Looking for nature at Nature Matters 2016

From the outside, the David Attenborough building – home of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – is unpromising. Not so much an ivory tower as a concrete one. But the building has a quite literal green heart, for a four-storey living wall takes centre stage in the building’s atrium. Sir David himself abseiled down it at the centre’s official opening earlier this year: not bad for a 90-year-old. The CCI incorporates staff from RSPB, Birdlife, Fauna & Flora International and the IUCN, as well as Cambridge University scientists, so perhaps the true green heart of the building is provided by its human occupants. The reason for my visit was the 2016 Nature Matters conference, hosted in Cambridge this year to add another node to the CCI network.

Arriving early for the second day, I was struck by the irony of the Attenborough building’s surroundings. From the multi-storey car park across the road to the impressively extensive cycle storage facility out the back, there was not a plant to be seen. Not much space for nature, but still, wildlife is often surprisingly resilient. Surely I could find something of interest lurking even here?

I had a short poke around. On the east side of the building, fronds of spiderweb dangled from gaps in the Fibonacci-spiral-themed slate wall. They appeared to be gathering no flies, only a thick grey dust reminiscent of volcanic ash. These spiders must have been early colonising pioneers, but by their current absence had perhaps not been rewarded for their optimism. On a ledge across from the west side, a pair of feral pigeons flapped and jostled. One maintained the higher ground and kept dislodging the other, which would regain a perch further along each time only to be knocked right off again. High wildlife drama? Perhaps not.

So, I think I can safely say that the most engaging vision of nature present during Nature Matters was not the real thing, but that running through the minds and hearts of the conference participants. Through one evening and two days of main sessions and workshops we listened, we watched, we debated, we laughed, we ate, drank and socialised, maybe one or two of us shed a tear or two.

Perhaps it was the presence of the great Sir David himself, but the atmosphere was electric in the final session. Our theme was hope. Contributions from the panel on stage were kept brief, leaving plenty of time for conference delegates to offer their own positive stories from the floor. Attenborough rose to offer some closing remarks, and when he finished, he received a standing ovation. It wasn’t so much for the address he had just given – though it was a fine one – but for the fact of who he was, for his life’s work. And perhaps it was for ourselves too, for each other. A needed fillip, a defiant statement that yes, nature does matter, and what is more, it is within our grasp to secure its future.

Live Long and Prosper?

Live Long and Prosper?

I notice a team of researchers have announced in the journal Science that a population of Greenland sharks contains individuals as old as around 400 years. A few people have raised questions (not explored in the paper) about the potential for old sources of the carbon-14 used in the process to have hung around a long time in the stable Arctic environment, making the sharks appear older than they are. Nonetheless, the ages quoted are pretty incredible if true and even if it’s an overestimate these are likely to be the oldest known vertebrates alive.

The good news for would-be explorers of the natural world marooned in rainy-ol’ Britain is that there are plenty of similar mysteries on our doorstep. We simply need to think a bit smaller! Try about 3mm long, for example. That’s the size of the beetle in the right of the picture below, taken in the University of Reading’s ‘Wilderness’ on the 2nd of August. A few more of its kind, Anaspis costai, were hanging out on the same small cluster of fading hogweed flowers.

Mordellidae sp. (left), Anaspis costai (right), Mirid bug (above) .

I walk past the flowers in question twice a day, once in the morning between 8 and 8:30 and again between 5 and 6:30 in the evening. The following day, a few more A. costai had joined the party – about 8 – and a similar number remained present through the rest of the week. I wondered if they’d remain over the weekend. Sure enough, there they were on Monday morning. And Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday! I say they: how do I know they were the same beetles?! For so many species of insect we don’t even have this kind of basic information. How long do they live, how far will they travel in a day, how far do they disperse over the course of a lifetime?

What I needed to have done was marked as many of them as I could on day 1, perhaps with a tiny blob of enamel paint on the tip of a wing case. That’s what my PhD supervisor Graham Holloway did back in 1987, just around the corner on the same site, with a population of Eristalis pertinax hoverflies. These beetles would make trickier subjects – they’re small and very susceptible to disturbance – so I’d struggle to match the impressive total of 1223 insects marked in the hoverfly study. It would give me some satisfaction just to mark a few, though, and get anywhere towards knowing whether my beetle friends are the same individuals day after day, feeding on the same flower head, or if they represent turnover of newly emerged adults dropping out of the scraggly oak just above. There really are mysteries wherever we look, as insignificant as they may seem in the general scheme of things.


