The butterfly that stamped… Buglife sees off Royal Mail at West Thurrock?

The most ironic marketing gaffe ever, and then an apparent u-turn by Royal Mail: did plucky little conservation charity Buglife really pull off this campaign coup? For those who haven’t been keeping up, see this post – or here’s a summary: Royal Mail have been planning to build a depot on a marshland full of scarce invertebrates in West Thurrock, and invertebrate charity Buglife has been campaigning to stop them. But a High Court bid by the charity to have the development halted was rejected in February. Buglife have been considering whether or not to appeal.

Spider stamp © Buglife

Buglife made their own alternative stamps showing species threatened by the Royal Mail development

Continue reading The butterfly that stamped… Buglife sees off Royal Mail at West Thurrock?

Endangered fly rediscovered on unusual ‘crabitat’

In 1966, 21 specimens of a new type of fly were collected from an unusual habitat in the Caribbean by a fly expert called H.L. Carson, who was intrigued to find three separate species of fly all living solely on (and in) tropical land crabs – two in the Caribbean and one on Christmas Island, half a planet away. He speculated that the flies’ use of the strange ‘crabitats’ had evolved separately in all three cases. Since that time, nothing more has been seen of these curious creatures – until now.

Drosophila endobranchia

Male Drosophila endobranchia fly courting a female fly under the watchful eye of their host (a yellow morph black crab Gecarcinus ruricola) © Stensmyr et al

In 2007 another study was undertaken by Marcus C. Stensmyr of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany. Stensmyr and colleagues wanted to find out more about Carson’s flies and their odd way of life. Continue reading Endangered fly rediscovered on unusual ‘crabitat’

Giving conservation a bad name

Remember the Euro-banana? Every tabloid in the land screamed rage at Brussels for the unimaginable insult to that very British icon, the curved banana. Although it turned out to be not really much to do with Brussels in the end, you still won’t have to go far to find some cantankerous old Euro-skeptic who will curse Europe for the loss of bendy bananas – the rows of such bananas hanging in every greengrocers in the land notwithstanding.

Bananas © cas

A similar bit of euro-lore is the plight of the poor put-upon householder, harried at every turn by officious euro-nonsense. Quietly going about their business, hard-working families are prevented from legitimate pursuits by crazy European regulations that put the welfare of wasps and newts above humans. Or do they? Continue reading Giving conservation a bad name

Invisible squirrels

Once more the allegedly deadly grey squirrel rears its cute little head in the media, with a rather desperate article in the Telegraph trying to make an old story sound fresh:

Teams in Britain and America are working against the clock to develop a method of rendering the pests infertile using treated bait… The contraceptive would work by attacking the immune system of the squirrel, suppressing its fertility. Scientists are desperate to find ways of tackling the grey squirrel threat before it causes more damage to the red population…

A crazed squirrel
The unstoppable advance of the crazed grey invaders…?

It’s an interesting idea but very far from a new one. It’s also not got much prospect of any immediate success. In 1998 Hansard reported:

Lord Inglewood referred to the Forestry Commission investigating the potential of immuno-sterilization of grey squirrels… But it may be a long-term solution. Success is far from guaranteed at this stage.

It seems that little has changed in ten years. Still, at least the Telegraph is aware of the distribution of red squirrels, reporting accurately enough that they “are now only found in the Isle of Wight, Brownsea Island, western Wales, northern England and parts of Scotland“. The Guardian, by contrast, in its charmingly-illustrated but badly researched photo essay on red squirrels manages to suggest that “they live mainly in pine forests in Scotland, but can be spotted in the North of Enlgand(sic), west Wales and on Brownsea Island.” So none on the Isle of Wight then? Once more the only stable and sustainable population of reds in the UK is overlooked. Grrr!

Lock up your bees!

Sometimes, the name of a species isn’t really very informative. Oonops pulcher, for example (a spider), means ‘beautiful egg-eyes’. Not much information, although ideal for tormenting it with if ever you actually recognise one. Not so with Philanthus triangulum, the European beewolf. Ok, so in English the binomial name means something like ‘Triangular flower-lover‘. Let’s just leave that one aside. Because its English name must have been given by an aircraft designer, so apt is it. Philanthus is a spectacularly large and fearsome-looking hunting wasp, although harmless to humans. What’s more, unlike its fellows it doesn’t hunt those soppy caterpillars, nor the errant but harmless flies. No, this one goes for the big prize: honeybees. Philanthus can overpower, paralyse and carry a honeybee home, where it will lay an egg on the torpid bee that serves as living food for the Philanthus larva. Each female beewolf lives alone, making a tunnel-like nest in which her gruesome babies and their hosts live. However, beewolves are sociable, if not social, creatures, and tend to crowd together. Loving the sun, they’ve been having a hard time of it this year. But the Isle of Wight is nothing if not sunny, and one such colony of tunnels was found by The Ranger and Cat recently right in the middle of Ryde esplanade, close to the beach. Enjoy this video of one of these industrious little mothers preparing the way for her next cargo of paralysed bees:

The thronging footpath to the golden sands passed right nearby, and the busy wasps risked destruction with each passing foot – or more likely, when someone saw these terrible monsters and rang the council to have them sprayed to death. As a harmless (to humans) Red Data Book species this would probably not be a good idea. Luckily, this particular beach is under The Ranger’s control, so if these little living attack-helicopters survive the deluge this summer they won’t have to worry about humans having a go at them, at least.

