Inheritors of the Earth: An interview with Chris D. Thomas

The author shows on a field trip in Sabah
Chris D. Thomas on a field expedition in Danum Valley, Sabah, 2015.

Chris D. Thomas is a Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of York and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in July 2012. He has an interest in understanding how humans have changed the biological world, and how we might protect the biodiversity that remains. His first book, Inheritors of the Earth, is a very interesting and thought-provoking read on the current mass extinction crisis, and conservation philosophy in general, focusing on the proverbial winners, and calling out conservationists for holding viewpoints that seem more driven by nostalgia than by logical thinking about the biological future of our planet. Sure to ruffle some feathers, NHBS nevertheless believes that this book makes an important contribution, and that his arguments are more balanced than a cursory glance might suggest. We contacted Chris with a list of questions that arose after reading it.

1. In your book, you quite rightly argue that, despite species going extinct, there are species who are benefitting from our presence and the changes we have wrought to our ecosystems. You acknowledge that our influences largely seem to result in an accelerated introduction of species in new areas. Will the net result of this great reshuffling not be a world that is suited only to generalist species (the proverbial rats and pigeons) at the expense of specialists?

This is not quite how I see it. Take your two examples. The Asian brown rat was a regular rodent (granted it was omnivorous, but so are many other rodents), before it hitched a lift with us around the world. Today, the brown rat mainly lives in and around human habitation and farmland, except on islands that lack native rodents, so you could simply call it a specialist on human-modified environments. The feral or town pigeon originated as a specialist cliff-nesting pigeon (the rock dove) in western Europe, the Mediterranean, and into western Asia. It is still a cliff-nesting bird, living on our buildings. Neither the feral pigeon nor the brown rats are unusually generalised, relative to many other birds and mammals. It is their proximity to us that makes us think of them as generalists.  I don’t think we should synonymise ‘successful’ or ‘living in human-modified environments’ with being a ‘generalist’.

2. In Chapter 6, “Heirs to the World”, you mention that most current conservation efforts focus on trying to defend the losers. You argue that, though honourable, it will be more effective to back the winners, i.e. those species that will make up future biological communities. An important theme in the recent book Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want it Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future is that the loss of wild crop varieties through extinction is threatening our future food supply. Many of these wild varieties might have the potential of providing new food sources when our current crop varieties will inevitably succumb to new insect pests or pathogens, or can provide other benefits (e.g. pharmaceuticals). This is why projects such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and other seed banks are so important. Do you see any value in the conservation of threatened species, or is this crying over spilt milk?

I argue that we should in most instances continue to protect ‘species’. Rare species may become common and hence fulfil important roles in future ecosystems, and species that we currently ignore (or have not yet discovered) may become economically, medically or socially important to us in the future. Hanging onto as many species as possible is not a preservationist agenda, but rather a means of maintaining the building blocks of future ecosystems, fuelling biological changes that will take place in the coming centuries. Similar arguments apply to rare genes that belong to wild relatives of plants and livestock that we already use. They provide long-term resilience and flexibility.

3. In Chapter 11, “Noah’s Earth”, you call for a new conservation philosophy that acknowledges that life is a process, not a final product. In your view, this philosophy would rest on four overarching principles: a) accept change, b) maintain flexibility for future change by conserving species wherever possible, c) accept that humans are natural and that anything we do is part of the evolutionary history of life (this includes not shying back from employing any and all solutions at our disposal, including genetic techniques – none of them will make the world less natural), d) live within our natural boundaries. In the remainder of that chapter you elaborate on the first three principles, but not the fourth. How do you envision realising this fourth principle?

As I say: “We know that we cannot expect the bounty to continue if we carry on killing animals faster than they can breed or cut forests down faster than they grow. This strategy failed when our ancestors drove most of the world’s largest land animals to extinction, and it has played out in the last few centuries as whale and fish populations have collapsed under the pressure of over-harvesting. We need a resilient and sustainable approach. We should aim for maximum efficiency, by which I mean that we should pursue strategies that fulfil all human needs – and, where possible, desires – of every citizen on Earth while generating the least possible collateral damage to the global environment.”

