Category Archives: Biodiversity and culture

A Copenhagen (and beyond) Bestiary – part 5

At the end of August I was back in Copenhagen for a couple of days to take part in the PhD defence of Céline Moreaux, who has been working on coffee pollination and bee conservation. While I was there I snapped a couple more images for my Copenhagen Bestiary series. However I’ve also seen some interesting sculpture and building decoration further afield this month, in Aarhus, Silkeborg, and Nykøbing Sjælland. I especially like the wooden carved canopy support in the form of a duck, from Aarhus: it’s very subtle and I almost walked past it.

And before anyone asks, no, Karin and I are NOT part of the bestiary, but I didn’t get a shot of the troll by itself.

Wild mushrooms, tragic deaths, and the importance of understanding nature

A sad and timely news story caught our eye this morning: the death of two young Afghan boys in Poland who were poisoned after their family collected wild mushrooms to make a soup. Other members of the family were hospitalised. As Karin read out the story to me, I was moved by the tragedy of these events for a family fleeing a war zone, but also angered by pointlessness of the loss of those brothers’ lives, just more death-by-wild-mushroom statistics. In Europe we read about such events every year in the autumn, the peak of wild fungus foraging. And quite often the deaths are of people who have recently moved to an area and mistake poisonous mushrooms for edible ones from their country of origin.

At their root, these tragic stories of lost lives and broken families are stories of misunderstandings about nature. In particular, they are about not appreciating that plants, mushrooms, animals, and other wildlife, are not the same all over the world. There are biogeographic differences between regions that reflect the long-term history of life on our planet. Plants or mushrooms that look superficially similar in different parts of the world may have very different evolutionary histories. Histories that can make the difference between good to eat and deadly poisonous, between life and death.

The mushroom which killed the boys was a Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) which is found across Europe and the Mediterranean basin. As far as I can tell from its GBIF records, it does not occur in Afghanistan. The family presumably mistook this mushroom for one with which they were familiar, perhaps a different species of Amanita, which contains both deadly types and some that are good to eat. This terrible and fatal mix up could so easily have been avoided.

I’m not certain if resettlement agencies provide information about the foraging of wild food, or if basic facts about local nature are provided to those new to these areas. This is a simple action that could save lives and further tragedies for families trying to recover after the disruption of moving to a new country. It may be that this family was trying to carry on traditions of foraging in an effort to feel at home.

Since we arrived in the Odsherred region of Denmark, where Karin and I intend to settle, we have been exploring the woods and beaches on our newly bought bicycles. Much of the natural history is familiar to me from Britain, but there’s also some interesting differences and in future blog posts I’ll discuss this further. Last week we happened across a Lithuanian woman and her mother who had been foraging for mushrooms in the forest around their summer house. They were pushing a baby’s pram, the lower basket of which was stuffed with fungi. Picking and eating wild mushrooms has been something I’ve enjoyed since I was a teenager, so I had to stop and chat with them. They showed us some of their finds, including species with which I wasn’t familiar and that I will research further.

Lithuania and Denmark are of course quite close to each other geographically. Nonetheless the younger woman was still discovering which of the local mushrooms were good to eat: ‘I learn one new edible species each year’ she told us ‘That’s a good rule, then you don’t get confused’.

Since that meeting we’ve had several meals from mushrooms collected in the area, including some very fine ceps (Boletus edulus). I will keep in mind the woman’s words and proceed cautiously when it comes to discovering what is edible and what is not.

To end this rather sad but hopefully thought provoking post, Karin and I send our deepest condolences to the Afghan family and our heartfelt wishes that they can recover from these tragedies that must have deeply affected their lives.

A Copenhagen Bestiary – part 4

We have now left Copenhagen, taking a (very comfortable) train over to Silkeborg to catch up with Karin‘s family for a week. So this is the final installment of the Copenhagen Bestiary for now, but I’m sure that I will add to it as I return to the city and explore further. I suspect that there are many more creatures to discover adorning the architecture of that wonderful city. And then there’s Aarhus, Odense, Roskilde….

A Copenhagen Bestiary – part 3

Since arriving in the city we seem to have settled into a pattern of waking very early, working through the morning (Karin on her second book, me on a large biodiversity report), then going out and exploring Copenhagen in the afternoon and early evening. So there’s been lots of opportunities to add to the Copenhagen Bestiary during these perambulations. Here’s a third set of pictures.

