Friday, 19 November 2010

Wildlife that you can't see

I've never seen a blue whale. Actually I am quite content to not see a blue whale in the flesh in the whole of my life.

It's not because I wouldn't want to see one, it is more that I am happy that they exist, I can believe that they are magnificent creatures, and that the world is a better place both ecologically and spiritually with them in existence.

This was something that I did learn at University, that we can gain happiness from knowing that a state exists without experiencing it. It's called vicarious consumption and it is a big theme in modern society. We want people in other parts of the world to lead happy and decent lives, so we are prepared to pay a bit more for coffee, even though we may not ever hear or see these people.

So what about wildlife that lives nearer home, that you aren't allowed to see? Hidden away in every county in England there are woodlands, grasslands, rivers, and all manner of habitats which we have no right of access to. Yet they contain plants and animals and fungi and all the rest of nature. Some of these areas are protected and some are known about and some may be unchartered waters for naturalists.

You may shout "but we should have access to these places", but the point is that the wildlife is there whether or not there is a right of access for the general public and it makes no difference to the ecological health of an area, whether that right exists. So we should be happy that these places exist, plodding away in obscurity, leading their little ecological lives, without newsletters and visitor centres and paths and all the paraphenalia of the modern conservation world.

That's not to say that we shouldn't manage these places for wildlife. They need management (and of course a management option can be to do nothing), but they don't necessarily need access to be of great benefit to wildlife or to us, if we cherish them vicariously.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008


I am always amazed that humans got where they are today since they are so badly adapted to any extreme of temperature away from 50-70deg F and are particularly useless in rain. Other animals are out there all the time not battering an eyelid at the rain, but we cower and reach for the Sunday supplement. Although it may not be the Tourist Boards best slogan, on the West coast of Scotland we live in a temperate rainforest zone. We have lost pretty much of our original wet forest in the UK, but examples are scattered up the western seaboard. It is a pity that we don’t have old growth forests left, since these could act as blueprints to shape the future, but in other parts of the world, such as the Pacific Northwest, they have some fine, albeit fragmented old growth forests.
Living in a wet woodland is a difficult place to inhabit, but at least the climate is fairly constant, no great extremes of heat or cold. It is not the prime habitat for showy flowers or butterflies, except in glades, but it is a great place for the more esoteric species such as lichens, mosses and ferns. Coming back to Arran after a while away it is a real treat to see the luxuriance of the vegetation especially when one has been to more arid climes. Ferns can be important ecologically as pioneer species of bare ground and their very presence with help to maintain the humidity of a woodland. In our areas cleared of Rhododendron ponticum, it is heartening to see ferns come back into the barren soil and I was delighted to find Royal fern, the most handsome of our native ferns growing down by the Merkland burn as a partner to our smallest fern, Tunbridge Filmy-fern
Ferns are associated with damp conditions because they need water in order to complete their reproductive processes. The sexual processes of a fern are rather miraculous and improbable and in the past were explained away by the thought process that they must have invisible flowers. Fortunately these invisible flowers could be collected at Midsummer’s eve and used to make one invisible.
An Arran naturalist expressed the opinion that “life’s too short for ferns”, meaning that they are impossible to identify. Like everything in natural history, it depends on how far you want to go, and when you consider that there are perhaps only a dozen or so common ones to get to grips with, it doesn’t sound too daunting. The fern world is a friendly place and those in the know have produced a fantastic guide to ferns in the AIDGAP series, which has no nonsense id tips, great drawings and photos.
Of course Bracken is known to all and demonised by everyone, but at 40mph it is quite difficult to tell the difference between this and other ferns, and even more difficult if you are in a Helicopter spraying Asulox from a great height. The danger in the state sponsored pteridocide craze is that the herbicides can’t differentiate between Bracken and any other fern, so all the others are killed as well. At North Glen Sannox, the hillside appears to be covered in Bracken, but closer inspection reveals a whole array of flowers and big patches of lemon-scented , Beech and Oak Fern. Arran is also home to the Killarney fern, and although the sites of its occurrence are known, how do we know that there aren’t other sites that could be damaged by spraying?