Harvesting a species faster than the survivors can reproduce can be thought of as a relatively ‘hard’ natural boundary (once a species is extinct, it is no longer a resource), but other bounds are much softer (a forest with one fewer species still grows), and hence we often need to specify tolerable levels of change, rather than catastrophic points of no return. These issues deserve book-length treatment on their own, which is why I did (deliberately) somewhat duck the issues!

When I refer to the ‘least possible collateral damage to the global environment’, I am thinking about the development of technological and social ‘game changers’. For example, most meat production is based on filling our fields and barns with cows, sheep and chickens, which we then kill for food. If we could switch to the consumption of ‘factory-grown’ cultured meats, powered by renewable energy, it would dramatically reduce pressure on the land; although admittedly not by as much as if we all became vegetarians.

4. Your book makes many valid points as to how our current thinking around species conservation is in conflict with itself, or simply illogical (e.g. the distinction between native and invasive species, because, seen over long enough time scales, species distribution has always fluctuated. Or the idea that there is no one period in the history of life that we can take as a benchmark of the idealised pristine state the world should be in. Or simply the idea that conservation means “freezing” the world in its current (or a former) state – after all, the only constant of life on our planet has always been change). You also, provocatively I would say, argue that many island species that have gone extinct were effectively already evolutionary dead ends, having evolved in environments free from predators and pathogens. We have merely hastened their demise, but they would eventually have gone extinct anyway. Should we really give up on them?

I don’t think it is particularly controversial (or provocative, therefore) to say that most flightless and disease-susceptible terrestrial birds (as opposed to seabirds) that live on oceanic islands represent evolutionary dead-ends, on a time scale of ten or so million years. What are the alternatives? They would never be able to establish viable populations on continents because pathogens and predators are present. Confined to their island homes, they would eventually have died out, either when the islands eroded away, or when additional continental species arrived without human intervention (for example Darwin’s finches have ‘only’ been on the Galapagos for two to three million years). In most cases, we have accelerated the extinction of such species but not altered their eventual fate.

What we should do with the few remaining survivors is another issue. What I argue in Inheritors of the Earth is that we should think quite broadly. Can we introduce new genes to disease-susceptible birds that will make them resistant (for example to save the remaining Hawaiian honeycreepers)?  Can we cross predator-susceptible birds with related species that reproduce fast enough to survive the new levels of predation (for example to save New Zealand black stilts)?  Could we introduce new strains of bird malaria that are less potent, and displace the existing fatal ones? In other words, can we make the endangered island forms more resistant in some way and the continental invaders less virulent, so that long-term coexistence becomes possible? If not, then maybe we should indeed abandon some of the losers, and contemplate releasing continental walking birds (which can resist pathogens and predators) and pollinators, rather than dwell too long attempting to recreate a biological world that was inherently unstable.

Inheritors of the Earth5. One argument in favour of trying to conserve the “charismatic megafauna”, such as elephants and rhinos, are that they function as flagship species, and that conservation efforts aimed at them can benefit whole ecosystems. In your book, you don’t really go into this. What are your thoughts on the concept of flagship species, especially in light of your argument that “defending the losers” is ultimately a lost cause?

I am generally in favour of large, flagship species because they require large areas to protect, and this indirectly benefits many other species (though flagship conservation is not sufficient because it may miss areas of endemism). They are also culturally important to conservationists as well as to the general public, gaining public and political support for conservation. The giant panda has been globally important, and critical to the conservation of Chinese forests, despite being a slightly ‘dodgy species’!

When I discuss losers, remember that I then add the question “can we turn them into winners” (or at least into survivors). For the large megafauna that still survive, this is easy. We can choose not to hunt them to extinction any longer. It is already the case that large birds and large mammals are tending to recover in Europe and North America, and this is also true of the Great Whales. They were losers in the context of historic human culture, and there is no necessary reason why they ‘must be’ losers. Once ivory and rhino horn ‘culture’ is turned around, there will be nothing ‘wrong’ with these species either.

