhere else, especially as I am no lover of hot weather.

How did the collaboration for Steller’s Sea Eagle come about? Were you approached to work on the English version of the book or is it something that you yourself instigated?

I had visited Kamchatka in summer and winter and been in the field with Yevgeni Lobkov, one the experts on Kamchatka’s Steller’s. I subsequently went to Hokkaido several times to see the eagles on the sea ice. Then I found the Russian book and corresponded with Michael Romanov. That led to the idea of translating it into English, so I obtained the English rights from the Russian publisher. At first the idea was just to translate the Russian book, but by questioning Michael and Vladimir about sections of text, and then suggesting that we include my work on flight characteristics, the two of them suggested I should be co-author as the book was now looking substantially different from the original.

Can you describe your first sighting of a Steller’s Sea Eagle? How did it make you feel?

I mentioned Yevgeni Lobkov above. He and I took a trip along the Zupanova River in a Zodiac and I remember the first time a Steller’s came over us. It was low down and seemed to blot out the light because of its size. No one who sees a Steller’s can avoid being impressed and I was immediately enraptured.

I was intrigued to read that you have worked with a captive Steller’s Sea Eagle here in the UK. Can you tell us more about this experience?

Once in the Arctic, on Bylot Island, I was watching a Gyrfalcon hunting Arctic Ground Squirrels and because of the terrain, a narrow valley, I could see the falcon was not stooping in a straight line. That led to investigating the physiology of falcon eyes, and to designing a small unit with gps, tri-axial accelerometers, magnetometers and gyros (and other bits) to fly on falconry birds to study how they fly. I managed to get the weight down to a few grams – though that hardly mattered when I found someone flying a captive Steller’s in England as it weighed 5kg. It was flying the units on that bird that is in the new book. Atlas, the eagle, was flown in demonstrations for the public and allowed me to investigate wing beat frequencies, speed etc. It was great fun as he was such a docile bird, a real gentle giant, and being allowed to get so close to him was marvellous.

It seems that two of the main pressures on the Steller’s Sea Eagle are fossil fuel exploration from humans and predation from brown bears. Are there currently any population estimates for the species, and are you hopeful for their future survival?

The situation is not good. The company drilling for oil and gas have been helpful in taking enormous care over onshore works near breeding sites and are to be commended for that. But the fact is that, as human activities of all sorts have expanded close to Steller’s habitats (most of which are well away from the oil/gas exploration sites), the population has gone into decline. We can overcome bear predation by fitting anti-bear devices to trees. We can erect artificial nest and roost sites. But despite all of this, at the moment the population numbers are slowly coming down, probably as a result of global warming, though we are not yet definite about that. Hopefully the population will stabilise but only time will tell if our efforts have been sufficient.

Within a given year, how much time do you spend travelling and how much writing? Do you enjoy each part of the process equally?

Age is catching up with me now and so I spend less time in the Arctic than I did (when I could be there for many weeks during the breeding season). But I still get into the field regularly – particularly at the moment with my units flying on falconry birds and with studies on Merlins in Iceland, Scotland and Hobbies in England and Wales. But I also spend a lot of time in the library reading about birds and, sadly, the damage we are causing them through industrialisation and climate change. As everyone knows, there is hardly any money to be made nowadays as a writer of books on natural history and related topics, but I also enjoy the process of writing and preparing books for publication.

Another of your books, The Arctic, is due for publication in December. What’s next for you? Do you have another project in the pipeline?

That book is an updated, but shortened, version of one I produced some years ago with new photographs by myself and a Norwegian photographer I bumped into one winter out on the sea ice of Svalbard. We have made several journeys together since and stay in close touch as we share a love of the Arctic. The next will likely be an updated and expanded version of the one I produced on the Merlin. Merlins are my favourite raptor. Falcons are, in general, warm-weather birds. The exceptions are the Gyrfalcons, which are the largest falcons, the Peregrine (which lives more or less everywhere) and is also large, and the tiny Merlin. I am as entranced by these little birds making a living in the harshest climates as I am by the huge Steller’s.

“When it is -35 C and you are on a snow scooter at 40 kph you look like this or, you are frostbitten in seconds”

Richard Sale is a physicist with a PhD in astrophysics, who now devotes his time to studying Arctic ecology and the flight dynamics of raptors. With Eugene Potapov he co-authored The Gyrfalcon monograph which won the US Wildlife Society Book of the Year in 2006. His other books include The Snowy OwlWildlife of the Arctic and the New Naturalist title Falcons.

