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

Brock Fenton on the mystery and science of bats

Bats: A World of Science and MysteryBrock Fenton is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology, Western University, Ontario, Canada. His research programme involves using bats to explore the interfaces between animal behaviour, ecology and evolution. As co-author of the exciting new book, Bats: A World of Science and Mystery, we thought it would be interesting to pose him a few bat-related questions:

How did you become involved with bat research as a career?

As an undergraduate student I was attracted to bats by the abundance of things to learn about them. Part of this I experienced by looking in caves for hibernating bats that had been banded elsewhere. The other part was the library, books about bats (Bats by G.M. Allen; Nerve Cells and Insect Behaviour by Kenneth D. Roeder) and articles in journals. My main research focus now is on bat evolution, behaviour and echolocation.

In evolutionary terms, what is a bat, and how have they come to represent around 20% of all mammal species?

Bats are mammals capable of powered flight. Flight gives them mobility and their small size makes them inconspicuous. Bats fill a variety of trophic roles as consumers of insects, plant products, as well as other animals (from fish to other bats and birds), and even blood. I suspect that a combination of mobility, small size and flexibility is responsible for their evolutionary success. The blood-feeding vampire bats are among the best examples of this success.

Is it possible to define the character of a bat, and a typical day in the life?

I had not thought of “character”. Bats are mainly nocturnal, so operation at night is a key characteristic. They are long-lived (some species over 30 years in the wild), and high energy, requiring large quantities of food to fuel their activities. Although bats typically emerge (from their daytime roosts or hiding places) at dusk, they probably come and go from their roosts during the night. In the northern hemisphere and some other temperate parts of the world, bats use delayed fertilization to ensure that young are born when food is abundant.

The title of the book includes the word ‘mystery’ – what do we remain in the dark about regarding these nocturnal creatures?

There are about 1260 species of living bats. The largest weigh about 1500 grams, but most species are under 50 grams.  Bats survive because they are hard to find by day. The combination of secretive and small size makes most species of bats hard to study. This means that people who study bats regularly make astonishing discoveries about them. In spite of some concerns about the possible role of bats in public health, most species have no direct impact on humans. Lack of direct connection to humans means that bats are sidelined when it comes to some main stream areas of interest, particularly those relating to human health.

What are the world conservation priorities for bats at the moment, and can you highlight any projects that are doing interesting work?

Bats are “typical” wildlife, mainly negatively effected by the habitat consequences of expanding human populations and demand for resources. In Northeastern North America, White-nosed Syndrome has killed literally millions of bats. Around the world turbines at “wind farms” also kill bats, but not on the scale of WNS. Research into White-nosed Syndrome and bats’ responses to turbines are important for the future of bats. Other research into the role that bats may play as reservoirs for diseases also is important for the image of bats. The last part of the book speaks about some of the unanswered questions about bats that appeal to the authors.

Who is this book aimed at?

We hope that this book will appeal to anyone interested in biodiversity and natural history. This could be the person interested in evolution or echolocation, conservation or social behaviour. We also hope that it appeals to those intrigued by flight, by where bats live and what they eat. It is not intended to be a text book about bats.

Bats: A World of Science and Mystery is published in November 2014

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Cold Blood author Richard Kerridge on reptiles and amphibians, and the ‘new nature writing’

Cold Blood jacket imageTell us about where you grew up and what inspired your early adventures with reptiles and amphibians.

I grew up in the south London suburbs, and some of my earliest memories involve images of animals – on television, in books and on the little picture cards I collected from tea packets. The wild animals of Africa and India fascinated me. I loved natural history books and stories about expeditions to find tigers and elephants. One of my fantasies was that I had a pet tiger, a huge male who would leap out and scare away boys who were trying to bully me. In my daydreams, as I walked home from school, the tiger would pad along beside me, out of sight behind the hedges.

But what could I actually encounter? Did England have any exciting animals to match the elephants and tigers? I read about otters, badgers and hawks, but they were far from my suburban experience, with its garden ponds and overgrown corners and strips. Foxes were elusive twilight animals. Reptiles and amphibians, however, were dramatic wild animals that could be found near my home. If I scaled down, the tangles of pondweed and banks of gorse and heather became forest and savannah, and the newts and lizards formidable megafauna. The theatricality of suddenly seeing one of these animals was important – the thrill, the intensity, of trying to edge closer without scaring away what at that moment always seemed to be the most vivid lizard yet, or the deepest-black newt. For me the animals represented the wildness that I felt was all around me, all around London, and all around Britain. They were emissaries from all the lakes, heaths, streams, scrubland, grassland and forest of the world.

