Cornwall Beaver Project: Blogs 1 & 2

Recently I’ve been proud to be involved in the online presence of the Cornwall Beaver Project – a fenced beaver trial managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Woodland Valley Farm, that will not only build on existing work in demonstrating the animals’ effect on ecology and hydrology, but showcase them to rural communities and exemplify the benefit they can bring to our landscapes.

You can read my first two blogs for the project here:

More struggles to define rewilding, and a relevant announcement.

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“Why should I join twitter?” Ask a decreasing number of vaguely internet-literate wildlife conservationists. Well, for one you can get involved in rather lively twitter discussions, and nothing’s surer to hit off a reaction like a magnesium-burning demonstration in a school teaching lab then a rewilding debate.

One such event happened this weekend gone, and it was a cracker. It was cracked off with this tweet from Miles King, itself in response to a statement from the Countryside Alliance: Continue reading

Good Zoos: Please don’t let one bad egg tarnish the greats

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Black Rhino at Paignton Zoo. Just one endangered species managed in captivity.

It’s a horrific story. 486 animals had died at South Lakes zoo in the space of over four years, frequently as a result of poor husbandry practices, and sometimes found still decaying in the enclosure. The owner, David Gill (whose attitude has been of concern for the zoo community for a while now), has been refused the licence and it all seems likely the place will, rightly, be closed.

South Lakes is a bad zoo; it is not, however some press opinions have already starting hinting, an example typical of zoos. These articles range from suggesting that live animals on public display is a bygone that should be replaced by virtual reality, to saying that all zoos should be outright banned. Continue reading

Trees are the enemy: Making mountains out of molehills in Scotland

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View of Ben Macdui in 2015 – won’t get trees here.

Tree planting ‘threatening’ Scotland’s grand vistas

 After hearing some good news for once this morning (the fact that Philip Pullman’s writing a follow-up to ‘His Dark Materials’, should you want to know), I was brought back down into a huff by this piece. Take a look, and absorb its content.

Read it? Right, where to begin. How about some key points?

Mountaineering Scotland and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association have jointly written to Scotland’s environment secretary – Doesn’t take a genius to see the vested interests here. Mountaineers want mountains to climb, fair enough. But the highest and best peaks in Scotland, such as Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui and Ben Nevis, are in the alpine zone where any tree attempting to grow is on a suicide mission. It’s practically a tundra habitat, where the occasional scots pine is no longer high and mighty but resembles a tumbleweed, so the laws of ecology will ensure there will still be plenty of bare peaks. And anyway, surely not all their membership are adverse to trees? It’s not like you can’t hike through them. And of course, the gamekeepers require plenty of heavily managed heather for their bounties of beyond carrying-capacity grouse populations – trees are as welcome as dog faeces (although I bet there are gamekeepers who’d like to see more trees too). But it’s a bit strange to protest because… Continue reading

Where have all the binmen gone?

This article was written for the University of Exeter’s ‘Field Course Fortnight’ blog. Read the original piece here.

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-12-05-25If you see dead things in Africa, there should be vultures circling above it. A child can tell you that. Even if you’re one of those people who finds vultures to be ghoulish, off-putting and reminiscent of a decrepit old funeral director, you should at least find things odd if carcasses on the savannah are un-touched by the birds.

That’s just what’s happening across much of Kenya, and to witness it is unsettling. We saw two rhino carcasses in the time we spent in the country, yet not a single vulture was seen even investigating the bodies of Africa’s second largest land animal. In fact, over the whole 12 days I was there, I only recall seeing a few birds overhead around Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park, and a roost of Ruppell’s griffon vultures at the latter – down to less than 20 pairs, about a tenth of what it was. Continue reading

Post-Truth in Conservation: Reflections on 2016 and aims for 2017

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2016 in a nutshell (Image: Ron Bury)

Whatever you read or hear, the public consensus is that 2016 has been as warmly received as someone redecorating your wallpaper with cat faeces. Of course like all things in life, nothing’s clearly good or evil. On a personal level I had a rather good year, bar some dissertation stress in March/April and a bit of middling near the end, but overall it treated me well, and it’s not what I’m going to go on about here. This is, after all, a nature blog.

And as such, you could argue that nature conservation has been set off to an even more uncertain, divisive start to the new year than has been seen for a long time. The rise of the far-right, driven by the un-predicted victories of Breakfast and Dump (as I think we’ve all heard their venomous names often enough now), has created a world in which these previously blurred ‘your-side, their-side’ divisions are growing clearer.

Unsurprisingly, the conservation sector is not really considered part of the picture in the mainstream. But similar things are going on there. Directly, mistrust ranging from disregard to outright hatred of experts and scientists, fuelled by the new alt-right leaders, has set us off into the much discussed post-truth era, with among others things, climate change going straight to the centre of the dartboard. Wildlife conservation isn’t safe from this either. Continue reading

Scottish Beavers are here to stay – and we’re finally showing some ambition in UK conservation.

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Beaver on the River Otter, Devon (Image: Nick Upton)

“What’s this idea you’ve got then?” asked the CEO to his colleague. He raised his eyebrow intently – he’d heard on the grapevine his new assistant conservation director didn’t necessarily follow the rulebook, which was part of the reason they’d been hired in the first place.