Small game hunting

The biggest prize of all on The Ranger’s holiday in Dorset would be a sighting of the elusive sand lizard (Lacerta agilis); one of Britain’s rarest and and most protected animals, now restricted to only a few sites in the country. This was as good an opportunity as he would ever get: staying within a few metres of a Herpetological Conservation Trust sand lizard reserve. But it’s not that simple. Even the Herpetological Conservation Trust admits:

Sand lizards are cryptic and elusive…

And so it proved. With only intermittent sun, the weather was not optimal, but as soon as the sun came out, The Ranger grabbed the camera and photographer Cat, and both headed out onto the reserve to gingerly pace the sandy paths, trying to creep up on the lizards.

Cat hunting for lizards

After a morning in the hot and dry reserve, the hunters were feeling despondent. A few glimpses of something green flashing away into the heather, and a few rustlings in the undergrowth were all they had to show for it. They consoled themselves by admiring the less easily scared wildlife, such as the extraordinary, alien-like parasitic dodder plant (Cuscuta epithymum), which swarms over heather plants like an extraterrestrial:

Dodder on heather, Dorset

As the afternoon drew towards evening, they began to think they would have to retire defeated. But, as in all good stories, in the end their patience paid off. One of the secretive lizards flashed away into the heather just a little bit less carefully than its fellows – allowing the lizard-seekers a glimpse of the extraordinary iridescent green colours of an adult sand lizard:

Sand lizard, East Ramsdown, Dorset

The photograph does not do justice to the shimmering colours of this remarkable animal, which skulked in the heather for a couple of minutes as the breathless humans gawped. Finally, it must have realised that it was on display, and slipped away. And to top it off, after a whole day creeping about, it was whilst marching back, delighted at their ‘bag’, the weary hunters were treated to an even better sighting of a female sand lizard basking in the last rays of the afternoon:

Sand lizard, East Ramsdown, Dorset

Let’s hope the good work of the Herpetological Conservation Trust continues to keep the lizards around, so others can have the excitement and pleasure of spotting them in the future.

Braving the rare carnivores

The Ranger has recently returned from a few days house-sitting for a friend on the mainland, in Dorset. By happy co-incidence this house was situated just a few metres from a heathland nature reserve. As the Isle of Wight is more or less bereft of heathland, this was a splendid opportunity for wildlife watching, and many happy hours were spent grovelling in the heather. The resulting discoveries kept accompanying photographer Cat busy, and here’s a little photo essay about one plant they found on their excursions. One of the most intriguing and exciting plants found in wet heath is the carnivorous sundew, and the bizarre-looking Drosera rotundifolia seemed to pop up in just about every damp patch – this wet summer must have suited the little things.

Drosera rotundifolia (round-leaved sundew)

The sundew’s sticky pads are efficient traps for invertebrates as this wood ant will testify!

Drosera rotundifolia (round-leaved sundew) with red ant

Many of these little annuals were flowering, and so vigorously that the cheerful white spikes formed a carpet on the pink-leaved ground in some places.

Drosera rotundifolia (round-leaved sundew) flower spike

After a few visits, the explorers were rewarded by the discovery of a small colony of the much rarer oblong-leaved sundew Drosera intermedia.

Drosera intermedia (oblong-leaved sundew)

But, sure enough, even out here in the back of beyond the fragile habitat was subject to the bane of discarded balloons!

Sundew plant and discarded balloon

Here, a few centimetres from the delicate oblong-leaved sundew, is a purple balloon featuring Brewster The Bear, an icon of the Brewster pub chain owned by Whitbreads. To be fair, this one was starting to decompose, and had no plastic insert attached. But why was it there at all? The Ranger cleared away the balloon with much shaking of his head. Find out in his next post what happened when he tried to track down something a little more lively than a carnivorous plant…

Scotsmen will need a sporran licence. No, seriously.

As from 21 August this year, European Protected Species are getting extra protection in England. It would be nice to say this is because of enthusiasm on the part of the government to further conserve these species, but actually it’s in response to a judgement in the European Court of Justice requiring UK legislation to more closely follow the EU Habitats Directive. Still, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. Here’s Naturenet’s updated page on European Protected Species, including a list of all the species concerned.

