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After a busy week of hedgerows, harvest mice and River’s Week planning, time to relax…with a Dormouse Box Check!
9am in the woods at Furnace Place Estate (FPE), I met with Margaret, Wendy, Alan Mary and Nigel from the Haslemere Natural History Society (HNHS) who have been checking the boxes with me for the last two years. They were very patient through year one when we caught absolutely nothing vertebrate- not even a wood mouse! We’ve been rewarded this year with four individual dormice –two each male/female. We caught a pair in May, snoozing in their bracken and birch-leaf nest. We hoped they would breed but no sign yet. In June we picked up another male and July another female. We are able to identify individuals by giving them an individual fur-clip (requires L2 licence from Natural England).
I’m back from the site now where we found one individual but unfortunately it was too quick for the surveyor. We use a “stuffer”-a duster- which goes in the hole in the box to prevent its occupants fleeing before it’s taken from the tree for processing. This sharp-eared dormouse must have heard us coming and was out before stuffer was..er…stuffed. Still, good to know the animals are still about even if we can’t know which of our animals that was.
The Hazel Dormouse Muscardinus avellanarius is afforded the highest legal protection because of its declining UK population. It status as a European Protected Species (EPS) means that a licence is needed in order to survey and handle them. A Level 2 licence is needed to fur clip animals as part of a scientific study. Fur clipping helps us to identify individual animals and learn about their survival, breeding and dispersal (movement habits). This site will be registered as part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme run by Peoples Trust for Endangered Species so that our data can be used to keep track of the UK conservation status of these species.
49 dormice boxes at FPE set up in a grid pattern. By chance rather than by design the north-east tip of the grid eases out into more open habitat on Forestry Commission land (with their approval of course) which is regenerating woodland clear-fell. Of particular interest at this site is that all animals are being discovered in this habitat where birch, bramble and bracken dominates on very acid soils, and not in the oak-ash-hazel coppice woodland where the bulk of the boxes are. In fact we have caught nothing in two years in this habitat, not even a solitary wood-mouse. I’ve never come across this before in other sites I have monitored. Perhaps the dormice are hiding way up in the canopy and amongst the cavities and rot-holes in some rather splendid, rather tall oaks. Laughing.
<Pic of birch/bracken scrub to follow (5 boxes, 4 dormice)<
My own feeling is that the dark interior of this woodland provides less foraging opportunities than the scrub beyond. Studies from Europe show how Dormice respond very well to woodland management opening up the canopy and letting light into encourage understory growth of brambles and shrubs (e.g. Ramakers_etal_2014; Juskaitis2008_CommonDormouse_pp90-93 ; Juskaitis2008_CommonDormouse_pp18-25). I don’t have the data to support this from our site however, and there continues to be a dearth of published studies in the UK since Morris/ Bright’s in the 1990s and therefore strong differences in opinion in what constitutes good woodland management with dormice in mind. Following the Forestry Commission’s Best Practice Guidelines is the current standard.
In the meantime however here are some pictures of dormice nests composed of bracken and birch leaves without a bit of honeysuckle in sight.
I’m very grateful to the The Barlow’s who own Furnace Place Estate for allowing Surrey Wildlife Trust to monitor these woods for Dormice in collaboration with NHNS who through their members Wendy and Allan Novelle, also dormice monitors, supplied the FPE project with boxes. Landowners, Communities and organisations like Surrey Wildlife Trust working together for the benefit of wildlife is an essential part of SWTs Living Landscape vision. Chris Packham claimed dormice were a “conservation con” a few years back to the outrage of the monitoring community, although I recall he was really just bemoaning the improbability of discovering one of these fascinating mammals in the normal process of being a naturalist. Its my hope that where schemes like these give people the chance to discover these sleepy characters in their own local woods along with other natural gems, a sense of value and pride can be fostered in local natural places, and a plan to invest in retaining them into the future can be drawn up.
This post is about why my blog is so named and how a connection, in this case with ideas in a book can be life changing.
The first book that opened my eyes to science was Fritjof Capra’s book Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter (1996). If I’m honest, sitting here almost 20 years later I don’t remember much of the detail, but it was a bridging point- a profound connection- between a semi- mystical path I had been following exploring the unity and connectivity of living things (I had started to follow the Druidic tradition) and opened my eyes to a life of scientific enquiry. In my head that’s not much of a leap; you could argue druids where really the ecologists of their day, utilising the same observational techniques of the natural world, but based around a different knowledge paradigm.
In the Web of Life, Capra summarises the problems that the world faces- climate change, poverty, population growth, environmental degradation- as integrated and systematic, requiring a totally new approach to thinking about the world. He proposed that a “paradigm shift” is needed similar to that which marked the discoveries of Newton/Einstein and Lamarck/Darwin which permeated every sphere of existence. In the Web of Life he explores the movement to systems thinking away from the reductionist understanding of components. Systems also have emergent properties that are more than the sum of the parts: simply put, the bicycle is an emergent property of the positioning of pedals, wheels, saddle etc in a prescribed manner to produce a functioning system. Importantly the properties of the whole are not present in the parts, so studying components is unhelpful in understanding the properties of the system. Capra explores how systems thinking has transformed approaches across disciplines including mathematics (chaos theory), cybernetics, gaia hypothesis and autopoiesis (self-organising systems).
Systems thinking has important social science repercussions because it moves thinking away from the separation of humans and nature (a big bugbear of mine as my Web of Life will reveal); it implies integration rather than self-assertion and the triumph of ego; and networks underpin systems rather than hierarchical structures.
Capra also explores the deep ecology which broadens ecological science into a philosophy of life. More on that in future blogs.
After reading this book while a care worker at a residential home for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours. I started studying part –time an OU Discovering Science course and read the second of two formative books: Edward O Wilson’s Diversity of Life. It became clear to me that I wanted to study ecology- essentially the science of the distribution and abundance of populations because it encapsulated for me the take home message from Capra – the idea of connectivity and complementarity between parts and the whole. Ecology connects with so many other scientific disciplines and I think can embrace non-scientific world views as well, although many ecologists would disagree I suspect.
While the Web of Life was pivotal in changing my life, like the paradigm shifts mentioned here it crystalised some experiences and thinking that were already present; but now I had a framework of knowledge to build my experiences into and to pose more questions to test that framework. For me, as I am sure for you too, a life without at least some kind of filter through which to pass your experiences is, to use one of my father’s favourite quotes from Macbeth “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”
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.
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
Just contemplating Easter and all that new life stuff and finding peace and existential satisfaction from the ecological and evolutionary processes inherent in the new anemones, bluebells and sorrel peeping through in the woods, the newts and frogspawn in Nower Woods ponds and the Red Kite in Pirbright village. But is that satisfaction scientific and intellectual or spiritual I wonder? Perhaps even asking the question is losing the point and is an unnecessary harnessing of my ego to an otherwise completely momentary phenomenon.
Happy Easter everyone, however you choose to mark it I know I will be eating some chocolate with my necies and nephew 🙂