Author interview with Richard Rickitt: Beekeeping for Gardeners

Beekeeping for Gardeners book cover showing a beehive in a garden behind a rose bush.

This beautifully illustrated book provides a comprehensive gardener’s guide to sustainable beekeeping. It reveals the pleasures and benefits of keeping bees in gardens of all sizes in both rural and urban areas, explains the practicalities of this widely enjoyed hobby and lists the top performing plants that will help your colony thrive. Beekeeping for Gardeners also discusses the hobby of beekeeping within the wider environment and questions how it can meet the needs of all species of pollinators, as well as it’s potential contribution to the local ecology.

Richard Rickitt portrait.Richard Rickitt is an award-winning author as well as co-editor of the UK’s best-selling beekeeping magazine BeeCraft. He has been an avid beekeeper for over 20 years, maintaining numerous hives for both commercial and private clients as well as his own, looks after the bees at the National Arboretum, and teaches beekeeping courses across the UK as well as abroad.

Richard recently took the time out of his busy schedule to talk to about Beekeeping for Gardeners, including what inspired him to write a book aimed at gardeners, what the future of Honey Bees in Britain looks like and more.

Bee getting pollen from a blue flower.
© Richard Rickitt

Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what prompted you to write a beekeeping book aimed specifically at gardeners? 

I grew up on a Somerset smallholding, so my heart is in the countryside. I always loved wildlife and my bedroom was like a miniature Natural History Museum filled with bird’s nests, animal skulls and a menagerie of frogs, newts, caterpillars and anything else I could catch and keep. One day I peeked through a garden hedge to spy on an old beekeeper at work. The white hives, sparkling clouds of bees and puffing smoker seemed mysterious and magical. I suspect that I have a very romanticised image of the scene in my mind, although even now when tending my bees I am often struck by what a bucolic activity it can be. Later, I learned beekeeping at my secondary school which had an excellent rural studies department – I’m not sure if such things exist anymore, which is a terrible shame. I went on to work in film and television special effects, but after moving from London to Wiltshire about 18 years ago, I took up beekeeping again. I became increasingly involved in the beekeeping community, eventually becoming co-editor of BeeCraft, the UK’s bestselling beekeeping magazine, which is now in its 105th year.   

I wrote a book aimed at gardeners because many of the people attending my beekeeping courses are already gardeners and want to know more about the bees that they see visiting their flowers. By starting out as gardeners, new beekeepers are already doing one of the most important things that anyone can do for bees; providing them with the resources and habitats that they need. But sometimes a little extra knowledge and small changes in the way you garden can make a huge difference to the sustainability of your local bee populations. For example, some species of solitary bee depend on a single, specific variety of flower.  

Keeping honey bees dovetails very nicely with gardening; it’s a seasonal activity done mostly in good weather in spring and summer. Time spent in the garden can be time spent tending both plants and bees, enjoying watching them develop and interact through the year. Gardeners enjoy choosing what plants best work in their garden and if you are a beekeeper there can be the added pleasure of planting specifically for bees and seeing them make use of what you have provided. There are practical benefits too; fruit and vegetable crops will be better pollinated, resulting in more and higher-quality produce. And, of course, there can be the reward of a crop of delicious honey and even wax with which to make candles or cosmetics. Like gardening, beekeeping is a lovely hobby to share as a couple or family – each person often finding their own areas of interest, and sharing the work, discoveries and pleasures. 

So, my book is for anyone who loves gardens and is interested in learning about and helping bees of all kinds. They might want to create a beautiful garden with the most appropriate plants, habitat and nesting opportunities for wild bees, or take things further and keep a hive or two of honey bees. 

Beekeeping for gardeners internal page showing an image of a solitary bee on a flower on the left hand page and text about solitary bees on the right hand page.

I really liked how the book provided not only a comprehensive guide to beekeeping on a small scale but is also an exceptional resource of information on growing flowering plants and creating habitats for bumblebees, solitary bees and insects of all kinds. Do you think traditional beekeeping advice has tended to be very focused on the Honey Bee itself with less of an emphasis on providing the habitat it requires to thrive? 

Beekeepers have always very carefully noted which plants flower near their bees, as well as the quality and quantity of honey that their bees produce as a result. However, the presence of such resources has generally been taken for granted; the beekeeper only having to look after the bees while it was assumed that nature would provide the rest. Increasingly, because of habitat loss, climate change and pollution, the necessary resources aren’t always there. Today’s beekeepers therefore have to think not only about caring for their bees, but also about caring for the environment in which their bees live. That includes growing more of the right plants but also considering whether their bees might have a negative impact on the local environment and the other species it supports. Most beekeepers begin their hobby for environmental reasons and try have a positive impact. 

How do you think beekeeping fits within the broader context of conservation, given that the honey bee is considered by some as not native to Britain and may spread diseases to or compete with other important wild pollinators? 

This is a great question involving several complex issues, so I’m afraid it requires quite a long reply. 

The first point is the erroneous but increasingly commonly held belief that the honey bee is not a UK native species. The oldest fossil of a true honey bee (Apis species) comes from Germany and is about 25 million years old. The distribution of such bees, along with all species of plant and animal, will have fluctuated drastically over the millennia in response to changes in geography, environment and climate. However, when the ice retreated at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago, what is now called Britain was still connected to the European continent. This allowed the spread northwards of animals and plants. Honey bees naturally live in tree cavities and undoubtedly would have spread into Britain as trees began to grow here. Then, when sea levels rose about 6000 years ago, Britain became an island. This is the cutoff point at which species already established and subsequently isolated here are generally considered to be native. That would certainly have included honey bees as well as the hundreds of other species of bumblebee and solitary bee that we now consider to belong here. So, I think there is no doubt that honey bees are in fact native. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence of the presence of honey bees in Britian dating back thousands of years. For example, the remains of venison cooked with honey were found in Bronze Age artifacts recently unearthed in Peterborough. There is no such archaeological evidence for the presence of any species of solitary bee or bumblebee in Britain at that time, although I wouldn’t question that most of those are also native. For more about the evidence of the honey bee as a native species, I would recommend reading an academic paper by Norman Careck of Sussex University. 

Bee flying to land on a yellow flower.
© Richard Rickitt

Many of the bumblebee and solitary bee species found in Britain are also found on the continent and are considered native in both places. However, the honey bee, also naturally present on both sides of the channel, is currently claimed by a few people to be non-native in Britian. This contradictory claim only seems to have come about in the last decade or so and is perhaps partly because of a history of commercial importation of honey bees from the European mainland into Britian. Such imports have been made for three reasons; firstly, because in the early twentieth century many of our wild and managed honey bee colonies died as a result of a disease then known as the Isle of Wight disease – so much so that the production of pollinated farm crops was thought to be threatened; secondly, it was thought that the slightly different genetic traits of honey bees from elsewhere could be used to produce more disease-resistant and productive honey bees in the UK; and thirdly, because commercial beekeepers whose bees pollinate crops in spring often require new queens to replace those that have died over winter – and the British climate makes it impossible to raise new queens here until later in the season. The result has been an influx of honey bee queens from Europe. These bees are the same species as has existed here for thousands of years (Apis mellifera) but they have evolved into regional subspecies because of the slightly differing environmental conditions where they live. Honey bees living in Italy will experience a very different climate and flowering plants to those living in Scotland, for example. The result is that many of our honey bees now have a mixture of genes hailing from different places.  

Some hobby beekeepers today are against the importation of honey bees and increasingly favour what are known as local bees. These are bees raised from colonies that survive and thrive in a relatively small geographical area, without the addition of new genetic characteristics from bees imported from abroad or elsewhere within the UK – they are ecotypes. The actual genetic makeup might be a mixture of all sorts, depending on what is already in an area, but studies have shown that, over time, the native genetic element tends to dominate. There are some areas of the UK where the genetics of local honey bee populations are very highly native. However, as climate change worsens, adaptability will be key to the survival of all species of animal and plant; it might be that genetic traits from imported honey bees are what eventually give our honey bees the ability to survive in unstable climatic conditions. In my book, I urge beginner beekeepers to buy new bees and queens from a local beekeeper who has kept the same bees in the same place for decades, these honey bees will probably be best suited to your area. 

Now for the second part of the question, which is also complicated but I will try to keep things brief. There are several diseases that appear to be shared in one form or another by various types of bee. Research into these diseases, their effects and transmissibility, is at the early stages with very few definitive conclusions at the moment. One disease, called nosema, is a kind of fungus that affects the gut of a bee. This is found in both honey bees and bumblebees. It is thought that this first evolved in butterflies, and has since been passed on to bees, which can be spread from one species to another perhaps by sharing the same flower resources. One of the biggest threats to honey bees is the presence of varroa, a tiny parasitic mite that can spread various pathogens when feeding from the bodies of developing honey bee pupae. It’s not yet clear which of these pathogens can spread to other species of bee which are not in themselves hosts to varroa.

There are a lot of uncertainties, and it is by no means clear that honey bees are a significant disease danger to other species of bee, or the reverse. However, it highlights the importance of beekeepers fully understanding the biology and lifecycle of honey bees, and their diseases and predators. This will enable them to keep healthy bees that are better able both to resist diseases and minimise the chances of spreading them to other species. Reading my book is a good way to begin understanding how to keep healthy honey bees, and indeed if beekeeping is really for you. After that, I strongly suggest joining your local beekeeping association and signing up for a training course.   

