1. Conservation bodies
There are umpteen conservation groups and societies in the UK, most of which do a splendid job. Those which are well worth recommending for membership, conservation work or merely checking out the wealth of useful information on their websites include the following.
On a local level, the county Wildlife Trusts (each has its own website, the overall one is www.wildlifetrusts.org) remain the most valuable conservation resource of all. Their expert staff manage reserves, carry out extensive research and survey work, maintain biological records, keep an eye on planning applications and development, opposing them where necessary, publish books on local wildlife... I could go on, but if you live in the UK you should be a member already so with luck there's no need.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds www.rspb.org.uk is by far the best-supported operation with more than a million members, many exceptional reserves and a holistic approach to conservation while focussing mainly on our feathered friends.
The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust www.wwt.org.uk and the Woodland Trust www.woodland-trust.org.uk apply the same holistic principles and boast superb reserves, as does the National Trust www.nationaltrust.org.uk on a somewhat grander scale - the NT sensibly sees wildlife conservation and building conservation as part of the same scheme of things.
The British Trust for Ornithology www.bto.org and Marine Conservation Society www.mcsuk.org are at the sharp end of research, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England www.cpre.org.uk is always at the forefront of the struggle to defend what we have, and try and regain some of the lost ground.
Among other things, the BTO organises and co-ordinates bird ringing by around 2,000 licensed voluntary practitioners in Britain and Ireland, dealing with getting on for a million birds each year. On average only one in every 50 birds ringed are subsequently found and reported, but this still helps provide valuable information about such matters as movements and longevity. A male Reed Bunting, a species of high conservation concern, is shown alongside with a ring on his right leg.
Three specialist organisations concentrating on invertebrates deserve a round of applause or, even better, an annual cheque for membership - Butterfly Conservation www.butterfly-conservation.org, the British Dragonfly Society www.british-dragonflies.org.uk and the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Scheme BWARS, www.bwars.com. Linked with BWARS is Hymettus Ltd www.hymettus.org.uk, a charity which is the principal source of advice on the conservation of bees, wasps and ants in Great Britain and Ireland, focussing particularly on research into vulnerable aculeates. Their website is excellent, especially the downloadable information sheets on species. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust www.bumblebeeconservation.org has done sterling work for these vital and in cases threatened invertebrates. The campaigning organisation Buglife www.buglife.org.uk, plus Plantlife www.plantlife.org.uk and the Mammal Society www.mammal.org.uk, are also vital. The publications of the last-named are first rate.
On the general campaigning front, internationally as well as at home, Friends of the Earth www.foe.co.uk and Greenpeace www.greenpeace.org remain very potent forces for putting pressure on Government and business to behave with environmental and social responsibility. Publicly-funded organisations which seem to be facing an uphill struggle in the good work they do are the Environment Agency www.environment-agency.gov.uk, whose website boasts a vast amount of information, and English Nature, which in 2006 was subsumed in Natural England. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Defra and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee www.jncc.gov.uk also have considerable amounts of data accessible on the internet.
Recently 25 wildlife organisations, including most of those mentioned above and spearheaded by the RSPB, came together to produce what amounts to a wake-up call to government, business and the great British public that all is not well with our nature. The State of Nature report, published in May 2013 with a follow-up in 2016, contains a wealth of disturbing data regarding declines across the board among species and habitats. But it also gives some cause for hope that this depressing decay may change if enough people have the will and determination required first to put the brakes on, then put the juggernaut into reverse.
2. Publications and references
My latest book, My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden, was published in spring 2013. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence.
If you purchase only one magazine, make it British Wildlife www.britishwildlife.com on subscription - the publication covers a tremendous amount of ground in an authoritative manner, and the conservation updates are invaluable.
References for individual species or groups as well as habitats are bewildering in their number but there is usually something available, to which end the internet is exceptionally useful.
The best bets in the UK for books are Pemberley Books www.pemberleybooks.com, NHBS www.nhbs.co.uk and Subbuteo www.wildlifebooks.com. A number of outlets in mainland Europe are not only supremely efficient but also very competitively priced and can be cheaper on postage than some in the UK. Recommended without hesitation are Insecta www.insecta.de, Backhuys www.euronet.nl/users/backhuys and Kabourek www.kabourek.cz together with Abebooks www.abebooks.com for finding second-hand books anywhere in the world.
