A round up of the top countryside, conservation, wildlife and forestry stories as chosen by the CJS Team.
A major five-year study into the impacts of beavers on the English countryside has concluded that the water-living mammals can bring measurable benefits to people and wildlife.
The study focusses upon the work of the River Otter Beaver Trial which has been led by Devon Wildlife Trust, working in partnership with the University of Exeter, Clinton Devon Estates and the Derek Gow Consultancy.
Evidence presented by scientists who have studied the beavers since 2015 has concluded that the “quantifiable costs and benefits of beaver reintroduction [of wild beavers to the River Otter, in East Devon] demonstrates that the ecosystem services and social benefits accrued are greater than the financial costs incurred”.
The ‘Science and Evidence Report’, published today (17 February), is based on research undertaken by a team of scientists overseen by Professor Richard Brazier from the University of Exeter.
It concludes that other wildlife has greatly benefitted from the beavers’ presence, while their dam building activities have also helped reduce the risk of flooding to some flood threatened human settlements.
It also concludes that while beavers have created localised problems for a handful of farmers and property owners, these can be successfully and straightforwardly managed with the right support and intervention.
The 130-page report is published today by the River Otter Beaver Trial and is the culmination of a five-year study of England’s first licensed release of beavers into the wild in England since they were hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago.
The report can now be accessed via the University of Exeter website, and contains links to on-line videos and scientific papers and research reports compiled during the trial period
Scientists from ZSL (Zoological Society of London)’s London HogWatch programme have found hotspots of native hedgehog populations in the north and west of London, compared to the south east of the city.
The research, led by Rachel Cates – an Intern funded by wildlife charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) – and supported by Dr Chris Carbone, Senior Research Fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, involved placing hundreds of camera traps in several green spaces across the capital, from Haringey to Camden and from Southwark to Barnes. The cameras recorded any wildlife spotted over a two-week period throughout 2019.
The largest population found so far in Hampstead Heath in north Greater London, where there were a number of hedgehog records across the park. In the west of London – in the WWT Wetland Centre, Barnes Common, Putney Lower Common, Roehampton Golf Course, the Bank of England Sports Centre and on Palewell Common, 62 sightings were recorded within this area, with hedgehogs spotted on 13 of the 30 cameras set up in the WWT Wetland Centre alone. Hedgehogs were also seen across Barnes and on Putney Lower Common, but their distributions were fragmented.
However, snuffle south east across the city and a different picture is painted in Dulwich Park, Peckham Rye and Common, and Russia Dock Woodland. Only a single hedgehog was detected out of 65 camera locations. From the many records of foxes seen in these areas, it’s clear these areas are generally suitable for wildlife. As hedgehogs and foxes often live side by side, these areas should support hedgehogs, but the team are uncertain why they weren’t recorded. Occasional sightings are recorded in these areas, so it’s possible that hedgehogs are living in the areas surrounding the parks, in private gardens, allotments and school grounds.
Rachel Cates, PTES’ Intern, explains: “Interestingly, the habitat in the green spaces we investigated in the Southwark area is very similar to the areas where hedgehogs appear to be doing well. We don’t know why hedgehogs would be doing so well in some areas, but less so in others, when the habitats look similar. One explanation could be that these areas are isolated from larger green spaces, meaning there’s no safe passages to enable hedgehogs to access these sites from outside.”
Many insects, mosses and lichens in the UK are bucking the trend of biodiversity loss, according to a comprehensive analysis of over 5,000 species led by UCL and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH).
The researchers say their findings on UK biodiversity between 1970 and 2015, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, may provide evidence that efforts to improve air and water quality could be paying off.
“By looking at long-term trends in the distribution of understudied species, we found evidence of concerning declines, but we also found that it’s not all bad news. Some groups of species, particularly freshwater insects, appear to be undergoing a strong recovery,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Charlie Outhwaite (UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and the RSPB).
Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the researchers analysed trends in the distribution of invertebrates (such as insects and spiders), bryophytes (such as mosses) and lichens over a 45-year period, to see whether they were following the same declining trends reported in better-studied groups such as mammals, birds and butterflies.
Across all 5,214 species surveyed, overall occupancy (distribution) was 11% higher in 2015 than in 1970. The researchers were not able to estimate the total numbers of each species, but gauged how well each species was doing by whether its geographic range was expanding or shrinking.
They found substantial variation between the different groups, and between individual species within each group. Among the four major groups studied, only one of them – terrestrial non-insect invertebrates (mainly spiders, centipedes and millipedes) – exhibited an overall trend of declining distribution (by 7% since 1970).
More positively, freshwater insects, such as mayflies, dragonflies and caddisflies, have undergone a strong recovery since the mid-1990s, recently surpassing 1970 levels following a 47% decline from 1970 to 1994. Mosses and lichens have also increased in average occupancy (distribution) by 36%, while terrestrial insects, such as ants and moths, exhibited a slight increase.
