Bugs, Butterflies and Beautiful Flowers

Chalk grassland is one of the richest habitats in Western Europe. Now, thanks to agricultural intensification, fertiliser and chemical application, fragmentation and unsuitable management we have lost much of what once was. The UK holds 50% of the worlds remaining chalk grassland, now isn’t that a reason for us to stand up and manage it well?

On average chalk grassland is home to 40 species per m2, astounding! Many of these species are rare plants and animals that can’t live elsewhere. For example, the Small blue butterfly which needs Kidney vetch to lay its eggs on or the Adonis blue which needs Horseshoe vetch. Not only butterflies but reptiles, skylarks, grasses and wildflowers all call chalk grassland their home.

Some of the wonderful plant species found on chalk grassland include: quaking grass, betony, marjoram, harebell, wild basil, eyebright, Deptford pink and milkworts. Not mentioning the wonderful orchids such as the Pyramidal (left) and Bee orchid (right).

 

One of my favourite things about chalk grassland is the closer you look, the more you see.

Chalk grassland is a managed habitat, without human input eventually scrub would take a hold and the area would transition to woodland. So, good management requires some form of grazing (at the correct level), scrub management and rotational mowing at certain times of year to create a mosaic of micro habitats and variation in sward height.

The flowers pictured are two of the more common species of orchid, but there are lots of really diverse and magnificent specimens to look for.

Get out there! Enjoy, admire and protect.

 

 

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Killer Clothing!


We all wear clothes, well most of us do most of the time. Many of us buy clothes on a regular basis as fashion changes but fashion has a dark secret, it’s killing our planet.

‘Fast fashion’ has become the norm; many of us don’t think twice about buying more clothes and throwing clothes away. Delve a little deeper and you may wish it wasn’t.

The clothing industry impacts the environment throughout every stage of the garment life cycle:

  • Growing the raw material often uses vast amounts of water, pesticides, leads to soil degradation, reduction in habitat cover in favour of farming, water pollution
  • Fiber production: requires energy and chemicals
  • Packaging and distribution: emits greenhouse gasses, requires energy and creates pollution
  • Retail: uses energy and resources
  • Use: washing garments leads to water pollution and pollution by microfibres
  • End of life: the garment is eventually thrown away, in 2009 1 million tonnes of textiles ended up in landfill in the UK

 

The raw materials used in the clothing industry can have a significant environmental impact. Many UK retailers are taking steps to increase the amount of organic and sustainable cotton they use in their products and step away from conventionally grown cotton. This will facilitate a reduction in water use, pesticide, chemical and fertiliser use. One example of the detrimental impacts of conventional cotton farming comes from the Aral Sea in Central Asia. The Aral Sea is a RAMSAR site with over 103,000 overwintering wildfowl, the freshwater also provides drinking water for local human populations. There is a long history of cotton agriculture in the area, to enable this, vast areas of land have been irrigated over a number of years this has resulted in the freshwater lake almost entirely drying up leading to the virtual destruction of this valuable ecosystem and its associated services. Deltas, steppe, fertile river valleys associated with the water body have all been lost. This example clearly demonstrates the impacts conventional cotton farming can have on the environment because of water usage. 80% of organic cotton is rain fed, UK retailers choosing to use organic cotton would help to reduce water abstraction and pressure on aquatic ecosystems so preventing devastation of valuable wetland habitats.

Clothing production involves chemical application at the production and manufacturing stage (Muthu, 2014). 22.5 % of insecticide used globally is applied to cotton, a quarter of all pesticides used in the US are applied to cotton. Dyeing and treatment of fabrics is responsible for up to 20% of global water pollution. If corporations can work towards a reduction in chemical use across the entire lifecycle of the garment a positive impact will be seen in a variety of ecosystems; not only water bodies but soil functioning and food chains where the negative impacts will be reduced.

The WWF have a really great page on some of the environmental impacts, if you’d like to find out more.

So, how difficult is it to buy sustainably produced clothes that aren’t responsible for damaging the environment? It is tricky, but if you are taking the time to look into the company’s corporate environmental responsibility before you buy, you can make an informed decision about where to purchase your clothes.

There are a couple of UK based companies trying to do their bit, here are some of my favourites:

Rapanui

People Tree

Shop responsibly and help our beautiful planet.

 

Biodiversity loss

Healthy and beautiful environments provide me with such a  sense of wonder, it is so special to see a wildlife thrive.But the global trend is one of severe decline; scientists estimate that 10,000 species go extinct every year. These rates are believed to be 1,000-10,000 times larger than the natural extinction rate. Far greater than any other time in the geological record, and unlike any other time, it is caused almost entirely by one species- ours.

