Tuesday 29 December 2015

Endangered species of Russian wildlife

Wildlife in danger in Russia

Although Russia is such a massive country with so many forms of natural habitat and countless types of flora and fauna, it is also home to the last surviving populations of many endangered species of wildlife. Hunting, habitat loss, pollution, pesticides and Climate Change have taken their toll just like in so many parts of the world today.  But let us look at some of the incredible creatures found in Russia whose very survival is threatened.

Siberian Tiger

Siberian Tiger (Photo: Public Domain)

The Siberian Tiger or Amur Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), lives as its names suggest in Siberia and specifically in the Amur region.  It is the largest type of big cat in the world. In the 1940s it was threatened with extinction but due to conservation efforts the species has made a recovery, although numbers are still very low and an estimated number of 562 Siberian Tigers is all that are left. The Siberian Tiger's Conservation Status is "Endangered". 

Siberian Tiger Quest in 2012

Oriental Stork

The Oriental Stork (Cyconia boyciana) is a truly beautiful bird that is now an endangered species with only about 400 pairs left. It used to live in China, Japan and Korea, as well as Russia, but it is believed to be extinct in Korea and Japan. 

Oriental Stork (Photo: Spaceaero2)

The Oriental Stork's decline has been attributed to hunting and habitat loss and the species is listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as "Endangered".

The Russian Desman

Drawing of the Siberian Desman (Photo: Public Domain)

The Russian Desman (Desmana moschata) is really a type of semiaquatic mole. It is one of the two surviving species of desman, with the Pyrenean Desman (Galemys pyrenaicus) being the other. Although nowhere near as badly in decline in numbers as the Siberian Tiger and Oriental Stork, the Russian Desman has a "Vulnerable" Conservation Status and is down from 70.000 in the 1970s to just 35,000 in 2004.  This species was once hunted for its fur but nowadays pollution, loss of habitat and invasive species, such as the Muskrat, are threats to its survival.

Russian Desman

It is found along the banks of ponds and streams in the Volga, Don and Ural River basins. It lives in small groups and burrows in the banks of where it is living. The Russian Desman feeds on fish, amphibians, insects and crayfish.

Saiga Antelope

Saiga Antelope (Photo: Seilov)

The Saiga Antelope (Saiga tartarica) is an antelope species that is listed today as "Critically Endangered."  It once formed massive herds and lived in a vast area of the Eurasian steppes. It is now only found in one part of Russia and three areas in Kazakhstan.  It is extinct in China and southwestern Mongolia. 

This antelope was hunted in very large numbers and its horn is popular in Chinese traditional medicine. It has been used as a substitute for rhinoceros horn. Hunting of rhinos and Saigas for the superstitious belief  that the horns of these animals have miraculous powers has caused a terrible decline in numbers of these mammals.

Why did the Saigas die? 

The Saiga is also prone to unexplained die-offs when large numbers of the animals drop dead. Many Saigas died like this in die-offs every year between 2010 and 2014. It is bad enough that humans have taken such a terrible toll on this species without mysterious mortalities killing them like this too.

Monday 28 December 2015

The once Common Eel is now Critically Endangered

The European Eel is no longer common

The European Eel (Anguilla anguilla)  used to be known as the Common Eel, and when I was a boy this was an apt name, however, this is no longer the case because this species of eel is now listed as Critically Endangered. In 2010, Greenpeace International added this fish to its red list. 

European Eel (Photo: Public Domain)

European Eels have a most unusual lifecycle. The adults spawn in the Sargasso Sea and the baby eels travel across the oceans to return to fresh waters far far away. How they navigate is not understood. They drift as larval eels for around 300 days before transforming into a stage known as "glass eels," which occurs when they approach the coasts.  Eventually they enter estuaries in the UK and Europe and transform again into elvers in the fresh water. The eels travel upstream and will also travel overland in storms. They live in rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds where they grow much larger and are known as "yellow eels," but after between five and twenty years or more they become adults that must return to the sea. The final stage is known as the "silver eel," and these eels swim all the way back to the Sargasso Sea where they breed and then die.

