We are settling into one of our many nights in the forests of Umling, to the western part of Royal Manas National Park. The night is devoid of any human voices, and all we could hear is the river gushing below, and the wind blowing in the trees. There is only the light of the moon, penetrating through the canopy and we are cautioned not to light fire nor switch on torches. The rangers check their guns, put the safety lock on and put it under their pillow. It is 7 p.m., and we are done with dinner. We are at Kukulung, a place very close to the Indian border and infamous for militant activity and armed poachers. There have been infrequent past encounters between these intruders and the Bhutanese counterparts, and the tales of these encounters sends chill down the spine. There are dangers also from the elephants and gaurs (also known as the Indian Bison), both known to be notorious for attacking people. Here, they can be seen in big herds.
I am in Royal Manas National Park, studying tigers. Royal Manas National Park is the oldest protected area in Bhutan and was established in 1964. The national park is located in the southern foothills of the country and is known worldwide for its incredible biodiversity and scenic landscapes. It has seven species of wildcats in an area of 1054 square kilometers, one of the highest density of cat species in the world and I have always wanted to come here and work. I am currently a wildlife biology student at the University of Montana, and as a part of my thesis research, I am studying the genetic make-up of tigers in the Bhutan Himalaya landscape. I am using non-invasive survey techniques to collect poop samples for obtaining DNA which would provide information on genetic diversity and connectivity in tigers of Bhutan. Insights on ecology and spatial distribution are increasingly becoming available, but information on genetic make-up and diversity is highly lacking and thus, lack explicit consideration in tiger conservation strategies in the country.
I come to Royal Manas National Park because it has tigers, a lot of them compared to the rest of the country and the national park has enjoyed momentous success in tiger monitoring and conservation over the years. The park was applauded recently for an amazing feat: the tiger numbers have doubled over the last three years.
With a team consisting of two research assistants, myself, six armed rangers and three porters, we set off to collect tiger poop. With every poop we found, we celebrated immensely; there was joy on each of our faces. But we were always careful and alert. Few rangers would walk ahead, we would walk in the middle, and few rangers would be at the back. We had to be quiet and maintained a steady pace; some eyes looked up front, some sideways and there were few of us looking at the trails for poop, scrapes, and pugmarks. It was one of the most enriching and adrenaline filled days of my life.
We were always ready by 7 a.m. in the morning, and the day’s journey would take a walking of at least 7 hours. We would cross dense forests, grasslands and rivers, tread river beds and climb ridges. By noon, our porters would cook us delicious food. We would retire by 4 in the evening, cook dinner near a water source, have it there, put out the fire and go somewhere else to sleep. We would choose a vantage point to camp, under a tree canopy and close to a river. The weather seemed erratic and we prayed it never rains for we had no tents with us; it was February and it hardly ever rained in February. The camping sites were always shifted, we never camped at the same place. We would be sleeping scattered across the forest floor and never together. It was the usual drill, and quietly, we would slip into our sleeping bags by dusk. We would watch the moon and the stars and fall asleep. This would be our routine for all the days we were in the forest.
I feel extremely lucky to be getting a sizable number of tiger poop in Umling, and the fieldwork went much smoother than I anticipated. Next, I will be visiting Manas Range on the eastern side of the park. The fieldwork will be equally daunting. I will also be visiting other tiger hotspots across the country to collect more samples. Many of whom I had consulted with had not observed much tiger poop deposits in the forests, and I was very nervous. I visited monasteries and lit butter lamps for blessings, and it is typical of what many Bhutanese like to do when they need something urgent. I was also nervous because of the history of some of these places I was visiting. But I was determined to take it as a challenge, and, I didn’t have a choice.
Fieldwork and patrolling along the borders are always this nerve wrecking. Park rangers are on average 15 days away in a month in the jungles patrolling, camera trapping, and carrying out fieldwork for other research purposes. Many decades have passed this way, and they handle it well; their families have learned not to miss them more. The rangers put their soul into their work and their love for nature is genuine. Their sweat and perseverance are returning results: tigers are doubling in numbers and illegal logging is subsiding. They are very happy about these positive developments, and I could it feel from their smiles as they spoke about it. However, they train every now and then and are always alert and fit; complacency has no room in these jungles.
Shortly after sunrise on April 2nd we successfully navigated Mir back to her mooring in Banyuwedang Bay in northwestern Bali after over three months at sea— a three months that brought us clear across the Indonesian archipelago and back, covering over 2,500 nautical miles along the way, all in the name of adventure and conservation.
Calm day on the Banda Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Did That Really Happen?
The crew aboard Mir made it safely back to Bali, and our long-anticipated voyage to Raja Ampat has sadly come to an end. As can happen with any slice of time, this adventure is already beginning to take on a dreamlike quality in my mind — did that really happen? Was I truly just traveling through the most biologically-diverse marine ecosystem on the planet on a 108-year-old ship? The surest way for me to verify that it wasn’t all just a dream is by closing my eyes and reliving some of the moments from these past three months, knowing full well that my imagination could never have conjured these otherworldly visions on its own — visions of looking up from eighty feet below the water at thousands upon thousands of fish circling above me in such perfect unison they appeared to be one single, gargantuan, cyclone-shaped, super-organism. Visions of standing on the bow as we slowly approached a remote island at sunrise and expecting to see pterodactyls swooping off the turrets of stone as the land came into focus to reveal steep, jagged cliff faces speckled with broad-leafed plants overflowing out of any little spot that could hold a cup of soil. Visions of being on watch late at night and looking over the side of the ship at long ribbons of bioluminescence streaming and twisting away from Mir’s hull as she cut through the otherwise pitch-black waters. And one especially wild vision of diving in a tidal “river” between two islands where the current was so strong that when everyone else grabbed ahold of a boulder to stop themselves, and I missed it, I had to dig my hands into the sandy bottom where I was dragged away from the rest of the team while “gusts” of water threatened to tear my mask from my face and it felt like I was on a gravity-free planet about to get blown into outer space, never to be heard from again. But of all the things we saw in Raja Ampat, the most spectacular was what we went there to see in the first place: the vast trove of healthy coral reefs, all of which hosted a chaotic profusion of sea life on and around them.
