I smell a rat

16th July, World Snake Day

The region of southern Ontario where I was lucky enough to be able to stay for a couple of weeks in the first half of July holds an important yet threatened population of the Gray Ratsnake, Pantherophis spiloides. While participating in the memorable BIOSPHERE Youth Environmental Leadership Expedition at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) on the shores of Lake Opinicon, the enthusiastic program leader Dr. Shelley Ball interrupted our dinner one evening with a Gray Ratsnake she had just hand-caught. Perhaps one of the few things I will stop dinner for!

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Gray Ratsnake being held by Shelley

Gray Ratsnakes are one of Canada’s largest snakes. They are the largest in terms of length, with adult able to reach over six feet from head to tail, but are pipped by Bullsnakes with regard to mass.

During the expedition at QUBS, we were treated to a short presentation by Matt and Meg who are working on how to prevent the decline of this sizeable snake. One of the leading causes of fatalities in this species is road collisions. The dark colouration of the ratsnakes means that they are often mistaken for the shadows of overhead branches on roads, and are therefore not noticed by motorists. Even when they are recognised as snakes drivers have a hard time avoiding them, as due to their length they can easily stretch across the entire width of the road.

On account of this, Matt and Meg are working on avoiding these snake RTAs by reducing the incidences of snakes crossing the road. They are helping to develop snake-proof fences which aim to guide the snakes to specially-built culverts which they can use to get to the other side of the road without risking being hit. Gray Ratsnakes are semi-arboreal and spend lots of their time in trees, so are adept climbers. The fences to be implemented, therefore, need to be resistant to climbing by these agile snakes. Creating fences that not even ratsnakes can ascend also prevents a wide variety of other wildlife such as turtles from being hit and allows them to utilise the culverts as well.

Gray Ratsnakes are remarkably docile and are rarely aggressive when handheld. When threatened they do possess the abilility to release the contents of the cloaca, musking the assailant with a foul smell. However, the related Northern Water Snake behaves in this manner with far greater regularity. It, like the Gray Ratsnake, is non-venomous, so has to make itself as unappealing to predators as possible, by releasing both musk and excrement. Despite the lack of venom, the bites are still painful and the saliva of the Northern Water Snake has an anticoagulant which causes the bite to bleed more freely. However, although it might sound threatening, the water snake is another fascinating reptile.

I had the good fortune of glimpsing a Northern Water Snake on one occasion at QUBS as it swam past the boathouse. As its name suggests, it is a very strong swimmer. It will take sleeping fish at night in shallow water and during the day it will hunt other prey such as crayfish and amphibians among vegetation at the water’s edge.

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Northern Water Snake snaking through the water at the QUBS boathouse

To finish off this post for World Snake Day, I’ll mention the third species of snake we encountered on our expedition at QUBS, which was also the most numerous. The Common Garter Snake is, as its name suggests, frequent, but also fairly skittish. As a result, they are difficult reptiles to photograph. However, nearing the end of the expedition we disturbed one from a pile of dead leaves near the library. It retreated to a stone wall, from which it poked its head out to survey the scene, giving a rare opportunity to photograph this species.

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A curious Common Garter Snake.

The Common Garter Snake, like all but one snake in Ontario, is another non-venomous species. Snakes are often misrepresented as being solely dangerous creatures. However, less than a fifth of the world’s snake species are considered a threat to human health, with very few venomous snakes being found in the more populated temperature regions of the world. Instead of being feared, snakes should be more appreciated for their incredible diversity and fascinating range of habits.

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The People’s Walk for Wildlife – my three hopes

It is fair to say that a better day could have been chosen weather-wise for today’s People’s Walk for Wildlife, although that didn’t stop thousands of people old and young making their voices heard in London. There were attendees from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and even Uganda! This illustrates how much we care about the state of our environment and the unfathomable diversity of species it supports. Everyone at the walk today shared a common goal: to restore wildlife to the condition it was in before the disastrous effects of the Anthropocene. However, I have three hopes for the near future which I’d love to be fulfilled.

1. Large-scale rewilding

I’m lucky enough to be able to visit the Knepp Estate in West Sussex fairly regularly for bird ringing and general wildlife recording. It is one of several rewilding projects in the UK but the only one of its kind in the South-East, which is what makes it even more special.

