Sharpham Wild for People: an Interview with Jack Skuse

The beautiful and historic Sharpham Estate runs alongside the River Dart just outside Totnes in South Devon. Beginning this year, a three-year project called Wild for People, run by the Sharpham Trust under a National Lottery Heritage Fund project, will begin to enhance the biodiversity of this 550-acre area, aided by a passionate team of conservation trainees. Working with Ambios Ltd, who are based on the Estate, this project aims to turn more of the Sharpham Estate organic, re-wild significant parts of the landscape and encourage more people to interact with the nature there.

Jack Skuse, director of Ambios, recently took the time to chat with us about the Sharpham Wild for People project. In this inspiring conversation we talk about the practicalities of rewilding working alongside food production, how the Covid pandemic has affected the first year of the project, and his tips for people wanting to get into a career in conservation.


Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Sharpham Estate and how the land is currently used?

Sharpham is an ancient landscape. People are known to have lived here from at least 1260. The landscape as we currently see it was designed this way during a period when the estate was owned by Philamon Pownell. He was a sea captain who captured a Spanish galleon laden with treasure from South America. With his wealth he set about transforming Sharpham, building the Palladian villa (designed by famous architect Robert Taylor) and creating the Sharpham Parkland – sweeping away hedgerows to open up vistas from the main carriage drives across the estate and into Totnes, and planting trees to accentuate and frame the views. Since his death the estate has had different owners, however, the parkland has remained largely intact, with the vineyard being the main alteration to this landscape in more recent times. Today Ambios rent and manage part of the estate (80 acres) and have recently signed the lease for a further 50 acres for rewilding and nature conservation training, and in partnership with United Response provide a care day service for adults with learning difficulties and disabilities.

What are your current trainees busy with at the moment?

Ambios offer three-month traineeships for people looking for a career in nature conservation, alongside other nature training opportunities in the UK and EU. Our current crop of trainees have been here since early July, having been through an early Covid-19 quarantine period. The first part of the traineeship is about building confidence in nature, often supporting the academic education many would have had at university with practical skills and applied knowledge – the skills the sector demands. This includes species ID (birds, plants, bats, etc), technical language training, practical skills including basic carpentry and land-based work, as well as engaging with the public through online platforms. Now that they have developed some of these skills, the central part of the placement is about taking ownership of a project that relates to rewilding. As this is our first year rewilding, there are many baseline surveys the trainees are carrying out with our team of trainers supporting their work. Surveys include grasslands, crickets and grasshoppers, river birds, butterflies. One of our trainees has also taken on the task of producing content for our website around rewilding and linking with other projects/information so that people looking at our site can network into the world of rewilding – a learning resource. This is in collaboration with Rewilding Britain.

How has the Covid pandemic affected the project this year?

It is impossible to imagine a year like this one and, as with all businesses, we have been significantly affected. The day service in partnership with United Response closed, and only now we are beginning to reopen. This meant much of the day-to-day work of the farm had to be reappointed to our long term volunteer team – right in the middle of our lambing and calving period! Many of our trainees come from the EU, and our traineeships saw reduced numbers. Our risk assessment put in place some strict measures to ensure everyone was safe and followed protocol. Some of our staff were furloughed meaning our work had to simplify and streamline, and some of our training content moved online (our Effective Camera Trapping Course for instance). Meanwhile, we have been working to enter into a comprehensive agri-environment scheme for our new land to rewild (50 acres) to subsidise our farming practice and allow us to prioritise wildlife. Given the land is listed historic parkland this is not without its complexity – see below!

One of the aims of the Wild for People project is to help more people engage with nature on the estate. Is the area open to the public and/or do you host events that local people can get involved with?

In partnership with Sharpham Trust we have been awarded £177,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to run a comprehensive public programme of education and events alongside our rewilding. This naturally has had a slower start than originally planned due to the pandemic but the funding has allowed us to offer fully subsidised placements on our traineeship. Alongside this we will start up a new volunteer day later this year to allow hands on engagement with rewilding. The process over the next three years – the duration of the Lottery project and the first three years (of five) of our tenancy and agri-environment countryside stewardship programme – will be to reinstate the historic parkland at Sharpham, which is in a degraded state, and convert the land to organic status. This will involve planting 140 trees in their original location from over 200 years ago, repairing the bridge over the Sharpham Marsh and allowing permissive access to the historic viewpoint with the installation of kissing gates. It will also allow us to fence the perimeter of the holding to allow stock to freely roam across the full 50 acres, choosing where to forage, dung and rest uninterrupted, passing between the two parcels of land either side of the public access farm track with the aid of gates. This work programme will sit with our public invitation volunteer days, our nature conservation traineeship and the work programme for the people United Response support. Sharpham Trust will also run a series of public events and school visits, culminating in an annual Bioblitz where we can study the impact of our rewilding over an intensive 24-hour wildlife survey period.

In terms of rewilding, do you feel it is important to strike a balance between the land being ‘productive/useful’ and leaving it to nature?

In terms of the balance of farming and wildlife, my feeling is that we need to view the role of the countryside through a very different lens to the one we have been viewing it through. The countryside provides many different things to us; from the food we eat and the employment we gain to our recreation and wellbeing, to other ‘ecosystem services’ including flood defence, carbon capture and of course for wildlife. We have become very efficient at food production, but this has been to the detriment of wildlife, where we have seen the catastrophic decline in species number and diversity since the industrial revolution. In order to halt this decline we need a fundamentally different set of priorities and management approaches for the countryside, that encourage and importantly fund wildlife friendly initiatives. Rewilding is, I believe, the best, most sustainable, most captivating and acceptable approach to wholescale land management for wildlife.

Productive agricultural land should, in my view, have food production as its main objective. However, I believe that marginal land, under a skewed farm subsidy model that pays for land to be farmed regardless of its productivity, should have a different value placed upon it, and should be (un)managed accordingly. A great example is our land at Sharpham. Many of the uplands, steep sided valleys and unproductive farmland could see a regeneration in wildlife that should be supported by a different farm subsidy model and diversified economies that would provide employment, bring people back to the countryside and connect people in a deeper way with nature. And whereby the cumulative benefit would be seen not just in increased wildlife, but in our collective effort to become carbon neutral with thriving ecosystems and connected communities. Our small project is part of this and with a public engagement agenda we hope to share these values with as wide an audience as we can so people can see the true, intrinsic value of nature and the role the countryside has on all our lives.

What is the greatest challenge of the project?

There are many challenges to our project, aside from the obvious and immediate Covid-19. Brexit will see a different relationship with the EU, and the ability of European trainees to study with us to share good practice and learn about rewilding across the continent may be compromised. The values I mentioned above should be supported under the new, post-Brexit ELMS farm subsidy scheme that will replace countryside stewardship in the coming years. However, as we enter a recession the budget available to support these initiatives may be reduced and turn landowners away from wildlife-friendly practices towards more intensive agriculture. These economic factors are very relevant to our long term aspirations and in inspiring and motivating other local landowners in joining the wildlife resistance.

The landscape at Sharpham that is being rewilded has a significant cultural and historic value already – it is an iconic landscape, set within the South Devon AONB and has a grade 2* listing for its historic importance, as well as a national cycle route passing through it. The changes we will see under the new rewilding regime will change the way this landscape will look and feel. Our initial work to restore the historic parkland aims to honour its heritage; our ongoing rewilding will give it a new and relevant role long into the future, and will be part of its story. We hope to be able to share this story so that people can see the value of it, and balance these different values.

We have learnt from the Knepp Estate (a large rewilding project in the east of the UK set on a lowland farm) some of the challenges that rewilding sites face. Indeed, in running our existing holding we have seen dog attacks on our livestock and littering, with livestock eating waste left by people enjoying the dramatic walks and views of the Dart Valley. Our mixed stocking will bring their own challenges when interacting with people, but we have measures in place to manage this risk. Newborn calves for example are very cute to look at, but their mothers can be very protective and feel any proximity to their offspring as a threat. We are definitely not taking these challenges lightly, however, we know that the majority of the public are aware of and respect the countryside.

The training scheme offers the trainees a great range of practical field skills and conservation experience. What advice would you give to a young (or not so young!) person who is wanting to get into conservation as a career?

Most of the employers we engage with say that that experience is key. This is however the challenge that prospective employees face – employers requiring experience and employees finding it increasingly difficult to gain valuable experience. I’d say keep going! Find creative ways to gain experience, whether it’s practicing your ID skills in your garden or out on walks. When you get the chance to apply or make it through to interview show enthusiasm, be genuine and authentic – the people interviewing you are human too – and try to use good, relevant examples to prove your passion. Also try to be true to yourself – if the job you are applying for isn’t necessarily the one you would hope to do long term, be honest with yourself about it, and don’t give up!!!

In the meantime, keep linked with job advertisers like Countryside Jobs Service and environmentjob and build your network on professional/social media platforms (like LinkedIn) with employers – nature conservation is a small world. Aim to use relevant examples related to the job advertised; even if the experience you’ve had is small, don’t big it up; be honest and, most importantly, detailed – tell employers exactly what you have done, when, where, for how long and who with. Also, don’t be afraid to ask employers what training they offer – they don’t need you to be the finished article but they want evidence of your awareness of the world and the role you’ve applied for and that you have adaptable skills and are willing to learn. Its become a cliché to an extent, but whereas your education will prove a level of understanding of your subject, what employers also want to know is how good you are at some of the softer skills like teamwork, flexibility, creativity, application and dedication, and having good examples of these to hand will be invaluable.

The post-Covid employment landscape will make job hunting even more challenging, so keep an eye on current government initiatives and any opportunities that may pop up over the next 12-18 months. The government has promised to invest in a green economic recovery and this may well see new training opportunities that could be the key to you gaining relevant experience.