When I was younger the European Eel used to be one of the most easily found freshwater fish. You just had to go to any river or stream and turn over a few stones and you would be likely to see young eels or elvers.  In Cardiff, where I lived, there is a weir in Llandaff, and every year countless thousands of elvers used to try and ascend it. To do this they would leave the water at the edge of the weir and slither up the mossy wet rocks and wall.  If you put a bucket or net underneath and disturbed the mass of young eels at the top you would quickly get a net or bucket full of them. That was how easy they were to catch. Nearly every rock in the river would have elvers hiding underneath it or larger eels.  That was then but it is a very different story today, so what has happened? 

One of many endangered species

Like so many once common species, the European Eel is now rarely seen in Britain today and its numbers have dropped very dramatically.  Since the 1970s, it has been estimated that eels reaching Europe have declined in numbers by over 90%, possibly as much as 98%. This is surely a warning sign that all is not at all well, when it comes to the natural world and the flora and fauna of the UK.

So what has gone so wrong and where have all the eels gone?  The reasons are many and include: overfishing, hydroelectric dams and barrages blocking the way for the eels to ascend and descend rivers,  parasites, pollution and changes in the currents in the oceans. Whatever the cause may be, the eels have gone, and with them has gone the food source for many species of water birds, including Kingfishers, predatory fish, like the Pike, and even some mammals too, such as the Otter.  The eel is an important part of a food-chain, and without it other species are sure to suffer.  

Saving the European Eel

Fortunately all hope is not yet lost for the future survival of the European Eel. Fish passes are being increasingly installed in rivers with weirs and dams, so that eels and other fish, such as salmon, are able to get upstream.  

The number of eels is being monitored and there are projects in operation to save the European Eel. Restocking inland waters with young eels is one method that is being put into practise. 

The Guardian has reported that conservationists have suggested that the decline in numbers of the species has been halted and possibly reversed.  I hope this is true but it is far too early to know for sure! 

Friday 25 December 2015

Christmas Butterflies

Red Admiral

Red Admiral (Photo: Public Domain)

The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is often the last butterfly to be seen flying in the UK and parts of northern Europe. This colourful insect can be seen in December in mild winters and Butterfly Conservation reported on their Facebook page that the organisation had received recent reports of butterflies being sighted and they shared a photo of a Red Admiral.

The Red Admiral has Christmas colours too because its wings are boldly market with red and white on dark brown and black. This pretty butterfly, which is also found in Asia and North America, is a migrant to the UK but it can hibernate so is a resident butterfly as well. It is one of the last species to be seen in the late autumn, and can be seen feeding on ivy blossom and on windfall fruit. It also flies on sunny and mild winter days.

The Red Admiral's caterpillars feed on Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). 

Painted Lady

Painted Lady (Photo: Public Domain)

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is not a butterfly you will see in the UK at Christmas, but here in Portugal it is still about in December and I saw one the other day in a sunny spell in what was otherwise a cold and foggy day. It was a very pleasant surprise and got me thinking about this butterfly that is a very successful species unlike so many butterflies that are rapidly declining in numbers.

The Painted Lady is another migrant to the UK and Northern Europe.  It comes from North Africa and the Canary Islands but its northerly migrations have taken it as far as Iceland where it is the only butterfly species that has been reported. The Painted Lady has been found in most parts of the world and is almost global in its distribution.

Unfortunately, unlike the Red Admiral, the Painted Lady is unable to survive British winters in any stage of its lifecycle.  It is a truly remarkable butterfly though because scientists have discovered that it uses the jet stream to carry it on its migrations. The Painted Lady leaves Britain in the autumn to fly south and it does this by being carried in the fast-moving air of the jet stream.  

Besides the Painted Lady's extraordinary migrations, the species does so well because its caterpillar will feed on a lot of different food-plants, including species of thistle (Carduus). Sunflower (Helianthus),  Mallow (Malva) and Burdock (Arctium). Like the larvae of the Red Admiral, the caterpillars of the Painted Lady will also eat nettles. Caterpillars of the Painted Lady are often sold by butterfly supply companies such as Worldwide Butterflies.  They are ideal for schools where children can study the insects and watch them transform from caterpillars into chrysalises into adult butterflies. 