The idea of rewilding involves restoring ecosystems to how they were in prehistoric times – before humans reaped such major consequences on the environment – mainly by reintroducing or replicating the megafauna which would have populated them. In less densely populated areas of the UK, there are plans and ambitions to reintroduce large carnivores such as lynx and wolves. However, in the South-East, there is simply not enough space for a thriving population of animals such as these. Yet, rewilding at Knepp has still had a noticeable effect on biodiversity without such iconic predators. On the estate, large herbivores/omnivores have been introduced to mimic those which would have been present in England many centuries ago. Free-roaming Tamworth pigs rootle in the undergrowth in the place of wild boar; longhorn cattle fill a niche which would previously have contained aurochs; Exmoor ponies replicate the benefits tarpan (Eurasian wild horses) would have had on the ecosystem.

It is evident that rewilding has already greatly benefitted Knepp’s wildlife. The pigs have produced bare ground ideal for nesting solitary bees. The tough cattle and ponies have prevented unique species-rich grassland and scrubland from reverting to woodland.

The idea came about at the start of the millennium when the lack of profit from the working farm the estate once was became a problem. Fields had to take up every scrap of available land and push wildlife to the edge in order to produce a good crop. Therefore, Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree (who has written a book on this subject entitled ‘Wilding’ – highly recommended as this blog post far from explains everything!) decided to think outside the box.

If rewilding can be so successful on a lowland farm surrounded by towns and less than forty miles from the centre of London, then it can surely also be implemented on farms nationwide. This would bring back biodiversity we have not experienced for many generations.

2. Putting nature back into childhood

The younger years are when lifelong interests are kindled. What’s experienced during childhood can spark a passion that can burn for decades. Long gone are the days when playing in the wilderness used to be the default for children, replaced by addictive screens. Without learning to love and appreciate even the wildlife on their doorstep, there is no chance that young people will be the driving force for conservation in the future. This is why it’s imperative to teach the next generation why our natural heritage is something that must be conserved.

3. Leave no species under-recorded

It is a simple truth that we cannot conserve a species if we don’t know its ecology, where it’s distributed or even if it exists. This is why recording the species we come across is so important for conservation. Even records one might consider as commonplace, such as a harlequin ladybird overwintering in the corner of your living room, can feed vital data to recording schemes. How far has this invasive ladybird spread? Which times of year is it most active? What consequences is the advent of this non-native having on our indigenous species? These are all questions that a few seconds spent uploading a record could answer.

There are many easy ways to submit records. Many recording schemes accept records from the Biological Records Centre’s iRecord website. Alternatively, you can email records directly to the relevant recording scheme or records centre. A list of recording schemes can be found here.

Daily, exciting new records are being made nationwide; a new species for a county, or even a country. Anyone can make a ground-breaking discovery just by sending in a record. There are tens of thousands of invertebrate species, thousands of fungi, thousands of plants, algae, lichens, mosses in the UK alone. Every one of them is equal, and requires conserving just as much as the iconic birds and mammals. Yet, there is no chance of preventing a planning application from destroying a site if there is no data on any scarce or declining species which might inhabit it. There is no possibility of stemming the invasion of a non-native species if we don’t know that it has arrived. There is no way of managing a habitat for a species if we don’t know which kind of habitat it prefers.

The catastrophic decline of biodiversity in this country and elsewhere in the world must be halted, and if possible reversed; our own futures depend on it. The simple tasks listed here would begin to help; but there is much much more to be done.

Donkey of the night

African Penguins were originally called Jackass Penguins not too long ago, in fact the bird book that I use for southern Africa includes them under that latter name. I have to admit I’ve always found that name slightly amusing, although I didn’t know why it was applied to Africa’s only breeding penguin until last week at the Stony Point colony.

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The African Penguins have adapted to their higher latitude environment by possessing a pink gland above their eyes, where blood rushes to in hot weather to hasten heat loss.

There are six species of penguins which have been recorded in Africa, predominantly in South Africa. All except for the African Penguin are vagrants. Even the African Penguin is quite localised, restricted by its requirement for predator-free islands or occasionally mainland sites. These mainland sites are always situated between a major town and the sea, to provide a barrier which predators cannot cross. Examples of these mainland colonies include Boulders Beach and Stony Point, with their barriers from predators being Simon’s Town and Betty’s Bay respectively. Therefore these colonies have only established recently as the towns have developed into a sufficient size, in fact both were founded in the 1980s and now contain between 2000 and 3000 penguins.

