Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Wyoming's Gray Wolves: Conservation crying wolf?

So here were are again... less than a week after reconsideration of the conservation status and talks of possibly lifting the ban on killing great white sharks in Australia, the North American state of Wyoming have legalised 'on-sight' killing of gray wolves outside National Park boundaries, effective from September 30th.

The positives to draw from this are of course that this is proof that thanks to the conservation efforts of the 1990's, the gray wolf, once extinct from Yellowstone, is once again roaming the vast landscapes and completing the picture of John Muir's real wilderness. Government predator control programmes and fur trader hunting resulted in the near extinction, of the already declining, gray wolf by the 1930's, with the last wolf being killed in Yellowstone in 1926. In the absence of this apex predator, the elk population of Yellowstone became critically high and the ecosystem was unbalanced and suffering from over grazing. When relocation of elk herds was unsuccessful and 30 years of culling was ineffective, whispers of reintroducing the wolves began.

Roots of the wolf reintroduction were embedded in several local studies throughout the 1940's and 1950's, then coupled with the environmental movement of the 1960's, the listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act 1973 and the encouragement of the general public, the government were compelled to make the move.

In January 1995, 14 wolves from Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada, were released in two separate shipments and... thrived. Over the last two decades the Yellowstone wolf population has gone from strength to strength, peaking in 2003/04 and eventually levelling out to the stable population of around 100 individuals that exist in 10 packs today. The gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list in 2009.

This has always been a conservation fairy tale that I have treasured since university and I have made it a personal goal of mine to one day travel here and spend several days getting lost with the wolves of Yellowstone. But like a lot of things, it seems revelling in this success is to be short lived as the decision-makers, once again make the wrong one, by allowing and condoning the behaviour that created the problem in the first place.

Yes, under the new rules Wyoming must maintain at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves and no fewer than 100 animals at any one time, but ranchers and farmers have spent decades arguing that wolves will take livestock and have demanded the right to 'control' them. Yellowstone wolves will still be protected, but the estimated 200 individuals outside the boundaries are now on their own, despite possibly providing the future populations of Yellowstone if the existing ones struggle. If a cull is necessary, fine. As conservationist, culling has to be embraced as a necessity in many circumstances, but allowing 'Tom, Dick and Harry' to 'control' the population is inevitably going to lead to unregulated and illegal trapping/killing and we know it.
Naturally, I have overwhelming issues with needlessly killing anything, particularly when it’s anthropogenically fuelled, but more than anything, I'm so disappointed. Over the years our elders have taught us that disappointing someone is so much worse than anything else; "I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed". There is nothing more fitting here.

http://tourandtravel-online.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/1258779859_grand_teton_reflections_yellowstone.jpgWyoming is the home of the devastatingly beautiful Yellowstone National Park, famous for its stunning geology and wildlife. Widely held as the world's first national park, established in 1872, Yellowstone holds a special place in the heart of every conservationist and yet now, somehow feels tainted.

Is this to be the outcome of all conservation success stories? What kind of message is this? It's hard enough trying to communicate a voice for wildlife as it is, without outcomes such as this. Why do we insist on encouraging the vicious circle? Twenty years of rewarded effort are now hanging in the balance. Is this an indication of the beginning of conservation's downward spiral? Was the intention only ever to push the success story to the headlines then cast the effort aside and follow the order of the loudest voices anyway?

Conservation has a long way to travel in the next century, let's hope it doesn't take the easy road.

I'll leave you with the Druid Peak pack, a group of wolves introduced to Yellowstone in 1996. After the natural loss of the Alpha female several years ago, the pack slowly demised and now there are no longer any surviving members. A natural process that has made way for a brand new pack that will make Yellowstone their home.

Let’s hope that after the end of September we don't find ourselves in front row seats during the demise of the other ten Yellowstone packs, followed by a backseat in the century fighting for their return. All because we refuse to learn from our mistakes.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

My Wildlife Photography

Thought I'd share a few of my wildlife photographs with you.

All were taken in the wild except the adder, taken at Wildwood in Kent.
Blackbird, Hanningfield Reservoir

Comma, Galleywood Common

Adder (in captivity), Wildwood Trust

Hoverfly, KWT Queendown Warren Nature Reserve

Brimstone, Writtle College

Blackthorn, Galleywood Common

Woodmouse, Victory Wood, Kent

Holly Blue, KWT Queendown Warren Nature Reserve

Brimstone, New Forest Wildlife Centre

Mute Swan, Hanningfield Reservoir

Common Lizard, London Wetland Centre

Cricket, Wildwood Trust

Canada Gosling, Hanningfield Reservoir

Common Frog, My Garden

Common Blue, London Wetland Centre

Chalkhill Blue, KWT Queendown Warren Reserve

Dandelion, London Wetland Centre

Black Headed Gull, Hanningfield Reservoir

Thick-Legged Flower Beetle, Ashburnham Meadows

Foxgloves, My Garden

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Western Oz Great White Sharks: Conservation overkill?

It's not unusual that I get wound up by something I read in the paper (ask my family how many angry letters I've written to the Essex Chronicle), but The Guardian usually has a reasonably acceptable way of communicating news and so they should as self-proclaimed liberalists. I've always found this to be the case with conservation issues, which is why I read The Guardian throughout University and why they are the only newspaper I've bothered to bookmark.

So when I stumbled across the infuriating topic of the following article, I was relieved that a Google search would lead the majority of browsers to The Guardian website.

Although this particular article is fairly well balanced, the gist of 'local official' opinion is basically that there have been an increase in shark attacks in Western Australia, fatal ones specifically, so there must be a dangerously large increase in population numbers due to all those pesky conservation efforts. Better remove them from the protected species list and start fishing, I mean culling, them immediately.

I really didn't want to sound ignorantly sarcastic about this, because it isn't a completely ludicrous theory; we've seen incorrectly managed conservation projects create conflicts between humans and wildlife in the recent past. Remember the RSPB and Natural England captive breeding and reintroduction of Red Kites into the Chilterns? Yeah, fair point.. but I'm gonna leave my rant in because I'm not willing to cover up my radical feelings about this issue because it all comes from my passion for it.
There have been four fatal shark attacks in Western Australia in the last year, gruesomely, the last victim was apparently witnessed being bitten in half. Of course this kind of tragedy is going to encourage everybody to start talking... loudly... and a response is going to be demanded from conservationists and officials alike, but why does the initial response always have to be so radical? If you want radical, has anyone considered that we have a Jaws situation at hand and one particularly hungry shark with a vendetta against humans is stalking the waters of Western Australia? We are perfectly capable of approaching these issues logically aren't we? So, lets do that.

So, an increase in local populations attributed to conservation efforts was my initial thought too, but funnily enough the thought of devaluing this stunning species with our conservation labels, encouraged me to think outside the box and consider natural explanations, rather than blaming the "interfering conservationists" (and not just because I am one).

With very basic (self-taught) knowledge of marine ecosystems and great white ecology, the first idea I considered was the relationship between any apex predator and its prey. Great whites are primitive, they live to hunt and eat and, in a roundabout way, they've spent 16 million years perfecting it. This aside, call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure the evolutionary path for a marine mammal does not lead to bipedal, terrestrial mammals as an alternative source of prey, even if they do occasionally wander into shark territory and look all vulnerable. I am, and always have been, a firm believer in mistaken identity when it comes to shark attacks. So, if great whites don't just fancy a change, what are the possible food chain issues?

Sharks are well documented feeding on whale carcasses, in fact people find it quite fascinating (You Tube it!). There have been reports of an increase in the humpback whale population, leading to an increased frequency in presence, and in turn deaths, along the annual migration route in Western Australia. Whale carcasses bloat and float inland, attracting all manner of scavengers closer to shore and human activity, including sharks. 

Seal populations, increasing or decreasing, are inevitably going to have an effect on shark behaviour too. An increase in prey is logically going to lead to the possibility of an initial predatory increase, not necessarily in population size, but also in distribution. If this is a natural process, that will inevitably increase human-shark encounters, we can look to population ecology for an equally natural solution. Rosenzweig's paradox of enrichment suggests that increasing prey populations can cause the predator population to grow unsustainably large, resulting in a natural decrease. 

Surely it's equally plausible that the increase in attacks is due to human population growth and the increase in recreational use of the ocean? Maybe we're venturing into areas we haven't before? Occupying more beaches across the great white range? If we choose swimming and surfing as part of a recreational lifestyle we have a responsibility to recognise the risks; the ocean is shark territory, how can we criticise a display of natural behaviour because it's inconvenient for us indulging in an entirely unnatural one?