Sporran (c) moofie

A parallel new legislative package has already been introduced in Scotland, and one unexpected consequence, that the BBC wittily points out, springs from the new requirement that anyone who wishes to possess specimens of a protected species must have a genuine reason for doing so, and will have to demonstrate this is compatible with the Regulations. Such ‘specimens’ could include sporrans made from otter or badger skin – although badgers are not European Protected Species the Scots have given them extra protection as well. So Scotsmen face the prospect of needing a sporran licence! EDIT: The Scottish Sporrans website says this is not entirely true. They say:

A quote which is being given out by the Scottish Executive in regards this matter is as follows: “New legislation, introduced on the 15th February 2007, has made it a legal requirement to have a licence to possess live or dead specimens / derivatives of any wild animal listed on AnnexIV(a) of the Habitats Directive, such as Eurasian Otter, Wildcat or Bat, NOT as was erroneously reported in the newspapers to Eurasian Badger, Common Seal, Grey Seal, Deer, Hedgehogs and Moles. The law in relation to these species has not changed at all.”

Help save the Thames rainforest

It’s corny but it’s true. We sometimes spend so much effort looking at all the environmental trouble in far-flung parts of the world that we forget to look after our own. Here’s a prime example. When The Ranger worked for Basildon District Council in the 1990s they were, as they still are, remarkably positive about conservation and ecology, and managed to combine significant biodiversity work with a strong regeneration effort. People sometimes associate Basildon with poor-quality 1960s development. Well, there is some of that, but not much. There’s also a great deal of very high-quality biodiversity and, in the marshes, almost wilderness for those willing to go and seek it out. It was there The Ranger learnt that, with care, it is sometimes possible to build houses, roads and commercial premises and end up with no net loss of biodiversity… or even produce a gain.

Thurrock marshes (c) Greg Hitchcock
Northern ash field at West Thurrock Marshes

One of the things that The Ranger noticed back then was that some of the finest and most exciting habitats and species were to be found right on top of existing or former industrial sites. He recalls one particular location which was a former caravan site – absolutely covered with old burnt-out cars, asbestos, and flytipping. There were more reptiles on this site than The Ranger can remember seeing anywhere before or since. More recently the importance of the Thames Gateway brownfield land and particularly the marshes has become much more well known, with the Thames Gateway proposals for development drawing attention to these previously obscure locations. Brownfield sites in the Thames estuary have recently been dubbed “England’s rainforests“; because of the large populations of endangered wildlife they support. This is no idle hyperbole. Many of these extraordinary sites could be lost. This is particularly ironic, as it is so unnecessary. Many of them are quite capable of supporting remarkable biodiversity even in the middle of intensive development. Sadly, some of those few areas left to provide this vital resource are under threat, whereas by contrast they should be being integrated into regeneration proposals, to provide real enhancement to the Thames Gateway and add value to the region. Buglife is promoting an online petition against this proposal. The Ranger rarely gets involved in campaigns of this sort, and even more rarely promotes online petitions – in fact, this is the only one he has ever endorsed. That’s how strongly the Ranger feels about it. You are encouraged to read up about it and make your own mind up. If you agree, sign the petition too.

The Darwin Awards feature Scottish snakes

Oh dear, where’s St Patrick when you need him? Isn’t he done over in Ireland yet? It seems that in 2005 an unfortunate hillwalker called Robert McGuire was bitten by two adders while holidaying on the Isle of Arran. He spent six days in hospital. Pretty unusual – although the adder is the only snake found in Scotland it’s not particularly common. Even when encountered, adders usually flee and very rarely bite. And even when they do, the bite even more rarely causes an adverse reaction. And as for two snakes… well, what are the chances?

An adder (photo: Hammond Eggs)

However, perhaps this incident wasn’t as odd as it first seems, once you read the full story as recounted by the Darwin Awards. To give you an idea:

Mr McGuire described the moment he was bitten. “I was out for a walk with my brother Steve and his kids. We were going off to have a picnic at a local beauty spot. “The next minute, one of the kids ran up and said there was a snake in the grass. I just thought it was a grass snake. “I just bent down to pick it up so my brother could take a photo with his mobile phone. Suddenly a massive black snake just appeared, so I picked that up too. It was then that the second one just sank his fangs right into my hand and then the other one did the same to my other hand.” Mr McGuire told The Scotsman that he had not been particularly concerned about picking up the reptiles as he did not believe there were venomous snakes in Scotland.

Well, fancy. Imagine those nasty snakes being cruel enough to bite him. And poor Mr McGuire is undoubtedly regretting the woeful state of his knowledge of UK snake populations. He’s probably had plenty of advice about herptile distribution now, so perhaps the Ranger won’t further add to the poor fellow’s troubles, except, of course, by drawing your attention to them!