Finally, and referring to the first part of your question, you asked about where beekeeping fits into conservation more broadly.  The fact is that because beekeepers generally do a good job of looking after them, honey bees are not currently under threat – despite being subject to many of the same pressures as solitary bees and bumblebees. There was a great deal of worry some years ago when huge numbers of honey bees died for largely unknown reasons, but those problems are now generally under control. We shouldn’t be complacent, however; there are still a great many threats to honey bees and the climate crisis poses lots of potential problems. 

I consider honey bees to be the ‘gateway bee’. Many people who have never had a very close relationship to wildlife or the natural world are attracted to beekeeping as a fascinating and rewarding hobby – sometimes at first they don’t even understand the difference between honey bees and other bees. Once they are acquainted with honey bees, such people often want to learn more about the other species of bee, ultimately taking part in conservation measures and becoming bee ambassadors, spreading the word about the importance and fragility of bee populations generally and appreciating the importance of plant life and biodiversity in general. 

Beekeeping for Gardeners pages 176-177.

Beekeeping within the UK appears to be a thriving pastime and, throughout the Covid pandemic in particular, it seems that many were inspired to take it up as a hobby. Could we reach a situation where we have too many beekeepers? 

It’s thought that in the UK there are about a quarter of the number of honey bee colonies there were in the 1950’s, and far fewer than might have been present naturally a few thousand years ago – a natural density of about one colony per square kilometre is estimated by renowned bee scientist, Professor Tom Seeley. But although we may have fewer honey bees now, we also have a hugely degraded environment that is much less capable of supporting bees of all kinds.   

There was a huge drop in the number of beekeepers and bee colonies in the mid-1990s, with membership of the British Beekeeper’s Association (BBKA) dropping to just 7000. When the media began to highlight the problems being experienced by honey bees, particularly due to so-called colony collapse disorder, the number of beekeepers began to rise again. As you say, numbers increased somewhat during the pandemic, too. Today there are about 27,000 members of the BBKA. That number seems to be levelling off and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has reached a peak. There are new beekeepers every year, of course, but people also drop out of the hobby at about the same rate as they join.  

I think it is unlikely therefore that we will have too many beekeepers overall, but I do think that the distribution of beekeepers and their bees is a matter of possible concern. Beekeeping has become popular in large cities, and although suburban areas with their dense patterns of small gardens containing a wide variety of plants – not to mention parks, allotments and railway embankments – can provide plenty of bee habitat, city centres are often extremely poor places for supporting bees and other pollinators. The trend for putting beehives on top of city centre office buildings is highly questionable when there are so few flowering plants nearby. There are also a few rural areas with particularly fragile populations of rare bee species where it might be unwise to keep honey bees. A very high density of honey bees in any area could increase the chances of disease transmission – as discussed in the previous question. These are all issues discussed in my book. 

Overall, I believe that thoughtful beekeeping is environmentally beneficial. Although you can place bee hotels in your garden and plant gardens to attract bees, there is nothing quite like learning about and witnessing the extraordinary lifecycle of a honey bee colony for opening people’s eyes, minds and hearts to the breathtakingly complex and beautiful natural history of bees and pollinators in general.   

Bumble bee on a pink flower.
© Richard Rickitt

With constant monitoring in place for the arrival of pests such as Tropilaelaps mites as well as the current spread of the Yellow Legged Hornet (commonly referred to as the Asian Hornet), are you broadly optimistic for the future of Honey Bees in Britain? 

It seems likely that the Asian Hornet (Vespa velutina) might finally have a toehold in the UK and we could have a small breeding population. Until now, APHA (Animal and Plant Health Agency) and the National Bee Unit have done a great job tracing nests and destroying them, but if the population increases exponentially, it will be impossible to control – as has been the case in France and other places.  

It is hard to say exactly how the arrival of the Asian Hornet will affect British beekeeping although, as with the arrival of Varroa Mites in the 1990s, I suspect there will be a steep decline in the number of people keeping bees. Chris Packham recently said that having Asian hornets might only mean the loss of a few teaspoonfuls of honey, but I strongly disagree with this sentiment. One nest of Asian hornets can consume 11.5 kg of insects in a season – that’s hundreds of thousands of insects. Perhaps people don’t mind if those insects are honey bees, but when the honey bees run out, other bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and so-on could become the target prey. Imagine how that might affect birds and other animals that rely on those insects – not to mention the crops that they pollinate. And bear in mind that one Asian hornet nest can produce 300 queens resulting in hundreds of new nests the following year.  

Tropelaelaps, and particularly Small Hive Beetle, are two other potentially very problematic invasive pests. They haven’t been found here yet and there are import controls and a system of sentinel apiaries to try to prevent or detect their arrival. There are contingency plans to prevent their spread should they arrive but there are a lot of unknown factors. Climate change makes the possible arrival and spread of these exotic species more concerning.  

I’m broadly optimistic about the future of beekeeping in the UK but there will be challenges and changes. 

Beekeeping for Gardeners, page 92-93 showing a close up of bees on a hive.

Finally, although I’m sure your job as editor of BeeCraft magazine, as well as your public speaking engagements must keep you incredibly busy (alongside the actual beekeeping of course!), we’d love to know if you have plans for further books? 

I have lots of ideas for other bee-related books, some practical and some a bit more esoteric. Whether I’ll ever find time to write them, and in particular take the photographs for them, is another matterAt the moment, I’m glad to have finished this book and I am enjoying watching bees and visiting gardens without feeling the need to make notes and take photosalthough my camera is never very far away…

Beekeeping for Gardeners book cover showing a beehive in a garden behind a rose bush. Beekeeping for Gardeners is available from our online bookstore.

Author interview with Ben Jacob: Orchid Outlaw

The Orchid Outlaw tells the tale of author Ben Jacob’s mission to save some of the UK’s rarest, native orchids. With many facing extinction due to land use change and the climate crisis, while also not being protected by environmental and planning laws, Ben took it upon himself to rescue these threatened plants and grow them in his own kitchen and garden, rather than losing the plants all together. In doing so, he placed himself on the wrong side of the law. This part memoir, part natural history piece shows us how we can all save the world one plant at a time.

Ben Jacob wearing a brown jacket stood by a bank with some orchids growing out of it.Ben works as a University lecturer by day, and as a clandestine ecologist, conservationist and Orchid-saviour by night. It is always a pleasure to meet the authors behind our books, particularly those who are adopting their own approach to nature restoration and conservation, and we were delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Ben in person about The Orchid Outlaw and have him sign our books. We discussed how he first became interested in Botany, his thoughts on the Right to Roam movement, what he hopes the reader can learn from his book and more. Read the full author interview on the Conservation Hub.

Firstly, can you tell us about yourself and how you first became interested in both Botany and orchids?

By day I’m a mild-mannered lecturer (in a subject which has very little to do with science or botany); by night I am a guerrilla conservationist with a focus on rescuing, conserving, and bringing back to the land, our native orchids. The Orchid Outlaw explains the journey I took from a chance encounter with a tropical orchid in a garden centre as a child, which led me, when I was older, to trekking through jungles to look for tropical species, then, and older still, via a mugging, an enforced return to England and a broken back, to encounter Britain’s – and Europe’s native orchids. As I learned more about these species, I realised that my preconceptions about our native orchids and the state of our natural environment were wrong. I became aware of the significant recent decline in orchid populations… and began my unorthodox means of saving them. I tell this story alongside (hopefully) entertaining diversions through history, medicine, man’s changing relationship with nature, Charles Darwin’s discovery of evolution, and a critical exploration of the laws which exist to protect wildlife in this country but which are so full of huge holes that battalions of construction vehicles can rumble straight through, crushing all life before them. Which they do. Daily. Without any legal consequences.  

In contrast, a well-intentioned conservationist (like me) rescuing wild flora or fauna from private land which is about to be turned into a housing estate, without first going through the hurdles required to gain permission from the landowner, risks fines of £5,000 per plant or six months in prison. Do these laws make sense? No. Are they helping sustain a healthy and diverse population of native species? No. So, like any laws which don’t work, someone should stand up to them and do what needs to be done. 

Bee Orchid in some grass.
Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) by Oli Haines.

In the past week, the European Council has formally adopted the Nature Restoration law. Do you think this law could have any influence on conservation policy here in Britain, and to what extent do you think it will change people’s attitudes towards our responsibility to protect the natural environment?

In Britain (as elsewhere) 2024 is a national election year so any impact on British political attitudes of a European law will depend to an extent on which party wins. Unfortunately, none of our main political parties have a good track record when it comes to protecting our natural heritage for us and future generations we have seen a rapid decline in numbers across all species and native habitats over many decades presided over by both main parties and a coalition. Of course, for the sake of everyone’s future, I’d like to think this European Council law marks a shift in geo-political will which will pull all national policies into its orbit (fingers-crossed)… but the realist in me suggests that unless meaningful, accountable, well-policed penalties accompany laws, those laws tend to make little concrete difference (consider for example international laws around freedom of expression, asylum, and war crimes, which are broken all around the world every day). 

The Orchid Outlaw highlighted how pre-industry anthropogenic land use is intertwined with orchid distribution, particularly in the UK. How do you think rewilding (which is currently a very hot topic) can be implemented in a way that supports these species that may have benefitted from traditional land management rather than being left to nature? 