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

We need more Scrubbers

Scrub is a funny word. It is a word, like “overgrown” which says a lot about the British relationship with nature. Scrub immediately conjures up images of unwanted, ugly, straggly bushes in wasteland. Moreover it means neglect, lack of human superiority over the wild and a move in the wrong direction, from order to chaos. It can take many years to create the ordered, regular landscape of agriculture, so the encroachment of scrub is seen as a turn for the worse and bad land management.
If you look at old photos of Arran you will see that the fields are beautifully ordered, not a sign of scrub there, but in those days there were many people working the land (getting paid a pittance by their overseers), working the hedges, ditches, dykes and scrub. With big numbers of people working the fields, it was easy enough to remove the odd unwanted plant that sprang up, be that ragwort, gorse,or hawthorn. Now working without the use a machine is long gone, and so what was a relatively easy problem to keep on top of becomes more widespread.
I say problem, because it depends what you want. From nature’s point of view, Scrub is a valuable habitat. Scrub is merely the land taking its natural process from open grassland to woodland. Prickly plants like Hawthorn and Gorse protect young trees from grazing animals and over many years the trees become dominant and shade out those pioneer species. These colonisers help change the soil through nitrogen enhancement and leaf litter adds to the soils nutrient levels. The richer soils then can support the more stately trees such as Oak or Ash. In wetter areas, willows come in and their tangled mass can act as a nurse to other species as well.
This is not to advocate that all our pastures and meadows should be allowed to revert to scrub and eventually woodland, but if farming is uneconomic then we probably don’t have a lot of choice since why clear land if it is not to be grazed. As we have so few wildflower meadows left, it is also important that they are not lost to woodland in the long run, but we need to recognise that this is purely “gardening” for nature and against natural processes.
The main area where there should be more scrub is on the hills of Scotland. It is often quoted that we once had woodland up to at least 1500ft in altitude and then scrub above that. If you go to other temperate countries that haven’t utilised the hills as we have, you will see this transition still in tact. This is all to do with how the woodlands have been taken away, burnt, used and then grazed to leave the present open landscape. Things are changing now, there are less sheep on the hills and bits of scrub are appearing higher up in the hills. There are patches of Rowan forming mini groves below the Witches step and below the String, Eared Willow is starting to march across the hills. The process is going to take a long time, but the landscape we see now will look very different in 100 years time.
The addition of scrub helps to change upland soils. Lack of tree cover has led to leaching of nutrients and the acidification of the soil in some places. It has also made these environments much harsher. Living in scrub or woodland at 1500ft is a lot easier than on an open moor. Lower grazing means more plants and more niches for plants to grow in. Lowland animals would be found higher up also. Upland Oaks need upland squirrels and other transporters. This is not to say that we will ever have wall to wall woodland in the hills (unless planted) and it is the mosaic of scrub, trees, grassland, heath and bog that is so rich for wildlife.
There are also species of trees that have been sent to the brink of extinction in this country by grazing. The upland willows like Woolly, Downy and Mountain willow are all very restricted now and it is only through conservation efforts like those at Ben Lawers that they are being saved. On Arran we don’t have these species but we have Juniper hiding, dwarf birch and of course our indigenous Whitebeams waiting to colonise the hills. There are few people, even in the beardy world of conservation, that are interested in promoting Scrub, but there is a pioneering group “The Montane Scrub Action Group” which may sound like a dry affair, but they refer to themselves as “Scrubbers” - we need more of them.

Conservation - a waste of time?

People seem to love to imminent prospect of disaster for some reason. What ever the century, since humankind began to be aware of his or her existence, Armageddon has been around the corner. In my youth it was the threat of nuclear holocaust as the Americans and the Russians played out their testosterone induced games on a vast and potentially devastating scale. Now these fears have somewhat subsided, we have the new end of the world, in Global Warming. We are also chastened by warnings of global collapse due to other changes in the environment such as overfishing, habitat and species loss. In the end though, does it matter?

This may be a strange question for someone who is involved in conservation to ask, but I think it is something we all should ask because it is perhaps a better way to understand why we are doing things and what is important to us.

