The Wild Flower Page Conserv@tion - the monthly review of wildlife conservation in Britain The Wild Flower Page

February 2000

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Naturenet: The Ranger's Award

Large HeathEurope - "One last chance"

WWF-UK say that there is one last chance for Europe to save its threatened species.

It has named ten species under threat in Europe - and warned that Europe has one last chance to save these and other endangered species. The species concerned - the Iberian Lynx, the brown bear, the Harbour Porpoise, the Monk Seal, the Loggerhead Sea Turtle, the Freshwater Mussel, the Atlantic Salmon, the Marsh Fritillary Butterfly, Lady's Slipper Orchid and the Corncrake - are all at risk from the modern world and needing protection from the Habitats Directive.

"Every endangered species in Europe is supposed to be protected under an excellent European nature conservation law agreed in 1992," said Tony Long, Director of WWF's European Policy Office. "But the nations of the European Union have broken every deadline for putting the law, the Habitats Directive, into practice.

"The Directive was supposed to become national law in all EU countries in 1994 but has still not been correctly put onto the statute book in any country. Sites for protection under the Directive were due to be proposed by EU countries in 1995 but at least three countries have still to submit a full proposal including Germany. All countries have been asked by the European Commission to propose more sites. Not one EU country has met the requirements of the Directive. "The Directive can protect the habitats which many of Europe's rare species depend on. It is the last chance for many of Europe's endangered species," says Tony Long. "WWF is issuing an alert. European governments must act now." 

Rebecca May of WWF says: "Those governments need to get cracking and submit their lists of proposed sites by about June this year. There is not an unlimited time allowed under the directive for designating SACs, and the meeting to decide which will be approved is being held in October. It's in that sense that we are saying this is the last chance for the 10 species. The October meeting will be the last opportunity to designate the sites." 

Lords report calls for conservation action

'Can do better' is the verdict of a House of Lords report on the progress of wildlife conservation in Britain. The report, the product of a Select Committee investigation into the way European legislation impacts on Britain, was published recently and contains some astringent criticism of the way government wildlife conservation measures have been performing.

It notes that 'agri-environment budgets would need to grow between three or four times to equate to the spend of the median group of Member States.' That is, we spend only a quarter of the European average on conservation in the countryside. It also confirms the damage that overgrazing is doing in the uplands: 'Overgrazing in the uplands in particular should be the subject of a major review, with a view to bringing hill livestock numbers and management into line with the carrying capacity of semi-natural habitats.' There is a need to promote wildlife conservation, not only within designated sites but across the wider landscape. The Lords 'recommend that MAFF and the relevant devolved administrations consider such a programme, applicable to all farmers, to improve and reward positive management, and to prevent the further loss of habitats and species in the countryside.' 

The Lords feel that the lack of adequate data is a major restriction on conservation efforts. Within Britain there is need for a central body: 'A central biodiversity policy unit (building on the existing UK BAP process) charged with monitoring and reporting on progress with the UK BAP should be established, with the task of reporting to both Houses of Parliament, to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies.' And data to assess the success or otherwise of the Natura 2000 network are justnot available - 'We agree with JNCC that the percentage of national territory is not the best measure of a Member State's approach to site designation. Rather it should be considered as the percentage of the relevant habitat (or species) present in the State which is protected within the Natura 2000 network. These data are not currently available for the UK. In view of their importance JNCC should make these data publicly available in due course.'

And at present there are no guidelines as to how much of our wildlife we should be protecting. 'Greater thought should be given to the percentage of a protected species' national population or a listed habitat which should be included in areas classified as SPA or SAC. The JNCC considered that 50 per cent (as used by WWF) was an arbitrary figure, but it does not appear to have its own targets. Such targets need to be set, not only to determine whether more SPAs or SACs that should be classified, but also to identify the effort and resources required to address the needs of these protected habitats and species in the wider countryside.'

One of the most potentially profitable recommendations made by the Lords relates to the increasing realisation that the protection of our wildlife demands more than just SSSI designation. Such sites may be surrounded by hostile industrial farming environments which prevent the continuation of viable populations. They suggest that an SSSI should be at the core of a larger wildlife area: 'We see considerable merit in declaring an enlarged area as SPA or SAC around a core SSSI to incorporate these essential feeding or nesting places within the boundary of the European site. This would ensure that the conservation interest is properly recognised within the planning system and by all competent authorities. This larger area could also qualify for enhanced payments under the agri-environment programme to aid its positive management.' 

There is a need for legal backing for the biodiversity process. Without this, the Lords say, planning and policy-making are clouded: 'We therefore recommend that the Biodiversity Action Plan process is put on a statutory basis so that it can be accorded proper weight in decisions taken by local authorities and statutory nature conservation agencies, and at the level of policy and plan-making in each of the constituent parts of the UK. This could be reinforced by acceptance on the part of central and devolved government and their statutory agencies of an explicit collective responsibility for furthering the conservation of biodiversity.'

The marine environment has been particularly badly served by conservation law: '... we remain to be convinced that SPAs and SACs classified in the marine environment will receive adequate statutory protection. The process of identifying and classifying such areas is still at an early stage but greater clarity as to how such areas will be managed (and by whom) and protected from inappropriate use is required in domestic law ... We believe that a new approach to protect sites in the marine environment is now required. The time has come to review the relevant provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Better legislation to provide workable and effective protection for important areas of nature conservation interest in the marine environment is needed as a matter of urgency.'

Mr Meacher evidently has much to do in drafting the new Countryside Act.

Select Committee on European Communities Twenty-Second Report

Black-veined WhiteButterflies follow wildflowers into extinction

The results of the 'Butterflies For The New Millennium' survey, published recently, suggest that Britain's butterflies are headed for an uncertain future. Whilst a few species are increasing their ranges, others are dying out.

During the last century of the second millennium Britain lost almost all its flower-rich grasslands - 97 per cent have disappeared, due to changing agricultural practices. Many butterflies are specialist species of chalk downs, open heather, damp meadows, and other habitats which have suffered from agricultural development. The high brown fritillary, Argynnis adippe, for instance, has been lost from 94%of its known range, due to changes in grazing of bracken and reduced coppicing; the silver-spotted skipper, Hesperia comma, has suffered from improvement of calcareous grasslands and is now extinct throughout 89% of its historic range. Richard Fox, of the charity Butterfly Conservation, said: "Many species are increasingly restricted to small, isolated areas." 

"We are now sitting on a bio-diversity timebomb. The potential effects of global warming will simply accentuate these problems. In short, the prognosis for large proportions of our butterflies is not good." 

The five-year project, started in 1995 and preliminary results are now available. The black-veined white is the main loser from a century of butterfly observation, but the high-brown fritillary has suffered the biggest losses over the past 50 years. Four species have become extinct in Britain and populations of more than 30 have declined substantially. 

A small number of butterflies are thriving, however - even expanding their populations. The Essex skipper, Thymelicus lineola, has more than doubled its range in the past 20 years, rapidly expanding north and west from its stronghold in the South of England; the speckled wood, Pararge aegeria, has actually benefitted from less coppicing to expand from southern England strongholds into North, Midlands and East Anglia, as has the white admiral, Limenitis camilla.

Butterflies for the New Millennium
Butterfly conservation
British Butterfly Conservation website

Erica founders300,000 dead seabirds - an international tragedy 

"UK birds hit by French oil spill" - but in fact the birds don't know they are British, or French, and the indiscriminate pollution following the violent rupture of the Erika, a Maltese-flagged vessel on hire to the French company Total-Fina, is a supra-national emergency.

The vessel foundered on December 12th last year but the initial worries seemed unnecessary since the wind blew the 10 million litres spillage away from the land and the news photographers. Unfortunately the area concerned is just where sea birds go to winter. The whole of the northern half of the Bay of Biscay, thousands of square miles of ocean, has become a whirlpool of pollution. When the wind turned it blew oil ashore on beaches for 300 miles, from southern Brittany to the Ile d'Oléron, with smaller slicks arriving as far south as Spain. 

"Usually tanker spills happen close inshore and devastate a relatively small section of coastline. The Erika sank a long way offshore and the winds and currents took the spill out to sea and then back again," said Michel Métais , president of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (League for the Protection of Birds). "The birds which live far out to sea, guillemots especially, but also puffins and razorbills, have been massacred. Shore birds can always fly to another, cleaner piece of coastline. Birds of the open sea do not see the oil until it is too late. Anyway, the slick has been so scattered that they have nowhere safe and clean to go." 

Clearing upIt is estimated that 10 birds die at sea for every one that washes ashore. On this basis the 30,000 birds recovered represent a kill of 300,000 sea birds, mostly guillemots, although razorbills, gannets and cormorants have also been hit. "We could see from 100,000 to 300,000 birds affected," said an RSPB spokesman. "We understand there are up to 50 different species being found, although guillemots account for 75% of all the birds recovered."

"There will be a visible impact on breeding colonies around the Welsh coast, especially in Pembrokeshire, and elsewhere in the Irish Sea. The birds there were just getting over the Sea Empress spill four years ago. The problem is that the juveniles tend to overwinter in the Bay of Biscay, exactly where the Erika was lost. Normally they would be further out to sea, out of harm's way. But the very severe weather forced them inshore, along with the oil. So there will be fewer young birds returning to the nesting ledges, and the breeding stock will be reduced." 

The World Wide Fund for Nature, wants a comprehensive risk assessment of the European coastline carried out as a way of trying to prevent further spills. "Apart from birds, we're concerned about the coastal habitats that have been affected, and the species that live in them, things like crustaceans and invertebrates," said Dr Sian Pullen of WWF.

"They're near the base of the marine food chain, which means that fish and birds depend on them. But we're afraid there may not even be any monitoring of what is happening to them."

The RSPB has mounting fears over the seaworthiness of other tankers as the European Commission has revealed that six, built in the same Japanese shipyard as the Erika and around the same time, are still in service and may be in questionable condition. Dr Euan Dunn, RSPB marine policy officer, said: "It is time to end a system where oil companies can gamble with safety at sea and the marine environment by chartering vessels at the lowest cost they can find. There is an urgent need for legislation which sets much more rigorous standards for charter vessels. Oil companies ducking these standards should face stiff penalties.

Anyone who wants to support the work of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux in saving these birds can make a payment, in sterling, addressed to: French Oil Disaster, c/o RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL. The RSPB will pass donations and details of donors. names and addresses to the LPO so that they can keep donors informed of progress. 

GM trials endanger organic crops - Soil Association 

The Soil Association has commissioned a study of the likely effects of trialling genetically modified crops in the same areas as organic farms. The independent study, by the National Pollen Research Unit, says that the official rules are inadequate to protect the organic farms from pollution.

The SCIMAC rules recommend leaving 200 metres around GM crops to isolate them from organic crops and prevent cross-contamination. But the report says that contrary to industry recommended isolation distances "oil seed rape presents a high risk for cross pollination between source and recipient fields."

It continues: "Pollen dispersal by insects has been recorded at up to four kilometres - some 20 times higher than the recommended isolation distance - and three kilometres by air flow."

In Spring official farm-scale trials of GM sugar beet will begin on hundreds of acres of land, with just 6 metres between the GM crops and conventional varieties. The Soil Association believes the current voluntary code of practice fails to protect producers of both organic and conventional GM free crops from pollution. 

"Our six mile notification zone proposals should be accepted immediately as a precondition for licensing all future trial plants.," says Patrick Holden, Soil Association director. "Given the fact that conventional crops are just as vulnerable to genetic pollution, we see no reason why this procedure should not be applied."

A spokesman for the Government's GM Unit said: "Possible pollen transfer is something the Government has looked very closely at and continues to do so."

"We have internationally agreed separation distances and the Government's top independent advisers concluded that the risk of pollination beyond those were minuscule."

Organic farming - 1999 a boom year

The last year of the old Millennium saw a boom in interest in organic farming, according to Countryside Minister Elliot Morley. 

More than 1,100 farmers joined up for organic conversion in 1999, spurred on by the increased incentives being offered under the Government's new scheme. Under the previous scheme, only 400 farmers went organic over a five-year period. £24m has been allocated to farmers under the scheme. As a result 75,000 hectares in England will be converted to organic farming. In April 1998, there were just 50,000 hectares being farmed organically in the whole of the UK. 

The increase in organic farming has been dictated by increasing concern in the British food market about factory farmed products incorporating pesticides and possible genetically modified foods. Consumers in Europe, though not in the USA, have shown themselves to be concerned to eat natural products. The repulsion shown when it was found that cows had been eating unnatural feedstuffs destroyed confidence in the official foodchain and buyers now look for uncomplicated food.

"The Government sees this very much as being the start of a longer process," says Countryside Minister Elliot Morley. "Under the 'New Direction for Agriculture', we plan to double the budget for organic conversion and have earmarked £140m over the length of the Government's seven year Rural Development Plan."

Organic farms are better for wildlife. Much higher percentages of organic farms had 'weedy' or 'very weedy' fields than conventional farms in a 1997 Countryside Commission report. Organic farms were found to have more recently-planted trees and were more likely to use crop rotation and have smaller fields than conventional farms, leading to greater diversity of wildlife. Grass headlands and predator strips, which provide safe areas for insects and birds, were found only on organic farms. Only 50% of conventional farmers had taken measures to improve their farms for wildlife, whereas 81% of organic farmers had done so.

Flooding fields

After this winter's heavy rains, one could be forgiven for thinking that Britain would have seen enough flooded farmland for a while. But the National Trust is considering a major league scheme to restore large areas of England to their pre-industrial appearance.

During the twentieth century the emphasis was on protecting wildlife in nature reserves but as the century ended biologists were increasingly concerned that reserves are just not big enough - they are becoming islands in seas of industrial farmland. There is no chance of some species exchanging genes to produce new variants which could cope with changing circumstances, since they are divided by miles of barren monoculture.

Wicken FenAdrian Colston, manager of the National Trust's national nature reserve at Wicken Fen, wants to buy 22 square miles of adjoining Cambridgeshire farmland and flood it. Wicken is a glorious, 800-acre remnant of one of the first UK habitats to be almost completely destroyed - the great primeval fen that once extended 100 miles from Cambridge to beyond Lincoln. It has one of the largest species lists of any UK reserve - 212 different spiders, 1,000 moths and 1,700 flies - it is biodiversity writ large. 

Yet it is still failing in the aim to protect species. Despite maximum legal protection and the best efforts of the trust, species are steadily disappearing. A bleak catalogue of losses includes five out of 19 dragonflies, four of Darwin's beetles, water vole, Montagu's harrier, marsh warbler, short-eared owl and 35 flowering plants. A fifth beetle is in jeopardy, and the list grows longer year by the year. 

Wicken was once famous for the spectacular swallowtail butterfly. Now the only UK population survives on the Norfolk Broads, 60 miles away. With Wicken's surrounding fields producing five crops of lettuce a year and each crop typically sprayed five times with insecticide, the chances of the swallowtail re-establishing itself are remote. Centuries of farming and land drainage have left Wicken 12 feet higher than adjoining land. The reserve is only saved from drying out by a plastic membrane buried 12 feet deep, the length of a mile-long boundary. 

Colston believes that bigger reserves will make wildlife much more sustainable, and the reserves themselves much more natural. He aims to leave the control of vegetation to wild cattle and horses. The process of wildlife management will be reduced, and natural processes will be allowed to let rip. 

"Small is no longer beautiful" says Colston. "Big is better. Conservationists are used to dealing with reserves of 35 acres, but they are too fragile. If a cow dungs in the wrong place or someone treads on the wrong spot, a rare animal or plant can be wiped out." 

"At present we manage Wicken for a very specific set of objectives," he says. "But, having frozen everything in aspic, we're now being told climate change could cause all the interest to be lost. With a big area, things can change and we can be much less rigid." 

In the Netherlands' Oostvardersplassen, a vast and fantastic landscape of reedbeds, marsh and open water, has drawn exceptional populations of rarities since its 22 square miles were flooded in the 1960s. "What strikes you there is the sheer abundance of everything," Colston says. "Things that were hanging on by their fingertips have become well established and sustainable." 

The World Wide Fund for Nature has funded a £20,000 feasibility study to help the Wildlife Trusts create a second Cambridgeshire super-reserve at Whittlesey Mere, the last of the big fens. "If a country like the Netherlands, which is about the size of East Anglia, can do this, then so can we," says Derek Moore, the Trusts' conservation director. "You have to have a vision, and if we're really going to be serious about biodiversity and the recovery of vanishing species then we need to stop mucking around with little patches. 

"We'll be able to bring back some of the species that have disappeared. Some, such as spoonbills and bitterns, could return naturally, but it also gives us the chance to reintroduce creatures like the beaver." 

It is not a short-term solution. Colston is thinking in terms of 100 years; Moore reckons on 30-50 years for Whittlesey Mere. But they believe that circumstances are on their side. The value of fenland is unlikely to stay high because the peat which makes the fens so productive is vanishing, steadily destroyed by farming. And as the sea level rises it is unlikely that government will wish to fund protection measures for the whole of East Anglia. "There are a lot of practicalities to sort out and it will take a lot of money," Colston says. "But we only need one farmer coming to the end of his career to say 'I fancy that', and we're on our way." 

2000 - another Silent Spring?

Scientists say that we may well be facing another environmental disaster like that described by Rachel Carson in her book 'Silent Spring' in the 1960's. Only this time it isn't DDT which is to blame - it's rat poisons.

The modern rodenticide is a chemical such as difenacoum or bromadialone, which cause rodents to bleed to death. They were introduced to replace previous poisons, such as warfarin, after rodents developed tolerance to them in many parts of the country, beginning in 1957. They have the undesirable characteristic of remaining within the body of dead rats and are more toxic to birds and mammals that eat rodents. They are producing worrying evidence that animals higher up the food chains are accumulating poisons within their bodies.

"In 1983 about five per cent of barn owls that had been found on road verges contained second-generation rodenticides," said Dr Richard Shore of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in Monks Wood, Cambridgeshire. "Now the level is 30 per cent. More worryingly, in two per cent of samples, the poisons had been directly responsible for the birds' deaths." 

About 45 per cent of a sample of polecats were found to contain rat poisons. 100 foxes revealed that 46 had been exposed to rodenticides, and ten had died directly as a consequence of eating the poison. About a quarter of weasels and stoats were also found to be affected. Now the predictable resistance to modern poisons is appearing.

"A hot spot appeared in north Berkshire and south Oxfordshire several years ago," said Dr Alan MacNicoll of the Ministry of Agriculture's Central Science Laboratory. "Standard second-generation poisons simply won't kill rats there any more. And now resistance has appeared in rats in East Anglia, Yorkshire, Kent and other areas." Resistant rodents will eat more poison and will more often deliver a lethal dose to their predators, which will increase pressure on threatened species, such as the barn owl.

And farmers will be more likely to turn to even more powerful rodenticides including toxins like brodifacoum and flocoumafen. These should only be used by licensed operstors, indoors, but have already been found to have been illegally used out of doors. And resistant rats are a threat to public health - they spread Weil's disease and salmonella. "It is not impossible to eradicate resistant rats," said MacNicoll. "We tackled one farm in Berkshire where current poisons were no longer effective and managed to get rid of the rats, firstly by using a different type of rodenticide - calciferol - and then by trapping the survivors. I can't say it was an easy business, however."

No serious decline in predator populations has yet been linked to the poison problem. "However, when you look at the increase of rodenticide levels in these creatures, and the appearance of resistance in rats, you realise it is time to start sounding alarm bells," said Shore. 

UK soils "too fragile to farm"

A leading British soil scientist has described some soils in Britain as being no longer suitable for arable farming. 

Professor David Poulson,head of soil research at the Institute of Arable Crop Research in Hertfordshire, wa speaking on the BBC 'Costing the Earth' programme. He says that some soils have specific problems which have developed as a result of over-intensive agriculture. Continuous arable farming leads to a decline in the organic content in the soil, which changes its physical properties, making it more susceptible to erosion. 

The areas affected include the North and South Downs in southern England, parts of the West Midlands, and the Welsh borders. "In the long run, we have to look at taking areas that are prone to severe physical damage out of, certainly, arable production," he says.

The steady accumulation of heavy metals in the soil is also of concern. Metals like zinc, cadmium and copper, derive from the dumping of commercial and industrial wastes, notably sewage sludge. 

"We know that quite low levels of these metals can have negative effects on soil microbes, and on nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The metals stay in the soil for many, many years, and only very tiny amounts get washed out or taken up by plants," says Professor Poulson. "The concentrations will build up, and at some stage in the future they could have a bad effect on the microbes. We certainly need to worry about those." 

Dick Thompson, of the Soil Survey and Land Research Centre at Silsoe in Bedfordshire, is also worried about farming soils beginning to lose their productivity. 

"They are simply organo-mineral mixes of sand and silt and clay, and seem to have no life in them. They are now producing very much lower yields than other soils. They contain very little organic matter."

Institute of Arable Crop Research
Soil Survey and Land Research Centre

SkylarkAutumn crops kill skylarks

A study of 995 skylark nests, carried out between 1996 and 1999, across 24 farms in East Anglia, Oxfordshire and Dorset, has found that the populations on autumn-sown cereal crops were only half those on spring-sown areas.

Spring-sown cereals allow the remains or 'stubble' of the previous crop to be left unploughed, providing food and cover for skylarks over the preceding winter months. Spring-sown crops also provide safer nesting sites and allow skylarks to make more breeding attempts, as the growing crop remains relatively short throughout the breeding season.

Recent changes in agricultural practices have decimated skylark populations, which have fallen by 75% between 1968 and 1996. During this period the area of spring-sown cereals grown in the UK has dropped from 73 per cent to just 16 per cent of the UK's total cereal area. The changes were fostered by the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.

The recent research was sponsored by Tesco Stores Ltd, as part of the company's support for the UK Skylark Biodiversity Action Plan. The study's findings are the first tangible output of the Biodiversity Action Plan process, and are the first step toward preventing further skylark declines. "Tesco is committed to meeting the needs of our customers and of our suppliers," said a spokesman. "Our involvement in the Skylark Action Plan further demonstrates that Tesco is also committed to encouraging responsible farming methods which benefit wildlife and local communities."

Mark Avery, RSPB conservation director, added: "Increasing the area of spring-sown cereals is a feasible solution. The Government's recently announced additional funding for environmental schemes such as Countryside Stewardship, should be used to support arable farmers to sow spring sown cereals and to leave winter 'stubbles'. This is an opportunity not to be missed and would go a long way to helping farmers meet the challenge of skylark conservation."

Options within agri-environment schemes such as the Arable Stewardship Scheme are likely to benefit skylarks significantly if made available on a wider scale. For example, winter stubbles followed by a spring sown crop fit well into existing agricultural systems and provide winter feeding and summer nesting sites for skylarks and many other farmland birds. This combination is a popular option with farmers and offer good value for money. Following winter stubble with summer fallow provides highly important nesting and feeding areas where spring cropping is not practicable due to soil type (ie where the soil remains too wet).

New web site for Flora Locale

An important new web site was announced recently - Flora Locale exists to promote the use of native plants, rather than alien varieties, in replanting schemes, for instance.

The new web site, at www.floralocale.org, will provide the UK's first ever one-stop-shop information source on the sourcing, growing and use of native plants for planting schemes. It is also intended that the web pages will be expanded to include material from other European countries. 

The web site will also soon host a bulletin board, as a means of enabling information exchange between practitioners and other people interested in the range of issues that surround native plants for schemes with wildlife in mind. It is hoped that the pages will be of particular interest to plant growers and anyone working in the field of ecological restoration, woodland planting or enriching urban landscapes through ecological landscape projects.

National Biodiversity Network funding 

The government has announced 2000-1 funding of £250,000 for the National Biodiversity Network.

The network, described by JNCC as "a national system that links the demand for biodiversity information to its collection" has so far been a cooperative project, involving many organisations, including the JNCC, the Natural Environment Research Council, English Nature, the Natural History Museum, The Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, the National Federation of Biological Recorders and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Now that government has given its blessing, and funding, the members are relieved and delighted. Funding has come from other sources, including the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust, which supports the Local Records Centres project, and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The challenge has been to obtain funding for the 'backbone' of the Network, its dictionary, gateway and index, and since the system is to be used by local government and agencies, government support has been sought.

Mark Avery, director of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "This is really good news. This is the Government facing up to its commitment to make information on biodiversity much more widely available.'' 

"Our wildlife is under threat from many sources and to help tackle this problem we must make available the best possible information about the status of wildlife," said the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher. "This can be done if we use modern computer technology to give access to the millions of wildlife records made each year by experts and volunteers throughout the country."

JNCC Corporate Plan
National Biodiversity Network

Winter warming

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow, 
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;

Robert Southwell, 1561?-1595

He might have known. The terrible cold which made British winters feared by the poor and enjoyed by the wealthy may be at an end. No more fields glinting with frost in the thin winter sun, and icicles dangling from barns; no more frozen lakes, and warmly wrapped rosy-cheeked children skating on ponds. The winter of the twenty-first century will be a mild, stormy interlude between warmer summers.

Frost is becoming a thing of the past. The number of icy nights in central England has already fallen by a third in the past 40 years. In the Sixties, the temperature dropped below zero on average 47 nights a year. By the Seventies, it did so on only 39 nights a year, and in the Nineties on just 35. The Met. Office predicts the number of freezing nights will drop by a further 50 per cent in the next 50 years. 

Lake Windermere partially froze on average on 10 days a year, until the mid-Eighties. However, no ice has appeared on the lake since 1989. The date at which birds begin singing in the spring has been an important event, recorded by Tim Sparks, at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. Now he no longer records it: "We had to abandon the birdsong tests, because they now just sing all the way through winter. We can no longer record it as a spring event."

"The nights are getting warmer at a more rapid rate than days - no one knows why, but it may be to do with the degree of cloudiness," said Geoff Jenkins, climate change specialist at the Met Office. "We're absolutely certain the decline in frost is due to global warming."

Flowers are flowering all year round. "It's the most advanced year I can remember," said Barry Champion, head gardener at Trelissick gardens in south Cornwall . "I had one plant flower in December when it's meant to flower in July. Other shrubs are flowering twice a year, in spring and autumn."

At the National Trust gardens in Killerton in south Devon, daffodils appeared on 14 December. "We're certainly not getting as many frosts, and we don't have to worry about protecting plants from it in winter now," said head gardener Andrew Mudge. "There's virtually no dormant season now. The grass is growing all time, and we have to cut it throughout winter, which we never used to."

Dr Ute Collier, head of climate change at the Worldwide Fund for Nature, insists the warm winters are a mixed blessing. "Some people might think it's good for their garden, but we're also getting much stormier winters. The sea level will be rising, and we'll get more floods," she says. "This is only the beginning; we're at the start of the changes."

Warmer winters mean starving hedgehogs 

Milder winters, the product of global warming, are leading to major problems for one of our favourite animals, the hedgehog. Youngsters which were born last year should be hibernating until spring but late-born hedgehogs are still up and about, using up the fat reserves needed to see them through and risking death by starvation.

Louise Brockbank, manager of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Centre at Hartpury, says the 50 animals they care for each need to eat their way through about £40 worth of cat food - half a tin each night - before being released back into the wild. The centre has to keep them warm and provide snug bedding to ensure that they do not realise how cold it is outside.

To help the wildlife centre find the £2,000 cost of caring for undernourished hedgehogs, please call 01452-700038. 

A remedy for memory loss - in the field

Traditional remedies for loss of memory are the latest to receive modern scientific confirmation. 2500 years ago Hippocrates recommended wormwood, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was sage, and lemon balm, which were preferred. 

'Sage is of excellent use to help the memory' said Culpepper in 1653, and Gerard said 'Sage is singularly good for the head and brain, it quickeneth the senses and memory ...' in 1597; a little earlier Tusser had said 'What savour is better (if Physick be true), For places infected than Wormwood and Rue? It is a comfort for hart and the braine, And therefore to have it it is not in vaine.'

