Current Issues in Conservation: Week 1

Yesterday we eased into the Current Issues in Conservation module (part of the MSc Wildlife Management and Conservation) gently with some ‘small’ questions: what is conservation, who does it and how does it work?! There was a genuinely light ice-breaker as we each shared the best wildlife we’d seen over the Christmas break. These included penduline tits and a great northern diver in Gloucestershire, crocodiles and wintering yellow wagtails in Ghana, and rafts of surf scoters on the coast of Canada.

So, who are these mysterious ‘conservationists’? As a group we agreed to being labelled that way  but accepted that the word comes with some baggage, such as being dismissed as ‘tree-huggers’ or told ‘you must be depressed all the time’. Turning our thoughts outside the group, we suggested that many people must feel that wildlife contributes to their quality of life but that this rarely translates into action. Some students mentioned grandparents who felt nostalgic for the abundant wildlife of their youths, especially when told about species in decline like yellowhammers, which older generations remember being common. We wondered whether younger generations, especially, genuinely stay indoors too much and have lost their innate connection with the natural world, or whether this is just a perception. Later in the term we will do some hard thinking about how we as self-declared conservationists fit into the picture: are we really any different to ‘normal’ people?

Next we considered what it is that we as conservationists seek to conserve. Generally, the group felt we aim to conserve all wildlife, but do we really mean all? An honest appraisal suggests that in reality our actions and engagement are driven by our particular interests, which for most of the group means birds. For some in the group the initial spark that hooked them on wildlife came from encounters with charismatic wild mammals like hedgehogs and foxes, often in a garden or other urban setting. Despite frequent media citing of Attenborough documentaries or Springwatch as triggering much of the contemporary interest in wildlife, nobody mentioned television: for Reading students, inspiration appears to come from the real world.

Since one of the Christmas sightings mentioned was of an American mink, we discussed how invasive, non-native or otherwise undesirable species fit into our conservation philosophy. Some raised the argument that species should not deliberately be made extinct (whether locally or globally), however troublesome, as they are simply being themselves and should be allowed to exist in peace. However, there was general agreement with the idea that control of certain species in certain circumstances has a role to play in wildlife conservation.

How the decision to control should be made is an open question – do we need to draw a line in time, before which a species is definitely classed as non-native? If so, what is the right cut-off date? Or should the decision to control be based purely on the destructive potential of a species? In this case, should native species be under consideration and how destructive (and destructive of what) does a species need to become before we step in? To guide our discussion, we considered a hypothetical button which, if pressed, would instantly eradicate all American mink in the UK. Everybody agreed to press it, although some would feel bad about doing so.

We finished with a brief discussion of the varied public attitudes to potential wolf or lynx reintroductions. At times points were made which strayed towards being dismissive of concerns we don’t agree with, but all then agreed that publicly ridiculing opponents of whatever you are trying to achieve in conservation is at best counter-productive. Perhaps it’s more important to understand other points of view, using conversation to build a conservation consensus. After all, every conservation issue has people at its heart, since without people there would be no issues and indeed no wildlife conservation. As we go through this module, we will continue to consider the many ways that people think about and relate to the world around them – and each other – as the key to understanding conservation issues in the 21st century.

Conservation: what’s your viewpoint?

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Meon Shore Trip, 6th November

Originally published as

The strip of mud and shingle between the shore and the concrete sea wall is almost as grey as the rough sea beyond and the bleak skies above. A drab day with deadening light. Somebody has stolen the Isle of Wight, shrouded it in fine mist and spray and a light rain that quickly soaks through the most effective of coats.

Look closer. Look out from the shelter of the café, through rain-streaked windows and back towards the beach. On the rain-washed mudflats oystercatchers are at work, questing deep into slick mud with their straight, deadly bills. Small parties of them fly past, crying in alarm, just below the black-headed gulls that tack expertly against a stiff wind, their silvery wings braced against the weather.