Finally, have a look at our blog page. Here, members of the Ambios team offer more advice, support and top tips on how to get a career within the conservation sector.


Find out more about the Wild for People project on The Sharpham Trust website or connect with them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

For more information about Ambios Ltd, visit their website. They can also be found on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Enjoy a wonderful birdseye view of the Sharpham Estate as it currently exists today in the video below:

An interview with Erica McAlister

Entomologist Erica McAlister is the senior curator for Diptera at the Natural History Museum, London. In 2017, she authored the very successful book The Secret Life of Flies which looked at their diverse lifestyles. Now she returns with The Inside out of Flies, which is a great popular science book marvelling at their anatomy.

We took the opportunity to ask her some questions about why flies matter to us all.

First off, tell us a little bit about how you got started. Why study flies? Having read your book now, I agree that they are fascinating and beautiful, but presumably, you did not know this when you started?

I have always been interested in nature, but I was more fascinated by the smaller creatures – the ones everyone else seemed to ignore. Insects were an obvious choice and I combined my love for them with my love of ecology from the beginning. Although I had worked with ants and beetles, it was the flies that properly tickled my fancy as they were the most diverse in life cycles and ecological function, and so the most interesting. They got everywhere, they did everything and they were wonderful to observe. I have a liking for all things natural – from decomposing dung heaps to parasitic lifestyles – both of which involve the fabulous flies.

You are quite involved in public outreach, speaking on radio programmes and giving public talks. Most people regard flies with a certain amount of disgust. Do you find it is easy to change people’s perceptions? 

Generally, yes. Most people just think about one or two examples of the thousands of species of flies such as the nuisance fliers or the transmitters of disease. So when I  tell them about the hoverflies, the bee flies, the chocolate pollinators, the forensic detectives, the scuba divers and so on, that opens up a whole new world to most people, and when I go on to talk about their gardens being alive with these beneficial creatures, you can see a change in many folks. Flies are animals and are essential for many ecosystems – it is odd that many naturalists seem to want to forget this!

The Inside Out of Flies spread 1After two decades of researching them, has your own attitude towards them changed?

Nope. In fact, I feel that I have got worse in my obsession with them as I realise that I have so much to learn and not enough time. Initially I was fascinated by their ecology, then their looks, then their behaviour, but there is also their genetics, their mechanics and many more other areas that we need to explore and understand. The more I have read and studied the more I realise that we have still so much to learn.

Your 2017 book The Secret Life of Flies was very well received. The design of your new book The Inside Out of Flies suggests it is a companion to the first book. Why write a second book?

Because there is so much more to write about them. We have thousands of books about mammals and there are just over 6100 of them. There are more flies in the UK than that and living in more extreme environments – the flies have adapted to all sorts of weird and wonderful habitats with a whole range of morphological changes to help them not just cope but thrive. The first book focused on their feeding ecology, this one is about their morphology, but there is still much, much more that I have left out from both of these subjects (I get emails all the time telling me so!)

The Inside Out of Flies spread 2You mention many people seem to think adult flies lack brains, this misconception being fuelled by watching them fly into windows again and again. This may seem like a very mundane question but why, indeed, do they do this?

This is a common question – but the answer is not really known. Firstly, the glass could be disorientating the flies as it blocks out UV-B which are used by the flies to help them navigate. The actual glass may be perceived as something different to them – they would realise that it was some form of wall due to the change in air currents, but we don’t know as yet what and presumably it could be multiple factors. There are many footprints of previous insects that have crawled across that pane and maybe there are hints about food sources (flies taste with their feet) that further distracts them. There is still so much about these creatures that we don’t know.

As you go through each body segment of a fly’s body in this book, you show that there is astounding variation in traits, and you back this up with some fantastic photography. One striking example was of a soldier fly species, Platyna hastata, whose abdomen is almost as wide as it is long, you affectionately call them fat-bottomed flies. Is this another example of sexual selection run rampant?

In flies – there are so many examples of extreme sexual selection and I discuss this throughout the book – from eyestalks to flags on their abdomen to hidden internal modifications. One of my favourites is the fly Drosophila bifurcata that has sperm that is 5.8 cm long and the actual adult male is but a few millimetres!

The Inside Out of Flies spread 3You explain how insect taxonomists use morphological details such as the position and numbers of hairs on their body to define species. I have not been involved in this sort of work myself, but I have always wondered, how stable are such characters? And on how many samples do you base your decisions before you decide they are robust and useful traits? Is there a risk of over-inflating species count because of variation in traits?

Ahhh there is the dilemma that many a taxonomist has faced – is it a true species??? The NHM collection has many thousands of species but often the specimen that the species was described from is the only specimen that anyone has of that species! Only time will tell if it is a true species. However, many of these characters are very stable with many of the bristle arrangements having been around for thousands of years. There is a risk of over-inflating species but then again there is a risk of under-inflating – and taxonomists fall into two groups – the splitters or the lumpers depending upon what they feel are important characters. What we do know for certain is that the sexually derived characters – the genital structures change at a faster rate and so this is why we appear to be obsessed with such things!

There are some fantastic examples in this book of the applied aspects coming out of dipterology as a field of study, with forensic entomology and miniature robotics being good examples. What are some of the most exciting applied developments that you think will make a splash in the near future?

Oh, what a question! I feel that we are on the cusp of many exciting developments – especially in aeronautics and medicine. Personally, I am loving the development of smart needles – the idea of bending these around sensitive structures is incredible and so very useful. But as technology develops so does our ability to look at these creatures and try to mimic their millennia-old adaptations.

The Inside Out of Flies spread 4
I imagine some aspects of entomology rely on decades- and centuries-old methods from when the field got started. Simultaneously, like most academic disciplines, the field has benefited from technological advances. How have new technologies changed how you work and the sorts of questions you ask? 

Yes, absolutely. I can ask so much more from the specimens in the collection at the Natural History Museum now, even though the flies may have been dead for hundreds of years. I can image them inside and out and in doing so I can see what pollen is in their guts or around their mouthparts; I can analyse their DNA and see how the populations developed or when insecticide resistance developed; and I can transfer all of this information around the world in seconds – no longer is research hindered by physical distance or financial constraints as much as it once was. And on a general level, I and many others have the resources of millions of people making observations and taking photos which massively adds to our knowledge. New technologies have made scientists out of all of us.

One of the more remarkable and little-appreciated things you draw attention to is that flies are an important group of pollinators worldwide. There has been much public concern regarding bees, pollination, and the future of our crops. Do we have reason to be concerned about the ecological function provided by pollinating flies?

We need to care about flies as much as all of the other insects that are more commonly talked about. Not only are the adults amazing pollinators but the larvae of many of these species are also carrying out key ecological roles such as predation or decomposition. And often it is only the flies that are the pollinators, especially in the more extreme habitats or crops. If you don’t look after the flies, you will find the world bereft of many food products that everyone loves such as chocolate.

Lastly, has the pandemic influenced your work and that of those around you? 

I would say yes. Hopefully, more people have realised how important the natural world is. I have spent the last couple of moths answering questions and identifying flies that folks would not have spent time observing before, and I have seen appreciation grow in all things fly. I think we have realised that we need to work more in balance with our environment and so the work that I, and millions of other entomologists undertake, is now seen with a new appreciation – we are not just going around looking at pretty flies, but are trying to help understand our climate and the impact the changes are having on it, our food security, and the impact of disease and vectors to name but a few examples.

The Inside Out of FliesThe Inside Out of Flies
By: Erica McAlister
Hardback | September 2020| £12.99 £14.99

 

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

An interview with Iolo Williams

Iolo Williams in Snowdonia

Iolo Williams was born and brought up in mid Wales. After gaining an ecology degree he worked for the RSPB for almost 15 years as Species Officer for Wales. In the late 1990s Iolo left the Society to work full-time in the media, presenting in both Welsh and English.  He co-presented Springwatch 2020 and is a tireless campaigner for wildlife and conservation.

We caught up with Iolo and asked him a few questions on: lockdown, rewilding, Brexit and the future for nature.

Wales has a variety of landscapes and environments; do you have a favourite habitat?

With Chris Packham in the Cairngorms

I was born and brought up in mid-Wales and grew up in a small village called Llanwddyn (Lake Vyrnwy), which was a fantastic area with a mixture of habitats. But, where I am happiest really is up on the high ground: up on the mountains, up on the moorland, enjoying not just the solitude and the scenery, but some of the amazing wildlife, such as: black grouse, merlin and hen harrier. You have also got sundews, butterworts, and bog asphodel; all amazing and well adapted to these harsh conditions. So that’s where I’m happiest really – when I want a day by myself, away from everyone, that’s where I head for.

Do you think ecotourism and nature capital have a role to play in wildlife conservation?

Iolo with two rare Welsh clearwing moths

I think ecotourism is absolutely vital for the future survival of our wildlife and our habitats, and ourselves too. It’s only when we educate people, it’s only when people see what’s out there, it’s only then that people grow to appreciate it and will then fight to ensure that it survives for their children and for future generations. So, I do believe it’s a vital part of conservation and education.