Browse all ornithology and Arctic ecology books by Richard Sale.

 

 

 

 

Steller’s Sea Eagle:  The first English-language study of this bird of prey, is published in November.

Hardback | Nov 2018 | ISBN-13: 9780957173231

£39.99

 

The Arctic:  A condensed and updated edition of an earlier work with new photographs, is published in December.

Paperback | Dec 2018 | ISBN-13: 9781849953429

£24.99

Please note that all prices are correct at the time of posting and are subject to change at any time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Landfill: An interview with Tim Dee

Landfill is the story of gulls. Often derided as ‘bin chickens’ these complex birds are a surprising success story, exploiting and enjoying a niche created by our own waste-making behaviours.

In Landfill, Tim Dee has written an honest, funny and intelligent ode to these inquisitive, resourceful and daring birds. Their story is interwoven with our own – it is a nature book for our times.

We asked Tim a few questions regarding his fascination with gulls and his thoughts about these ubiquitous and canny survivors.

Why did you choose to write about Gulls?

I’ve been a birdwatcher for fifty years and grew up in a simpler world of gulls. They were mostly still ‘seagulls’ then – marine species – and there were only a handful regularly occurring in Britain. Thirty years ago – but without me fully clocking it at the time – gulls in Britain got more obvious and more interesting. Gulls became urban birds then, like never before – moving to breed in our cities and feeding on our rubbish dumps and stealing our chips – and they were also taxonomically reappraised so that the few species I thought I knew became a dozen or more species to search for and to learn to identify.  These changes and the ways the birds have continued to live as often the wildest creature closest to our contemporary lives made them interesting to me, troubling even, and I started trying to work out what was going on.

J.A. Baker, the author of Peregrine and perhaps the founder of nature writing once wrote ‘science can never be enough; emotion and sentiment will always rule.’ Public perceptions of gulls range from dislike all the way to loathing. Is there anything that might make us more accepting of gulls and their place among us?

I think they hold a mirror up to us. They have flown in our slipstream in the last 100 years, coming ashore first to feed on fish guts, then following ploughs, and more recently finding life in our leftovers on city streets and rubbish dumps. They have found a way to live alongside us. Most birds have gone in the opposite direction. Instead of admiring the gulls for getting good at various human-like activities (surviving in the jostle of cities, shifting to new places where opportunities arise, making do in strapped times) we have derided them. I think we fear them with a dark loathing and, in an atavistic way, other animals that we see as succeeding.  This is quite wrong. We have made the world the gulls have adapted to and we should look to our own debased and wasteful existence before hating other species for getting on with their lives. They might teach us about ourselves if we could learn how to know them properly. The gullers in Landfill know this and I have tried to write the book for the gulls as much as about them.

Gulls have proved to be adaptable, especially regarding human interaction; what changes have they already accomplished and what do you envisage for them in the next fifty or even one hundred years?

There has been a gull moment and it looks like it is coming to an end. Urban gulls – living in cities and eating our food waste on dumps – are a product of urbanising humanity and the throwaway decades of the 1960s-1990s. Nowadays the large species (herring and lesser black-backed above all) have two largely separate populations – one urban and one still marine. The seaside gulls are threatened species now and not doing well. At the moment the urban birds are still expanding their range and populations (there is remarkably little traffic between the two populations). But food waste recycling is increasingly efficient in the UK and little or no putrifiable waste is soon meant to be arriving on dumps. The food source is ending for the gulls. We don’t yet know what will happen. It seems likely that the numbers of the birds (100,000 pairs of urban herring and lesser black-backed gulls in Britain it is thought) cannot be sustained without this food source. It is good for us to be recyclers and to be less wasteful but the gulls may well not be so pleased.

With their increased visibility in towns and cities, what might be their impact on the urban wildlife that is already established there?

I’ve seen them eating a starling chick, others have seen them eating human hair outside a barber shop. The slum avifauna as it has been called is a dynamic one. Urban human life drives change in the leftover wildlife that can survive in the hectic built up world. Gulls take pigeons. And rats. But it is tough times for all species in these environments. On the rubbish dumps I have visited to ring gulls a super bold landfill red fox will take black-headed gulls if we are not careful to throw the ringed birds back into the air. Marginal living is hard for all. And in these shifting landscapes in states of permanent rebuild no one can tell who is going win out.

During your research for Landfill can you think of one stand-out surprising fact or discovery that you didn’t previously know?