Do you still have a bath tub full of lizards, frogs and snakes in your back garden?

For decades I didn’t keep any, after coming to feel in late adolescence that our hobby had been cruel and clumsy. By this time I was preoccupied with literature and politics, and teenage social and sexual life. And then I went to university to study literature, and was moving house every year. Throughout all this, the reptiles and amphibians still lived in brackeny parts of my mind, and I was always glad to see a real one.

After the contract had been secured for the book, I made an exception, and acquired some captive-bred hatchling European Green Lizards, which I keep in the garden, not in a bath but a large vivarium made of special Perspex that does not block UV light. The impulse to get them was part of the spirit of starting the book. And I do love having them. I always liked this species, which used to be sold commonly in British pet shops and lives wild on mainland Britain in one feral colony. They are an extraordinary powdery green. The young ones I have are beginning to come into adult colours.

How did your investigations develop? Since 1996 you have been Course Director of the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University – were you ever tempted to go into biology as a career?

I couldn’t have. At fourteen, when I had to choose my O-Level subjects, it was either Biology or History. You couldn’t do both, and History and English were my best subjects. I wasn’t good at sciences, and in those days people were mostly identified at about that age as either artists or scientists. If you were good at one, you didn’t have to worry about the other – that was the message.

My strongest interest, anyway, is in the emotional significance that wild nature has in people’s lives. Our conventional ways of talking and writing about natural history have in recent decades been rather shy of sophisticated emotional language. A split between scientific and artistic ways of thinking has occurred in popular natural history too, since the middle of the twentieth century. The ‘new nature writing’ is attempting, among other things, to bridge that gap, and to explore the ways in which the love of wild nature relates to other life experiences and to shared culture.

For those less keen on the reptile and amphibian fauna, could you share some fascinating facts that might break the ice?

The horror and fear that these animals arouse, snakes especially, is part of their glamour. They provoke strong reactions and feature regularly in thrillers when some sort of eerie spine-tingling villain is required. The fear is fascination. But, to break the ice, I would ask people to see the beauty of each animal’s relationship to its environment – the exquisite way in which a snake or lizard acquires and concentrates the subtle colours of heather, sand and bracken, and receives on its tongue the changing chemical information in the air. They are spirits of their places.

What prompted you to write the book, and do you think nature writing has a place in reorientating people’s attitudes towards wildlife, and the environmental and ecological concerns of our time?

The book has been inside me since childhood. At last – with support from my agent and editor, and inspired by seeing many students do it – I found the confidence to let the writing come. Nature writing has a part to play, I hope. There is a surge of this kind of writing in Britain at present. We are in what has been called ‘the nature writing moment’, and I don’t think the timing is accidental. It seems likely to me that people’s renewed interest in this genre comes from unease about environmental problems and the failure of our political system to respond to them – climate change most obviously, but other disturbing trends also, such as collapsing bird and fish populations and the prospect of a new industrialization of farming. People who read these books may be looking to find out what is happening to wild nature now, and what sort of meaning it can have in our lives. What happened over the proposed sell-off of public forests a couple of years ago was another sign. Politicians had forgotten that people cared about such things. Nature writing is no longer escapist, if that was ever a fair accusation. It is a genre that confronts some of our most important and contemporary challenges.

What advice would you share with amateur naturalists keen to explore the cold blooded inhabitants of their local patch?

Have a look at the Reptiles and Amphibians of the UK website and the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust website. Make an online search pairing the name of your region with the name of the species you want to see. Or go out to any wetland or heathery heath near your home. For reptiles, choose a sunny day before 10.00 am or after 4.00 pm. Approach banks and verges quietly, watching for movements. When you get your eye in, you see animals you would not previously have noticed. Look under logs and pieces of wood, and especially flat pieces of metal. Slow worms often hide there, and sometimes snakes and toads. Shine a torch into ponds after dark. Expect surprises.