But of course ecotourism does involve travel, which is a dilemma. I travel a lot less than I used to and off-set it as much as I can, but I learned a lesson whilst visiting Chitwan National Park in Nepal and lamenting my carbon footprint involved to get there. The head ranger heard me and said, ‘Listen, if you didn’t come here, there wouldn’t be a national park. The government wants the wood, wants to log these trees you see here. It wants to drain this wetland to grow cash crops. But it’s only because of the money you bring in that we are able to protect and enhance this national park: the Indian one-horned rhino, the Asiatic elephant, the tigers and all the other wildlife that’s here.’ So, it is a dilemma, but to stop that overnight would be disastrous for wildlife worldwide.
The pros, do out-weigh the cons – as long as we are sensible about it; we need to stop needless travel, we need to utilise public transport wherever we can, and in a rural area like mid Wales it’s often not even possible – more often than not I have to take the car. A change must come from individuals, but more than anything the change has got to come from government – we need a better public transport system.
Ecotourism can also provide sustainable jobs. I’ve just come back from Mull; the eagles bring in a huge amount of capital every year. Mull would probably grind to a halt without ecotourism. Yes, you have agriculture there and farming, but by far the biggest employer in Mull is green tourism. People come to Mull to see eagles, to see otters, to see minke whales, basking sharks, and all of these charismatic species. Morally, we shouldn’t have to put the economic argument forward, we should be looking after wildlife for its own sake. But when you are dealing with developers and ministers, you have to put the economic argument forward.

Are you a supporter of rewilding and do you think it is a sustainable use of land?

Hen harrier chick in the nest

I am in principle, but say ‘rewilding’ to a lot of people and they say, “ah, they’re going to bring back wolves and bears, and I don’t want wolves and bears. My children will be mauled” etc. While that’s not true it’s also not true that’s what rewilding is all about. It’s really about the restoration of habitats, it is about what Isabella Tree and her husband have done at Knepp, which works fantastically well. Places like the Cambrian Mountains have fantastic wildlife like pine martens, goshawks, red squirrels etc, but vast areas of the Cambrian Mountains are a green desert. So, the potential for rewilding; just a few trees, maybe restoring the lost peat bogs etc. is vast and the knock-on effects for capturing carbon and preventing flooding all makes so much sense. But of course, the people in power want to make more money for themselves and their acquaintances and a lot of them don’t want to consider embracing this approach.

Does Brexit and the end of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) present any opportunities?

Firstly, I voted against Brexit, I think it will be an unmitigated disaster. It was the tabloid papers stirring the pot of xenophobia that prevented the real issues being properly discussed. Most of the farmers around me here voted for Brexit because they were fed up with what they saw as European bureaucracy. Of course, now the reality is biting, many farmers I speak to now wish they hadn’t, especially now as their MP has voted to allow cheap, low standard foods from the US into the country. Despite what we sometimes read, the food standards in the UK are very high and to lower those standards is stabbing farmers in the back.

However, in the long-term Brexit can offer an opportunity. If we had a better government in power, I would be optimistic about those opportunities because there is no doubt the CAP has been a most destructive policy from an environmental point of view. It really should have been reformed at least twenty years ago and now is an opportunity to do that, but with the current government’s track record with the environment makes me believe not much will change. We are up against a very powerful agricultural lobby. The big fertiliser companies, the big pesticide companies, the big machinery companies all of these are a massively powerful lobby and this government will listen to their argument not the environmentalist’s.

Has lockdown presented people with an opportunity to connect with nature?

I hear people saying how wildlife benefitted hugely from lockdown, and I think temporarily it did. One simple example is far fewer hedgehogs killed on the roads, of course now lockdown is eased I’m seeing dead hedgehogs on the roads all over again. Also, roadside verges not being mown or mowed late had a knock-on effect that was huge!! Flowers, bees, butterflies all in abundance. Some councils have seen this, taken note, and said – okay fantastic, we are going to reduce mowing from now-on. Others have carried on mowing and mowing, which is an absolutely dreadful policy for wildlife. Lockdown has really tested people, especially from a mental health point of view, but during lockdown the birds, flowers and butterflies have brought so much joy to families. Nature has been there for us through this traumatic time and we must remember that when these restrictions are over.

The one long term benefit I’m hoping lockdown will have is that a seed has been planted in a lot of youngsters and adults where they will think: remember last year when we walked this lane and there was all those flowers and we saw that lovely white and orange butterfly, let’s go and see if it’s all there again. So, hopefully for many people that seed has been planted.

 

Discover Iolo’s favourite ‘Wild Places’ in these two titles from Seren Books

Wild Places UK: The UK’s Top 40 Nature Sites
By: Iolo Williams
Paperback | December 2019| £15.99 £19.99

From Hermaness on Shetland to the London Wetland Centre. Iolo Williams picks his favourite forty wildlife sites in the UK

 

Wild Places: Wales’ Top 40 Nature Sites
By: Iolo Williams
Paperback | October 2016| £15.99 £19.99

Naturalist Iolo Williams picks his favourite forty from the many nature reserves throughout Wales

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

All photographs © Iolo Williams.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Malaysia & Singapore: an interview with the authors.

This comprehensive, clearly illustrated field guide, looks at all 815 bird species of Malaysia and Singapore. The main identifying features of each species are described and key facts cover size, voice, range and status and habitat. Distribution maps provide a view of where the birds can be found. The book also includes information on taxonomy and nomenclature, the breeding cycle, migration, conservation and key bird-watching sites of the region. This guide is essential for any naturalist interested in this region of the world.

Recording and observing such a rich diversity of birds, with over 800 species of birds including endemics in abundance is a huge undertaking.  How does such a daunting project come to fruition?  We asked contributors: Lim Kim Seng, Yong Ding Li and Lim Kim Chuah to answer some questions about themselves and the creation of A Field Guide to the Birds of Malaysia & Singapore

 Can you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds within ornithology and conservation?

Lim Kim Seng

Kim Seng – I started birding when I was about ten years old. I grew up in a family farm in Sembawang, in the northern countryside of Singapore. Together with my four other brothers, we explored the streams, hills and swamps and grew to love nature. One day, I saw a large kingfisher with a brown head, bright red beak and blue wings. It was my first Stork-billed Kingfisher and I was hooked. I was able to identify it through a book that I found in our National Library Natural History Section. Five years on, I joined the then Malayan Nature Society (now Nature Society (Singapore)) as a student member and just four years later, I led my first official society birdwatching outing at Rifle Range Road, together with my other birding brother Kim Chuah. With the help of other dedicated members, I learned a lot and was able to play my part in nature conservation, documentation, research and outreach, and have been an active member since then.

Yong Ding Li

Ding Li – I have been birdwatching since my primary school days, after finding what I later discovered, to be Magpie Robins near my home in Kuala Lumpur. Subsequent visits to the mangroves of Kuala Selangor introduced me to the colourful world of birdwatching. Through various research projects, I have professionally studied birds in diverse settings ranging from Malaysian rainforests and the mountain forests of Sulawesi (Indonesia), to Australian woodlands. I now work full-time for BirdLife International, coordinating projects on bird conservation in Southeast Asia.

Lim Kim Chuah

Kim Chuah – I grew up in a farm in rural Singapore in the ’60s and the surrounding woodlands and marshes were my playground. During my many sojourns into the wilderness, I started to notice some of the birds that lived around me – White-breasted Waterhen, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Common Tailorbird etc. That’s how I became interested in birds and it became my life-long passion. I’ve been volunteering in the Bird Group of the Nature Society (Singapore) since I was an undergrad. I participated in many of the birdwatching activities organized by the Bird Group including regular bird census and bird surveys. The data we collect helps towards a better understanding of birdlife in Singapore and is useful in building our case for better protection of habitats in Singapore.

How long has this project been in the making?

Kim Seng – My friend Dana Gardner, the illustrator of this book, got me interested in doing another book. We had successfully collaborated on a first field guide to the birds of Singapore in 1997 and were keen to work together again. Dana had a friend who was a publisher and we decided to a do a single volume field guide to the birds of the whole of Malaysia, since none existed. This was in 2010. Unfortunately, our publisher pulled out not long after that and we were left stranded. Luckily, through my fellow collaborators – Kim Chuah and Ding Li – we managed to get John Beaufoy interested in our project. A contract was signed in 2016 and as they say, the rest is history!

 What was the biggest challenge in creating this field guide?

Kim Seng – Each of us had different ideas on how to do the book and also other personal commitments. We as the writers also had to contend with differences in writing styles. Luckily, we decided to stick with a standard format, came up with a list of who was writing what chapters and what bird families and managed to more or less stick to our deadlines. Another challenge was the impressive work done by our illustrator. He had to do illustrations of all 829 species all by himself. To ensure accuracy, he would send us completed plates for comment, and we duly responded if changes were needed. Not an easy task, as we were based in Singapore and he, in the USA.

What features do you hope will make your field guide stand out from any others?

Kim Seng – This book is compact and contains all the necessary information you need to identify any bird species you see in the listed countries. The text is crisp and the illustrations accurate and there is also a detailed site and habitat guide to get birders to the most interesting places quickly and see those fascinating birds, based on the authors’ many years in the field.

Have the travel restriction due to COVID – 19 presented any threats or opportunities for the avifauna of Malaysia and Singapore?

Kim Seng – Well, COVID-19 has placed tremendous restrictions on travel in both Malaysia and Singapore. You could bird in certain areas but only with social distancing and other safe practices in place. Initially, we could only look at the birds from our balconies or backyards but this was an opportunity for some of us to study some of the neglected urban birds and understand a little better. I actually published two blogs based on my observations of urban birds from my balcony! In the last couple of months, restrictions have been eased and we are allowed to go birding in our favourite birding places, but I’m still waiting for the day when I can travel freely and bird in Malaysia again.

 Do you think eco-tourism is beneficial to conservation?

Kim Seng – Definitely. I believe ecotourism brings a lot of attention to the tremendous beauty and biodiversity of the natural habitats in both countries. It also brings revenue and employment opportunities to the local community who in turn will help to protect these wonderful places for a long time to come.

 What in your view are the best reasons to visit Malaysia and Singapore if you are a birdwatcher or an ornithologist?

Kim Seng – Three reasons – good birds, good food and good company. All three are never in short supply in these two amazingly friendly countries. The people are generally very friendly and the variety of local food is really incredible. Of course, the fascinating diversity of birds, with over 800 species of birds and Bornean, Peninsular and Sunda endemics in abundance are dreams to savour for birdwatchers and ornithologists alike.