In the last 35 years, biodiversity has declined by more than a quarter. Population growth and consumption are the main causes for this loss; creating habitat loss, pollution, climate change and species exploitation.

The Living Planet Report

Picture1

Two examples of species currently facing threats are the pangolin and orangutang.

There are 8 species of pangolin found on 2 continents. They range from vulnerable to critically endangered on the ICUN red list. Pangolins are one of the most heavily trafficked animals in the world. Their meat is a delicacy in China and Vietnam and their scales are used in traditional medicines. Over 230,000 animals were seized between 2011-2013, experts believe this figure represents only 10% of the total number of pangolin being illegally traded.

Pangolin Pit  This photo was part of last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the year Exhibition in London. It captivated me; telling such a horrific story.

Orangutang are the largest tree climbing mammal. They are facing threats thanks to ongoing deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. Both species of orang are now classified as endangered (Bornean) or critically endangered (Sumatran).One of the main drivers of habitat loss is demand for palm oil; this crop has many different uses and is used in many of the foods we eat, in food packaging and cosmetics. In Sumatra 10.8 million hectares of rainforest have been converted into palm plantation; destroying the natural habitat of special rainforest species. I have tried to stop buying food with palm oil in it in the hope that I am not supporting this industry.

The State of Nature report was released in the UK last year. The report suggested that between 1970 and 2013, 56% of species in the UK faced population declines. Of the 8000 species assessed, 15% were extinct or threatened with extinction. Agriculture and climate change are the main drivers of biodiversity loss in the UK.

There are a number of UK species that are really suffering.

hedgehog

Natterjack toads are now confined to coastal dune areas and sandy heaths. Only found on about 60 sites in the UK. It used to be quite common in Surrey and Hampshire heaths but is now almost entirely gone.

In just the last 10 years, the numbers of hedgehogs has fallen by 30%. This is thanks to habitat loss and intensification of agricultural practices. They are disappearing from our countryside as quickly as tigers are worldwide.

Watervoles have undergone one of the most serious declines of any native mammal in the 20th century.  Intensification of agriculture, loss and degradation of habitat, degradation of rivers and waterways and the introduction of the American Mink (1990s spread). Between 1989 and 1998 the population fell by almost 90%.

watervole

As someone who cares greatly about the habitats and species around us, I am really saddened to learn about the impact we are having on nature. I am sure together we can do more to reduce species loss.

 

Butterflies

At this time of year there seem to be plenty of insects on the wing, every time I walk along a woodland ride I am distracted by a fluttering butterfly.

This year I have set up a butterfly transect at Leith Hill, a site that I look after as a Ranger, so I am learning to identify butterflies, their flight patterns and behaviour. Today I am going to write about the butterflies I spotted on a woodland walk in Kent, close to where I live.

One of the first butterflies spotted gliding along a woodland ride was the White Admiral (Limenitis camilla).  The flash of white on the wing enables easy identification, even at distance. This butterfly is a UK BAP priority species because population appears to be decreasing on monitored sites.

“The distribution of this species in the early 1900s had declined to the point that it was restricted to southern England. However, there seems to have been a reversal of fortunes, with the butterfly reaching its former distribution that extends as far north as Lincolnshire. One explanation is that global warming has allowed the species to thrive at sites that had become too cool. Another is that the cessation of coppicing, that has been detrimental to so many woodland butterflies, has benefited this species which requires Honeysuckle growing in shady woodland for the successful development of its larvae.”

Although the White Admiral was probably my favourite sighting of the day, there were many other butterflies along the woodland rides at Toys Hill. Although the majority of our blue butterflies are usually found on grassland, there is one, the Holly Blue which can be spotted on a number of different habitats as long as its larval food plant is present (holly and ivy). The numbers of this species fluctuate greatly from year to year, it is believed that this is due to parasitism by Listrodomus nycthoemerus, a parasitic wasp who’s sole host is the Holly Blue! This butterfly has two broods a year so can be seen fluttering about between April and the end of August.

 

The whites seemed to be out in force today. I still struggle to identify the whites from one another whilst they are in flight. Bill, from Butterfly Conservation, gave me some useful tips; ‘The large white looks more glossy’. Although I am sure that this will come to help me in the future, at present I still struggle. So, I decided to take a butterfly net with me, to observe flight closely and then net so I could identify properly and try to learn more about their flight pattern. This however was easier said than done, it seems that I haven’t yet mastered the netting technique. I did however manage to net one Green-veined white and a Large white, both beautiful although I feel I am still no closer to being able to identify on the wing.

