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The annual Christmas urban melee for presents is over. Waistlines, expanded to bursting point are now forced into post-indulgence exercise programmes. New presents lie discarded and recycling bins are fit to burst with wrapping paper and packaging. Religious leaders typically bemoan the hijacking of the traditional message of Christmas by commerce in a festival of consumption, but recently I’ve had cause to challenge my thinking. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief Introduction to Mankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that we are now nearest to world peace thanks to the mutual cooperation necessary to satisfy our urge to purchase. Could it be that the this mutually-shared religion of consumption has probably done more for world peace than any of the more formally recognised religions.
Challenging your own viewpoint from time to time is really important. Its very easy to get set in your ways or indeed jump upon the most current wave of thinking without asking yourself what evidence you have for your belief.
I find myself, like many others, outraged by the destruction our developed and developing nations’ lifestyles are wrecking on habitats and species. There is good evidence that our capitalist-consumer lifestyles are the main driver of the sixth great extinction of earth’s biodiversity, the so-called Anthropecene Defaunation. Humans haven’t suddenly become environment wreckers through consumption though; we were ever thus. The anthropologist Jared Diamond here states that it is “clear that the first arrival of humans at any oceanic island with no previous human inhabitants has always precipitated a mass extinction in the island biota”. The problem now is a question of scale In 12,000 BCE the human population numbered between 5-10 million. Global population is now over 7 billion and is predicted to hit 11billion by the end of the century.
I thoroughly recommend Sapiens to anyone with an interest in why we are who we are today and what we are becoming- in Harari’s view not Homo sapiens for much longer if biotechnology advances continue on the current pace. There are some thought-provoking ideas in this book about the evolution of thinking (cooking food allowed the development of bigger brains); about storytelling (myths and stories are essential for allowing larger communities and trusting others who you don’t have a direct relationship or face to face contact with); and about happiness (why in broad biological terms a C15th peasant is no less happy than a C21st banker- the chemical response to stimulus that makes us happy is the same, even if the things that make us happy have changed).
Some of the most enlightening and challenging chapters for me were about the development of our modern society and in particular the concept of money and credit and how the development of these pillars of the modern world underpin the scientific revolution and the discovery of new worlds.
Harari’s theory on consumerism is that the relative peace of the modern world is due in large part to shared goals around commerce. We have all come to share, whether we like it or not, the Capitalist-Consumer ‘religious’ outlook and because of this our fellow human being is worth more to us alive than dead- its a nonzero-sumgame; the ability to cooperate brings both parties more gain than a win-lose landscape of conflict. The ideas are also explored by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and in this TED talk .
One might argue, as George Monbiot does in his recent book Feral (an excerpt from it here) that the collapse of human society into conflict in the past provided biodiversity gains. But recent studies in Africa have shown that conflict poses a serious threat to the environment (Shambaugh et al 2001 The Trampled Grass_ Mitigating the impacts of Conflict on the Environment).
But this attempts to take humanity out of the equation within ecosystems, and I’m not an advocate of this. We have ourselves evolved with every other species on this planet to the place we find ourselves in today. Our consumptive behaviour which is defaunating the globe is no less ‘unnatural’ than the impacts of any other ecosystem engineer. As resources for our own survival are threatened it will necessitate a behaviour change or we risk our own extinction, as Jared Diamond has shown in his book Collapse. What is different is the insight we have into this process; one hopes, perhaps in vain, that our species might have gained enough insight into our role in structuring the global environment that we have the will to step back from the brink before self-preservation forces us to.
Without the intervention of technology to open up new horizons or exploitation (other worlds/worlds within worlds), resources expire and violent competition begins again. The Guardian Newspaper reported that US director of national intelligence warned in 2012 that overuse of water is a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security.
The evolution of the behaviour of our species needs to find another story that binds us together in mutual cooperation without exploiting our environment to destruction . There is an argument that mutual cooperation between people and our societies is essential to provide the framework necessary for a more sustainable future. And a globalised world is a perfect tool for rapid dissemination of big ideas.