Cities are warmer and safer and more nutritious for gulls than their original habitats; lesser black-backed gulls used to be migratory birds in Britain but seem to be evolving into sedentary birds; Caspian gulls are storming out of Eastern Europe, but are running out of their own species to mate with so are hybridising with others: nothing sits still for long in nature. Evolution is relentless, and the gulls are telling us how it is.

Are there plans for, or are you currently embarking on any new writing projects?

A nicer book in some ways I hope – I am writing about the spring in Europe following migratory birds north from south of the Sahara to the top of Arctic Scandinavia. Spring moves at about walking pace north and it is my favourite time of year. I have tried to walk the season from south to north in time with swallows and wheatears and nightjars and redstarts. And not many gulls, though I love them now too of course.

 

 

 

 

Tim Dee has been a birdwatcher for most of his life and written about them for twenty years.  As well as Landfill, he is the author of The Running Sky and Four Fields and is the editor of Ground Works.

Landfill is part of our Best of Winter collection and is available at the special offer price of £13.99 until the end of December 2018.

Hardback | Oct 2018 | ISBN-13: 9781908213624   £13.99 £15.99

 

 

Climate Change and British Wildlife: an interview with Trevor Beebee

Climate Change and British Wildlife is the sixth installment of the popular British Wildlife Collection. In this timely text, Trevor Beebee takes advantage of our long history of wildlife monitoring to examine the effects that climate change has played so far on British species and their ecosystems. He also considers what the future may hold for them in a constantly warming environment.

Trevor Beebee is Emeritus Professor of Evolution, Behaviour and Environment at the University of Sussex, Trustee of the Herpetological Conservation and Amphibian Conservation Research Trusts and President of the British Herpetological Society. He is also author of the Amphibians and Reptiles Naturalists’ Handbook and co-author of the Amphibian Habitat Management Handbook.

Last week, Trevor visited NHBS to sign copies of Climate Change and British Wildlife (signed copies are exclusively available from NHBS). We also took the opportunity to chat him about the background behind the book, his thoughts on conservation and his hopes for the future of British wildlife. Read the full conversation below.

Where did the impetus and inspiration for this book come from? Is it a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?

It started in the garden some 40 years ago. For me, first arrivals of newts in the ponds were a welcome indicator that spring was on the way and I logged the dates year on year. It gradually dawned on me that the differences were not random but that arrivals were becoming increasingly early. Climate change seemed the obvious cause, and as evidence accumulated from so many diverse studies, it seemed like a good subject to write about.

The research required to cover so many taxonomic groups so comprehensively must have been immense. How long did you work on this book, including research, writing and editing?

The book took about a year to write. Electronic access to scientific journals made the research much easier and quicker than it would have been 20 years ago. Editing also took quite a while, greatly assisted by the perceptive advice of Katy Roper (my Bloomsbury editor).

The book covers plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, fungi, lichens and microbes as well as communities and individual ecosystems. Are there any of these that you feel are particularly at risk? Or conversely, are there any that you feel are more robust and are likely to better weather the effects of continued climate change?

It became evident as I researched that cold-adapted species including Arctic-alpine plants and fish such as the Vendace are in trouble, and that worrying trend is likely to generate declines or even extinctions in the coming decades. The ecology of the North Sea is also undergoing dramatic changes, some of which have precipitated seabird declines, especially of species such as Kittiwakes that rely heavily on sand eels. At the other extreme, mature woodland seems relatively resilient to climate change.

We have a rich history of wildlife monitoring and recording in the UK, much of which is undertaken by volunteers. Why do you think this is?

I believe that the media can take much of the credit for stimulating these activities. The end of the second world war was followed by the publication of a plethora of natural history books, from the I-Spy series (I still have a copy of ‘Ponds and Streams’), through the Observer series to the flagship New Naturalists. Then came television, with pioneers such as Peter Scott and David Attenborough in the 1950s. We’ve never looked back, with Springwatch today regularly attracting two million or more viewers. Brilliant!

Do you think that a thorough understanding of long-term monitoring and datasets can and should inform our decisions about where to focus conservation efforts?

Yes indeed, and fortunately such datasets are steadily increasing. The recent State of Nature reports have relied heavily on them, and they provide solid evidence that decision-makers can hardly ignore. One proviso though. For some species, especially rare ones, it is still difficult to obtain the necessary information. It would be a great mistake to ignore the plight of plants or animals clearly in difficulty simply because we don’t have robust monitoring data.

How did you feel after writing this book? Are you optimistic or despondent about the future for British wildlife?