On habitats, the New Naturalist series from Collins has splendid volumes (sometimes very pricy on the second-hand market) concerning heathland, hedges, woodland, seashore, churchyards and others. These, along with titles focused on individual groups of flora and fauna, notably Amphibians and Reptiles by Trevor Beebee and Richard Griffiths, retain some or all their validity despite in many instances being published decades ago.
For mushrooms you can rely on the stylish, disciplined volume of that title by Roger Phillips (published by Pan). For flora generally Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter is the perfect pocket field guide, though you need a fair-sized pocket. Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey is another must, and a slim tome by Roger Phillips again on coastal flora is well worth having if you're trudging across dune or shingle.
The best key and guide to birds remains the Birds of the Western Palearctic, published by Oxford University Press and available on disc. Bird Watching magazine www.birdwatching.co.uk and the RSPB magazine Nature's Home are handy for updates, since much of the information on the discs is a few years old.
Simon Holloway's Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland 1875-1900 contains abundant (and often depressing) historical information, while the EBCC Atlas of European Breeding Birds puts the British details in wider present perspective. Both books are published by T. and A. D. Poyser, whose full list, along with that of Helm on individual species, is impressive - both now come under the Bloomsbury umbrella.
For mammals, Professor David Macdonald's Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain & Europe is an admirable key. Badgers are comprehensively covered in Ernest Neal and Chris Cheeseman's book published by Poyser, while Whittet's books on Urban Foxes by Stephen Harris and Phil Baker and Hedgehogs by Pat Morris are a cracking read.
Also worth noting are the Mammal Society's booklets on American Mink by Johnny Birks, Water Vole (Gordon Woodroffe), Woodmice (John Flowerdew) and Shrews (Sara Churchfield).
Invertebrates are the hardest group of animals to identify in the field. Butterflies and dragonflies are relatively easy, though even there a close-up inspection is necessary to distinguish, say, the Essex Skipper from the Small Skipper, or the Azure damselfly from the Common Blue damselfly.
With flies, wasps, bees, beetles, snails and so on the job is a lot harder, but there are aids, not least the website of one of the best natural history photographers in Britain, especially of invertebrates, David Element (www.davidelement.net), who not only takes splendid images but has all the species accurately identified, a remarkable achievement. The same comment applies to Steven Falk, a top entomologist formerly employed by Buglife. Steven draws as well as takes photographs with great skill and has a string of publications behind him. His website is www.stevenfalk.co.uk. Even better is his Flickr stream www.flickr.com/photos/63075200@N07/collections, which contains a vast number of images with comments on identification and life cycles.
Other websites of value include www.chrysis.net, which concentrates on ruby-tail wasps, and the very user-friendly site run by Essex Field Club, which has a tremendous amount of information about local species and sites in what is a rich and well-researched county for wildlife. Spiders are given great coverage by the British Arachnological Society, and the Spider Recording Scheme is an essential part of this. Mark Telfer's website www.markgtelfer.co.uk and that of the Watford Coleoptera Group carry a huge amount of information about beetles. Hemiptera are dealt with comprehensively and stylishly on British Bugs organised by Tristan Bantock and Joseph Botting. On a more local but still very valuable level, the Cheshire Online Atlas of aculeate Hymenoptera Atlas is 67mb and may be downloaded.
As regards books, despite being sizeable such general volumes as those by Michael Chinery published by Collins can cover only a small amount of the ground but they are still worth packing in the rucksack. The same can be said with knobs on for Paul D. Brock's A Comprehensive Guide to Insects of Britain and Ireland, which has excellent images of a vast array of species along with accurate notes on each.
The same goes for any of the Naturalists' Handbook series. These are accurate, handy and readable, unlike some of the strictly scientific keys which are necessary for experts but not for the non-specialist, who would require them as bedtime reading only if suffering from insomnia. The Naturalists' Handbook series is as follows: Insects on nettles, B. N. K. Davis; Grasshoppers, Valerie K. Brown; Solitary wasps, Peter F. Yeo and Sarah A. Corbet; Insects and thistles, Margaret Redfern; Hoverflies, Francis S. Gilbert; Bumblebees, Oliver E. Prys-Jones and Sarah A. Corbet; Dragonflies, Peter L. Miller; Common ground beetles, Trevor G. Forsythe; Animals on seaweed, Peter J. Hayward; Ladybirds, Michael Majerus and Peter Kearns; Aphid predators, Graham E. Rotheray; Animals on the surface film, Marjorie Guthrie; Mayflies, Janet Harker; Mosquitoes, Keith R. Snow; Insects, plants and microclimate, D. M. Unwin and Sarah A. Corbet; Weevils, M. G. Morris; Plant galls, Margaret Redfern and R. R. Askew; Insects on cabbages and oilseed rape, William D. J. Kirk; Pollution monitoring with lichens, D. H. S. Richardson; Microscopic life in sphagnum, Marjorie Hingley; Animals of sandy shores, Peter J. Hayward; Animals under logs and stones, C. Philip Wheater and Helen J. Read; Blowflies, Zakaria Erinlioglu; Ants, Gary J. Skinner and Geoffrey W. Allen; Thrips, William D. J. Kirk; Insects on dock plants, David T. Salt and B. Whittaker; Insects on cherry trees, Simon R. Leather and Keith P. Bland; Studying invertebrates, C. Philip Wheater and Penny A. Cook; Ponds and small lakes: Microorganisms and freshwater ecology, Brian Moss; Ladybirds, Helen Roy et al.;Solitary Bees, Ted Benton.
Although by definition geographically limited, the admirable ongoing series of atlases produced by Surrey Wildlife Trust www.surreywildlifetrust.org and covering to the end of 2008 Amphibians and Reptiles, Ants, Bees, Butterflies, Dragonflies, Grasshoppers and Crickets, Hoverflies, Ladybirds, Larger Moths, Smaller Moths, Shieldbugs, Soldierflies and their allies and Conopidae, Wasps and Water Beetles, has a much wider application.
The atlases, compiled by such experts as David W. Baldock, Graham A. Collins, Dr Jonty Denton, Roger D. Hawkins, Roger K. A. Morris, Ken Willmott and Julia Wycherley and Richard Anstis, cover the vast majority, and in some cases all, the species in lowland England in a readable but scientific manner. A high proportion of the images have been provided by David Element, and with Bees of Surrey (2008), Wasps of Surrey (2010) and Soldierflies and their allies and Conopidae of Surrey (2015) by me.
The Land Snails of Britain and North-west Europe by M.P. Kerney and R. A. D. Cameron deals with that group perfectly.
For butterflies, two books are sufficient - Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland and The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington.
For moths, A Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Paul Waring, Martin Townsend and Richard Lewington is first rate. The State of Britain's Larger Moths 2006, available from Butterfly Conservation, is important but depressing reading.
For dragonflies, Philip Corbet's magnum opus Dragonflies: Behaviour and Ecology of Odonata is outstanding used in conjunction with Steve Brooks's Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland illustrated by Richard Lewington.
Bees have not been well covered over the years but the publication in November 2015 of the Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk and Richard Lewington changed that. A major work by George Else will be another big boost to those who study bees. The pocket Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland by Mike Edwards and Martin Jenner remains very useful. The European Red List of bees published in 2014 provides a pan-European analysis and The Bees of Norfolk by Nick Owens (2017) is an excellent recent county guide.
The best keys to wasps are provided by the Royal Entomological Society, but some are quite old. They are still useful if you are strictly scientific with a microscope and ready to catch, kill, dissect and store species. Some can be downloaded from the RES website. Also downloadable are six volumes about wasps in the superb Faune de France series, plus many covering other orders. The website is www.faunedefrance.org.
The most useful are Spider Wasps (Pompilidae) by M.C. Day, Scolioidea, Vespoidea and Sphecoidea by O.W. Richards, the Vespoid Wasps by Michael Archer and Cuckoo-Wasps (Chrysididae) by D. Morgan. Some keys written abroad are very useful, especially Bogdan Wisniowski's admirable Spider-hunting Wasps of Poland published in 2009, which covers all but one of the species present in Britain. Wisniowski has also published the equally important Cuckoo-wasps of Poland (2015). A number of the images in both books were taken by me.
There is also a wealth of information in the Red Data Book on Insects published by the Nature Conservancy Council (precursor of English Nature) in 1987, and the same organisation's Review of the scarce and threatened bees, wasps and ants of Great Britain by Steven Falk 1991.
Sphecidae are pretty well dealt with, and although pretty old now one of the best books covering identification and habits is O. Lomholdt's marvellous work The Sphecidae (Hymenoptera) of Fennoscandia and Denmark published by the Scandinavian Science Press Ltd. It is in English, which is a bonus.