Anaspis costai still present on the same small cluster of flowers, August 10th

Hope in the Wildlands

Hope in the Wildlands

Not long after the turn of the century, one landowner in Sussex made a startling decision: to take an entire 1400 hectare estate out of production and turn it over almost entirely to wildlife. The results have been so good that more and more people are talking about the Knepp estate, and a couple of weeks back I was fortunate enough to go, one of a group of young and youngish (that’s me!) people from the A Focus On Nature network attending a wildlife-packed weekend of walks and workshops. Ostensibly I was there to help run an invertebrate session, but mostly I just felt like an eager participant. I’ve seldom enjoyed the company of such a keen, knowledgeable group of young people and on the whole it was not so much about some teaching others as us all learning from each other.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So what is Knepp like, on first impression? It’s not immediately mind-blowing in terms of wildlife, although the quietness may have had more to do with it being mid-July, in what has been a poor summer for many kinds of insect. I’ve seen more spectacular displays in some British nature reserves. But a fairer comparison would be to any other arable farm in southern England. Compared even to a sympathetically managed farm with plenty of wildlife-rich habitat in the field margins and hedgerows, Knepp abounds with life. Look closely, and some of it is pretty astounding: for example, where else can you see so many purple emperors in a single day?* The abundance of small flies swarming to my head torch after dark ran a close second in the impressiveness stakes, McCarthy-esque insect snowstorms being all too rare a phenomenon, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many young frogs and toads.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The feel of the place is unique too. Even our nature reserves are, for the most part, held static. They have to be: the rare habitats and species they protect have nowhere else to go. At Knepp, scrub comes and goes at will, or rather at the behest of Knepp’s driving force, the free roaming old-breed livestock and deer herds. It’s that ‘free-range’ scrub that has catalyzed the purple emperor explosion, this supposedly woodland-loving butterfly finding its ideal home in vast expanses of sallow (food plant of the emperor caterpillar). It has also proved beneficial for nightingales and turtle doves, species bucking the national trend by increasing at Knepp. Rare plants, invertebrates and fungi are starting to appear too, the varying fates of each part of this vast area of self-willed land facilitating colonisation into a cornucopia of otherwise scarce niches. The Pan-species listers among us were pretty impressed to see a bracket fungus on oak that only occurs in a handful of locations in Europe.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Perhaps the most important thing about the Knepp experiment is that it seems to be finding favour across diverse parts of the U.K. wildlife scene. A few days after our visit a group of staff from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust were there to look around, and were very positive about the estate afterwards in blogs and tweets (worth a read here for more detail on how the project works). It’s a place of pleasing contradictions where everybody can find something to like. Knepp is rewilded (whatever we happen to mean by that), but still a profitable food-producing estate; native wildlife has priority, but pheasants are allowed to persist and are still shot on a small (non driven) scale. Finding common ground between everyday nature lovers and landowning (usually shooting) constituencies has never been more important, for the more these ‘sides’ are at loggerheads the more wildlife will suffer. It challenges assumptions too. I had been cynical about the rewilding movement, perhaps due to a grumpy inclination to distrust anything promoted with evangelical fervour and certainty. At Knepp I saw a form of rewilding translated into the real world – and it works.


A young ash protected by brambles: future hope?

So, is Knepp the future model for UK conservation? Well, it couldn’t happen everywhere and nor do I think it should. As estate owner Sir Charles Burrell noted in his introduction to the weekend, we need our nature reserves to go on acting as reservoirs for rare species. Elsewhere we need to retain plenty of land for farming in the more traditional sense of the word, for arable crops, fruit and vegetables. Man cannot live on expensive, free-range organic meat alone, although those of us who are still carnivores could probably afford to eat much less meat and stick to the good stuff.  It would be instructive to have a whole series of Knepp-like experiments running: some bigger, some smaller, on different soil types, in different parts of the country, some introducing a variety of grazers and some relying on what’s already naturally present. I’d be particularly interested to see it done with a dairy farming estate in the West Country, since thinking and research around farmland wildlife seem to focus overwhelmingly on arable and the east.

I confess I feel uneasy that the only way to achieve this is to rely on the largesse of big landowners. It’s fantastic that Charles Burrell found himself with the land to pursue this vision, but how many others would be willing to follow? One can hardly blame a man for the circumstances of his birth, though, and I should stress that whilst Knepp is private land it is very much open to visitors. It’s very accommodating to ecologists who want to come and study; you can wander across the estate freely on public footpaths and whilst the safaris seem costly they’re really not bad value considering how many hours’ adventure in the company of a knowledgeable guide they represent. The estate was extremely generous to AFON in facilitating our visit.  Nonetheless, it would be great to see similar projects on community- – a ‘co-op Knepp’, if you like – or publicly-owned land. In the meantime I would urge everyone with an interest in the future of wild Britain to go and see what’s happening at Knepp for themselves.