Pollinating insects could thrive if improvements are made to agri-environment schemes across Europe, according to a new collaborative study involving scientists from Trinity.
More than 20 pollinator experts from 18 different countries looked at a range of wildlife habitats on farmland– named Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) – to determine how well they support insect pollinators such as bumblebees, solitary bees and hoverflies.
Despite significant investment in EFAs the study – just published in the Journal of Applied Ecology– found they are failing to provide all the resources insect pollinators require.
With over 70% of crops worldwide relying on insect pollinators, it highlights the need to create a variety of interconnected, well-managed habitats that complement each other in the resources they offer.
A decline in the number of insect pollinators has been attributed to intensive farming and the associated loss offlower-rich habitats, which provide food, nesting, and breeding sites.
In a bid to decrease the environmental impact of agriculture, the 2014 EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) defined a set of habitat and landscape features that farmers needed to incorporate in order to receive basic farm payments.
Access the paper: Cole, L. J. et al. A critical analysis of the potential for EU Common Agricultural Policy measures to support wild pollinators on farmland (open access) Journal of Applied Ecology
The efforts of Bisterne Estate in recovering their breeding lapwing (or pee-wit) was given national acclaim this month, with a “highly commended” ranking at the annual Purdey Awards for Game and Conservation, hosted by His Grace the Duke of Wellington at Apsley House in London.
The 4,000-acre Hampshire estate is a partner in the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s LIFE+ Waders for Real project, an EU-funded programme involving scientists, farmers and the local community working together to reverse the decline of breeding waders in the Avon Valley. Since 2015 they have seen annual productivity increase from 0.49 to 0.80 lapwing chicks fledged per pair (lapwing need to produce 0.7 chicks per pair to maintain a stable population). In plain words, that means the lapwing population is self-sustaining at Bisterne. The fact that the estate is bucking the national trend with a growing population of breeding lapwings is a real team effort, but starts with three people intent on making it a haven for waders.
Hallam Mills, whose family have owned the land since 1792, has a passion for making Bisterne a conservation hotspot and has long subscribed to Higher Tier Stewardship. He encourages everyone involved in managing the estate to do so with conservation in mind. Martin Button, the Arable and Environmental Manager, has implemented conservation measures, resulting in good quality water meadow habitat, the right meadow grass length, nectar and pollen mixes, and improved soil quality. The success of their wading birds has been driven by gamekeeper Rupert Brewer, who having seen lapwing decline nationally by over 80% since 1960, was given the chance to do something about it, which he grabbed with both hands!
New WWF campaign reveals British bought produce has hidden costs
Shopping local and buying British should mean our food isn’t destroying natural habitats and killing the creatures that live there - but too often, that isn’t the case. WWF is aiming to change that with a campaign to make importing products that contain deforestation illegal, Let’s get deforestation #OffOurPlates.
The food we eat in the UK is linked to the threatened extinction of an estimated 33 species, including jaguars, giant anteaters and three-toed sloths. Agriculture accounts for nearly three quarters of deforestation in tropical and subtropical countries, and by 2030 a further 1,700,000 km2 of forests could be destroyed if current deforestation rates continue - meaning we will lose the fight against climate change.
WWF figures show that European consumers, including in the UK, eat approximately 61kg of soy a year without realising. For example, even if they’re born and reared in the UK, the majority of pigs and chickens are fed on soy which is grown abroad. The soy fed to animals that produce food mostly comes from South America, where soy production has nearly tripled in the last 20 years. Global production is predicted to double again by 2050.
Unsustainable soy production is responsible for the destruction of rainforests and natural habitats in South America, because it is currently more profitable to clear new land for food production than to use degraded or abandoned agricultural land that already exists.
A lost world wooded habitat - home to wildlife gems such as the rare barbastelle bat and hazel dormouse – is now protected thanks to public support.
The Woodland Trust launched an appeal in autumn 2019 to raise the £1 million needed to take on part of Ausewell in Dartmoor, Devon - and donations came flooding in fast. It will now join the National Trust, who owns the other part of the site, in managing this important wildlife refuge.
Woodland Trust site manager Dave Rickwood said: “It’s very exciting that, thanks to the public’s help, we can complete the purchase of Ausewell Wood and start working with the National Trust to restore this valuable wildlife habitat. It means we can protect this 342 acre lost world with its rugged woodland, vast heath and damp temperate forest. Through our restoration work we will create crucial havens for endangered wildlife species, such as the shy hazel dormouse which nests in the trees and the rare barbastelle bat that roosts in forgotten medieval shafts. Nationally important lichen communities can continue to thrive in the pure atmosphere.”
The two charities have plans to carefully managing the non-native conifer areas to allow nature to recover. This will allow plants and trees from former woodland species to recover and re-colonise the ancient woodland areas, thus supporting a range of climate threatened wildlife.
