Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Signs of the Times: Spring #11

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly--and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing."

Omar Khayyám

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Spring picture 12 is a simple tableau showing two magpies sitting in the branches of a larch tree, with the branch of an ash tree appearing from below. Magpies (Latin name: Pica pica) belong to the crow or corvid family and, like other members of that group, are still often persecuted (i.e. killed by shooting, or trapping then shooting) because their mode of living involves the eating of small birds, their eggs and nestlings. The text in the Ladybird book suggests that magpies also eat the eggs of birds bred for game, such as pheasants and partridges and goes on to make a highly judgmental comment about “countrymen” being justified in feeling that they have done a good deed in shooting a magpie as “it is certain that any magpie shot in April will have the egg-yolk of some other bird’s egg on its bill”. It is probably a sign of the times in which this book was originally written that the respected ecologist who provided the text for the book could profess such a belief in a children’s book, i.e. magpies were egg-eating vermin that it was desirable to shoot, as opposed to being a native element of our bird fauna, with an ecological niche of its own which is, presumably, how most ecologists today would regard this species.

Magpies are still trapped and killed today by the game management sector. It is a truly handsome bird that, as well as eating eggs, etc, also feeds heavily on insects, seeds and carrion. Like most crow species, a highly adaptable species, magpies have successfully invaded our urban and suburban world in recent decades. The occasional urban guerrilla nutcase anti magpie vigilante citizen makes a splash in the papers, with claims about outrageous numbers of magpies that they have trapped and killed. As if a beautiful small garden bird has any more intrinsic value and right to life than a beautiful black and white magpie with its iridescent blue and green wing and tail plumage. In ecological terms, magpies in gardens taking eggs and chicks are part of what the media likes to call “the natural order”. Almost all the individual organisms ever born die as eggs or young, sometimes eaten, sometimes killed by their siblings, sometimes killed by parasites, or by an unkind environment. Without predators, we’d be knee deep in everything else and natural selection would be missing a key mechanism.

The British Trust for Ornithology reports that “the remarkable adaptability of Magpies has enabled them to colonise many new urban and suburban localities since the 1960s. Magpies increased steadily until the late 1980s, when abundance stabilised”, as you can see from the following graph:

There has been a minor decrease in the magpie population of the UK during the last five years. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust suggests that, since 1990, the widespread adoption of the Larsen trap for predator control may have been responsible for a large increase in Magpie numbers killed on shooting estates, Possibly it is this that has now driven the population back into decline. It is possible that a warming climate is responsible for the strong trend towards earlier egg laying by magpies in the mid 1960’s:

The Larch (Latin name: Larix decidua) is an unusual thing in Britain – a deciduous conifer, or cone bearing tree that loses its needle in Autumn. It isn’t a native species in Britain, and there are two different records for when it was introduced first – the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora says it was in 1862 for timber, and first recorded in the wild in 1886. In his book Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey says it was in 1620 and that larch was the species planted for the first forestry plantation in Britain, on the Duke of Atholl’s Perthshire estates in the mid-18th Century. Although the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora says that there are more larch records now than in the original 1962 Atlas, it was greatly under-recorded in 1962. It is still planted a little for timber nowadays but its susceptibility to a disease, larch canker, means that other species are generally planted in preference. It is pretty widely distributed in Britain, as it naturalises in the wild easily from larch plantations. A light green in the Spring (see the picture!), larch needles go a beautiful golden colour in Autumn before they are dropped. In advance of this blog post, I have been keeping a daily eye on my nearest larch tree in the local park and it produced needles a couple of weeks ago and I saw the little pinky-purple flowers on it a week or so ago.

The other tree featured here, with its grey smooth bark, large black buds and blueish flowers, is the Ash (Latin name: Fraxinus excelsior) a common tree species found native over all of Britain and Ireland except for some more remote and upland parts of northern Scotland, the Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles. The New Atlas records its distribution as stable compared with 1962.

The Ash is a tree with a mythological heritage. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, the “tree of life” was an ash tree. I wonder whether it is a cultural memory of this, following all the Norse settlement in parts of Britain, that led to the ash being regarded in folklore as a healing tree, or a tree with magical properties. Richard Mabey provides a great account in Flora Britannica of the cultural importance of the ash in Britain and all the many uses to which it has been traditionally put, not least the many ways in which children in less televisually and game console demanding times used ash sticks and branches in games.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Signs I Like #9 (part 2): Time Travel, contd.

On Tuesday this week, I posted a photo of a poster found in King's Park in Stirling, apparently left by a teenage time traveller (my assumptions) called Ollie, who was advising the reader that he planned to re-materialise at that spot today at 11.34 a.m.

Unfortunately, due to having to work for a living (they call it work!), I couldn't be there to see who turned up (one way or another). But his "courtasy" (his spelling) deserved a response, so "someone" stuck up another poster this morning, awaiting his arrival by time machine:

I wonder what happened at 11.34 a.m.?

Signs of the times: Spring #10

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.”
Robert Frost

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Back to the waterside for picture 11 from Spring – this time down on the canal bank. Here we see the canal environment with many plant species emerging from winter dormancy, with new Spring growth on an alder tree stump and the water’s edge plants, brook-lime, flag-iris and water plantain. The marsh marigold is already in flower with its beautiful golden yellow blooms. A water shrew is mooching about under the marsh marigold, a female mallard is nesting discreetly near the middle of the picture and a kingfisher is flying off to the left of centre. In the background, a canal narrowboat is heading towards a set of large lock gates.

The collection of plants down by the waterside, brook-lime (Veronica beccabunga), flag-iris (Iris pseudacorus), water plantain (Alisma plantago-aqutica) and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is typical of the lowland canal habitat, as well as many other wetland and waterside environments in Britain. The New Atlas of the Flora of Britain and Ireland reports that there has been no change in the distribution of any of these species since the original 1962 Atlas. At the time of writing, the marsh marigolds around my pond have been in flower for only two days, and the flag-iris plants are at much the same stage of growth as those in the picture.

The other plant species featured, the alder tree, is regenerating from a bankside stump. Alder (Alnus glutinosa) is a common tree of riverbanks, canal and loch-sides, wet woodland and fen habitats. It is native to most of mainland Britain and Ireland. It has some historical importance according to Richard Mabey in his magnificent book Flora Britannica, its resistance to rotting underwater leading to its use to shore up canal and river banks. But historically it is better known as a wood from which clogs were made, and as a source of charcoal for gunpowder manufacture. The New Atlas reports its distribution as stable since 1962, but highlights that a recently-evolved fungus, a Phytophthora species related to the potato blight fungus has killed 10% of the alder trees in southern England and Wales and is now also causing damage to alders on Scottish river systems, including on the Rivers Avon, Dee, Deveron, Duirinish and Spey. More information from the Forestry Commission and Forest Research here.

Other than the boatman on the narrow boat, there is only one mammal featured here, the tiny Water Shrew (Latin name: Neomys fodiens). This is the largest of the three native British shrew species. I have never seen one. I think my Dad, in over 20 years as a Ranger and a lifetime as a naturalist, only ever saw a dead one, in East Lothian, at a site well away from any water bodies. I could do worse here than reproduce information from the Mammal Society factsheet for water shrew:

The water shrew is found throughout mainland Britain but is probably rather local in northern Scotland. It is present on many of our larger islands, including ... Arran, Skye and Mull ... It is semi-aquatic and is most often found in habitats close to water, including the banks of streams, rivers, ponds and drainage ditches, as well as reed-beds and fens. It is particularly numerous at water-cress beds. Occasionally it is found far from water in rough grasslands, scrub, woodlands and hedgerows, usually as young ones are dispersing. ... Although water shrews are widespread in mainland Britain, they have a rather localised occurrence, probably because of their preference for clean, clear sources of freshwater for foraging. They have low populations densities compared with most small mammals, with a maximum of about 9 shrews per hectare in favoured sites such as water-cress beds. ...Water shrews inhabit burrows and come out to feed on invertebrates. Their main food source is freshwater shrimps, water slaters and caddis larvae which they obtain by diving and hunting underwater. Occasionally frogs, newts and small fish are eaten. They also feed on many terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms, snails and beetles. The water shrew is most unusual amongst mammals in possessing venomous saliva. A mild toxin secreted into the saliva in the mouth helps to stun the prey. Even humans can feel the effects of this if bitten by a water shrew. Even though the shrew's bite rarely punctures the skin, a red rash appears at the site of the bite which is sore to touch.”

So far, so biologically interesting! But more bizarre is the text accompanying the picture. The author, zoologist E.L. Grant Watson noted: “In the springtime water shrews sometimes sit in twos and threes on a mudflat and sing – which they do very prettily.” Now, THAT I would love to see! For a better view of the water shrew than you will ever manage yourself (sadly not singing though), here is an excellent bit of film from the BBC which someone has put on Youtube. How well are they doing compared to 1959-61? It just isn’t clear - the species is probably too scarce to monitor easily or accurately. One estimate puts the British pre-breeding population at about 1900000: 1200000 in England, 400000 in Scotland and 300000 in Wales. The same source says: Historical changes: Unknown ... Population trends: Unknown.

Moving on to the birds in the picture, I have already written about the mallard in the 1st post in the series, so I won’t say more here except to note that the picture captures well why the female mallard isn’t as brightly coloured as the male bird – her colouration makes great camouflage when she is sitting on the nest. But few birds, especially in Britain, are as brightly coloured as the kingfisher (Latin name: Alcedo atthis), seen shooting off along the canal here. There are many kingfisher species in the world (including the kookaburras of Australia) but we only have the one species native to Britain. Luckily, it is one of the most beautiful kingfisher species (in my humble opinion), indeed one of the most stunningly attractive birds we have. I still remember the magic of my first kingfisher sighting – I must have been 10 or 11 and was walking up the River Garnock in Kilwinning with my Dad when we saw the iridescent turquoise flash of a kingfisher. Although he had fished the rivers of Ayrshire his whole life up to that point, I think that seeing a kingfisher in Ayrshire back in the early 1970s was still quite unusual, as the then-more frequent bad winters in Scotland would kill off a high percentage of the kingfisher population, reducing their ability to spread north.

The British Trust for Ornithology, with its Waterways Bird and Waterways Breeding Bird Surveys, makes the following observation about the kingfisher in Britain: “The Kingfisher declined along linear waterways (its principal habitat) until the mid 1980s, since when it seems to have made a complete recovery. The decline was associated with a contraction of range in England... Kingfishers suffer severe mortality during harsh winters but, with up to three broods in a season, and up to six chicks in a brood, their potential for rapid population growth is unusually high. Amber listing of this species in the UK results from its 'depleted' status in Europe as a whole, following declines between 1970 and 1990.” In Britain, the kingfisher’s population trends looks like this:

I’m guessing the extremely long and cold winter will have had a significant impact on kingfisher populations in Scotland, so there might be a dip in the graph for this year!

I don’t get to spend as much time on rivers as I would like to, so I think I can probably remember the few times I have seen kingfishers in Scotland. I think the most unexpected and unusual was to see a kingfisher in the middle of a very cold winter a few years ago fishing in the tidal freshwater part of the Forth Estuary (so far upstream that there is no salt water influence, just a tidal rise and fall of the river), by the Stirling County Rugby ground, where it was fishing in the river by diving in from a hovering position.

It is worth saying something here about the canal itself. Not everyone realises that there are 137 miles (220 km in new money) of canals in Scotland. In the 1960s, soon after these books were published, Scotland’s Lowland canals – the Forth & Clyde Canal and the Union Canal, which had already been declining in importance, were finally closed as operational canals, heralding a 30 year period of minimal maintenance and decline. When the M8 motorway was built, a monumentally short-term planning decision allowed it to be built across the Union Canal, effectively cutting the canal in two and preventing boat navigation along the length of the canal from Falkirk to Edinburgh.

It took the combination of decades of campaigning by canal enthusiasts, the advent of Heritage Lottery Millennium funding, ongoing regeneration of the English and Welsh canal systems, and a few British Waterways Scotland canal engineers with vision in Scotland to kick-start the regeneration of the Scottish lowland canals in the mid-late 1990s. This culminated in the construction of the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first rotating boat lift, and the re-opening of the lowland canals to boat navigation following the completion of the Millennium Link project. This renaissance of the Scottish canal network continues today with the proposed Kelpies as part of the Helix project (see my earlier post and picture about this).

Throughout this regeneration, which also involved significant decontamination of several areas of historic industrial pollution, British Waterways Scotland aimed to conserve and enhance the habitat value of the canals. This was apparently successful as it is possible to see all the wildlife shown here on Scotland’s lowland canals (although I challenge you to spot a water shrew!), and much more. Indeed, British Waterways has just launched its annual wildlife survey. If you want to take part and submit records of wildlife from any of Scotland’s canals, you can find out more here, as well as finding out about their related canal wildlife photography competition.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Signs I Like #9: Time Travel

Oh, this made me smile - two copies were taped to the metal benches next to the skateboard bowls in King's Park in Stirling yesterday morning:

I'm tempted to be there at 11.34 a.m. on Friday just to see who has turned up to see who turns up, if you see what I mean. A few things - the spelling of "courtesy" has obviously drifted a bit in the future, the young man (it is signed "Ollie" and it reads like it might have been written by someone in their teens, although they are obviously already a high-achieving science geek!) WILL be arriving naked, as he has scored out that he won't be arriving naked (I wonder whether an earlier experiment has revealed that he can't take clothes with him?), so it might be good if someone takes along some spare clothes or a towel or something for him, and I like the time travel movie references (Back to the Future, Terminator) but am confused by the reference to The Fly (which wasn't a time travel film, I add geekily). No reference to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine either - shame!

I'm also trying to work out when and how he taped these signs on (did he tape them on yesterday morning and then press on forward to Friday 11.34 a.m.? In which case, he must have been more than "pretty sure" that he had a time machine. Unless that was its first use) and "when" he will be arriving from? Anyway, I have a meeting then, so sadly I can't be around... more shame!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #9

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

Hail in the Spring, a start of new beginnings.
Creativity awe-inspiring gives a reason to be living.
Plant life showing life anew, a wonder to be found.
New born lambs playing in the fields, birds nesting all around
People enjoying the sun and the warmth, feeling good to be alive.
Spring gives a purpose to our lives, a touch of Paradise.”

Kay M. Sutton, Bring in the Spring

Copyright: Ladybird Books

I guess I have reached a mildly exciting stage of the Spring book with this picture, as it is the one used as the book’s cover. And, I suppose, in selecting the image for the cover, one that is reasonably iconic for the season would have been selected. And there probably isn’t a more iconic British Springtime image than newborn lambs playing “King of the Castle”! So this picture of a farmland scene also introduces blackthorn in blossom, small foxglove plants, and two birds of farmland habitats, the skylark (on fence post and in foreground) and the lapwing (or peewit).

In June 2007, an agricultural census in Scotland identified that there were 7,490,700 sheep in Scotland including 2,916,680 breeding ewes and 3,673,790 lambs. This was a 22% decline from the more than 9 million sheep being farmed in Scotland in 1997. The Scottish Agricultural College has said that “Sheep farming in harsh upland environments is economically marginal, heavily dependent on subsidies and can present environmental and animal welfare issues.” In recent years, sheep farming in Scotland has become much less profitable even that it was before and the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is likely to result in changes (a decline?) in hill sheep numbers. It is hoped that this will lead to an increase in biodiversity.

In Scotland, sheep were inadvertently responsible for what has been described (Oliver Rackham, “The History of the Countryside”) as “the most outrageous example of the single-minded pursuit of agricultural profit”. From the late 18th Century onwards, sheep farming on moorland increased everywhere northward from South Wales. The Highland Clearances in Scotland were one notorious outcome. Between 1782 and 1854, there were many instances of unscrupulous landowners evicting their tenants “through violence, bloodshed and arson”. to make way for the then-more profitable, sheep farming. This process was not as profitable as first thought though, as the capacity of moorland for sheep grazing is not as high as was first thought. The history of sheep farming is, therefore, unarguably linked to the long, sad and inglorious story of rural depopulation in Scotland. Despite the compound human misery of the various periods of Clearances, it is also true, however, that without this despicable treatment of poor rural tenant farmers and crofters, there would have been no major diaspora of Scots to “the Americas”, Australia and New Zealand, and all the significant contributions that those Scottish emigrants made to the development of those nations. For more about the history of sheep farming in Scotland, the Scottish Agricultural College produced a report here, with a current outlook report on Scottish sheep farming here.

Moving to the natural features of the picture, there are two plant species, both of which are of considerable value to people. The blackthorn (Latin name: Prunus spinosa) is a deciduous shrub or small tree which grows across almost all of mainland Britain and Ireland. Blackthorn is valued as a hedging plant,for its hardwood branches as a source of “corkscrew” walking sticks (my Dad has made several) and, not least, as a source of its small black plums, or sloes, much lauded (not least in this house!) for their use in flavouring and colouring of sloe gin, prepared in the Autumn and usually ready to drink by Christmas. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora reported, in 2002, that the distribution of blackthorn in Britain is stable compared to the original Atlas published in 1962.

Foxgloves (Latin name: Digitalis purpurea) are shown in the picture as small rosettes beginning their second year of growth. Under normal wild conditions, foxgloves take two summers to grow from seed to flower. Very widely distributed in Britain and Ireland, though introduced in Orkney, foxgloves grow from these rosettes, a tall flowering spike with many tapered tubular pink or, quite frequently, white flowers. Foxgloves often grow in great profusion on disturbed or formerly burnt ground (e.g. railway bankings, cleared forestry plantations). The foxglove in full flower features in a quite striking picture in the Summer book, so I will discuss its usefulness to people when I write about that picture. The New Plant Atlas reports that, when compared with its 1962 distribution, the current distribution of the foxglove is stable, probably as a result of its prolific production of seeds and their persistence in the seed bank in the soil.

The story of the two bird species here is in stark contrast to the tale of the two relatively stable featured plant species. The text for the picture says: “From January until April, skylarks can be heard singing over meadowlands and downs”. Indeed, the skylark (Latin name: Alauda arvensis) and especially its soaring flight and song have a strong cultural resonance in Britain, providing the muse for, among other delights:

- Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “blithe spirit” (“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!”),

- William Wordsworth’s “To a skylark” (“Up with me! Up with me into the clouds! / For thy song, Lark, is strong”) 

- William Blake’s “A skylark wounded in the wing, / A cherubim does cease to sing.”

and the inspiration (and indeed the musical theme) for Vaughan Williams’ “Lark Ascending” (played beautifully here by the amazingly talented young Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti). But sadly, the tale of the skylark since the Ladybird series was published in 1959-61 has been one of pretty catastrophic decline, particularly in England, where the skylark breeding population declined by 60% between 1967 and 2007, according to figures provided by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), a parlous state that has led to its inclusion as a priority species in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and its listing on the UK’s red list of threatened species.

Skylark numbers have also fallen steeply across Europe since 1980. Considerable research effort by BTO and other researchers in the last decade suggests that the most likely cause of the decline is: “the change to autumn sowing of cereals [I discussed this in the post on the first picture in the book]: this practice restricts opportunities for late-season nesting attempts, because the crop is by then too tall, and may depress overwinter survival by reducing the area of stubbles”.

The BTO also points out, slightly ironically, that: “before the widespread introduction of farming, it was probably quite scarce and its fortunes since have followed farming practices”. In Scotland, there has been a small annual increase in the skylark population since 1995. Changes in agricultural practices can also help with the recovery of the skylark. For example, “leaving small, rectangular patches of bare ground ('Skylark plots') within autumn-sown cereals appears to provide many of the benefits of spring-sown cereals at very low cost to the farmer”.

The lapwing, or green plover (Latin name: Vanellus vanellus) is also known as the peewit in Scotland (from an earlier name, the peewee), which is onomatopoeic for the bird’s call. The BTO provides a wee tidbit about the lapwing/ peewit: “Ever since Chaucer wrote of the 'false lapwynge, ful of treacherye', the lapwing has had an association with deceit, perhaps because of its beautiful plumage and joyous display flights”. Sounds like jealousy to me. The peewit is one of the most strongly declining bird species in Europe, having decreased in all regions since 1980.

Despite an increasing population during the 1960s and 1970s, peewits “have declined continuously on lowland farmland since the mid 1980s, probably because changes in agricultural practice have led to their breeding productivity dropping below a sustainable level”. The decline is obvious in this BTO figure:

The BTO reports that national surveys in England and Wales “showed a 49% population decline between 1987 and 1998”. Population declines of more than 50% over 15 years in Northern Ireland mirror similar declines throughout grasslands in Wales and southeast England. The Breeding Bird Survey suggests some increase in England since 1994, but a steep decline in Scotland (of 33% between 1995 and 2007). It is thought possible that the decline is resulting from an increase in grazing intensity in marginal uplands and increased predation by nocturnal mammals (88% of nest predation taking place at night by, e.g. hedgehogs, foxes), possibly associated with habitat changes. The peewit is one of the most strongly declining bird species in Europe and is now listed in the UK’s “Red list” and is the subject of an action plan under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #8

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.
An old pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water
Basho, “Matsuo”, c.1689

Exciting underwater exploration this time, with miniature dragons and fish in armour, as we look at fish and amphibians in Spring. Picture 9 contrives to show a pond scene with three fish species (three- and nine-spined sticklebacks and a minnow), some great crested newts and the spawn of frogs and toads. As an aquatic biologist, I am happy to be able to talk about fish and amphibians as part of this series of posts.