*That’s not actually a rhetorical question: Knepp now has the biggest population of purple emperors in the UK, achieved in about 15 years from a starting position of 0.

With thanks to all the organisers of the weekend, in particular Simon Phelps (AFON), Tony Davis (Butterfly Conservation) and Penny Green (Knepp).

Independent Days

Independent Days

Recent events have rather overwhelmed all of my attempts to write. In May came the awful EU referendum campaign whilst I was also busily working on a PhD upgrading report (hopefully before long I shall be officially allowed to continue!) Then two wonderful weeks travelling by train around the European continent, including a brief stop in at the European Parliament visitors centre. What a time to go! For a literary take on our travels see here. Then of course came the Brexit bombshell. I stirred in my sleep at 4 am on the 24th in a budget hotel in Vienna, blearily read the news on my tablet, simply said ‘oh crap’, rolled over and attempted unsuccessfully to go back to sleep.

Existential uncertainty about Britain’s place in the world is not the only reason I’ve been out of sorts and borderline depressed in the last week, but it can’t have helped. Every evening I sit here and attempt to write my way out of this hole, and get nowhere. So I’m going to turn my attention several thousand miles away to the other side of the Atlantic and say ‘Happy Birthday America!’ instead. Banish all thoughts of Trumpery and the ignorant, redneck, rifle-toting USA of news bulletins and popular legend: I know of no more diverse country, and that in itself is worth celebrating. Any opinion you want to listen to, you’ll find it. Any food you want to eat, you’ll find as fine an example as you could hope for. Any type of climate, landscape, natural wonder: check, check, check.

Having a second continent is beneficial to the making of a naturalist, I think, as much as I would normally like to discourage excess air-travel. I’m grateful to have parts of my life rooted in North America, specifically the USA: a country that for all its flaws is still worth celebrating, all the more so in a week when the flaws of my own native land are all too obvious and painful. It’s given me my wife, my second family, many good friends and countless excellent wild adventures. Regardless of who wins November’s election, I’ll be back: there are many more American adventures on our horizon.


Spring has been in the air for a remarkably long time, considering it’s not even March yet. Now spring is not just in the air but on bookshop shelves! I refer, of course, to the lovely anthology edited by Melissa Harrison and recently published by Elliot & Thompson in conjunction with the Wildlife Trusts. The Wildlife Trust’s website describes Spring thusly:

….some of the most beautiful and eclectic seasonal nature writing – from both celebrated and new authors.

I’m delighted to say that I’m one of those new authors, still getting used to the idea of having my actual name printed in an actual book. It’s a good feeling! Though I haven’t read many of the entries yet – I’m saving it up to use as piece-a-day sort of read throughout the spring months – I can vouch for the quality of those I have dipped into, and happily the book has been receiving very positive reviews. So, it is both my duty and joy to say: why not pick up a copy of Spring?

For those based relatively near to Berkshire, I’d also recommend a spring visit to Moor Copse, the BBOWT nature reserve that inspired by piece about wildflowers.

A Record A Day (January)

A record a day…keeps the New Year’s resolution guilt away?!

Though I deliberately set my sights low this year, I did make the somewhat ambitious pledge to submit at least one biological record for every day of the year.

So far, one month in, I’ve missed a single day: the 29th January is blank. Only two days ago, so I ought to be able to remember something – surely I saw a woodpigeon on campus! – but that would be cheating. It would also be against the spirit of biological recording. Good records are thought through carefully and contain all the minimum information: what, how many, when, where, by-whom. Records of a higher quality still will contain information about life stage, behaviour, activity, host, etc.

For January, birds make up the overwhelming part of my biological record-keeping. Noting what was in flower ensured I threw in a few plants at the beginning of the month, and a few random finds coupled with moth trapping mean invertebrates are starting to get a look in. Hopefully as the year progresses future monthly breakdowns like this will look a bit more balanced. So, here’s the graph. Days of January on the X axis, number of species recorded on the Y.

Continue reading “A Record A Day (January)”

So It Begins

It took me until January 10th to record any invertebrates this year. In bright sunlight what looked like dung flies (Scathophagidae) were basking on the noticeboard at Hosehill Lake LNR, whilst on a neighbouring fence rail numerous springtails were leaping about, among them the distinctive species Orchesella cincta

My first hastily pinned specimen of the year is, as I suspected when I caught it, the Yellow Dung Fly Scathophaga stercoraria. I haven’t had a go at nearly as many fly keys as I have beetle keys. I tend to find flies (besides hoverflies and other distinctively marked ones) all come down to tricky arrangements of bristles poking out of miscellaneous unfamiliar bits of anatomy. Still, there’s something wonderful about all those bristly hairs.

My first yellow dung fly of the year, but by no means the last. This is an enormously common – and variable – species.