Are you working on any other projects you can tell us about?

Kim Seng – I am currently working at putting up an adult learner’s module or course on “Birdwatching for Beginners”. It’s something I had worked on in the past and I want to continue my work in getting people of all ages interested in birdwatching as I believe it is a healthy and useful pastime. It should be fun as there are outdoor trips as well.

Ding Li – I am currently working with a team of designers to develop a board game on the migratory bird species of Asia. Such a concept to promote bird conservation has not been done in this region, so I am quite excited to see the final project materialise. I am also working with a team of international researchers to review the state of all of Asia’s migratory birds. If all goes well, this will be published in early 2021, and will bring together lots of new insights from all over the region and how migratory birds can be better conserved.

Kim Chuah – I am currently organising the 36th Singapore Bird Race. It will be interesting to see how we can organise the race during this pandemic. We will use the social media and available digital tools to make the race as exciting as in previous years. I am also working on action plans to better protect and conserve the critically endangered Straw-headed Bulbul in Singapore.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Malaysia & Singapore
By: Lim Kim Seng, Yong Ding Li, Lim Kim Chuah, Dana Gardner(Illustrator)
Paperback | August 2020| £19.99 £24.99

A fully comprehensive field guide to the 815 bird species of Malaysia and Singapore. Published by: John Beaufoy Publishing

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

 

 

Author Interview with Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates: Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden

The orchard has been a traditional component of the British landscape for many centuries. However, subsidies have led to the destruction of  older traditional orchards to make way for more intensive farming and now only a fraction remain.

The value of these orchards for wildlife has long been underestimated. Ben Macdonald and Nick Gates spent years visiting a traditional orchard across all seasons observing its imperilled and overlooked abundance of life.

Ben and Nick have taken time to answer our questions about their book and this remarkably fertile habitat. We also have a limited amount of signed bookplates – available while stocks last.

Could you tell us a little about your backgrounds?

Nick Gates

Nick Gates (NG): I grew up in West Sussex, and could usually be found building a dam across a stream or out catching grasshoppers and slow worms on the Ashdown Forest somewhere. I ended up reading Natural Sciences at Cambridge and, similar to Ben, have now found myself making wildlife documentaries. But I adore spending time in the field, and am forever looking for new areas to explore, new behaviours to interpret and new species to learn about.

Benedict McDonald

Benedict Macdonald (BM): I grew up north of Bristol, and my fascination with nature began with raising butterflies at school, which then took me onto my great passion for birds. I took a different route to Nick, studying English at Oxford to improve my journalistic skills before moving into the natural history film industry. The love of birds remains – and it was indeed the search for breeding lesser-spotted woodpeckers for the BTO’s Bird Atlas that, one magical morning, led me to the Orchard.

Where did the motivation for this book come from? Are Orchards a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?

NG: The project actually started as a photographic record, nest-box project and field diary. We certainly didn’t envisage when first visiting the orchard that one day we’d be able to convert our passion for it into a book. As the years went by, and we uncovered more of the orchard’s stories each season, we realised we had built up a library of magical stories about this special place – and the book idea was born.

You divided the book into chapters by each month; was this something you planned all along and why did month-by-month fit the narrative of the orchard so well?

BM: As any pair of naturalists will tell you, the skills you have are similar but often complimentary. In January, for example, much of the expertise lies in tracking small mammals around the orchard, and reading prints etched in the snow – one of Nick’s favourite past-times. May is all about birdsong and concealed nests, and spoke deeply to my own love of birds. But make no mistake – every month is special in the orchard. The players are always on the move.

NG: Having spent six years visiting the orchard across all seasons, it was clear that its stories were deeply rooted around the lifecycles of the apple and perry pear trees – which themselves have a very defined year. Once the book idea became a reality, it seemed the most natural way to introduce our audience to the orchard world. As Ben and I both often travel abroad on our respective filming trips, it also worked really well when dividing the chapter structure, as we each had unique experiences from certain months that we wanted to share.

The neighbouring orchard is run intensively and very differently to the orchard you studied; what would you say are the practical advantages of being less intensive?

NG: The major benefit appears to be maintenance. Spraying an orchard many times a season requires expensive inputs in machinery, as well as the manual labour required to continually prune each tree to a very defined shape to make the spraying as efficient as possible. In an unsprayed orchard, many different age classes of trees can thrive alongside each other. If an elderly tree is lost to a storm, it is easy to leave some of the deadwood and replace it nearby with a new young specimen. But the biggest benefit is that with an intact food chain, your costly pesticide inputs are replaced with spotted flycatchers and redstarts, which arrive for free each year and willingly hoover up all manner of insects that enjoy nibbling fruit trees!

BM: The summer migrants are critical to the success of the orchard – but the residents play an invaluable role. Throughout the winter, various species of tits, finches and woodpeckers, especially lesser-spotted, are all rooting out potentially harmful insects from the bark of the orchard’s trees. And as Nick puts it, treecreepers act as tree ‘dentists’, removing lots of tiny insects that could eventually end up reducing the lifespan of the trees.

The orchard you observed rewarded you with plenty of surprising stories and scenarios. Was there one single episode that stood out for you?

BM: For me, it was when we finally solved the mystery of the goshawk’s larder. Our generation has grown up with the idea that goshawks are limited to big woods and often those dark, silent plantations. The idea a goshawk could be hunting our orchard didn’t even occur to us at first, even after we found pheasant after pheasant neatly plucked. It was only when the pair decided to display right overhead one March that, like an Agatha Christie novel, it all came together.

NG: I have been out in the field looking for interesting stories in the natural world for as long as I can remember, so it is always rewarding coming across something unexpected. The best thing about the orchard, is that this just seems to happen so regularly! But if I had to single out one, I’d say my biggest surprise was the day I excitedly returned to photograph the coal tit family nesting in a pear tree, only to find the entrance to their nest firmly blocked with a rather unfortunate wood mouse. Having most likely scoffed the nest contents, it couldn’t fit back through the hole it had entered through. It was one of the most extraordinarily bizarre things I’ve yet chanced upon in the natural world.

Do you think a separation from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can create any opportunities for wildlife and biodiversity?

NG: Yes. The CAP model has ample opportunity for reform, and I hope that this is reflected in whatever system is adopted post Brexit. A model that rewards land owners for improving the biodiversity on their land is long overdue, as is a system that recognises carbon capture. There are certainly massive opportunities for British biodiversity – it is now up to those in positions of decision making to ensure they chose the correct advisers to inform these new policies.

BM: The Common Agricultural Policy has paid for enormous destruction of the countryside, and even models such as orchards that should be profitable to farmers – not just wildlife. In my view, we actually need a specific orchard subsidy. It seems mad that we can continue to pay for sheep grazing to denude hillsides and accelerate the flow of water off the hills, yet we cannot pay our farmers to grow apples. But this subsidy has to happen soon: orchards are vanishing fast.

Installing a wildlife pond is often sited as being the best way to add biodiversity to a garden; for those lucky enough to have the space, would you recommend planting an orchard for a similar reason?

NG: Absolutely. With something like a pond, you tend to see the rewards within just a few months of installing it, as the first newts and dragonflies arrive to breed in the new water source. Whilst fruit trees can take a few years to start blossoming and become increasingly valuable for your local wildlife, they mature incredibly quickly relative to most other tree species. Apples and pears are usually producing blossom and a crop in five to seven years, and by 40 years of age are well on their way to becoming an ‘ancient orchard’. Also, fruit trees, particularly those grafted to dwarf rootstock, don’t actually need a lot of room – and considering it only takes half a dozen trees to be called an orchard – most public green spaces could host a small wildlife orchard that would be of great help to local biodiversity.

After a well-earned rest, are there any plans or works-in-progress that you can tell us about?

NG: Ben and I have a few ideas for co-authored projects in the future but our next respective titles will both be individually written. I am currently working on a book about an urban wildlife garden…watch this space!

BM: As I approach the end of writing my third book, Cornerstones – for Bloomsbury (published January 2022), I have to be honest that a writing break is in order. Both writing and publicity are fantastic to be involved in but they do take a lot of time. Perhaps I can put my feet up and read Nick’s wildlife gardening book!

 

Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden
By: Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates
Hardback | August 2020| £16.99 £19.99

Ben Macdonald and Nick Gates spent years visiting a traditional orchard across all seasons observing its imperilled and overlooked abundance of life. If we can favour traditional methods and harvesting, the benefit will not only be for wildlife but for people too.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

 

Woodland Wildlife: Managing Woodlands for Biodiversity

Steve and Tamara Davey

In 2018 , while still running a taxi business, an opportunity arose to purchase a few acres of local woodland on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. Completed within a matter of weeks, Steve and Tamara Davey became proud custodians of their very own woodland!

When they discovered an impressive range of wildlife on their woodland site, they decided that the management of the area would be based on the continued provision of habitat for certain species, including seven recorded bat species, the visiting Nightjar and Woodcock. 

We caught up with Steve to ask him about how they are supporting nature through their project Woodland Wildlife

Can you tell me a little about your backgrounds.

Both Tamara and myself had childhood holidays in the Scottish Highlands as children, and there is no better place to develop an affinity with nature. It’s a place that holds a permanent residency within our hearts, those childhood memories imprinted on our futures. Mine were on the West Coast of Scotland opposite the Isle Of Skye. We used to stay in these old caravans that leaked and were powered by calor gas. The smell of the matches and gas appliances echoes those memories for me. The area was only a few miles up the coast from where Gavin Maxwell wrote his best-selling book Ring of Bright Water. As a family we spent a lot of time down at Sandaig ( in the book it was Camusfearna), Gavin’s books were really the only ones I read due to my interest in nature and love for Scotland. Above his hearth he had inscribed in Latin the words “non fatuum huc persecutus ignem” meaning, “it is no will o the wisp that I have followed here.” This phrase is very apt and resonates with our Woodland Wildlife project.

