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.
Elephants. Lions. Hyenas. Rhinos. Hippos. Hunting Dogs. These animals conjure up images of a vast savannah, a wild African landscape that appears untouched by humans. But at one time, these creatures weren’t confined only to Africa: Europe also used to be a land rich in megafauna.
Ever since learning about the existence of extinct large European mammals, I have been fascinated about their history, visualising what it would be like to go back in time to experience our continent, unrecognisable. With the absence of humans, modern day Europe would be a very different place. A rich ecosystem filled with species inhabiting every possible niche, roaming across a land with few boundaries, the complexities and dramas of life and death unfolding through a cycle of seasons.
The Pleistocene was an epoch commencing around 2.6 million years ago that lasted until 10,000 years ago. This period was characterised by frequent climate oscillations, with many dramatic glacial (colder) and interglacial (warmer) events and less severe stadials and interstadials occurring. Described by palaeontologist Björn Kurtén as ‘a faunal revolution’, the Pleistocene was an era with a continuously changing animal composition: species shifted in their distributions, evolved and became extinct.
Scientists have stated that, due to the actions of humans, the earth is currently experiencing its sixth mass extinction. However, these extinctions occurred long before the present day. Significant disruption to Pleistocene ecosystems occurred when Homo sapiens arrived in Europe, with rapid losses of large animals taking place from 50,000 to 7,000 years ago. A similar chain of events occurred when H. sapiens expanded to the other continents, with an estimated one billion individual animals lost across the globe. Herbivores were hunted for food, with some tribes specialising in hunting particular species, such as horses or mammoths. Carnivores were a source of competition for resources and danger.
The climatic change that coincided with modern human arrivals placed further stresses on megafaunal populations, reducing their ability to cope with an intelligent and territorial species that can occupy so many niches. These losses also caused trophic cascades, negatively affecting ecosystem function and biodiversity.
Remains of past creatures in Britain have been found at locations including Dogger Bank in the North sea, the Crags in East Anglia and the Joint Mitnor Cave in South Devon, which contains deposits of elephant, hippo, bison and hyena bones from 125,000 years ago. Even excavations under Trafalgar Square in London have yielded hippo and elephant remains.
During periods of climatic change, species adapted and shifted in distribution: glacial refuges for species adapted to a temperate climate were Spain, Italy and Turkey. Interglacial fauna that included deer, rhinos and straight-tusked elephants were replaced by their glacial counterparts of reindeer, woolly rhinos and woolly mammoths. Interglacials were approximately 13,000 years in length, with glacials lasting much longer. The most recent interglacial before the current one we are living in was the Eemian, commencing 135,000 years ago and lasting until 110,000 years ago, when the Earth was 3-5°C warmer than today (interestingly, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were around 280 parts per million during the Eemian).
Throughout interglacial periods, the communities of large European Pleistocene mammals inhabiting a range of habitats comprised of…
Learning about the communities of species that lived across Europe can give an insight into the habitats they helped to engineer. Ecologists are studying the role of extinct megafauna in the functioning of ecosystems: this is called paleoecology. As a graduate in Land Management for Conservation, I find it fascinating to study the origins of the species alive today and to discover the past influences on their evolution and ecology.
During the Pleistocene, almost all (>98%) botanical species present today were in existence and many butterflies and other insect species were too. The avifauna of present day Britain and northwest Europe is almost unchanged from previous Pleistocene interglacials. Evidence has been found of species such as swallows, skylarks, starlings, kestrels, ravens, blackbirds, long eared owls, nuthatches, blackcaps and wrens. We know the ecology of these species; therefore we have more clues when piecing together the character and appearance of past ecosystems.
Biodiversity is highest where a mosaic of habitats exists. Some species utilise a range of habitats during different life stages, others are reliant on a single habitat type for their specialist needs. At a landscape scale, a whole host of elements contribute to creating a functional ecosystem. A complete interglacial Pleistocene ecosystem contained a suite of animals, each with a role to play in helping to create a mosaic of forests, scrub, wetlands and grasslands.
