Mar 7

Around half of the United Kingdom’s deer population needs to be shot each year to prevent damage to woodlands and other wildlife, according to a group of scientists.

Photo of female roe deer standing alert

Native roe deer are increasing in the United Kingdom

The scientists carried out a census of roe deer and muntjac deer populations across 234 square kilometres of woodland and heathland in East Anglia in the UK, and the results suggest that current management strategies for deer are failing. Although deer numbers in the area appeared stable, it was only because thousands of individuals were being pushed out into the surrounding countryside.

The study indicated that a cull of 50 to 60% of the deer would be necessary to keep their populations under control – much higher than the 20 to 30% that had previously been recommended.

Deer damage

There are six deer species in the UK, of which four are introduced. The current UK deer population is thought to stand at around 1.5 million, meaning there are more deer in the country now than at any time since the last Ice Age.

In the absence of natural predators, deer populations are continuing to expand and are believed to be damaging woodlands, as well as causing road traffic accidents and damage to crops.

Photo of dead roe deer in road

Many deer are killed on the UK’s roads each year

According to Dr Paul Dolman, an ecologist at the University of East Anglia and one of the authors of the study, “We know deer are eating out the… vegetation of important woodlands, including ancient woodlands. Deer are implicated as the major cause of unfavourable conditions in terms of woodland structure and regeneration. There is evidence that deer reduce the number of woodland birds – especially some of our much loved migrant bird species like blackcap and nightingale, and resident species like willow tit. We have a problem.”

Dr Kristin Wäber, another of the study’s authors, said, “Native deer are an important part of our wildlife that add beauty and excitement to the countryside, but left unchecked they threaten our woodland biodiversity…. Current approaches to deer management are failing to contain the problem – often because numbers are being underestimated. Cull targets are often too low.”

Photo of red deer stag roaring during rut

The red deer is the largest native land animal in the UK

Venison market

The researchers have suggested creating a market for venison to make a cull more ethically and economically acceptable.

What we are advocating isn’t removing deer from the countryside – what we are advocating is trying to get on top of the deer population explosion and try to control the problems that are being caused. And in a way, [venison] provides a sustainable food source where you know where it comes from, you know it is ethically sourced, you know it is safe to eat, and that puts food on people’s tables,” said Dr Dolman.

Photo of Chinese water deer running

The Chinese water deer is one of four deer species introduced to the UK

However, others are opposed to a cull. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) said that it was “opposed in principle to the killing or taking of all wild animals unless there is strong science to support it, or evidence that alternatives are not appropriate.” It also added that any cull must be carried out in a controlled and humane way.

The study also reopens a debate about whether natural predators such as lynx and wolves should be reintroduced to the UK, but this remains a complex and controversial issue.

Read more on this story at BBC News – Deer: 50% cull ‘necessary to protect countryside’ and UEA Press Release – First in-depth deer census highlights need for increased culls.

View photos and videos of UK deer on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Mar 6

As you may be aware, not only is this week the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of CITES, it is also Climate Week in the UK. The biggest climate change campaign in Britain, Climate Week aims to inspire us to create a more sustainable future through a range of activities.

Climate week logo

Throughout the course of the week schools, businesses, charities, councils and many other organisations will run over 3,000 events attended by around half a million people interested in finding out more about the future of climate change and what we can do to safeguard against its impacts.

With such a wide range of events on offer there is bound to be something for everyone so do try to attend if you can. Not only will it be informative, by the sounds of it you will also have a lot of fun. Activities include test driving electric vehicles, growing your own food in community allotments, a green building show with a Climate Week Pledge Wall, swapping clothes, books, toys and DVDs, developing a Community Energy Plan and even an event at Manchester United hosted by none other than England football coach Gary Neville. There are too many to list but more information can be found on the Climate Week website.