Look closer still, on the stones between the oystercatchers’ feet, in the pool just appearing as the tide falls. On every available anchorage strips and curtains and fronds of seaweed are holding fast, a diverse saltwater garden. Between the stones and weed lie myriad mollusc shells: some occupied, some empty. A few bear the borehole scars of past maritime battles or the cases of tube-bearing worms.

Look closer again; lift the largest rock in the pool. On its underside a cluster of sea spiders is taking shelter. Disturbed, they slink away with a slow, lurching gait on ponderously questing legs. The rock surface they crawl over teems with life of all forms: barnacles, sponges, sea-snails, minute young crabs and a bristly mail-shell – yet another form of mollusc – resplendent and glistening under the surface tension of a thin layer of water. A single stretch of coast with many scales to explore and many stories to uncover.

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Bucklebury Common MSc Fieldtrip

Jo Munting reports from our latest MSc field trip, to Bucklebury Common in West Berkshire. 

Another Tuesday, another field trip – this time to help with restoring heathland on some of Bucklebury common.

Bucklebury common is one of the largest areas of heathland in West Berkshire. Heathland is an increasingly rare and important habitat. Areas of heathland once stretched from parts of Norfolk and Suffolk across the country to Southern and Western England. The heaths were used by commoners as grazing land for livestock. Locals cut bracken to use as bedding and heather was cut for feed, turfs were used as fuel – the landscape was managed and created a valuable habitat for a huge amount of wildlife. 5000 species of invertebrates have been found on heathland. Half of the species of dragonfly found in the UK have been found on lowland heath.

Lowland heath also houses all six species of reptile found in the UK- adders, grass snake, smooth lizard, slow worms, common lizard as well as the rare sand lizard. Ground nesting birds like nightjars like heathland to nest on.

Heathland is a man-made habitat, probably originating in the bronze age when early settlers began clearing trees. It has since been maintained by people using the heath for bracken, heather and  grazing. Heathland is now under threat from development as we build ever more houses and from lack of management . Without management trees like silver birch and scots pine creep in and seed all over the heath. This changes the open heath to scrubby wood and reduces the open flat land favoured by woodlark and nightjars and changes the habitat for many other species.

We were working to remove the birch and Scots pine that had seeded and were invading an area of heath. With such a lot of enthusiastic MSc students we cleared a lot of trees and had some amazing bonfires. The weather was even kind to use this time and we all stayed dry!


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Dinton Pastures Country Park Field Trip 27th October 2015

Today was a more relaxing, half day visit to a local site, where we got to see lots of old favourite’s with a chance to hone our visual and audio ID skills.

Our first sighting on Black Swan Lake was a gaggle of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis); a familiar face to most of us.

We have all been working hard to better our gull ID skills, so were pleased to have a chance with these Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), which annoyingly do not have a black head at this time of year! The black spot on the face is a giveaway, and we also learned today the white leading edge of their wings is also distinctive:


We were treated to very close views of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) with their cygnets, distinguishable by their orange bill and black face:


And a little while later we spotted a few Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) , adults and juveniles, on a pontoon at the far end of Black Swan Lake. Distinguishable from the Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) by their pink legs. Lesser black-backed gulls have yellow legs!


On Lavell’s Lake and Lea Farm gravel pit we were treated to sightings of Egyptian Geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus), Teal (Anas crecca), Shovelers (Anas clypeata), Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus), Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) and Snipe (Gallinago gallinago):


We were also lucky to see a female Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), Wigeon (Anas penelope), Tufted Ducks (Aythya fuligula), lots of Gadwalls (Anas strepera) – which many of us were surprised were so big when seen out of the water!

Having knee injuries I made my way back to have my lunch at the café while the rest of the group ventured around Sandford Lake and Herons Water before making their way back.

I got lucky, the one spare table, was on in a secluded spot, away from the noisy children. Not more than a few minutes had passed when I heard the sound of my favourite garden bird; Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus). I counted between 15-20 flitting around the trees above me and in the hedgerow, singing all the while. Having bad knees paid off! A great end to a field trip!

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Leith Hill Field Trip 20/10/2015

On a bright sunny morning on the 20th October (Charlotte’s Birthday), eager MSc students ventured out into the Surrey countryside for a fun filled day of adventure. Our first stop of the field trip was Severell’s Copse. Here we learnt that the site is of value to dormice. Unfortunately, it seemed there was conflicting focus of the management on site with the creation of an open glade through the dormice habitat, which although beneficial to other species, was too open for dormice to cross. In an attempt to rectify this problem, dead hedges had been constructed across an area of neglected coppice to facilitate movement of the dormice population.

Severells Copse Sign

As we explored the area in more detail we encountered various species of fungi, however as the weather had been uncharacteristically dry recently there was less diversity than one would have hoped. Our tour guides Jonathan and Jess commenced by stating that the largest living organism on earth was a humungous fungus, which obviously got our attention from the start. Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) which gets its name from the resembling colours of a wild turkey, was one of the first varieties of mushroom we discovered. We also came across multiple others, including: porcelain fungus (Oudemansiella mucida), sulphur tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare), earth balls (Scleroderma) and many types of bracket fungus.


Bracket Fungi

Bracket Fungus

Turkey Tail

Turkey Tail









For luncheon we trekked up a HUGE STEEP hill in order to enjoy the magical view at Leith Hill, which is classed as the highest point in South East England.


View from Leith Hill 2

View from Leith Hill

After enjoying our sarnies in the sunshine, we embarked on the second half of our fabulous trip. We began by assessing the countryside at a landscape scale, looking at the various land management practices in the region. This included pesticide use and bracken rolling. We continued on our trail, passing heathland where we sited bell, cross and common heather. Particular highlights of this part of the trip were witnessing a queen hornet burrowing into a fallen tree trunk and spotting some crossbills in a nearby tree. What a treat!! A short walk led us back to the minibuses where unfortunately our trip had to come to an end. We can’t be too sad though, there’s another one next week! To be continued…


Land Management Leith Hill

Pretty view

By Charlotte Pilcher and Lauren Richards

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Combe Hill 29/09/15

Chloe Stephenson fills us in on the first MSc trip of the term:

On the 29th of September, our group started the ‘Survey Skills and Species Identification’ MSc at the University of Reading. The MSc consists of a group of people from a range of backgrounds who all have a shared fascination in the natural world. On the second day of university I found myself in a mini bus which took me straight back to my school days, as we set out on the first field trip of the course.

Our destination was Combe Hill. This hill is part of the North Wessex downs and exhibits the chalk down land that is characteristic of the area. Lowland calcareous grassland is one of Europe’s most intricately diverse plant communities and we were not disappointed by the variety of plants we found there, including Silverweed (Panserina), Yarrow (Achilla Millefollum) and Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa Protensis).

However, the hill has a darker side. During our walk we passed under Combe Gibbet. Erected in 1676, on a Neolithic burial mound, the gibbet was only used once. It was originally constructed to display the bodies of a philandering husband and his lover. The adulterous couple were executed after they were found guilty of murdering the husband’s wife and child, who discovered them on the downs.

The landmarks grisly past was, perhaps, hinted at by the number of corvids who had come to enjoy the updrafts created by the topography. A parliament of rooks were joined by jackdaws and ravens as they wheeled above the hill. Kites and crows also seemed to be enjoying the strong winds. In the afternoon we continued to Hosehill Lake. This is an abandoned gravel pit which is now the site of a large lake surrounded by wetland and meadow habitats. Here we were confronted by a profusion of nature that had ventured out to enjoy the late summer sun. In addition to the waterfowl on the lake. We cautiously edged our way under hornet’s nests, whose intricate architecture was spilling out of the bird boxes they had been built in earlier in the year. Long tailed tits followed us as they called each other through the trees that surrounded the lake and Emperor Dragonflies skimmed over the water.

After growing up in the countryside, I had previously felt that I had a good knowledge of Britain’s native wildlife. However, our first field trip showed me that although I thought I had been engaging with nature I hadn’t really been looking. How many times have I looked at a black bird and dismissed it as a crow without investigating further to find out if it was really a crow, or a rook or a raven? My previous education had been devoid of teaching which required such practical, first-hand knowledge.

The benefits of field trips and the unique skills that they teach you is an area that is being increasingly investigated as more and more people feel disconnected from nature. Shockingly a recent survey showed 21% of today’s Children regularly played outside, compared to 71% of their parents (Jon Henley, 2010). A review of the research on outdoor learning by Dillon et al. (2006) found that students scored higher in 72% of assessments in schools that included environmentally focused field trips in their curriculum (based on secondary students from 11 Californian schools).

So it seems that learning to tell the wood from the trees is not only enjoyable but could also make you smarter in general. As the term continues I can only hope!

Dillon,J., Rickinson, M., Teamey, K. et al (2006) The value of outdoor learning: evidence from research in the UK and elsewhere, School Science Review, 87, 320.

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Pagham Harbour 13/10/15

Our third MSc field excursion of the autumn term was to Pagham Harbour near Chichester in Sussex, a coastal nature reserve managed by the RSPB since 2012. The large tidal harbour is the focus of the site, its mudflats and marshes playing host to impressive flocks of wintering waders and wildfowl. Surrounding the harbour is a mosaic of farmland, wet grassland, scrub, lagoons and small villages, all of which contribute to the superb avian diversity of the area and make for a pretty much peerless destination for a field ornithology trip.


Checking out house sparrows – they all count! Knowing common species well is the best way to be sure you’re seeing something different.

To illustrate this diversity, we always have a light-hearted sweepstake to see who can most accurately guess the number of species we’ll see during the course of the day. This year’s estimates ranged from 29 to 130, but how many species did we actually see? Well, given that I noticed several people on my minibus fishing around the internet for clues I’m not going to say lest I spoil the fun for next year’s students! What I can divulge is that it was an excellent total, slightly above our usual average.


Scanning through the wader roost at Church Norton. Oystercatchers, grey plovers and turnstones were most abundant.

One of the star species included a small flock of avocets – the elegant black and white wader that serves as the RSPB logo – which recently started breeding in the area at the new Medmerry reserve. Medmerry is an innovative habitat creation scheme initiated by the Environment Agency that will be well-worth watching as it develops over the next few years. Other highlights included a large flock of wigeon descending over the harbour, and a peregrine putting the frighteners on lapwing, starling and black-headed gull flocks at Ferry Pool.

We finished at Church Norton,  checking through the flocks of roosting waders on the south side of the harbour before moving to the shingle beach for a well deserved rest and a spot of seawatching. The sea was quiet, with only two great-crested grebes regularly in view and a single gannet passing distantly offshore, so a few of our number took to beachcombing. This impressive barrel jellyfish was probably the best find and a fine, distinctly non avian way to round off the day!


A barrel jellyfish washed up on Pagham beach.

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Warburg Nature Reserve 6/10/2015

On the 6th October the MSc students from SISS and Wildlife Management and Conservation went to do some habitat management at Warburg Nature Reserve, which is run by BBOWT (Bucks, Berks and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust).We were tasked with paleremoving woodland edges and scrubby bushes to stop encroachment and succession on the species rich flower meadows. To be honest the weather could have been a little bit better… was a bit wet and soggy. However we didn’t let that stop us from getting stuck in shifting large quantities of plant material.

My favourite bit of wildlife that I saw were some marks of a tree which were almost certainly made by deer. I knew of the damage that deer do to trees, especially to saplings, and that deer tend to shift diets onto bark during the winter. However this was the first time I’d knowingly seen the evidence of damage so that was interesting. We also saw a good variety of caterpillars including the tea timepale tussock moth caterpillar which I missed out on but people were kind enough to share photos with me. I found a rather odd looking large pink caterpillar which is still as yet unidentified.

Working with such a large and enthusiastic work party was lovely as it meant that by the end of the day you looked back and really saw what you’d achieved. It was also interesting to see the wardens using a billhook in order to fashion the longer straighter pieces of hazel into usable poles. After a welcome tea break and later on our lunch the work shifted from cutting with bow saws and loppers (the wonderfully sharp bow saws provided were a blessing!), to lugging the trees to the now roaring fire.  I spent some of this time chasing Graham with various creatures in the hope that I might be able to start closing some of my massive knowledge gaps. I would like to say I did my bit though as I was tired and bruised by home time, it was brilliant exercise though!