6. If you were put in charge of a major conservation organisation, say WWF, what would you do differently? Would you, for example, have greenlighted their recent campaign to try and protect the last remaining individual vaquitas (the threatened porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California)?

I’m not going to answer your first question because that would be a whole new book (or job if they offer it to me!). I’ll just say that, on day one, I would request a review of activities, and for every measure currently being undertaken to prevent change or decline, I would ask for the staff to develop an additional measures to promote changes that would increase diversity (or the status of an endangered species).

As for the vaquita, I am no expert. However, it is evolutionary distinct, and it is a perfectly viable species if we were stop killing it (including through gillnets). It is not a species that one should necessarily give up on. More broadly, it is a symptom of the mismanagement of the world’s marine resources. We sorted out farming on land a long time ago, but we are still more or less acting as hunter-gatherers in the marine realm. It is hopelessly inefficient.

If I had an infinite supply of money, I would be looking to invest in fish farms (they can be locally damaging, but humans still need food), and I would also invest in new GM crops which produce fish oils so that the farmed fish could be fed on terrestrial plants rather than ‘wild caught’ marine resources. Beyond that, I would invest in cultured fish meat (factory grown muscles), further reducing the need to catch wild fish. The aim would be for virtually all fish consumed in the year 2100 to be farmed or, ideally, cultured as tissues in factories.

Whether or not the vaquita itself can be saved, these strategies are all about generating permanent means of providing a global supply of fish meat without causing anything like as much collateral damage as takes place at present.

7. As mentioned above, I think your book makes excellent arguments. And yet, reading it also brought with it a certain sense of unease. It almost feels a bit defeatist, as if we might just as well give up on fighting to save threatened species and just go with the flow. I can see this argument not being popular. A lot of people feel we have a moral responsibility, as an intelligent, thinking species, to not drive other species over the edge, and to put a stop to our destructive ways. Isn’t saying “everything we do is natural, we are just another step in the evolution of life” a bit of a cop out?

I’ll leave others to discuss morals!

Saying that everything is natural, including all conservation actions we take, allows us to take ‘affirmative action’ for wildlife in a manner that some conservationists would historically have been nervous about (“I can’t do that, it would not be natural”). So, I see it as an opening up of new conservation opportunities, not a cop out.

8. It is perhaps a bit early to ask you how the book has been received. But, clearly, when a book like this is written, it is often based on years of work and research that has led up to it. These ideas did not just appear. So, how have your viewpoints been received so far?

The response to the book seems good so far, but it is far too early to judge. You are right, I have put some of these views out there previously, and they have received a mixture of responses. Many people seem very supportive. However, invasive species biologists are mostly negative, I think fearing that non-native species legislation could be undermined, more than genuinely questioning the biological thesis (that may just be my interpretation). There are also those, such as E. O. Wilson, who consider that I and others are being Anthropocene apologists. I understand their point, but we cannot simply continue to wish that we live in an unchanged world. We have to develop an understanding of biology, and an approach to conservation, that works with change rather than against it.

9. Obviously, there are many parties in our society who stand to gain a great deal from ignoring conservation concerns and steam-rolling ahead with “business as usual”, continuing to destroy natural habitats for corporate gains. With this book now poised to be published, do you not worry that your narrative will be hijacked, the way has happened with the debate surrounding climate change? I can already see people using your arguments to legitimise their actions, arguing along the lines of “this biologist said that the extinction crisis really isn’t such a big deal. See? Lots of species doing really well!”. Have you considered strategies to prevent this from happening?

I nearly didn’t put fingers to keyboard for this very reason. However, if we build a case for conservation based on a loss-only view of the world, eventually it will fall. The edifice is already creaking. A more balanced view that admits to the reality of biological gains as well as losses should, in the end, lead to more rational decision-making.

In terms of conservation, I have stated my own views. In the Epilogue, I write: “If [existing conservation] efforts were abandoned, the extinction rate would escalate. A major task of conservation is to keep the losses towards the lower end of the likely range – as well as to encourage biological gains. Although I have been advocating a more flexible approach to the environment, and specifically to conservation, nothing I have said should be used to undermine attempts to save existing species or maintain protected areas.