Fish tornado. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Voyage Back to Bali
We left our final anchorage in Raja Ampat on March 10th to begin our long voyage back across those big blue spots you may have seen on maps of Indonesia. Although we were sad to leave a place we had come to love so much, our adventure in no way diminished once we did; on one of our first nights underway between Raja Ampat and Sulawesi, an electrical storm came so close to the ship that the thunder was already clapping while the lightning was still spiderwebbing pink and welding torch-white across the skies beside us, causing us to throw our hands up to our ears. The four of us who were up at the time all thought the power had gone out on the ship before realizing we had each been momentarily blinded by the flash.
We saw many of these eerie, floating fish attractors in the seas around Sulawesi. Our presumption is that these scarecrow-like paddle people have a double purpose: 1) to keep birds from landing on them so fish aren’t dissuaded from gathering below, and 2) to make them easier for the fisherman to relocate. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
After spending a few days diving in Wakatobi National Park off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi, we continued on to the small island of Moyo, where the Biosphere Foundation has an ongoing “Friends of Moyo” project. There, we were reunited with our hero, Sutama, and his wonderful and hilarious wife, Wayan, who flew in to meet us from Bali. We spent a week in Moyo transplanting broken corals, and adding many small moorings to the beautiful reefs off the coast of the island. Sutama led us in these efforts, while also training the local dive leaders of Moyo who are eager to carry on the critical work of protecting their reefs from anchor damage, destructive fishing practices, and pollution.
From left to right: Sutama, Dolphin, Wayan, and Nadia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationSutama and Wayan Chandra transplanting corals near Moyo Island. Photo by Kitty Currier, Biosphere FoundationLaser and Sutama tying a mooring buoy line to the rocky substrate. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere FoundationSutama certifying local Moyo divers: Chandra, Herwin, and Arif as Biosphere Foundation Coral Reef Stewards. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation.Gorgeous waterfall on Moyo Island — it felt incredible to swim in fresh water after months of salt. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
While in Moyo, we also visited a local school where we met with nearly 150 students, teaching them about the detriments of plastic pollution and the importance of healthy coral reefs. We sang and danced with them, and performed the same skit that we put on in Mansuar, where once again I played a sea turtle who nearly chokes to death on a plastic bag that I mistake for a jellyfish. In Bahasa Indonesia, jellyfish is “ubur ubur,” and apparently my pronunciation of the word is so hilarious that now every time I see one of my Indonesian friends, they yell: “ubur ubur!” in a drawn-out and exaggerated accent and then burst into laughter. Just now a boat filled with Balinese dive leaders spotted me where I’m typing this and all shouted “ubur ubur!” in unison and then nearly fell overboard with delight.
Schoolchildren of Labuhan Aji village on Moyo Island, Indonesia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
On the Horizon
We’re living at a critical moment not only for humanity, but for all life on Planet Earth — a moment when many say it’s already too late to steer us off our current crash course with environmental destruction. Coral reefs are a strong indicator of overall ocean health, and alarmingly, they are projected to be nearly gone in the next thirty years if ocean temperatures continue to rise at current trends. After seeing the spectacular underwater ecosystems of Raja Ampat, those of us aboard Mir are more motivated than ever to not sit idly by as our elegant biosphere slowly fades out, and whether it’s too late to change our species’ destructive course or not, the truth of the matter is that these reefs still exist today, and that means there’s still hope. If we lose our reefs for good, there’s no getting them back, so now is the time to act; our grandchildren won’t be given the same opportunity if we do nothing.
Mir crew, 2018. Photo by Woody Heffern, Biosphere Foundation
Though our expedition to Raja Ampat is now behind us, the work of the Biosphere Foundation is only gaining momentum; as of this week, Sutama officially became the head of our NW Bali Marine Stewardship Program where he will continue to develop programs to educate local people — including officials from the local Nature Parks, and Indonesia’s National Parks — in simple, yet effective, methods to protect their oceans. Also on the horizon is the Biosphere Foundation’s new educational center that will soon be built in northwest Bali where both local and international students can participate in our land and sea environmental stewardship programs. We hope you’ll join us.
Fires are burning across the savanna landscape of Nyikina Mangala country. The fires are lit and managed by the Nyikina Mangala rangers together with cultural adviser and senior elder Mr. John Darraga Watson. Watson prefers to use matches while his younger crew dons drip torches. Soon, the grass is engulfed in flames. Just as quickly, it smolders out.
When it comes to managing these landscapes, “the most important thing is to listen to elders, I reckon, and the traditions and laws,” explains Ashton Howard at another burn site. Howard is a member of the Bardi Jawi ranger group based in Ardyaloon (One Arm Point) on the Kimberley’s Dampier Peninsula. “They know what’s best for the country because they live there and have been monitoring for years.”
Monitoring the glowing embers, he points out, “This is a cool burn because the flames are real low. It’s early in the year when it’s still green. We burn to reduce the fuel load and stop the late season wildfires that burn much hotter.”
In 2016, staff from The Nature Conservancy visited these areas in northern Australia to film virtual reality (VR) videos with our Indigenous partners, documenting their work in this vast landscape where their ancestors lived and worked for tens of thousands of years.
Transport yourself to Australia where Indigenous leaders and scientists will take you on a journey through the bush.
Editor’s Note: For the best experience, use your mobile device or a virtual reality headset to view these videos.
For more than 50,000 years, Indigenous Australians practiced careful management of the land that provided their food, shelter and livelihoods. Traditional fire practices centered on clearing bush to hunt for food, as well as regenerating the bush through new growth—and as a result, Australian landscapes evolved in the presence of fire for tens of thousands of years and have come to depend on it to regrow and flourish. But prescribed burning and the traditional way of life were interrupted due to European settlement.