Relieved! Sadly, though, not at all optimistic. There are some well-publicised success stories, such as the resurgence of several raptors, but more than fifty percent of Britain’s wildlife species are in continuous decline and there’s no sign of an end to that. Climate change is a problem for some, but it’s not the main one. Postwar agricultural intensification is the major villain, and it carries on regardless.

What single policy change would you like to see to alter the future of conservation in the UK?

A serious commitment to change farming practices into ones that sustain our rich wildlife heritage. Research shows that this is possible without dramatic impacts on food production, despite the claims of the agrochemical industry. With a human population the size of that in the UK it will never be possible to provide enough food without imports and it’s about time that was accepted by farmers and politicians alike.

Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have another book in the pipeline?

The book I would like to write is one on the impact of overpopulation on British wildlife. It’s a sensitive subject but one clearly recognised by naturalists of the calibre of David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and Chris Packham, among others. The most serious issues, including intensive farming practices, relate directly to the number of people dependent on them.

Climate Change and British Wildlife is published by British Wildlife Publishing and is available from NHBS. 

Signed copies of the book are available, while stocks last.

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).

 

The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds arrives at NHBS

After 18 years in preparation, the highly anticipated two-volume Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds is now in stock and available from NHBS. Continue reading for a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics behind the arrival of such an exciting title.

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds

Due to the incredible popularity of this book, four members of our staff dedicated three entire days to unpacking eight pallets of books, carefully repacking them and dispatching them to our eagerly awaiting customers.

The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds, just arrived at the NHBS warehouse.

Watch the video below for a behind-the-scenes look at how this all happened.

We still have plenty of copies of the Handbook in stock, so order now and take advantage of our special price.

 

Start to Identify Grasses: An Interview With Faith Anstey

Faith Anstey is the author of the Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families and Flowers in the Field: How to Find, Identify and Enjoy Wild Flowers.  In her latest book, Start to Identify Grasses, Faith turns her attention to grasses.

Faith Anstey
Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families
Start to Identify Grasses

 

 

Faith has coined the word ‘kleidophobia’ to mean ‘a fear of keys’, and it surely applies to many enthusiasts who would like to become more proficient at identifying plants, but are put off by the complexity of the customary botanical system of keys. So she has developed new ways of approaching ID that keep those daunting keys to a minimum.

To mark her new book and to encourage more people to discover the botanical wonders around them, we asked Faith a few questions about her writing and her life-long passion for botany.

What makes your books different from the usual field guides?

My books are not field guides at all. A field guide gives you a list of plant names, with pictures and descriptions, sometimes with a brief introduction. My books are all introduction: to field botany in general, to plant families and to grasses (maybe sedges and rushes next year . . .). A beginner armed only with a field guide has either to work their way from scratch through complicated keys, or to play snap: plant in one hand, book in the other; turn the pages until you find a picture that matches – ‘snap!’ By contrast, my books lead you into plant identification by logical routes, showing you where to look and what to look for. Their aim is to show you how to do ID for yourself.

What field guides would you recommend to use with your own guides?

Collins Wild Flower Guide

My personal favourite for beginners and improvers is the Collins Wildflower Guide (2016). This covers the whole range of wild plants including grasses, sedges and so on. It has keys that are well-organised and relatively easy to follow, and the ‘pics and scrips’ are accurate and helpful. Of course, Stace (3rd edition) is the botanists’ bible but it is rather daunting for beginners. I am also a great fan of Marjorie Blamey’s paintings in, for example, Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland. For more detailed help with grasses & co, Francis Rose’s Colour Identification Guide has excellent keys and illustrations, suitable for most levels of experience.

What would be your best advice to anybody wishing to take their first steps towards identifying plants?

If you possibly can, go on a workshop for a day, a weekend or even a whole week. Having a real live person giving enthusiastic teaching, someone to answer all your questions and fresh plants to study is the best thing you can do. Look for a local botany or natural history group you can join, and go on their field meetings. When you get even a little more serious about your study, join Plantlife and/or the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. Identiplant is a very good online course but it is not really suitable for absolute beginners. Be a bit careful with apps and websites: some are incredibly complex, some seem to be aimed at five-year-olds, others are just inaccurate and misleading. The best ID websites I am aware of are run by the BSBI, the Natural History Museum and The Open University.

What are the easiest mistakes a beginner can make when trying to identify plants?