The Orchid Outlaw looks a little bit at how native orchids thrived in the habitat niches created on a large scale by man, including hay meadows, and how centuries of people-managed woodland (the clearing of underwood and occasional felling) provided conditions which helped many native orchid species to thrive. Of course, these habitats had existed long before people (meadows had been formed, for example, by large, now extinct cattle, naturally falling trees, and wildfires) so, in many ways, mankind took on the role of these natural forces for his own benefit and, in the process, allowed many other species not only orchids to benefit too. In this sense, ‘rewilding’ is not simply a case of letting an area go wild without any human intervention ironically this kind of habitat is completely ‘un-wild’ unless it is stocked with the right range of creatures which are going to complete the tapestry of life (and death) needed to reach a healthy, natural, sustainable equilibrium. 

Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza) by Jo Graeser.
Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza) by Jo Graeser.

How can we mitigate orchid loss in a practical conservation framework when vital species-specific symbiotic relationships with fungi are not considered, so these species may not be protected under current schemes?

There are all kinds of gaping holes in our awareness of the world and what really goes on in the soil, which sustains everything, is one of them. Because of this particular hole, soil health has fallen through the gaps of wildlife conservation laws, even though soil, like the sea, is a vast, living, environment containing more life than we can see and it is an environment upon which the world depends. Orchids in particular have a very complex, as yet only partially understood, crucial relationship with certain soil fungi (mycorrhizae). This is because orchid seed germinates unlike that of any other plant. It creates a symbiotic relationship with a specific mycorrhiza in order to then form a kind of hairy blob (a ‘protocorm’) which, eventually, sometimes after many years living underground sustained only by fungus, becomes a flowering plant. This makes orchids important indicators of soil health, because it seems that the mycorrhizae they need are adversely affected by artificial fertilisers and herbicides. In a way then, our orchids have taught me that any conservation framework has to start from the ground literally, the dirt up, because that is the secret to success. If the earth and the microbes in it are right for the plants there and, of course, plants are crucial to any rewilding project then insects, birds, mammals will come and the tapestry of life which orchids introduced to me will weave itself. 

The right to roam movement is growing, especially close to home here in Devon. What are your thoughts on trespassing for the purpose of immersing and enjoying nature that is legally out of reach for the majority of citizens? Following this, if the laws were to change do you think it would affect attitudes towards nature with more people having the chance to be exposed to nature?

Let’s be honest, this is ‘our’ land. Our ancestors built it, fought for it, died for it, are buried in it; it is deplorable that we do not have the right to roam considerately and with respect upon our land. The right to roam exists in Scotland without any major detriment to anybody and the fact that it does not exist in England and Wales says a great deal about the sway the old class system still holds here after all, 0.06% of the population owns half of rural England and Wales and much of this land distribution extends back to the days of feudal lords. For centuries, no one has done much to change this status quo.  

Obviously, allowing people the chance to experience nature is a great way of changing attitudes to it… but a lot of the land we can roam in Devon is still unavailable to those in inner city areas, so a shift in awareness towards our natural world our natural heritage, formed over thousands of years and which we should be proud to pass on to our children – is not solely about opening up rural land. The recent pandemic made many people far more aware of how important being outside in nature is to our wellbeing whether in a park or allotment or an uncut verge with a bench to sit on and wild flowers buzzing with insects and flickering with butterflies. So, while the right to roam is important, I think wider appreciation of the real value of nature will be helped by allowing nature to be more present everywhere in everyone’s life from green roofs, wild parks and county farms, to unmown verges and tree-lined streets smothered in bird boxes… 

Miltary Orchid on the right hand side of the photo in a field of grass.
Military Orchid by Charlie Jackson, via flickr.

What do you hope the reader can learn from The Orchid Outlaw? 

On the one hand, I like to think that The Orchid Outlaw takes a reader on the same journey of discovery I went on, with orchids as my guide, opening my eyes to so much I hadn’t known. One of the biggest wake-up calls orchids gave me was the inadequacy of our wildlife laws and the massive, underreported decline of some our native flora. Orchids also taught me about the important microfauna all around us, the complex nature of soil, the history of botany and herbalism, and of course the fascinating world of native orchids themselves the magical co-evolution that has occurred between orchids and their pollinators, the fact that some species never need sunlight, that others grow a metre tall and smell of decay, and some can live to be over a hundred years old… and a great deal more.   

On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, I’d like to think that what I do, as unorthodox as it is, shows that you don’t have to be a scientist, researcher, or working for an official institution to make a positive impact for the other living organisms on our planet.

Can you tell us what’s occupying your time at the moment? Do you have any other books in progress that we can hear about?  

Aside from the usual rescuing and reintroducing native orchids, at the end of The Orchid Outlaw I talk about moving to the countryside to an old house which needed and continues to need a lot of attention. So, the garden (which was essentially a forest of nettles) and the lab I started building at the bottom of the garden to propagate orchids (so I no longer need to turn the kitchen into my lab) is largely what occupies my spare time. In any spare moments I am working on a couple of book proposals, both of which relate to elements of The Orchid Outlaw, but, for now, they’re closely guarded secrets! 

Orchid Outlaw book cover showing the title written in yellow, on top of an image of a blue and green orchid on a black background with heras fencing over the top.

The Orchid Outlaw has been published by John Murray and is available from our online bookstore.

Author interview with Christopher Hart – Hedgelands

Hedgelands book cover showing an artistic drawing of green hedge leaves on a dark green background, with leaves woven over the white text in capital letters saying 'Hedgelands.'Hedges and hedgerows have long been an integral part of the British landscape and are now considered the greatest edge habitat on earth. Hedgelands shines a spotlight on the hawthorn and hazel of ancient hedges, thorny scrub and the creatures that call this habitat their home, telling you everything you could ever want to know about this wild, diverse and incredibly rich habitat – it may even change your perspective of the humble British hedgerow for good.

Portrait of author Christopher Hart wearing a checked shirt, gillet and flat cap with a large hedge behind him.

Christopher Hart has authored ten literary and historical books that have been praised by both The Times Library Supplement and Sunday Sport. He’s written numerous short stories, essays and reviews on a range of subjects, and has worked as a freelance journalist since the 1990s. Hart now lives on a seven-acre plot in Wiltshire which he is in the process of rewilding.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Christopher about what inspired him to write a book about hedges, how he thinks we can change peoples perceptions of the humble hedgerow and more.

As a writer of primarily historical fiction, what inspired you to write a book celebrating British hedges?

Well, I’ve had quite a chequered career: as well as the historical fiction thing, I’ve been a Mr Whippy Ice Cream Van Driver, Theatre Critic of the Sunday Times, and Agony Uncle for Time Out magazine. None of which qualify me to write about hedges! But really the English countryside is a lifelong passion, and working on our own patch of seven acres, with intermittent grazing, plus trying to encourage maximum wildlife, has taught me directly how vital hedges and thickets are to the entire system. Then my friend Jonathan did this survey on one of his own restored and re-laid hedges, found vivid evidence of the huge benefits to invertebrates, and said to me, Why don’t you write a book? So that’s how it started.

Jonathan stood in front of his re laid hedge.
Jonathan stood in front of his re-laid hedge, by Christopher Hart.

Hedgerows have demonstrable benefits to the environment, yet are often overlooked and under-appreciated by many. How can we change public perception of and attitudes towards the humble hedgerow?

I think real-life examples always work better than statistics. And maybe demonstrating to people directly how many birds, butterflies etc. flourish in our hedgerows could have a great effect, as could enlarging and protecting hedgerows on amenity land, where people actually go regularly, rather than farmland: allotments, for instance, churchyards, and even school grounds.

How does the historical, manual management of hedgerows compare to the mechanical methods used in some agricultural practices today? And how can we encourage a change to more conservation-centred management in these spaces? 

Like every other farm job, the old manual method of hedge-laying with an axe and billhook is a great art and beautiful to watch – but also very slow and expensive! Unless it could be done by teams of roving volunteers, which is a promising idea. But even flailing can be made instantly more eco-friendly by simply doing it every two years instead of one. That could really help, and as I think Jake Fiennes suggests, would actually save the average farmer around £2,500 a year on diesel alone.

A generous field margin on a productive arable farm showing a wide, long grass border against a flourishing hedge.

Can you share some examples of individuals, organisations or locations that are paving the way for best-practice hedgerow management?

I think all the big conservation charities, like the RSPB, are very aware of hedgerows’ importance now, but there are also some admirable specialists like Hedgelink. And the Devon Hedge Group are terrific, doing direct, hands-on work there. If you want to see a truly spectacular hedge though, don’t miss the massive bristling rampart of the ‘Nightingale Hedge’ at Knepp. It’s magnificent! 

How can we get involved in bringing hedgerows to our local communities, and how may we incorporate a hedge into areas with limited space?

One reader of my book has already contacted me for advice on how the hedges in his daughter’s school grounds could be made more nature friendly, perhaps by re-laying or just allowing to thicken up that’s a great example of what we can do quite independently of farmlands. Another suggestion I have is to ‘rewild’ a typical, slightly overmanaged garden hedge, that might be just mono-cultural beech or holly, and let climbers and creepers into it as well: relax about a bit of ivy, or even bramble, let a few nettles grow, or as we have done, allow some self-sown honeysuckle to trail over your privet hedge. Then go out on a warm summer evening and admire the moths that turn up. If the sight of an Elephant Hawk moth doesn’t convert you, I don’t know what will! 