Stony Point was the colony we visited on our trip to South Africa. I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting to see the penguins in South Africa. It costs only 20 Rand (£1) to enter, and gives access to a long boardwalk which takes you directly through the colony. The penguins come so close that there are times when you are standing immediately above one which has chosen to shelter underneath the boardwalk! There are also a number of information boards along the boardwalk, one of which informed me of the etymology of the ‘Jackass’ Penguin: the species is known for its donkey-like braying sound which it often produces at night!

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Penguins, a section of the boardwalk and the outskirts of Betty’s Bay in the background

Humans have a long relationship with penguins, which has not always been good. This is particularly regarding guano collecting, which was a big business in the 19th century. Guano was very important during that era for farming as a manure to fertilise crops. It lead to the human colonisation of many offshore bird colonies as guano collecting became a full-time job. The problem with this in relation to African Penguins is that they nest naturally in burrows dug into guano, which therefore has to be very deep. If all the guano (often from other seabirds such as Cape Gannets or Cape Cormorants) has been removed by humans, then the penguins have nowhere to nest.

Fortunately, guano is no longer collected from areas where the penguins nest. Although, the guano layers are still not deep enough in many colonies for penguins to dig a nest. At Stony Point, we saw that artificial concrete nests had been installed. These nests are similar to a very large flowerpot lying on its side, half-buried. These have allowed the expansion of the colony where the quantity of guano available would have limited it.

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An example of one of the artificial nests.

There is another threat to African Penguins posed by humans. Sadly, this one is still an ongoing risk and very unpredictable: oil spills. Ships running aground can spill massive volumes of oil, which can severely harm seabird populations. Penguins are at a particular risk as they spend a lot of time near the surface of the ocean where the oil accumulates. The main problem the oil produces is that it impairs the waterproofing capabilities of the birds’ feathers. This exposes the birds to the full force of the water’s cold temperatures leading to hypothermia. Even the lucky ones who make it back to shore face consequences when they attempt to remove the oil from their feathers: it is often ingested and causes damage to the digestive system.

These threats among others have produced a catastrophic decline of 95% since the beginning of the 19th century, when 4 million penguins inhabited South Africa and Namibia. Now, there are only around 50,000 penguins left. At this rate of decline, we could see the extinction of the African Penguin in the wild by the year 2026 – just 8 years away.

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If the trend continues, this chick could be part of the eighth-to-last generation of African Penguins.

Fortunately there are a number of organisations working towards a happy ending for the African Penguin. Among these, SANCCOB is the predominant group performing rescue operations on penguins, particularly those affected by oil spills, while the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has opened the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai which will act as a centre for research and education. I am hopeful that iconic African Penguin’s downward trend can be reversed.

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The Conservationist’s Battleground

It’s just past midday and in the 35 degree heat, we drive along the National Highway-29 with an expanse of wild floodplain to our north and forested highlands to our south. As we pass a small, one-man roadside fortification, a shooting post, we are told about this area’s ever-present war. This is not just a deterrent where untrained local militia shoot at an intruder’s feet to ward them off. Someone was fatally shot here the previous night, as they are every few weeks.

‘The Pride of Assam’ roams the Kaziranga National Park we had just exited. With an alleged higher potency than the horns of its African counterpart, it is in particularly high demand in Asian countries, especially Vietnam, where it is used as a supposed cure for cancer. Its value is highlighted by the risks the poachers will take to harvest it. Approximately the same number of people are killed by the anti-poaching force each year as their quarry are by poachers: the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros.

The Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, also known as the Indian Rhinoceros, is one of five rhino species worldwide, with three being found in Asia. Every species has experienced declines.

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Adult female Greater One-horned Rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park

The Javan Rhinoceros is one of the rarest large mammals in the world. It used to be widespread in south-east Asia, with its range stretching from the Sunderbans in east India, east to the Vietnam coast and south to Central Java. Now, only around 120 years  since it first became locally extinct in India, the sole remaining population inhabits the Ujung Kulon National Park. The park has an area of 1200 square kilometres, of which about a third is marine and supports as few as 60 Javan Rhinos.

