All posts by jamierossigould

From Transylvania back to home

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The beauty of Transylvania

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.


Expedition

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.

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View over Apold

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.

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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.

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This would have been a familiar scene in Medieval England

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.

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Bird ringing: these Goldfinches were caught in mist nets and are measured, weighed and fitted with rings before being released

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.

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The village of Mălâncrav
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The village of Daia

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.

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Hummocks formed by glacial deposits are extremely botanically diverse

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.

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Bare earth is important for many butterflies such as these High brown fritillaries to feed on minerals

The region contains the largest area of lowland hay meadows and the only remaining lowland wolves and bears in Europe.

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Print of a brown bear in the woods

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.

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Lesser grey shrike caught in Viscri
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Map butterfly

Species-rich meadows

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.

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Blue butterflies

One meadow was extremely steep and decorated with the sugar-white flowers of branched St Bernard’s-lily.

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Branched St Bernard’s-lily

One damp meadow was the favoured place of dazzling green forester moths and fiery scarce copper butterflies.

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Scarce copper butterfly

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.

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A Crab spider lying in wait on the flowers of Betony

One orchard grassland was rich in small mammals, with golden orioles and bee-eaters abundant overhead.

 

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Orchard grassland

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

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Wild carrot, chicory, betony, agrimony, field scabious, crown vetch, quaking grass, lady’s bedstraw, wild leek, common restharrow, fleabane and trefoil grow side by side in this patch adjacent to a meadow

 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.

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This grassland is dominated by red clover and bird’s-foot trefoil but was providing many species with food

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.

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The meadows were alive with sound created by crickets and grasshoppers

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.

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Local villagers were cutting small sections of the grassland for a manageable, short-term supply of feed for their animals

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.

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The pace of life is much slower in the countryside

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.

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A fully loaded hay cart will feed one cow for a quarter of the winter

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.

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A sheep guard dog and his flock are kept out in the hills

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.


Conservation

‘The whole fragile ecosystem of villages, landscape and biodiversity has to be conserved as a geographical, cultural and biological entity’2

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European swallowtail butterfly

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.

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Map of southern Transylvania

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.

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Machines are increasingly being used to farm the region

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.

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Funding has allowed local farmers to cut grasslands with walk-behind mowers rather than scythes

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

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Hay meadow before cutting
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Hay meadow after cutting (a reasonable area behind me has been left uncut – an important refuge for the grassland species that are still going about their daily lives

If the British countryside was similar to Transylvania in the past, what can we learn for the future?

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Overhead view of the Transylvanian countryside

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.

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Overhead view of the English countryside

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

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The Orache moth was formerly resident in East Anglia, but is common in Transylvania

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

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Juvenile Yellowhammer

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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Fritillary butterflies are dependent on violets growing on open woodland floors as their larval foodplants

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.

 

orchard-grassland


 

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This collage of photos sits pride of place on my wall to remind me of my fantastic expedition

 

References

  1. Grasslands More Diverse Than Rain Forests—In Small Areas: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/120320-grasslands-rain-forests-species-diversity-environment/
  1. The Historic Countryside of the Saxon Villages of Southern Transylvania (2006) John Akeroyd
  1. Plant species diversity and traditional management in Eastern Carpathian grasslands: Anna Mária Csergő and László Demeter
  1. The Mosaic Approach: Managing Habitats for Species (2013) Natural England: http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6415972705501184
  1. Hope Farm: http://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-and-sustainability/farming/hopefarm/

– Biodiversity conservation in a High Nature Value farmed landscape, Transylvania (2011) Fundația ADEPT

– Indicator plants of the High Nature Value dry grasslands of Transylvania (2012) John Akeroyd and Sabin Bădărău

– Fundația ADEPT: http://www.fundatia-adept.org

The Forgotten Forest

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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.

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Peat resting upon the layer of clay on Low Hauxley beach
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The trees are still in the same places where they grew 7,000 years ago
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The surface of the peat is still soft and spongy

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.

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7,000 year old tree stump
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Fragments of Silver birch bark is beautifully preserved in the surface of the peat

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.

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A human footprint-shaped indentation in 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.

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Oak, pine and silver birch

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.

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Many forests flooded as sea levels rose

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%.

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Mixed deciduous woodland covered around 43% of Mesolithic Britain

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.

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Large mammals would become easier targets in open habitats such as marshland or grassland

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.