Pieris napi  By Sophie Parker
Pieris napi
By Sophie Parker

The Comma (Polygonia c-album) with its distinctive wing shape can be spotted along many a woodland ride. Its vivid colouration is always a sight to behold. This butterfly, although struggling in 1800s, can now be seen throughout most of England and Wales. Its favoured larval food plant is Common Nettle, if you are looking to encourage butterflies into your garden consider leaving a ‘wild’ patch and encourage nettles to grow.

 

Butterfly Conservation are asking people to get out and record the butterflies they seen in open spaces around the UK. This citizen science project is a great way for conservationists to learn more about the population and distribution of our UK butterflies. Click here to get involved.

 

spectacular Snowdonia

There seems to me to be no place more breathtaking than Snowdonia.

After spending another week in the Welsh hills I can say I feel revived and refreshed. We always finish our time regretting that we aren’t staying for longer, wishing we could relocate to a wild and remote spot somewhere in the National Park.

One evening we took a stroll on the quiet lanes that worked their way up to our little cottage. With our eyes largely to the skies we were regularly joined by some fast moving and elegantly agile Swifts (Apus apus),  House Martins (Delichon urbica) and Swallows (Hirundo rustica). In the evenings I had been reading “Raptor’ by James MacDonald, so inspired by his writing that we were on the look out for raptors. That evening though, something else caught my eye as raptors seemed to have heard we were coming and were seemingly elsewhere. A Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) was spotted hopping down one of the lanes; it seemed fortune was on our side as at that moment the mottled brown hair was more visible on the black tarmac track. I hadn’t seen a hare since I lived and worked in south Devon nearly 6 years ago. The once common Brown Hare has seen a dramatic decline in numbers due to changing agricultural practices affecting its favoured grassland habitats. To spot the hare wandering, as we were, down a lane was a sight I felt we should behold. So we followed, watched and admired for as long as we could. What an enigmatic animal.

Lepus europaeus By Tim Parker
Lepus europaeus
By Tim Parker

Whilst hiking on the hills we were often joined by Skylarks (Alauda arvensis), Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis) and Ravens (Corvus coral). The Skylark and meadow pipit are on the red and amber species lists, respectively, yet in the solitude of the hills they were a regular site. What a treat. On Llanberis path, on our way down from Moel Eilio, we spotted a small grey raptor flying in and out of the heather patches. We were some distance but through my binoculars was able to see, a  Merlin (Falco columbarius). A brief glimpse of this fast moving bird, one we weren’t able to capture on film but appreciated greatly with the naked eye. The UK’s smallest bird of prey, its wingbeat tends to be rapid with occasional glides. In winter the UK population increases as birds from Iceland join us for the warmer winter climate but in Wales they are a resident. Although recovering from a population crash in the late 20th century it is still on the Amber List.

Hirundo rustica By Tim Parker
Hirundo rustica
By Tim Parker

As I mentioned earlier I have been reading ‘Raptor’, it reminded me of how great an impact people have had and continue to have on raptors and other wildlife in the UK. In the late 1970s birds like marsh harriers were on the brink of extinction in the UK, and red kites were still confined to central Wales. Today, although achievements have been made, raptors continue to be persecuted. Much of this dislike of raptors (and predators generally) is based on poor evidence and understanding of ecology, but is deeply ingrained in the culture of parts of the sport shooting community that the illegal persecution of raptors continues today. As I write this piece I am reminded of how many of the birds we see in our skies are on the red or amber species list, for many reasons most relating to mankind. Reading MacDonalds words has inspired me to go on my own adventure in search of seeing all 15 raptors in the UK, what and where this will take me remains to be seen…

Thank you Snowdonia.

 

welsh choughs

Recently we went on a trip to beautiful North Wales. After a week of mountain walks, outstanding views and croaking ravens; we decided to venture to the coast. We were in search of secluded beaches, infinite sea and choughs.

We hadn’t been walking for long when we spotted what could be a chough. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed that it, in fact there were two of them. The striking red legs and curved red beak against the ink black feathers was a beautiful sight.

We stopped right on the edge of the coast, where the sea glistened off the cliffs below and stretched infinitely into the distance. The sea has a impression on me unlike anything else; I could stare into the distance forever. It is a sight that grounds me and shows what a big world we are a part of. It leaves me wondering about what lies beneath, thoughts which can instil awe and even fear.

We sat for an hour watching choughs in flight. Their agility in the air was staggering, it is what identified them from the other corvids. Diving, soaring, swerving with such effortlessness. These amazing birds are on the amber list, with 250-350 breeding pairs in the UK. They are confined to the Welsh coast, the west coast of Scotland and Ireland and a few pairs in Cornwall; on rocky coasts with short grassland. Conservation work has taken place on the part of the coast we were on to create good habitat for this bird and it seems to be doing the trick.

This beautiful, inky black bird is truly magnificent. Grab your binoculars and seek them out.