If you believe in a higher being, are the changes that humans make to the environment pre-ordained or are they against the will of God? Are the changes that we make to the environment “sins” or are they committed by those who need to be “shown the right way”. If one believes only in the randomness of cell mutation as the key to life, is environmental destruction just an expression of the “will of the genes”. Perhaps the destruction of the environment (whether God driven or Gene driven) is meant to be. Maybe it is not destruction of the environment at all, but just a link to a new equilibrium. Throughout the Earths history, scientists believe that there have been mass extinctions, driven by catastrophes or varying causes, and yet life has gone on. In some of these events it is believed that 95% of all species were wiped out. What ordained these episodes? and is the world a worse place for them or not. If they hadn’t had happened then humans and many other species may not have existed.

It seems that most of believe that “in the end”, humans will be there to watch the last sunset. Perhaps we are just a passing phase in the earth’s history and what we are doing to the rest of the world’s species is a way to bypass the pre-eminence of humans over everything else. I suppose we would be the first species to destroy themselves, by basically being “too clever for their own good”.

So if it is all pre-ordained, or simply an expression of the genes, why bother conserving anything. Of course, we live in the here and now, and we want our children to be able to support themselves. Who is to say that humans can’t support themselves in a species poor environment? It is assumed that this is the case, but look at the West. Do people not survive in the prairies where there is 1000s of miles of man-made monoculture? Every single cm of the UK has been utilised by humans for their own benefit, and yet we survive, why hasn’t the UK collapsed in a heap of environmental devastation?

I certainly think that environmental battles will only be won when people see that nature is an essential part of existence for its own sake and that life is so much richer for it.

Friday, 11 July 2008


Mosses are beautiful also..

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Roadside Verges

There are, so they say, more square miles of motorway verges in the UK than there are nature reserves. Whilst nobody would pretend that a 6 lane road is a wildlife oasis, the grassy bits on either side can often be the most interesting wildlife areas for miles around. On Arran, the verges are all part of the appeal of island life, with more colour and vibrancy than most of their mainland colleagues as they don’t receive so many regular hair cuts. As meadows have declined and grasslands turned to monocultures, roadsides have become mini nature reserves themselves.
Its not just roads that have good verges, our railways have been around for up to 200 years and so have some great examples of wildflowers alongside their lengths, especially where they cut through rocks like limestone and chalk. The Settle-Carlisle line is a real pleasure as this time of year and contrasts with the grazed land outside the tracks. In Glen Ogle, the old railway line is still etched on the otherwise bare hills by a line of trees. Following the West Highland line, you can see the rich heather and scrub that can develop in the Highlands when there aren’t lot of animals munching away. The thinner soils of embankments are the best for displays, since over time the richer areas will become covered in coarser vegetation and trees. In Cumbria they have found over 600 species of flowering plant in their waysides and have adapted their roadside cutting regime to suit. It isn’t unusual to find Orchids growing by the side of the road, and some of the best sites for these strange plants are roundabouts.
Councils have cottoned on to the use of verges as wildlife areas and also places for floral displays. New roads are now scattered with wildflower mixes and the benefits of this can be seen on the M74 as an oxeye daisy swathe cuts through the Southern Uplands. In some areas, like Shropshire, they have gone for wildlflower roundabouts big time, developing special mixes and even adding non native meadow species to brighten and prolong the flowering season. Eventually of course, embankments will mainly revert to scrub and trees, which means that a lot of the flowering interest is lost, but perhaps a nice motoring environment is created. Since the age of steam has passed on the railways, tree cutting is less frequent, but still carried out, and helps to maintain an interesting flora.
Of course, there is other interest in the verges, like the ubiquitous kestrel hovering over the side of the motorway, but flowers bring interest and a diversity of angles of slopes which are good for a range of invertebrates especially butterflies and grasshoppers. A lecturer of mine famously led his students out into the central reservation to look at some interesting lichens. This is not to say that we should be building roads for wildlife but shows the paradox that these environments can be richer that the surrounding farmland. Who knows, when the last Chelsea Tractor runs out of petrol on the M25, it might be designated the UK’s first circular nature reserve.