Polar bear jumping between ice floes

Polar bears are dependent on sea ice for its survival, but climate change is causing drastic reductions in the extent of ice cover

If you are unable to attend any events near you (or, alas there are no events in your proximity), we’ll do our best in this blog to give you an overview of climate change and why it is so important for us to safeguard our wildlife and environment against it.

About climate change

Without wanting to be too accusatory, there is no doubt that climate change is caused by man-made impacts on our planet. You may have heard it referred to as ‘global warming’, due to the steady rise in the Earth’s temperature that is occurring. Both terms are correct, however they actually refer to different phenomena. Climate change refers to the changes in climate which arise as a result of the increasing global temperature. These can include changes in precipitation patterns, increased incidence of drought, heat waves and other extreme weather conditions. In essence, global warming does not mean that we will all have increasingly warmer weather; the planet’s steadily rising temperature will be associated with changes across the world in climate pattern, and more extreme and unpredictable weather. Some places may well become hotter, but some will become colder, and others wetter or drier.

Atlantic krill

Antarctic krill die due to ocean acidification

These changes in climate may not sound like much, but they are creating huge problems on a global scale for both wildlife and people. The severity of storms and floods are increasing, and ruthless droughts are on the rise. The acidity of our seas is rising, affecting species such as coral and krill and destroying marine food chains that ultimately maintain the balance of life in the oceans. The lack of arctic ice in the summer creates a dire situation for polar bears as well as compounding global warming because the ice would usually serve to deflect sunlight away from the planet. The increased heat absorbed due to the absence of this natural deflection in turn causes permafrost to thaw, releasing trapped methane gas. This gas, along with carbon dioxide released by the process of deforestation and the warming oceans both serve to increase what is known as the greenhouse effect; some gases trap and retain the sun’s heat giving rise to this phenomenon.

Hawksbill turtle

Rising sea levels could wash away hawksbill turtle nests and decrease nesting habitat

As we can see, this process is not pretty, and we’ve only scratched at the surface of what is happening in this blog. Mass extinction of wildlife is predicted in the near future, including species such as polar bears and emperor penguins that will lose their habitat to melting ice and rising sea levels. Colourful corals such as the Acanthastrea coral will die as a result of ocean acidification. Also affected are species that live and breed on low-lying remote islands, for example marine turtles like the giant South American, hawksbill and leatherback turtles. There are too many to name here, but you can check out more species that will be affected by climate change on ARKive.

Staghorn coral

Climate change is already having measurable impacts on coral reefs worldwide

 

So, even if it’s just spreading the word on climate change, will you do your bit this Climate Week?

Find out more about climate change, the species it affects and what we can do to mitigate the effects on our Climate Change topic page.

Download Climate Week resources from the Climate Week website.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Feb 7

Scientists say the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park is not enough to enable a full recovery of the ecosystem. 

Photo of grey wolf running in the snow

Grey wolf running in the snow

Trophic cascade

When grey wolves all but vanished from Yellowstone National Park in the early 1900s, the absence of this keystone predator had a marked effect on the park’s ecosystem. Elk, the wolves’ natural prey, rapidly increased in numbers, escalating grazing pressure on willow trees that grow by the sides of streams. As a result, the decline in willow led to a severe decrease in the beaver population. Beavers rely heavily on willow to provide food and materials with which to build their dams. Beavers and willows have a mutual relationship whereby the willow also benefits from the beavers’ presence, due to the raised water tables caused by their dams. The loss of Yellowstone’s wolves led to a cascade of dramatic changes in the ecosystem’s structure, known as a trophic cascade.

Photo of American beaver felling a tree

American beaver felling a tree

Wolves return

When wolves returned to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, elk numbers fell and shrub recovery became evident through increased plant height and berry production. This led some scientists to predict ecosystem recovery following the return of the park’s top predator. Authors of a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B have revealed a ‘recovery test’, explaining that if the ecosystem is indeed in recovery, willow trees must be at least two metres tall in order to escape being eaten by elk and to provide the beavers with necessary food and material to build dams.

