Saturday, 17 February 2018

Biological Recorders' Seminar 2018 - Sussex Biodiversity

After a stressful week it was good to take a pause in Oathall Community College's kitchen garden and listen to the birds singing and the cows mooing before going into the Adastra wildlife recording seminar.

Inside, there was a sale of "The natural history books of Heather Monie and Bunny Bull." with proceeds going to the Sussex Wildlife Trust. It was very poignant to see the books being sold off but I had a strong sense of lives well lived.

Heather and Bunny's books.

I gathered up a few treasures and moved on to the Sussex Botanical Recording Society's stand where the much anticipated The Flora of Sussex was arriving.  I had a quick chat with society members, one or two of whom kindly said that they liked the sketch-notes about keying plants that I had put on the Facebook page. As there were a lot of boxes of books to shift, I brought a box in from the car and then claimed my own copy.

Once again, the talks that followed were full of fascinating information so here is a quick round up.

Record Centre Update - Clare Blencowe

Clare outlined the many developments this year including how various bodies are working together to try and get the local Wildlife Site system running again. Local Wildlife Sites (previously Sites of Nature Conservation Importance - SNCIs) are non-statutory sites of nature conservation value such as Uckfield's West Park and Snatts Road Cemetery.  There is more information on their new website, which includes a recording events calendar.

The Secret Life of Flies - Erica McAlister

Erica gave a very lively talk on flies and their, quite frankly, disgusting habits.  She will definitely be worth following on Twitter @flygirlNHM.  She mentioned bee flies such as the one photographed in Uckfield's West Park Local Nature Reserve, below.

Dark-edged Bee Fly (Bombylius major) - 25 March 2017
I already knew that they flicked their eggs into bee burrows but had no idea that they wrapped them in gravel to make that possible. Also, I didn't know that the larvae then had two distinct growth phases: in the first they are very active until they find a host; then they slow right down, just feeding on it.

Pan-species Listing the Sussex Wildlife Trust Reserves - Graeme Lyons

This is about listing all the species found in the reserves. Graeme announced that the number of species recorded was now over 10,000 and that James McCulloch (known as @My_Wild_Life on Twitter) added the 10,000th species.  The 10,000 included some historic records, one of which was a Little Bustard shot in 1846!  The largest group was beetles with 1874 species.

Graeme also showed the spreadsheet used to record the species information, which now supports work in the reserves.   The format is a list of species down the left-hand side and sites across the top. The cells are completed with the year of the most recent sighting.

Flora of Sussex - Nick Sturt

This was about the book I bought earlier. It is very clearly the labour of love of a very dedicated team and I am looking forward to exploring it. The maps are based on tetrads (2km by 2km squares).

  • The average number of taxa in a tetrad was 336.
  • The highest number was 818 in part of Brighton.
  • The next highest number was 598 in Amberley.
  • The lowest was 33, near the Kent border.

There was a lovely slide showing a 1920s and 2017 group of botanists at Chailey Common. To my surprise, I was in the latter group.

Sussex Seas - Sarah Ward

Sarah outlined the two main surveys that, together, form the Living Seas project:

Knepp Wildland - Penny Green

Penny described Knepp's change from an intensively farmed estate, which was not reliably profitable, to a rewilded landscape. Part of the inspiration was the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in the Netherlands, where a variety of large herbivores with different eating habits maintain and improve the ecosystem. Any ecosystem needs an apex predator to prevent the herbivores eating themselves out of a home. The words that echo in my mind are "We are the wolf", which is how Penny explained humans' role in removing excess herbivores (to sell as meat) from the rewilded area. .

They rely on recording to monitor what is happening. One of the big successes is the reappearance of the Purple Emperor butterfly, which needs sallows, which in turn needed the environment created by the Tamworth pigs rooting around. Others included the reappearance of Turtle Doves and Nightingales.

Fritillaries for the Future - Neil Hume

Neil described the work being done to try and revive the fortunes of the:
  • Pearl-Bordered Fritillary - 3 sites in Sussex, extinct in Kent and Surrey
  • Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary - extinct in SE England East of the New Forest.

Both species need Dog Violets for their caterpillars. Ever since I found out that some of the more common Fritillary caterpillars use Dog Violets as a food plant, I've been baffled by their absence from my local area where there are plenty of Dog Violets.  Neil's talk about the rarities explained more about the butterflies' complex needs. His words wove a vivid picture of Fritillaries roosting in the canopies of Oak trees and then, as the sun warms the ground, them dropping down to visit the flowers in woodland glades and rides. He went on to explain the specific needs of the rarities.

For example, the Pearl-Bordered Fritillary also needs bare ground to enable the caterpillars to absorb warmth from the spring sunshine.  This means that they need woods to be managed in a particular way with coppicing providing a cycle of shade and sunlit ground.  Wide 'rides' enable provide corridors that enable the butterflies to move from one coppiced area to another.  The decline in these butterflies may be down to lack of such management over decades allowing woods to become too dark.

Latest on Sussex Lessers - Ken Smith

Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker
Ken described the work being done to record Lesser-spotted woodpeckers. This work is described on the website.  Recording these birds is important because there has been a big decline in numbers.  Ken explained that:

  • Birds such as the Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker are helped by the type of woodland management that would help butterflies such as Fritillaries - i.e. coppicing, providing rides and glades.
  • Greater Spotted Woodpeckers drum in short, hard bursts whereas Lessers drum in longer, softer bursts.


My nature watch: a super project in which a Raspberry-Pi is used to create a trail camera.
West Weald Fungi: promising because it covers the Leatherhead area as well as Sussex.

Takeaways (apart from a car-load of books!)
  • That time spent studying and recording nature is part of a life well lived.
  • It would be interesting to pick some Uckfield Tetrads for more thorough recording.
  • I could 'borrow' some of Graeme's spreadsheet methods to make better use of iRecord information
  • I now understand more about how the Woodland Trust's management of Views (Williams) Wood benefits birds and insects as well as flowers.
  • We are the wolf that stops herbivores eating themselves out of a home.
I also attended and made notes about the seminar last year. This year there was more emphasis on joining volunteer sessions and less on providing the type of information that would enable people to operate independently.

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