In May I visited the Isle of Skye. Located in the Northwest of Scotland, its Norse name means ‘Misty Isle’. The weather changes quickly on the island, cloud turning to mist to clear skies, then rain as it blows in from the sea. The island has some interesting geology and ecology shaped by the elements. Rocks as old as 3,000 million years old can be found on Skye, with ice sheets sculpting the island only 12,000 years ago.
Every part of Skye had a different character: driving around the island would take you from quiet wooded corners to bleak, expansive moors; sheltered, rocky coves to brooding mountains. We explored a good part of the island, but it would take so much longer than a week to see all the wonders Skye has to offer.
My first explorations were of the heathlands next to our little crofter’s cottage. The scent of the peaty earth with the salty tang of the sea filled the air as I walked over a carpet of colourful but tiny wildflowers: yellow tormentil, vivid purple heath milkwort, bright pink marsh lousewort and delicate white eyebright. In sheltered areas, there were bluebells flowering, with foxgloves, heath spotted orchids, wood sage and dog violets springing up. Heather, bog myrtle and bilberry formed low scrub, lightly grazed by sheep and cattle. Goat willow was springing up in boggy parts, providing a refuge for aptly named willow warblers, singing their beautiful descending song.
It was a delight to hear one cuckoo, then another and another. Cuckoos became a regular feature of our time on the island, with one cuckoo waking us up as a personal alarm clock every morning. On a couple of occasions, I witnessed cuckoos being chased by alarmed meadows pipits: these feisty birds weren’t prepared to let their nests be parasitised!
Bluebells were an interesting feature on Skye: relics of a time when more of the island was wooded, with swathes of deep purple painting areas of hill and coast. Along the western edge of Scotland, the woodlands receive so much moisture that the trees are laden with mosses and lichen, thriving in the clean, pure air. A trip to Dunvegan castle showcased a variety of habitats, from wild sea lochs, to lush woodland, to cultivated walled gardens. I liked how the plants grown in the walled gardens were the same as those grown in 19th Century, for food, medicine, fibres and other uses.
The Old Man of Storr had an eerie, ancient feel, with the rock stacks shrouded in swirling misty clouds. A solitary raven broke the silence as it appeared through the gloom. Despite the other visitors that had climbed up to see them, there was still a sense of peace and solitude. The distinctively shaped rocks are volcanic in origin and sculpted by the wind; fragments of rock I picked up showed the crystallisation process of the basalt geodes.
The Cuillin mountains can be elusive things: on an overcast day, their peaks are masked by cloud, revealing nothing of the grandeur beneath. We were lucky enough to have a couple of days where the mountains glowed in the sun: steep, jagged and crumbling slopes, running with scree. Coming from the relatively flat landscape of the East Midlands, having mountains on the horizon framed so many beautiful views around Skye.
Coral Beach is an expanse of bleached white maërl: fragments of what is actually a type of seaweed that coats the seabed, providing shelter for a variety of wildlife. Inquisitive seals popped their heads up to watch us from the beach as seabirds including black guillemots and gannets flew low over the sea. The water was beautifully clear and turquoise and would be lovely to swim in were it not so cold at this time of year! This is one of the few places that you can see cows on the beach: they graze the grasslands by the beach and also feed on nutritious seaweed. It was so beautiful here I had to return on our last day, for one more look in the rockpools!
The rockpools on Skye reflect the clear, clean waters of this part of the world, with a wealth of species of seaweed furnishing the pools. Wherever I see them, I am irresistibly led towards rockpools, and enjoyed the crabs, blennies, prawns, whelks, sea urchins, anemones and starfish I found there. Even Toby the dog enjoyed watching a hermit crab come out of its shell!
A trip to Talisker Bay led us through a small patch of woodland, unusual on the island. I saw a starling nest in the hole of a sycamore tree, the starling imitating a crow before entering to feed to chicks, perhaps to throw predators off the scent?
The sand on the beach was a blend of bright white contrasted with dark volcanic grains of sand, thrown together and speckled with shocking pink seaweed. Gazing towards the horizon at the rolling waves, I was astounded to see one dolphin leap out of the water, then another. Two bottlenose dolphins moved across the bay, giving us glimpses of their fins and breaching again, before disappearing, possibly in pursuit of prey. Seeing wild dolphins is a breath-taking moment, an exhilarating view of an animal so familiar yet so alien.
Returned to their ancestral homes, the White tailed eagles and Golden eagles are some of the most special species to see in Scotland. We were lucky to witness a few individuals soaring around the island, but had our best views on a boat trip from Portree. A pair of White-tailed eagles had created a nest in young trees clinging to the edge of a rocky outcrop over the Sound of Raasay. Enticed by fish thrown from the boat, an eagle took off from his lookout spot and glided effortlessly over the water to scoop his prize on hooked talons.
We saw the same performance from another younger individual, but the eagles won’t always come to the fish if they aren’t hungry, allowing the gulls to fight over it. They are such magnificent birds and it was a privilege to see them and their hidden-away nest, safe from people and predators.
Carnivorous plants are a speciality of the boggy heathland habitats found on Skye. Growing in such harsh, acidic conditions, plants such as sundews and butterworts have evolved to source essential nutrients from small insects that get caught on their sticky tendrils and leaves. Tiny, but beautiful, these amazing plants are well worth looking out for.