As for the extinction ‘big deal’, biological gains of the Anthropocene do not let us off the hook. A simple linear extrapolation of the current rate of extinction wipes out about three-quarters of all species in the next ten millennia. This is risky, given that species represent our planet’s biological parachute. All future ecosystems will be formed from the descendants of existing species, and we do not know which of today’s currently-rare species will be important components of future ecosystems (especially if humans alter the planet in yet another, unexpected way). Letting rare species go could have major long-term consequences. My advice would be not to discard the biological building blocks of our planet lightly.

Inheritors of the Earth is available to order from NHBS

The Sensory Ecology of Birds: Interview with Graham Martin

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.


Professor Graham Martin – Author of The Sensory Ecology of Birds

How did you first become interested in bird senses?

Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.

What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?

I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.

Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?

Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats.  Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.

Sensory adaptations to overcome the challenges of being nocturnal in two species, the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) and Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems.  I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.

An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?

Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets.  These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.

How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?

It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.

Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?

Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites.  Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.

Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?

Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.

White-headed vulture – photo credit: Graham Martin

Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.

Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?

Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes.  They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.

In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?

We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.

Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is available now from NHBS

How bird atlases swept the world… with a little help from their friends

The bird atlas movement that has swept the world in the last 40 years is surely one of the great recent achievements of citizen science.

More than 400 have been published since the 1970s and it is possible more people have been involved as volunteers than in any other form of biological data collection.

But it was not birders but botanists who pioneered the biological atlas, with the now familiar grid-based dot-maps. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Atlas of the British flora was a revelation when it appeared in 1962; half-a-century later American ornithologist Walter Ellison would describe it as the “great-grandfather of the hundreds of natural history grid-based atlases that were to follow in the next few decades as the atlas movement swept over the face of the Earth”.

1962 Atlas of the British flora - the great-grandfather of all natural history atlases
1962 Atlas – the great-grandfather of the natural history atlas

The story is nicely told in C.D. Preston’s paper Following the BSBI’s lead: the influence of the Atlas of the British flora, 1962-2012. Planning had begun in 1950 and from the start it was intended to be a scientific exercise. The atlas in fact had little impact on science, which had to wait until computers that could analyse the amount of data atlases generate became widely available, but it did have an immediate impact on conservation – leading directly to the first British Red Data Book.  

Speaking at the atlas’ launch, Max Nicholson, then head of the Nature Conservancy, described it as a great leap forward. And –  we can imagine the great Twentieth Century conservationist had his tongue firmly in his cheek – suggested the ornithologists had been put to shame by the botanists.

Tony Norris, another of Britain’s conservation greats, responded when he and members of the West Midland Bird Club produced the Atlas of the Breeding Birds in the West Midlands in 1970.

1970 West Midlands atlas; image courtesy BTO
1970 West Midlands atlas; image courtesy BTO

The first grid-based bird atlas, modelled on the format pioneered by the botanists, covered the English counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and inspired the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, published in 1976.

The 1976 bird atlas was followed by The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland (1986), The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland (1994), and, bringing things right up to date, the Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland (2013). The fieldwork led to any number of county and regional atlases to various parts of Britain and Ireland – a recent post on the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013 prompted this look at bird atlases.  

1976 British and Iriah atlas; image courtesy BTO
1976 British and Irish atlas; image courtesy BTO

Dawn Balmer, the BTO’s head of surveys, guesses at least 60,000 volunteers have contributed in Britain and Ireland alone over the last 40 years, 40,000 on the most recent atlas. Some take holidays in remote places in order to fill gaps, some make expedition-like trips to remote islands, some embark on marathon mountain bike journeys to record birds in inaccessible parts of the Scottish Highlands.

She said: “The atlas only gets finished because people do amazing things. Every time there is a new atlas you are engaging people in citizen science… it is quite addictive, people become atlas addicts.”