A Copenhagen Bestiary – part 2 – the Carlsberg Elephant Gate

For the second part of my Copenhagen Bestiary series I’m devoting the post to our visit last week to the old Carlsberg Brewery site, and specifically its Elephant Gate. I’ve included some images that aren’t of beasts because I really enjoyed seeing how the old brewery buildings have been renovated and incorporated into a new living and working neighborhood called Carlsberg Byen. It’s the best example of regeneration of culturally important post-industrial buildings in the world. Probably….

Invasive Species Week 2021: Invasive Alien Species of Herpetofauna in the UK

This is a guest post by Helen Tedds who is currently researching for a PhD at the University of Northampton. Although Helen’s work is far removed from my usual research and consultancy interests of plant-pollinator interactions, I’m proud to be part of her supervisory team! Amphibians were one of my early natural history obsessions, and invasive plants and pollinators are a long standing interest of mine. In this post Helen discusses her research on the UK reptile and amphibian pet trade.


This week (24th-30th May 2021) is Invasive Species Week, an annual event led by the GB NNSS (Non-Native Species Secretariat) to raise awareness of invasive species and how we can help prevent their spread. Generally, the term ‘invasive species’ is defined as an introduced organism that has an adverse impact on its environment by causing ecological and economic damage. They are one of the top five causes of worldwide biodiversity loss through habitat damage, preying on or out-competing other species. They can also spread disease to other species, including humans. The estimated cost of invasive species to the UK’s economy is more than £1.7 billion [1] which is caused by things like damage to buildings [e.g. from the dreaded Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica – fig. 1)], interference with food production, delays on work projects, and the expense of dealing with them. The number of new species being introduced to the UK is rapidly on the increase and can be exacerbated by climate change. This is an urgent problem that without intervention will continue to escalate!

Fig. 1: Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) damaging a brick wall

In 2015 I embarked on a PhD that aimed to quantify the pet herpetofauna (reptile and amphibian) trade across England, mainly to understand the associated socio-economic factors and animal welfare consequences of this. Investigating invasive species was low on my already-full agenda, however, it has been a rabbit hole I ended up going down (pun intended: rabbits were named Britain’s most costly invasive species in 2010 according to The Guardian[2])!  

The exotic pet trade has long been known to be a means of new species entering an environment (either through escape or deliberate release), but according to a recent study in Frontiers of Ecology it now ranks as a primary cause of invasive species[3]. It has long been illegal to release any non-native species into the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, however more recent legislation has been enacted to prohibit the trade of invasive species. Whilst the term ‘invasive’ can be subjective, in the UK a species officially considered to be invasive is listed in retained EU law: Invasive non-native (alien) animal species: rules in England and Wales. That’s not to say that other ‘feral’ pets are not ‘invasive’. There are concerns that Indian ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameria – fig. 2) that have spread across the UK are potentially out-competing some of our native birds for nesting sites in tree hollows[4]. However there needs to be a body of evidence built to support these claims before a species is added to the legislation.

Fig. 2: Indian ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameria)

In terms of herpetofauna, there is only one invasive species of amphibian listed in the legislation, the North American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus- fig. 3), and one species of reptile, the common slider turtle (Trachemys scripta) along with all sub-species, including T. s. elegans, T. s. scripta, and T. s. troostii -fig. 4-6)[5]. North American bullfrogs pose a threat to our already vulnerable native amphibians as they will eat frogs, newts, and other similar sized animals[6], and slider turtles threaten our waterfowl as they will eat bird eggs, as well as insect larvae[7].

The law has prohibited anyone from keeping, breeding, and selling these species since August 2016. If you owned one before the law came into force (turtles can be very long-lived) then you have what are called ‘grandfather rights’ where the animal can remain in your possession until the end of its days. If an owner can no longer take care of the turtle they cannot re-sell it- it is best to relinquish them to a rehoming centre that has the relevant license where they can live out the rest of their lives[8], such as The National Turtle Sanctuary at Lincolnshire Wildlife Park[9].

Part of my research into quantifying the herpetofauna trade has involved sampling from pet shops and online classified adverts as to what species are for sale. So far, I have officially documented 431 different reptile species, and 122 different amphibian species[10], and this number is set to grow as I continue to analyse four years’ worth of data. All these species are non-native, and whilst most of them would not survive in our British climate, there are some causes for concern.

In October 2020 a fellow PhD student, Ali North, got in touch with me as she is currently investigating the drivers of establishment and spread of a non-native amphibian in the UK, the alpine newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris- fig. 7). Her project uses distribution data of alpine newts in their native range across mid-Europe with an aim to predict the invasion risk of this species in the UK[11]. I was interested to learn from her that these newts have established various populations in the UK but most concerningly are known to be a vector of chytridiomycosis which can be transmitted to our native amphibians[12]. As part of her research at the University of Plymouth, ZSL Institute of Zoology, and the ARC Trust, Ali wanted to know how often alpine newts had occurred in my data sampling seeing as the pet trade is a potential route for non-native species entering the wild. It turns out that my data set had only 16 records of alpine newts (out of tens of thousands of records) which is not very many, however, do not be fooled by small numbers! It does not take many individual pets being released into the wild for a potentially invasive species to wreak havoc on an ecosystem. Whilst the understanding of alpine newts as an invader is in its infancy, I was delighted to be able to assist Ali with this part of her research and I look forward to reading her final thesis. If you have spotted an alpine newt in the UK you can also help towards her project by reporting it here: https://www.arc-trust.org/news/have-you-seen-an-alpine-newt-in-the-uk 

Another interesting thing that my data collection has highlighted is that despite slider turtles being banned from sale for over four years now, they are still appearing on online classified websites such as Preloved, Pets4Homes, and Gumtree. Not only is this illegal, but it is also against the minimum standards set out by the Pet Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG) which these websites agree to adhere to as voluntary members[13]. Since I started collecting data in July 2017 to the time of publishing this blog there have been at least 102 adverts selling slider turtles, and these were the more obvious ones. On deeper investigation some adverts selling yellow-bellied sliders listed them as just the letters ‘YBS’ meaning that they would not be flagged when searching using key words. These adverts have consistently appeared in my data set at a rate of about two per month, with a noticeable spike in Oct-Dec 2020 at a rate of five per month, so there does not appear to be a downward trend since the legislation came into force. Also, some other adverts just listed animals using the word ‘turtle’ or ‘terrapin’; not only does this allow the potential for slider adverts to slip through the net but it also further violates PAAG minimum standards by not advising potential buyers what the species is. How can someone research the correct care information if they don’t know what species they are buying?

Another invasive species that I came into close contact with recently, coincidentally whilst in the process of writing this blog, was in my local park- Elmdon Park in Solihull. An invasive water weed, Azolla filiculoides, or red water fern (fig. 8), had suddenly appeared in one of the park’s ponds. This weed is believed to have entered UK water systems from the ornamental pond and aquarium trade either by spreading via birds’ legs between ponds or from people emptying fish tanks into wild water bodies. It spreads on the surface of water bodies, blocking out sunlight and decreasing oxygen, thereby killing native wildlife[14].

Fig. 8: Red water fern (Azolla filiculoides) in Elmdon Park, Solihull

I sit as Secretary on Elmdon Park Support Group’s[15] committee and run their social media pages, so I found myself reading more about this weed and treatments used to control it, in order to inform the local community on what would happen. The Warwickshire Wildlife Trust lease the land and therefore must foot the treatment bill, which turns out to be the use of a weevil (Stenopelmus rufinasus- fig. 9), affectionately known as ‘Weevil Knievel’ The weevil eats the weed but doesn’t come cheap at a cost of a few hundred pounds for just one container of them[16]. So here we have another casualty to our native wildlife because of the pet trade.

Fig 9: ‘Weevil Knievel’ (Stenopelmus rufinasus)

So, what can we do? Further research into identifying potentially invasive species will help in raising public awareness, whilst initiatives such as Invasive Species Week will spread the message on the consequences of releasing non-native species into our UK ecosystems. But there persists a deeper problem whereby some people fail to properly research the needs of the pets they buy, or fully understand how big they will grow, and feel that it’s easier to release them into the wild rather than to relinquish them via more responsible methods. This is perhaps the area of human-animal interactions that needs more attention and research.

References

  1. NNSS (2021) What are invasive species and why are they a problem? (online) Available from: http://www.nonnativespecies.org/index.cfm?pageid=640 (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  2. The Guardian (2010) Rabbits named Britain’s most costly invasive species (online) Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/dec/15/rabbits-invasive-species-cost#:~:text=They%20were%20introduced%20to%20Britain,infrastructure%2C%20a%20report%20says%20today. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  3. National Geographic (2019) Why you should never release exotic pets into the wild (online) Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/2019/07/why-you-should-never-release-exotic-pets-the-wild (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  4. RSPB (ND) Ring-necked parakeets in the UK (online) Available from https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/policy-insight/species/invasive-non-native-species/ring-necked-parakeets/ (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  5. GOV.UK (2020) Invasive non-native (alien) animal species: rules in England and Wales (online) Available from: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/invasive-non-native-alien-animal-species-rules-in-england-and-wales#leaving-the-eu (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  6. Froglife (2021) American Bullfrogs (online) Available from https://www.froglife.org/info-advice/amphibians-and-reptiles/american-bull-frog/#:~:text=The%20North%20American%20Bullfrog%20is,other%20animals%20of%20similar%20size. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  7. Canal and River Trust (2020) Terrapins (online) Available from: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-wildlife/the-rogues-gallery-of-invasive-species/terrapins (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  8. GOV.UK (2020) Invasive non-native (alien) animal species: rules in England and Wales (online) Available from: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/invasive-non-native-alien-animal-species-rules-in-england-and-wales#:~:text=You%20cannot%20legally%20keep%20these,these%20animals%20into%20the%20wild. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  9. Lincolnshire Wildlife Park (ND) The National Turtle Sanctuary (online) Available from: http://www.lincswildlife.com/national-turtle-sanctuary/ (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  10. Tedds, H.L., Sneddon, S., Ollerton, J., Clubb, R., and McCormick, W.D., Herps across England: investigating the scale of the reptile and amphibian trade: UFAW Recent Advances in Animal Welfare Science VII Conference Poster, 30th June- 1st July 2020, online.
  11. ARC (ND) Have you seen an alpine newt in the UK? (online) Available from: https://www.arc-trust.org/news/have-you-seen-an-alpine-newt-in-the-uk (Accessed 13th May 2021)
  12. Inside Ecology (2018) Invasive non-native species (UK) – Alpine newt (online) Available from: https://insideecology.com/2018/01/04/invasive-non-native-species-uk-alpine-newt/#:~:text=The%20Alpine%20newt%20is%20known,accidentally%20be%20spread%20between%20waterbodies. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  13. Pet Advertising Advisory Group (2018) Selling a pet (online) Available from: https://paag.org.uk/selling-a-pet/ (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  14. RHS (2021) Aquatic Weeds (online) Available from: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=429 (Accessed 13th May 2021).
  15. Elmdon Park Support Group (ND) About us (online) Available from: https://www.elmdonpark.org.uk/ (Accessed 13th May 2021).
  16. Birmingham Live (2021) Thousands of weevils to be realised in Solihull’s red lagoon (online) Available from: https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/thousands-weevils-released-solihulls-red-20580339 (Accessed 13th May 2021).

Figures

  1. Japanese knotweed https://environetuk.com/Blog/Does-Japanese-knotweed-cause-property-damage
  2. Female Ring-necked parakeet https://metro.co.uk/2021/01/01/parakeets-could-be-culled-by-government-after-rapid-rise-in-population-13834746/
  3. North American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/aquatic/fish-and-other-vertebrates/bullfrog
  4. Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans) https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-wildlife/the-rogues-gallery-of-invasive-species/terrapins
  5. Yellow-bellied slider turtle (Trachemys scripta scripta) https://www.petguide.com/breeds/turtle/yellow-bellied-slider/
  6. Cumberland slider turtle (Trachemys scripta troostii) https://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/reptiles/turtles/cumberland-slider/cumberland_slider.php
  7. Alpine newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris) https://insideecology.com/2018/01/04/invasive-non-native-species-uk-alpine-newt/#:~:text=The%20Alpine%20newt%20is%20known,accidentally%20be%20spread%20between%20waterbodies.
  8. Red water fern (Azolla filiculoides) in Elmdon Park, Solihull https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/warning-hidden-solihull-pool-turns-20484665
  9. ‘Weevil Knievel’ (Stenopelmus rufinasus) https://insideecology.com/2017/11/01/invasive-non-native-species-uk-water-fern/