1,000 gamekeepers show their green credentials through positive action
A new report, which studied the activities of nearly 1,000 gamekeepers has identified the frequently unrecognised high level of conservation that this group of skilled and knowledgeable land and wildlife managers undertake nationally.
This joint survey* undertaken by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO) and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) and analysed by leading research charity, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, shows that modern gamekeepers responding to the survey, manage more than 1,625,000 hectares or more than four million acres of land across England, Scotland and Wales. This equates to about 65% of sites which are designated for conservation such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest SSSI or Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) or Special Protection Areas (SPAs).
Those responding to the survey also provide 23,426 tonnes of supplementary food for farmland birds in winter, they plant on average 47.3 ha or 117 acres of trees, and privately fund more than £2.2 million worth of wild bird cover, which benefits a host of red listed bird species such as yellowhammer and tree sparrow. In addition, 38% of moorland gamekeepers who completed the survey are rewetting moorland, which benefits a host of plants and wildlife and helps to reduce flooding.
The Executive summary PDF can be read here
Funded by Defra, Future Flora aims to provide horticulture and landscape professionals with a biosecure way to grow, procure and specify plants.
Policy makers often talk about the importance of getting the right plant for the right place. But at the moment, it’s almost impossible to know what the right plant is. Our changing climate is a big factor – but researchers have also found that almost all the information we have about plants is either contradictory or out of date.
Worse still, much of the information available to the landscape sectors doesn’t fit seamlessly with digital workflows, undermining our efficiency.
To address these challenges, Future Flora will create new, BIM-compatible data that uses the latest techniques to predict exactly when and why a plant is likely to fail. This increased confidence in plant selection could deliver a step change in the ability of nurseries, landscape contractors, designers and managers to support national policy goals.
Funded by Defra, Future Flora is currently in a public consultation phase, and the researchers are inviting everyone in the landscape sectors to take part in a brief survey.
Defra has set out the details of a review into the way the release of gamebirds on protected sites is managed.
The review will look at areas including the number of gamebirds released and their impact on protected sites, the consenting process, and whether further safeguards could be provided to protect sites. There will be no immediate changes for owners or occupiers of land.
In response to a pre-action protocol letter from Wild Justice in July 2019, last September Defra accepted that in principle the annual release of non-native gamebirds on, or affecting, Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) is capable of constituting a “plan or project” requiring appropriate assessment within the meaning of the Habitats Directive.
Whether they will do so in any given case will depend on whether they may have a significant effect on the specific SPA or SAC in question. This will depend in turn on the nature of the activities, the features and condition of the SPA or SAC, the distance from the SPA or SAC where the activities are carried out and the possible effects of the activities. While not accepting the argument that current laws do not provide for appropriate assessment in such cases, Defra committed to undertake a review to consider the legislative arrangements around the relevant activities and whether there are ways in which their effectiveness could be improved.
Defra will meet with interested stakeholders to give them the chance to input their views into this review. Once the review has concluded, Defra will consult with stakeholders on any substantive changes that are being recommended.
New year-round expeditions to shed light on spectacular Hebridean marine wildlife
Record numbers of volunteers took part in research expeditions organised by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust last year, helping to launch a new year-round programme of monitoring marine mammals and basking sharks in the Hebrides.
For the first time, the conservation charity carried out marine surveys from its specialized research yacht Silurian during the winter months – with crucial data collected every month of the year about the presence and behaviour of some of the country’s most spectacular marine wildlife.
Scotland’s west coast seas are globally important habitats for cetaceans – the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoise – plus the endangered basking shark. But so far there has been little year-round data about these animals in the region.
“Our new winter surveys and the contribution of our wonderful volunteers offer us the opportunity to study the year-round presence and distribution of some remarkable species for the first time,” said Becky Dudley, Marine Biodiversity Officer at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust. “Our established summer expeditions, when most species are present in Hebridean waters, remain vital. But embarking on year-round surveys will shed new light on marine wildlife, and help us answer questions such as whether minke whales are present in the Hebrides all year, and if distribution of harbour porpoise changes between summer and winter.”
As well as increasing understanding of cetacean and basking shark behaviour, this groundbreaking research helps detect trends and changes in the marine environment – including increases in underwater noise pollution and emerging threats like entanglement. All of this scientific evidence can then be used to inform action to protect marine wildlife.
In 2019, Silurian covered over 5,000 nautical miles during 23 research expeditions – stretching from as far north as Cape Wrath, south to Islay and Jura, and as far west as the Flannan Isles. Highlights during 2019 included two exciting encounters with killer whales. One was with Busta, a well-known male from a group called the Northern Isles Community, mainly seen around Orkney, Shetland and Scotland’s north coast. The other, off Ardnamurchan, was with males John Coe and Aquarius – part of a pod known as The West Coast Community, which is most often seen in the Hebrides and is at imminent risk of extinction.
