All creatures, great and very small…

Kirsty Brown – Conservation Project Assistant

Bugs – do you love them, or hate them?

Skipper butterfly - Kirsty BrownI love them. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I’ve been keen to have some random creature in my hand, and because of their usual accessibility and small size, these creatures have usually been insects.

Larval stage

Growing up in Houston in the USA, magical fireflies blinking at dusk were amongst the first to take my fancy, and I’d happily gather them gently into my bug-barn (as built by my Dad) and watch their eerie green glow. They sometimes accompanied me on the yellow school bus to take pride of place during show-and-tell. The large, green tomato horn worms (hawkmoth caterpillar) were also a favourite of mine to collect. I guess I must have been reasonably cautious in my collecting as, despite the many poisonous/stinging/biting/hairy creatures around Houston and picked up on various camping trips in the Rocky Mountains, I am happy to say I am still alive, intact, and fascinated!

Six-spot Burnet Moth - Kirsty Brown

When my family later moved to Eglwysbach in North Wales, my bug-barn was constantly filled with a variety of invertebrates, though I soon discovered snails didn’t make good guests, as they slimed up the inside, creating a sticky trap for my next ‘pet’. Gerald Durrell’s book ‘My Family and Other Animals’ was a great source of inspiration. Although there weren’t quite so many bright and shiny insects here compared with the USA, I raised caterpillars – impressive mini-snake-like Elephant Hawk moths, fluffy Yellow-Tail moths, and notorious Cabbage White butterflies – poring over bug books to determine their food-plants, life cycles and characteristics, watching as the caterpillars turned into chrysalises, and the magical metamorphosis into butterflies and moths. I also kept stick insects in a tank and ants in an ant-farm (which was not quite escape proof, to my mother’s delight!).

Pupation and Adult stages

At University, my dissertation was on seaweed flies – ironic because being at the University of Leicester, I was pretty far from the coast! Following graduation from University, I secured a job with a company near Edinburgh, and identified over 70,000 invertebrates as part of a project studying insect growth regulators. These insecticides disrupt pest insect development, and had been applied to livestock. The study assessed for any effect on beneficial invertebrates in the field, with particular attention paid to dung and those insects such as dung beetles and dung flies, which help break it down. I usually had the whole laboratory to myself, due to the wonderful aroma.

I’ve also worked at the Central Science Laboratory (now Fera), and helped raise a variety of invertebrates, including springtails, cabbage white butterflies, lacewings, soil mites and Eisenia fetida (tiger or compost worms). The worms were kept in huge containers, about 4x3m in size, filled with soil, and we fed them with oats, lettuce and Matilda the Mantis - Kirsty Brownother vegetable matter. Each summer, I identified aphids as part of the Aphid Monitoring Scheme, to help farmers decide whether insecticide sprays were required, as several species are vectors for plant diseases. I also kept a ‘pet’ praying mantis, whose head swivelled as she watched me with her huge iridescent eyes…

Insects continued to be a theme when I joined the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust as a trainee. I was able to delve into the identification of our native British species, and learned about the threats from habitat fragmentation and climate change. And now I’m working for the North York Moors National Park Authority.

At the North York Moors National Park, I see a great diversity of invertebrates almost every time I venture out to grant aid the restoration of walls and hedges, and to advance our habitat connectivity programme. This summer has been warm and dry, and so has been particularly good for butterflies and moths.

Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn beetle - Kirsty BrownOne of our regular volunteers found a lovely Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn beetle up at Sutton Bank when we were surveying the species rich grassland. The beetle was particularly interesting as they are usually found in the south of England and not this far north.

Another unusual beetle is the strange red-breasted Red-Breasted Carrion Beetle, Oiceoptoma thoracicum - Kirsty Browncarrion beetles, which we found near Lockton, on some dung.

The lovely red-headed cardinal beetle and coppery click-beetle, are amongst the prettier beetles to be found in this area.

Red-headed Cardinal Beetle Pyrochroa serraticornis - Kirsty BrownCoppery Click Beetle, Ctenicera cuprea - Kirsty Brown

 

 

 

 

Even on holiday…

Costa Rica has proved to be an excellent holiday destination for someone interested in entomology. I saw a click beetle with glowing ‘eyes’ in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a terracotta-coloured longhorn beetle posed for a picture, and during a night walk, I photographed a most incredible web-casting spider. A scorpion also decided to bed down for the night in our suitcase…I couldn’t have been more delighted.Scorpion in suitcase, Costa Rica - Kirsty Brown

Leaf scale bug in Costa Rica - Kirsty BrownOrb web spider in Costa Rica - Kirsty Brown  Tiny mantis in Costa Rica - Kirsty Brown

 

 

Longhorn beetle in Costa Rica - Kirsty BrownMoths in Costa Rica - Kirsty Brown Net casting spider in Costa Rica - Kirsty Brown

 

 

Rhinoceros beetle in Costa Rica - Kirsty Brown

On a trip this summer to Gran Canaria, I couldn’t help photographing some of the local insects, though this huge robber fly got a bit close to my head, even for my liking! Robber flies ambush other flying insects, and even eat bees.

Robber fly, Asilidae sp in Gran Canaria - Kirsty Brown

Never ending fascination

Over the summer, I attended the Royal Entomological Society’s European Congress of Entomology, in York. The speakers were world-class, and discussed all sorts of issues such as controlling mosquitoes to rid the world of malaria, stepping in to help the last few endemic water beetles trapped in the Sierra Nevada as Spain becomes hotter and drier with climate change, and how incredibly useful Citizen Science has become through websites and apps such as iSpot.

I know I can’t go for a walk without carefully lifting (and replacing!) various stones and logs, to see what I might find. You might be the same. You might like to have a go at building a bug hotel in your garden, then you can attract your own local mini-beasts.

Green Tiger Beetle, Cicindela campestris - Kirsty Brown

We have our own North York Moors National Park wildlife recording system, and we’re always keen to know what people have seen so we can build up a picture of what is about in the North York Moors. The information you give will help us conserve these amazing and vital creatures.

Hoverfly, Syrphus ribesii- Kirsty Brown

We have our own Discovery Days, here in the National Park – the next one is 29 October 2014. If you’d like to get more involved with bugs in the United Kingdom, the Amateur Entomological Society and Buglife have lots of information, activities and events. Watch out for National Insect Week events, such as bio-blitzes.

Oak Eggar moth caterpillar,Lasiocampa quercus - Kirsty Brown

There is no getting away from it, I love bugs.

Swallows and Amphibians (and ponies)

John Beech – Heritage Coast Project Officer

The six ponds installed last year through our Habitat Connectivity programme (“Linking Landscapes”) are thriving with life this spring. I’ve just returned from a site visit to the area north of Robin Hood’s Bay and found the ponds full of tadpoles, water boatmen, backswimmers and whirligig beetles. It’s a marvellous sight given that these shallow hollows in the landscape previously held no water at all and contained very little in the way of wildlife.

We arranged the project with the landowner (National Trust) and tenant, and paid for the contractor with his mini digger to form these scrapes and ponds. The ponds were fenced off to allow the vegetation around them to grow up and not be grazed off by stock. This type of habitat should be ideal as breeding sites for amphibians.

Whilst looking for submerged wildlife, I also saw my first Swallow of the year as it swooped to drink from the ponds freshwater after its long journey of migration. The Yorkshire Coast must have been its first landfall for thousands of miles. It’s incredibly satisfying to think that you’ve added to the whole biodiversity and wildlife interest of the area with a few scoops from a digger.