The Sumatran Rhinoceros is only slightly less rare. It once had a similar range to the Javan Rhinoceros, and although it didn’t inhabit Vietnam, it was found in Borneo, where one of the four or five populations is located. Although there are more individual populations than the Javan Rhinoceros, these are tiny and probably add up to fewer than 100 individuals.

Fortunately, the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros is approaching 4000 individuals having almost doubled over the past couple of decades. Despite this, as with the other two species we have looked at, the distribution has decreased from a wide band ranging from Pakistan to the easternmost point of India to several scattered pockets in south Nepal, West Bengal and along the Brahmaputra River in Assam; and there is a chance there is a population in the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan.

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One of the first rhinos we saw in Kaziranga National Park

The increase in the population of this species is at least partly due to the work of anti-poachers around the populations of this rhino, particularly around the national parks where many of the rhinos live. Nepal is an excellent example where the holy grail of zero-poaching has actually been achieved, where several very popular species in the markets of Vietnam and other East Asian countries such as Tiger, Asian Elephant and Rhinos live. With almost a quarter of the country assigned as national parks and other protected areas such as Bardiya NP and Chitwan NP, where I was lucky enough to see both Tiger and Rhino several years ago, and a huge commitment from the authorities, it has illustrated that the war against poaching doesn’t have to be an insurmountable battle.

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Inhabitants of the many river sandbanks along the Brahmaputra River. In some places such as near Chitwan National Park, children are being educated about conservation with projects such as Eco Clubs in schools.

In my opinion Kaziranga National Park and other areas in India which support the Greater One-horned Rhino may soon realise the abolition of poaching. If the anti-poaching rangers continue risking their lives to save this magnificent animal, and other approaches such as monitoring and education continue to be implemented, then this rhino may just survive and perhaps even prosper.

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Mother and calf on the misty plains of elephant-grass.

 

 

Technology: Help or Hindrance?

My recent blog post – Youth & Nature: Is There Hope? – sparked a lot of interesting discussion on the role that technology plays in connecting and inspiring young naturalists. I mentioned in the blog post that screens tend to consume hours of young people’s time that could profitably be spent outdoors. However technology clearly has many benefits as well. In this blog post, I’ll mention some of the many ways in which technology is aiding the development of young naturalists.

July 2016, the incredibly popular game Pokemon GO was released. The objective of the game is to go in search of Pokemon characters, and ‘catch’ them. This got hundreds of millions of people outside, doing an activity which could be equated to geocaching. But the problem was, were they really interacting with the natural world, or were they too engrossed in their screens to pay attention?

In my opinion geocaching is much better for getting children outside. It’s like a treasure hunt, where families can follow co-ordinates through wild landscapes to find hidden boxes. Many nature reserves and other wild spaces have geocaches hidden inside, and the fact that you are actively looking for a box in real life rather than on a screen means that you are far more attuned to the natural world around you. And when you’re out there, exploring, looking for geocaches, the chances are that you will bump into some brilliant wildlife.

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Furthermore, technology has been incredibly important in connecting most of the young naturalists I know today. Using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, young naturalists have been able to share their work and discuss ideas. Without a doubt, social media has given many young birders, botanists and all-round naturalists the support they need from others to get them going.

It may be, for some naturalists, that the daunting prospect of identifying things that they see is off-putting. One used to have to spend hundreds of pounds on literature to  master even a single group like fungi before technology. Now on social media like Twitter and Facebook there are accounts, groups and pages especially to help people identify what they have found. One example is the @MothIDUK Twitter page set up by Sean Foote, which answers many ID queries from puzzled naturalists every day. Without a doubt accounts, groups and websites like this are making naturalists’ lives far easier, and allowing them to enjoy nature that extra bit more.

Collins Bird Guide is one of several apps that have increased people’s connection with and knowledge of the natural world.

Finally, there’s no way that I would be writing this blog post without the help of technology. I wouldn’t be able to raise the issues of youth & nature, and the benefits of technology. I’d like to thank people like Calum Urquhart, Dara McAnulty, Megan Shersby, Josie Hewitt and others who reminded me that technology, although it can distract from the natural world, can also be incredibly useful for connecting existing naturalists and inspiring new ones. There are probably several points I’ve failed to mention here; and as technology advances I’m sure that the number of ways in which it benefits naturalists will increase. 

Youth & Nature: Is There Hope?