Straight-tusked elephants would coppice trees, creating sunny glades for woodland flowers and butterflies. Rhinos and deer browsed scrub, encouraging dense, bushy growth suitable for bird nesting. Herds of horses and aurochs grazed grasslands, creating open spaces for wildflowers to thrive, with bees and butterflies feeding on nectar and small mammals foraging on the ground.
Hippos wallowed in lakes and swamps, whilst swallows and dragonflies hawked overhead for small insects, in turn pursued by birds of prey. As well as lions and leopards, dung beetles flourished with the abundance of large herbivorous mammals. Lions of the Cromerian interglacial (600,000 years ago) were possibly the largest felines that ever existed.
Only recently have ecologists started to uncover the effects on ecosystem function caused by megafaunal extinctions. Present day conservationists realise the necessity of large herbivores as important tools for managing nature reserves. The Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands is a large-scale conservation project that has taken elements of megafaunal communities to recreate a semi-functional ecosystem to benefit many species, especially birds. Konik horses, Heck cattle and Red deer are the principal grazers and browsers.
Knepp Estate in West Sussex has transformed unproductive arable land into an innovative rewilding project. Cattle, horses, deer and pigs roam freely creating a range of habitats, whilst the estate profits from tourism and selling their free-range meat. Alladale Estate in the Scottish highlands has ambitions to release top predators such a bears, lynx and wolves into a large, enclosed expanse of land.
Reintroducing extinct species is a key part of rewilding: a conservation concept that aims to restore ecological function to landscapes.
Whilst we can never fully reconstruct the ecosystems from the past, complete with all the extinct flora and fauna, we can utilise elements similar to them to create rich and biodiverse habitats for the benefit of wildlife and people. Simultaneously, we must also strive to protect the habitats and lives of the amazing megafauna that we are lucky enough to share the Earth with.
References – this post required research from a variety of sources, the following references contain a wealth of information on the topics covered.
Deciding the subject of my dissertation turned out to be relatively simple, although with so many interesting topics to study, it was hard to choose. I wanted to study something at an interesting location to produce findings that could have a practical conservation application. Reading ‘A Sting in the Tale’ by Dave Goulson proved to be influential on my decision to study bees: it’s full of fascinating information about the ecology and behaviour of bumblebees. There are over 270 species of bee across the UK and there is still much to learn about their abundance and distribution.
After reading so much about bees, I started to notice them much more, especially the really small ones that previously I would have thought were small flies. Solitary bees can be as tiny as 3.5mm, (e.g. some Hylaeus species). The range of sizes of bees of the same species can vary: the smallest workers of Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) can be 11mm, whilst the largest queens can reach 22mm. Worker’s body masses can vary up to ten times between individuals: this is called size polymorphism.
One of my favourite places to visit is Charnwood Lodge in northwest Leicestershire: a ‘wild’ expanse of heath, woodland and grassland with a profusion of interesting species present, including green hairstreak butterflies and willow warblers. When visiting last spring, I noticed that much of the wildlife I encountered was centred on the patches of gorse scrub scattered across the site: ladybirds, spiders, green hairstreaks and bees. Having volunteered with the Wildlife Trust in this area a few times before, I knew that ‘scrub bashing’ was a key part of habitat management on the acid and heath grasslands. I felt compelled to find out more about the scrub on the reserve after I had been a participant in the contradictory actions of marvelling at and destroying the scrub.
I was surprised to learn that scrub wasn’t listed as a priority habitat in the Leicestershire and Rutland Biodiversity Action Plan. Although often lumped together with woodland, scrub is an important habitat in its own right, providing food for many invertebrates, shelter for reptiles and nesting opportunities for many species of birds. As part of my study, I wanted to discover which characteristics of scrub provided the most benefit for foraging bees. I surveyed bees on transects of bramble and gorse across nature reserves in the Charnwood forest throughout spring and summer. The scrub characteristics included: size of scrub patch, growth structure, amount of shade, aspect and level of connectivity.
Throughout the course of the study, my discoveries about bees and pollination grew and grew. I never knew that bees actually have five eyes; the additional three are called ocelli and are located on the top of the head. These simple eyes detect changes in light and movement, whilst the two more complex compound eyes perceive a range of colours, including ultraviolet.