We visited the Fairy Pools in the evening, as the low sun lit up the water and the mountains. A tributary of the River Brittle, the stream runs down from the Cuillins above into a series of clear blue waterfalls and pools. The rushing water had carved and smoothed the rocks into fantastic shapes in some places and formed small gorges in others. At the top of the walk, the stream falls over a perfect crescent-shaped plateau of rocks, almost as if someone had designed a water feature. On the walk back down, the pools formed a stream of silver by the setting of the sun.
I’m sure we will return one day to the Isle of Skye, a very special and beautiful place.
One of the most important books for an ecologist to read must be Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. Published in 1859, it was the result of years of developing ideas, experimenting and researching by Darwin. The previous year, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to him with the same concept of natural selection. After announcing their joint theory at the Linnean Society, Darwin was finally pushed into action to publish his ideas. The resulting book, whilst only thought of as an abstract by Darwin, is very interesting; ground-breaking, thought-provoking and still relevant today.
The book opens discussing ‘Variations under Domestication’ and the many examples of selective breeding of domestic animals. Looking at the different breeds of dogs, horses, pigeons and plants, the accumulative actions of selection become clear. Darwin noted how throughout history, many cultures and civilisations domesticated animals and plants for their own benefit, from the ancient Chinese to the Romans.
‘We cannot suppose that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and as useful as we now see them…the key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him.’
So what of variations under nature? Questioning whether the principles of domestic selection applied to wild plants and animals, Darwin first wanted to establish whether they are subject to variation. Noting how individuals of any species possess slight individual differences, there must be the capacity for these characteristics to accumulate in a particular direction. He found that the most abundant species in the larger genera have a lot of variation and are most likely to evolve into other new species. Deeply appreciative of the natural world, Darwin argued how natural selection is much superior to ‘man’s feeble efforts.’ After all, human attempts at selective breeding have to start with an organic being already equipped with many well-adapted characteristics for their place in nature.
‘We see beautiful co-adaptations most plainly in the woodpecker and mistletoe… in the structure of the beetle which dives through the water; in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze; in short, we see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of the organic world.’
In his ‘Struggle for Existence’ chapter, Darwin described the processes that regulate populations of species:
‘Every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or old, during each generation or at recurrent intervals. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.’
Darwin studied many species including bumblebees and observed how red clover relied on bumblebees for pollination; concluding that red clover would go extinct if bumblebees did too. Another of his thoughts on the interconnectedness of different species was how bumblebees were more common in areas where cats were present due to their predation of mice, which themselves can predate bumblebee nests. If only bumblebee abundance today could be quite so simple!
In the chapter entitled ‘Natural Selection’, Darwin explains how slight modifications brought about by natural variation could tip the scales in favour of the individual if it was advantageous to it:
‘This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.’
He discussed interesting examples of wolves and deer; how the swiftest wolf would survive, and concerning flowers and bees; how each would become gradually modified to benefit the plant and pollinator. Darwin noted how there were no examples of species evolving beneficial characteristics for other species, unless they were of use to the individual in the first place.
‘Though nature grants vast periods of time for the work of natural selection, she does not grant an indefinite period; for as all organic beings are striving, it may be said, to seize on each place in the economy of nature, if any one species does not become modified and improved in a corresponding degree with its competitors, it will soon be exterminated.’
Darwin discussed the concept of ecological niches (though this term was yet to be invented) as he noted how it was advantageous for species in a region to be diverse, adapted to fulfil a particular role. Observing an area of turf 3 x 4ft in size, Darwin saw that it supported 20 species of plant belonging to 18 genera: a fitting example of how, though diversification of structure, so many different plants could co-exist in a small area. Only by occupying a specific niche can an abundance of species live so close together.
Throughout his book, Darwin stated numerous times how the evidence showed inheritance of characteristics through natural selection, refuting claims that species were independently created.
In ‘Laws of Variation’, Darwin discussed how natural selection would enhance or diminish certain organs for efficiency if they are/aren’t required. Examples include how a number of beetle species inhabiting Madeira have evolved to be flightless through disuse of their wings and cave-dwelling crabs have evolved eye-stalks without eyes. The steady accumulation of slight differences can add up beneficial modifications of structure, such as a bat’s wing.
In ‘Difficulties on Theory’ Darwin discussed various issues that have the potential to disprove his theory, including organs of extreme perfection (e.g. eyes) or organs that are of little importance. Anthropocentrism pervaded the way the natural world was seen in Darwin’s day: some naturalists believed that many parts of species anatomy had been ‘created for beauty in the eyes of man’. The idea that species must have some beneficial use for humans is still one held by many today.
Another obstacle for Darwin’s theory was the presence of distinct species, but no species that appear to be the transitional links between one and the other. The geological record is far from perfect: a tiny area of the earth’s surface has been geologically explored and the conditions required for preservation and discovery of good specimens are quite rare. Darwin compared the geological record to a large book where only short chapters and passages have been preserved across the vastness of time. He wrote with humility how we could struggle to grasp the vastness of time over which evolution takes place: we can struggle to appreciate the length of time of a couple of generations, let alone 100’s of millions of years.
Referring to the absence of these stepping stone species (e.g. the evolution of a horse from a tapir):
‘The new and improved forms of life will tend to supplant the old and unimproved forms.’
The numerous, transitional species will improve and evolve; outcompeting weaker forms and we will always have missing evidence due to the fragmentary geological record. Evidence of several stages of chalk formation showed distinct species, but all sharing characteristics showing them being closely related.
Explaining how non-native species can become invasive and dominant in other countries, Darwin stated:
‘Natural selection in each country must act chiefly through the competition of the inhabitants one with another and consequently will produce perfection or strength in the battle for life, only according to the standard of that country’.
‘Instinct’ is a fascinating chapter. Species such as cuckoos and cuckoo bees with their unusual adaptations to survive fitted into Darwin’s theory, as he saw they possess evidently successful methods of living and have not yet become extinct. He went into great detail to explore how instinct drives honeybees to create the honeycomb structure in the hive and how the design of this space-saving shape could have evolved from the simper, spherical design of bumblebee cells through the sections of natural selection.
Darwin went on to discuss how the production of new species consequently went hand in hand with the extinction of less favoured forms: ‘There is a struggle for existence leading to the preservation of each profitable deviation of structure or instinct. The truth of these propositions cannot, I think, be disputed.’
Of course, today our continued destruction and exploitation of the natural world hinders natural processes, meaning that more species are going and will continue to become extinct at our hands.
In exploring the means in which species disperse to colonise new islands, Darwin performed experiments with a number of seeds: He floated a number of seeds from many different plants in sea water for between 20 and 137 days, and found that a large proportion successfully germinated after immersion, concluding that around 15% of all plants could survive after being in seawater for a month. The same process could explain the similar communities of species found in bodies of freshwater far apart.
Darwin was fond of creating his own experiments to discover fascinating things. He once collected 3 tablespoons of mud from the edge of a pond and counted 537 individual plants growing from it: such is the abundance of life in the soil.
Looking at oceanic islands, Darwin discussed how the amount of endemic species is high. These island’s species bear a close affinity to those on the nearest continent, even though climate, soils and conditions of life are different. Here Darwin compared the Galapagos and the Cape de Verge archipelagos, observing how the theory of independent creation by God couldn’t be correct because despite similarity of size, climate and soils, the inhabitants are very different, resembling those of the nearest continents, America and Africa respectively: ‘All the inhabitants of an archipelago, though specifically distinct on the several islets, should be closely related to each other.’
The finches of the Galapagos provided an excellent example of modification through natural selection:
‘What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?’
When classifying species, Darwin concluded that embryological characteristics can be of importance. Embryos of species within the same class can be very similar: mammals, birds and reptiles can look alike at early stages and in ‘The Descent of Man’, Darwin went on to show illustrations of human and dog embryos that bear very close resemblances: ‘The embryos of air-breathing mammals and birds possess branchial slits and arteries running in loops like those in a fish which has to breathe the air dissolved in water.’
In his conclusion Darwin stated:
‘More individuals are born than can possibly survive. A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die, which variety or species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct.’
‘Why, if man can by patience select variations most useful to himself, should nature fail in selecting variations useful, under changing conditions of life, to her living products? What limit can be put to this power, acting during long ages and rigidly scrutinising the whole constitution, structure and habits of each creature, – favouring the good and rejecting the bad? I can see no limit to this power in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.’
His arguments are so well thought out, challenging the commonly held views of the most eminent naturalists of the time. He admits our own inability to grasp the vast expanse of geological time across infinite numbers of generations, to explain how we need to expand our thinking to truly understand this almost incomprehensible theory. A true scientist, Darwin took great care to try and prove or disprove an idea with experiments, research and accumulated facts. He stated how those who prefer to stick to old, unexplained ideas than to new and numerous facts would reject his theory and how new enlightened naturalists could fully consider both sides of his arguments. His ideas were always well expressed, with a beautiful writing style, and although quite intense, ‘On the Origin of Species’ was a fascinating read.
‘It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.’
Like the naturalist John Muir, I much prefer being in the wilderness to the city, but San Francisco has interesting history, topography, parks and harbours. There were fantastic views across the streets and to the bay all over the city, with plenty of interesting plants in small parks and gardens. I never got tired of seeing hummingbirds, and there were lots of them whizzing about and feeding on a range of flowers. One came very close over our heads, hovering and observing us curiously.
In the middle of the city, just past Chinatown, one doesn’t expect to see magnificent butterflies, but I was lucky to see and photograph Western Tiger Swallowtails fluttering around under some trees. There was an abundance of butterflies at another special place in the city; San Francisco’s Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park. Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies have big, showy wings with iridescent blue colouring. The California native garden was teeming with them, feeding and fluttering about, showing the benefits of native plants for indigenous species.
Another special sight in the Botanical gardens was a great view of an Anna’s hummingbird’s nest. Carefully woven with lichens and spider silk, the eggcup-sized nest housed a tiny chick, stretching and fidgeting. I was privileged to watch it being fed by the mother: hummingbirds feed their chicks a regurgitated mixture of nectar and insects for full nutritional value. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay all day to watch these exquisite birds, but we were headed to our next exciting destination: Monterey Bay.