Online talks and training: here’s a selection of what I offer

Over the past few months I’ve done a large number of online talks for a variety of audiences, including natural history and gardening societies, beekeeping groups, private companies, university estates departments, and ecological consultancies. I thought it would be useful to provide a list of what I offer, with a short description. All talks are accessible and understandable to a broad audience, and can be tailored to the individual needs of the group:

Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society is an introduction to the importance of pollinators and the pollination services that they provide to both wild and crop plants. The name, of course, reflects that of my recent book.

The Politics of Pollination is an account of how society (governments, organisations and individuals) has responded to the current “pollination crisis” (if that’s what it actually is…)

Bees in Cities: an Introduction to Urban Pollinators focuses on the positive roles that urban environments can play for pollinators, and the potential threats of city living.

Pollinators in Gardens gives practical advice on how to make your garden “pollinator friendly”.

Pollinator Conservation: Threats and Opportunities describes how and why pollinators are declining and what we can do about it at the individual and societal level.

Habitat Creation and Management for Pollinators gives an introduction to how NGOs, estates departments, consultancies, and so forth, can effectively support pollinators in ways that go beyond just planting flowers and putting up a few “bee hotels”.

To Be a Flower is an introduction to how flowers function and the ways in which they manipulate the behaviour of their pollinators to ensure reproduction.

Darwin’s Unrequited Isle: a Personal Natural History of Tenerife describes some of the field work that we’ve been doing on this most fascinating of the Canary Islands.

Biodiversity: What Is It and Why Should We Care? gives a very general overview of the topic of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Talks typically last for around 50 minutes, following which I’m happy to answer questions and discuss any issues that have arisen. I also offer a half- or full-day of training for those organisations that need more depth, for example ecological consultancies. Note that I charge for all of my talks and training. If you would like to enquire about any of this, please use the form on the Contact page.

Why did I write the book? An interview with NHBS

The nice people at NHBS recently did a wide-ranging interview with me about my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society and what led me to write it. It covers a lot of ground, including climate change, food security, the UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme, and growing up in Sunderland.

Here’s the link:
https://www.nhbs.com/blog/jeff-ollerton-pollinators-pollination

A Christmas discount for my new book and some recent social media comments

Pollinators are responsible for producing much of the traditional Christmas food that we enjoy at this time of the year, and add considerable value to the holly and mistletoe that decorates our homes in northern Europe and elsewhere. The link between pollinators and Christmas is something that I discuss in my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. As a special seasonal gift, the publishers (Pelagic) are offering a 30% discount on orders in the run up to Christmas. To claim the discount follow that previous link and use the code CHRISTMAS30 at the checkout. UPDATE: Apologies, the publisher tells me that the discount period has now passed.

Although the book has not yet been formally reviewed in any journal or other form of media, I’ve had some very nice (and unsolicited) comments about it via Twitter . Here’s some examples:

This new book is SUPERB. It contains everything I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to grasp, all in one book, AND written in a way I can understand! I cannot tell you how much I’m learning from it already. It makes such a difference to a non-scientist (like me) to be able to grasp the facts, and the science behind the facts, without having to first look up dozens of terms I don’t understand.

Brigit Strawbridge Howard – author of Dancing With Bees

Good to see discussions of ecology, culture and politics together.

Anon

I was delighted to receive this superb book over the weekend. It’s an extremely informative read for anyone interested in the subject of pollination!

Anon

Looking forward to reading this. I like the tone of what I’ve dipped into so far, really engaging and none of that turgid academic English that gives me a headache!

Steven Falk – author of Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland

Thanks everyone!

Finally, a physical copy of my book!

Yesterday I was delighted to finally receive an advance copy of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society! It’s been over three years in the writing and production, much longer than I had anticipated. But, as I describe in its pages, the book is the culmination of >50 years of experience, study and research. So perhaps three years isn’t so bad…

If you’re interested in buying a copy you can order it direct from Pelagic Publishing and from most of the large online booksellers. Let me know what you think.