As a result of European settlement, Indigenous groups suffered cultural and social dislocation from the land and waters that served as their source of life. Dry grasses built up and much larger wildfires sparked from natural causes like lightning. These larger and hotter fires devastate vegetation and animal habitat—and release a greater volume of greenhouse gases.
Aboriginal people have a deep connection to country—the surrounding natural territory—a major part of their identity. Having managed the land for tens of thousands of years, country is ingrained within their culture and that sense is passed down through generations. Hear from members of the Jarlmadangah Burru community about the role country plays in their lives.
The Bardi Jawi community, at the tip of the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley, is helping native plant species to recover in this landscape. Watch to learn more about why managing these lands is so important to the Bardi Jawi culture.
What’s the economic significance of commercializing traditional land management activities for Aboriginal peoples in the Kimberley? Learn more about how the Kimberley Land Council is helping to better livelihoods from Acting CEO Tyronne Garstone.
Preserving biodiversity, connecting to country and earning a sustainable livelihood are possible all at once through the Indigenous Ranger Program. It also saves lives.
Uncontrollable fire is the prime example of the environmental damage resulting from disruption to these traditional ways of landscape management. But a quiet revolution is taking place across the Australian Outback as Indigenous Australians are beginning to return to their ancestral lands to both manage them for conservation and provide a livelihood for their families as they did for thousands of years. The Indigenous Ranger Program, begun in 2007, is supported by a variety of organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and the Australian Government. This program allows Indigenous people to maintain their relationship with the land, ensuring both the land and their culture continue to thrive.
“I think the ranger program has probably saved a lot of young people on country… You can see their self-confidence … has grown dramatically…They’ve become a good role model for kids.” – Bibido, Bardi Jawi Ranger Coordinator
In addition to fire management, the rangers also work on weed and feral animal control, take care of cultural heritage sites, and protect endangered species across the landscape.
“Being a ranger…You’re using traditional knowledge and western science to look after country…It makes me feel proud of who I am and my identity as an Aboriginal person. I’m glad to be out on my ancestors’ country burning.” – Robin Dann, Head Ranger, Wungurr Rangers
Indigenous knowledge and stewardship has been critical to protecting landscapes across the globe for millennia. The fire management work conducted by Australian Indigenous groups demonstrates the importance of retaining this body of cultural practice and knowledge and its potential to provide livelihoods for Indigenous peoples living in remote communities. Furthermore, this work with fire has prevented the emission of hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere across millions of hectares – the equivalent of taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road – while also generating millions in revenue for conservation work.
To date, Indigenous fire managers have secured contracts for 9.1 million tons of avoided CO2 emissions, generating at least US$81 million in funding for indigenous-led conservation and employing 250 people. By 2025, a robust carbon economy could create 500 full-time equivalent jobs for 1,000 Aboriginal people, lead to 28.2 million tons of emissions reductions and bring $339 million in income for Aboriginal land managers.
“Our People … have … a long history that goes back forty, fifty thousand years. This knowledge has been passed on from generation to generation, from the old people to the young people. We say that Aboriginal people are the first conservationists, and it’s because of those values, because of that cultural relationship that Aboriginal people have with land.” – Nolan Hunter, CEO, Kimberley Land Council
Picking through the vegetation looking for bushfood, Linda Nardea paused to take in the view. The low sun made the cliffs particularly red and the spring resulted in a striking green burst of trees and shrubs. It was rough country, but breathtakingly beautiful. She pointed to the boots of the people around her. “Look at your shoes – I don’t need no shoes. The land knows me. She protects my feet. We belong here and we take care of each other. There’s no other way.”
As someone whose been involved in conservation in many different corners of the world, its easy to see how people might feel removed from the important work that’s happening, particularly in the arctic and equatorial regions where the scenery feels unfamiliar. However, the most important piece of land that you can help protect is your own. This blog seeks to show what conservation looks like in a local setting
To some people it’s a small, fluid compound composed of two hydrogen molecules and an oxygen molecule. To most people it’s life. Fisherman rely on it for fish, farmers rely on it for crops, coastal communities rely on it for tourism, and we all rely on it to provide food, clothes, and –of course– water for our families.
Photo by Bob Arkow. Visit his gallery here: http://www.bobarkowphotography.com/ A curious Humpback comes in for a closer look at a surfer just off of Long Beach.
There are many different ecosystems on Long Island, each of them diverse and unique in their own ways. The most important one, in my humble opinion, are the southern bays that stretch all the way from Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn out to Montauk. Not only are these bays home to a unique collection of human communities, these bays are also home to a complex system of marshes which act as nurseries for all types of fish and also as a home to an incredibly diverse amount of sea birds. These marshes also act as a first line of defense in storms, slowing down the punishing tide from destroying our homes. In the winter, you’ll be able to spot our seasonal residents the seals, and during the summer if you look out just offshore you’ll be able to spot whales jumping and pods of dolphins cruising the shoreline. All these species rely on the marshes to spawn the bait fish they feed on.
Full disclosure- I grew up exploring the southern bays. I’ve been fishing for years, unintentionally monitoring the species that live here and have watched fish species disappear over time. When I was a kid going after snappers on mid-August afternoons I used to catch puffer fish, needlefish, and young weakfish, too. These days it seems even the snapper’s numbers are low. This isn’t to discount the work that many groups on Long Island are doing, and in fact there are many who are improving them every day. In the past few years we’ve had a major increase in the number of whales and dolphins in our offshore waters, and that’s a direct result of the improvements being made in the southern bays. But with all the work being done, there’s still a lot of work to do.
Photo by Bob Arkow. Visit his gallery here: http://www.bobarkowphotography.com/. A Humpback whale takes a go at a school of bunker, a local baitfish.