I was aware of the threats bees face from a multitude of factors including habitat loss and pesticides, but their habitat requirements are complex, with suitable nesting sites and sufficient food resources essential for survival. One bee can visit up to 6,000 flowers in one day: the presence of an abundance of flowers throughout the growing season is extremely important. A bee’s full stomach will only last around forty minutes. Studies have found that bumblebee colonies will grow faster and support more individuals when their nest is near to extensive patches of flowers. Some species have declined drastically due to the absence of sufficient floral resources: the great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus) used to be widespread in the UK, but is now restricted to northwest Scotland where traditional crofting practices allow wildflowers such as clovers to persist in sufficient numbers.
Flowers in the Legume family (e.g. clovers) are preferred as the protein content of the pollen is around 35%, higher than other plants. Pollen is fed to developing bee larvae and is more nutritious when bees are situated in more natural landscapes.
The life-cycles of solitary and social bees differ, with different species occupying specific niches, be it tree or subterranean nesting habits or emerging early or late in the year. Both groups of bees have an annual life-cycle, occasionally producing two generations in a year. Bumblebee queens are the only bee of the colony to survive the winter, with the workers and males dying off after all the males and queens have been produced. This queen will found the nest, collecting pollen in which to lay the eggs and will then rear her first brood. Once these bees (all female) have emerged from pupation, they will take charge of rearing each batch of larvae: firstly their sisters and later, their brothers.
Solitary bees have no queen or colony, with individual female bees laying single eggs in chambers of cavities in stems or in underground burrows. Some species make use of leaves and mud to create nest cells and others are cuckoo species, laying their own eggs in other bee’s nest cells. Although they are laid last, the males hatch first. After growing by feeding on a ball of pollen provided in each chamber, the young bees overwinter as pupae before emerging in spring.
There is still much to learn about the foraging range of the majority of bee species. Buff tailed bumblebees are able to fly over 5km and honeybees up to 6km, with the ability to fly directly to flowers from the nest. Smaller solitary bees have been recorded flying between 150 and 600m: this knowledge is vitally important if we are to conserve bees at a landscape scale by ensuring nesting and foraging habitats are close to each other.
It is truly amazing how large bumblebee queens can fly in temperatures lower than 4°C, considering they require their flight muscles to exceed 30°C. Smaller bees cannot fly in such cold conditions, becoming active over 10°C. Thermoregulation is achieved by shivering the flight muscles and enabled by fructose bisphosphatase enzymes. Some bee species (such as red tailed bumblebees) have higher levels of this enzyme, meaning they can forage on large patches of flowers for longer.
My study found that scrub was an important floral resource for bees throughout spring and summer. The results showed that foraging bee species richness and abundance was significantly higher on scrub patches that were light, south-facing and with a compact growth structure. South-facing scrub patches in full sun were most important in spring, when their warmer microclimates were vital to allow bees to maintain a suitable temperature to fly and forage efficiently. When spring weather is poor, the difference of a slight increase in temperature can improve the chances of a foraging bee. Scrub with a compact growth structure appeared to have more inflorescences than older, leggy scrub. With an increase in flowers, there will be an increase in bee abundance, with longer foraging times on flowers. Although studies have found that pollinators will show preference for larger flower patches, the size of the scrub patches wasn’t an influential factor on bee abundance in the study.
The ideal conditions can be created for bees and other pollinators through sensitive scrub management. The current programme of grazing with English Longhorn cattle helps to keep the heath-grassland areas open by preventing the establishment of scrub seedlings, allowing the grassland flowers to thrive. Established blocks of scrub can be cleared to created sheltered, south-facing bays, with as much boundary:area ratio as possible. To encourage a wide age-range of scrub, rotational cutting can be carried out, similar to managing a coppice woodland.
I reached the aims I have set out to achieve: my study was successful in providing an insight into the scrub characteristics beneficial for foraging bees and my results will have a practical application by informing the scrub management programmes across the reserves. I was also pleased to generate new records for the Wildlife Trust across the study sites, recording 19 species of bee in total.
Thanks go to Senior Conservation Officer Neil Pilcher and my tutor James Littlemore for their advice and support throughout the study.
References – Bumblebees: Behaviour, Ecology, and Conservation by Dave Goulson and Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk