Feb 2
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Guest blog: WWT and World Wetlands Day

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 22
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Guest blog: The weather’s cold, but the welcome is warm

My garden has never been more popular. It’s a hotbed of activity at the moment… well, the little part garden with the bird feeder is. Though perhaps hotbed is the wrong word, since it’s absolutely freezing!

When the temperature dropped a week or so ago the birds started visiting my garden in huge numbers, in a fever of feeding. The snow has made natural sources of food more difficult to find and they expend so much energy just trying to keep warm in these freezing conditions that they need to feed often.

Photo of robin perched on tree branch in snow

Robin in snow

Fatty food is best in the cold, so putting out things like fat balls, good quality nuts and seed, or even grated cheese is a real help. I use sunflower hearts in a seed feeder and they love it. In the last week I’ve had great tits, blue tits, goldfinches and robins, the occasional blackbird pecking around on the floor and even a nuthatch.

Here at the RSPB we’ve had stacks of calls from people telling us about the fieldfares in their gardens too. Not usually known for visiting gardens, fieldfares are being driven into them in their desperate search for food in these harsh conditions.

Photo of redwings and fieldfare perched on snow covered tree feeding on berries

Redwings and fieldfare feeding on berries

So, all of this garden activity could mean an exciting year for the RSPB’s 34th annual Big Garden Birdwatch, taking place in the UK on Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 January. It’s the world’s biggest wildlife survey and everyone can join in by spending just one hour at any time over the weekend noting the highest number of each bird species seen in their garden or local park at any one time, then submitting the results to the RSPB. Schoolchildren and teachers will be doing the same in their school grounds as part of Big Schools’ Birdwatch between now and Friday 1 February.

Given the extra birds using my garden due to the cold at the moment I’m expecting to have plenty to report.

Photo of blue tits on a bird feeder

Blue tits on bird feeder

You can find out more about taking part in the Big Garden Birdwatch, enter your results online and help with identifying the garden birds you see at www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.

Wendy Johnson, RSPB

Jan 4
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Guest blog: Discovering Britain with the Royal Geographical Society

What do red kites, yellow ants, white rock roses and common blue butterflies have in common? All are species that can be spotted on Discovering Britain walks.

Discovering Britain is a series of geographically-themed walks created by the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers. Each walk explores how the landscape has been shaped by forces of nature and by people. That includes natural landscapes that are home to different species of mammals, plants, insects and birds.

Discover an estuary

Walking along the embankment of the Thames estuary near Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, the landscape looks like a lifeless flat expanse of grey mud. But look a little closer in the saltmarshes and on the mud flats at low tide to see a colourful and dynamic environment teeming with life.

Our Essex Estuary walk visits one of the key nesting sites of the avocet. You can also look out for brent geese who stop off here on their migration and watch boats collecting cockles as they have done here for centuries.

Flock of brent geese flying over beach

Flock of brent geese flying over beach

Enjoy a cliff top stroll

Along the cliff tops just outside Torquay, your attention is naturally drawn towards the sea and the spectacular view of the coastline. However, on our Babbacombe walk the seemingly-ordinary section of grassy cliff top at Walls Hill is worth a closer look.

On the thin soil grows the unique squill-spurge fescue grassland. Some of the rare and special plant species that thrive here attract colourful butterflies. You may see clusters of yellow Kidney Vetch which is a favourite of the Small Blue butterfly. Also look out for the common blue and marbled white.

Royal Geographical Society's Jenny Lunn at the summit of The Wrekin (c) Jenny Lunn

Royal Geographical Society's Jenny Lunn at the summit of The Wrekin

Explore the grassy plains

Salisbury Plain is the largest military training area on British soil. Although some parts are off limits to the public on our Salisbury Plain walk you can enjoy safe parts of these vast grasslands.

You may see soldiers on manoeuvres and tanks rumbling past. Take a moment to look in the muddy puddles created in tank tracks and see if you can spot a fairy shrimp. These tiny creatures which once moved habitat in the hooves of grazing cattle now use the treads of tanks. Also look out for great bustards which were successfully reintroduced on the Plain a decade ago.

Photo of a male great bustard displaying

Male great bustard displaying

Always take a closer look

The Discovering Britain walks encourage you to keep your eyes open when on a walk and discover more about the landscape around.

Whether it’s red kites on our Chilterns walk or red Deer on our Quantocks walk there is always something unusual to look out for.

Visit www.discoveringbritain.org to browse and download the free self-guided walks

Discovering Britain

 Jenny Lunn, Discovering Britain Project Manager, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Nov 24
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National Tree Week 2012

The UK’s largest annual tree celebration, National Tree Week 2012 runs from today until 2nd December and serves to highlight the importance of trees to human wellbeing and the environment.

Run by The Tree Council, National Tree Week involves hundreds of tree-planting events around the UK and is a great opportunity for communities to do something positive for their local area.

Every tree matters

Although planting a single tree may seem like a small step, The Tree Council believes that every tree matters. As well as helping to combat pollution, flooding and climate change, trees provide great habitats for wildlife and have also been shown to have positive effects on human health.

To celebrate National Tree Week here at ARKive, we thought we would share a few of our favourite UK tree species, and find out what makes them special…

The mighty oak

Photo of pedunculate oak tree in leaf

The commonest tree in broadleaved woodlands of southern and central UK, the English or pedunculate oak has a special place in the country’s heart, being a much-loved symbol of strength and duration. A fully grown oak can produce around 50,000 acorns in a good year, and can live for hundreds of years. The widest oak tree in the UK would need about nine adults, stretching fingertip to fingertip, to reach around its trunk!

Ash under threat

Photo of ash leaf opening

The ash is one of the tallest native UK trees, and is one of the last trees to produce leaves in spring. Despite being the third commonest tree species in the UK, the ash is currently threatened by a serious disease known as ‘ash dieback’. There are fears this disease could wipe out as much as 90% of the UK’s 80 million ash trees.

Beech is best

Photo of a beech wood in autumn

The beech is a magnificent large tree with surprisingly little folklore surrounding it. Its timber has a variety of uses, and its nuts were used in the past as an important source of food for pigs and cattle. Beech woodlands often have a dense canopy that shades out other plants, and the leaves of the beech tree take some time to rot, meaning the woodland floor is often carpeted in a deep layer of leaf litter.

Quintessential conkers

Photo of fallen horse chestnuts in autumn

Despite not being native to the UK, the horse chestnut is a quintessential sight in the nation’s village greens and city parks. This species is best known for its seeds, known as ‘conkers’, which are famous as part of a popular children’s game. The horse chestnut is thought to get its name from the horseshoe-shaped leaf scars that are left on the twigs after the leaves have fallen.

Magical elder

Photo of elder flowers

The elder was once regarded as one of the most magically powerful of all plants. Although its heartwood is very hard, its branches are weak and filled with pith. The elder’s name is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon ‘aeld’, meaning ‘fire’, as the pith could be used as tinder or the hollow stems could be used as bellows. Elder berries are poisonous eaten raw, but can be made into jellies, jams and wines, while elder flowers are used to make elderflower cordial and champagne.

Hardy pine

Photo of Scots pine forest with silver birch, autumn colours

One of only three native conifers in the UK, the Scots pine is an evergreen tree that is also found across northern Europe and Asia. This hardy species originally formed extensive forests across most of the UK, but a warming climate some 5,000 years ago favoured deciduous trees and pushed the range of the Scots pine northwards. The Scots pine has strong timber that is used in constriction and joinery, while its resin is used to make turpentine.

Find out more about the UK’s trees at the Woodland Trust Tree Guide.

View more photos of trees from around the world on ARKive.

Do you have a favourite tree? Have you taken part in any tree-planting events? Wherever you live, we would love to hear about the trees near you!

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Nov 19
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In the News: UK bird population down by 44 million since 1960s

The overall bird population in the UK has fallen by a staggering 44 million individuals since 1966, according to a new report.