Aside from Scotland both Tamara’s and my childhoods involved getting out in nature with family walks, especially on Dartmoor. Also, similar to the book and film Kes, aged twelve I had a female kestrel to look after. My father converted the garden shed, and I remember rushing home from school every day. We looked after a tawny owl for a while too.  Myself and our son also volunteered at a local bird of prey centre – these memories, and the knowledge you gain from an early age all lie dormant until the right opportunity presents itself later in life.

 

 

 

 

What motivated you to embark on the Woodland Wildlife project?

From the Spring of 2018 we made regular trips to the woodland because we couldn’t keep away and used to come up with loads of excuses to the selling agent on why we were visiting so often. We completed the purchase at the end of the summer. During the first twelve months we were staggered by the volume and diversity of the wildlife within our little plot and it was this that spurred us into creating Woodland Wildlife.  I couldn’t believe that the domain woodlandwildlife.co.uk was available so I snapped it up. I then asked the web company that had recently rebuilt my taxi website to work on a website for Woodland Wildlife. They came up with the current logo which I really liked however the squirrel was grey and so I asked them to change it to red as that signified hope to me! At that point the future focus was more on the development of guided visits. In August last year we set up the Facebook page and that is seeing a steady increase of followers. We post on there most days and this time of year we may be posting up to eight times in one day, purely because of the observations – we are always finding new species to photograph. Through the winter months the posts are more project focused as that is the time of the year when most of the manual work is done.

Coppiced sweet chestnut protected from surrounding deer damage
Felled young sitka used as dead hedging around boundary line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What has been the biggest challenge in returning the woodland back to nature?

The nature was already there, nothing has needed returning as far as we are aware. But with small sized plots sensitive management is vital, for instance; if you don’t manage that important grassy ride, over time succession will take hold and that habitat (in our case) would be overrun with bramble and bracken, therefore the grasses would die off and displacement of species will happen. Our grassy rides are alive with insect life and as far as we are concerned these areas are a priority within our plot. When you see how small an area our grassy rides are and you see how many species they are supporting such as: leaf hoppers, beetles, bees, hoverflies, moths, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies you can then understand how vitally important these small areas are. I would say our biggest challenge is still ahead of us. In 2012 the main plot was clear felled and in 2013 the holding company planted over 2000 young sitka spruce trees. These are now over eight years old and growing rapidly in amongst the birch, sweet chestnut, beech and a few other species. Being on an easterly facing slope (after all it is Devon) we are giving careful consideration to future extraction of timber and to what extent the damage would be. We are mindful not to ruin everything that we have done over the years. so the plan will be (in conjunction with the Forestry Commission) to convert over to native woodland. We will still retain some sitka for the goldcrests and siskins, but these will be in the area towards the top of the plot, whereby future extraction damage will be minimal.

Sitka are awful trees to work on as they are very prickly to handle. Even though they are only young it’s incredibly hard work felling them and dragging them around to produce dead hedging. Our adjoining plot is a mature stand of Douglas fir of 3.5 acres and that has recently been thinned. The remaining stems will grow on for a further 5 to 10 years, with the extra light they will grow in girth and not height. We have tagged a random 30 stems and will monitor their growth rate annually. This is one commercial aspect to our project, we plan to nurture a healthy self seeded understory within this stand and re plant where necessary in the future when it’s felled.

Was there a particular plant or animal that you wished to see return to the woodland?

Yes, the nightjar, they are in the area this season which is great, last summer they were on our plot and we regularly saw two of them. Having your own woodland is one thing but having nightjar in your woodland is a priceless dream. We spent many summer evenings there watching them, calling them in with a recording of their call (yes that works). On a couple of occasions early in the nightjar season, June I think, they landed in front of us on a tubex shelter, attracted to anything white due to the males having white markings on their wing and tails. Our sleepy dogs got their attention and flew in to check us out. The video is on the website, it’s not brilliant as it was recorded on my phone, but a wonderful experience nonetheless. We observed them through to the end of July and on each occasion the sightings consisted of a brief checking us out and churring away like they do. A truly amazing bird that due to its nocturnal habits has not been an easy species to study. They like young plantations up to approximately ten years of age as after that the canopy has closed in. They also like birch and sweet chestnut, both of which we have in abundance. We are coppicing the sweet chestnut which will give a more diverse structure to the woodland and also has many benefits to other wildlife as well as giving longevity to the tree itself. The nightjars arrive in May and have normally disappeared by the end of August and sometimes into September. Once the young have fledged they will migrate. Our thinning works of the Douglas fir overran into May and we are certain that that level of disturbance  (the sound and vibration of over 200 mature fir being felled) made them look elsewhere for a suitable nest site for this season. High hopes for next year!

 

 

 

 

 

In what ways can you draw an income from the project and how do you ensure that those ways are sustainable?

Part of the plot is mature Douglas fir, so over the years there will be an income from the felling of those but there also comes obligation and costs to re-plant. This area is 3.5 acres and we are hoping that at least 20% of that area will self-seed and will therefore not need re-planting. After 14 years of running a taxi company we have decided to pass it on to someone else as we want to concentrate on our woodland which will also involve craft sales. We plan to sell at an occasional local market, selling wooden products such as pendants, necklaces, key rings, hand made cards, Christmas decorations and fairy houses. All of the wood used will be from the bi product of our habitat work and therefore very sustainable. We are not skilled wood turners, I would describe our woody crafts as rustic. We also hope to offer guided visits for small groups of people who either want to immerse themselves into an incredibly diverse 8 acre plot of woodland that doesn’t have any public access( that’s called forest bathing nowadays), or groups and individuals that would like to visit to look at our management practises, it could also be for specialist groups to study bats, birds, butterflies etc. Although the craft sales will be necessary we do hope that the tours can be a success too as we will have great pleasure in sharing this unique place in South Devon.

Woodland Wildlife crafts to be sold on-site or at craft markets
Sustainable felling and logging of Douglas fir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would you say has been the project’s biggest success story so far?

This has to be the three small wildlife ponds created in the spring of last year. Our philosophy has always been that our work creates a biodiversity gain. The ponds are a totally new feature to the wood and therefore a totally new habitat with the nearest water course being in the bottom of the valley.
The ponds are host to pond skaters, diving beetles, water boatmen, frogs, toads and a few species of dragonfly. The mosquito larvae they produce is a food source for the seven recorded species of bats that we have there. The frogspawn and toadspawn this year was amazing. This is boosting the sites biodiversity and that feels great. The Devon Wildlife Trust’s, Batworks Grant,  helped with the costs of the ponds which was very welcome indeed, because so far we have funded all the costs ourselves. The top pond was also designed with a very shallow gradient at one end so that any feeding nightjar can swoop in and get a drink on the wing.

Creating the pond by removing old stumps from a previous timber crop.
The pond getting established early in 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other success is our plantings, since Nov 2018 we have planted over 400 additional trees, shrubs and hedging. From scots pine to broad leaved privet, all-in-all over 20 new species have been planted. The hedging area consists of field maple, hazel, dog rose, dog wood, crab apple, blackthorn and hawthorn, and is growing well, albeit slowly. Once mature this will provide an incredible food source and habitat for many species. We also sought advice from a consultant ecologist on behalf of Butterfly Conservation, they recommended planting broad leaved privet, wild privet and alder buckthorn all of which will provide a valuable food source for many species of butterflies, insects and moths. The alder buckthorn being the food plant for the brimstone butterfly caterpillar.

Young Juniper planted and meshed around to protect from rabbit and deer grazing
Coppiced Sweet Chestnut, stems cut on an angle to prevent water from rotting them

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you offer any advice to anybody wanting to undertake a similar project?

There is a misconception that when you purchase some woodland in the UK that you are legally bound to manage your plot, but this is not the case. Currently you can do as much or as little as you want, there are legalities regarding volume of timber that you are allowed to cut down, and rightly so. Personally speaking I think there should be some sort of stewardship course involved with any woodland purchase, but generally speaking people who buy woodland do have the environments best interests at heart. Neither myself nor Tamara are formally qualified in land management or woodland management, but what we do have in bucket loads is the passion, and when it is your passion you absorb information like a sponge. If you are interested in purchasing some woodland please make sure you do a lot of reading up first, SWOG ( small woodland owners group) is a great resource. Think about things like how far are you willing to travel to get to your woodland, our journey takes 25 minutes but I know of some owners who live a couple of hours away and then that restricts those little journeys when you just want to go there for an hour or two. Think about public access and rights of way, access, species of trees on site, how neglected the woodland is because that may dictate how much physical work maybe required. I know owners that have a couple of acres of plantation and therefore their management work is negligible. Think about orientation, diversity and age of species and the potential value of the timber there. Getting a flat site is not easy and virtually impossible in Devon, some come with streams etc. You would need to appoint a solicitor as the conveyancing is similar to house buying but much more straight forward.

We would say to anyone interested in purchasing some woodland to definitely do it, it is an amazing thing to do, yes we can buy fancy cars and gadgets and go on expensive holidays but owning your own little piece of nature is a priceless thing to do. It’s more like guardianship than ownership, but you will have a lot of control over the future of that plot.
Love nature, it will never fail you.

 

 

 

 

Do you have any long-term plans for the future of Woodland Wildlife?