The most common mistake is to look only at the ‘flower’ – the showy bit with colourful petals – to try and identify it. To really pin it down, you need to study the whole plant: how the flowers are arranged, characteristics of the leaves and stem, how and where the plant is growing, and even what time of year it is. So long as there is plenty, please don’t be afraid to pick some to take home and study. The general rule on public land is: if there are 20 of the plant in question you can pick one, if 40, two and so on. Try to take the complete plant from ground level up – but don’t uproot it: that’s how the Victorians brought so many species to their knees. Photographs can be a big help, but remember to take several: whole plant, close-up of the flower, details of a leaf and so on.

What is the main threat to the diversity of wild flowers and grasses and what can be done to mitigate any decline?

The main threat is not people picking a few to study, or even simply to enjoy at home. Climate change is, of course, a threat in one sense, but I believe we shouldn’t necessarily dread the rise of ‘aliens’ from warmer climates which are now able to establish themselves here. Every plant in Britain was once an alien, after the last Ice Age ended, and I would rather learn to live with change than blindly try to turn the clock back. There may be a few exceptions like Japanese Knotweed, but their evils are often exaggerated and some natives like bracken can be equally invasive. The real problem we face is habitat loss: to house-building and industry, land drainage, vast monocultural fields without headlands, destruction of ancient forests and so on. And this is an area where watchfulness and action really can make a difference.

Have you ever had any bad or unusual experiences while out identifying plants?

Well, I nearly drowned once. I was botanising on my own in Glen Lyon, beside the rushing ‘white water’ of the River Lyon. There were plenty of large rocks above the water level that I thought I could use as stepping stones across the river. But I lost my footing on a slippery rock and was instantly immersed in the icy torrent. Luckily I was obeying the three-holds rule and my two hands were still clinging firmly to rocks. I quickly realised that, with heavy boots on, if I didn’t get up on a rock fairly soon I was likely to be swept to my doom. No good screaming either: the roar of the water would make that a fruitless exercise. Twice I heaved on my arms and failed to get clear of the water, but on the third try I managed to haul myself out and eventually get back to the bank. The first thing I examined was the sodden notebook in my waterlogged pocket, but my botanical notes were still legible, so it was a happy ending!

Faith’s new book Start to Identify Grasses is available now from NHBS

Start to Identify Grasses
Paperback | May 2018
£3.50

 

 

 

Also by Faith Anstey…

Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families
Paperback | January 2016
£5.99

 

 

Flowers in the Field: How to Find, Identify and Enjoy Wild Flowers
Paperback | May 2010
£12.99

 

 

Great offers on further reading for improvers and experts alike…

Collins Wild Flower Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
Paperback | 2016 | £18.99 £24.99
Hardback | 2016 | £29.99 £39.99

 

 

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
Paperback | May 2013
£13.99 £18.99

 

 

 

New Flora of the British Isles
Paperback | 2010
£59.99

 

 

 

Colour Identification Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of the British Isles and North-Western Europe
Paperback | 1989
£39.99 £49.99

 

 

Faith Anstey in Ardnamurchan, Scotland

Enjoy your time in the field discovering and identifying the wild plants around you…

 

 

Please note that all prices stated in this blog post are correct at the time of publishing but are subject to change at any time. 

A Natural History of Churchyards

Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards, an interview with Stefan Buczacki

The unique features of churchyards mean that they offer a valuable niche for many species. Enclosed churchyard in particular provide a time-capsule and a window into the components of an ancient British landscape. Well known botanist, mycologist and broadcaster Stefan Buczacki has written a passionate call-to-arms for the future conservation of this important and vital habitat.

Stefan has answered a few questions regarding the natural history of churchyards and what we can do to conserve them.

You refer to a Modern Canon Law, derived from an older law of 1603 that all churchyards should be ‘duly fenced.’ How important was that law in creating the churchyards we’ve inherited?

 

Hugely important because although some churchyards had been enclosed from earlier times, the Canon Law making it essential was what kept churchyards isolated/insulated from changes in the surrounding countryside.

I was fascinated by the ‘ancient countryside’ lying to the east and west of a broad swathe from The Humber, then south to The Wash and on to The New Forest: could you expand on that division you describe?

 

The division into Planned and Ancient Countryside has been known and written about since at least the sixteenth century but the geographical limits I mentioned really date from the area where the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were so important. The more formal Planned Countryside landscape has been described as having been ‘laid out hurriedly in a drawing office at the enclosure of each parish’ whereas the fields of Ancient Countryside have ‘the irregularity resulting from centuries of ‘do it yourself’ enclosure and piecemeal alteration’.

If cemeteries, particularly enclosed cemeteries offer a ‘time capsule’ are there any current development or initiatives you can think of that future generations will consider as a similar natural heritage?

