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.

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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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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!

Starting a Herbarium

For centuries botanists have been collecting specimens of the plants they observe. If done correctly, botanical specimens can last for a very long time. For example, the Angela Marmont Centre at the Natural History Museum has specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Specimens can be very useful in documenting regional variation and how a species has changed over time.

Last weekend I was out with the South-east branch of the British Bryological Society recording mosses and liverworts at Devil’s Dyke, north of Brighton. As is often the case, however, one of the highlights of this field trip was in fact not to do with the subject of our search! Once we had passed through a section of Ash woodland on our walk we came to a lovely crystal-clear chalk pond. Despite few bryophytes around the pond’s edges the pond was full of life, including several water plants. Most common was the Ivy-leaved Duckweed, Lemna trisulca, and there were also a few Potamogeton natans plants as well. However what really caught our eye was a very beautiful looking pondweed with a lovely texture and colour that was unfamiliar to me but not for the other members. They identified the pondweed as Groenlandia densa, otherwise known as the Opposite-leaved Pondweed.

Groenlandia densa is not a very common species and is sadly declining in Britain. This is mostly due to urbanisation, and therefore it is missing from the vast majority of London. It has also declined due to a factor known as eutrophication which is the presence of excessive nutrients in a water body. This is most commonly caused by run-off from the nearby land, and it creates a dense growth of plant life which can potentially displace species that cannot compete. Due to this decline, it was suggested that I collect a piece of the pondweed, in case it becomes a very rare species and little material for herbariums could be found without damaging a population.

It is easy for anyone to start preparing plant specimens; little specialist equipment is needed. This is all that is needed for a beginner to make a good quality specimen:

  • newspaper
  • heavy books
  • a dry environment
  • good quality card
  • PVA glue
  • printed labels

And these are the steps I went through to create my pondweed specimen:

  1. Lay out the specimen on half of a full double page spread of newspaper in a way that should show as many features as possible.
  2. Once the plant is in a good position, fold over the other page of the double page spread.
  3. Add some more sheets of newspaper to the top and bottom of the folded newspaper with the specimen inside.
  4. Put the newspaper on a hard, flat surface.
  5. Place a few heavy books on top of the newspaper.
  6. Leave the specimen until it is sufficiently dry and flat, this could take a few weeks or only a few days, but don’t overdo it and don’t leave it for too short a period.
  7. Once the specimen is ready carefully take it out from the newspaper and lay it out on your piece of card making sure that it shows the necessary features. Remember to leave room for a label!
  8. Using PVA glue or any other glue recommended by botanists, stick the specimen down on the card. PVA glue dries clear so don’t worry too much if you get some on the card where you don’t want it.
  9. Fill in a label. Ideally the label should show as much information about the plant as possible: species; family; collection number; locality (grid reference, name of site, nearest town, county etc.); habitat; collector’s name; date of collection; and also note down features of the plant that may have been lost in the drying process.
  10. Finally, and optionally, you could also attach a small paper envelope to the specimen containing dried fruit/seeds that would have been ruined in the pressing process.

And there you have your specimen! This is what my pondweed looked like before and after collecting, pressing and mounting:

This is not the only specimen I have so far collected. At the beginning of the summer, as part of my interest to record the slightly trickier-to-identify species, I collected a couple of Bramble (Rubus) species. These were the first specimens I collected and I was quite pleased with the result. However, they weren’t good enough. After I had dropped them off at the Angela Marmont Centre at the Natural History Museum, Dr David Allen kindly looked at them for me. Unfortunately they were lacking some necessary features vital in identification, such as a section of the first year growth. Using his advice, I went out recently and collected a specimen of a particularly late-flowering Bramble, and this was the result:

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I will also attach with the specimen a couple of photos of the plant before it was collected:

This shall hopefully even further aid identification and maybe contribute to the understanding of this poorly known group.

Many groups are overlooked, because they are tricky to identify or they are too small or they need specialist equipment to collect. Some examples are dandelions, a nightmare of identification; desmids, microscopic algae; and parasitic wasps, also very difficult to identify. This results in these groups being little-known as few people are willing to try to find and identify them. This leads to under recording of species that are probably common, creating deceptive data. One of my aims is to try and master these very difficult groups and hopefully make a difference.

Britain’s Rarest Fish

Yesterday I arrived back from a week-long trip to the Lake District, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The landscape of the Lake District, with all the fells and lakes, is absolutely stunning, but so is the wildlife. In this post I will be writing about 2 of the fish that we saw on our trip, out of the 4 new species I have so far added to my Pan-species list. I am very pleased with the addition of these new species as it raises my fish list from only 7 to 11. Despite this still meagre total, I am very proud to say that following my trip I now have the 2 rarest fish in the British Isles on my list, the Schelly and the Vendace!