I recently spoke to Helen Roussel, the enthusiastic Conservation Chair for the Long Island chapter of the Sierra Club. She points to over development of coastlines and marsh lands as their main issue out in the eastern bays. “See, there’s no rule saying that when you develop land, you need to install hedgerows to give birds a place to nest,” Mrs. Roussel explained. “Now, since they’re also destroying the marshes, which in turn destroys the dragonfly’s habitat, water puddles up and that’s the perfect breeding place for mosquitos. Since there’s no hedgerows and there’s no marshes, birds and dragonflies aren’t there to keep the mosquitos in check.”
The knock-on effects of this are mind blowing. Since there’s a mosquito problem, the local government has taken to using pesticides, specifically the larvicide methoprene, in the waterways to control the mosquito problem. According to the National Pesticide Information Center out of Oregon State University, methoprene “…can prevent normal molting, egg-laying, egg-hatching, and development from the immature phase (i.e. caterpillar) to the adult phase (i.e. moth). This prevents the insects from reproducing.” In the environment, methoprene is moderately toxic to some fish and low in toxicity to others and can accumulate in fish tissues. Due to the biomagnification, where pollutants become more and more concentrated in animals as they go up the food chain, small trace amounts of methoprene in bait fish can become extremely high in predatory animals. Its slightly toxic to crustaceans such as shrimp and crayfish, and highly toxic to freshwater invertebrates. When these predatory animals die their remains sink to the ocean floor, where scavengers like crabs, shrimp and crayfish will eat them. The highly concentrated pesticide is then reintroduced to the food chain at a lower level, gradually accumulating more as it heads back up. Studies done on dogs show that when given 10g of methoprene per kilogram of animal, the dogs showed signs like vomiting, dilated pupils, changes in behavior, breathing, and body movements.
To help deal with the mosquito problem, and to help bring back our first line of defense, the marshes need to be brought back to their original state. This, however, is not so simple.
A red path lines the edge of the shoreline and serves as the sidewalk for Bay Drive, a beautiful road that’s flanked on one side by homes and the other by Reynolds Channel. While Long Beach is known to most for its amazing beaches on the south side, the north side is bordered by the bay, separating the barrier island from an intense maze of marshes unique to the southern bays of Long Island. This beautiful scene is broken up, if so slightly, by an inconspicuous cement block just off the other side of the channel. That cement block has been a point of frustration for many Long Beach residents.
After watching this video taken by local resident and highly visible environmental activist Scott Bochner, it becomes clear why the cement block is so controversial. That block contains a pipe, and that pipe is connected to Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant.
Opened in the 1940’s with the population boom on Long Island, the plant has been subject to years of neglect and failed maintenance. This has lead to the plant spitting out 55 million gallons a day of water that should be treated, but due to the status of the plant, is not. This water is brown and is made up of biosolids, or “sludge.” What sludge really is, is whatever has been sent down a drain. This could be shower water and dirty dish water but is also urine and fecal matter.
Besides the fact that it’s just gross, this constant pumping of untreated sewage inundates the water with undissolved nutrients. This includes nitrogen, which in low levels is vital for the success of ecosystems, but in elevated levels is very toxic.
Scott Bochner owns a house on Bay Drive, where the video was taken. Since 2010 he’s been actively involved in cleaning up the local waterways, co-creating an environmental group called the Sludge Stoppers and working with groups like the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Operation SPLASH, and The Nature Conservancy. Bochner and the rest of the groups have made major progress in cleaning up Reynolds Channel and thanks to these groups and their advocacy they’ve been able to bring the Bay Park plant back to code and raise enough money to re-route the pipes out to the deep ocean.
One of the advances they’ve made has been getting scientists in to do studies on the water. One of them involved a study by Stony Brook University. “The nitrogen levels, it’s like right here,” explained Bochner, pointing at a graph. “This is like the dead zone of dead zones. So, what happened was they put nano robots in the water for 30 days, and then they would follow the stream. They would send out 100 of these things a day and maybe 13 would make it out of the inlet, and the rest would come back in and shoot up all into the back bays, so nothings flushing.”
Graphs comparing nitrite, nitrate, ammonia, and ulva (seaweed) coverage. Notice how its all centered around the area where the pipe spills into the bay.Pathways of the nano robots, or water parcels, released by Stony Brook University researchers.
The effects of this on the channel and the greater bay ecosystems could not be more obvious during low tide. During
low tide you can see a unique phenomenon where the mud underneath the marsh grasses should be solid but is actually falling out like a cliff, and the roots from the grasses are poking out the side.
These roots should be growing straight down, anchoring the mud to the earth, and keeping the land in place. However, these roots are growing sideways into the water reaching for the nitrogen because it’s a fertilizer, and this change in direction means that it doesn’t hold onto the earth as well. When a massive storm comes, it easily rips the marshes from their place and makes it easier for the storm to tear into our communities.
Fisherman at the Magnolia Pier, only a few hundred yards from the cement block.
A study done in 2017 and published in the journal Scientific Reports, the open-access part of Nature, has come up with the final conclusion that “…these results show that coastal wetlands provide significant risk reduction services even where their distribution has been heavily impacted by human activity. Furthermore, these ecosystems provide additional benefits such as fish production, nutrient cycling, and carbon sequestration which will increase the economic value of these habitats. However, across the northeastern USA, development over wetlands together with rising sea-levels place critical facilities and infrastructure at great risk. Rising sea-levels will further influence, and in many cases threaten, the future of these natural defenses.”
If concentrated levels of pesticides and human waste in the water we swim in and the fish we eat makes you feel sick to your stomach, there are things to do.
Back out east, Helen Roussel from the Sierra Club says to get involved. There’s plenty of citizen science projects and clean ups to join on with the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club. If you live or own property on the water you can plant phragmites, a common reed that anchors really well to the ground and is great at sucking up nitrogen. “Although it’s not native and can dominate natural species,” says Roussel, “the benefits outweigh the consequences. If my house is in front of the ocean I want this plant there, because this will help stop the surge and help stop erosion.”