Photo of male elk calling

Male elk calling

Insufficient recovery

In the study concerned, researchers measured willow trees at four sites in Yellowstone from 2001 to 2010. Some willow tree plots were fenced to prevent the elk from grazing, whereas some had simulated dams. Regardless of fencing and growth time, the researchers found that only the willows that grew in the plots with simulated dams reached heights of more than two metres. The outcome of this study suggests that riparian ecosystems are unable to recover fully due to the presence of wolves alone; tall willows cannot return without the beaver, yet the absence of tall willows inhibits the beaver’s much-needed return. It is clear that the co-existence of beavers and willow trees is able to drive the structure of riparian ecosystems, and that for the Yellowstone ecosystem to continue to recover, beavers will need to enter the equation.

Photo showing grey wolves with different coloured coats

Grey wolves can have different coloured coats

 

Read more on this story at The Guardian – The return of grey wolves ‘not enough to restore Yellowstone’s ecosystem’.

View photos and videos of grey wolves, North American elk and the American beaver on ARKive.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Feb 2

Wetlands are some of the world’s most important habitats, supporting a great variety of wildlife as well as playing vital roles in the environment, such as helping to clean water and control flooding.

Every year, February 2nd marks World Wetlands Day, an annual celebration that aims to raise awareness of the importance of wetland habitats.

Photo of Bewick's swans in flight

Bewick’s swans in flight

The Big 9 Challenge

In the run-up to World Wetlands Day, One Show presenter Mike Dilger has been on a 9-day whistle-stop tour of WWT’s Wetland Centres all round the UK, so knows exactly what’s worth going out to see right now.

You can find out more about his challenge in the video below:

Mike’s latest report said: “The UK is one of the world’s great places to experience the spectacle of thousands of swans, geese and ducks grazing across a dramatic and beautiful wetland landscape. Winter is a great time to get out there because our bird numbers are swelled by winter migrants from the Arctic.”

Photo of bittern walking

An rare and elusive wetland inhabitant, the bittern is now recovering in Britain

“World Wetland Day is a great time to get your wellies on and find out just how amazing these habitats are. Don’t be afraid of the slightly muddy and soggy reputation of wetlands, that’s exactly why they’re so fantastic for wildlife. Wetlands are among the most abundant habitats in the world, but you really don’t have to travel the world to explore them. Ponds, lakes, marshes, riverbanks and moors are great places to spot the likes of dragonflies, water voles, otters and swans.

The easiest access to these, with guaranteed abundance of wildlife, is to find a Wetland Centre near you. Wetland Centres are designed and managed to bring close encounters with nature to as many people as possible. It’s incredible to see the variety and abundance of birds and other creatures that live in and visit our wetland habits.”

Photo of common otter feeding on eel in estuary

Common otter eating eel

“In nine days I’ve seen something different and amazing at every WWT centre (where you get the full wetland experience and the added advantage of having somewhere dry and a nice cup of tea after all the fun).”

Photo of common blue damselfly portrait

Wetlands are not just good for birds and mammals – they also support a range of other wildlife, including this common blue damselfly

For details of locations and what’s on, on World Wetlands Day and beyond, visit http://www.wwt.org.uk/visit/.

If you can get to WWT’s London Wetland Centre today, you’ve a chance to add Mike himself to your spotters list.

Jan 28

A team of researchers has published a paper claiming that ‘most of the world’s plant and animal species could be named before they go extinct’ and, furthermore, it could be achieved this century.

Describing and naming new species is important as it helps drive interest in conservation. A species, once identified, can then become the focus of efforts to monitor and conserve it. The more we know about biodiversity, the more evolutionary gaps are filled, and the more we are able to explain the life histories of species on Earth. The millions of species that share our planet provide many free and valuable services which are vital for human health and well-being.  These services range from providing clean air and to fresh water, recycling nutrients, pollinating flowering plants and controlling the climate.