Undoubtedly the biggest shift needed is a change in consciousness that sees our own survival as part of and not separate from the well-being of other species. While we have moved over the course of our existence from protectors of the family and the clan we need to extend our circle of concern past the barrier of species to find mutually cooperative links with other organisms and ecosystems.
457 Species and counting!
I love Bioblitz!
Not all of my time is spent out and about on Surrey’s rivers or wetlands searching for the illusive otter and water vole, or creeping along my beloved hedgerows for dormice, stoat or orange-spotted elm-lichen. So when the moment arrives when I can spend 24 hours in the field with my colleagues, sharing my craft, trying out new skills and meeting new species, what would normally be a weekend at work becomes a learning experience.
We are joined in our Natural Geekery by specialists and amateur naturalists who add yet more opportunity to revel in the splendor and complexity of the natural world. Oh and to count stuff! Fox moths, rabbit poo, four spotted chasers, pilot whales (sadly no records yet for Wisley and Ockham), adders, goldfinches, scorpionflies, grey long-eared bats, crane flies and on and on.
Our numbers are finally swelled by throngs of wildlife lovers come for a day out on a wonderful heathland site they may not have visited before, to share with us in the translucent wonder of a newly emerged four spotted chaser’s Libellula quadrimaculata wing or the cryptic camoflage of a Buff Tip Phalera bucephala. Suddenly we are not lonely denizens of the dark corners of society. Everyone here is captivated by wildlife and the sometimes dramatic (an upland mire), sometimes mundane (a garden pond or bird table) landscape we share.
In my more playful moments I imagine these 24 hours sit somewhere between a sci-fi convention and a group therapy session. We all go home with our eyes open, our lives enriched, our sense of wonder renewed. Our Geek groved.
This is the second time out for Surrey Wildlife Trust after last years event in the sizzling sunshine at Norbury Park, near Dorking. I was in my usual role with Surrey Mammal Group https://www.facebook.com/SurreyMammalGroup conducting mammal surveys with SWT Mammal Officer Dave Williams and our SWT/ Mammal Group colleague/ Chobham Common Ranger Darren Brito. At 7pm on Saturday we put out 80 Longworth traps at locations around Pond Farm with 11 keen volunteers embracing grassland, scrub and wetland habitats. Last year at Norbury Park we had transects through grassland, woodland and along hedgerows and as predicted the hedgerows won the day with much more captures and a higher diversity of species. Hedgerows are ace, and here is a plug for Hedgelink https://www.hedgelink.org.uk
I was expecting a good haul of field voles Microtus agrestis after a recent visit to Pond Farm on a tip-off that our elusive water voles Arvicola terrestris might be present, revealed a very healthy population of their smaller cousins.
Dave had to break off early to lead badger watching, which despite the appearance of our two-tone friends on trap cameras earlier in the week, proved fruitless. I joined the bat walk led by Mike Waite and Nicky Williamson as they picked up some Common Pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus, then headed up to check out the Brown Long-Eared Bat roost Plecotus auritus in Hut Hill Cottage. The bats emerged right on cue, exiting straight out of the rood up into the trees
Walking back through the heathland landscape of Wisley Common I joined a gathering of friends around a moth trap where I stayed till nearly 2pm. The wind was gusting and it was generally not a good night for moths down near Pond Farm, but we managed to attract some wonderful beasties, my favourites being the Lime Hawk Moth Mimas tiliae, Light Emerald Campaea margaritata, Fox Moth Macrothylacia rubi, and Flame Shoulder Ochropleura plecta.
I slept very well in my tent (last used in the Peaks two weekends before) despite the constant roar of traffic on the M25. I dozed off wondering if we’ll ever get a green bridge or two built across it. Its a crime they weren’t built into the original plans. I woke at 5am and felt surprisingly ready for the day ahead.