Well where do we start here? If money was no object we would like to deer fence large parts of our woodland to allow natural regeneration to occur unhindered. But money is an object so we will improvise and mitigate the grazing as much as possible. Luckily we are not overrun with roe deer but there are a few around. The damage they do to new growth is staggering.
Over time we would like to see part of our main plot restored back to its natural former state which was wooded heath. Around 1800 the wider woodland was mapped as a Down which would correspond with our small patches of heather and large amounts of gorse and bracken. Dry lowland heathland is a scarce habitat these days and we would like to re-nature that habitat along with keeping the coppiced sweet chestnut, birch and beech. The plan will be for the main plot to remain an open woodland with pockets of heath and grassy rides. We will keep some sitka on the higher parts of the plot.
This winter will involve widening the lower part of the North to South ride which is quite overgrown, creating a ride that will traverse the contours from the West to East ride. This will involve the felling of a lot more young sitka but it will kick start the project of connecting up some of our micro habitats. We are keen to provide a suitable site for the migrating nightjar and the wintering woodcock and this will involve a lot of physical work. Any major works such as this needs careful consideration for the future resilience of the woodland. All of our plantings have been carefully selected with the future in mind for example, the scots pine (although slow growing) is a fantastic tree that supports a large amount of wildlife plus once established will cope well with periods of dry weather. We have also planted some juniper and these trees will also cope admirably in dryer conditions and therefore the challenges of climate change. The naturalised species such as birch, beech, gorse, heather, bramble and bracken will naturally cope with dryer summers.

With regards to Woodland Wildlife as a business, we hope that the occasional small group or individual will continue to visit to experience this magnificent site. We aim to continue with the craft sales into the future. We aim to continue to document our species and our works. The emphasis will be on small groups as we are keen to prevent compaction of soils.

All photographs courtesy of Woodland Wildlife © Woodland Wildlife

Woodland Wildlife

To find out more about Steve and Tamara’s fascinating project you can follow them on facebook and visit their website

Further Reading on managing woodlands for wildlife and people.

Managing Your Woodland for Wildlife
By: David Blakesley, Peter Buckley and Tharada Blakesley
Paperback| May 2016| £12.99
From conserving deadwood to putting up bat boxes: this book will appeal to small woodland owners wishing to improve woodland for wildlife.

 

Woodland Creation for Wildlife and People in a Changing Climate: Principles and Practice
By: David Blakesley and Peter Buckley
Paperback | July 2010| £5.99 £24.95
This book presents a comprehensive and richly-illustrated guide to the principles and practice of woodland creation for wildlife and people.

 

A Journey in Landscape Restoration: Carrifran Wildwood and Beyond
Edited by: Philip Ashmole and Myrtle Ashmole
Paperback | June 2020| £16.99 £18.99
An inspirational account of the rewilding of Carrifran Wildwood, showing what can happen when locals take charge of landscape restoration.

 

The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood
By: John Lewis-Stempel
Paperback | March 2019| £9.99
A lyrical diary of four years spent managing three and half acres of mixed woodland in south west Herefordshire.

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Woodland Flowers: an interview with Keith J Kirby

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future is the eighth instalment of the popular British Wildlife Collection. In this insightful and original account, Keith Kirby explores the woodland plants of Britain living in the shade of their bigger relatives. They add so much to woodland’s biodiversity and beauty and tell us stories about the history of woodland, its past management, and how that has changed – not always for the better.

Keith Kirby signing Woodland Flowers

 

Author, Keith Kirby has taken the time to sign limited copies of Woodland Flower and has answered our questions about the book, and the flowers that enhance our woodlands.

 

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I grew up in a village in Essex and spent much of my childhood playing in the fields, along the riverbank and in small woods behind our house. I was interested in natural history but not really a serious naturalist. Sometime in my teens I decided I wanted to be a forester and ended up doing a degree in Agricultural and Forest Sciences in Oxford. That introduced me to ‘ecology’ and led to a doctoral study of the growth of brambles in Wytham Woods. From there I spent a couple of years doing woodland and general habitat surveys before getting a permanent post in 1979 with the Nature Conservancy Council as a woodland ecologist. I stayed in that post (NCC became English Nature, became Natural England) through to 2012, then retired back to Oxford and picked up my plant research interests in Wytham Woods again.

Where did the motivation for this book come from? Are woodland flowers a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?

Much of my work with NCC and its successor bodies involved considering the woodland ground flora: we used them as one indicator of the value of sites, as guides to what was changing in terms of woodland management and the woodland environment more generally; some species such as bramble and bracken could also be a problem when we were trying to get regeneration. There was not then the time to pull the different strands together, so when I was back in Oxford I thought I should give it a go.

Have you noticed any unusual changes within woodland flora this Spring following the lockdown? Has it helped or hindered?

I would not really expect to see a direct effect of lockdown on the plants: often their growth is determined by reserves laid down the previous year and a few months is not very long when you consider that many woodland plants – not just the trees – can live for several decades. There could be indirect effects, for example if less disturbance in woods means that deer produce more fawns, so more hungry mouths to nibble away at the flora in future.

Germander Speedwell, a species that spreads quite quickly into new hedges.

Although adaptable, woodlands are clearly not invincible. What do you think is the greatest threat to woodland ecosystems?

In the longer-term (25-50 yrs) climate change. The micro-climate at ground level in a wood has not changed as much as out in the open because of the sheltering effect of the tree layer, but it will do eventually and this will lead to a re-assortment of which species can thrive in different parts of the country.
In the medium term (10-25 years) I suspect that we are going to see more and more evidence of change from the build-up of nitrogen in forest soils from the emissions from cars, modern farming etc. I am picking up signs that this is happening in Wytham.
The immediate threat – and it affects our ability to deal with the medium and longer-term issues as well – comes from the impact of high numbers of deer in the countryside. They limit tree regeneration and make woodland management more difficult as well having direct effects on the ground flora species themselves. At Wytham we saw during the eighties and nineties a complete shift from a flora of herbs and bramble to grass-dominated cover. That is being reversed – we are fortunate in being able to manage the deer population there – but in many other woods deer numbers are too high. This means for example that it will be difficult to get the regeneration of species such as oak, beech or hazel that will be needed over the next few years to fill the gaps in the canopy left as Ash Dieback progresses.

What single policy change would you like to see to help counter this threat?

Through history trees and woods (and hence the woodland flora) have survived best where they are valued by society: so we need to encourage greater use of wood as a material in buildings, as fuel, as a feedstock for industry; as well as promoting woodland as places for recreation, to help with water management, for carbon sequestration, and as a source of inspiration.

The tricky question of ‘nativeness’ – Oxlip outcompeted by dense Pendulous Sedge patches.

As you note in the book, there’s currently a lot of interest in rewilding. What role do you think rewilding can play in the future of UK woodlands?

From the answer to the previous question it will be obvious that I want to see a lot of woods being managed to provide the materials that society needs; moreover many of our woodland plants can thrive under such conditions – if management is done carefully – as they have done for centuries. Rewilding though also has a great role to play in future conservation alongside actively managed woods (as long as we can get away from the endless debates about the meaning of the term itself). Rewilding leads to different types of woodland structures and composition, a different set of dynamics in the landscape, some of which may be analogous to what may have existed 6,000 years ago, but other combinations will be completely new. New mixtures of woodland plants (and animals) will come to be associated with rewilded treescapes that will also be a response to the changed environmental conditions. Exactly what will emerge unpredictable and there will be interesting challenges ahead for land managers, regulators and conservation advisers – we are not in the UK going to be able to be completely ‘hands-off’ even in the wildest of rewilding.
Rewilding is however one of the reasons why I am cautiously optimistic we can yet pass on a reasonable legacy of woodland flowers.

Now that the book is finished, and after a well-earned rest, are there any plans or works-in-progress that you can tell us about?

My first priority has been to try to catch up on writing-up the results from long-term studies of the flora in Wytham Woods and The Warburg Reserve near Henley. Also once the country has opened up a bit more after Covid-19 I plan to spend time to spend some more time with the wood beneath the trees; so I have been drawing up a list of woods across the country that I want to go and visit again.

Woodland Flowers, published by Bloomsbury is out now. We have a very limited amount of signed stock, available while stocks last.

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future
By: Keith J Kirby
Hardback | August 2020| £29.99 £34.99

In this insightful and original account, Keith Kirby explores the woodland plants of Britain.

 

 

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future is the eighth instalment of the popular British Wildlife Collection.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Editor Interview: Tim Burt, Curious About Nature

Curious About Nature provides a passionate voice in support of fieldwork and its role in ecological research. Comprising a series of chapters written by forty diverse contributors, this inspiring book hopes to encourage both new and seasoned ecologists to pursue outdoor learning and research as often and fully as possible.

Tim Burt (who edited the book alongside Des Thompson), recently took the time to answer some of our questions.


Editor Tim Burt, in the field.

Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds and how you came to be collaborating on this book.

We have both been involved with the Field Studies Council since 2006 when Des joined the Board of Trustees (I have been a trustee since 1982), but we had worked together before then, for example, a conference on the future of the British uplands held in Durham in 1999.

What are your first memories of fieldwork?

As I note in my essay in Curious about Nature, I came under the spell of an inspirational teacher at secondary school, Jim Hanwell. My first memory of fieldwork is being sent to measure the width of the main road outside the school gate to compare with the width of the red line printed on the OS map. Not something that would be done these days given health and safety concerns, but nevertheless I was hooked! Jim’s main influence was in physical geography, geomorphology especially, with many field trips to the Mendips and even an expedition to Spain and Portugal.

Some of the most well-known and respected scientists in history have had an incredibly varied range of interests and passions. Take Darwin, for example, who not only studied plants and animals, but also geology, anthropology, taxidermy and medicine. Do you think that, in modern times, we no longer celebrate or respect the ‘generally curious’ and instead expect people to be much more specialist in their areas of expertise?

Specialist research is inevitable in these very competitive days; departments compete via research assessment rankings and individuals must build their CVs to gain promotion. But in my experience, the best academics retain a breadth of interest; in physical geography this invariably combines fieldwork with other skills back at the department.