As a child in the 1970’s, I was an avid fisher (and then liberator) of both three-spined sticklebacks and minnows. In both cases, they were captured with a home-made funnel trap which my Dad showed me how to make out of an old wine bottle. We took a bottle with a concave base, filled it with dry sand and then gently knocked out the round base of the concavity by tapping gently with a nail and hammer until it came out. Empty out the sand, tie on a string, add some bait - it was ALWAYS white bread – and fill with water and with the bottle top still screwed on or the bottle corked), place in the river or burn with the new funnel entrance opening facing downstream, tie the string to a big stone or a branch and just wait for half an hour to an hour. It nearly always ended up with lots of fish in it. I realise now that the white bread, while it probably wasn’t very good bait for these species, made it easy to see from the bankside when there were fish in the bottle, as they swirled it around.

The minnow (Latin name: Phoxinus phoxinus), the uppermost of the three fish pictured, is a small member of the carp family, the Cyprinids, and is very widespread in freshwaters across most of Europe and Asia, as it says in Peter Maitland and Niall Campbell’s book, “Freshwater Fishes”: “from the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the Pacific coast of China.” In the British Isles, it is absent only from the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. Minnows live in a wide range of waters, from small, fast upland burns and streams, to lochs, reservoirs and large rivers in the lowlands and often form huge shoals in the shallows (my childhood memory is of (relatively) massive shoals in the Whiteadder, a river in the Scottish Borders, where I used to go bottle-trapping for them). According to Professor Maitland in “Scotland’s Freshwater Fish. Ecology, Conservation and Folklore”, it is perfectly likely that minnows arrived in Scotland without human intervention, although there is no doubt that they have also been moved around extensively by anglers, principally through their use as live bait. It is likely that the minnow’s distribution in Scotland has increased since the Spring book was published in the period 1959-61, as it continues to expand its range in northern Scotland. Professor Maitland concludes that, while the minnow receives no special protection in Scotland, it is in no need of any as it is a widespread and successful species. I can only concur with his thought that, “Like other small fish, it deserves to be spared from the despicable practice of livebaiting.”

There are two stickleback species featured here, the three-spined (the middle fish) and the nine-spined (the lower one). There is another species found in Britain, the 15-spined, but that is wholly a sea fish. Both species in this picture share the ability to live in waters spanning the range from freshwaters to the brackish waters of estuaries and, in the case of the three-spined stickleback, in full-strength seawater. The name stickleback refers, of course, to the spines that have formed from modified fin rays, with, on the three-spined species, spines to the side and on the underside too. Also, it seems that the more that it lives in saline conditions, the greater the three-spined stickleback develops armoured bony plates around the outside of its body. Apparently the spines and armour plating don’t offer as much protection against being eaten as was originally thought so, perhaps the spines are more important for courtship displays, or signalling in the sizeable shoals in which these fish are often found.

The nine-spined stickleback (Latin name: Pungitius pungitius, which can actually have between 8 and 12 spines), although native to Scotland, is the less widely distributed of the two species. My excellent source for fish, Professor Maitland, reports that it has suffered a substantial decline over the last century, "disappearing from many of its former sites because of pollution and loss of habitat”. The three-spined stickleback (Latin name: Gasterosteus aculeatus) is one of the original fish species that colonised the post-ice Age Britain and in contrast to the nine-spined species is probably, other than for eels and brown trout, the most widely distributed fish species in the country. It is probably also the most studied fish species in zoological and evolutionary science, being easy to keep and breed in laboratories, and exhibiting many fascinating behavioural traits that have contributed much to animal behaviour science and evolutionary theory. The breeding behaviour of this species is particularly interesting, with the male aggressively holding a territory in which he builds a nest, attracting in a female with his special zigzagging dance, to lay her eggs, which he then fertilises. The female fish then leaves, playing no further part. The male guards the eggs until they hatch, then shepherds the young fish, gathering them in his mouth and spitting them back into the nest when they stray! Professor Maitland, in “Scotland’s Freshwater Fish. Ecology, Conservation and Folklore”, suggests that, other than for some rare spineless populations, the three-spined stickleback requires no special protection in Scotland as it is doing very well at present (and, so I surmise, it probably hasn’t declined since the Ladybird Spring book was published!). I could write about this wonderful little fish all day – but I’d better not...