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Although humans were skilled hunters, they would still have been vulnerable in the woods

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.”*

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We are still inextricably linked to the natural world, gaining a variety of benefits from the environment

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.

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Natural events led to the demise of this forest, but thousands of years ago there was still plenty of space for large tracts of woodland to thrive in Britain.

 

References

 

 

A European Safari – Large Animals of the Pleistocene

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.

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Straight-tusked Elephant, Merck’s Rhinoceros, Aurochs, Lesser Scimitar Cat, Red Deer and Hippopotamus in a Pleistocene landscape.

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…

  • Lions
  • Leopards
  • Hunting dogs
  • Wolves
  • Dholes
  • Hyenas
  • Lynx
  • Scimitar cats
  • Giant cheetahs
  • Polecats
  • Foxes
  • Bears
  • Mastodonts
  • Elephants
  • Rhinos
  • Horses
  • Wild ass
  • Hippos
  • Elk
  • Ibex
  • Tahrs
  • Wild hogs
  • Bison
  • Buffalo
  • Aurochs
  • Beavers
  • Deer

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.

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Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) were present in the Pleistocene

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.

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The beautiful semi-natural landscapes of Transylvania and their associated biodiversity may be one of the closest existing European ecosystems to an interglacial Pleistocene one.

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.

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English Longhorn cattle graze a Wildlife Trust nature reserve in Leicestershire, creating open grassland and heathland habitats.

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.

  • Kurtén, B. (2007) Pleistocene Mammals of Europe
  • Pires et al. (2015) Pleistocene megafaunal interaction networks became more vulnerable after human arrival. Proc. R. Soc. B.
  • Malhi et al. (2015) Megafauna and ecosystem function from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene. PNAS
  • Monbiot, G. (2013) Feral: Rewilding the land, sea and human life
  • Kehr, J. (2011) The Inconvenient Skeptic: the Comprehensive Guide to the Earth’s Climate
  • Prins, H. (1998) Grazing and Conservation Management (Origins and development of grassland communities in Northwestern Europe).

A Study of Bees

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Male white tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) on bramble flower

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.

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A small solitary bee species – Andrena haemorrhoa – 8-11mm in length
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Queen buff tailed bumblebees (B. terrestris) can reach 22mm in length

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.

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Charnwood Lodge

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.

Bramble with a dense growth structure
Bramble with a dense growth structure

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.

All five eyes are visible on this solitary bee Andrena clarkella
All five eyes are visible on this solitary bee – Andrena clarkella

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.

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Andrena cineraria – a solitary bee that is one of the most important pollinators of oil-seed rape

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.

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Queen white tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) foraging on gorse

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.

Silvery leafcutter bee (Megachile leachella)
Silvery leafcutter bee (Megachile leachella) collecting leaf material for its nest

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.

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Studies have found the foraging range of common carder bees (B. pascuorum) to be within 500m of their nests

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.

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Red tailed bumblebee (B. lapidarius)

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.

Scrub before management
Scrub before clearance
Sheltered, mainly south-facing bays created through scrub clearance
Sheltered, mainly south-facing bays created through scrub clearance

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.

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References – Bumblebees: Behaviour, Ecology, and Conservation by Dave Goulson and Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven  Falk

Winter in the woodlands

Now winter is almost over, and despite it being a wild and stormy one at times, it has been a season of valuable learning experiences for me. With my Volunteer reserve officer position at Pitsford Water Nature Reserve, I’ve gained brushcutter and chainsaw qualifications and have had experience managing habitats with this machinery.

One of my favourite tasks was coppicing: a very satisfying job to do by hand, it is easier but much noisier when done with a chainsaw. Some overgrown hazel stools needed coppicing in one of the compartments at Pitsford, so it was great to have a go at coppicing with a chainsaw, as well as trying out a few other woodland skills.

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Coppice stool

I removed all shoots except the youngest one on each stool and practised layering: a process used to increase the stock of stools in a coppice woodland. As hazel coppice is quite rare at Pitsford, it will be good to increase the density of stools. After bending the stem, I shaved the bark off a section to expose the cambium (the vascular tissue that creates secondary growth) and pegged it into the ground with some Y-shaped forks cut earlier.

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Layered stem
Pegged into ground
Pegged into ground

I took time to brash over each stool with a dead-hedge style technique: it’s a bit of an experiment that aims to keep deer from browsing the regrowth and allow light to reach the stool as well as giving space for the stems to grow straight up. Piling brash directly over the stool could block some of the light/space the stool needs and could result in regrowth that isn’t as strong or straight. On a visit to Rawhaw Wood, the owners Huw and Carolyn found brashing stools reduced the quality of their coppice products: instead they create a high dead hedge around each coupe to keep the deer out and their coppice stems perfect.