Editor Des Thompson

You currently hold the positions of President (Tim) and Chairman (Des) of the Field Studies Council and, as such, must both feel passionate about the education of field skills. With increases in health and safety concerns alongside reduced funding for outdoor activities, have you observed a change in child and youth education over the past decades in terms of the amount of fieldwork that takes place?

Health and safety concerns can (and must) be sorted out; it is continued funding that puts field trips at risk. The value of outdoor education is important for all sorts of reasons, not just academic knowledge and understanding. There is a real threat at the moment, with next year’s focus on getting schoolchildren back in the classroom. Senior administrators must be convinced of the value of investing in fieldwork, otherwise it is an easy cost to cut. But at what eventual “cost”?

Editor, Tim Burt

At NHBS we sell a lot of equipment that is purposely designed to limit the amount of time that researchers and naturalists have to spend in the field – such as motion-activated trail cameras. While these are the preferred choice for many researchers, do you think that there benefits to traditional, observational fieldwork that cannot be replicated by collecting data remotely?

Field equipment has always been necessary, even in the days of clockwork mechanisms and pen-and-ink chart recorders. Today’s digital equipment expands the possibilities, not limits them. But it is still vital to be out in the field, curious about what is happening and what you can see – this is how new ideas are generated. There is no substitute for standing on a hillside, thinking about the landscape in front of you, especially if you happen to be somewhere very different to England like the badlands of southern Utah!

Do you have a favourite fieldwork pioneer (included in the book or not) whose story you find particularly inspiring?

People always think of Charles Darwin as a biologist, but he was equally a geologist on the Beagle, and his geological observations during his circumnavigation of the globe remain fascinating to read, for example, his thoughts about the formation of coral reefs and atolls. He was very much a follower of Charles Lyell in his appreciation of the dynamic nature of the Earth’s surface.

Finally – what are you each working on currently? And do you have plans for further books?

We do have plans for a further book together, an elaboration of Curious about Nature, with a working title In the footsteps of Gilbert White. For my part, I have been drafting chapters for Durham weather and climate since 1841, to be published by OUP. Last year I co-authored a book (with Stephen Burt, no relation) about the weather records at the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, so the new book is complementary to that, with much the same structure, but clearly a different regional focus. I ran the Oxford weather station for 10 years and have been in charge of the Durham station since 2000.


Curious About Nature is edited by Tim Burt and Des Thompson and is published by Cambridge University Press. It is available from nhbs.com in paperback and hardback.

Author Interview: Andrew G. Duff, Beetles of Britain and Ireland Vol 3

In our latest Q&A we talk to Andrew Duff, keen naturalist and author of the new book Beetles of Britain and Ireland Volume 3, which joins a monumental 4-volume identification guide to to the adult Coleoptera of the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland, and the British Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man. By bringing together reliable modern keys and using the latest taxonomic arrangement and nomenclature, it is hoped that budding coleopterists will more quickly learn how to identify beetles and gain added confidence in their identifications.

Andrew has taken his time to answer our questions about his book and about the fascinating world of beetles.

 Aside from the most conspicuous species, beetles seldom seem to attract as much attention as some other insect orders. What is it that has drawn you to study this group? 

My initial attraction to beetles was by coming across some of the larger and more colourful species, as you might expect. The first occasion was in about the late 1970s. I was out birdwatching with my oldest and best friend, the Ruislip naturalist Mike Grigson, when he found a species of dor beetle. These are large black beetles, often found wandering in the open on heaths and moors. They have the most striking metallic blue undersides. Picking one up, Mike said to me: “beetles are really beautiful ”, and I can still picture him saying it. The next occasion was when I was assistant warden at the Asham Wood reserve on the Mendip Hills in Somerset, in the summer of 1982. The warden, Jim Kemp, was an expert mycologist with a side interest in beetles. One day we were on the reserve and he pointed out a black-and-yellow longhorn beetle sat on an umbel. I thought it was very exotic-looking, every bit as worthy of a naturalist’s attention as butterflies and orchids! So I resolved to find out more about the beetles found in Asham Wood. Bristol Reference Library had a copy of Norman Joy’s Practical Handbook of British Beetles and it was obvious that I needed to buy it. Once I had my own copy of ‘Joy’, there was no stopping me. I started finding beetles and was able to identify most of them. The more you study beetles, the more you realise that all of them have their own special kind of beauty, and this is what ultimately led me to become a coleopterist. That, and the intellectual challenge of identifying small brown beetles, are what continue to inspire me. 

 What motivated you to write and publish Beetles of Britain and Ireland?

Joy’s Practical Handbook of British Beetles was the standard beetle identification guide for at least two generations of British coleopterists, ever since its publication in 1932. Joy’s book provided concise keys to every British beetle in a handy two-volume set, one volume of text and one of line drawings. The trouble with this idea is that the keys were oversimplified and misleading because of all the detail that wasn’t included. By the 1980s ‘Joy’ was already long past its ‘best before date’. Talk started about somebody producing a successor set of volumes and the late Peter Skidmore made a start—after his death I was fortunate to obtain his draft keys and drawings, and in particular have made much use of his drawings in my book. Peter Hodge and Richard Jones then published New British Beetles: species not in Joy’s practical handbook (BENHS, 1995). This was a fantastic achievement because it brought together in one place a list of the species not included in ‘Joy’, as well as notice of recent changes in nomenclature and of some errors in his keys. But it was still only a stop-gap measure.

By around 2008 still nothing had been produced by anyone else. I reckoned it might be achievable and began to discuss with other coleopterists the idea of writing a new series of volumes. The turning point was a discussion with Mark Telfer at a BENHS Annual Exhibition in London. My main concern was over the use of previously published drawings in scientific papers, but Mark reassured me that provided the drawings were properly credited and that the book was clearly an original work in its text and design then it should not fall foul of any copyright issues. By 2010 I’d already made a start on Beetles of Britain and Ireland and in the summer of that year took early retirement so that I could work on it more or less full time. My own professional background is as a technical author in the world of IT and from the 1980s onwards I’d had extensive experience of what used to be grandly called desktop publishing, what we would now call simply word processing! I’d decided to go down the self-publishing route so that I could ensure the production values matched what I thought coleopterists would want: a book which was laid out clearly and would stand up to a lot of wear. It’s really for others to judge whether my volumes meet the needs and expectations of most coleopterists, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well they’ve been received.

 How did production of this book compare to the previous volumes in the series? Was it difficult to bring together information on so many families exhibiting such a diversity of life histories?

As this is the third volume to have been completed I’d already learnt a lot about the best way to collate all of the material and summarise it, while trying to make as few mistakes as possible. The previous two volumes (vols. 1 and 4) were written in a rather erratic fashion, so that at any one time some sections would be more or less complete while others would not even have been started. This time I was determined to be more disciplined by starting with the first family, completing a draft which included the family introduction, keys to genera and species, and all of the line art illustrations, before going on the next family and doing the same again. In a way, having many families was an advantage because it meant I could use a ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy by breaking down a fauna of 1088 species into 69 smaller chunks. The fact that there are so many families in this volume didn’t generate any special problems, indeed families with only a few species like the stag beetles, glow-worms and net-winged beetles are relatively straightforward to document. But some of the family introductions were a challenge, insofar as some families are poorly defined taxonomically and hard to characterise in a way which would be accessible to amateur coleopterists. For example the darkling beetles (Tenebrionidae) exhibit a bewildering diversity which makes it well nigh impossible to say why a particular species is or is not assigned to this family. I made extensive use of the two-volume American Beetles (Arnett et al., 2002), which contains succinct summaries of nearly all of our beetle families, and this made my job a lot easier. But at the end of the day, the family diagnoses are not as important as the keys to genera and species. Most coleopterists won’t be coming to a particular family chapter as a result of methodically working through the key to families in volume 1. I imagine that in most cases people start by comparing their beetle with the colour plates, getting a shrewd idea as to what family it belongs to, and then going straight to the keys to genera and species. Picture-matching will always have its place in natural history, and I hope that Udo Schmidt’s 473 colour photos in this volume will be put to good use.

 This volume covers some of our most familiar beetles – the ladybirds and chafers, for example. What advice would you give to anyone seeking to extend their interest beyond these well-known families to the more ‘obscure’ groups? 

I would say that it largely depends on what kind of naturalist you are. What I mean by this is that there are two main ways of studying beetles, and you have to decide which path is right for you. On the one hand, many naturalists take photographs of beetles and by using the Internet or an expert validation service such as iRecord (www.brc.ac.uk/irecord/) they can usually achieve reliable identifications, at least to genus level, for medium-sized and large beetles. Some spectacular finds of beetles new to Britain have been found by general naturalists posting their images on the Internet, a very recent example being the flower-visiting chafer Valgus hemipterus, first posted to iRecord in April 2019 and already given the full works treatment in my volume 3. The problems start as soon as you try to identify smaller and more obscure beetles, because most of them are simply not identifiable from photographs. It’s not their small size and lack of bright colour patterns as such, so much as the need to view the underside, or the fore legs from a particular angle, or the head from the front, or the body orthogonally from directly above to ascertain the precise shape, which makes field photography impractical as a way to identify small beetles. So what you need to do is to go down the second path and start a beetle collection. This enables you to examine your specimen with a bright light source under a good stereomicroscope, turn it over to examine the underside, stretch out its legs to look for the pattern of teeth and spines, straighten it to measure its length and width, and if you’re feeling brave dissect out the genitalia which often provide the only definitive way to arrive at a species identification. Many naturalists balk at the thought of collecting beetles, but I would argue that the scientific value of having a comprehensive species list for a site outweighs any squeamishness I might feel about taking an insect’s life. In any case, my guilt is assuaged by the fact that insects are being eaten in their trillions every day, everywhere, by all manner of insectivorous animals and plants, so that the additional negative effect of my collection on beetle populations is vanishingly small.

