Here is my final conservation update for 2013; including four interesting updates from the world of ecology, biodiversity and science!
1. Fungi Identification
So since I worked at the Essex Wildlife Trust back in 2011 as an Education Officer taking groups on woodland walks, I soon began to learn a lot about fungi. A weird interest for some maybe became fascinating to me, with one discovery after another from giant red clumps on the side of trees that look like someone’s kidney to little completely purple mushrooms in the leaf litter on the ground. The more I saw the more interested I became and decided it would be a good idea to get myself a starters guide and like keen birders I became a little obsessed with ticking them off one by one.
Fungi are absolutely essential to the natural ecosystem, by breaking down dead and decaying matter and returning vital nutrients to the soil that creates new life ready for the spring. Without them and their huge network of hyphae connecting like a giant spider web below the surface covering miles in some cases, well life would eventually cease to be.
I won’t bore you with the mass of species and family names of all those I have seen, but I will show you the best of the bunch as they really are pretty spectacular! All photos courtesy of me and my DSLR.
Fungi pop up around Sept-Nov every year so do keep an eye now for any in your local green spaces or woodlands!
2. The Butcher Bird
Working with wildlife enthusiasts everyday can teach you a lot of things you don’t know. I currently sit next to an avid birder Peter Beckenham, whose skilled photography and birding skills can be seen below. He told me about his trip to Thursley Common, where he spotted a rare UK visitor – the Great Grey Shrike; a stunning bird with a very peculiar, yet efficient feeding behaviour.
This medium-sized, long-tailed and black/grey coloured, songbird species is the largest of the Shrike family and often considered a threat by other birds, resulting in it often being ‘mobbed’. Its large bill and similarities to the corvidae family suggest it’s quite the natural predator, found primarily in heathland and areas of scrub. But this is not what is most fascinating about this species.
What I found out was how this species hunts and essentially stores its prey. This successful hunter will prey on invertebrates, amphibians, small mammals and even birds. However, instead of eating immediately, it will take its prey to a thorny bush or section of barbed wire and impale the specimen there, creating a kind of ‘larder’. This inventive behaviour means that the shrike can build up a store, and return later to feed.
It is likely that this behaviour evolved as a result of shrike species lacking talons or other morphological features that would enable effective killing – giving it the catchy nickname of the ‘Butcher Bird’.
Photo courtesy of Peter Beckenham. Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) seen on Thursley Common in Surrey on 23/11/13
3. Fish of the Thames
At work, I took it upon myself to utilise the brains of those experienced ecologists and conservationists around me by getting them to do lunchtime seminars that all the staff & volunteers could attend. They would focus on one topic, whether it was about a particular species, place, project or an entire conservation concept, and so far they have been very successful.
One of the most interesting seminars so far though, has to be the Fish of the Thames talk given by Andy Willmore, our Regional Development Manager for West London and Community Project Officer in the Crane Valley. I honestly had no knowledge of the extensive biodiversity of the River Thames, considering its severe level of pollution at points would prohibit species from thriving.
The Thames is the longest river entirely in England and the second longest in the United Kingdom, after the River Severn. Its source is Thames Head in Gloucestershire as runs about 346 km (215 mi) long.
His talk focused on species in the upper regions of the Thames around Crane Valley and included some fascinating examples, such as:
- Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) – Salmon are often considered a good indicator species; one whose presence is associated with a clean suitable environment. When they were spotted again in the Thames it was a good sign that the efforts of cleaning up the Thames were working. And it is important to note that this species naturally recolonized and wasn’t a result of artificial stocking.
- Rudd (Scardinius erythrophthalmus) – this specialist species has evolved to be a surface feeder. By having an upturned mouth it is able to feed easily at the top of the water.
- Pike (Esox lucius) – This large and aggressive predator has been known to feed on other fish, ducks and even small mammals. It stays stationary for long periods focusing on the prey and then with a sudden burst of energy it opens its mouth, causing a vacuum current that essentially pulls the prey into its teeth lined mouth. Scary stuff.
- Three Spined Stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) – this is a species you learn a lot about when doing any kind of animal behaviour course, because of its unique paternal instincts. When the female has laid her eggs, and the male has fertilised them, he sticks around and fans them continuously, bringing fresh oxygenated water over the eggs. He continues to stick around until the eggs have hatched, keeping an eye on them for several days before letting them venture off on their own. How sweet.
Other species include:
- Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)
- Grayling (Thymallus thymallus)
- Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella)
- Crucian Carp (Carassius carassius)
- Chub (Leuciscus cephalus)
- Dace (Leuciscus leuciscus)
- Bleak (Alburnus alburnus)
- Roach (Rutilis rutilis)
- Tench (Tinca tinca)
- Barbel (Barbus barbus)
- Perch (Perca fluviatilis)
- Common or Bronze Bream (Albramis brama)
- Ruffe (Gymnocephalus cernua)
- European Eel (Anguilla Anguilla)
- Minnow (Phoxinus phoxinus)
- Stone Loach (Barbatula barbatula)
- Bullhead (Cottus gobio)
Photos courtesy of ARKIVE and Bullhead image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/elater/
4. Biodiversity offsetting Green infrastructure in an urban setting
A big issue in London at the moment is the introduction and possible enforcement of a concept called ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’ – a way for developers to contribute to the environment in the form of credits that they accumulate through the destruction or disturbance of existing habitat(s).
It’s currently only a “proposed” method and is currently undergoing many pilot studies across the UK to assess its feasibility and impact. Yet, despite being at the early stages still, it has yet already got some severe backlash from conservation and ecology experts across the field.
This complex idea was designed with the intention of offsetting the damage caused by necessary developments in order to meet the urban cities ever increasing demand for housing, schools and transport. As a result, key and essential habitats are destroyed or fragmented and this has a huge impact on species and habitats. Ideally using this mitigation hierarchy, development would seek alternatives that would avoid the alteration of key ecosystems, and have the destruction as a final option after all others are exhausted. As a result of the development, compensation is provided to conservation organisations in order to offset the effects, by either enhancing or creating new habitats. However, as straightforward as this may seem at first, nature doesn’t quite work so simply as that. The “eye for an eye” in terms of destruction and creation wouldn’t quite work in terms of say, ancient woodland. Tearing this down would be catastrophic for so many species and would hardly be possible to recreate elsewhere. There is also the risk that with accepting this way of working, we are facilitating the destruction of valuable habitat with the expectation of financial reward, and whether or not the reward goes to the right place/habitat/organisation is another matter entirely.
I will not pretend to be an expert on this subject, but having witnessed passionate ecologists argue this case, and essentially agree to experiment this new idea, I think it will interesting to see the outcome, and hopefully with careful monitoring and evaluation we will be able to decide whether or not to pursue and continue. The UK’s ever expanding population is inevitable, so hopefully by working with the Government we can manage to in some way make them give a damn about the environment and our wonderful wildlife.
Some interesting articles on this can be found here from 3 different perspectives:
Wildlife Trusts: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/biodiversityoffsetting
So that’s it for now. I will be back with more conservation updates in the New Year!