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Three stools completed
Three stools completed

On a slightly different note, there is another activity that can be done in the woodlands at the coldest time of year…

In the bleakness of winter, there can be little to study and identify. The easiest and most obvious identifiable parts of many plants won’t appear until spring comes around. However, careful observation can reveal exquisite details that will aid in identification of certain plant species. Trees are wonderfully diverse in their morphology and this is more subtly displayed in winter. The tree’s leaf and flower buds are produced in the previous growing season and are protected by bud scales. Each species has unique bud and stem characteristics, and along with inspection of the bark and tree shape, identification of tree species in winter can be relatively simple.

To help myself (and maybe others!) memorise tree bud identification, I searched for and have taken some images of a number of common British tree species.

Alder (Alnus glutinosa) – Alder buds are a greyish-purple colour, with a soft texture and are slightly curved, sometimes looking almost slipper shaped.

Alder bud
Alder bud
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Alder catkins

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) – Ash buds are distinctively coal-black, with a rounded triangular shape and resemble tiny deer hooves!

Ash bud
Ash bud

Beech (Fagus sylvatica) – Beech buds are glossy chestnut in colour, very thin and taper to a sharp point.

Beech bud
Beech bud

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – Blackthorn is easily recognised by its many spiny thorns. To distinguish between Hawthorn, look at the buds which are arranged in clusters on spines, not singly.

Blackthorn buds
Blackthorn buds

Wild cherry (Prunus avium) – Cherry buds are quite round and pointed at the tip, and resemble bunches of cherries in their arrangement on the stem: they cluster in groups at nodes, although they can be spaced out singly and alternately on the stem.

Wild cherry buds
Wild cherry buds

Crabapple (Malus sylvestris) – Crabapple buds are reddish-brown and teardrop shaped, pointed at the tip. Some new buds sit atop a stack of knobbly scars on the stem from previous years, whilst other stems are smooth, having grown quicker.

Crabapple buds
Crabapple buds

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) – The stems of dogwood are more distinctive than the buds, with a bright red hue, although they can be green on the opposite side. The buds are small, brown and pointed.

Dogwood buds
Dogwood buds

Field maple (Acer campestre) – Field maple buds are small, with grey bud scales. Their position on the stem is a good defining feature: the buds are placed opposite on the stem, with each pair pointing in the opposite direction to the one before. Stems can become corky and ridged with age.

Field maple buds
Field maple buds

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – Most hawthorn stems have spines, some don’t, but all have very round brown buds that are red at the tip.

Hawthorn buds
Hawthorn buds

Hazel (Corylus avellana) – The hazel is starting to flower at this time of year, so some tiny female flowers resembling red sea anemones are sprouting from the tips of buds. Buds are greenish brown on a slightly hairy stem.

Hazel buds
Hazel buds
Female Hazel flowers
Female Hazel flowers

Common Lime (Tilia x europaea) – Lime buds are a rich red colour, quite large and oval shaped. They are placed alternately on the red stem, which kinks at each node.

Lime buds
Lime buds

Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) – Oak buds are chestnut coloured and egg shaped, with more than 3 bud scales enclosing the bud. Buds are quite large and cluster at the tip of the stem.

Oak buds
Oak buds

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) – Young Rowan has beautiful shining silver bark, which can be quite distinctive in winter, as are the buds. Dark and coated in downy silver hair, the buds are held close the stem.

Rowan buds
Rowan buds

Silver birch (Betula pendula) – Most easily recognised by its striking paper white bark in winter, Silver birch buds are a long, pointed oval shape, held tight against the brown stem.

Silver birch
Silver birch buds

Spindle (Euonymus europaea) – Easily recognised if the bright pink seed pods are still attached to the plant, spindle buds are located opposite on the stem and I think they are shaped like curvy minarets!

Spindle
Spindle buds

Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra) – Elm buds are small, alternate in their position on the stem and are a deep brown, almost black colour.