Puffin numbers on the remote Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, appear to be stable despite extreme rainfall threatening numbers, a National Trust survey has found.
There were fears that the population would be affected after devastating rainfall flooded numerous burrows on the islands last year. On 13 June at least 300 young puffins - called pufflings - died when 5in (12cm) of rain fell on the islands in just 24 hours. However, the survey, which involved checking a proportion of burrows, revealed only a marginal decrease in the population, with a total of 43,752 breeding pairs recorded in 2019, less than a 0.5% decrease on the results from the 2018 survey.
National Trust ranger, Thomas Hendry says: “When we were hit by such heavy rainfall we were really concerned that numbers would be significantly affected, which given these birds are declining in numbers across the world was a devastating prospect. However, it appears that we had enough pufflings hatch successfully to literally weather the storm, and we can conclude numbers appear to be stable.”
Puffins have traditionally done well on the Farnes thanks to the work of the rangers, protection of the marine areas around the islands, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas. Numbers on the islands have increased over the past 26 years, with 37,710 pairs recorded in 1993. Numbers then peaked at 55,674 pairs in 2003 before a sudden crash in 2008 when extremely low numbers of sandeels – their preferred food supply - meant the number of breeding pairs dropped by a third, before slowly recovering.
To gain better understanding of what’s happening, the 11 strong ranger team have begun monitoring the puffin population annually, having previously carried out the survey once every five years.
The decline in Scotland’s breeding seabird numbers may be slowing down, a new report suggests.
The latest biodiversity indicator published by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) uses data largely collected by volunteers to look at numbers of 11 species of breeding seabird.
The results show that, having declined by more than 30% from 1986 to 2011, population levels have since remained fairly stable.
Overall numbers have declined by an average of 32% since 1986. Only two of the species have maintained or increased in breeding numbers over the period (common gull and common tern).
Arctic skua, whose breeding stronghold is the Northern Isles, has experienced the largest decline of 78%. Their decline has been linked to changes in the availability of sandeels, which has also affected Northern Isles populations of kittiwakes and terns. Declines are also apparent for herring gull and great-black backed gulls across Scotland.
While below earlier levels, there are signs of some populations such as guillemot and black-legged kittiwake stabilising, with some colonies showing increases.
Common tern and Arctic tern numbers increased since the last report. Terns are known to be highly variable in breeding numbers and it is too early to say if this trend is going to continue.
Seabirds are not only vulnerable to changes in the seas around Scotland, many migrate across the Atlantic and technology is beginning to improve our understanding of their movements.
Local ecologists have carried out a survey and condition assessment of ‘priority habitats’ across ten parishes in the Westmorland Dales area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
A total of 40 square kilometres was surveyed, with 60 landowners granting access to the ecologists. Just over a quarter (10.2km2) of the land surveyed was identifiable as priority habitat. Sixteen priority habitats, including blanket bog, limestone pavement, native semi-natural woodland and upland hay meadow, were found. Only areas outside of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which are monitored by Natural England, were included in the survey.
Member Champion for the Natural Environment at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Ian McPherson, said: “The survey has given us a substantial amount of information on the state of priority habitats in the Westmorland Dales outside SSSIs. As it was the first survey of its kind to take place in the area, we do not know if the condition of the habitats is getting better or worse. That said, the results show that only a small proportion of priority habitat in the Westmorland Dales area of the National Park is in good condition. Of particular concern is the apparent drying out of blanket bog, which appears to be reverting to acid grassland. I would like to sincerely thank all the landowners who gave access to their land. Getting this data is the first step on the path to nature recovery. The information will be used not only to plan biodiversity conservation work, through programmes such as the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership, but also to help farmers to access funding through national agri-environment schemes. There is so much urgent work that can and must be done to stem the loss of priority habitat, and restore what remains.”
David Tickner, Jeffrey J Opperman, Robin Abell et al Bending the Curve of Global Freshwater Biodiversity Loss: An Emergency Recovery Plan, BioScience, biaa002, doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biaa002
McLachlan Jessica R. and Magrath Robert D. Speedy revelations: how alarm calls can convey rapid, reliable information about urgent danger Proc. R. Soc. B. doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.2772
Schwenk Kurt and Phillips Jackson R. Circumventing surface tension: tadpoles suck bubbles to breathe air Proc. R. Soc. B doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.2704
Ross T. Shackleton, Llewellyn C. Foxcroft, Petr Pyšek, Louisa E. Wood, David M. Richardson, Assessing biological invasions in protected areas after 30 years: Revisiting nature reserves targeted by the 1980s SCOPE programme, Biological Conservation, Volume 243, 2020, 108424, ISSN 0006-3207, doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108424.
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