By the turn of the 21st Century there were also British atlases to butterflies, moths, bryophytes, reptiles and amphibians, spiders, dragonflies, molluscs, leeches and ticks. Freshwater fish followed soon after, and after that fleas, the latter the product of a 50-year labour by schoolteacher and wartime Spitfire pilot Bob George.

All stemmed from the Atlas of the British flora, which perceptive contemporary reviewers recognised had a significance beyond the British Isles.

Grid-based dot-maps were promoted by the European Ornithological Atlas Committee, formed in 1971 – the idea of using grid squares, for many years a solely military pre-occupation, had originally come from the Netherlands.

Bird atlases for France and Denmark appeared in 1976. The first American bird atlas, to Vermont, was published in 1985; by 1990 all the Atlantic coastal states from Maine to Virginia had completed fieldwork for bird atlases.

Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont (second edition, 2013)
Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont (second edition, 2013)

At the last count there were more than 400 national or regional bird atlases from nearly 50 countries, the majority in Europe and North America. There were fewer covering Africa and the Pacific, where all but one come from Australia, and only a handful from Asia, the Middle East and South America.

The original Atlas of the British flora contained another gift: it included pre-1930 records – not as far away in time then as it appears to be now – of uncommon species as open circles and contemporary records as black dots, making it immediately clear many species were in decline.

A standout feature of the 1994 New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland was a huge reduction in the breeding range of farmland birds since fieldwork for the earlier atlases had been done. The 2013 atlas revealed upland birds and wading birds – according to Balmer the extent of the latter’s problems came as a particular shock – were under far more pressure than previously recognised.

“It is about the bigger picture and you only get that from having these large scale surveys periodically,” Balmer said. “It really helps you identify species which are showing the greatest change over time and it can highlight groups that are real conservation challenges.”

Browse the range of recent regional bird atlases published in the wake of the BTO Bird Atlas 2007-11.


Doomsday for Devon’s birds?

Curlew in flight by Smudge 3000 via Flickr under license CC BY-SA 2.0
Curlew in flight – attribution at end of post

My Atlas of Breeding Birds in Devon has a pale blue cover, a black-and-white picture of a stonechat on the front, and a price tag of £1.50. It is more than 40 years old.

The atlas, based on fieldwork from five breeding seasons, spanning 1968 to 1972, was described, somewhat inevitably, as an ‘ornithological Domesday Book’, from which changes in the status of the county’s breeding birds could be measured.

So how does the data, published in 1974, measure up to the new Devon Bird Atlas, published this year?

1970s vintage...
1970s vintage…
Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013
… This year’s model








Cuckoo and starling were recorded everywhere in the old atlas, yellowhammer everywhere except Lundy. All three are now missing from large parts of the county.

The skylark was abundant throughout Devon then. Today it is scarce or absent from large areas, mainly farmland.

The skylark’s modern strongholds are Dartmoor and Exmoor and the new atlas says: “If present trends continue… the glorious song-flight will become less and less familiar in intensively farmed areas.”

The plight of the lapwing is even more pronounced. In the old atlas it was a widely distributed breeding species, despite a decline that had been noted since the 1930s; the new atlas records lapwing breeding in only three places, two of them at the RSPB’s Exe estuary reserves, the other on the southern fringe of Dartmoor.

Grey partridge was recorded breeding almost everywhere in the old atlas; now it is confirmed in only two places.

Dr Humphrey Sitters edited the old atlas, and in the preface to the new one says more agri-environment schemes are needed, but will only be put into effect if people who know what is going on “present the data we have collected and batter the politicians and bureaucrats into submission.

“Therefore, ultimately, if we lose our breeding birds it is as much our fault as everyone else involved.”

Species whose numbers have increased include siskin, Dartford warbler, Cetti’s warbler and great crested grebe.

Cetti’s warbler was not in the old atlas, the first British breeding record is from Kent in 1973 – it may now be present at all suitable sites in Devon.

There was little evidence great crested grebe bred in Devon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Numbers have since expanded, although it is doubtful more than 15 pairs successfully bred between 2007 and 2013, the years when data for the new atlas was collected.

