The enormous grass snake muddle

Yesterday a paper was published in Scientific Reports – one of the journals of the prestigious Nature brand which revealed a new species of grass snake in Europe. You can read the original paper here: Carolin Kindler et al. Hybridization patterns in two contact zones of grass snakes reveal a new Central European snake species, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-07847-9. (free download – it’s an open access paper).

This paper was quickly picked up by the BBC and many other news outlets (see here, here and here for example).

The sub-species of grass snake Natrix natrix helvetica therefore became a species in its own right Natrix helvetica. So far so good.

The media then made the jump – therefore there is a new species of grass snake in Britain bringing our snake fauna up to 4 species i.e. two species of grass snake, smooth snake and adder – wrong!

The grass snake found in the UK is Natrix natrix helvetica and so our existing species of grass snake now becomes Natrix helvetica – there are no Natrix natrix grass snakes in Britain now so the snake count remains at 3.

What a glorious cock-up!

Were it not for this rather underplayed Tweet from Barry Kemp (a reptile expert) I would have carried on in my unbridled euphoria.




First insects of the year

The weather has turned mild and for a few hours yesterday the sun shone. I therefore decided it was time to get the moth trap out again. It has been rested for the last couple of months. I gave it a little service which included that now old fashioned technique of re-wiring the old plug which had become loose.

Only one animal in the trap this morning – a Dotted Border. The adults are on the wing from February to April. This is a male, the female is flightless and has tiny stumpy wings. The caterpillars of the Dotted Border feed on a wide range of deciduous tree leaves. The caterpillars will hatch from their eggs in April and feed until June. The caterpillars will then pupate and over winter until emerging as adults next February. An early spring specialist!

The other animal I found yesterday in the garden was a Western Conifer Seed Bug – the first time I have ever seen one. Originally from Western North America it arrived in Italy a few years ago presumably as a result of ‘world trade’ and has now spread throughout the Continent. It first arrived in Britain in 2007. The larvae and adults feed on the flowers, cones and seeds of various conifers including Scots Pine. As of yet it hasn’t turned into a pest in the UK but it can be a problem in seed nurseries.. For more information on it see here.


New Nature

A digital magazine called ‘New Nature’ was launched in January this year. It is written, edited and produced by young naturalists and conservationists. The second issue has just been published today. It is a free magazine which you can download. More about the New Nature project – here.


This is the first issue which you can download here.


And here is the link to the February edition

I think it is very good and I’m delighted to see so many younger conservationists emerging – I was getting worried that no one was interested in wildlife and conservation anymore – glad to say I was wrong.

A frog on the Barbican Steps

I was walking into town yesterday evening in the rain and climbing up the Barbican Steps near to the Mill on the Exe when I came across a large frog just sat on the tarmac. The Steps are bounded on each side by high walls or houses – it wasn’t at all clear to me where the frog had come from or where it was going.

Judging by its size and condition this was not a worry for the frog

A Pebble in the Pond

People Need Nature – a small charity dedicated to promoting the sensory, emotional and spiritual value of nature, the importance of nature on public land and its place in public decision-making, has just published a report “A Pebble in the Pond – opportunities for farming, food and nature after Brexit“. You can download the report here.


It is a timely report which discusses the evolution of farming policy and subsidy in the UK in the 20th century and impact that this has had on wildlife and one people. I was very struck by the graph showing the increase in the use of glyphosate from 1990 to 2014.


It struck a chord as I had recently been reading about how glyphosate had been linked to the increase in the number of people with gluten intolerances – see here.

Miles King, the author of the report sets out how farming in England is currently structured ”

Of the 9 million hectares of farmland in England, 54% is arable land and 41% grassland. 

Most (84%) arable land grows cereals and oilseed rape. Just 30% of this area is used to produce wheat good enough to mill for our, and most of this is used to make bread. The other 70% of wheat and other cereals grown in England is used to feed animals, principally cattle, pigs and chickens. Around 5 million tonnes of cereals are used to feed animals in Great Britain.

Around 10% of cereal crops are used to produce biofuels. Only 5% of arable land is used to grow vegetables and nearly half of that land is used to grow potatoes. Nearly 4% of arable land (173,000 ha) is used to grow maize, of which 34,000 ha is used to fuel anaerobic digester biogas plants. The rest is converted into silage and used as feed for cattle, mostly in the dairy industry. Much of our milk and cheese is made from cows fed on maize in sheds.

The report contains the following bullet points in the Summary.

  • The damaging subsidies that existed within the EU can be altered in order to protect and restore our countryside rather than damage it. Nature, and the people of England will benefit from these changes.
  • Farmers are paid too little for the food they produce and in some cases are paid less than the cost of production. Supermarkets and others in the supply chain take most of the profit, leaving the farmers with the risks. This is an opportunity to tackle that injustice.
  • Subsidies currently paid to highly profitable farmers can be redirected to support small-scale sustainable farming, which benefits nature.
  • Landowners who provide benefits to society such as carbon storage or flood alleviation can be supported.
  • The UK’s unique Heritage Sites – from natural heritage, to historic buildings, to archaeological sites – can be protected for the future.
  • Far more action is needed to stop damage to nature from farming. Where an outright ban is not needed, a polluter pays principle can be widely adopted. Urgent action can be taken as a result of leaving the EU, to reduce the hazards of pesticides, to benefit nature, improve human health and produce healthier food.
  • Greater transparency in the way our countryside is managed and our lands are farmed can result from the UK leaving the EU, benefitting British farmers, society, our nature and the environment.
  • A new relationship between people and food can be developed. Educating children about where food comes from and how it is produced, is the first step to understanding the true cost and value of food.

As you can see – this is a forward looking report which covers the important policy areas that need to be addressed. I was interested in the sections on small-scale farming and the role that it might play in the future – an area which is largely ignored currently by Whitehall and Defra.

This report is worth reading as it provides a good background to the topic as well as suggesting some ways forward. This will be a hot topic for debate in 2017 and I suspect I will return to it again and again.

Interestingly tomorrow see the publication of a report ‘The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum‘ by the influential House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. I will report on that in due course too.

State of Nature 2016

The State of Nature 2016 report has been published today and as previewed on Countryfile last weekend  (see here at 7.08 and 21.36) it catalogues the dramatic declines in British wildlife since 1970 and largely blames Government agriculture policy as the major cause. It follows on the heels of the State of Nature Report 2013 (download here) – the new report can be downloaded here.


This graphic from the report shows (on the left) that the largest wildlife losses have occurred on farmland followed in second place by losses attributable to a changing climate.

These findings were published in a scientific paper by some of the same authors last year – see here. I suppose what I find depressing about this work is that it is being reported as ‘news’ but we have known about this for decades. I remember when I was doing my MSc at UCL in Conservation in the mid 1980s reading books like Marion Shoard’s Theft of the Countryside which highlighted exactly the same trends when it came to the intensification of agriculture.

Of course it is not all doom and gloom there have been some notable successes – climate change has given us some new species – little egrets, great white egrets, little bittern and cattle egret, all of which now breed or have bred at the wonderful Avalon Marshes suite of nature reserves in the Somerset Levels – perhaps the UK’s most successful nature good news story. Conservation organisations have successfully re-introduced the red kite and the large blue butterfly which are now thriving and systematic management improvements have seen the bittern come back from the brink of extinction in the East of England and the Somerset Levels.

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-09-19-13However the State of Nature Report 2016 puts the UK’s performance into and international context – the Biodiversity Intactness Index – we are 189th out of 218 countries – not quite like the Olympic’s medal table …..


It is however good to see 50 partner organisations publishing this report and I for one am very pleased to see the National Trust logo. The 2013 report galvanised the National Trust into action over nature and I am sure we will see a step change in their efforts for wildlife over the coming decade. I know this to be true as I was privy to some of their plans in the south west when I attended their Cornwall Ranger Conference last week.

We do however need to remember that if we are to improve matters for nature it will probably be at the expense of something else – most likely intensive farming – organisations like the National Trust will need our support and encouragement if and when the waters get choppy (like it did here for example).

As the State of Nature Report makes clear it is not farmers who are responsible for the state of nature it is Government Agricultural Policy. In light of Brexit all of this is now up for discussion – I have written about this recently see here – whilst there are obvious threats there are some real opportunities – it is all there to fight for and that is now the task of the UK’s 50 environmental NGOs.

Not only will fighting be necessary though – it will be vital also to form coherent partnerships with the people who manage most of the UK – the farmers, something that doesn’t happen enough at the moment.