Monterey Bay has been exploited by humans for thousands of years: around 5,000 years ago, native American people dived and fished in simple boats in the bay and in the 1940’s the sardine fishery was bringing in 250,000 tonnes of fish in one season. By the 1950’s the fishery collapsed, due to overfishing and natural population fluctuations of the sardines. Today, the sardine numbers are still low and the fishery is closed to allow some recovery.
As soon as we arrived, it was striking how rich the marine ecosystem here was. Walking along the coast from Lover’s Point to Cannery Row, a Sea otter mother and pup rolled in the waves, diving and feeding. A little further on, Harbour seals were hauled out, sunbathing in the evening sun, whilst their pups lay next to them or fed on their milk. The seals all had beautiful and unique mottled patterns and looked especially peaceful as their beach was fenced off to prevent disturbance from people.
The next day dawned bright and still; perfect weather for whale watching. We went out with Monterey Bay Whale Watch who provide year-round opportunities to sea a variety of cetaceans and the other wildlife of the bay. Right on cue, we saw Sea otters and Sea lions in the harbour, the latter in a large group, diving and playfully waving their fins. Out in the bay, a large group of sea lions were ‘porpoising’ in the water with Harbour porpoise: a type of feeding behaviour.
Once we’d been cruising out in the bay for a short while, the boat headed with purpose to the west. In the distance, a large, knobbly white fin was waving at us… a Humpback whale! Of all the species of whale, I had always wanted to see a Humpback; they are acrobatic, have beautiful markings and are full of character. We drew up right next to the whale, where he indulged in plenty of pectoral fin slapping and rolling in the water. Our close proximity to the animal meant that we heard every splash and the deep inhalations and exhalations of those giant lungs. We also got to hear contented squeals from the whale as he spouted bursts of air.
After a while, the whale dived down, flipping his tail out of the water and disappeared for a few moments. Suddenly, he appeared in front of the boat, breaching out of the sea in a plume of water: such a huge animal to be able to leap in the air with such agility. It took everyone on the boat by surprise and the whale biologist told us this wasn’t a regular occurrence. The whale took another breath, diving down and soared up more than halfway out of the water, fins aloft, with water streaming and sparkling off it’s skin. It was a magnificent sight to watch such a huge animal at such close quarters and for it to be totally comfortable and even curious towards us.
Back on land, we spent the afternoon immersed in the marine world inside Monterey Bay Aquarium: formerly the site of an old canning factory, but now focused on showcasing and conserving marine life. One of the best tanks featured a kelp forest with the associated species, including a shoal of sardines. Outside the aquarium in the real kelp forest, Sea otters were floating about and Bottlenose dolphins were hunting.
My favourite features of the aquarium included the native California species, some of which were rescue animals that couldn’t be released into captivity. A walk through enclosure allowed fantastically close views of shore birds such as avocets, plovers and phalaropes, all very relaxed, feeding and preening in our presence. Seeing the Sea otters up close was fascinating: they are completely at home in the water, amazingly acrobatic as they glide around with their flipper-like back feet. Their front paws are wonderfully dexterous when handling food items such as crabs, which they are adept at crushing between their strong jaws.
Out on the shore, I also marvelled at the tiniest inhabitants of the ocean in the rock pools: hermit crabs. One of my favourite creatures, their ability to exploit the shells of other creatures in which to reside is a fascinating example of evolution. I quite literally had to be torn from the rock pools as it was time to leave and return to Vegas and then home. Our final impressions of California were of the beautifully rugged and wild Big Sur coastline, complete with crashing waves and vultures soaring overhead.
The overarching theme of our trip was conservation. The amazing wildlife and natural landscapes we were lucky to witness speak of the foresight and dedication of visionaries who saw far more value in their protection than their exploitation. Thanks to passionate naturalists like John Muir, we too were able to marvel at the world’s largest trees and experience the rush of Yosemite’s magnificent waterfalls. The wealth of marine life inside and outside of Monterey Bay Aquarium (the site of a former sardine canning factory), allowed us to appreciate the wonderfully rich marine ecosystem of the bay and the see the beginnings of the recoveries of the sea otter and sardine populations following their decimation. I’m thankful there are still such wonderful plants, animals and ecosystems to witness in the world today.
This April my partner and I went on an interesting and exciting trip to California via Las Vegas. The reason for visiting such a strange location as Vegas was to visit family; my new baby niece arrived right on cue and we ate a lot of pancakes, but for a nature lover, a city in the middle of the desert can be challenging. Fortunately, the hummingbirds in the parks and gardens were a delight to watch: I saw them bathing in sprinklers, foraging on flowers and even watched a mother feeding its fledgling in a tree.
After a couple of days we set off on the way to our first destination. Driving out of the Mojave Desert, over the mountain foothills and into the Californian valleys, the vegetation gradually became taller and greener. It was almost like someone had slowly turned the colour saturation levels up and it was a relief to arrive at Three Rivers at dusk and hear running water. In the morning, the contrast between the desert and the Sierran foothills was stark. The sun was rising and lighting up the valley whilst the Kaweah river ran rapidly over the boulders in the riverbed. The garden outside our lodge was a haven for wildlife: there were flocks of waxwings feeding on the berry bushes, fence lizards creeping out to bask on the warm rocks, hummingbirds flitting about and even a monarch butterfly.