For Bochner the answer lies in everyday choices. “Start carrying your own bags, stop using straws, stop using plastic, start washing wash cloths again. Everyone has to take responsibility for themselves in order to help keep Long Beach clean. Everyone has to take care of themselves.”
So, there it is. When these ecosystems hurt, we hurt.
All graphs retrieved from https://www.citizenscampaign.org/PDFs/WesternBays%20Presentation%20FINAL%2012-7-11.pdf
From inauspicious beginnings in a Sussex barn to policy-changing science, the Sussex Study aims to reverse the decline of wildlife on Britain’s farmland. This is the story of a unique and impressive set of data gathered by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and its predecessors during the past 50 years over an area of farmland in West Sussex, UK.
Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936) wrote of this area in southern England in his 1906 poem A Three-part song, which starts:
I’m just in love with all these three,
The Weald and the Marsh and the Down countree.
Nor I don’t know which I love the most,
The Weald or the Marsh or the white Chalk coast!
The Sussex Study was originally called the Partridge Survival Project and began in April 1968. Its inception represented an extraordinary effort by Chris Hunt, a Member of the Game Research Association’s Council, Managing Director of North Farm, Washington, Sussex and founding Chairman of the GWCT. Dr Dick Potts had just been appointed as Project Officer to investigate the effect of pesticides on the grey partridge, an iconic game bird species of the British countryside. Dick had just completed work on the effect of organochlorines on the breeding success of seabirds(1). Dick was also the son of a Yorkshire farmer and this background helped to pave the way for the project. Access was granted to 62 sq km of farmland by the landowners and farmers who worked on the area. Their support, and that of the generations that followed them, has now endured for 50 years. The primary aim of what soon became known as The Sussex Study was to investigate reasons behind the declines in the breeding success of grey partridges, especially chick mortality(2). A conscious decision was made that the Sussex Study would simply monitor the effects of the land management decisions taken by the farmers and gamekeepers in order to reflect developments in cereal farming in England. Results from the monitoring would then feed into experiments elsewhere in cereal growing areas of the UK, testing ways to improve game and wildlife conservation and finally into management on farms.
The Study area is bounded to the west by the flood plain and water meadows of the Arun valley, and to the east by the Adur valley. (This area lies merely 30 miles to the south and west of Ashdown Forest, the home of A. A. Milne’s famous bear Winnie the Pooh and friends.) The northern boundary is defined by the South Downs scarp slope which is thickly wooded, predominantly with beech, ash, or hawthorn scrub, and rises to approximately 220m above sea level. Wooded areas form the southern border, together with villages and coastal conurbations such as Littlehampton (where the yacht of the children’s author Arthur Ransome was built and which he named after one of the key characters in his series of stories starting with Swallows and Amazons) and Worthing (to the west of Brighton, the favoured sea-side retreat for many Londoners). The landscape is one of open landscapes of rolling hills of freely drained, thin chalk downland soils. The area is bounded on the west by the Cathedral City of Arundel and is contained within the UK’s newest National Park, the South Downs National Park. This area was used for military training (by the Canadian Army Second Division) between 1939 and 1945, and much of the scrub was cleared and ploughed from 1947 to 1954. Arable farming superseded sheep grazing, and the traditional grass ley farming and rotation practices were in decline by the time the Sussex Study began(3). At this time the light soils and open landscapes were a stronghold of the UK’s native partridge species, the grey partridge. (Richard Adams sets his best-selling novel Watership Down in such a landscape.)
Dick and his team began a system of annual monitoring with partridges counted in the spring as breeding pairs, and again in late August/early September to monitor breeding success. Annual surveys of the occurrence of arable weeds and abundance of invertebrates in cereal fields were undertaken in June to coincide with the time of peak grey partridge chick hatch. Earlier work at Imperial College, University of London by other researchers had identified the importance of insect-rich diet for rapid grey partridge chick growth and feather development. Monitoring chick-food resources in cereal fields was combined with detailed monitoring of the use of pesticides in the same fields(4).
In the first decade of the Sussex Study, Dick recruited several scientists to expand the work, starting with two entomologists. Dr Paul Vickerman joined Dick in 1972 and set to work investigating the effects of pesticides and cereal field management on invertebrates in cereal fields, then joined by Dr Keith Sunderland in 1973. In 1974, Dr Steve Tapper began research into the effects of stoat and weasel predation on gamebirds. Collaborations were initiated, most notably with Dr Steve Wratten at Southampton University, researchers at the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute in Littlehampton, and The Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire. A series of young researchers began their research careers with the Trust, working on problems identified from the Sussex Study monitoring. The first of these Ph.D. candidates was Nick Sotherton (now Professor Sotherton and Director of Research at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust) who started work in 1976 on the beetle Gastrophysa polygoni, whose larvae were relished by partridge chicks and required the arable weed knotgrass Polygonum aviculare as its host plant.
This early work on the Sussex Study area was pivotal to the establishment of a new branch of ecology that concentrated on the agricultural ecosystem- agro-ecology. The importance of the Sussex Study was highlighted by Amyan MacFadyen, the Editor of Advances in Ecological Research, who wrote that the 1974 article by Dick Potts and Paul Vickerman in this journal “was remarkable for introducing a thorough ecological approach to an ubiquitous but – to the ecologist – unfamiliar system, for the biological breadth of its treatment and for the clear relevance to a number of practical fields which have been ignored by conventional agricultural science(5). Until the Sussex Study began, very few scientists had monitored farmland for its value to wildlife. Dick and Paul concluded their 1974 article saying: “It would surely be prudent to investigate the structure of these ecosystems before adopting the large-scale use of more pesticides and further intensification of cropping.” They hoped that “the results of their future studies will help to provide data which will allow further increases in agricultural productivity without unnecessarily violating sound ecological processes and without undue environmental costs.”(3).