Schelly

The Schelly is a very rare fish , being endemic to the United Kingdom and even Cumbria. In fact it is only found in four lakes worldwide, Red Tarn, Haweswater, Brotherswater and Ullswater, and is classified as endangered. The combined area of those lakes forms the species’ area of occupancy, which is a tiny total of 20 km². That’s equivalent to half the size of Portsmouth!

During our trip to the Lake District we visited two of the lakes where the fish lives, Haweswater and Ullswater. In Haweswater, the population has been in decline unlike the other 3 lakes where the population is stable. According to the website of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Redlist, which assesses species trends etc. and assigns them a category such as endangered or vulnerable, the two main reasons for the decline of the Schelly from the reservoir is water abstraction and predation from the humble cormorant. Water abstraction is the taking of water, permanently or temporarily, from a water body. The fact that Haweswater is a reservoir means that water abstraction is often practised, and this process can harm the environment. The good news is that conservation actions are taking place to conserve the Schelly, namely reducing water abstraction in Haweswater and taking control measures on Cormorants, according to the IUCN website.

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Clouds looming over Ullswater

Vendace

Now, the Vendace is the rarest fish in Britain. As a native species, confined to only two lakes globally, both in the Lake District, and introduced to one more in Scotland. The combined area of the two lakes where it is found in the Lake District is just 9.9 square km, making its native distribution area 10 times smaller than Paris! The Vendace used to be found in two further lakes, both in Scotland, however both populations were extirpated due to eutrophication. Eutrophication is the excessive abundance of nutrients in the water of a lake which causes very dense growth of plants. Eutrophication is often due to run-off from the surrounding land.

The main threats to the population of Vendace is the Ruffe, an introduced fish which feeds on the eggs of the Vendace. However, the Ruffe has only been introduced to Lake Bassenthwaite, not Derwentwater, the other lake in which it inhabits. Luckily there aren’t any clear threats to the population in Derwentwater, and fishing of this species has been banned. The Bassenthwaite population of this species even seems to be increasing. The species was declared locally extinct in Bassenthwaite in 2008 after the last fish had been recorded in 2001, but had been rediscovered a few years ago. It is possible that the fish found in Bassenthwaite come from the Derwentwater population and had travelled down the river from Derwentwater to Bassenthwaite.

The introduced population in Scotland, in Loch Skene, is doing very well, with a larger population than Derwentwater. The precise figure is nearly 10 times more Vendace per hectare than in Derwentwater, which is excellent! The species was introduced to Loch Skene when the population in Bassenthwaite Lake was seen to be very unstable due to the severe decrease in the habitat quality in the lake. This is a very good example of a successful conservation action.

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Looking across Derwentwater

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The gravel shores where I saw the young Vendace

I’m very pleased to have had the privilege to have seen these two fish as they are both in danger of extinction. Before I visited the lakes where these two fish are found I had no idea either of them even existed. Rare species like this are usually extremely poorly known by the general public and they don’t get the publicity that they deserve as they aren’t all that impressive, like tigers or pandas. However, just because they aren’t impressive it doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be saved from extinction. I think we should raise more awareness for these not very well known species in order to conserve them for future generations to cherish and enjoy.

What my grandkids might not be able to see – Foxes

Some people might think that the Fox is an unusual choice as something my grandchildren might not be able to see. They are so common they can even be found in cities, right? But they’re wrong. Foxes can be found in today’s cities, but what about the cities in half a century? The only reason Foxes hang on in cities is because there are spaces  for them to shelter and there is lots of food to be found on the street. But cities will develop – that’s inevitable. Cities will become neater, leaving no shelter. Cities will become cleaner, leaving no food. That’s another habitat lost.

I am incredibly lucky to have foxes breeding in my quiet village. This year for the first time I have seen cubs, three of them, run past my living room window while I’m watching Countryfile, so young and full of life. But as all cubs do, they’ll grow older and have to fend for themselves away from their parents’ territory. But dispersing is like an assault course – they have to cross road after road before they reach unoccupied suitable habitat.

Even though there will be much less suitable habitat in the future and fewer Foxes will survive to adulthood, there is still some hope left. Our Fox family has chosen an excellent place to live as there’s lots of food on offer. A house down the road feeds them chicken and we often see a Fox trot past the window, looking content and with a huge chicken breast in its mouth. However, I wouldn’t advise feeding Foxes, especially if you have limited time. If you start feeding them they will come to depend on you, but sooner or later you’ll be absent for a long period of time or even move house, leaving no food for the Foxes. A way you can help though, is by being careful when driving in the evening. Our Foxes come out at anytime after 8pm, sometimes earlier. Drive slower, always watch the road and if it is dark then put your headlights on as soon as the sun sets.