We entered Sequoia National Park, winding our way up through the valley, getting higher and higher. At the lower elevations, the spring flush of green leaves coloured the oak, maple and buckeye trees, with scatterings of the deep pink flowers blooming on the western redbud trees. On the open slopes, California poppies and lupines were flowering. Beyond a certain point, the vegetation started to shift from broadleaved to conifer woodland, we were getting closer to the Giant Forest.
Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks cover an area of 865,257 acres, a vast area compared to the tiny size of our ‘wild’ areas in the UK. Throughout the world, Sequoia trees grow only in groves along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains at around 6,500ft in elevation. They have precise requirements for conditions to be moist but not too wet and have a complex ecology with fire.
I’d seen photos of sequoias, but nothing prepares you for the sheer scale of these trees. General Sherman is the largest tree in the world, by volume. At 2,200 years old, this sequoia is 275ft tall and over 100ft around the trunk. The huge bulk of the trunk disappears up into the canopy, furnished with knobbly, gnarled branches and sprays of spiny scale-like leaves. I was dwarfed by this unbelievably huge organism, in years and in stature. From a distance, the size of this giant tree became even more impressive, as the people milling around its base were like tiny insects at the base of a tall sunflower.
We also paid a visit to the widest tree in the world, General Grant; which can accommodate 20 people holding hands around the base of its trunk. There were many other sequoias to see around these impressive record-holders, and we spent a few hours walking through the giant forests to admire them. The sequoias all had a golden hue, dusted with thousands of tiny pollen-loaded flowers. Their bark was thick, spongy and fibrous, helping the trees cope with forest fires. Where trees had been damaged by fire, most continued to grow, despite cavernous black scars almost splitting them open. Some fallen giants lay in the forest, as big as freight trains, with twisted roots snaking up into the air. It was very interesting to walk through them and wonder at their size from a different angle. There was one grove of middle-aged trees, growing together in a group, arching overhead like the roof of a cathedral – their height was best appreciated lying on the ground and looking up!
Once we followed a trail that led out of the ‘goldilocks zone’ for sequoias and into the wider forest, composed of various pines and other conifers, more suited to the drier conditions. On the trail, I spotted acorn woodpeckers, golden-crowned kinglets, treecreepers, red-tailed hawks and the paw print of a bobcat in the snow. After almost getting lost, we found our way back and prepared to head on to the next location. Leaving the snow-dusted mountain peaks behind us, we made our way back into the valleys.
Yosemite was today’s destination: due to the shortness of our trip, we had one day to see some parts of the valley, although it would be great to have been able to spend two weeks there! We followed the rushing Merced river up into Yosemite valley, where brooding clouds began to fill the sky. The waterfalls of Yosemite are their most impressive in spring, and the first one we saw, Bridalveil Falls didn’t disappoint. The water rushes over a perfectly flat edge of rock, descending straight down into the valley and resembling a bride’s veil. As we approached the base of the falls, the roar of water became louder and louder. The force and volume of the water created foaming white comets falling one after the other over from the sky. When we arrived, the spray was pluming into the air, drenching anyone standing on the viewing platform. It certainly made the perfect impression of the power of the water in this landscape.
We stood and looked up at El Capitan as the clouds descended lower, brushing the tops of the peaks. The sheer granite walls of the valley towered above us, smooth and neatly streaked with rain. Across one of the meadows from the swinging bridge, Yosemite Falls rose up in the distance.
This waterfall is made up of upper, middle and lower falls, cascading down into the wooded valley – we took a trail to the lower fall overlook. As we hiked closer and closer to the falls, it got wetter and wetter. Past mossy boulders, gnarled oaks and through numerous streams splashing down the granite cliffs and disappearing over the edge. Looking out over Yosemite Falls, we were well and truly soaked, the falls appearing through the swirling cloud as a white rush of powerful water. The sound of the water crashing onto the rocks was intense and thunderous. At our lookout point, we were greeted by two very inquisitive Steller’s jays: birds with deep blue plumage and punk-like crests on their heads. They hopped up very close to us, as if to inspect who had come to visit their part of the woods.
We managed to get back down the trail and out of Yosemite just before the road was closed: they had evacuated the valley with the heavy rains and if we had come a day later, we wouldn’t have been able to visit!
I have now been reading the works of John Muir, the naturalist who explored these areas extensively. After walking 200 miles through the Sequoia belt and visiting the forest in which General Sherman grows, he noted: “this part of the Sequoia belt seemed to me the finest, and I then named it ‘the Giant Forest’… one naturally walked softly and awe-stricken among them.” He also stayed for many years in Yosemite, writing: “this one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study aesthetic enjoyment. None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleanses and warms like fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”
Next: California Road Trip, Part Two – San Francisco and Monterey
Most people probably pay little attention to mosses, unless perhaps it grows as a weed in their lawns (personally, I find a mossy lawn to be green, soft and springy, what’s not to like?). But the world of bryophytes, to give mosses and liverworts their collective name; are luxuriant forests in miniature.