 

A difficult one but I suppose the closest might be SSSIs and comparable wild life reserves. National Parks might be thought candidates, but they are too large and too closely managed.

Managing a cemetery in a way that keeps everyone happy seems an impossible job. Last August I was photographing a meadow that had sprung up at a cemetery, when another photographer mentioned how disgusting it was. I was slightly bemused until the man explained he was a town councillor and was disgusted that the cemetery was unmaintained – “an insult to the dead” was how he described it – I thought it looked fantastic! whatever your opinion, how can we achieve common-ground between such diametrically opposed views?

Only by gentle education and by informed churchyard support groups giving guidance and instruction to the wider community. The other side of the coin to that you describe – and equally damaging – is where a churchyard support group itself believes that by creating a neat and tidy herbaceous border in their churchyard to attract butterflies they are doing something worthwhile! A little learning is a dangerous thing.

A whole chapter is devoted to the yew tree; such a familiar sight in so many churchyards. There are many theories as to why yews were so often planted within churchyards. From all the theories in your book, which one do you think has the most credence?

 

That Christianity inherited and then mimicked pre-Christian/Pagan activity without knowing – as we still do not – what its original significance might have been. There is so little documentary evidence from pre-Christian times.

All the significant flora and fauna of churchyards their own chapters or sections; from fungi, lichen and plants, to birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals? Which class, order or even species do you think has the closest association with churchyards and therefore the most to gain or lose from churchyard’s future conservation status?

Without question lichens; because there are just so many species largely or even wholly dependant on the churchyard environment – the gravestones and church buildings.

With church attendance declining and the future of churchyard maintenance an increasingly secular concern; could you give a brief first-steps outline as to how an individual or a group might set about conserving and even improving the natural history of their local churchyard?

Without doubt, the first step should be to conduct a survey of what is there already; and be aware this is not a task for well-intentioned parishioners unless they have some specialist knowledge. The County Wildlife Trusts would be my first port of call as they will have all the necessary specialist contacts. Then it will be a matter – with the specialist guidance – of developing a conservation management plan.

If someone, or a group become custodians of a churchyard what five key actions or augmentations would you most recommend and what two actions would you recommend against?

 

  1. Discuss the project with your vicar/priest/diocese to explain your goals and obtain their support. Show them my book!
  2. By whatever means are available [parish magazine, website, email…] contact the parish community at large to explain that you hope [do not be too dogmatic or prescriptive at this stage] to take the churchyard ‘in hand’ and ask for volunteers – but do not allow well-meaning mavericks to launch out on their own. And continue to keep people informed.
  3. See my answer to Question 7 – and undertake a survey.
  4. As some people will be keen to do something positive straightaway, use manual/physical [not chemical methods] to set about removing ivy that is enveloping gravestones and any but very large trees. It should be left on boundary walls and to some degree on large old trees – provided it has not completely taken over the crown – but nowhere else.
  5. Use a rotary mower set fairly high to cut the grass; again until the management plan is developed.
  6. Set up properly constructed compost bins for all organic debris – and I mean bins, not piles of rubbish.

 

  1. Do not plant anything either native or alien unless under proper guidance – least of all do not scatter packets of wild flower seed. You could be introducing genetic contamination of fragile ancient populations.
  2. Stop using any chemicals – fertiliser or pesticide – in the churchyard; at least until the management plan has been developed.

Stefan’s book Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards was published in March 2018 is currently available on special offer at NHBS.

Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards
Hardback | March 2018
£12.99 £14.99

 

 

 

Further reading on lichen in churchyards…

 

A Field Key to Common Churchyard Lichens
Spiralbound | Jan 2014
£9.99

 

 

Guide to Common Churchyard Lichens
Unbound | Dec 2004
£2.99

 

Please note: All prices stated in this article are correct at the time of posting and are subject to change at any time.

Getting the knowledge: the top 25 easy to forage wild foods

Clare Cremona and children - ready to forage
Clare Cremona and children – ready to forage

Foraging for wild food is a world away from the trolley-push through the supermarket.

Those brightly-lit aisles barely cut it when you imagine gathering wild garlic in springtime, blackberries from late summer hedgerows, or sweet chestnuts as the tired old year begins to cool.

Clare Cremona wants to remind us how easy foraging for wild food can be, and it’s perfectly possible to start at home. “You would be surprised what is coming up on a bare patch of earth in your back garden,” she says.