Finally, to the amphibians – the newts and the spawn and its producers, common frogs (the big floating clump of spawn) and toads (the strings of spawn). This is the only picture in the whole series of four books where amphibians are a key element. A significant change has taken place in the status of amphibians since these four Ladybird books were first published (although not necessarily yet to the same extent in the UK). There is concern world-wide about a major decline in amphibian populations. See here and here for examples of this concern reflected in media coverage. A range of pressures – habitat destruction, disease, non-native invasive species and, perhaps increasingly, the effects of a changing climate, are all thought to be contributing to this decline. In the UK, it is difficult to find long-term information on trends for amphibians. There hasn’t been the same degree of rigorous survey and monitoring at national level for as long as there has been for, say, birds. I plan to talk about threats and conservation of ponds as habitats later in this series, when they are pictured again but, for now, it is enough to note that, according to Pond Conservation, the non-governmental organisation promoting the conservation and creation of ponds in the UK: “the common frog the facts are:

- from 2007 to 2009, surveyors taking part in the National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme saw frogs in just over half of the ponds in the countryside.
- in 2009 Pond Conservation’s surveys of garden ponds suggested that Common Frogs are seen in practically all garden ponds and breed in around two-thirds of them.

There probably are fewer frogs than in the past but, at least for the time being, the Common Frog is still a common animal – there are probably millions of them.”

Scottish Natural Heritage has produced a good introductory guide to amphibians (and reptiles) in Scotland, which contains some great pictures. It suggests that: “The Common frog is widespread and is found in suitable locations throughout Scotland, except in the most well drained places. It also occurs on some of the islands of the Inner Hebrides and has been introduced to Shetland”. For the Common Toad, SNH says: “The species is widespread in Scotland but the more specific habitat requirements make it generally less common than the frog.” I have both species, as well as palmate newts, in my garden, although I only ever see the frogs and newts regularly in the garden and pond – I have no idea where the toads are most of the time.

The Great Crested Newt (Latin name: Triturus cristatus) is the mini-dragon of Britain’s amphibians, and a poster boy for the conservation movement in Britain. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) says of this species: “The Great crested newt is an impressive amphibian. It may grow to 16 centimetres long ... The skin has very fine warts, which is why it is also known as the Warty newt. In the breeding season, the male develops a jagged crest along the body to the base of the tail, and has a silvery stripe along the sides of the tail. The tail also develops a crest and the underside enlarges. The belly of both sexes is strikingly marked by irregular black blotches on a bright orange background.”

It is a truly striking beast in breeding colours. Courtship involves a waggling dance in mid-water, which you can see on the video here. SNH says: “The Great crested newt is rare in Scotland and about 100 breeding ponds are known, although new ones are frequently being discovered. Strongholds for this species are Dumfries and Galloway and the Central belt. There is also a cluster of populations in the Inverness area.” Due to previous losses of populations from, for example, development, pollution, dumping in or drainage of habitats, this species now has strict legal protection in Britain, and there are lots of local conservation projects aimed at creating new pond habitats close to existing populations.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #7

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go.” Christopher Morley, John Mistletoe

This post needs to be briefer than the last couple in the series, to allow me to catch up a little! Spring is rolling on in the Ladybird book, and picture 8 brings us to the end of March (I know it is April here-and-now, but I am falling behind a bit – but it was still March less than a week ago!)

Picture 8 presents a scene of springtime nature idyll with, as centrepiece, a bank of primroses in flower, along with the emergence of ladybirds, the opening of the buds on the elder, bringing forth its leaves, a chiffchaff (the olive green bird) newly arrived from its wintering grounds, and a large female oil-beetle.

The primrose (Latin name: Primula vulgaris) is a native plant, usually perennial (evergreen) and found across all of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, the primrose is one of the earliest Spring flowers in much of Europe (the name “primrose” coming from Old French primerose or medieval Latin prima rosa, meaning first "rose"). Where conditions are right for it, as seems to be the case in this picture, it can carpet the ground in woodlands, along hedgerows and on more shaded (North facing) grassy banks. Interestingly, its seeds are usually dispersed by ants. Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” dedicates four pages to the story and folklore of this popular Spring flower, stating: “its pure yellow flowers and tufted habit – arranged naturally into the form of a posy – have made it a universal token of spring, and especially of Easter.” Very appropriate, as I write this on Easter Monday 2010! The customs and traditions associated with this welcome harbinger of Spring are fascinating but too numerous to repeat here, so I recommend Richard Mabey’s account if you want to know more. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora reports that populations of primrose have not fluctuated markedly during the last Century in most parts of Britain and Ireland. In a Scottish Natural Heritage report from 2006 (“Natural Heritage Trends of Scotland: phenological indicators of climate change”), the results of flowering records are reviewed for Scotland - a long-term record for primroses on the Isle of Skye suggests that the first flowering date is becoming earlier by an average of a day a year, presumably as a result of a warming Spring climate.