The 1974 publication Advances in Ecological Research became a seminal work and an inspiration to a generation of conservation scientists who now regard these intensively managed, man-made ecosystems as having conservation merit worthy of our attention. Sussex cereal fields might be man-made but they were some of the first to be cleared in Britain by Neolithic man, following the retreating ice sheets and making the conversion from hunter gatherer to settled farmer. Some of these fields have a history of growing cereals going back 7,000 years.
The main findings from the first fifteen years of the Sussex Study formed the basis of Dick’s book published in 1986 entitled The Partridge. Pesticides, Predation and Conservation(2). This book is one of the cornerstones of agri-ecology, detailing the effect of intensification in land use and particularly the management of cereal crops on numbers of grey partridges through changes in their food resources, nesting habitat and losses due to predation. It is this work that, in 1984, led to the inception of three of the Trust’s major research projects. If the Sussex Study was the test-bed of ideas and the birth place of hypotheses to identify why partridges were in decline, these hypotheses were to be tested elsewhere.
The Cereal and Gamebirds Project sought to address the loss of chick-food insects in cereal fields caused by agricultural intensification. Potential management solutions were tested experimentally at the farm scale(6). The Salisbury Plain Experiment, examined the effect of legal predator control on grey partridge abundance through experimental manipulation using a “crossover design”. This consisted of predator control (the treatment) being applied randomly to one of two farms for three years, after which predator control was switched to the control farm and the farm that had been the treatment area became the control(7). Finally, work on the ideal nesting cover was undertaken by Dr Mike Rands for his DPhil at Oxford University. Mike characterised the nesting cover of partridges, stressing the importance of perennial grass cover and how well these nesting sites on the ground can drain after heavy rain(8, 9).
Work within the Cereal and Gamebirds Project, chaired by Hugh Oliver-Bellasis of the Manydown Estate, led Nick Sotherton and other researchers at the Trust to develop “conservation headlands” (where the edges of cereal fields receive selective pesticide applications, avoiding both broad-spectrum herbicides and insecticides in spring and summer to promote a weedy understorey rich in insects) and beetle banks (grass banks established across the middle of fields to provide refuges for beetles that are natural predators of cereal pests). Initially this early work on pesticides and their indirect effects on wildlife could not be funded by the GWCT. So the project was independently funded by the UK’s cereal farmers who paid a levy of 20 pence per acre to join and support the project. With grants from various charitable trusts, over £1.5 million pounds was raised, worth over £4.5 million today. Funding for both of these methods of mitigating the intensification of cereal management is now available through the UK’s agri-environment schemes.
The Salisbury Plain Experiment demonstrated the importance that predation has on grey partridge numbers, particularly through its impact on the number of young fledged per pair. Where predators were controlled, annual young production was twice as high, and breeding density improved 2.6 fold over three years, relative to where predators were not controlled. Throughout all our studies on predation on partridges, our predator control is always seasonal (only during the nesting season, late March to early July) and always legal (taking species with methods that UK law allows). The experiment also verified the ability of legal predator control to restore Grey Partridge numbers against the backdrop of 1980s agriculture.
Towards the end of the 1980s a new development in cereal management on the Sussex Study raised concerns from those monitoring the area. This was the widespread use of the broad-spectrum insecticide dimethoate on the Sussex Study area in 1989. Statistical modelling by Dr Nicholas Aebischer (who had joined the Trust in 1987 partly to computerise the invertebrate and arable flora data collected through the time of the Sussex Study) found that sawflies (Symphyta), whose larvae were another important food item, could take as many as seven years to recover from the use of dimethoate in the summer (10). This work underlined the long-term damage to non-target cereal invertebrates that may occur with the use of insecticides in the summer.
Dick Potts collecting insect samples using a DVac
It was about this time that the UK’s government statistics on the status of the UK’s breeding birds were analysed and the unhappy results published. The list of farmland birds that had declined by more than 50% in the last 25 years included the grey partridge but also many other once common species such as corn bunting, lapwing, yellowhammer and linnet. Of these the species with the closest association to farming was the grey partridge.
At the end of the 1980s, the UK government began to address the detrimental effects of agricultural intensification highlighted by the emerging field of agro-ecology. This included the introduction of Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs, defined areas of the country where farmers were paid to manage their land in ways that conserved wildlife, landscape and historic features) and voluntary set-aside (initially a measure to curb overproduction but latterly used to provide wildlife habitats). The Sussex Study area fell within the second tranche of ESAs and the farmers on the area took up the funded management options within it, taking land out of cereal production and establishing grass fields to recreate chalk downland over a long time-scale.
By the beginning of the 1990s the cereal field was being considered as an important area of study for ecologists, not least due to the work of the Trust’s scientists both within the Sussex Study and elsewhere. In 1990 the British Ecological Society (BES), and the Association of Applied Biologists (AAB), held a symposium in Cambridge on “The Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields”. The published proceedings of this meeting(11) demonstrated the ecological understanding required by agriculturalists to achieve quality and profitability in cereal production, together with conserving the flora and fauna found in cereal fields. Dick’s contribution(12) forms the opening chapter of this publication, backed by two more chapters from the Game Conservancy Trust: by Dr Nicholas Aebischer(13) and Dr Nick Sotherton(14). All three of these chapters owe a debt to the Sussex Study monitoring, in particular Nicholas’ paper presents information on the long-term trends in arable flora and cereal invertebrates monitored in the Sussex Study.