At the weekend I joined on an excellent moss and liverwort ID course at Altar Stones Nature Reserve in Markfield led by Uta Hamzaoui of the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. Walking around this tiny but fascinating reserve, there was a huge diversity of species to discover growing on trees, dry stone walls and the exposed pre-Cambrian rocks.
Mosses and liverworts were some of the first plants to evolve to grow on land over 400 million years ago, descending from aquatic algae. They still require moisture to survive and reproduce, similar to the way amphibians have evolved. Moss can reproduce by producing spores (released in dry conditions) and by regeneration of small parts of plant material, meaning they can easily spread. Mosses are very resilient, occupying niches that other life forms would struggle to survive in, such as on exposed rocks. They can survive drying out and then spring back to life when it rains again.
As well as being fascinating in their own right, mosses provide a range of ecological functions, from storing water and reducing soil erosion, to breaking down substrates to release nutrients for other plants and providing nesting materials for birds and other animals.
Altar Stones Nature Reserve is one a number of sites in the Charnwood forest that have perfect habitat conditions for bryophytes. Mosses, liverworts and lichens jostle for space on rocks and branches, with something new to discover around every corner. What would normally be a quick walk can turn into hours exploring and observing the diversity of species: we spotted over 20 types of bryophytes in around two hours.
Moss can be found anywhere, from atop walls and roofs in urban environments, to clothing trees in ancient woods. Perhaps the reason they are often overlooked is their diminutive size, but if you look closely, they have wonderfully intricate structures and would surely be more widely admired if they were bigger, or we were smaller!
As a ranger, learning about new groups of species is important to ensure that habitat management is tailored to ensure the biodiversity of a site can thrive. There are always new animals and plants to learn about and I hope to continue discovering every year.
Here I will have an in-depth look at the traditional wildlife-rich landscape of Transylvania, with three practical conservation lessons to take home to the UK.
During the summer of 2016, I returned to the Târnava Mare region of Transylvania as a research assistant with Operation Wallacea. Overall I have spent six weeks in six different villages of this fascinating part of the world.
In the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, wooded hills slope into valleys covered by pastures, meadows and orchards. The long, linear Saxon villages straddle slow moving streams, with small arable fields and vegetable patches closest to the houses. Cows, sheep and goats are guided through the pastures every day, and pigs, geese and chickens are kept at home. Horses pulling carts are vital for collecting hay, milk and providing transport.
This type of landscape would have covered much of Europe during Medieval times, and has now almost completely disappeared. This is how Britain would have looked hundreds of years ago: in many ways, the expedition was like a journey back in time. Transylvania appealed to me because many of the European species were familiar and as a countryside ranger, I feel there are a lot of lessons to take home.
There was no better way to immerse myself in Transylvania than by taking part in a range of wildlife surveys with experts in their fields.
Biodiversity and a mosaic of habitats
Located in southern Transylvania, Romania, the Târnava Mare covers an area 850 km2 in size. There are 30 small villages scattered throughout the valleys area with a population of about 25,000 people. Compare this to the West Midlands, which is 902km2 in size and has a population of over 2.8 million. The small villages haven’t changed in size or structure for centuries.
The Târnava Mare is a Natura 2000 area, which protects important habitats and species. Many of the Transylvanian habitats are protected by the EU Habitats Directive (for example, the meadow-steppe grasslands), and many species are threatened internationally and nationally.
The mosaic of habitats found in the Târnava Mare creates an ecosystem rich in biodiversity. Grassland, scrub and woodland are the dominant habitats, interspersed with valuable microhabitats such as ponds and bare earth that all play a part in the life-cycles of the many species that live here. There are also urban habitats, with birds nesting and many species of bats roosting in the houses and fortified churches of the villages.
The region contains the largest area of lowland hay meadows and the only remaining lowland wolves and bears in Europe.
During my expedition, I was lucky to see over 400 species of plant, bird, insect, reptile and mammal. The sheer abundance and diversity of flora was incredible, there were handfuls of new plants to identify every day. More than 300 bird species and around 1,700 species of butterfly and moth inhabit the region.
Each village had a different character and the same rule applied to the hay meadows. Of the meadows and grasslands that had the highest nature value, the community of species was always slightly different. One meadow was teeming with blue butterflies: common, silver studded, short-tailed and eastern short-tailed blues could all be caught with one sweep of the butterfly net.
One meadow was extremely steep and decorated with the sugar-white flowers of branched St Bernard’s-lily.
One damp meadow was the favoured place of dazzling green forester moths and fiery scarce copper butterflies.
One grassland was cloaked small hummocks and was filled with positive indicator grassland species such as sainfoin, lady’s bedstraw, betony, yellow scabious and crown vetch.
One orchard grassland was rich in small mammals, with golden orioles and bee-eaters abundant overhead.
All of the meadows contained a sward structure similar to the layers of a forest canopy, albeit on a much smaller scale. Herbs and grasses jostle for space: species-rich meadows contain the highest number of species per m2 than other habitats on earth, including rainforests. 43 species have been recorded in 0.1m2 of grassland in Romania1
In Transylvania, some of the meadows classed as low nature value would be species-rich grassland here in the UK. Even the meadows showing signs of ‘improvement’ were still rich with legumes and pollinators feeding on them.