Elm buds
Elm buds

 

Waiting in the dark – the moth’s struggle for survival

Moths are some of my favourite creatures: so many species to see, so little time! Luckily, with my new position as Volunteer Reserve Officer at Pistford Water in Northamptonshire, I have the perfect opportunity to practise my moth ID skills. Every morning, I help Reserve Officer and moth expert Mischa check the two moth traps on the reserve: one of the most stunning moths of the autumn has been the beautiful Merveille du Jour:

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I thought I would share a piece about moths that I entered into the RES Student Award last year…

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Waiting in the dark. The hoot of a tawny owl echoes in the depths of the wood. The Mercury Vapour lamp illuminates the Rowan, Bracken and Oak. A hunting bat clicks overhead, perhaps stealing a precious catch. Once it is pitch black and the traps have been out for some time, it is time to see what has come to visit. The effect of strong lights on moths remains a mystery. Similarly, it is often a mystery as to which species will come to the light trap. An amazingly diverse range of moth species can be found in Britain: 2,500 in total.

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Poplar Hawkmoth

Four traps are spread over one site and each trap yields something completely different. Ranging in size from the delicate and specialised Apotomis sauciana micromoth, with 7mm long wings, to the stunning Poplar Hawkmoth, 40mm long wings held carefully angled from its body. The elegant Beautiful Golden Y, the shimmering White Satin, the charismatic Elephant Hawkmoth, coloured with streaks of bright pink, the Green Carpet cloaked in waves of leaf green, the diminutive Sallow Kitten, the comical Coxcomb Prominent, both melanic and typical Peppered moths and the aptly named Scorched Wing are found amongst many others. It is a miracle how some of these moths are here on this night: the immense range of obstacles that a moth faces from the moment it begins life as an egg, to successfully reproducing are quite considerable. Of the hundreds or even thousands of caterpillars that hatch from one brood, it is often only two that succeed in reproducing as adults. But these two are sufficient to ensure the continuation of the species.1

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Elephant Hawkmoth

A moth requires a variety of habitats to survive: foodplants can differ from nectar sources, which can differ from places to shelter, breed or overwinter. When a caterpillar hatches, it needs a number of factors to thrive, including an adequate food supply of its preferred foodplant/plants and shelter to avoid predation. Unfavourable weather conditions can be a disadvantage: harsh frosts in winter and spring, and cool, rainy summers can affect eggs hatching, pupae overwintering and caterpillar growth. Interspecific and intraspecific competition from other larvae is also a challenge; some species will even consume other caterpillars. Various parasitoids will claim a small percentage of a caterpillar’s population. Disease will claim yet more. Many animals rely on caterpillars for sustenance: other invertebrates, including many kinds of beetles, spiders, wasps and ants, as well as bats and amphibians such as newts.

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Drinker moth

The amount of caterpillars that are consumed by other species is enormous. Every year, 35 billion caterpillars of different species are eaten in Britain by Blue Tits alone.2 Consider the number of other insectivorous birds that rely on this essential food source: Pied flycatchers, Willow Tits, Cuckoos, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and many others. Moths form an irreplaceable part of the food chain for numerous species.

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Brimstone and Green Silver-lines

Camouflage, mimicry, startle patterns, urticating hairs and aposematic colour patterns are all adaptations used by adult moths and larvae to avoid the barrage of predators and parasites they face.1 A Swallowtailed moth caterpillar mimics a slender, knobbly twig, a Merveille-du-jour will blend in with pale green foliose lichen, a Garden Tiger moth coated in long hairs discourages hungry birds, a Five-spot Burnet clearly displays its unpalatability with vivid red and black markings, a Chinese Character resembles a bird dropping and a Hornet moth perfectly imitates a stinging Hornet.

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Eyed Hawkmoth

An adult moth still faces many perils after it has successfully survived as an egg, caterpillar and pupae: there are flying predators and even collisions with traffic at night. Predation can occur in the day from birds such as Nightingales and at night from nocturnal birds such as Nightjars and many species of bat, which rely heavily on protein-rich moths to sustain them. After reaching adulthood, a moth still needs to find a mate to succeed in passing its genes to the next generation. The powerful pheromones of the female moth will draw in moths from miles away: but even if a male reaches her, she may have already mated.

After all these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a miracle can happen: two moths of the same species can meet, mate and successfully produce fertilised eggs, continuing their line. And so the struggle for survival will begin again.

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Garden Tiger Moth

Moths appear all through the night: some flying at specific times, such as the hour before dawn. When the trappers are weary, the traps are carefully emptied into the bushes and darkness is returned to the night once more. By trapping and recording the moths on nights such as this, we can monitor their numbers and any changes over time. Declines in these important creatures will be reflected in the multitude of species whose lives are inextricably linked to them.