And as an unusually mild winter slowly gives way to spring, she adds: “Right now there is actually quite a lot about. I think everything is coming out quite early, like pennywort, that is very good in a salad.”

Pennywort – the distinctive round leaves at their best and juiciest before flowers appear, usually in May – is just one of the wild foods she has chosen in the most recent of the Field Studies Council’s handy fold-out charts.

Guide to foraging: top 25 edible plants, written by Cremona, with illustrations by Lizzie Harper, highlights some of the easier wild foods to forage for, chosen to span most of the year.

“I agonised over the 25, that was the hardest thing,” she says. “Twenty-five is not very many, that took longer than actually writing it, deciding what to leave out.”

Among those that made the cut are common sorrel, one of the earliest green plants to appear in spring; jack-by-the-hedge, another harbinger of spring, which can be used to make a slightly garlicky sauce for lamb; wood sorrel, a woodland plant, once recommended by John Evelyn as suitable for the kitchen garden; fat hen, a very old food plant, its remains have been found at Neolithic settlements throughout Europe; and wild garlic, a good addition to salads and soups.

Guide to Foraging: Top 25 Edible Plants
Guide to Foraging: Top 25 Edible Plants

There are hints on when and where to look for each plant, identification notes, and suggested uses.

Several of the well known favourites that need no introduction are there, such as blackberry. As is the customary health warning – never eat any wild food unless you are absolutely sure you have identified it correctly.

Cremona includes a few poisonous plants that could be confused with the edible ones, such as hemlock water dropwort, extremely toxic and probably responsible for more fatalities than any other foraged food, and dog’s mercury, highly poisonous, common in woodlands, and easy to inadvertently pick with other foraged plants.

There is a conservation issue too. She advises only picking what you need, never uprooting a wild plant (an offence without the landowner’s permission under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981), and never pick a protected species, such as cowslip, even if you’ve found an old recipe book with the most tempting of recipes.

Cremona, a Forest School and Wildlife Watch leader for the Field Studies Council and Devon Wildlife Trust, says: “Generally people have a go and test something, people generally don’t strip the land of everything.

“For me it is far more important people know what they are seeing, if they don’t we are not going to look after them. And we are losing the knowledge of what you can and what you cannot eat.”

Which brings us neatly to cooking. Cremona makes her first nettle soup of the year at Easter time – it has become a family tradition – and includes a recipe for nettle soup here, and some others, including a mouth-watering wild garlic pesto.

A seasonal tradition in parts of the north of England is to make bistort pudding – sometimes called Easter-ledge pudding, dock pudding, passion pudding, or herb pudding – where foraged bistort leaves are cooked with onions, oats, butter and eggs, although recipes vary from place to place and sometimes other hedgerow leaves go into the mix.

The resulting partly-foraged and wholly distinctive savoury pudding is served as a side dish with lamb at Easter, or with bacon and eggs at other times. Competitions are held to find the best tasting, including the annual World Dock Pudding Championships, at Mytholmroyd, in the West Riding.

So perhaps this Easter is the time to have a go at foraging for wild food?

Guide to Foraging: Top 25 Edible Plants

Guide to foraging: top 25 edible plants is available now from NHBS

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)

Naturalist, artist and author Steven Falk on his new field guide to bees

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandNaturalist and wildlife artist Steven Falk has had a diverse career with wildlife and conservation, including working as an entomologist with Nature Conservancy Council, and as natural history keeper for major museums. He is now Entomologist and Invertebrate Specialist at UK invertebrate conservation organisation Buglife. His new Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland will be published by British Wildlife Publishing next month.

Tell us about your role at Buglife.
At Buglife, I have quite a diverse role. I provide information and advice to colleagues, external enquirers and a plethora of external organisations. I’ve been particularly involved with overseeing the production of new red lists for assorted invertebrate groups, also providing feedback to the various national pollinator strategies, new agri-environment schemes, plus helping to develop projects for some of our most endangered invertebrate species. We also have a consultancy now, Buglife Services, which carries out and coordinates invertebrate surveys all over Britain. We’ve just done an exciting survey of the A30 and A38 in Devon and Cornwall. We need more understanding of road verge invertebrates, especially pollinators.