Only a few decades ago, before the advent of time-consuming technologies such as laptops and phones, getting out and enjoying nature was a thing of normality. Although many young people wouldn’t have considered it in that way, they were exploring the countryside and discovering the environment for themselves, which is what’s important.

In my view and that of many others, technology is the greatest factor that has caused the young people of this millennium to become sheltered from nature. Eyes just cannot be peeled from screens; young people are more often than not interacting with their phone or device rather than the natural world. Quality time needs to be spent away from one’s phones or tablets, however that so rarely happens.

Young people need to look (and be fascinated by) the intricate detail of all living organisms.

Another major reason for the decline in young people making connections to the natural world is over-protective parents. It is clear that there is a difference between the parenting styles of the 20th century to those of the 21st; as the years have progressed so has the reluctance of parents to let their children explore on their own. This has in many cases restricted children’s opportunities to get out and discover.

Ironically, phone technology allows today’s parents to keep a closer tab on their children by means of messaging and trackers. And children who are allowed to roam outside will roam outside. Young people have a natural tendency for exploration, and together with fascinating discoveries such as a bird’s nest or a badger sett, this can cement an interest. This interest will then stay with them, stimulating them to make positive changes later in life for the benefit of our planet.

Exploration allows young people to understand the world around them and build a better connection with nature.

The lack of opportuities for people to positively influence the environment is the aspect that most worries me in the recent decline in young people interested in wildlife. The more people are on their screens the less they can explore, and the less they can learn about how amazing nature can be. Without them realising how fascinating the natural world is, they feel no urge to protect it.

Therefore, I believe that the priority of people interested in the conservation of nature and the environment should be educating the youth of today. They need to be taught the weird and wonderful ways of wildlife so that they can see that nature really should be conserved. Obviously young people are the future of this planet; the future of this planet lies in their hands. We don’t want to see the environment neglected and disrespected in the decades to come, so we need to make it in the best interest of the next generation to preserve it.

Amazing and intimate encounters can stay with a young person for life.

But what can we do to help? We need to ensure that young people are inspired to cherish the world around them. We need to make sure that they are motivated to protect all living things no matter how seemingly insignificant they might be. We need to get them off their screens and instead we need to get them outside and exploring!

Flower of the Illyrians

Yesterday, 2nd September, was the final field meeting of the year for the Sussex Botanical Recording Society at Chailey Common. Chailey Common is a good example of where conservation grazing has been put into place, in order to keep dominant vegetation to a level that won’t swamp more precious flora. Sheep, ponies and cattle are rotated around the commons in order to control plants such as birch, gorse and bramble that will degrade the quality of the heathland habitat if they get out of control.

It was great to see how this conservation grazing was working. It allows smaller and more fragile wildflowers to grow as well as others that may have been at risk from habitat loss. We recorded a good number of scarce and interesting plants, including Heath Milkwort, Scented Agrimony and Lesser Skullcap.

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Scented Agrimony, with subtly notched petals distinctive of this species.

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A flower of Heath Milkwort, so-called as farmers thought that allowing their cattle to feed on this plant would increase milk yields.

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The minuscule flower of Lesser Skullcap.

However there was one stand-out highlight, and that was a small patch of Marsh Gentians. Gentians are often a favourite of photographers as they have a photogenic beauty. I am not a photographer, but I did try my best with the following shots.

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The Marsh Gentian is quite a locally distributed plant, growing on wet heathlands rather than marshes. It does benefit from grazing, which is perhaps why some of its main strongholds are places like the New Forest and Ashdown Forest.

It is one of a number of Gentian species in the UK, in the genus Gentiana, including Autumn Gentian and Field Gentian. On a global scale it is cosmopolitan, with around 400 species; and some species are known to have been used in herbal medicines for quite a variety of ailments. These range from cancer to malaria to parasitic worms, however studies have been conducted that don’t prove that it has any benefits beyond a placebo effect! Despite this, the genus name Gentiana is in honour of the Illyrian king Gentius, who supposedly discovered the plant’s tonic qualities. What it is definitely known to be good for however, is as a dye, especially the Marsh Gentian.

 

Marsh Gentian is my 500th British plant and although summer is now over and most flowering plants are past their peak, there are still late summer and autumn species in bloom. Some of these I hope to see over the next few weeks!