All posts by John

Pembrokeshire, NNS, 2020

Pembrokeshire. No. 141 in the New Naturalists’ Series. by Jonathan Mullard, 2020. London, Collins. 510pp

The author has already provided ‘Gower’ and ‘Brecon Beacons’ in the same series, so this is a Welsh hatrick, and at 510 pages it is a beefy tome, well worth the read. Jonathan Mullard has spent most of his life working in local planning and has been instrumental in managing National Parks, AONBs and Heritage Coasts. The extent of the Pembrokshire Coast National Park is impressive, as shown on the only map in the book, as it embraces nearly all of the coastal area of the county: its symbol is the razorbill of which there are 8,000 birds in the county.  The book has interesting chapters on its rich geology, caves and archaeology and a good section on the early naturalists. The natural history of the islands is described in detail: for Caldey, Skokholm, Skomer, Grassholm and Ramsey. Skomer being the best place in Pembrokeshire for puffins (25,227 in 2018) and has its own Skomer vole. Ramsey is famous for the black rabbits put there probably by the Earl of Pembroke. Skokholm is famous for its genetically different mice with their failed fused vertebral columns so studied by the late Prof. Sam Berry from Kent (see his books in the NNS (No 109 ‘Islands’ and No 61 ‘Inheritance and Natural History’) and for the largest slow worms in Britain – so much for evolution and natural selection on islands of which Pembrokeshire excels with examples. Manx shearwaters breed on the islands (450,000 pairs) but decreasing numbers of Storm Petrels (5,000 birds) are now recorded. The shearwaters have a 22,000 mile round journey each year to South America. It was interesting to learn that some seabird colonies can destroy their own breeding grounds, in the case of the original ‘immense puffin colony’ on Grassholm it is thought that they undermined so much of the peat layer with their nest tunneling that their numbers declined; the habitat has now been replaced by a large gannetry.   The rugged rocks and castle ruins have been the subject of studies on the rich lichen species, including the cuckoo stones in churchyards. For a region that is steeped in humidity the damp-loving ferns and bryophtyes have been clearly described, as well as the natural history of meres. There is the very rare ‘Pembroke dwarf moth’ to look out for, only re-found recently on the Castlemartin MOD Range: there are only five known sites in the UK. The effects of other industry are covered in this book with the exploitation of the Milford Haven, but the outstanding natural history gems of the rugged Pembroke coast, terrestrial and underwater, have all been thoroughly explored in this book. In keeping with the NNS the book is populated with many colour photographs, many by the author and there is the usual  extensive references and index. For the craggy interior of Pembrokeshire, which is always interesting because you never know what is around the next crag, this is an essential book to have back at base (for it is too big and heavy to go in the rucksack). It is a superb book, well researched, and a delight for all those who have ventured on field trips, or wished they had, since it brings to life the particularly rich tapestry of wildlife that this part of Wales now protects.

Wild Boar, & Summer Books

Summer books reviewed here include three on butterflies, two travel books (18th century, and 19th century) and one on the Wild Boar.

Two new books on butterflies, the first by Matthew Oates (His Imperial Majesty, Bloomsbury, 2020), and the second by Wendy Williams (The Language of Butterflies, Simon & Schuster, 2020), made me re-visit Miriam Rothschild’s ‘Butterfly cooing like a Dove’ (Doubleday, 1991). His Imperial Majesty is reviewed in detail in the previous August 2020 posting.

They are all completely different. Oates’s book is an impassioned, if not intimate review (almost ‘too much information’) of his methodology for searching for Purple Emperor butterflies, ova, larvae and pupae in woodlands. It is obviously emperor-centric and mostly UK centric, and literally he has not left any sallow leaf untouched in his pursuit of the natural history of the species. It is for amateurs and is not a scientific work, though he does say that much more peer-reviewed work is needed to be published. He has a great love of this one species, which is not the case of the Miriam Rothschild’s Butterfly cooing like a dove book, which reflects her great love of all butterflies; she died in 2005. This was probably a difficult book to write as it all about how butterflies express love through art and poetry. It is a unique in dealing with the subject matter. It is an informal and autobiographical anthology that includes works by Ancient Greeks and from Rome, Pliny, Shelley, Neruda, artworks by Picasso. I was taken by her deep love of Marcel Proust –‘is the first and greatest urban naturalist the world has ever known – the others have yet to be born.’ Hopefully there is some hope for some of us yet. It is generally illustrated throughout in black and white and colour. Where Oates does not mention Miriam Rothschild or her uncle Charles, the science journalist, Wendy Williams does include Miriam’s work on butterflies along with many other lepidopterists in her The Language of Butterflies. She interweaves the scientific work and discoveries about the wonderful world of butterflies, often through the lens of the Milkweed butterfly. She speaks for instance her site visits to the declining wintering habitats of Monarchs. Where Oates tries to promote the Purple Emperor as the national butterfly of the UK (there are other worthy contenders), Williams declares that butterflies are ‘the world’s favourite insect’ in the sub-title. The cover is an arresting and electrifying composite picture of dozens of morphos – this has to be the top book cover of the year. Rothschild is for all butterflies.

As for travel books, the first was ‘The Oregon Trail’ (Zenith, 2015) is about a 23-year old from New Hampshire who set out west in 1846 to cross the western part of America. As a chronicler and lover of the great outdoors, it was interesting to read about the habitats and wildlife, not alone the native Indians that he encountered. He has a great way of describing nature, where Proust was urban based Francis Parkman, was a country lover.  The great hordes of buffalo, the Indian villages and vast inhospitable lands they had to cross are described whilst they had to watch their backs – followed by wolves, bears and Indians. Later illustrations showed thousands of waggon trains queuing up to cross rivers on ferries, their waggons enveloped with buffalo hides.  Sadly most of the buffalo and the Indians would be dead a few decades later, mostly due to the new settlers. In this edition the book is illustrated with paintings and early photographs which help to set the scene, often of dying Indian races.  The second travelogue, at least for a naturalist to read was the round the world voyage by the Brassey family from Catsfield (East Sussex)  in their yacht ‘Sunbeam’ (Around the World in the Yacht Sunbeam, Burt, 1877).  Anne Brassey was an accomplished plantswoman who described the various garden plants she saw in all ports of call; she particularly liked the Chile coast with its colourful gardens. She and her family travelled with a menagerie of animals which she collected, or was given, in various ports: monkeys, pigs, parrots, turtles, and birds and fish which came on board were often eaten: boobies, albatrosses.. ‘Mother Carey’s chickens’ (Storm Petrels) were often seen around the world.  Sighting of whales and dolphins were also frequently seen. Lady Brassey was a great writer of everyday events. Her descriptions of various places bear no relation to what they are like today, and the idyllic setting of Honolulu, as an example does not compare to that of today. It was infinitely better then than today!

Wild Boar (Reaktion Books, 2017) is part of the growing Animal series from Reaktion and follows the usual format of describing the animal species from earliest times, and its relationship to humans especially by way of symbolism. The author is from Oxford and has brought together a collection of facts and figures that sums up the life of the beast, whose range stretches from Europe to Japan, and into the USA. Different genetic strains determine the colour variants seen. There is a lot of coverage of the boars in the Forest of Dean where they are particularly well known, including photographs of very close encounters with people. As a wild boar lover, I am all in favour of wild boars for their tearing up of the land and boosting biodiversity through stimulating buried wildflower seed to germinate. They are increasingly becoming habituated to humans, that where before they were long gone when they heard a car or a human, now they stand their ground and will charge a car. As a species, they remain highly successful thanks to breeding with domestic pigs and will remain a formidable trophy and symbolism for chasseurs in the future that always defies the determined chasseurs.


Oates’s Purple Emperor

Matthew Oates. 2020. His Imperial Majesty, a natural history of The Purple Emperor. London, Bloomsbury Wildlife. 416pp £20.00 HB

The author, retired from The National Trust, is the UK’s expert on the Purple Emperor, and this book reflects his particular obsession with ‘His Majesty’. The title is borrowed from the Victorian era. The sub-heading accounts for the minutiae of the species whose preferences have led Oates a merry dance amongst the woodland, scrub and farmland throughout the UK, notebook in hand over the last few decades. Oates says that the book could not be written without his involvement with the wilding project at Knepp (West Sussex), and Isabelle Tree, the co-owner of Knepp, has written a lively Introduction. Of Knepp he says it has become the foremost Purple Emperor site in Europe, and later says that a private estate in East Sussex is the best breeding ground he has ever seen. Oates has had to change his views on the habitat preference of the Purple Emperor, away from its perception as a forest species, even though he variously says in the book that it is an arboreal species and a canopy-loving species.  He argues that the species is now widespread and not rare any more, and he champions the species as the National Butterfly. What about the Swallowtail, or Large Blue? Oates is quick to say that various lepidopterists are wrong or have differing opinions: Heslop, Frohawk and Pratt. Of Heslop he says it is a pity he did not publish his notes, and Oates goes on to rely heavily on Heslop’s work. As the author points out, the book is clearly written in an anthropomorphic manner with a few concessions to science, principally the reproduction of distribution maps. His penultimate chapter is on Conservation Issues, but you have to work hard to find any bullet points on how to conserve the insect, mostly focusing on sallow management. He says that he is not convinced that the species actually ‘needs some thinking and practices of contemporary nature conservation.’ That said Oates argues for a rigorous peer-reviewed scientific work on the ecology of the Purple Emperor and gives useful tips for future research topics. This book, that embodies his almost complete dedication to the species, will not do, even though the 17 chapters are packed with day to day factual ecological information from his exhaustive and laudable time in the field over the last few decades. The book is a little repetitive and could have been more tightly edited, and there are bits about Christine Keeler, and Pygmy Hippos that could have been edited out. Many lepidopterists are mentioned, but some like the Rothschilds (Charles and Miriam) are not. Miriam was also a lover of butterflies. There is a short glossary, references and further reading, but the best, previously unpublished section is the Appendix which runs for 50 pages and describes county by county, wood by wood, the varying and increasing range of the species that has not been collectively drawn together elsewhere. Excellent. The book is an interesting read and will appeal to all the followers of Purple Emperors, of which there is a fan club.

National Habitat NM, 2020

National Habitat Network Maps (May 2020)

Whatever your opinion about Natural England (NE) with its vaste network of www links, these links are always useful when eventually found. Such is the case with the latest version of the NHNM, published May 2020. It builds on ‘Making Space for Nature, A Review of England Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network’(Lawton et al., 2010), the 25 year Environment Plan (11 Jan 2018, updated 16 May 2019), Theresa Villier’s (Defra) speech of 15 October 2019),and the Environment Bill (2020) – and other reports!  It aims to enhance biodiversity and be good guidance for local considerations in the planning system.

The key to the maps as referred in the title is that its initiative is based on the preparation of ‘individudal habitat network maps’ of the 23 Priority Habitats. All these priority habitats, ranging from calcareous grasslands, through various heathlands,bots, dunes, shingle to Ancient Woodlands and Wood-pasture & Parkland, are all as statutorily listed under Section 41 of NERC (2006).

What is new is that it now recognised generous buffer areas around these protected areas, and this is now shown in as different coloured shaded areas. Not only are ‘Primary habitats’ e.g. Ancient Woodland shown, but ‘Associated Habitats’ shown. These are described as ‘Other priority habitat types that form a mosaic or an ecologically coherent group with the landscape and may, for example, be essential for some species associated with the primary habitat.’  The close association of ‘Ancient Woodland’ and ‘Wood-pasture & Parkland’ are typical. There are new enhancement areas proposed ‘Network Enhancement Zones’ (two of them, Zone 1 and Zone 2) where ‘creation of primary habitat’ is recommended (that will actually be a tall order, as some habitats cannot be recreated as per advice from NE).  These Priority Habitat patches are also recommended to be ‘buffered by 500m’. That is quite a substantial distance, when some LPAs only currently require 30m buffering, but they will have to get used to greater protection of some habitats, such as Ancient Woodlands that are now regarded as ‘irreplaceable’.