Sussex Study Conservation Headland (Peter Thompson GWCT)
The expansion of agri-environment policy by government continued in the early 1990s. Countryside Stewardship was launched across the country for those areas not covered by an Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme (ESA) in 1991 and the area covered by ESAs expanded in 1993. It was during this expansion of the ESA that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), provided funds for monitoring of the effects of the ESA. This allowed Nicholas Aebischer and Dr Andrew Wakeham-Dawson to examine the effect of the management undertaken by the farmers across the Sussex Study area (and beyond) on plants, invertebrates and farmland birds. They found that, although the long-term leys established under the ESA had fulfilled their landscape value, their contribution towards conserving arable flora and fauna was minimal(15). This work led to the inclusion of conservation headlands and undersown cereals (where cereal crops are sown with a grass/clover mix that provides a green cover overwinter following cereal harvest) in the options within the ESA, setting a precedent for in-field habitat management in agri-environmental schemes within the UK. This was the first instance where agri-environment options developed from the results of that early monitoring on the Sussex Study were put in place on the study area. It would not be the last.
In addition to research on ESA management, Nicholas secured funds for a Ph.D. student, Nick Brickle, to examine the effect of agricultural intensification on Corn Buntings, Emberiza calandra, on the Sussex Study area(16). The corn bunting has become a rare bird in the UK, unable to deal with changes to cereal crop management. Nick began work on the study area in 1995, determining that the breeding success of Corn Buntings was directly related to the availability of chick-food invertebrates in the cereal crops surrounding their nests. This concurred with earlier work on the Sussex Study area on Grey Partridge chick survival.
In the late 1990s, a report reviewing the evidence for the effect of pesticides on farmland birds(17) for the Joint Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC), stated that work by The Game Conservancy Trust on Grey Partridge provided the most convincing case for the effect of pesticides on farmland birds. Funding was provided by the JNCC for Dr Julie Ewald (who had joined the Trust in 1995 to construct a GIS database of the Sussex Study data) to collate and analyse the effects of pesticide use within the Sussex Study area on both arable flora and cereal invertebrates(18). The results of this work, in conjunction with Nicholas Aebischer’s 1990 modelling work on sawflies, remains the best example of the effect of pesticides on cereal invertebrates persisting into the year following pesticide application.
As the Sussex Study moved into the new millennium, the results of the long-term monitoring of both the cereal ecosystem and the management decisions of the farmers on the study area started to be appreciated by policy makers in government and elsewhere. Agri-environmental funding increased, with the addition of arable options, including conservation headlands and beetle banks, to Countryside Stewardship. Both are designed to boost the abundance of insects and other invertebrates crucial for the survival of young birds.
The take-up of these measures was poor, however, and it was at this time that the Sussex Study monitoring began to raise serious concerns about the number of Grey Partridges on the study area. The breeding density of birds had fallen from a high of 20 pairs per 100 ha in the late 1960s to less than a pair per 100 ha in 2003. There was a real prospect that the reason the Sussex Study had been initiated in the first place, to monitor grey partridges, might monitor them to extinction. By now Dick Potts had retired from The Game Conservancy Trust, but not, crucially, from the Sussex Study. Retirement gave Dick the time and freedom to respond to a direct request from the Duke of Norfolk, one of the landowners on the Sussex Study area, to restore Grey Partridge abundance on his land. The Duke was incredibly ambitious. He not only wanted to bring back Grey Partridges, he wanted to restore his farm to a sustainable wild Grey Partridge shoot – something it had not been for 40 years.
(Peter Thompson GWCT)
Work began on the Norfolk Estate in late 2003, initially on an area of 140 ha. Conservation measures (beetle banks resulting in smaller fields, conservation headlands, wild bird cover, reduced pesticide applications, patchwork quilt of cropping) were put in place and legal and seasonal predator control was directed towards controlling nest predation on Grey Partridges. Unfortunately, densities of Grey Partridges had declined to such an extent that only one pair remained. Something had to be done and, in the spring of 2004, nine pairs of wild Grey Partridges were translocated to the area. Since then with no further translocation, the numbers have grown to almost 400 pairs of Grey Partridge with a bonus of 150 pairs of Red-legged Partridge. In 2007, the managed area expanded to 1033 ha and sustainable Grey Partridge shooting had been re-established along with a most impressive boost in biodiversity of the flora and fauna.
The long-term monitoring began to attract attention as a resource that allowed ecologists to look at both changes in agriculture and climate change(19, 20, 21). This work underlined the prolonged negative effects of agricultural intensification on the cereal ecosystem and highlighted the need for continued governmental support for agri-environment schemes.
The new developments on the Norfolk Estate benefitted from the UK government’s agri-environmental funding at the offset. In 2005, the UK had launched the Environmental Stewardship programme, with both Entry level (available to all) and Higher level (competitive sign-up) available. The Norfolk Estate successfully applied for funding under the Higher Level Scheme in 2011 but continued to provide habitat management above and beyond the level paid for through agri-environment support. The success of all this, particularly as presented in Dick’s book(22) was appreciated not only by ecologists but, more importantly, by policy-makers. It is recognised by farmers and policy-makers as a best-case example of conservation. At the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s 2012 Research Conference, following Julie Ewald’s presentation on the success of the work on the Norfolk Estate, Natural England staff suggested that the project was a blueprint for how other farmers could undertake conservation. ‘Farmer Clusters’ (farmers working together for conservation, to gain the benefits of scale) were developed out of this idea. Not surprisingly, the pilot programme for this included a ‘cluster’ run by the farmers on the Sussex Study.
‘Farmer Clusters’ were developed as a concept and fed into the UK government’s plans for the replacement of the Environmental Stewardship agri-environment scheme. In 2015, the UK government released information concerning the new Countryside Stewardship. As part of the new agri-environment scheme there would be scope for a competitive Facilitation Fund to “support people and organisations that bring farmers, foresters, and other land managers together to improve the local natural environment at a landscape scale”. The farmers on the Sussex Study, together with others, successfully applied in the first round of Countryside Stewardship facilitation fund applications. Their Arun to Adur Group encompassed the whole of the Sussex Study area.