Man-made thicket full of blackthorn in a field.

What’s next for you? Do you have plans for more nature writing?

I most certainly do. The only difficulty is choosing which one to pursue. In the last year I did some experimental ‘re-bogging’ of a small riverside field that was just too waterlogged to offer good grazing, or any other kind of useful food production. It took me all of half an hour with a spade, diverting a field-side drainage ditch. The result has been a quite spectacular explosion of dragonflies and snipe in the winter. I’d love to write something about that. ‘Re-bogging Britain, or ‘The Joy of Re-bogging. What do you think? 

Hedgelands book cover showing an artistic drawing of green hedge leaves on a dark green background, with leaves woven over the white text in capital letters saying 'Hedgelands.'

Hedgelands is published by Chelsea Green and is available from our online bookstore.

Author interview with Joe Shute: Stowaway

Stowaway book cover showing an old harbour town with boats on the water and four rats climbing up a rope tying a boat to the dock.This tale of rat catchers, crumbling buildings and back alleys delves into the complex linkages between humans and rats, questioning why some animals are accepted while others are cast aside. Joe Shute follows the course of this intricate relationship through history, from those in the trenches to the present day, where an estimated ten million rats live in Britain alone.

Joe Shute author photograph, showing him leaning against a wall in a park with a pair of binoculars around his neck, brown jacket, scarf and hat.Joe Shute is an author and journalist who has a keen passion for the natural world. He is the long-standing author of The Daily Telegraph‘s Saturday ‘Weather Watch’ column, is currently a post-graduate researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University and lives in Sheffield with his wife and pet rats.

We recently had the opportunity to speak to Joe about his book, including his most unexpected lines of enquiry while writing Stowaway, how his own relationship with rats has changed over time, what he plans to do next and more.

What initially drew you to focussing on rats for this book? 

I am particularly attracted to the less fashionable corners of nature writing, I suppose. In particular I have a soft spot for scavengers, of which rats are obviously the greatest of them all. I find it fascinating that wild rats are creatures which have adapted and thrived in our shadow over centuries of human history and yet we still don’t know much about them. I wanted to unpick the rat stories and mythology and folklore attached to rats and see them as an animal in their own right. Because the history of rats is so bound up in our own, I also hoped that focusing on rats would help change my understanding of how humans interact with the world.

Wild Rat climbing up a breezeblock brick in a field.
Wild Rat – Rutland Water by Airwolfhound, via flickr.

What were some of the unexpected lines of enquiry the writing of this book opened for you? 

I knew about the intelligence of rats beforehand but until I started writing the book I hadn’t appreciated the complexity of the inner lives of rats. Numerous studies have shown that rats feel empathy, regret, possess the power of imagination and even enjoy dancing. I also hadn’t appreciated until writing the book how little is known about rats in the wild. Despite being such a familiar animal, we really have little idea about the size of rat populations or exactly where and how they live in cities. Also, I hadn’t fully appreciated just how clever rats are. I visited a project in Tanzania where rats are taught to detect landmines. In the US, scientists have even taught rats how to drive cars. 

Rats have pretty bad PR and this book does an illuminating and erudite job of portraying them with a nuanced and sympathetic appreciation. Why is it important that we scrutinise our relationship with rats?

It’s important to redress our relationship with rats because I believe we are entering a new era of history alongside them. The 20th century was marked by a ‘war on the rat’ with countries committing huge resources to eradicate populations with mostly limited success. This has also had a terrible impact on the natural world, with toxic rodenticides poisoning animals throughout the food chain. This is now changing and various cities such as Paris and Amsterdam are asking whether we might be able to better co-exist with rats. In the UK and elsewhere greater restrictions are also being placed on the indiscriminate use of rodenticides. There are certainly settings where rats are destructive and cause great harm, for example in important seabird colonies where they can devastate nesting populations or indeed when living in someone’s house. But why should they not share our parks and gardens with us?

Wild rat photographed in amongst long grass and damp leaves.
Wild Rat by Airwolfhound, via flickr.

What are some ways in which rats, and our misconceptions of them, hold mirror up to our own behaviours?

I argue in the book that rats thrive where humanity has failed. Industrial farming, where wildness and natural predators have been lost and monoculture of crops exist, provide the ideal conditions for rats. Similarly in urban areas rats flourish among poor sanitation and low quality housing stock and lots of litter. War, waste and a devastated natural environment are all places where you will find rats. If we address these very human problems and behaviours then rat populations will automatically be kept more in check.

What are your hopes for what rat appreciation can offer us? 

I think an appreciation of rats can offer all of us a different perspective on how we interact with nature. When you look at a rat out foraging for food and put aside the cultural baggage attached to it, you see a supremely adaptable creature that can also be very cute! 

Joe Shute with his brown rat on his shoulder.

How has your own relationship with rats changed throughout the process of researching and writing this book? 

I started writing this book as someone with an innate fear of rats. Once I started interrogating this, however, I came to realise that so much of this is cultural – the books I read as a child and urban myths about rats which we all grow up with. To conquer my fears I adopted pet rats, Molly and Ermintrude, who revealed to me so much about the inner lives of rats and are the little beating hearts of my book. So much so in fact that I dedicate Stowaway to them. 

Finally, are you currently working on any other projects that you can tell us about? 

I am currently based at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Centre for Place Writing where I am undertaking a research project on rivers specifically a lost urban river called the Irk in Manchester. I am doing a lot of work with communities, running writing workshops to connect people to the river and the urban flora and fauna which flourishes there. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of rats along the Irk, but Kingfishers, Dippers and Grey Wagtails too. It is exactly the sort of contested and overlooked environment rich in human history which I love writing about and where I always feel most inspired.

Stowaway book cover showing an old harbour town with boats on the water and four rats climbing up a rope tying a boat to the dock.

Stowaway has been published by Bloomsbury and is available via our online bookstore.

Author Interview with Jenny Macpherson: Stoats, Weasels, Martens & Polecats 

Stoats, Weasels, Martens and Polecats book cover showing an orange, white and purple lino print of a two stoats on a rock within ferns.The latest volume in the New Naturalist series, Stoats, Weasels, Martens & Polecats focuses on the four species of ‘small mustelids’ – highly specialised predators and ubiquitous assassins, some of which were once hunted to near-extinction. This delightfully rich text details their physiology, distribution, daily lives, significance in UK history and folklore, while also intertwining the authors own experiences working at the forefront of mustelid conservation across England and Wales.

Jenny MacPherson portrait, wearing a yellow knitted hat and a thick winter coat with the hood up.

Jenny MacPherson managed the Pine Marten Reintroduction Project for many years before taking over as the Principle Scientist at The Vincent Wildlife Trust. She has a longstanding background in zoology and research, holds an MSc in Conservation at the University College London and a PhD from Royal Holloway.

Jenny recently took the time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about the book, including how she first became interested in mustelids, how she thinks these animals will fare in relation to the current climate and environmental challenges and more.

Can you tell us a little about your background and what first interested you in mustelids? 

I studied zoology at university as a mature student, having worked as a theatre costume assistant in London when I left school. Actually, my first experience of mustelids was the rather unflattering portrayal of the Stoats and Weasels in the National Theatre production of The Wind in the Willows that I worked on, back in 1990! – I was responsible for getting Otter into his costume, a 1920s style knitted bathing suit. Then, as an undergraduate at Royal Holloway University, I planned my dissertation project on Pine Martens, having been captivated by them on holidays in Scotland, where it was such a rare treat to see them. Since then, mustelids, and especially Pine Martens, have been a major interest of mine. 

Stoat stood on a log.
Stoat by Andy Morffew, via flickr.

What are the challenges of studying this group?  

It is very difficult to study elusive, nocturnal animals that live at low density and are patchily distributed. It certainly tests our ingenuity. Thankfully some of the rapid advances in technology are helping, as I describe in the book. 

How do you think small mustelids in the UK will fare in the face of climate and environmental change? 

It is difficult to predict and it will likely vary between species. Pine Martens might ultimately benefit from increases in afforestation for carbon storage, but in the meantime existing forests are coming under multiple pressures from recreation, timber harvesting and emerging plant diseases. The impacts of environmental change on prey populations shouldn’t be underestimated either. Some long-term studies have already shown declines in the abundance and diversity of small mammal communities linked to climate change, which is of concern for all of our native carnivores. 

Weasel stood with its front paws on a rock in some long grass.
Weasel by Alan Shearman, via flickr.

Historical opinions held by some across the UK favour culling of mustelids. For instance, Pine Martens in Scotland are at risk of predator-control trapping due to a perceived risk to livestock and game birds. What can we do to challenge these long-held, traditional ways of thinking in relation to UK predators? 

We need to raise greater awareness of natural processes, including predation. Predators have a number of important functions and play a key role in supporting our ecosystems. In Britain, these have been out of balance for centuries as a result of human intervention and we have become used to ‘controlling’ any animals that cause us an inconvenience, rather than working together to find practicable ways of living alongside predators. 

Pine Marten stood on a broken Silver Birch log.
Pine Marten by Caroline Legg, via flickr.