Twenty keen volunteers turned up at 5:30 the next morning to begin checking traps, all bleary eyed and expectant. I usually love the way tiredness turns into excitement as the captures start rolling in, but as empty trap followed empty trap I realised it wasn’t going to be our year. In April I had organised some trapping at Parsonage Meadow with Alison, Nick and Tony- Guildford Borough Council Wardens who had been on my Mammal Society http://www.mammal.org.uk Mammal ID course at FSC Juniper Hall http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/juniperhall.aspx which had turned up 1 wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus in 60 traps! Laura from The Mammal Society had also been in touch with the news that returns on their Mini Mammal Monitoring scheme were low. In total we caught 3 mammals, but the good news was that they were 3 different species: wood mouse, bank vole Myodes glareolus and yellow- necked mouse Apodemus flavicollis. The latter was a new record for the site, and not as common as the wood mouse, so that was some consolation.
I had just enough time after finishing mammal trapping to grab some food and a coffee before I was due out with Jamel Guenioui and James Herd- both SARG http://www.surrey-arg.org.uk/SARG.asp members- for a reptile survey. I was really looking forward to this because It had been a long time since I’d formally surveyed for reptiles as a consultant ecologist, and during my up-coming trip to Romania I’d be leading groups of students on surveys.
When beginning a survey I always breath in deeply and then make a long exhale. Its an attempt to really focus the mind and the eyes on the task ahead, an exercise in mindfulness http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness. What is important is in front of me now, and thoughts about the past or future are distractions.
It wasn’t long before we had our first slow worm Anguis fragilis, a male, warming beneath one of the refugia James had set up. We caught another, a female this time, together with a grass snake Natrix natrix and a juvenile palmate newt Lissotriton helveticus, almost translucent in his newness. Happily our group had a few dedicated passionate young reptile experts. If it wasn’t for Jeremy (age 12?) we would have missed the adder Vipera berus, which most of us walked past. After the survey I gave him my Reptile Expert badge which he thoroughly deserved for the spot.
There was so much going on when I got back to Base Camp. Heathland plant surveys, dragonfly walks, bird ringing, but I had to lead a mammal tracks and signs walk. This was a novelty for Bioblitz really because its less about ticking off new species and more about taking the first steps in learning to interpret the signs you see. Sort of CSI Bioblitz!
Our first stop was a rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus warren- fairly mundane you might think, but they are an example of a common species that are overlooked in many surveyors’ records. Perhaps more importantly they should represent a source of records for the elusive Mustelidae meso-predators: weasels Mustela nivalis , stoats Mustela erminea and polecats Mustela putorius. I was really disappointed we found no evidence of at least the first two on our walk. I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see evidence of polecats, though they are colonizing from the west and we are keeping an eye out for them.
Happily the rabbits introduced us to a new concept, coprophagy where rabbits extract excess amount of nutrition from grass by giving their food a second pass through the gut. In short, they eat their own poo! We did find roe deer Caproelus capreolus tracks, and a badger Meles meles latrine and “push” under a fence, with the coarse guard hairs of the badger trapped in a barb on the wire.
It does worry me though, the lack of these small mustelid predators. They are elusive but from anecdotal evidence talking to colleagues. they are rarely seen. I see the problems caused by rabbits preventing coppice regrowth and damaging trees and bemoan the lack of meso-predators and foxes!
As the day drew towards its close I bumped into my nephew and neice Tarn (4) and Nova (7) with their Dad (its okay Nick I won’t tell), who had been enjoying the day while I was busy on surveys. They helped me release some of the inverts from the pond dipping. Tarn asked me “Why do you have to look after wildlife” and “I replied I don’t have to, I want to”.
There are of course so many answers to that question, not least “Somebody has to!” but a short one was best in the afternoon sun and with animminent ride on the horse drawn cart. It seemed to satisfy him for a while, hopefully he’ll come back to me with more questions soon!