This report will be useful to LPAs, developers and consultants with regard to further protection of the countryside.



In An Old House by Varlows

In An Old House, by Peter & Sally Varlow. Lewes, Pomegranite Press.  2018

Anyone who appreciates timber-framed buildings in the Weald of Sussex will realise what a significant impact the making of the building had on the local woodland. This book explores the ins and outs, the nooks and crannies, the joints and trusses that went into the construction of this particular house 500 years ago. The immediate impact of felling of trees in the winter of 1474-3 would have denuded quite a lot of woodland. The bare facts to construct this building included 143 trees (weighing 27 green tonnes) as well as 233 small timbers, held together with 619 joints.  The joints included 440 mortices and tenons and 138 lap joints. All this wood could be sawn from a block of woodland about 50 acres in size. The tree expert Oliver Rackham estimates that such a block would produce 100 suitable trees over a 50 year period. This is a wonderful book about a typical house in the Weald near Lewes. It draws together the history of the various owners, the local trades and how the house was created in the landscape: a masterpiece in every sense.


Biodiversity Audit:Crowhurst


TO carry out a Biodiversity Audit of any parish it is necessary to have an understanding about the range of habitats and species in the parish. That is what informs how nature conservation can be progressed through the parish in perpetuity. It is a living document supported by regular updates on species found etc. The stimulus for such an audit is often the requirement of the local planning authority (LPA) for parishes to address the climate change emergency that many parishes have signed up to. To date over 400 authorities and councils in the UK have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, i.e. ten years left.  If your parish is affected, you need a Bio Audit.

The latest iteration the Bio Audit Crowhurst Parish Council (14 May 2020 – 124pp) reviews the Habitat Assets, the Species Assets, and then sets out the Conservation Assets. It was a community exercise, with over 30 people supplying data, and with inputs from RSPB, SWT, EA, ESCC, AONB Unit  and local and regional groups, and all this pulled together by local naturalist and expert ecologist Dr. John Feltwell. It highlighted ancient woodlands and old meadows in the AONB, 800 year old hedgerows and 1000 year old trees, and ponds (70 to date). It has 78 colour photographs and 37 planning maps. The list of flora and fauna was documented, with many rare and endangered. The effects of habitat loss and flooding were included. Gaps in field data coverage and what people could be doing now were recommended.  The search for further evidence to inform nature conservation in the parish now has a definitive factual baseline that will assist understanding local climate change effects.  

Wasp by Richard Jones

Wasp. Reakton Books Ltd. 2019. 207pp

Almost 100 titles in the ‘Animal Series’ have been published by Reaktion Books, and they all good reads, and collectible. The author is a leading UK entomologist and has already written the ‘Mosquito’ book. The books follow a familiar format showing how the species has been illustrated and written about from the earliest times, in this case since the Egyptians, 5000 years ago. The black and yellow wasp ‘brand’ is explored, and even the book cover is black and yellow. The book has interesting chapters on ‘warning colours’, ‘paper architecture’, ‘tabloid mayhem’ and ‘what is the point of wasps’; on the latter it is pointed out that they are part of biodiversity and are useful predators of other insects. The book covers wasps worldwide (the 4000 species of vespid hymenopterans) and in relation to the recent arrival of Asian Hornet into the UK, this is up to date to 2019. For those who like wasps, this book is an excellent exposé of their capabilities, their form and function, and their niche in the world. The wider context of wasps in the world is rather more interesting than the entomological detail.  In the next edition the small tortoiseshell on p. 51 should be corrected to the large tortoiseshell.