Though all this could be interpreted essentially as a 'get out' for conservation by attributing increased human and shark encounters to natural population increases, the real point is that though very possible, an increase in the great white population has not even been proven. What studies have ONLY shown so far is an increase in shark sightings and attacks, highlighting the need for extensive research beautifully:
"According to records kept by Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, 194 people have been killed by sharks in Australia over the past 200 years – an average of about one each year. Western Australia alone has seen four fatal attacks and three other near-fatal encounters in the past 18 months, and a more recent study published by the CSIRO found the number of shark attacks in Australia had risen from an average of 6.5 incidents per year in the decade 1990-2000 to 15 incidents per year in the past decade."
Solutions? Research. Plain and simple. It is our responsibility to find the facts before making any long-term decisions. This was the case in conserving the species and so it should be at the suggestion of destroying it. Yes, tagging and tracking great whites is difficult, but so is everything that is worth doing. Now is the time to embrace the challenge, for the good of the species. Education is the second wave. Providing local people with an unbiased interpretation of the issue and educating them in how to use the ocean safely whilst respecting the elements that make it so appealing in the first place.. including the sharks.

After my rant about this on Facebook, a fellow conservationist friend (just completed his MSc at UKC) posted this video response, sums it all up perfectly for me. A radical response to a radical "solution" if that's how they want to play it. Thanks Rich.

So, logically, if we decrease the great white's conservation status we'd also better start curbing the production of toasters? No? Exactly.

In a nutshell, if the explanation for this increase in shark attacks is even partly due to an increase in the population of an endangered species, that's surely a positive conclusion, albeit it on the back of consecutive tragedy. Even the consideration of a decrease in great white conservation status is at least decade of research away. I guarantee the outcome of this research (if communicated truthfully and isn't silenced to morally justify the allowance of fishing and preservation of tourism for economic gain) will attribute the increase in shark attacks to a number of causes, including all of which I've discussed. If this is the case, this only highlights the need for effective management, education and finally taking responsibility for our actions, all of them.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Water Shrew Ecology and Surveying

In 2010, whilst volunteering with the Essex Wildlife Trust, I was given the opportunity to write an article on Water Shrews in Essex for the members magazine. I snapped up the chance and recently discovered that the article is available online, thanks to Healthy Life Essex.

This research and experience proved to be very useful when working on the water shrew captive breeding programme whilst employed at Wildwood Trust. I was given the task of trapping (Longworth) new individuals to be paired with the males already in the programme. In two trapping sessions, I managed to collect a juvenile female (with a licence from Natural England). We called her Whitney (Whitney Shrewston) and she is now active within the captive breeding programme at Wildwood. This task gave me experience in handling and sexing shrews, recognising field signs and gave some insight into population numbers in Kent, which I shared with the Kent Mammal Group for their Mammal Atlas records.

Water Shrew in Essex

The water shrew Neomys fodiens is one of our county’s most intriguing riparian (river bank dwelling) species.
It is the largest of Britain’s shrew species, reaching lengths of 11-17cm from nose to tail and weighing 12-18g. They are distinguishable from other shrew species by the dense, black, velvety fur on their back and pale grey/white fur on their underside. They have a fringe of silvery-white hairs along the tail and on the hind feet, forming a ‘keel’ to aid swimming. Like all shrews they have an elongated snout, with small ears and tiny eyes. The water shrew is a semi-aquatic species and is therefore most often found in habitats close to water, including banks of streams, rivers and ponds, as well as reedbeds and fens. Occasionally individuals are found far from water in habitats such as rough grasslands, woodland and hedgerows. In 2009 Writtle College lecturers reported the identification of water shrew in a hedgerow during a small mammal trapping workshop in the middle of an arable field, approximately 300m from the nearest water course. These recordings are most likely to be dispersing juveniles searching for new territories.
a nest of young water shrews
Despite the endearing charm of the water shrew, it has been largely ignored in comparison to other river dwelling mammals, therefore very little is known about its distribution and population status in Essex. Its elusive nature and discreet field signs make it very difficult to study, though efforts have been made in the past. 

The Mammal Society’s national Water Shrew Survey in 2004–2005 turned out some interesting results, finding water shrews at 17.4% of sites surveyed. They were widely distributed from the northern Scotland to southern England, with a concentration in central and eastern England. This recognition that eastern counties, such as Essex, are favoured by water shrews, suggests a countywide survey is a valuable opportunity to update our records.

The Water for Wildlife Officer at the Essex Wildlife Trust is currently implementing plans to launch a countywide survey, the first of its kind in Essex. The survey will use the ‘bait tube’ method, which is cheap and effective in determining the presence of water shrews at a site. Lengths of plastic tube (4cm diameter) are covered at one end (with mesh material), baited with casters and placed 2-3m from the waters edge. The water shrews are free to enter and leave the tube at will. As they linger to explore and feed they will deposit droppings (scats) which are then collected and analysed. The content of the scats indicates the presence of different small mammals. Sites positive for the presence of water shrew relies on accurate identification of fragments of freshwater invertebrates (main diet) within the scats; therefore the survey is likely to be most effective in aquatic habitats. If the scats are whole they can often be identified by eye, distinguished by their large size (7mm x 2mm) and shards of grey/white ‘shell’ of freshwater crustaceans.

Any other field signs can be noted at the time of the survey, including footprints, feeding signs (small broken shells) and burrows, although water shrews will often use disused burrows of voles and mice, making positive identification difficult without other definite field signs. Notes regarding the habitat can be made at the chosen survey sites (habitat type, water depth, vegetation type) which, in conjunction with positive scat identification will provide valuable information about the population status and the preferred habitat of this intriguing little mammal in Essex.

If you would like to help out with the water shrew survey and become one of our volunteers, please contact Darren Tansley, Water for Wildlife Officer at the Trust. Volunteers are required for both carrying out the surveys and analysing the contents of the survey tubes. Email darrent@essexwt.org.uk or tel 01621 862995
Joanne Vere
Conservation Volunteer - Essex Wildlife Trust

Water for wildlife is a unique partnership of the Wildlife Trusts, working with the water companies, Environment Agency and other key partners to provide a more consistent and targeted approach to wetland conservation across the UK.
Essex Wildlife Trust
Water for Wildlife
Picture Credits
"A nest of young water shrews " by Rob Parry

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

ID Books: Recommendations

So, over the years my friends and family have always asked me which ID books I'd recommend, particularly to take out into the field. I've used several books for wild flower and bird ID, and since college I have not had any doubts about which I prefer.

For wild flower ID, I'd suggest using keys.. flower ID can be so complex and having a systematic approach makes it much easier. I always rely on a combination of two books: 

John Hayward - A New Key to Wild Flowers
Francis Rose - The Wild Flower Key 
A New Key to Wild Flowers

 To ID to a species level (you'll need a hand lens in many cases) I usually start with the Hayward key.. I have a 1992 edition I bought from Amazon Marketplace secondhand (shown in the link), but I believe the Field Studies Council republished it in 2004. I then use Rose to double check. Neither book is pocket sized, but are also no trouble to carry in a rucksack.

There are an overwhelming number of bird ID books and I must have tried six before I settled with this series. This is the most recent edition as far as I am aware, but its always changing. Every species has an entire page to itself covering identification, habits, voice, habitat, food, breeding movements and migrations, population, conservation and distribution (with colour-coded maps). The multiple pictures (including in-flight) are beautifully hand drawn, making the book just generally nice to thumb through. The only dissapointing element of this book is that it doesnt cover bird eggs, but I have another book I refer to for this, though it is too big to take out with me, so I rely on photos or collecting broken specimens.

I would love to hear your suggestions on ID books, particularly on butterflies and moths. Everyone has a preference and it is always nice to have options.

Monday, 16 July 2012


This is my first post on my new conservation blog.. best to tell you a little about myself:

My name is Jo and I'm a keen wildlife conservationist. I have a BA (Hons) in Environmental Social Science (University of Kent) and an FdSc in Conservation and the Environment: Biological Surveying and Habitat Management (Writtle College). I have volunteered over the last four years with the Essex Wildlife Trust and worked as a trainee Conservation Officer at Wildwood Trust in Kent.

During my academic and working career in conservation, I have covered a range of habitats and species, although my expertise lies in Water Vole (Arvicolla amphibius) conservation.

As a limited and competitive industry, I am now between conservation jobs, but through my hobbies I am working on gaining more experience in conservation.

This blog is a means of keeping 'in touch' with conservation - somewhere I can record and discuss my opinions and experiences as I search for my dream job.

I hope you enjoy and encourage you to comment and discuss!

( ゚▽゚)/
"It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living" David Attenborough