Further up the coast at Wrack Hills near Runswick Bay, hardy Exmoor ponies are settling in well on the undercliff grassland. Undercliff habitat is found alongside soft cliffs where the land has slumped and settled, and been recolonized by vegetation over time. During the winter we’ve fenced off part of the existing SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and installed a watering point. The fencing, in part, follows an historic fence line which implies that there was stock in the past on this useful, if difficult to access, rough pasture. We were previously talking about putting cattle on the undercliff but instead the land manager has managed to arrange for Exmoors to begin to tackle the coarse grasses and scrub that have been taking over the site. This conservation grazing regime is aimed at halting the decline of the patches of species rich grassland that are left here. Big thanks to the land manager and the Exmoor Pony Trust for taking on this challenge. We’re promoting this type of grazing management on the National Park’s coastal undercliffs wherever possible.

The two ponies (one small mare and one larger gelding) were introduced to the site in April. Since then the paths they’ve made (and dung piles they’ve left!) show that they’ve explored much of the site and have started to make an impact on some patches of grassland. Encouragingly there are plenty of primroses, bluebells and a few early-purple orchids in flower, so it doesn’t look like the ponies are eating the flower heads.P1030889

It might be good to have more ponies on the undercliff when the ground is drier and less liable to poaching up. Otherwise combining ponies with the land manager’s own shorthorn cattle might be advantageous. Mixes of ponies and cattle have an added benefit that ponies can graze the best grass very tightly, which encourages cattle to tackle the rough stuff before the ponies might get round to it. In addition, after the bird breeding season, if human labour is available, it might be worth strimming some of the edges of the bramble patches, or creating routes though them which the ponies can then expand. The same could apply to bracken patches, although I hope the ponies might make inroads there themselves.

OAP Trees

Alasdair Fagan – Conservation Graduate Trainee

On a brisk yet sunny day a couple of weeks ago, Mark Antcliff (National Park Authority’s Woodland Officer) and I travelled down to Staffordshire to represent the North York Moors National Park Authority at a meeting of the Ancient Tree Forum at St George’s Park.

The Forum’s overriding aim is to conserve Britain’s Ancient and Veteran Trees. Ancient and Veteran Trees act as entire ecosystems, providing a variety of habitats for all kinds of organisms (insects, fungi, birds, bats). They play a hugely important role in biodiversity and are home to a large number of rare and endangered species – 11% of European beetles that are linked to the dead wood parts of Ancient and Veteran Trees are classed as ‘threatened’. These trees are an important part of our natural heritage and each one is a manifestation of living history.

This ancient oak tree above was measured as having 7.38 metres girth and was estimated to be around 600-700 years old, which would make it the site’s oldest tree

Indications that a tree might be of a great age include

  • Dead branches;
  • Hollowing of the trunk;
  • Fungi and moulds;
  • An exceptionally wide trunk (when compared to other trees of the same type).

St George’s Park, near Burton on Trent in Staffordshire, is where the English Football Association have their National Football Centre. The Football Association developed the parkland site in the 2000s into a state of the art training facility for England’s international football teams. The site has an unusually high number of Ancient and Veteran trees. The history of the site includes usage as a medieval hunting forest,  subsequently as the grounds of an Estate, and later as an airfield and training base during the Second World War. And now it’s a National Football Centre. Despite the changes in land usage, the site had historically been managed as a woodland pasture resulting in the retention of a surprising number of very old and beautiful trees.

The meeting looked at how the new development had been integrated within the site without damaging the surviving trees and discussed the continuing parkland management of the important Ancient and other Veteran Trees here. The land ownership now belongs with the English Football Association and is partly tenanted by a local farmer, currently operating under a Natural England Higher Level Stewardship Agreement which involves land management for environmental benefits.

The meeting itself brought together many of the country’s Ancient and Veteran Tree experts and provided a great opportunity to discuss the various issues affecting these special trees, individually and within the wider landscape, with highly valued members of the scientific community. The day helped us develop a better understanding of the current issues that are affecting these remarkable trees across the country and the best ways to manage Ancient and Veteran Trees so they can survive as long as possible. We’ll be putting this knowledge into good practice in the North York Moors.