The old atlas does not map where peregrine was breeding. During the fieldwork years only one or two pairs managed to rear young and the bird’s future, then blighted by pesticides and egg collectors, was too uncertain to risk identifying nests.

Today it is recorded as ‘possible, probable or confirmed’ almost everywhere, although in small numbers. Persecution is still with us, however, and the new atlas again tries to mask the actual nesting sites.

The sorriest story is possibly the curlew’s. It was breeding in more than half of Devon in the old atlas, although in small numbers – curlew had still not recovered from the historically cold winter of 1962/63, a trait then shared by many other species. Now breeding pairs are down to single figures, and the new atlas says the “future of the curlew as a breeding species in Devon looks bleak”.

The great landscape historian and great Devonian W.G. Hoskins described a Blackdown Hills parish, in the east of the county, as “a country of deep, winding lanes running from one ancient farmstead to another, haunted by buzzards in the valleys and by curlews on the heaths above, and full of flowers”.

The buzzards are still there but will we again be able to hear the curlew?

The old atlas grew from the BTO/Irish Wildbird Conservancy Atlas Project 1968-72, the new Devon Bird Atlas from the BTO’s Bird Atlas project 2007-11, which resulted in Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland. A large number of other regional and county bird atlases are also available and NHBS has prepared a list showing upcoming titles.Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013

Buy a copy of the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013

Main image: Curlew in flight by Smudge 9000 via Flickr under license CC BY-SA 2.0 (image cropped to remove border)

Andrew Branson: the voice at the pulsating heart of the British wildlife movement

Andrew Branson talks to NHBS about how the UK’s biodiversity fared during his British Wildlife magazine years…


You don’t expect Andrew Branson to begin a review of how the UK’s wildlife has fared in the last quarter-century by quoting Margaret Thatcher.

Responding to emerging worldwide concern about climate change in 1990, the then Prime Minister said that as well as needing cooperation and imagination to tackle the threat, ‘We shall need statesmanship of a rare order’.

“Sadly, that is just what we don’t have,” Branson says, tweaking the message to embrace the natural world as a whole.

The previous year Branson had founded the magazine British Wildlife, described by one writer as the ‘pulsating heart of the British wildlife movement’.

The magazine, along with British Wildlife Publishing books, made Branson, according to a 2014 article in The Independent, the thinking conservationist’s candidate to rank alongside Sir David Attenborough as the person in Britain who has done most for the natural world in the last 25 years.

Many of the big issues of the late-1980s, including planting conifers on peat bogs, grubbing-up hedgerows, and river pollution, to name just three, were high on the agenda of the Government’s own conservation bodies.

But those organisations are shadows of their former selves and are unlikely to have the same influence today, Branson said. They have been cut and restructured to such an extent that they can no longer speak to Government with a strong or independent voice and are now more about delivery and process.

During the same period membership of conservation NGOs, such as the Wildlife Trusts and RSPB, has mushroomed, although none has the same statutory clout as the Government bodies.

For Branson, the rise of the NGOs is one of the period’s success stories. They are better informed than they were, he said, and better at applying scientific research on the ground. Indeed, he makes special mention of the scientists, who have done some “fantastic work on species and habitats”.

Branson uses the bittern as an example, where over the last quarter of a century numbers of ‘booming males’ have risen from around 20 to more than 150 in 2015.

“That is a powerful example of conservation action for a particular species. They have put in the research, put in the ground work, and come up with a result.”

The flip-side is that beyond protected sites, wildlife is in trouble. According to the 2013 State of Nature report, around 60 per cent of species have declined.

Branson says: “The statistic that really hits you is that the UK has lost 44 million breeding birds since England last won the World Cup in 1966, and these losses are down to the general countryside being more intensively farmed, to loss of habitat, and the effects of aerial and water-borne pollution.”

On his local riverside walk in 1989 he would regularly see turtle doves and water voles. Now they are gone. The turtle dove is at risk of becoming extinct in Britain.

“These changes can be subtle. People see cattle grazing in a grassy field and think ‘that is fine’. But a while ago that same field may have held 50 or 60 species of plant, whereas now it may have only four or five.”