 “Well, if we’re to really show some ambition,” said the new assistant director, trying their best to stamp out the nerves that threatened to crush the pitch, “to restore habitat in a way we couldn’t think was possible – and gain public awareness with a charismatic animal to boot – there’s some good research from the continent that suggests we should start seriously considering the reintroduction of the, uh, the reintroduction of the beaver.”

There was silence, followed by laughter, followed by words from the CEO as to how that should never be considered as a serious proposal. That it was make-believe, better suited to over-ambitious undergraduates who romanticise the reality of wildlife conservation. The stakeholders would be aghast, the funding wasn’t there, and anyway: not only was this animal extinct, but so was the Britain it lived in. The beaver would never be a native again.

Thirty years later, Scottish Natural Heritage declared the beaver was officially a native once again, and was here to stay. Continue reading

So long, and thanks for not caring – Extinction in the Modern Age

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Photo: Atlanta Zoo

This article was originally published on the website of The Falmouth Anchor, the student newspaper of University of Exeter Penryn Campus and Falmouth University. Read the original piece here.

Did you know an entire species went extinct just over a month ago? A perfect product of millions of years worth of evolutionary moulding via natural selection, now vanished to the abyss of non-existence never to be seen in the cosmos again? Something far more precious than any great temple or artwork for the simple fact it couldn’t be recreated, no matter how hard we tried?

To be honest, I didn’t until this week. And that’s speaking as a lifelong zoologist who generally has more interest in the affairs of the natural world than anything our species gets up to.

Ecnomiohyla rabborum (or Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog if you want to speak a mouthful in English), we hardly knew ye. Discovered by science in 2005, first described in 2007. At the same time the last one was heard calling in the wild, the entirety of the species was taken into captivity.

It was a safety measure in the face of its isolated distribution and the subsequent apocalyptic threat of chytrid fungus. This fast-spreading organism has already plummeted the numbers of other amphibians; sometimes wiping them out completely. Conservationists hoped this same fate wouldn’t befall the Rabbs, but they showed about as much sexual interest in each other as Celestine monks. By the time the last female of the species died at the hoped-for restoration population at Atlanta Zoo, their fate was sealed.

On the 26th September this year, the last male perished. And barely anyone seemed to know. Continue reading

State of Nature 2: Still not in a good state

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Look at that above image – isn’t it exciting? If you’re a conservation NGO in the UK, you’re more than likely to be under the State of Nature partnership. The popular kids like the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts rub shoulders with the niche but equally wonderful smaller groups such as the Conchological Society and Froglife. The international students, big hitters like WWF, ZSL and (the legacy of my own particular role model) Durrell contributing to the fight on our doorstep. Not to mention an organisation I sit on the leading committee for, the UK’S youth network A Focus on Nature, is sitting up there. As someone who’s only just started a Master’s and isn’t even working in conservation, that makes me feel rather giddy to know the work we’re doing is represented on such a stage.

It should be the dream team. Like a wildlife Avengers Assemble, the State of Nature network should be spearheading real, direct action to set up new policy and put in more effective practice. Under this umbrella unit, we should be seeing some clarity to Mark Avery’s ‘Tangled Bank’ of NGOs, where the huge array of organisations becomes as confusing to negotiate as the craft ale selection in a pretentious hipster bar.

Sadly, the State of Nature partnership has returned in a sequel that bares about as much optimism as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (nb: if for some reason you aren’t familiar with Star Wars, that means not good.) The State of Nature 2 report was launched today, and only 3 years after the first one. It all seems a bit soon, and might make one think we’ve had an apocalyptic decline of wildlife in that time (surely Brexit didn’t result in all our songbirds dying off as well?). Maybe not quite, but certainly in the last few decades. But then isn’t that what the one in 2013 said? And I definitely remember going to the launch of the ‘Response for Nature’ report last year too. Continue reading

Martian Cats & Living Pinecones: Saving Vietnam’s Pangolins & Carnivores

It’s nearly 3am, and the local crickets and cicadas are probably feeling rather put-off by the fact their regular chorus at this time – a continuous buzz and fizz like a convention of sewing machines and buzz saws gone haywire – is for once being overshadowed by the holler of humans up way past their bedtime. The porch lights at the gates of the centre illuminated a lazy gold-orange glow on proceedings, which was beginning to resemble something like a nature conservationist Dunkirk. The barks of requests for ID, water and a microchip bounce around the warm night air of the Forest, wooden crates lie scattered across the gravel where one by one they are hauled onto a battered old bus waiting in the gateway, and only two or three of the team of 15 or so people seem to stay fixed to one spot.

Though my body was used to being in deep sleep by now, the rush of the moment kept my mind as active as if I had received shots of espresso to my bloodstream. I went from crate to crate with a rapidly decreasing load of water in a plastic bottle, pouring it into cups hooked to the inside of the boxes, and then going back to crates waiting to be loaded to double-check they’d received water in the midst of the rush. Occasionally I’d find myself called over, and sent to delicately lift out the occupants of these boxes for one last health check. In between my hands, a football-like sphere of brown scales that could be mistaken for a giant seed-pod or other earthy product, until from the centre a naked, elongated, almost canine face and a pair of tiny stumpy feet ending in heavy curled claws unravels itself. Tonight, we’re giving 20 Sunda pangolins a second chance.

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A Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) about to undergo a vet check.

Continue reading