Citizen science projects are a great way for people outside of the field to get involved with conservation research. Are there any resources where the public can submit sightings? And how can citizen science benefit the conservation of this group? 

Citizen scientists and volunteers are crucial to conservation research and we have a long history of their involvement in Britain. Vincent Wildlife Trust collect sightings and other records of Pine Martens and are currently also carrying out a two-year national survey of Polecats. More information can be found on the website at The collective effort of citizen scientists makes it possible to gather huge amounts of information over large areas and time frames, which helps to focus conservation efforts where they are most needed for these species. 

Are you working on any other projects you would like to share with us? Can we expect more books from you in the future? 

I am currently working on a number of projects in my role at Vincent Wildlife Trust, including a feasibility study for reintroducing European Mink to the southern Carpathians in Romania, and I have just started writing another book. 

Stoats, Weasels, Martens and Polecats book cover showing an orange, white and purple lino print of a two stoats on a rock within ferns.

Stoats, Weasels, Martens & Polecats is available to pre-order from our online bookstore.

Author interview with Ed Drewitt – Bird Pellets

Bird Pellets book cover showing a barn owl stood on a wooden fencepost with a mouse in its mouth, the title Bird Pellets in cream and images of 15 bird pellets below this.This is the first comprehensive guide to bird pellets showcasing a wide range of pellets produced by different species, including owls, hawks, waders and various garden birds. Author Ed Drewitt offers a methodical introduction to pellets, outlining what they are, how they’re formed, dissection methods, analysis and common findings, accompanied by an array of detailed illustrations and photographs. Bird Pellets provides a closer look at those produced by each species in turn and outlines how to identify the remains of small mammals, which can be an important tool for discovering what a bird feeds on, understanding dietary change over time and other aspects, making this an invaluable resource in ecology.

Image of author Ed Drewitt from the waist upwards wearing a grey waterproof coat stood in front of a hedge, holding a pair of binocularsEd Drewitt is a professional naturalist, wildlife detective and broadcaster for the BBC who specialises in the study of birds and marine mammals. He studied Zoology at the University of Bristol, before working at Bristol’s Museums, Galleries and Archives for numerous years. He is now a freelance learning consultant who runs bird identification courses, provides wildlife commentaries on excursions, writes for wildlife magazines and is involved in bird ringing studies. Ed is also the lead researcher in a study focusing on the diet of urban-dwelling peregrines in the UK and author of Urban Peregrines.

Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to write a book about bird pellets? 

I have been interested in wildlife, particularly birds, since I was six or seven. Back then I would love collecting feathers and skulls, and bird pellets. I remember being excited at finding a Sparrowhawk pluckingperch in the woods where I lived in Surrey and finding small pellets – packed full of small feathers – from the hawk. Much of my career has involved developing and delivering learning workshops and resources for school-aged students and my public engagement work involves communicating science in plain English. Therefore, I am well versed in writing a book that appeals to families, schools and researchers alike. For several years I worked part-time in the teaching laboratory for the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol. Each spring I would help oversee students dissecting several hundred Barn Owl pellets; I also arranged for a live owl and Kestrel to come in, to bring the practical ‘alive’. I have also been studying what urban-dwelling Peregrines eat (and am author of Urban Peregrines and Raptor Prey Remains) over the past 26 years. Therefore, I was in a brilliant and timely position to tap into my own pellet and bone collection, and source more material from others across the country and beyond, to write the ultimate bird pellet book!

A child stood at a table dissecting pellets with a pair of green tweezers.

Most people are aware that owls and raptors produce pellets, but are there any pellet-producing species that we’d be more surprised to hear about?

Absolutely – any bird that eats something that is indigestible and unable to pass through the intestines and out the other end, will produce a pellet. People are always surprised when I explain that even Robins and Blackbirds produce pellets, often made up of bits of woodlice and beetles. Interestingly though, two raptors, that you might expect to produce pellets do not: the Osprey and the Honey Buzzard. Both eat foods that either are digested or picked at, meaning harder parts, such as bones, are not swallowed.

I was interested to read in your introduction to the book that pellets can be used to study what birds were eating thousands or even millions of years ago. Are bird pellets generally well represented in the fossil record?

The brilliant thing about pellets is that, while their general structure may break down, their contents, for example, mammal and bird skulls, may accumulate in one area, even if they get buried over time. While some bits will slowly decay or move over time, others may remain in situ and intact. Palaeontologists and archaeologists often study how animals decay; it is known as taphonomy. It can also be applied to pellets. While complex, researchers can work out which species has produced a pellet and what happens to its contents with time. In turn, researchers can determine previous assemblages of prey species, such as small mammals, and how these have changed over time depending on environmental and ecological conditions. This type of study can also work out which species are more (or less) likely to be found in such accumulations and therefore how the fossil record may be biased towards particular prey species.

Close up of a Water Vole skull.

Many of us will be familiar with the technique of using the visual observation of bones and other remains in pellets to study what was in a bird’s diet. But are there more advanced laboratory methods that are now being used to study them in more detail? 

Yes, although I don’t think they are quite as fun or smelly! In essence, taking swabs from pellets can reveal the DNA of what has been eaten, including things that may not otherwise be detectable, although some of these items may have been eaten by the prey itself, if the DNA is intact enough. It can work the other way though; well digested food remains may mean the DNA of prey is undetectable or so degraded it cannot be assigned to a species or taxa, while traditional visual techniques may be able to confirm its identity.

Can pellets be useful for studying the presence of pollutants in the environment, such as plastics and microplastics? 

Absolutely, and this is not a new thing, although it is now more topical in the media. Some seabirds, such as terns and gulls, have been producing pellets with polystyrene particles going back to the 1970s. However, now we have a better idea of just how much plastic is in our environment, we are now looking for it more in the stomachs and pellets of birds. Dippers are a very good example. Small invertebrates, such as stonefly larvae, ingest microplastics. They are then eaten by Dippers and the plastics accumulate in the pellets they regurgitate. Of course, the cumulative health effects that ingesting plastic has on birds such as Dippers is difficult to ascertain. Even Barn Owl pellets may contain microplastics, ingested from the stomachs of small mammals they are eating.

Pellet produced by a Long-eared owl containing bones, hair and skin.

What is the most surprising or unusual thing you have found in a bird pellet to date?

Gull pellets are often the most interesting, mostly because of the litter they contain, from plastic particles and bags to condoms! On a more natural note, the most spectacular pellet I have found was on the Flannan Isles, a remote island west of the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. The pellet was from a Great Skua, and it contained a whole Leach’s Petrel, which also live on the island. The petrel had gone down into the stomach where it had been digested. It was then regurgitated as a pellet, pretty much as a whole bird including intact wings, just minus any flesh! Skuas and Great Black-backed Gulls will also do the same thing with young rabbits and Puffins. Pellets can also be useful for finding the rings of wild birds and discovering that a bird has eaten another bird with an interesting origin of ringing, such as Norway or Russia!

Finally, what’s keeping you occupied this summer, and do you have further books in the pipeline that we can look forward to?

During the summer I am busy taking people out to see wildlife, especially in the Forest of Dean, where I live. I especially love birdsong and helping others to hear it. I am also working with the RSPB on the Gwent Levels, doing some training courses on identifying saltmarsh plants and wildlife. My wife, Liz, and I have two children, aged four and seven, so we will also be busy keeping them occupied! They love the outdoors and enjoy seeing wildlife just like we do. I have some papers in the pipeline as I am halfway through a part-time PhD at the University of Bristol. My 26-year study of the diet of urban-dwelling peregrines has given me plenty of data to analyse and write into chapters for my PhD. 

Bird Pellets book cover showing a barn owl stood on a wooden fencepost with a mouse in its mouth, the title Bird Pellets in cream and images of 15 bird pellets below this.

Bird Pellets will be published by Pelagic Publishing and is available to pre-order from our online bookstore.

Author interview with Helen Scales: What the Wild Sea Can Be

What the Wild Sea Can Be book cover showing an artists drawing of the ocean, sea and rocks.In this bracing yet hopeful exploration of the future of the ocean, Helen scales relays the fascinating, deep history of our seas and reveals how prehistoric ecology holds lessons for the oceans of today. In light of the current challenging climate conditions, she offers innovative ideas to protect our coastlines and the species who live there, highlighting the importance of ethical and sustainable fisheries, the threat posed by deep-sea mining and more. This inspiring tale urges us to fight for a better future for the ocean before it’s too late.

Helen Scales portrait.

Helen Scales is a marine biologist, author and broadcaster who teaches Marine Biology and Science Writing at the University of Cambridge. She regularly writes on ocean discoveries for National Geographic Magazine and The Guardian, is an avid scuba diver, cold-water surfer and trained free diver who has lived and worked around the world, and is currently spending her time between Cambridge and the wild Atlantic coast of France.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Helen about her most recent book What The Wild Sea Can Be, including how she first became a marine biologist, how we can secure a better future for our oceans, her current projects and more.

Firstly, can you tell us a little about yourself, your career, and how you came to be a marine biologist?  

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved nature and being outdoors. My family spent a lot of holidays in Cornwall, so my training grounds as a marine biologist were windswept Atlantic beaches. This is when I began my lifelong love of rock pooling, shell collecting and rummaging around in seaweed to see what I can find. 