Generally, the public’s understanding of the problems is now greater than in 1989 but politicians need to wake up, he said. The current government, in particular, appears to have little clue when it comes to wildlife and the countryside. Time for some real ‘statesmanship’ he muses.

Branson sold British Wildlife Publishing two years ago, but is still busy working with wildlife groups in his home county of Dorset.


The week in review – 14th November

This week we studied the formation of snowflakes
The complex and beautiful shapes formed by snowflakes are caused by the specific conditions experienced during their formation. Photo by bkaree1.

News from outside the nest

The Convention on Migratory Species in Ecuador, which closed on Sunday, approved greater protection measures for 31 species. These included the much loved polar bear, currently at risk from a warming arctic climate.

The world’s first solar bike lane, connecting the Amsterdam suburbs of Krommenie and Wormerveer, opened in the Netherlands.

In this documentary by William Douglas McMaster, we learned all about the man that single-handedly created a forest.

A study released this week showed that European bird species are declining at an alarming rate. This is a loss both for our world and in our hearts.

We took a look at the new trend for urban farming projects in Los Angeles.

A new antibiotic found in a mushroom living on horse dung may help to provide valuable information on antibiotic resistance.

And finally…with winter rapidly approaching (for us folk in the northern hemisphere) we discovered the fascinating world of snowflakes.

New arrivals at the warehouse

The Book of Beetles offers glorious lifesize photographs of six hundred beetle species along with distribution maps and other important information for each.

This new Bradt Guide to the Wildlife of Madagascar celebrates the unique fauna of a marvellous island.

These Sapphire ED Binoculars from Hawke Optics are winners of the Best Birding Binoculars 2013 Award.

The EasyLog Mini USB Temperature Logger is pocket-sized and affordable and will log temperatures for up to a month with one battery.


Dormouse Nest Tubes – fast, secure placement

How have we improved our dormouse nest tubes?

dormouse tubeWe have just released a new and improved model of the dormouse nest tube. What’s different? Well, we have tried to tackle two of the most frequently encountered problems with setting up dormouse nest tubes. (1) It can be tricky to attach them securely to a branch and (2) once ‘securely attached’ they are prone to slipping. To reduce these issues we have added retaining loops to the base of the nest tube to stop slippage and to enable faster placement.

We also supply 71cm cable ties for fast set-up. If you prefer using garden wire to secure your nest tubes then this method will also be easier using the new loops.

Dormouse survey – best practice

hazel dormouseFor the non- (or new) professionals out there a few quick pointers on best practice for a survey using dormouse nest tubes.

  1. Surveys should not be limited to habitat perceived as ‘optimal’ but should be undertaken in any areas of affected woody habitat (including adjacent areas if the impact of development is likely to extend beyond the site footprint).
  2. Normally at least 50 nest tubes should be placed at roughly 15-20m intervals and these should be left in place (and checked monthly) for the majority of the active season.
  3. In order to have any chance of obtaining a license to carry out work affecting dormouse habitat you must first conduct a survey with a probability of 20 or above of finding dormice if they are present (although please remember that an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence). To calculate the probability score for your survey you add together the scores (Table 1) for the months during which the survey was conducted (for surveys conducted using 50 dormouse nest tubes and following the advice given in points 1 and 2 above).

dormouse survey results






Taken at face value this means that all dormouse surveys should begin by June at the latest; however, it is possible to start a survey later than this under certain conditions. For example, you can increase survey effort by increasing the number of dormouse nest tubes deployed (if you use 100 tubes you can double the scores in Table 1). Note though that surveys conducted using a large number of tubes for a short period are not good practice and nor are surveys where tubes are crowded together at intervals of less than 15-20m (although 10m intervals may be acceptable in very small sites).

For further details we recommend you consult the latest guidance from Natural England in England or your national licensing authority (e.g. Countryside Council for Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, etc.).