Photo of male house sparrow on roof tiles

The house sparrow, a species which has declined dramatically in the UK in recent decades

The report, entitled ‘The State of the UK’s Birds 2012’, was put together by conservation organisations including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT).

It found that while some species have increased in number, the populations of some common birds have declined dramatically. There are now an estimated 166 million birds nesting in the UK, compared to 210 million in 1966.

Commenting on the report, Dr Mark Eaton, an RSPB scientist, said, “It is shocking to think we’ve lost one in five of the individual birds that we had in the 1960s.”

Worrying declines

Among the worst hit species is the house sparrow, whose population has decreased by 20 million individuals since the 1960s – an average loss of 50 sparrows every hour. Although a slight increase has been reported since 2000, the causes of the overall decline remain unclear.

Photo of turtle dove pair perched on branch

The turtle dove is another species in serious decline in the UK

Birds that rely on farmland have also fared badly. The population of farmland birds is now less than half what it was in 1970, with species such as the lapwing, cuckoo and turtle dove suffering significant declines. Scientists believe that these declines are largely due to changes in the landscape which have removed suitable feeding and nesting habitat.

Some of the UK’s marine species are also in trouble. For example, two sea ducks, the long-tailed duck and the velvet scoter, have undergone large declines across Europe and are now globally threatened.

Not all bad news

The findings did reveal some more positive results, with some species showing large population increases. For example, the wood pigeon population has doubled in size since the 1970s, now standing at around 5.4 million nesting pairs, while species such as the bittern have recovered well from previous declines, largely as a result of focused conservation efforts.

Another species doing well is the great-spotted woodpecker, which has increased by 368% since the 1970s. Unfortunately, its smaller relative, the lesser spotted woodpecker, has dramatically declined and may now number fewer than 1,500 pairs, making its population too small for scientists to monitor properly.

Photo of female great-spotted woodpecker on tree

Great-spotted woodpecker, a species which has increased in the UK

It’s like the bird populations of the UK are on a roller-coaster, and we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs,” said Grahame Madge, an RSPB spokesperson. “We have more species breeding in the UK now than any other time in history… but we’ve got 44 million fewer individual birds nesting than in the 1960s.”

He went on to add that despite the success stories, the overall findings of the report were of concern. “When you see en masse that the UK has lost such a huge number of birds, the figures themselves are quite staggering,” he said.

UK Overseas Territories

The report also looked at the state of birds in the UK’s Overseas Territories, which hold some of the world’s most vulnerable birds, including Critically Endangered species such as the St Helena plover, Tristan albatross and Gough bunting. Many of these species face a range of threats, from oil spills and fishery bycatch to human developments and volcanic eruptions.

Photo of northern rockhopper penguin pair at nest

The report also looked at species in the UK Overseas Territories, including the northern rockhopper penguin

There is also concern for the northern rockhopper penguin. Over 80% of this penguin’s population occurs on the UK Overseas Territories of Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island, but worrying population declines of over 90% have been recorded in these two locations.

Citizen science

Most of the information upon which the report was based comes from the efforts of volunteers who contribute to national monitoring schemes, such as the Breeding Bird Survey and Wetland Bird Survey.

According to Dr Tim Hill, Natural England’s Chief Scientist, “The State of the UK’s Birds report is a great example of ‘citizen science’ in action… Such schemes provide a high quality evidence base underpinning the work of government, conservation organisations and land managers in their joint efforts to conserve the natural environment and its wildlife.”

Photo of bittern in flight

The bittern population is recovering in the UK thanks to conservation efforts

David Stroud of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) said, “This report highlights the value of undertaking a periodic ‘stock-check’ of bird numbers in the UK – information central to many aspects of conservation. Thanks to the efforts of the bird watching community, such assessments are readily available within the UK, but these data do not exist for most of our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. We need to strengthen efforts to establish routine survey and monitoring in these areas in the light of their global importance for many bird species.”

Read more on this story at BBC Nature News, The Guardian and the RSPB.

Read the full report at The State of the UK’s Birds 2012.

View photos and videos of birds from the UK on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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