Bioblitz 2013 ended in a warm glow of sunshine that fitted perfectly with my sense of satisfaction. There was also only a week to go before I departed on a 7 week Bioblitz in Transylvania with Operation Wallacea.There is an incredible amount of effort that goes into Bioblitz and we have mostly the organisational prowess of Katy Gower, SWT Events Manager, to thank for it. I’m looking forward already to Bioblitz 2014, but I suspect Katy will need time to recover first before we start planning,
Where on Earth will it be? Somewhere in wildlife -rich Surrey no doubt!
Today I’ve been lucky to have two very different yet related experiences of Surrey Rivers and has underlined for again the importance of a vibrant and varied landscape for our wellbeing.
This morning and into the early afternoon I’ve been walking the River Mole with the second batch of 13 RiverSearch volunteers teaching them how to undertake walkovers to assess the status of a river for Water Framework Directive issues such as diffuse pollution and barriers to fish movement. We set up RiverSearch recently on behalf of the Wey Landscape Project to offer volunteers a way to become more connected with their local river and at the same time meet the need for more information about the status of rivers and the wildlife using them.
We started the day with talks at the Juniper Hall Field Studies Centre where staff are always friendly and helpful despite the fact they are themselves very busy with school groups most of the time. Then we moved over to Norbury Park and followed a stretch of the Mole into Leatherhead, recording the pathways for siltation and pollution, barriers to fish passage and the presence of non-native species like Himalyan Balsam. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the river was alive with Banded Demoiselles, chubb, trout and even a kingfisher. All the volunteers seemed happy with the day and are looking forward to taking on their own stretch of river to survey.
This evening I was down on the River Wey where I was challenged to change my view of the river, almost swapping over the half of my brain I was using! University of Surrey Theatre Studies students are holding performances of their piece called One Of Number as part of their Footprints festival from 5-7 June. Starting at the Britannia Pub near Millmead I walked up the River towards Godalming
with 15 others and was treated by 11 performances writen and acted by students which together explored the nature of experience and meaning as we our flow through our lives. We were welcomed to the Wey by a traveller who followed the rivers from her home in Wales ( I now have a stone from her home river). We were tracked from the opposite bank – i felt almost hunted-by the performers themselves-living storiesif you like-who were in a mixture of tatty linen and cordury with a victorian cut and seemingly washed in the silty water of the river. They shared stories about an attempt to save a drowning man; the lives of walkers who had cut their names into the bridge beneath St Catherines Hill; a King whose grip on power was as precarious and as doomed as his position on the hillside above as the golden sands shifted beneath his feet even as we listened; we met a woman paralysed by indecision over the choice to wait for the lover she abandoned or go and find him, paralysed by the fear she had lost him forever. Throughout the walk the river connected these disparate yet linked experiences; the river sperated lives of others experienced on the other bank and our own experiences forged by the impression of our own two feet in the sandy soils, recalling for me that old celtic adage:
“where is the centre of the world?”
“Between your own two feet”
Life can only be lived in the present after all, but its experiences can be told and retold, and each time we might find something new.
Its reminded me the importance of storytelling in my own work to protect our natural spaces. Not everyone is in tune with wildlife and the natural world in a direct way, but in each of the stories i heard this evening, a sense of place, a sense that all our lives are interactions with the landscape around us emphasises the importance of a rich and varied environment to stimulate our minds and enrich our lives.
In exactly three weeks time I will have arrived in the Romanian province of Transylvania and will be getting to know the rest of the Operation Wallacea team with whom I’m to spend the next month-and-a-half. Its not a country I’ve visited before, or even know much about, except through Bram Stoker and Hammer Horror films, and while immensely entertaining probably not the best introduction to a country which is one of Europe’s largest, with a rich mixture of cultures including ethnic Romanians, Magyars, Germans, Russians, Ukranians, Serbs, Slovaks, Bulgars, Gypsies, Turks and Tatars. As a lover of stories, I think I’m in for a real treat.