Images are courtesy of India Harvey and Jim Flothmann.students

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Landscape Ecology Research

Jess_LandscapeCongratulations are due to CWAC PhD student Jess Neumann, whose paper “The compositional and configurational heterogeneity of matrix habitats shape woodland carabid communities in wooded-agricultural landscapes” was published today in the Journal of Landscape Ecology.

Supervised by Dr. Graham Holloway in the School of Biological Sciences and Dr. Geoff Griffiths in the School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Sciences, Jess’ work examines how woodland biodiversity in the heavily modified landscapes of southern England is impacted by landscape change. Her work was supported by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust – including project co-supervisor Dr. Andrew Hoodless – and by a grant from Forest Research.

The research published today provides new evidence for the importance of connecting linear features within fragmented woodland systems, particularly emphasizing the importance of mature hedgerows for slow-dispersing ground beetles. It also highlights the value of small fragments of semi-natural habitat as refugia for species which have lost their primary habitats, such as heathland specialists, but are able to persist in the landscape where patches of woodland and water bodies are retained.

This provides a clear message to policy makers that agri-environment schemes should consider the spatial configuration of options and the landscape context in which they are being implemented, a concept which is beginning to be incorporated into the new generation of schemes under the NELM umbrella.




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Woodland Invertebrate Research

It’s the start of another field season, and I’ve been busily helping some of our MSc students get started with their projects as well as launching into another phase of data collection for my PhD. With the aid of two of the aforementioned students, Emily Coan and Steph Maher (who, I am grateful to say, are doing the lion’s share of the work!) we’ve been setting up three pairs of insect traps in each of a number of different woods in and around Reading. All the sites are within 15km of the town centre but incorporate a variety of wood sizes, habitat structures, and situations; from plantation to copse, beech to oak wood, and urban (like McIlroy Park, below) to rural.

McIlroy Park, Reading.

McIlroy Park, Reading.

For each pair of traps, we are setting one pitfall — very simply, a plastic cup buried in the ground to catch any invertebrates that happen to stumble in — and a flight intercept trap, pegged to the ground, which will catch anything that happens to fly through the trap door. In other words, we have one trap to catch walking creatures and one to catch those on the wing, but both set in the same place for a direct comparison.

An invertebrate trap set.

An invertebrate trap set.

The pitfall traps should catch a good range of invertebrates, but chiefly beetles from the families Carabidae (ground beetles) and Staphylinidae (rove beetles). One of my PhD colleagues at Reading, Jess Neumann, has been studying woodland ground beetles for a number of years now, using them as an indicator group for the effects of landscape structure and composition on woodland biodiversity. Her study sites are almost entirely rural in setting, so it will be interesting to see whether similar patterns emerge in the urban set of woods where we’re collecting in this summer. I’m particularly keen to explore her findings about the influence of the historic landscape on contemporary invertebrate distributions, and the idea that woodland carabids owe a substantial extinction-debt, persisting as they do in landscapes which no longer meet their ecological requirements.

Then we have the flight traps. These will capture mostly small flies and parasitic wasps, as well as a few small bugs and beetles. I foresee more of a challenge identifying some of these, to say the least, but eventually we should have some really interesting data that will enable us to compare change, across wooded landscapes, of a number of different invertebrate communities. Will small flies — fungus gnats, for example — prove as sensitive to habitat fragmentation and the composition of the surrounding landscape as the relatively big, flightless woodland specialist ground beetles? If ground beetles are indeed an indicator of wider biodiversity, what exactly is it that they indicate? Watch this space!

In the meantime, I am fortunate enough to have the excuse to get up early and head for some rather special places. Between digging pitfalls and setting traps, I’m able to enjoy some fantastic scenery and usually happen upon some pretty great wildlife, too. It’s tiring work, but I can hardly complain when the rewards are this lovely.

Originally posted on on 17/05/2015. 


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