Looking back on 50 years of the Sussex Study, it is inspiring to think that work begun to answer questions and concerns highlighted through the Sussex monitoring that began in the 1960s is now enabling the farmers on the Sussex Study to conserve wildlife on their land. Surely this is the best measure of how successful the Sussex Study has been. The initial set-up of the project, instigated by farmers and the long-term commitment of what is now the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and its staff, in particular Dick Potts, have been crucial. It is, therefore, a cruel misfortune that Dick will not be able to join in the 50th Anniversary celebrations of this prestigious Study as, most regrettably and to the great sadness of all his colleagues at the Trust, he died after a brief illness at the end of March 2017.
The Sussex Study is a brilliant example of the value of maintaining a long-term monitoring programme, keeping it relevant in a changing world and providing practical information for land managers. To end, as we began, with a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem A Three-part Song – its concluding verse:
I’ve given my soul to the Southdown grass,
And sheep-bells tinkled where you pass.
Oh Firle an’ Ditchling an’ sails at sea,
I reckon you keep my soul for me!
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust manages research projects in a variety of disciplines encompassing expertise from its scientists in biology, botany, entomology, and ornithology, covering a broad range of environments from moorland, heathland and farmland to wetlands and other riparian territories, which aim to restore and conserve habitats and its wildlife, and to provide a sustainable source of game for future generations. The applied science carried out by the Trust often provides a basis for elements in conservation schemes run by Natural England or Scottish Natural Heritage, (two of the UK’s Government Agencies responsible for wildlife) and can be directly applied by farmers and gamekeepers across the UK. GWCT scientists have produced scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals since 1929, and with other work published in books and also in unpublished Ph.D. theses by doctoral students, the total number of scientific articles currently runs at over 1,800.
Full details of the work published by the GWCT can be found on its website: www.gwct.org.uk
(1) Potts, G.R. (1968). Success of eggs of the shag on the Farne Islands, Northumberland in relation to their content of dieldrin and pp’DDE. Nature, 217: 1282-1284. (2) Potts, G.R. (1986). The Partridge: Pesticides, Predation and Conservation. Collins, London. (3) Potts, G.R. & Vickerman, G.P. (1974). Studies on the cereal ecosystem. Advances in Ecological Research, 8: 107-197. (4) Potts, G.R. (1969) Partridge Survival Project Progress Report. Game Research Association Annual Report. 8: 14-17. (5) MacFadyen, A. (ed.) (1974). Advances in Ecological Research. Volume 8. Academic Press Inc. (London) Ltd, London. (6) Chiverton, P.A. & Sotherton, N.W. (1991). The effects on beneficial arthropods of the exclusion of herbicides from cereal crop edges. Journal of Applied Ecology, 28: 1027-1039. (7) Tapper, S.C., Potts, G.R. & Brockless, M.H. (1996). The effect of an experimental reduction in predation pressure on the breeding success and population density of grey partridgesPerdix perdix. Journal of Applied Ecology, 33: 965-978. (8) Rands, M.R.W. (1986). Effect of hedgerow characteristics on partridge breeding densities. Journal of Applied Ecology, 23: 479-487. (9) Rands, M.R.W. (1987). Hedgerow management for the conservation of partridges Perdix perdix and Alectoris rufa. Biological Conservation, 40: 127-139. (10) Aebischer, N.J. (1990). Assessing pesticide effects on non-target invertebrates using long-term monitoring and time-series modelling. Journal of Functional Ecology, 4: 369-373. (11) Firbank, L.G., Carter, N., Darbyshire, J.F. & Potts, G.R. (eds) (1991). The Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford. (12) Potts, G.R. (1991). The environmental and ecological importance of cereal fields. In: Firbank, L.G., Carter, N., Darbyshire, J.F. & Potts, G.R. (eds) The Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields: 3-21. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford. (13) Aebischer, N.J. (1991). Twenty years of monitoring invertebrates and weeds in cereal fields in Sussex. In: Firbank, L.G., Carter, N., Darbyshire, J.F. & Potts, G.R. (eds) The Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields: 305-331. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford. (14) Sotherton, N.W. (1991). Conservation Headlands: a practical combination of intensive cereal farming and conservation. In: Firbank, L.G., Carter, N., Darbyshire, J.F. & Potts, G.R. (eds) Ecology of Temperate Cereal Fields: 373-397. British Ecological Society Symposium, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford. (15) Wakeham-Dawson, A. & Aebischer, N.J. (1998). Factors determining winter densities of birds on Environmentally Sensitive Area arable reversion grassland in southern England, with special reference to skylarks (Alauda arvensis). Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 70: 189-201. (16) Brickle, N.W., Harper, D.G.C., Aebischer, N.J. & Cockayne, S.H. (2000). Effects of agricultural intensification on the breeding success of corn buntings Miliaria calandra. Journal of Applied Ecology, 37: 742-755. (17) Campbell, L.H., Avery, M.I., Donald, P., Evans, A.D., Green, R.E. & Wilson, J.D. (1997). A Review of the Indirect Effects of Pesticides on Birds. JNCC Report 227. Peterborough: Joint Nature Conservation Committee. (18) Ewald, J.A. & Aebischer, N.J. (1999). Pesticide Use, Avian Food Resources and Bird Densities in Sussex. JNCC Report No. 296, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough. (19) Potts, G.R., Ewald, J.A. & Aebischer, N.J. (2010). Long-term changes in the flora of the cereal ecosystem on the Sussex Downs, England, focusing on the years 1968-2005.Journal of Applied Ecology, 47: 215-226. (20) Ewald, J.A., Aebischer, N.J., Moreby, S.J. & Potts, G.R. (2015). Changes in the cereal ecosystem on the South Downs of southern England, over the past 45 years. Aspects of Applied Biology, 128: 11-19. (21) Ewald, J.A., Wheatley, C.J., Aebischer, N.J., Moreby, S.J., Duffield, S.J., Crick, H.Q.P. & Morecroft, M.B. (2015). Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years. Global Change Biology, 21: 3931-3950. (22) Potts, G.R. (2012). Partridges. Countryside Barometer. New Naturalist Library Book 121. Collins, London.