As a teen, I became a committed environmentalist. I was outraged by the issues of the day, including deforestation in the Amazon, and became vegetarian. Around the time I was beginning to contemplate a career as an environmental scientist, a school friend and I decided to take up scuba diving. We lived in land-locked, suburban Surrey – not an obvious place to learn to dive – but there was a friendly dive club that met each week and trained at the local swimming pool in an enclosed sea of eye-stinging chlorination. Our open water training dives were mostly back down in Cornwall, and that’s where I truly fell in love with the ocean and knew that I wanted to become a marine biologist. Instead of running off to save the rainforests, I wanted to save the ocean. I often say that was when my vision for my future turned from green to blue. 

So I left school, diving licence in hand, and immediately headed off on adventures to explore more of the seas. I’ve been incredibly lucky to travel to many corners of the ocean, studying and researching, and taking every opportunity I could to get myself underwater. For my PhD, I went to Borneo and studied the lives and loves of one of the biggest and I think most beautiful fish on coral reefs, the Humphead Wrasse.

Over the years, I’ve worked for various conservation organisations, including WWF in Malaysia where I mapped marine life around an archipelago of coral islands. Later, I worked on efforts to control the global trade in endangered marine species. Then, quite out of the blue, I discovered a previously unknown passion for writing and presenting, and decided to focus on sharing stories with people about the wonders and troubles of the living ocean.

1 Ocean diving exploration mission on a deep coral reef in the heart of the Pacific showing four divers swimming over a deep coral reef.

This book is cautiously optimistic about marine conservation. What have been the most impactful positive actions that have helped the recovery and management of our oceans? 

A big part of my optimism for the future is the fact that ocean life has an incredible capacity to recover and heal, given a chance. Often all it takes is for people to stop hunting and killing so many animals. 

For instance in the 1980s, commercial whaling was banned following the successful Save the Whales campaign, and now we’re seeing many whale populations doing a lot better. Back in the mid 20th century, whalers had killed around 99% of the Blue Whale subspecies from Antarctica, the biggest animals ever known to exist. Just recently, hydrophones stationed in the Southern Ocean have been detecting the songs of Blue Whales, a good sign that their numbers are on the rise.

Recoveries are happening in many other ocean species. After being gone for decades, Bluefin Tuna are showing up again around Britain, in part because catches have been better controlled in the Atlantic. Populations of oceanic sharks, like Great Hammerheads and Great White Sharks, are gradually increasing in the western Atlantic following years of overfishing. Up until the 1990s, the United States had a policy that actively encouraged shark exploitation. These wild animals were classified as an underutilised resource. That didn’t go well for sharks and their populations crashed. Finally, attitudes shifted, and the government rolled back the shark killing incentives and introduced measures to protect them in commercial and recreational fisheries. 

A lone Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) or starfish crawling on the seabed off Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The species has been devastated by sea star wasting disease.

Another proven way to let the ocean recover is to leave parts completely alone. That means no fishing or exploitation of any kind. People have been trying out these kinds of highly protected marine reserves for decades and showing that this is a powerful way to let nature in the ocean heal, grow and proliferate not just inside the watery reserve boundaries but outside too.

Some of these reserves are quite tiny, and some are enormous. At both big and small scales there can be tremendous benefits for wildlife and for people when these kinds of reserves are well designed and well enforced. In Scotland, a tiny reserve off the island of Arran has helped seabed ecosystems recover and flourish from years of trawling; Lamlash Bay is now home to lots more big lobsters and scallops, and the fragile habitat-forming seaweed called maerl. And in the middle of the Pacific, the vast Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument covers more than 1.5 million square miles of sea, including the spawning grounds of migratory Yellowfin and Bigeye Tuna whose numbers are increasing.

The entire ocean will never be strictly protected. What’s needed are more of these kinds of carefully located and wellenforced reserves to protect important places like the spawning grounds of rare and endangered species, and safeguard deep sea mounts covered in rich coral and sponge gardens combined with wider measures to sustainably manage the rest of the ocean.

Schoolmaster snapper (Lutjanus apodus) in red mangrove(Rhizophora mangle) and turtlegrass (thalassia testudinum) habitats. Image made on Eleuthera Island, Bahamas.

What the Wild Sea Can Be discusses possible solutions to the big problems that humanity will face in terms of future oceans. Are you aware of any lesser-known or less popular solutions that could be beneficial in securing a sustainable ocean?  

Certain solutions for a sustainable ocean tend to be unpopular among powerful people who are creaming off profits from the seas, often at huge industrial scales. Take the factory ships that head to Antarctica to extract krill. These finger-sized crustaceans are hunted by truly massive ships. One recently built in China is 140m (460ft) long longer than a football field. The technique for catching krill involves lowering down giant nets and pumping up hundreds of tonnes of krill every day, working nonstop for weeks at a time. The krill is processed on board, mashed and ground to make fishmeal and oils, and most of it is destined for fish farms to be fed to livestock like salmon.

Krill are fantastically abundant in the Southern Ocean. The snag is that the places where fisheries target krill in their densest, largest shoals are the very same places where Antarctic wildlife flocks to feed on them. Whales, seals, penguins and seabirds depend on krill. Studies suggest that fisheries depleting local krill populations can make it tough for other animals to find enough food, especially penguins during their nesting season. 

To make matters worse, krill and their predators are also in the firing line of the climate crisis. The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest heating places on the planet. Sea ice is retreating, upsetting the life cycle of krill that depend on the ice. 

Proposals to protect more of the seas around the West Antarctic Peninsula and restrict where fishing can happen are being met with strong opposition from nations with major krill fishing interests. There are many other examples where vested interests and powerful lobbies are blocking progressive changes to the way people use the ocean.

Lionfish - King of the Reef.

In chapter ten you discuss the idea of futuristic, ocean floating cities in the Maldives. Do you think highly engineered solutions such as these have a place in a sustainable future? And how realistic do you think these innovative adaptations are as a long-term solution?

It’s only going to be rich nations that can afford expensive, engineered solutions at a large enough scale to be significant. Perhaps there are people in the Maldives who will be able to afford this, but I’m guessing not an average fishing family whose island homes are disappearing beneath the waves. The situation in the Maldives is grim and it’s hard to know what to do in low-lying, island nations that have so little time, so I understand why people are exploring ideas of floating cities and other extreme measures. 

Elsewhere, more realistic and frankly exciting solutions involve working with nature, not against it. Wetland habitats, like salt marshes and mangrove forests, are excellent at protecting against flooding and storms, and they bring heaps of other benefits too, from carbon sequestration to supporting local fisheries. 

A priority for living with the future ocean is to protect and nurture existing wetlands, especially those near big cities, and to find smart ways of weaving those green solutions into more conventional approaches to protecting coastlines.

Nassau Grouper Spawning Aggregation.

This book is a realistic, yet hopeful exploration of the future of our marine environment. Where do you think we should focus our attention over the next ten years to secure a better future for our oceans? 

There are a few key things that I think need attention in the ocean in the years ahead. It will be critical to turn off the tap of plastics entering the ocean. To do that, plastic production needs to be limited globally. Currently, the amount being made annually is skyrocketing, and recycling rates have stagnated at around 10%. A global treaty on plastics is being negotiated at the United Nations which could pave the way to turning around the plastics juggernaut. 

There needs to be a cultural shift away from treating the ocean as a resource to exploit and squeeze profit from. A new mindset is beginning to take hold embracing an alternative view, one of cultivation and investment. People are producing low-impact, ethical seafood, for instance growing shellfish and seaweed. Governments need to support initiatives like these, instead of propping up damaging industrial fisheries. The ocean has the capacity to provide sustainable food for millions of people, especially in food-insecure nations who have no alternatives and depend most on the seas, but not if damaging industrial fishing continues to dominate. 

New ways to recklessly exploit the ocean need to be stopped before they start, in particular deep-sea mining. Mining corporations want to extract metal-rich rocks from the seabed many miles beneath the waves, in the process destroying vital deep-sea habitats and species, potentially causing widespread pollution and disrupting the health of the ocean. 

The argument for deep-sea mining is that this would be a better way to provide materials for a green economy, in particular to build electric car batteries. For many reasons, this logic is deeply flawed. For one thing, the EV market is fast moving, and companies are constantly inventing new technologies in the race to build lighter, faster-charging batteries. Increasingly, the types of metals that could come from the deep, such as cobalt and lithium, are likely to be replaced by more readily available and less problematic materials. 

There’s growing pushback from civil society, governments, indigenous groups, scientists and industry leaders who agree that deep-sea mining is not vital for green economies and would permanently harm the ocean.

Birds diving into the sea to catch fish.

What’s next for you? Do you have any current projects that you would like to share with us?

A few years ago I began writing books for younger readers and it’s become a part of my work that I treasure. I have a lot of fun telling stories about the seas and sea life to younger audiences, and I love collaborating with super talented artists who make such incredibly beautiful books. So, I have several more books for little ones in the pipeline. 

There are also some spin offs from the books I’ve already written. When I set out on my career as a marine biologist, I never imagined one day I would have my own jigsaws! 

What the Wild Sea Can Be book cover showing an artists drawing of the ocean, sea and rocks.

 What the Wild Sea Can Be is available to order from our online bookstore.