Invertebrates were abundant and diverse, with many species of beetle, ant, spider, grasshopper and cricket residing among the vegetation. The profusion of life at the lower trophic levels in this ecosystem results in healthy populations of predatory species requiring lots of protein, such as sand lizard, red backed shrike, European bee-eater and kestrel. The meadow ecosystem is a perfect example of how getting things right at the base of the pyramid trickles all the way up the chain.
Biodiversity and farming practices
The reason the Transylvanian region is so biodiverse is mainly due to agriculture and paradoxically, the reason much of the wildlife in our country is declining is also mainly due to agriculture. This is everything to do with the degree of intensification, the scale and location of farming practices, the speed, timing and efficiency of these methods. Changing the traditional, low intensity land use of the Târnava Mare will certainly damage the biodiversity.
In the absence of large mammals that would have created a mosaic of habitats, the advent of agriculture around 5,000 years ago conveniently provided food and habitats for a wide range of species. Low input, low intensity farming provides the greatest benefits for wildlife.
In Transylvania, livestock are the reason for much of the biodiversity, but also have potential to damage parts of the habitats. The region contains the most species-rich grasslands in Europe due to the centuries-old traditional management techniques: low intensity grazing and regular cutting for hay. If it weren’t for the keeping of cattle (one of which can eat four loaded carts of hay each winter), there wouldn’t be such botanical diversity and abundance of grassland species. It is important to monitor the number of cows kept by the villagers each year, as a decline in the number of cattle kept could result in land abandonment, jeopardising the precious meadow ecosystem.
Sheep are kept for meat and cheese and are grazed on pastures some distance from the villages all summer, where shepherds milk them daily. Pastures that are heavily sheep grazed have low sward height, very low botanical diversity, with more grass dominance and low insect species richness and abundance. Local beekeepers voiced their concerns about higher intensity sheep grazing, resulting in fewer floral resources for their honeybees.
Maintaining the heterogeneous landscape is key to conserving the biodiversity that currently exists: a fine scale mosaic of arable, pasture, meadow, roadside and woodland habitats.
‘The whole fragile ecosystem of villages, landscape and biodiversity has to be conserved as a geographical, cultural and biological entity’2
Fundația ADEPT, along with government and other NGOs are undertaking a number of measures to conserve the traditional management and thereby the wildlife of the Târnava Mare: scientific surveys are carried out by Operation Wallacea, economic incentives for conservation are being implemented, local people are being educated and tourism is being promoted.
Provision of subsidies need to support a range of conservation targets for the Târnava Mare. The people who live and farm the region are central to maintaining the wildlife-rich habitats, therefore it is crucial to ensure they can continue to farm in the traditional way whilst having a decent quality of life.
The Common Agricultural Policy doesn’t generally favour small-scale, traditional management practices. However, since 2008, grasslands with the highest nature value have been protected with an EU agri-environment scheme: the grasslands must be cut late in the year, grazed at low densities (one or fewer animals per hectare) with minimal amounts of fertiliser applied. Payments are also available for farmers who farm without machinery.
A study has found the hay meadows have a better structure with higher botanical diversity: the authors propose that higher payments should be awarded to hay meadow management, to avoid conversion to pasture.3
If the British countryside was similar to Transylvania in the past, what can we learn for the future?
The average layperson may think rural Britain contains plenty of lush, green fields, full of wildlife. But from a naturalist’s viewpoint, much of our countryside is degraded, especially when put into the perspective of time. Within a couple of generations, we have lost millions of birds from our skies, as well as a multitude of flowers and insects from our fields. This is due to decades of intensification, resulting in destruction and mismanagement of hedgerows, degradation of hay meadows and pastures and the increasing use of pesticides, among other factors. The State of Nature Report 2016 shows the continuing downward trends of wildlife in Britain: 56% of species studied have declined since 1970 and a tenth are at risk of extinction.
Over 70% of the UK is farmland, at the opposite end of the management scale from Transylvanian farmland. It is recognised that creation of a mosaic of habitats (akin to a Transylvanian landscape) is desperately needed in the UK, in order to conserve a range of species4
Wildlife and farming can coexist, in fact, many aspects of farming rely on nature. Bees, flies and other insects are essential for pollinating crops, healthy soils contain a multitude of organisms, trees and hedges absorb excess rainwater and shelter livestock. It is possible to have space for nature whilst producing good quality food. Hope Farm is an excellent example. Managed by the RSPB, Hope Farm is an arable farm in Cambridgeshire which farms for wildlife and maintains yields comparable to other farms. Over 15 years, butterflies have increased 224% and the Farmland Bird Index has increased by 174%: only a handful of Yellowhammers were seen wintering at the farm in 2000 and this increased to 723 in 2015.5
Three practical conservation lessons to take home from the Târnava Mare:
These measures could be achieved by reshaping the farming subsidy system post-Brexit. The chance to reform the CAP could be a perfect opportunity to have positive impacts on wildlife in this country and reverse declines.