Kevin M. O'Neill's work Solitary Wasps covers mainly North American species, but the numerous detailed accounts of biology and behaviour hold good for species everywhere.
Not in English, but with many superb images as well as authoritative text, is Die Grabwespen Deutschlands by Manfred Blosch. Wespen by Rolf Witt also has a lot of photos and short, sharp, accurate text. Bienen, Wespen, Ameisen by Heiko Bellmann is well illustrated.
De Wespen en Mieren van Nederland (plus De Nederlandse Bijen), from a team led by Theo Peeters, are great if you read Dutch, and have valuable information even you don't, notably detailed flight periods, maps and for the wasps lists of prey species. What happens in Holland might happen here, and species there may well colonise Britain so it is worth looking at these books, both of which can be downloaded.
BWARS has a superb website with masses of information and images and published a monograph on Potter and Mason Wasps by Michael Archer. BWARS is also behind the ongoing series of Provisional atlases of the aculeate Hymenoptera of Britain and Ireland, with their excellent comments and maps on individual species. To the end of 2017 nine atlases had been published by the Biological Records Centre of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, with just one to go in 2018.
The Biological Records Centre can be accessed at www.brc.ac.uk and has many millions of records of land and freshwater species. A huge number of British records across all orders can be accessed via the National Biodiversity Network Living Atlas, which was transmogrified from the NBN Gateway in 2017. There are still a number of problems but the intention is undoubtedly worthwhile so it is to be hoped some tweaking will sort out the tricky aspects.
The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has an astonishing range of environmental disciplines and has always been at the cutting edge of accurate, scientific research as well as record-keeping, focusing in particular on the impacts of human activity on natural environments. That is more important than ever now but short-sightedly early in 2006 the National Environment Research Council decided to close several CEH centres and redeploy a third of the 600 staff or make them redundant over a period of four years. The supposed jusitifcation was finances.
The proposal was opposed by 98 per cent of the 1,325 people across the country who commented on the 'business plan'; by the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties; and by sundry environmental organisations. Yet the cutbacks were approved. Quite why vital research work invariably is viewed from a financial debit-credit standpoint is inexplicable - certain activities funded by the taxpayer should never be considered in this way since it misses the point. Defence is one; lower down the financial scale, the CEH is another. Happily the organisation continues to provide tremendous service to the environment and the public.
Grasshoppers and crickets are dealt with in the Surrey Wildlife Trust atlas by David W. Baldock, Grasshoppers and Allied Insects of Great Britain and Ireland by Judith A. Marshall and E. C. M. Hales (Harley Books), and A Field Guide to the Grasshoppers and Crickets of Britain and Northern Europe by Heiko Bellmann (Collins).
Hoverflies are admirably covered in British Hoverflies by Alan Stubbs and Steven Falk plus Britain's Hoverflies: a Field Guide by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris. Together with Martin Drake, Stubbs is also responsible for the equally excellent British Soldierflies and their Allies. The Dutch book Field guide to the Robberflies of the Netherlands and Belgium by R. van den Broek and A. Schulten is in English, covers a lot of ground and is well illustrated.
For beetles, the Field Guide in Colour to Beetles by K.W. Harde deals with a large selection of an enormous group. Beetles of Britain and Ireland by Andrew Duff is much more detailed and has now reached colume four but the price is quite high for non-experts.
For non-specialists, perhaps the most entertaining book on spiders, with a mass of information and photos, is still Dick Jones's Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe. Britain's Spiders: A Field Guide, by Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith, published in 2017, is a valuable new resource given that Jones's work is long out of print.
Another point about Jones is that his book is not ideal for specialists and purists, but in truth those groups sometimes lose sight of what needs to be done for invertebrates. In this area, it must be worth getting members of the public interested in the fascinating behaviour of these little critters without necessarily speaking Latin at them and checking how many spines one species happens to have on its legs compared with another.
Don't get me wrong. Not all experts can or indeed should do this, since precise, disciplined scientific study is essential for understanding the natural world and consequently for conservation. But it is possible to mix science with fun and wonder, so perhaps a few more aficionados who have the common touch might be advised occasionally to substitute a passionate approach for a dispassionate one.
Put simply, if people are not won over to invertebrates which, when they get any kind of press, tend to get a bad one, identifying species will become merely a record of what's gone rather than an exultation in what's there.
Any inquiries - please e-mail me at Nature Conservation Imaging.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.