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Wilding, the return of nature to a British farm.  Isabella Tree. London, Picador. Paperback edition 2018. 363pp.

Rewilding is the common parlance for ‘Wilding’.  As the author says wilding ‘is restoration by letting go’ (p.8), and that the stubborn ‘re-‘ reveals a naïve ambition to recover the past (p.152). The farm dropped the ‘re’ to concentrate on a ‘long term, minimum intervention, natural process-led’ operation (p.160). And a great success it has been. Knepp is synonymous with rewilding.

The sub-title is an understatement. The British farm in West Sussex is no ordinary farm, it is 3,500ac with a castle (and lost town) that was visited by King John in 1201. The book is about how the farm changed from being a reasonable profitable dairy and arable farm (though unsustainable p.39) to a farm for nature conservation over the last, now twenty years. It is written by one of the co-owners of the farm with her partner Charlie Burrell and is essentially the modern history of Knepp.  And what a struggle it has been.

There are seventeen chapters, some of them about single species, such as beavers, nightingales, purple emperors and turtle doves – in a sense the book could have been dedicated to the turtle dove (on the book cover) because all the conservation ‘strategy’ had led up to optimal habitat for this species, and for nightingales, purple emperors and many other invertebrates too including plenty of BAP species. There can be few wild areas spread about Britain that are becoming refuges for wildlife, but this is one of them.

The change from intensive farming to farming for nature conservation took at least ten years for an income stream to materialise. The Countryside Stewardship Scheme agreement funded the management of part of the estate from 2000-2010, and the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) chipped in for another 10 years from 1 January 2010 (p.175).  This is what used to be called ‘being paid not farm’, which is not the case here, and where there was the perverse situation of EU giving grants to farm intensively and grants to reverse the effects of farming intensively. By 2010 they had 283 Longhorn cattle ‘a by-product of rewilding began to present itself as a potentially significant income stream’ (p.246) without any need to feed or pay for fences, sheds etc and few veterinary costs.

There were plenty of critics of the Knepp Wildland Project from locals, professionals and statutory bodies who could not get their heads around the concept of wilding. Natural England gave Isabella a run-around for at least 10 years. The concept was completely alien to NE – it did not fit with their modus operandi – which cannot operate without evidential information about wilding to inform any engagement with Knepp – or as Keith Kirby of NE said it was a project  without ‘sound scientific base for what is proposed’ (p.93). So it was a NO from NE, even though NE had been involved with the ‘Wild Ennerdale’ project in the Lake District in 2003. Surprise, surprise. The decline from NE was even after a site visit to see the hugely successful recreated grasslands and wetlands of the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands created on a reclaimed polder. In her attempt to rewild 1.5miles of the River Adur that flows through the property it had taken 16 years of failure (up to 2017 publication) to get a grant from the many authorities, which she states as shameful (p.229). The aerial colour photographs show it all. A huge success.

The book is incredibly well researched with scientific papers per chapter quoted at the back. There is a sublime chapter on scrub which is probably not seen in any other book. The author goes to great length to present all the background information on the subject before getting to the subject in hand – but it still presents a good read, a crammer for some of the species subjects, whether it is pigs, cattle or deer. Overall she is very frustrated at the slowness of authorities to accept rewilding, but then it goes against all conservative conservation strategies that are not based on abandonment of habitats. However, the author is delighted about the wildlife fruits of the venture in the mosaic of habitats created and the clamour of wildlife to inhabit it, in some cases the best populations of animals in the southern England – for instance maybe the only place in Britain where turtle dove numbers have increased: Sussex has 200 of the 5000 pairs in Britain (p.194) and Knepp possibly has the greatest density of bird surviving in England (p. 201).  Autecological information gleaned from the Knepp estate about turtle doves  allowed them to decline the local ‘Operation Turtle Dove’ project proposed by NE in 2012 and the author sadly called it a case of ‘the principle failings of conventional conservation’. (p.200) Altogether it is an absorbing good read and all ecologists, naturalists and anyone interested in nature should read the book. A one off.