Reduce the dependence on artificial fertilisers and particularly pesticides. There is still a lot of research to be done on the effects of pesticides on all sorts of wildlife, but many studies have found extremely negative effects that extend beyond the field boundary of the farm.
a) Encourage the cutting of hay and grass silage later in the season, with increased payment for increasing floristic diversity in meadows (good quality cattle forage comprising of species-rich meadow grass is nutritious: excellent for cattle health, meaning less need for antibiotics). Implementing meadow creation and improvement at a landscape scale can provide grassland species with a larger area and a better-connected habitat. b) Cutting the whole area of a grassland at once can leave some species with nowhere to live. In some of the Transylvanian meadows, especially those scythed by hand, cutting was staggered throughout the summer. Leaving uncut margins/strips or rotationally cutting some grasslands can benefit different species and could be suitable techniques for certain types of meadow.
Reforest hills, especially adjacent to grasslands: the area where the woodland edge meets a meadow is especially beneficial for many species. Planting trees and allowing natural regeneration on some hills and slopes can prevent erosion, reduce flooding and provide an important habitat for woodland species. Managing woods traditionally with rides and glades will support birds and invertebrates.
It would be a terrible shame to lose the unique area of the Târnava Mare, for it to turn into an intensively farmed landscape indistinguishable from anywhere else in Europe.
Imagine if we could restore areas of our countryside to how they would have appeared to our grandparents: riots of flowers along waysides, flocks of finches and sparrows at harvest time and plenty of flower filled meadows. Perhaps we can learn some lessons from Transylvania and make this happen.
When visiting the Northumberland coast this autumn, I stumbled across the remnants of a past ecosystem. What at first appeared to be logs washed up on the shore turned out to be remains of an ancient forest that once grew here. Jutting out from beneath the sand and pebbles is a thick, black layer of peat resting on top of clay that has been exposed by the turbulent sea. Tree stumps erupt from the peat, with tangled roots sinking beneath the former woodland floor.
Gradually being exposed by the actions of the sea, the old forest on Low Hauxley beach dates back approximately 7,000 years. Despite their age, the tree stumps are very well preserved, appearing to have only died a few years ago.
Following on from my previous paleoecology post, I thought it would be interesting to look at the landscape back then and see what species were co-existing with modern humans in the British Isles. Archaeologists found signs of human footprints, alongside those of brown bear, wild boar and red deer on the surface of the peat.
These woodlands were composed of pine and oak with alder, birch and hazel. Part of a mosaic of scrub, marshland and boggy areas, these habitats connected with Doggerland: an area of land that connected Britain with mainland Europe before sea levels rose high enough in 5900 BC to transform Britain into an island.
It is interesting to discover the remains of these fairly recent ecosystems, of which remnants exist today. Imagine how Britain’s habitats would have looked like from satellite images since the end of the last glacial: from thick ice sheets and tundra over 10,000 years ago, to an almost entirely human dominated landscape today. During this interglacial, the climate has warmed and cooled, habitats have dramatically shifted in size and distribution, and wildlife has moved with them.
7,000 years ago, Mesolithic Britain was a land of vast forests spreading out to the horizon, with pockets of riverine habitats, fens and heaths. Woodlands covered almost 60% of the country and grasslands covered less than 20%.
Tarpan (a species of extinct horse) roamed in herds through the marshland and woodlands. Beavers coppiced small trees and created open pools, benefitting a wide range of other species: fish, birds, insects. Elk and deer browsed amongst the trees, pursued by wolves. And people. In this wild landscape, humans had an impact as prominent hunters, with a primarily meat-based diet.
Late Mesolithic humans of the time were hunter-gatherers, entirely dependent on the flora and fauna they lived alongside. Our ancestors exploited a wide range of animals for protein, from ungulates to smaller mammals. Plants were an important source of nutrition in the form of fruit, nuts and roots.
One site in North Yorkshire (Star Carr) found that the Mesolithic diet of large animals consisted of mainly aurochs, followed by elk, deer and boar. Fur from beaver, fox and pine marten was utilised by the hunters, and they also kept domestic dogs. Red deer skulls were even used in shamanic rituals.
Today, a walk in the woods is a chance to relax, escape the stresses of modern life and connect with nature. 7,000 years ago, the woods were our home, essential for our livelihoods, providing food, fuel and shelter. They were also a place of danger, with threats from carnivores such as bears and wolves and large herbivores too. Perhaps our instinctual fears of these ancient hazards are why woods are used frequently as locations for scary scenes on film.
Only recently have humans become less reliant on local woodlands and other habitats for meeting their needs. Yet the natural world is still crucial for our wellbeing: of over 100,000 years of the existence of Homo sapiens, we have spent only 4% of that time living in urban environments. Studies have found that there are myriad benefits when we connect with the natural world: “If we don’t build nature and wildlife into the very fabric of our society, we will fail to stem chronic diseases, high stress and associated poor mental health.”*
It may seem like an incredibly long time ago that we were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, but we well are adapted for living in natural environments. Our evolution is intertwined with the existence of the rich variety of plants and animals we have always lived alongside. 7,000 years ago, our ancestors may well have appreciated the heady scent of bluebells in spring, the sweet song of blackcaps and blackbirds and the rich colours of the leaves in autumn.
Although many of the large animals they lived alongside are extinct or rare in Britain today, small areas of their habitats still exist. Hopefully we can continue to preserve the special species and habitats we live with today so they are still here in the years to come.
*Quote: Dr William Bird, ‘A Healthy Dose of Nature’ BBC Wildlife, 2015.