The Vulnerable Brazil-nut tree from Colombia provides valuable oil that is harvested by humans and used in a variety of products

Naming a species gives formal recognition to its existence, making conservation easier,” said lead author of the paper Associate Professor Dr Mark Costello, from The University of Auckland.

The researchers propose that the target is possible due to an increase in taxonomists (people who classify, characterise and describe species), combined with a reduction in the estimate of the number of species on earth. An increase in both amateur and professional taxonomists has been driven by the growth of publicly available information on taxonomy via the internet. This increase has been seen predominantly in areas where it is needed most – areas rich in biodiversity such as Asia and South America. The recent surge in the number of taxonomists will also have gone some way towards reducing what the Convention on Biological Diversity has acknowledged as the ‘taxonomic impediment’. This is an issue created by knowledge gaps in our taxonomic system and a shortage of trained taxonomists, which in turn has affected our ability to conserve and understand the benefits gained from biodiversity.

We believe that with just a modest increase in effort in taxonomy and conservation, most species could be discovered and protected from extinction,” said Dr Costello.

This long-nosed tree frog is one of the many new species to be discovered in the last five years

New species estimates

Current species estimates range from 2 to 8.7 million species on Earth, compared to previous estimates that have been as high as 100 million. Around 1.7 million species have already been described, with a large number still to be described, and potentially many more yet to be discovered. However, recent estimates are still significantly lower than those previously suggested, leading Dr Costello and his colleagues to conclude that with a small increase in the number of employed taxonomists, and more financial support and coordination within the international scientific community, the remainder of the world’s species could feasibly be described within the current century.

We’ve discovered three times more people now naming species than there were ever before. We’re in the golden age of taxonomy,” added Dr Costello.

The Caquetá titi monkey is one of the most recently discovered primates, described formally in 2010

Controversy over the prioritisation of naming new species

While it may seem plausible to Dr Costello and his colleagues that the number of species on Earth, and therefore the rate of species extinction, is lower than previously thought, and that ‘species are more likely to be described than become extinct’, some remain sceptical. Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Species Programme is less convinced:

Extinction is usually underestimated. It’s more important to fight extinction than to describe or catalogue all species…. I am worried by the message implying that to conserve species you need to know everything about them. You can do a lot of protection even in the absence of knowledge.”

Vié points out that conservation of species is possible without knowing every single species within an area. Although he believes it possible that we could catalogue life on Earth, he also reminds us that ‘we don’t have the luxury of time’.

Professor Georgina Mace, from the Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College London, is also cautious about praising the new publication. Like Vié, she is not convinced about the idea that the names of all species must be known.

She states that once conservation plans are in place for places rich in biodiversity, species within these areas will benefit ‘whether named or not’.

This leaf chameleon, Brookesia confidens, was first discovered in 2007 already protected within the Ankarana National Park, Madagascar

A cautionary tale

Although there has been a decided increase in the number of described and named species, maintaining the same rate of species discovery in the field will become more difficult the fewer species there are to discover. As the backlog of collected specimens are named, and the discovery of new species slows, the current rate of newly described species will fall. Mace concludes that efforts therefore must be strategically triaged between ‘discovering, describing, monitoring and conserving’.

The researchers of this paper acknowledge the tentative good news for the conservation of biodiversity. However, co-author Professor Nigel Stork warns that ‘Climate change will dramatically change species’ survival rates, particularly when you factor in other drivers such as over-hunting and habitat loss’. This is no time to be complacent when life on Earth is at stake.

 

Read more on these stories at BBC News – World’s unknown species ‘can be named’ before they go extinct and The Telegraph – Extinction of millions of species ‘greatly exaggerated’.

Find out more about the importance of newly discovered species on ARKive’s Newly Discovered Species topic page.

Kaz Armour – ARKive Text Author

 

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