Supplier interview with Unitura

Unitura are experts in nature-inclusive construction and renovation who provide off-the-shelf solutions to projects that require roosting and habitat mitigation. They are involved in the design and manufacture of their own product lines, including bat boxes, bird boxes and insect hotels. They are specialists in green architecture in the form of green roofs or facades and provide bespoke services for nature inclusivity projects. 

We recently had the opportunity to talk to the founders of Unitura, Sicco, Robert-Jan and Henk, about the company, their product range, what they hope for the future of the business and more. 

Photo of the three Unitura founders stood in their warehouse by a bat box.

Firstly, can you tell us about what inspired the establishment of Unitura?  

The founding of Unitura stemmed from our shared interests. Prior to founding Unitura, Sicco and Henk were already engaged in providing ecological advice, while Robert Jan was primarily involved in the building sector. During a casual gathering, we brainstormed and landed on the concept of bat boxes. At that time, there was limited knowledge about such products in the market, presenting us with an intriguing challenge. 

We started out quite simply – making and painting bat boxes in a small, rented office in a farmhouse. During the week, we focused on consultancy work and at the weekend we focused on producing bat boxes. We noticed that more was possible than just bat boxes and started to expand our range. It was no longer just about bats, but a complete range of in-field, nature-inclusive building. 

Unitura warehouse with bat boxes laid out on a table.

How has the idea of nature-inclusive building been received since the company was founded, and how important do you think this is for the future of the planet?  

Since our company was founded, the idea of nature-inclusive building has mainly been driven by legislation. However, we are now seeing a shift where it is becoming more of an integral part of construction projects and people are recognising its broader importance. We expect that in the future, it will become a standard component in the construction industry, particularly in the Netherlands where we see nature-inclusive building gaining more traction. 

A few years ago, green buildings were rare, but now architects are increasingly incorporating them into their designs. This rapid development in the Netherlands is due to both political and corporate recognition of its urgency. Governments are implementing more regulations and companies are eager to adapt to these changes. 

You have a very wide range of products on offer, from nest boxes, insect hotel and seeds, to equipment needed to create live, biodiverse green roofs. Can you tell us a bit more about your bestselling products?  

Our best-selling products are the wood-concrete built-in facilities for birds and bats. Our range includes an extensive series of modular bat boxes that can be endlessly expanded and exchanged. This allows you to put together your bat boxes according to your own wishes. These boxes are specifically designed for bats that live in buildings. We also offer various built-in facilities for birds, including swifts and House Sparrows, which can be easily integrated into the masonry. 

Three swifts flying into a swift box.

How did the introduction of the Nature Conservation Act in 2017 affect the design and manufacturing of your products?  

The introduction of the Nature Conservation Act in

 2017 likely impacted the design and production of our products. Similar legislation already existed in the Netherlands prior to this. At the moment, according to Dutch law, it is mandatory to conduct ecological research on protected species and their habitats before construction activities can commence. As a solution, a Species Management Plan (SMP) is now in place. An SMP outlines the protected species present in an area and the threats they face, whether across the entire municipality, in specific neighbourhoods, or within areas earmarked for significant sustainability or construction activities. It also describes the actions needed to protect, restore, or even increase the population of species. 

For our company, this may entail adjusting our designs and manufacturing processes to comply with the regulations set forth in the SMP. For instance, in the insulation industry, our designs must account for specific insulation values to ensure that our product is suitable for use in various construction projects, such as installing nest-boxes in cavity walls.

I think the live, biodiverse roofs and building facades that you create are a fantastic idea and look stunning, however they are sadly quite uncommon here in the UK. Can you talk us through how you create them, why they should be used instead of a flat roof and how they benefit the environment?  

Our green roofs offer various benefits, including reducing heat stress, significant water buffering capacity and CO2 reduction – they are also well-suited for renovation, as they are made with cassettes (HDPE units containing pre-cultivated wildflowers and herbs used to make green roofing). Within these cassettes, we use native species that contribute to promoting biodiversity and support local flora and fauna. 

The process begins with the manufacturing of cassettes, which are then placed on the roof. These cassettes are produced by specialised nurseries and contain a substrate in which we sow native seeds from our partner organisation, De Bolderik. After approximately 12 weeks, the cassettes are ready to be installed on the roof. 

Photograph of a Unitura living roof on top of one of their company buildings.

Do you have any new products on the horizon that you can tell us about?  

We continuously work on developing new products. We recently launched a new sensor specifically designed for detecting incoming and outgoing bats. With an active lifespan of two years, this sensor enables long-term monitoring. Users can easily view and download the sensor results via the companion app.  

What is the hope for the future of Unitura? 

Our aim is to broaden our model into a complete supplier of nature-inclusive solutions, integrating green elements such as green facades and green roofs. Moreover, we are firmly committed to expanding our presence in the international market. We are curious what the future will bring us! 

Unitura Modular bat tubes.

Unitura Modular Bat Tubes

This modular bat tube from Unitura is a highly versatile built-in solution for bat mitigation and integration into a wall. Each tube has a single or multiple large crevices with a sloped entrance hole to accommodate bats leaving and entering the site and promote the runoff of water away from the interior of the tube. The tubes come in single, double and triple crevice layers and with/without an entryway. They can be mixed and matched completely depending on the design specification of the build and built as large or as small as needed.

Unitura tall external bat box.Unitura Tall External Bat Box

This single crevice external bat box from Unitura provides a suitable and durable roost for crevice-dwelling bat species. Made from thermally stable and resilient woodconcrete this bat box can be mounted to any external walls where a roost may be needed. MULTI-MONTI fixings are included and are designed to be used without a Rawl plug. The screw anchor is approved for installation in cracked and uncracked concrete, as well as a whole range of other building materials.

Unitura External Swift Box.

Unitura External Swift Box

This external single-cavity swift box has been designed as a long-lasting nest box for swifts. Constructed from woodconcrete this swift box has a sloping roof to provide drainage and prevent dirt streaks from forming on the external wall. These boxes come with all the required fixings and an instruction card for easy assembly.

Soffit and Fascia Swift Box.Soffit and Fascia Swift Box

These under-eaves swift nest boxes are a subtle and attractive way of providing swifts roosting opportunities in your eaves and soffits while remaining durable and secure for both the home and birds. The roost is made of both a wooden concrete entrance stone and an FSC plywood box, with ideally only the entrance stone being exposed to the elements, improving the durability and longevity of the box. The box is designed to be mounted in multiple directions depending on the angle of mounting and the shape and angle of the soffit/fascia.

Unitura Little Owl Box.

Unitura Little Owl Box

Designed to provide a secure nesting solution for Little Owls, whilst excluding unwanted species, this nestbox has an entryway vestibule to help discourage Stone Martens, a large open nesting space with a removable roof and drainage/ventilation holes in the base.

Wilder Sensing: An Interview with Geoff Carss

Wilder Sensing, founded in 2021, is bringing innovative techniques to conservation, providing additional insights into biodiversity. This promising tech start-up featured on Springwatch this Wednesday (12th June), showcasing the applications of this innovation. We had the opportunity to chat with Geoff Carss, CEO of Wilder Sensing, on the organisation, its role in conservation and the future of technology in the field.

Can you share with us why Wilder Sensing was founded and what the company is involved in? 

Wilder Sensing was founded to ensure that anyone can collect high-quality, long-term biodiversity data. There are many different ways of doing this, but we focus on sound. By recording 24/7 for weeks, or even months, you can build up a very rich picture of what is present in an environment. The technology we use is low-cost with limited bias, and it is easy to use, even for non-professionals. It’s not perfect, especially because we are focusing on birds at the moment. Not all birds make much noise – some make very subtle noises which we can’t pick up – but for most species it works well. 

Can you tell us about the capabilities of Wilder Sensing technology and the insights that it can provide for a given environment?

We work with our customers to agree on survey patterns and how many recorders should be deployed on each site. The customer uploads their audio files to our website, and once they have arrived, we automatically process them using machine learning. It takes us around 20 seconds to process an hour-long file, and we can process many in parallel. During this, the technology checks every three seconds to see if a sound has been detected – every sound gets a species match, and a probability is assigned. So, for instance, the technology will be 92% certain that it has detected a Robin. Through this, we can give a species richness assessment, which is a species list at the moment. Our technology is currently unable to tell us how many individuals there are in a given space – there could be one very noisy bird, or ten very quiet ones.   

However, bioacoustic surveying technology does not remove the need for ground truthing. It is still important to get the baseline. Ecologists will find species that we don’t pick up. And the converse is true as well. We can find 20-30% more species when combining acoustic and traditional surveys. We are also working on other approaches for the future, like triangulation, which could identify exactly where a sound is coming from. 

Over 45,000 records were species-matched in the Peruvian Amazon. Image by Wilder Sensing.Can you tell us about the current projects that you are involved in and the role that bioacoustics played in conservation?  

We’re involved with a whole raft of different projects. We are working with environmental consultancies, Wildlife Trusts and NGO’s using acoustic technology for long-term surveying. Wendling Beck in Norfolk is a site that we have been working on for around 18 months. We realised that Skylarks are using one small part of the site, but you don’t see this until you look at the data – when you are just walking around, you don’t make that connection. If you look at some species, you might think that you have a ubiquitous habitat, but when you start looking at the distribution of birds and their calls, you may find that there are many times more calls in one part of the site. If you were to redevelop an area, you would probably lose some species altogether, but going into a development project, knowing that’s a likely ecological consequence, is really important and that is why acoustic technology is so valuable. 