Latterly Elaine Perry of the University of Newcastle has been following in their footsteps. She has been investigating whether these folk remedies might operate as modern drugs do to treat Alzheimer's disease. Such drugs alleviate cognitive problems by stimulating the nicotinic receptors which are one of the two types of receptor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Perhaps the old remedies might have a similar effect?

Perry tested ethanol extracts of various species of sage, the related herb lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Wormwood contained chemicals that bound strongly to both types of acetylcholine receptors, the nicotinic and the muscarinic. Lemon balm bound to either or both, depending on the variety. Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) bound strongly to the muscarinic receptors. Only common sage (S. officinalis) did not bind strongly to either receptor. Some samples bound as strongly as carbamylcholine, a powerful drug that resembles acetylcholine. 

Perry suspects plants make the compounds to poison plant-eating insects, whose nervous systems have similar receptors. Even before the results of Perry's work were known, varieties of sage and lemon balm were in the first stage of clinical trials at Newcastle. Lemon balm is being administered to volunteers as aromatherapy. "The active compounds are volatile, so that is an effective way to deliver the drug," says Perry. 

Source: Journal of Ethnopharmacology (vol 69, p 105)

I remember, I remember ...

The unpublished material in the Mass Observation project relating to memories of the countryside has been unveiled by Alun Howkins, professor of social history.

The recollections, made in 1995, paint an accurate picture of detailed changes in Britain's countryside. They are mostly critical: most diarists deplored the removal of hedgerows, according to the correspondents whose writings are collected in an archive at Sussex University. Their memories support 'official' history.

A woman who grew up on a Dorset farm before the Second World War wrote of "the meadows in June like Swiss meadows, full of a variety of flowers, herbs and grasses so good for the cows when made into hay ... thatched barns replaced by silos and battery chicken houses, different crops - we never used to see bright yellow fields of oil seed rape and now blue ones of flax - even the pigs have changed their shape."

A woman born in Norfolk in 1932 who spent much of her life overseas until the late Fifties said that on her return "I was amazed at the destruction of hedgerows, grubbing out has continued ever since, starting during Second World War to increase food production acreage, government-funded, and since the late Sixties CAP-funded."

"The small hamlet that was once lived in by farm workers is now inhabited by wealthy middle class professionals . . . my friend's parents who had returned [who had lived in a semi-tied cottage] ended up in a council flat in town," wrote a Cleethorpes housewife.

Toadstool found after a century

The millennium has brought a sighting of a toadstool which had been thought to be extinct for at least a century.

Gordon Simpson found the fungus, Cytidia salicina, as he carried out a wildlife survey for the Forestry Commission. It had last been seen on Speyside, in northeast Scotland, in 1900, but the latest find was in Kielder Forest in Northumberland. 

"I was walking just south of Kielder village when I suddenly saw this scarlet stem, about a yard long, in the distance," said Mr Simpson. "When I got there I realised it was a fungus, so I broke a small piece off and sent it to two of my colleagues for analysis." 

The final confirmation was made by Peter Roberts at Kew Gardens. Mr Simpson, who found two clumps of the fungus close together, said: "There were scores of them and from a distance it looked as if somebody had splashed scarlet paint." 

Toads like it hot - well, not cold 

The winter meeting of the British Ecological Society has heard that many of our accepted views about toad hibernation are wrong, particularly their liking for cold spots.

"There has been this misconception that toads seek out cold conditions to lower their metabolic rate and conserve stored fat reserves over the winter," says Elizabeth Chadwick, of the University of Wales in Cardiff. But in fact the toads prefer warmer areas.

To measure the warmth of the hibernation burrows, the team put microchips under the skin of a colony of toads before releasing them into a soil pit in their laboratory. A heating cable ran beneath the soil, allowing the researchers to control the temperature. Half the toads, which burrow up to 2in down, sought out the warm areas where temperatures were up to 15C (60F) higher. Only 10 per cent went for the cold spots. 

"Rather than trying to minimise their metabolic rates, the toads appear to be trying to avoid freezing. Also, if they are in warm areas they may emerge earlier in the spring and be at the breeding ponds slightly earlier too," Miss Chadwick said. 

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