How did you come to write this landmark identification guide to all the bees of Britain and Ireland?
I was approached by Andrew Branson in 2012 and was initially quite reluctant, because you cannot use a traditional field guide approach for bees, as many cannot be identified to species level in the field (they require the taking of a specimen for critical examination under a microscope) and it is crucial that we keep the national dataset (run by BWARS) clean and reliable by being honest about where the limits of field identification lie. So I agreed to write it on the basis that it covered all 275 species, had reliable keys, and could appeal to both hardcore recorders and general naturalists. I knew this was feasible, because we had faced the same challenge with the seminal book British Hoverflies (Stubbs & Falk, 1983, 2002). So it is a field guide in the loose sense – it will help you to recognise much of what you see in the field, but also indicate at which point you need to take specimens and put them under a microscope. But you don’t need to collect bees or have a microscope to enjoy the book – we made sure of that.

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandThere is growing concern about the conservation status of bees – how are our bees getting on, and how might the publication of this book help them?
Yes, we need to be concerned about bees. We have already lost 25 species and several more are teetering on the edge of extinction. Good bee habitat continues to be lost. Brownfield land came to the rescue last century, but most of that has now been developed or lost its flowery early successional stages, which is what so many bees need. The research being carried out on pesticides such as neonicotinioids is also pretty disturbing – check out the work by Prof. Dave Goulson at Sussex University. It seems to be affecting bee numbers in many parts of the country. The national pollinator strategies being published by UK member states are a call to arms – let’s get monitoring bees. But the emphasis is on developing citizen science to achieve some of this, because there is little funding. High quality amateur recording is part of this plan, and Britain’s strong tradition of this makes it a realistic proposition. But the last comprehensive coverage of British bees was Saunders, 1896, and it has been the lack of modern ID literature that has held bee recording back. Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, and the supporting web feature (embedded in my Flickr site) will hopefully fix this!

Your career as a wildlife artist began early – you worked on the colour plates for Alan Stubb’s guide to British Hoverflies when you were just a teenager. How did this collaboration come about?
I pinned some bumblebees I had caught near my home in North London when I was 12. Half of them turned out to be bee-like hoverflies, and that started a fascination with hoverflies. The following summer holiday, I went out with a net almost every day, and seemed to find a new type of hoverfly daily. I was totally hooked on them, and I painted things that fascinated me, including those hoverflies. I exhibited some hoverfly artwork at the 1976 AES Exhibition in Hampstead, and met Alan Stubbs who told me he was writing a new guide to hoverflies. I said I wanted to do the artwork (I was only 14), and the rest is history. It took 3 years of evenings, and I think I was 17 when I finished it. I’m very proud of those plates, and you can see how my style develops (plate 8 was the first and plate 7 was the last – you can see a lampshade reflection in the early ones!).

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandDo we see any of your artwork in this book?
Sadly not, my eyesight is not great these days and I do very little drawing and painting now. But the British Wildlife Publishing ‘house artist’ is the great Richard Lewington, and he’s done a magnificent job. The bumblebee plates in particular, are just stunning, the best ever produced.

What sort of techniques do you use to produce your artwork – which is strikingly realistic and very detailed?
I painted birds a lot as a young child and was very aware of the bird artists of the time and their styles, people like Basil Ede, Charles Tunnicliffe and Robert Gillmor. I particularly liked the detail and photo-realism of Basil Ede’s work and became aware that he used gouache. So I started to use gouache and preferred it to watercolour. I’d often start with a black silhouette and build up the colour and texture on top of this, which is the opposite of watercolour painting. But others, like Denys Ovendon and Richard Lewington, show what can be done with watercolour, so it’s just a taste thing. For really intense or subtle colours, I’d need to use watercolours, because they produce a much larger colour pallete than gouache. Richard knows his watercolours – you need to if you want to tackle butterflies like blues, coppers and purple emperors. I’m possibly more proud of my black and white illustrations than my colour work. Here I was most influenced by the likes A. J. E. Terzi and Arthur Smith, house artists for the Natural History Museum. Their use of cross-hatching and stippling is so skillful, and I’ve tried to emulate this in my pen and ink artwork. Never use parallel lines in cross hatching!

Any future interesting projects coming up that you can tell us about – artistic, or conservation-based?
There are many more books I’d like to write, especially for wasps and assorted fly groups. It’s not just the subject, it’s the approach. I like getting into the mindset of the beginner and finding the right language and approach. We need to get more people recording invertebrates. I like the double-pronged approach of books plus web resources, and I have a popular and ever-expanding Flickr site that greatly facilitates the identification of many invertebrate groups. On the conservation front, I’m keen to continue promoting understanding of pollinators and to increase the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes. Invertebrate conservation is in my blood and I’ll be pursuing it to the very end in one form or another. I might even try illustrating again one day if I can find the right glasses!

Order your copy of the Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland
Visit Steven Falk’s website