Dormouse resources:

The Mammal Society

Dormice: A Tale of Two Species jacket imageDormice: A Tale of Two Species
Pat Morris




Living with Dormice jacket imageLiving with Dormice
Sue Eden



Dormouse survey products:

dormouse nest tubeDormouse nest tubes



Standard Dormouse BoxDormouse box






Book of the Week: The Natural History of the Proboscis Monkey

Continuing our selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

The Natural History of the Proboscis Monkey jacket imageThe Natural History of the Proboscis Monkey

John CM Sha, Ikki Matsuda and Henry Bernard


A new natural history of this unique species, endemic to Borneo.


This concise, informative and abundantly illustrated volume summarises the current state of knowledge about the natural history of the proboscis monkey. After introducing these charismatic creatures – pictures of which weave through the pages of this book, bringing the animals to life in all the colourful diversity of their behaviour – and their homeland of Sabah, Borneo, the chapters range through distribution, behaviour and social organisation, ecology, predation, and conservation issues.

The latter emphasis, on conservation, includes guidelines for ecotourists observing the proboscis monkeys at large, and suggestions of places to visit. The proboscis monkey is on the IUCN endangered list, and this volume should go some way towards raising awareness of their needs and nature, and their position in the lush forest ecosystem of Sabah.


John CM Sha, Ikki Matsuda and Henry Bernard are field researchers on proboscis monkeys in Sabah, East Malaysia.

Available Now from NHBS

A “must-have” book: What Zoos Can Do, reviewed in WAZA News

What Zoos Can Do: The Leading Zoological Gardens of Europe 2010-2020

by Anthony Sheridan

What Zoos Can Do: The Leading Zoological Gardens of Europe 2010 - 2020 jacket image“This book contains unique information and analyses 80 leading zoological gardens in 21 European countries. This is a must-have book for all those interested in zoos – enthusiasts, sceptics, visitors, sponsors, zoo owners, politicians, wildlife conservationists and all those working in and for zoos. The book deals with a wide variety of zoo-related aspects, some of which rarely dealt with in other publications, such as the role of the zoo director, landscape design, education, ex situ and in situ conservation, marketing strategies, future plans and zoo associations. Each of the 80 zoos covered is portrayed in detail on three pages each. The book includes tables containing the evaluation of the presentaion of a number of iconic species in each of the zoos as well as ranking lists concerning visitor factors, education and conservation, and commercial and organisation.

All the profits from the sale of this book are being donated to Stiftung Artenschutz, a German in situ conservation charity supported by more than 20 of the German and Austrian  zoos covered in the book. This donation will support a specific conservation project for gibbons in Vietnam. It contains almost 400 pages with numerous full-colour photographs, maps and tables. ”

Markus Gusset,

WAZA News August 2011

What Zoos Can Do is distributed by NHBS

Available now from NHBS

Book of the Week: Conservation Biogeography

Continuing our weekly selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

Conservation Biogeography

by Richard J Ladle and Robert J Whittaker


An authoritative key volume for students and researchers in this developing field.Conservation Biogeography jacket image


The authors of Conservation Biogeography are both associated with the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford where the nascent field was formally defined in 2005. They state their aim in the preface as “[…]to expand the scope and agenda of conservation biogeography, to identify critical gaps and weaknesses, and to provide an introduction to the toolbox of concepts and methods – and thereby to produce a broad-based text for university courses and programmes.

After defining the field, the chapters work their way through the impact of social values on conservation, biodiversity mapping and its processes, planning considerations, island biogeography, invasions and homogeneity, and the volume ends with discussions on the future prospects and challenges associated with the biogeographical approach to global conservation management.


Richard J. Ladle was the founding Director of Oxford University’s MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management. Since 2009 he has been working in Brazil as an international conservation consultant and science writer. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the Federal University of Alagoas, teaching and doing research on diverse and interdisciplinary aspects of conservation, biogeography and ecology.

Robert J. Whittaker is the current Academic Director of the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, and holds the title of Professor of Biogeography in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. He is a founding member and past President (2009–2010) of the International Biogeography Society. He is currently editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biogeography. He has a long-standing interest in island biogeography, patterns and processes controlling diversity, and the application of biogeography to conservation.

Available Now from NHBS