HW AONB Design Guide

The High Weald AONB Design Guide was adopted by Rother District Council on 11 Feb 2020. The on-line edition is dated November 2019. 44pp.

The fifteen councils took two years to collate how they would like to see the design of houses appear in this huge AONB.  Generally they have succeeded with a review of all matters regarding topics such as ‘the right built form’, ‘connecting beyond the site’, structuring and parking. The 45pp is filled with photographs of typical Wealden buildings the design of which is to inspire, inform and to follow, also with photographs of how not to do it – new buildings which the Weald will have to live with for decades to come. Quite how all the new designs with twiterns, cat-slide roofs and open landscape gardens can be successfully and sensitively integrated into the already busy environment is down to planning regulation. No laws and Acts are mentioned to support their admirable appeal. The recommendations are all based on the Design Council’s Guide ‘Building for Life 12’ (it is ‘broadly based on’), the NPPF (2019), Guidance and the National Design Guide, and LEMPs.  They would like a lot of work on the planning of new sites to be sorted out Design and Access Statements. ‘Ongoing management proposals for the open space and habitats should be included up front as part of the planning application as part of a Landscape and Ecological Management Plan.’ In a nod to biodiversity metrics which are being slowly introduced, they state that ‘The wildlife of the High Weald is embedded in the landscape character and so proposals for habitat creation and enhancements or biodiversity net gain should also be able to make positive contributions to landscape character.’  There is a great deal of ‘should’ do this (252 mentions) as opposed to ‘must’ (13), which goes against the grain of BS42020 2016.  There is plenty of emphasis on ‘multi-function green spaces’incorporating drainage systems within green space’ with illustrations of a suitable example (so watch where you are treading – the new open green spaces may have some watery surprises. Generally the idea to ‘enhance habitats and wildlife’ is plausible, and ‘opportunities for wildlife should be maximised’ are maxims that have been trotted out over the years, and there is nothing tangible for developers to grasp other than their usual suite of bat, bird, hedgehog boxes, log piles etc.  When metrics are eventually obligatory then more positive habitat creation will be obligatory on or off site, and the Weald will benefit accordingly. However, that day is slow to arrive.  In the meantime, readers are directed to the Wildlife Trusts’ ‘Homes, People and Wildlife’ for further advice and inspiration.

Environment Bill 2020

The 30 January Environment Bill 2020 Policy Paper repeats the mantra of Theresa May’s ’25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ (2018) about having a metric to determine quite how biodiversity enhancement can be measured.  The new Environment Bill 2020, through Michael Gove’s continuing encouragement ‘introduces a mandatory requirement for biodiversity net gain in the planning system, to ensure that new developments enhance biodiversity and create new green spaces for local communities to enjoy.’  England will benefit from the saving of £1.4 billion of ‘annual natural capital benefits’ representing ‘several thousands of hectare of habitat’ that will not now be lost!  Ecosystems will benefit (e.g. air pollution, water flow control…) but they do not mention conservation of soils which is a significant issue in some protected areas such as AONBs. The bill states that the metric system will not undermine the existing range of protections that exists, not least of all ‘irreplaceable habitats’ and protected sites. That is fine then. ‘Conserve and enhance’ is fundamental to all UK conservation law, and it pops up again in the Environment Bill as ‘enhance and conserve biodiversity’ and helping to ‘deliver thriving natural spaces for communities.’  Communities is an issue that gets greater attention here.  We are reminded that NERC (2006) originally set out a duty on public bodies to ‘have regard’ to conserving biodiversity, and the new bill seeks to strengthen LPAs in effecting ‘meaningful change.’  LPAs need to look out as they will have to return a ‘five-year report on the actions taken to comply with the new duty’ (surely updating the NERC 2006 duty of 14 years ago, if they have not done this already?). So two years in from the suggested biodiversity metric, we await much quantitative data proving that the loss of the natural capital has been halted. The Rt Hon Michael Gove would then be very pleased and offer us his big smile of success.