How appropriate, too, for ladybirds to appear in this Ladybird book-focused series. Surely Britain’s favourite insects and certainly its favourite beetle, ladybirds are also beneficial to gardeners, as their larvae are voracious predators on aphids. There are 46 members of the beetle family Coccinellidae native to Britain, of which 26 species could be recognised as “proper” ladybirds. Britain’s ladybirds, however, be in trouble. I couldn’t find any readily available information on the trends in ladybird numbers or distribution since 1959-1961, but there is one recently identified major threat. According to Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation Trust: “Familiar British ladybirds are facing their biggest danger since the last ice age. A new invader from southeast Asia, the Harlequin ladybird is threatening to displace the resident species that for generations have helped us to control aphid populations.” This undesirable, which was first introduced into Britain in 2004, has now reached Scotland, being recorded near Loch Tummel in October 2007.

A friend of mine, Craig Macadam, Buglife’s Conservation Officer for Scotland, has also said: “This ladybird can have a devastating effect on our native ladybirds. It’s not fussy about what it eats. Once it has run out of aphids it will feed on other ladybird eggs and larvae and even butterfly and moth eggs and caterpillars. Harlequin ladybirds are often found hibernating in large numbers in buildings during autumn and winter. There are cases where tens of thousands of ladybirds have been found in people’s homes.”

A survey of Harlequin ladybirds is underway – you can find out more about participating here. You can read more about the concern over Harlequin ladybirds, including the problems they raise for humans too, at this site.

The elder (Latin name: Sambucus nigra) is a very widespread woody shrub verging on being a tree, native to all of Britan and Ireland, except for the very north of Scotland and the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland). According to the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, its current range is similar to that shown in the 1962 Atlas. It is also one of the earliest woody plants in Britain to come into leaf, hence its featuring in this picture with its new leaves. Although I will say more about elder when it re-appears in flower in the Summer book, it is worth noting here that, as one of the earliest leafing species, a study by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology showed that earlier flowering of elder can be expected as a result of climate change, by up to 4 days for every degree of average temperature rise in February and March. So the time of leaf appearance in Spring may affect the time of flowering in Summer.

The only bird in this picture is the diminutive olive-coloured chiffchaff (Latin name: Phylloscopus collybita), a warbler species almost identical to the willow warbler, both species that come to Britain to nest but spend their winters in a zone from North Africa to India. One of my posher bird books (Birds of the Western Palearctic: Concise edition) indicates that this species has only spread into Scotland since the 1950s, where its summer population continues to increase. So I assume there are now more chiffchaffs visiting Scotland than when the Ladybird Spring book was published! In 1988-91, Britain was estimated to have 640,000 breeding territories, while the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) reported that this had increased to 807,000 territories in 2000, and between 1967 and 2007, its average egg-laying date is now 14 days earlier. The population trend is a healthy one, as shown by the BTO:

Right on schedule for my blog, I heard my first chiffchaff of the year two days ago and saw the first one yesterday, both in the local King’s Park in Stirling. I had a wee moment with the bird yesterday, as I copied its simple two-note call and it zoomed down to a low bush near me to try and identify the intruder in its territory, calling back madly. It then followed me back along the edge of the wood as I walked home, mimicking it. When I was clearly at the edge of its patch, it headed back again. Incidentally, in English, it takes its name from its call, a two-note song sounding like “chiff chaff” ... or if you are Dutch, “tjiftjaf”, or German “zilpzalp” – the German is the closest to the real sound, in my view.

The only other feature of this picture is a female oil beetle emerging from its winter hiding place. I confess to knowing nothing about these and the only easily accessible general information was on the Buglife website here. Three species, including the Violet oil beetle (Latin name: Meloe violaceus), are listed on the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan due to a perceived decline in recent decades. There are few recent records, although any proper assessment is limited due to a lack of data. The beetle’s larvae are parasitic on solitary ground-nesting bees. This species is therefore reliant on healthy populations of its hosts, and many bee species are in decline. Species with highly specialised life-cycles are more vulnerable than those with a more generalist nature, especially when reliant on other species which, in turn, may be threatened or declining.

Apologies, but I failed to make this one briefer, as intended – there is just so much to say!