Cold Blood: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians

 

 

Ladybirds: an interview with Helen Roy, Ecological Entomologist at the BRC

Ladybirds jacket imageHelen Roy, Ecological Entomologist at the Biological Records Centre, is one of a team of authors who have been involved in the revision of this classic Naturalists’ Handbook.

I see from your professional history that throughout most of your career you have been involved in research with ladybirds. What originally drew you to these fascinating insects? Does it stem from a childhood interest?

Ladybirds are fascinating beetles. I can remember, as a small child, observing ladybirds as they emerged from their pupal cases on the vegetables in our garden on the Isle of Wight. Simply magical and I was entranced. Throughout my childhood I pursued my passion for natural history and have been so fortunate to continue to do so through my working life.

What do you feel are the biggest pressures on UK populations of ladybirds at present?

There are many factors that contribute to dynamics of insect populations. In recent decades the effects of environmental change on insect populations has been the focus of my research. It is widely recognised that invasive alien species, climate change and habitat destruction are all major players in the declines of many insects. Ladybirds are no exception. However, there are so many questions that remain unanswered. It is important that we address these questions with robust and rigorous research. We have so much to learn about the many subtle and complex interactions between insects, other organisms and the environment.

Ladybirds internal imageIn your book you state that winter is a very critical period for ladybirds and, during this time, they survive entirely on their own fat reserves. How severely do you think ladybird populations in the U.K. will have been affected by the very long and cold winter we have recently experienced?

Every year winter conditions result in the death of ladybirds – winter is a tough time for ladybirds in Britain. However, they have many amazing adaptations for surviving the adverse winter conditions. Ladybirds recently began to wake up from winter and I am reassured by the observations I am receiving from people across the country, through the UK Ladybird Survey.

The arrival of the Harlequin ladybird in the U.K. has obviously been a very big concern and has been covered extensively in the media. How serious a threat do you feel this is to our native species and are there any viable steps that could be taken to halt the spread?

The harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyrdis, is an invasive alien species which is predicted to cause problems for a number of insects. It is a voracious predator and not only has the potential to outcompete other insects but also eats the other insects. The 2-spot ladybird, Adalia bipunctata, was a widespread and common species during my childhood. Not so now. I worked with a team of scientists, using the observations received through the UK Ladybird Survey from many, many people (an inspiring number of volunteers), to look at how the distribution of native ladybirds is changing in response to the arrival of the harlequin ladybird. A number of species appear to be declining and the 2-spot more than most. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about the harlequin ladybird but it will be interesting to continue to monitor this species and its interactions with other species in the coming years. Additionally the harlequin ladybird has demonstrated the effectiveness of people at recording alien species, and with the rate of new arrivals increasing rapidly people can play an extremely important role in surveillance and monitoring. I invite people to submit sightings through a recording form developed for species surveillance (including alien species) at the BRC.

Ladybirds plateFor any amateur naturalists who are interested in ladybirds and wish to get involved or help in some way, what would you suggest is the best way to do this?

I have been utterly inspired by the contributions that people from across the country make to the UK Ladybird Survey, and indeed many other wildlife surveys, by reporting the ladybirds they see wherever they may see them. Biological recording is a wonderful way to get involved with natural history. I often receive detailed observations from people who have been recording ladybirds in a particular location on a regular basis. This information is incredibly useful. Some people have even been recording the parasites they see attacking ladybirds. Natural history studies are fun, rewarding and an invaluable source of information. Professor Mike Majerus wrote the first edition of this book and we open the revised version with his inspiration: “Biological Science must stand on its foundations in basic observations of organisms in the field: what they do, when they do it, why they do it, and how they have come to do it.” Majerus, 1994

Do you have any plans for further books?

I have a passion for writing. As a teenager I contributed to the newsletter of my local natural history society – I enjoyed writing and I hoped that people would enjoy reading what I wrote. Writing, coupled with my love of natural history, remains very important to me. I will definitely be writing another book… perhaps the parasites of ladybirds, which are almost as charismatic as their hosts, would be worthy of attention?

Ladybirds available now

Buy a copy of Ladybirds

Record your ladybird sightings at the UK Ladybird Survey

Pick up your free copy of the new NHBS Ecology & Biodiversity Equipment Catalogue 2013 which includes survey kit for entomologists