I’m going to Romania as a mammal ecologist on the first Operation Wallacea expedition to Tarnava Mare to provide annual data on a series of biodiversity performance and farming criteria that need monitoring on the ground. This data will be used to test the effectiveness in maintaining the traditional farming practices and in protecting the biodiversity in this outstanding area. The work is being completed with ADEPT, a Romanian based NGO and with Oxford University Biodiversity Institute -are responsible for the satellite monitoring of change in habitats and farming practices (eg crops, field size, hedgerow length).
Sighisoara-Târnava Mare is a Site of Conservation Importance declared under the EU Habitats Directive and is one of the most important High Nature Value Farmed Landscapes in Europe. It is characterised by traditionally managed dry grassland habitat type which are threatened in Europe in a mosaic with ancient oak and beech forests. Unspoiled villages centred on fortified churches lie peacefully in the valleys. Traditional farming is carried out in ecological balance with nature. This landscape supports an astonishingly rich wildlife of plants, birds, mammals and insects.
A significant part of the habitats in the project area are either abandoned or overgrazed for economic reasons. Farmers do not get sufficient economic return for managing them traditionally. Overgrazing causes loss of species richness. Abandonment leads to the spread of thorny scrub, and accumulation of dead grassy material. In both cases, loss of habitat condition of grazing land and in hay meadows leads to loss of associated flora and fauna including important bird and butterfly species. These effects are obvious but still easily reversible by re-establishment of traditional management.
Operation Wallacea (OpWall)
runs a series of biological and conservation management research programmes that operate in remote locations across the world. These expeditions are designed with specific wildlife conservation aims in mind – from identifying areas needing protection, through to implementing and assessing conservation management programmes. OpWall concentrates large teams of academics with specialisms in various aspects of biodiversity or social and economic studies at the target study sites giving volunteers the opportunity to work on a range of projects. In each country, a long-term agreement is signed with a partner organisation to achieve a survey and management development programme at each of the sites.
ADEPT’s mission is to preserve these Hign Nature Value Farmlands by promoting nature friendly farm management with local involvement and local benefits. They deliver a package of measures aimed at educating local communities in the practices that maintain high biodiversity value landscapes which in turn provide benefits for people (ecosystem services).
I have trained as an ecologist with a special interest in the role that connectivity plays in supporting biodiversity in fragmented landscapes. My current work as the Living Landscape Officer for Surrey Wildlife Trust involves the delivery of a landscape that is rich in opportunities for both people and wildlife. At the heart of my work is the education of local communities to deliver an ecologically coherent landscape rich in wildlife. In this the goals of Surrey Wildlife Trust are very similar to those of ADEPT
This expedition will be a chance for me to learn from my conservation colleagues at ADEPT about the tools that they use to promote biodiversity and engage their community. I hope through my own skills and experiences to enrich their work too. I am very much looking forward to meeting the much richer mammal fauna of the region- probably species like the white toothed shrews (Crocidura spp) , the southern birch mouse Sicista subtilis and the European suslik Spermophilus citellus but perhaps if I am fortunate the Steppe Polecat Mustela eversmannii and if I’m inappropriately unfeasibly jammy a Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx, Grey Wolf Canis lupus or Brown (Grizzly) Bear Ursus arctos.
I’ll be posting blogs as much as internet connection and charging points allow (I am taking a freeloader for solar charging), so sign up for updates and join me on what I hope will be a thrilling and educational trip.
Fundatia ADEPT http://www.fundatia-adept.org/?content=activities
Tarnava Mare http://www.discovertarnavamare.org/discover/nature/
Surrey Wildlife Trust www.surreywildlifetrust.org
I know its not strictly wildlife and conservation but how many times have you seen a fox and just been caught by the simple primal connection that exists in that moment. The physical fox leaves but he’s still in your head.
“Sense her like my best kept thought/There still with my thickest blot/Like bees and toast to honey pots/ We stick ourselves to Sweet.”
I’m reminded of Ted Hughes poem The Thought Fox