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Sallow Kitten moth

 

References

  1. Majerus, M. E. N. (2002) Moths. Hammersmith: Harper Collins Publishers.
  2. Fox, R., Parsons, M. S., Chapman J. W., Woiwod, I. P., Warren, M. S and Brooks, D. R. (2013) The State of Britain’s Larger Moths 2013. Butterfly Conservation and Rothamsted Research, Wareham, Dorset, UK.

The Season of Bountiful Hedgerows and Blackberry Picking

One of the most enjoyable end of summer/autumn activities is to forage for fruits along the hedgerows; swollen blue sloe berries, glittering, bead-like elderberries, vermilion rosehips and ripe blackberries. For me, blackberry picking is the highlight of the season – making crumbles and jam from something delicious and free is extremely satisfying!

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Blackberries

It’s important to find the right spot for blackberry picking: countryside TV shows and magazines rave about foraging at this time of year, giving the impression that all of our hedgerows are bursting with fruits. This is not always the case; living in the midst of an agricultural matrix, many of the hedgerows I pass every day (including the ones on my lane) have been cut at the end of summer, yielding very few or no fruits. The hedgerow plants aren’t given the chance to flower next spring due to the harsh cutting of the flail trimmer: mature stems and developed buds have mostly been removed, meaning no flowers or fruits.

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Closely cut hedgerows at the end of summer

The annual cutting of the entire hedge to exactly the same height is commonplace nowadays. Before the advent of mechanised cutting, hedgerow management was done by hand, with trimming and laying carried out annually, but not on every hedge every year: work was hard, took time and hedgerow resources were valued and used by the people of the countryside. Natural England recommends that hedges should be cut every 2-3 years to benefit wildlife. Alternate sides of the hedge could be cut each year, or hedges on a parcel of land could be cut on a rotation, ensuring there are always resources available for wildlife.

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Two sides of elder in my hedge: one uncut, the other cut

Luckily, I managed to have one side of our hedge left uncut this year, so I can observe the differences between the two sides, and hopefully encourage more flowers and fruits. Some of the benefits are already visible: ripening elderberries and rosehips, as well as more branches suitable for perching and hiding in to benefit birds and overwintering insects.

Anyway, back to the blackberries:

Bramble or Rubus fruticosus is not classed as one single species, but around 320 microspecies with broadly similar characteristics. Different microspecies and individuals have different qualities: some have candy pink flowers, some bright white, some produce loads of big, juicy fruits, others smaller, less sweet ones.

It is thanks to the multitude of pollinating insects that the berries (or collection of drupelets) have developed from the sweet vanilla-smelling flowers that appeared earlier in the summer.

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Male white tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) on bramble flowers

The patch that I have picked my blackberries on is the same patch I have been observing for my dissertation study about bees and areas of scrub. On warm days this summer, I have watched many types of bumblebee, as well as honeybees, hoverflies and butterflies feeding on the abundant flowers. The results of these symbioses are well fed insects, pollinated flowers and profusions of fruit.

The location is Charnwood Lodge, a National Nature Reserve managed by The Wildlife Trust in Leicestershire. Here, the bramble and gorse scrub encroaches onto the acid grassland habitats, so is controlled, but provides a multitude of opportunities for wildlife: warm, sheltered basking spots for lizards, nesting areas for chaffinches and other birds, territorial perches for green hairstreak butterflies and of course, nectar resources followed by fruit later in the season.

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Before and after: Bramble flowers and fruits on the same patch

I wish the season for blackberry picking was longer, but more importantly, I wish there were more places to pick blackberries in my locality. If hedgerow management techniques were more considerate, this could be the case.

From the Second World War to the 1990’s, 121,000 km of hedgerows were destroyed as farming intensified and land use changed. 130 UK BAP species and many other species rely on hedgerows as an important habitat. Hedgerows of different shapes and sizes benefit different species, so a mixture of tightly structured and tall, overgrown hedges provides a diverse range of habitats.

In order for much of our wildlife to recover and thrive, hedgerows need to be correctly managed, treated as living things that grow and support a host of other species and not just static boundaries used to separate fields.

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A mature, overgrown hedgerow, with hawthorn, blackthorn, ash, elder, goat willow, dog rose, bramble and elm

References

http://hedgelink.org.uk/cms/cms_content/files/76_ne_hedgecutting.pdf

http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife/habitats/hedgerows