What is the future for AI in conservation? Where do you think its applications could take us over the coming years??

I think it has a lot to contribute. To get good, accurate data you need highly skilled ecologists, people that really understand bird sound – it takes years to build those skills. I think the role will change so that ecologists will get more involved in survey design and interpreting the data to understand the consequences of a project. It becomes much more evidence-based and more quantitative. We have some customers who deploy up to 20 recorders, and you can get a quarter of a million acoustic records on each device. With that amount of data, you can start to ask different questions and we can see all kinds of behaviours that we couldn’t see before.   

In the South-west, some farmland was purchased to develop into allotments and after digging, they found that Skylarks were nesting on-site. Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) does not look at species, so a habitat survey would not record Skylarks in the area. If acoustic recorders had been deployed on site, ecologists would know they were present – so well-rounded data will also help developers plan better, mitigating issues from the onset of construction. The BNG survey was designed to be consistent and relatively easy to use, and species surveys could prove to be more difficult because of inconsistencies and methodologies etc. With AI we can move to a new level of understanding. If you just stick the recorder out, it is consistent in how it works and removes bias.

Over 4,000 calls were detected from Meadow Pipits at Wendling Beck. Image by Kev Chapman via Flickr.

For those interested in bioacoustics, it is worth noting that you will be holding webinars from July. What can we expect from these sessions?  

We have three sessions lined up. The first one is on 7th July and is about measuring nature using sound. It’ll dig into both how the technology works and how it compares against other methods, and hopefully we’ll have an open discussion around its strengths and weaknesses. The session is intended for people who are interested in the subject, and we will go through some examples. 

This will be followed by two in the autumn, which are more technical and are perhaps more suited to professional ecologists. These sessions will be touching on some of the technology behind Wilder Sensing and some of the ways it should and shouldn’t be used.

What is Wilder Sensing hoping to achieve over the next decade?  

I am hoping to move onto other taxa, the obvious ones being insects and bats. We would also like to look at triangulation as well – if we can triangulate how birds and bats are using a landscape, we can use this to help inform better environmental management. I think this data will be used with other environmental data in the future. People doing nature restoration or project planning need to understand the water quality, air quality, the climate etc. to get a better environmental outcome. And even forward-looking companies, we can look at their supply chain as well.

An acoustic sensor deployed at Honeygar Farm. Image by Wilder Sensing.

Increasingly the media are reporting on the quietening of British soundscapes, a symptom of the biodiversity and climate crisis we are facing. How do you think Wilder Sensing will adapt to an increasingly quiet environment? Will technology need to adapt to keep up?  

Wilder Sensing technology will quantify exactly what is happening in the biodiversity crisis. I have a copy of the iconic Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which was published 60 years ago, and we haven’t learned from that. I think this type of technology will hold a mirror up to people to show exactly what is going on. I would love to get a good quality recording from 50 years ago, maybe two or three hours of dawn chorus in woodland, and go back to the same time of year in the same place (assuming it still exists) and compare it. Showing exactly that this is the difference in diversity.   

To find out more about the innovative work by Wilder Sensing, their blog features some interesting case studies on the applications of their technology and they are also active on LinkedIn. For more information on Wilder Sensing and their product, email   


Author interview with Bjørn Olav Tveit: A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Norway

A Birdwatcher's Guide to Norway book cover showing a photograph of a puffin on a blue background.Norway is home to some of the most sought-after bird species in Europe, including the King Eider, Gyrfalcon, Capercaillie and Jack Snipe. A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Norway is the first guide to the birds of Norway and Svalbard, detailing over 350 of the best birdwatching sites in this country. The guide efficiently explains where and when to visit these sites, which species are present in each area, how to use tower hides and shelters, other animal species you may encounter and more. The upcoming second edition includes 265 photographs, 95 maps and comprehensive information about each site, this is an essential travel guide for anyone planning to birdwatch in mainland Norway or Svalbard. 

Photograph of author Bjorn Olav Tveit with some hills behind him wearing a hat and walking top.Bjørn Olav Tveit lives in Oslo, Norway and has explored many of the country’s best birding sites throughout his life. He is a long-standing member of the Norwegian Rarity Committee for Birds and acts as the nature conservation contact for his local BirdLife Norway division. He runs bird-spotting guided tours for nature enthusiasts, composes music, authors books and works for the Norwegian Ministry of Culture. 

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Bjørn about how he became interested in birdwatching, what can be expected from the second edition of his book and more. 

Birdwatching Norway page.Firstly, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into birdwatching?

I have been an avid, Oslo-based birder since childhood, which is more than 40 years ago. When travelling abroad with my parents as a kid, I would lose myself in the birdwatcher’s site guides for that country or region, although I was puzzled by the fact that no such book existed for Norway. Rumours were that some older and more experienced birdwatchers were in the process of writing such a book, but the years went by, and it never materialised. Not only would I need the guidebook myself, as my activity range gradually expanded beyond Oslo, but also I was embarrassed on behalf of my country by the lack of such a guide. In my eyes, at least at the time, a birdwatching site guide defines a country’s identity and level of development. So, I decided to go forward and make the guidebook myself. 

For anyone that enjoyed the first release of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Norway, what can they expect to discover in this updated edition?   

A lot has changed since the first edition came out 15 years ago. This change is most eye-catching in regard to Norway’s infrastructure: roads are improving and changing course; in some places, ferries have been replaced by bridges or tunnels; new tower hides have been built, and so, all maps and text have been updated accordingly. There have been quite a few changes in birdlife as well. For example, the Barred Warbler no longer breeds regularly along the Skagerrak coast, and the numbers of most cliff-breeding seabirds have greatly reduced to a point where e.g. Leach’s Storm Petrel is no longer expected on boat trips in Lofoten. On the positive side, the population of Rustic Bunting seems to be recovering, Red-flanked Bluetail is on the move into Norway, and Great Grey Owl now breeds regularly near Oslo. Furthermore, the book has expanded to a slightly larger format, allowing for more, easier-to-read maps and even more stunning images taken by some of the best photographers in the country.  

Page 196 of Birdwatching in Norway showing a map of Rundle Island.

This book details over 350 birdwatching sites in Norway and Svalbard – what was your process in deciding which sites to include? 

Based on my experience with guiding birdwatchers from abroad all over Norway, I have prioritised the sites that can produce the target species that birders from abroad tend to aim for. I have also included many all-round good birding sites, especially those situated close to larger towns or popular tourist attractions.  

Can you share any stand-out birdwatching experiences during your research for this edition? 

Oddly enough, making a birdwatching site guide is not easily combined with birdwatching! In the process, I first spent a lot of time at home, taking notes while reading trip reports and local bird magazines. Then I corresponded with over 100 local birdwatchers, who all helped me in various ways on picking the sites and giving me their opinion on how to get the most out of a birding trip in their area. Then I fired up the car engine and drove across Norway, double-checking all the theoretical information, with a focus on ensuring that a lone birdwatcher would be able to find the way and make the most of his or her birdwatching trip, solely with the help of this book. In order to visit all the included sites (and a few that were subsequently dropped), I couldn’t afford to spend as much time at each site as I would have liked to. All in all, the remarkable experience of travelling across Norway, taking in the spectacular scenery and variation in habitats and birdlife, was perhaps the most outstanding part of it all for me personally. I did see a lot of good birds along the way, though. 

Fifteen years have passed since the first edition was published, and during this time environmental pressures have continued to increase for wildlife. Have you noticed any changes over this time that may illustrate these impacts? 

I have witnessed a lot of negative impacts at several sites and areas, but at the same time, the general public in Norway has become gradually more concerned with nature preservation. By watching the reactions from people visiting the country from abroad, the locals have understood that they live in a country that is unique in terms of nature and wildlife. And so they have become prouder and more prone to taking better care of the environment. During the process of making this book, the environmentalist in me has been awakened to an even greater extent than before. I was particularly shocked by the urbanisation of my childhood local patch, Fornebu near Oslo, when I visited it for the first time in a long time during the making of this book. In the aftermath, I have been strongly engaged in preserving and enhancing the bird habitats there. 

Page 183 of Birdwatching in Norway showing the Lonaoyane delta in Voss, Western Norway.

You mentioned observing a greater accessibility to birdwatching sites since the first edition. Are you anticipating any changes in bird behaviour resulting from this? And how can birdwatchers minimise disturbance to bird species?   

One of the negative effects that birdwatching tourism may have on birds and habitats is the heightened disturbance caused by the increase in foot traffic. However, if you lead people along paths to designated hides, you reduce this risk. And you get the added bonus of getting to see the birds close up, without disturbing them. By doing this right, I hope even more people become interested in watching birds. I believe that increased awareness and interest in birds among the public is a key element in preserving birds and their habitats. 

What’s next for you? Are there new books on the horizon? 

I plan to make a third edition of the Norwegian version soon, because the English second edition is much better than the Norwegian one that I put out four years ago. And I have contemplated writing a book presenting the birds and sites in my home municipality west of Oslo. Furthermore, I have been waiting in vain for four decades on a book presenting the rare and vagrant birds of Norway… as the case was with the site book, maybe I will have to write it myself! 

A Birdwatcher's Guide to Norway book cover showing a photograph of a puffin on a blue background.

A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Norway is published by Pelagic is available to pre-order from our online bookstore.