Thursday, 17 May 2012

Mollusca, Crustacea, Cnidaria and wet toes

Yesterday I spent indoors. A rare, bright, sunny day - perfect for green hairstreaks - and I spent it indoors. What was I thinking? Well, I was thinking and talking about wildlife and its conservation. In the morning I gave a two-hour talk for Jerry Kinsley's students at Easton College. I'd chosen as my theme the dilemmas and cultural choices incurred in conservation when landscape-scale processes are interrupted. I'm sure it's a subject that I'll touch on again here, but my main point was that much, if not most, of British conservation is about stalling succession to prevent one habitat, which we value highly, turning into another. So we cut reed-beds, we graze heaths and grasslands, we bash scrub on sand-dunes, we dredge shallow lakes and ponds and we generally interfere with things. We do this, essentially, because British habitats are largely cultural in origin and, left to their own devices, would become something else, something inappropriate for the rare creatures we want to protect. In the ever-erudite words of Simon Barnes in his delightful How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher:

Bitterns may be great at wet reedbeds; but if you take the reedbeds away, they are buggered.

Reed-beds, of course, if you don't cut them and manage them, turn into willow scrub and all the bitterns move out. Where do they move? Well, that's the point. They die because there's nowhere else for them to go. In a completely natural landscape (a rare thing indeed on planet Earth) great natural events such as floods, fires, rivers shifting course, avalanches, volcanoes, migrations of millions of wildebeest, are forever reshuffling the pack, trashing old habitats - the ones ecologists call climax communities - and leaving open landscapes which are begging to be re-colonised by the move-in-fast-breed-then-move-somewhere-else specialists which depend on early successional habitats. In the UK, however, we don't like floods and we don't like rivers changing their course, we got rid of most of the big grazing mammals centuries ago, and we don't take too kindly to most other great natural events. We've suppressed natural process in the landscape and we've hemmed most species, at least the early-successional specialist ones, into tiny fragments of habitat. These tiny fragments are trying their hardest to become something else, because that's how succession works, and conservationists are fighting tooth and nail to stop them because the rare critters that inhabit them have absolutely no-where else to go in the British landscape.

So in a nutshell, most British conservation involves stalling succession to prevent early-successional habitats becoming something else. Hence we graze and we coppice and we burn and we bash and we generally interfere. I contrasted this at Easton yesterday with huge scale national parks in some of the developing world countries where it's my privilege to work, parks where there's still enough space for process and change to take place of their own accord, and Jerry's switched-on students had a great debate about the morality, economics and future of conservation on different landscape scales.

The afternoon I spent at Sculthorpe Moor, helping the Hawk and Owl Trust compile a list of suggested peregrine chick names from the splendid public response to the naming competition. It's a funny old life.

Today I got outdoors again. Once a year I take pupils from Taverham Hall School rock-pooling and fossil-hunting at West Runton. Despite the cold and the intermittent drizzle we had a brilliant morning of romping in the rock-pools. Alas there were very few new vertebrates but there was plenty to identify and talk about. Shore crabs Carcinus maenas and common prawns Palaemon serratus were in every pool and we found one young edible crab Cancer pagurus who tried very hard to looker bigger and tougher than he was. In the pools closest to the falling tide there were lots of common hermit crabs Pagurus bernhardus too (in the shells of grey topshells Gibbula cineraria for the mollusc nerds). While we're talking molluscs, edible periwinkles Littorina littorea were sprinkled over every rock, common limpets Patella vulgata were here and there, and common dogwhelks Nucella lapillus and their eggs were to be seen in clusters, particularly on chunky paramoudras. Of Cnidaria we saw but one: the beautiful wine-gummy beadlet anemone Actinia equina.

Overhead there were swarms of sand martins, visiting holes in the Ice Age cliffs. Herring gulls powered past and two fulmars, my first of the year, paid a visit. I was hoping for fish today but I was cruelly robbed. Some of the children saw European eels Anguilla anguilla, we found a long-dead long-spined sea-scorpion Taurulus bubalis (far, far too dead, alas, to count on my list) and we caught a goby. This too evaded me as we couldn't be sure whether it was a common goby Pomatoschistus microps or a sand goby Pomatoschistus minutus. This list is far too important for me to fudge a goby for the sake of an extra species (I'm sure you'll all agree).

So fulmar alone it is. Nonetheless we had a superb morning and, as always, it was a joy to see children excited at exploring a new environment, asking thoughtful questions and telling each other they'd be back in the summer to look for more.

New today


northern fulmar
Fulmarus glacialis

2012 Totals
Mammals: 57
Birds: 460
Reptiles: 14
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3 

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