Could you tell us a little about the process of compiling keys for the identification of the more challenging species? Were you able to draw upon the existing literature, or did you have to create them from scratch?

Some of the genera treated in this volume have been giving problems for coleopterists ever since the scientific study of beetles began. These are genera with a number of very similar, small and plain species that appear to have few distinguishing features. Nine genera in particular stand out for me as being conventionally ‘difficult’: Contacyphon, Dryops, Cryptophagus, Atomaria, Epuraea, Carpophilus, Meligethes, Corticaria and Mordellistena. It was always going to be a challenge for me to provide workable keys to these ‘nightmare nine’ genera, but I was keen to give it a go. It helps that I take a perverse interest in very difficult identification challenges, so I was motivated to come up with keys which would work. Fortunately I was able to pull together information from a variety of different sources until I had draft keys which could be put out for testing. The testing went through a number of iterations and by reworking the keys—for example adding my own illustrations, simplfying or reorganising couplets, or adding new couplets to account for ambiguous characters—they were gradually improved until I was happy with them. A second source of difficulty concerned the aphodiine group of dung beetles. The formerly very specious genus Aphodius was recently broken up into 27 smaller genera, and our leading dung beetle expert, Darren Mann, recommended to me that we should adopt the new taxonomy. This meant that I needed to construct a completely new key to genera, and that took a great deal of time and effort searching for characters. Incidentally I’d like to pay special thanks to Steve Lane and Mark Telfer for their advice and help with these difficult genera; I owe them both a great deal for their encouragement and support. The keys to challenging genera in this volume will certainly not be the last word on the subject, but I believe they are an improvement on previous keys.

 When gathering information on habitat and biology of the various families, did you notice any glaring omissions? Are there any families that could particularly benefit from further study?

Some of the families treated in this volume are well understood, in terms of their identification, ecology and distribution in Britain and Ireland. The scarab beetle family-group, jewel beetles, click beetle family-group, glow-worms, soldier beetles, ladybirds, oil beetles and cardinal beetles are all popular groups and have been reasonably well studied, while the ladybirds have received a huge amount of attention! But that accounts for just 13 of the 69 families treated in volume 3, and the remaining 56 families are in general much less well known. Modern identification keys in English already existed for some of the other families but for most the information is very basic. I would say that the biggest gap in our understanding concerns the synanthropic and stored-product beetles. Not only do amateur coleopterists rarely come across these species, but the information that has been gathered (mostly by food hygiene inspectors) has not been made publicly available. In a few cases it’s not even clear which country a species has been found in, and all we know is that it has been found at some time, somewhere in Britain. I would like to think that this group will one day be much better documented.

A particular favourite of mine are the silken fungus beetles (Cryptophagidae). This family contains two of the ‘nightmare nine’ genera: Cryptophagus with 35 species and Atomaria with 44 species. I’ve tried hard to produce workable new keys for these two genera, but their identification is never going to be easy and it will be necessary to validate records for a long time to come. But I hope that at least this family will begin to benefit from a greater level of interest, on the back of my new keys.

 There will be one more volume to come before this monumental series is complete – are you able to provide an estimation as to when that will come to fruition?

Volume 2 covers just one huge family: the rove beetles (Staphylinidae). This has been left until last for two good reasons. Firstly, the subfamily Aleocharinae, and in particular the hundreds of species in the tribe Athetini, are so poorly understood that it’s just not clear where the generic limits are drawn. This means I will have my work cut out trying to construct a new key to Aleocharinae genera. Preferably the key won’t involve dissecting out the mouthparts and examining them under a compound microscope, as we are expected to do now! Secondly, it has to be admitted that rove beetles are not the most exciting to look at. As publisher as well as lead author of my series of volumes it was always going to be difficult to sell a book which didn’t contain a lot of colourful plates. My plan all along, then, was to leave the rove beetles until last, in the hope that people would buy the book in order to complete their set! Volume 2 has already been started, and Udo has been working hard on the colour plates, but there is still a mountain to climb to complete the Athetini keys and illustrations to my satisfaction. My best estimate currently is that it will be published no later than 2024. Once that is done, and if I still have my wits about me, I suppose I’ll have to think about revised editions of the earlier volumes!

 

Beetles of Britain and Ireland: Volume 3 Geotrupidae to Scraptiidae

By: Andrew G.Duff
Hardback | Due July 2020| £109.00

 

 

 

Browse the rest of the Beetles of Britain and Ireland series on the NHBS website

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

 

Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew: an Interview With Kate Teltscher

Daringly innovative when it opened in 1848, the Palm House in Kew Gardens remains one of the most beautiful glass buildings in the world today

In Palace of Palms, Kate Teltscher tells the extraordinary story of its creation and of the Victorians’ obsession with the palms that filled it: a story of breathtaking ambition and scientific discovery and, crucially, of the remarkable men whose vision it was.

Cultural historian and author, Kate Teltscher kindly took some time  to answer our questions about her new book.

Can you tell us something about your background and what motivated you to write Palace of Palms?

I’ve visited Kew since my childhood and have always loved the Palm House.  It’s such a magnificent building, and just astounds you, the moment that you enter the Gardens.  It’s so sleek and elegant, and modern-looking.  As soon as you push open the door, the heat hits you, and you’re inside this tropical world.  The architecture and plants combine to form this astonishing spectacle. The whole Gardens are landscaped around the Palm House, and the three long vistas at the back mean that you’re always catching sight of the Palm House as you walk the grounds.  I wanted to find out why the Palm House was at the centre of Kew.  Why was it the first building to be commissioned when Kew became a public institution?  As a cultural historian, I was interested in the story that the Palm House could tell about Britain and botany, about palms and empire.  And then in the course of my research I became fascinated by the characters that I discovered: the ambitious first Director, the self-taught engineer, and the surly yet devoted Curator.

The historical period in your book has been described as ‘The Golden Age of Botany.’ Do you think this description is justified?

The period certainly saw the birth of modern botany and many plant collecting expeditions, but the idea of a ‘golden age’ seems outdated now. The phrase tends to obscure or gild botany’s connection with commerce and empire.  From its very foundation as a public garden, Kew had close links with colonial gardens across the empire. John Lindley, the botanist who wrote a government report on Kew, proposed that the colonies would offer up their natural resources to Britain to aid ‘the mother country in every thing that is useful in the vegetable kingdom’.  Kew was seen as the co-ordinating hub of a network of colonial gardens in India, Australia, the Indian Ocean and the West Indies, that would exchange information and plants across the globe.  Transplanting medicinal plants, economic and food crops across continents, Kew engineered environmental and social change worldwide.

Why were palms so important to the Victorians?

The Victorians inherited the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’ notion that palms were the ‘princes of the vegetable kingdom’.  They were regarded as the noblest of all plants, far surpassing all European vegetation. For the public educator, Charles Knight, they combined ‘the highest imaginable beauty with the utmost imaginable utility’. They provided every necessity of life: food, drink, oil, clothes, shelter, weapons, tools and books.  They were so bountiful that Linnaeus imagined that early humanity had subsisted entirely on palms. As Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal put it: the question is not ‘What do they afford us? But what is there that they do not?’

Your book is full of intrigue, exploration and innovation. During your research was there one fact or event that stood out as been particularly remarkable?

I was particularly struck by the change in status of palm oil between the 1840s and today. Industrial chemists had recently discovered the properties of palm oil that would, in our own time, make it one of the most ubiquitous of vegetable oils.  In the nineteenth century, palm oil was used as axle grease on the railways and, combined with coconut oil, as a constituent of soap and candles. The oil palm grew in the areas of West Africa previously dominated by the slave trade.  The trade in palm oil, it was argued, was the most effective means to combat human trafficking.  In contrast to current fears that palm oil production is a major cause of deforestation and involves child and forced labour, the Victorians viewed palm oil as an ethical product, with unlimited manufacturing possibilities.

How do you envisage the future of the Palm House, the finest surviving Victorian glass and iron building in the world?

I understand from Aimée Felton, the architect who compiled a report on the Palm House, that despite the constant humidity of the interior, the actual structure is in reasonably good shape. These days, I guess, the Palm House does not look so big. Some of the tallest palms can never reach maturity because the Palm House roof is not high enough; they have to be cut down so that they don’t break through the glass. Obviously modern plant houses, like the Eden Project biospheres or the Norman Foster-designed Great Glass House at the National Botanic Garden of Wales may be larger or wider.  But what I find interesting is that these plant houses, like the Palm House, are daring, experimental structures.  The Palm House really functioned as the model for glasshouses across the globe throughout the nineteenth century: in Copenhagen, Adelaide, Brussels, San Francisco, Vienna and New York.  From a contemporary point of view, the Palm House is often seen as a forerunner of twentieth-century modernism.  It offers a perfect union of form and function, with its clean lines and organic shape.  In recent years, the Palm House has provided the inspiration for one of London’s current icons: the London Eye.  I expect that it will go on inspiring architects and engineers for years to come!

Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?

I’m hoping to work more with Kew, in particular a project to digitise an early record book that documents all the plants that were received and sent out from Kew at the end of the eighteenth century.  Since Kew was the first point of entry for many plants into Britain, and also sent plants to colonial botanic gardens all over the world, this record book is central to our understanding of the circulation of plant species, both nationally and globally. Kew really is a place of infinite riches, for the visitor and historian alike!

Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew
By: Kate Teltscher
Hardback | July 2020| £19.99 £25.00

The extraordinary history of the magnificent Victorian Palace of Palms in the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.

 

Further Reading

Discover more about natural history explorers and their discoveries in our selection of books.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.