Butterfly World Project

Many butterflies are in danger of becoming extinct in the modern world due to habitat loss, pesticides, herbicides, disease and Climate Change, so they need all the help we can give them. Butterfly World Project in St Albans was set up to help butterfly conservation but has been forced to announce its closure.  Please help by signing the petitions to stop this happening.  I have written all about it in a previous blog here

Monday 21 December 2015

Where does all the plastic go?

Plastic trash (Photo: Public Domain)

Where does all the plastic go? 
Into the sea, into the sea.
How does it get there, who threw it away?
Was it you or was it me?

Oceanic Gyres of Trash (Photo: Public Domain)

Plastic houseplants, why not real plants?
I saw the fake ones at the store,
Shoppers must want them, people must buy them;
I don't want to see any more.

It's not just hunting that'll kill the last whale,
Plastic will do it and it's a very sad tale.
What about the albatrosses?
They are dying out too,
They keep on fishing in the ocean's plastic stew.
These birds mate for life, only to watch their babies die,
From the plastic trash they feed them,
But they cannot understand why.

Remains of an albatross chick (Photo: Public Domain)

The plastic bag I bought, it very quickly broke,
If it ever gets burned there'll be poisonous smoke.

Plastic kills the turtles,
Plastic's eaten by the fish,
It is in the food chain,
And in the dinner on your dish.

Into the sea, into the sea.
How does it get there, who threw it away?
Was it you or was it me?

Sunday 20 December 2015

Paris’s Shortcomings: We Need Conservation, Not Conversation says David de Rothschild

Deforestation (Photo: Public Domain)

An excellent article entitled Paris’s Shortcomings: We Need Conservation, Not Conversation by author and explorer David de Rothschild, has been published by National Geographic, in which he talks about the serious shortcomings of the recent Paris conference on Climate Change. He points out the truly alarming rate at which our forests are being destroyed and species of plant and animal are becoming extinct daily. Nowhere near enough is being done to halt the ongoing destruction and nowhere near enough binding agreements have been made. It has been a lot more talk but not a lot of action!

David says: "...most experts agree that we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rain forest every day. Factor in a statistic that says conservatively we’re loosing anywhere between 135-200 plant, animal, and insect species every day, and you realize that between now and 2020, we stand to lose 1,460,000,000 acres of tropical forest and 273,750 species!"

Beekeeper (Photo: Public Domain)

I hear what he is saying loud and clear!  It really saddens me to know how many species we are losing all the time.  You do not have to know much about nature to see that once common birds and butterflies are vanishing, as are honeybees, which we are told is due to Colony Collapse Disorder.

In the UK, most butterfly species are in rapid decline, as are formerly common birds like the House Sparrow.

House Sparrow (Photo: Public Domain)

Every time I talk to my elderly father, who lives in Cardiff, he complains about how he no longer sees birds like blackbirds, starlings, great tits, robins, green finches, wrens and hedge sparrows, all of which used to be regular visitors to his back garden.  When I have visited him I have seen for myself that these birds have gone.  So too have the swifts. These birds used to nest on houses in the street my father lives in. In May you would hear and see them all the way along the road but no longer is this the case.

I have recently blogged about the shocking decline in hedgehogs in the UK. They are now down to less than one million.  These animals used to be a common sight in our gardens at night.

So I know what David de Rothschild is talking about is true. We are losing species daily and we cannot bring them back.  Extinction cannot be undone.  Extinct means gone for good!

I thoroughly recommend De Rothschild's book The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook: 77 Essential Skills to Stop Climate Change, and his Plastiki Across the Pacific on Plastic: An Adventure to Save Our Oceans.  This second book is about the voyage De Rothschild made across the ocean. He saw for himself that the fishes and marine life have vanished. Pollution by plastic and overfishing are destroying marine life daily and little is being done to stop this.  Too little too late is being done to stop the environmental destruction happening worldwide!

Friday 18 December 2015

Petition to Save Butterfly World Project in St Albans

Butterfly World to close 

Swallowtail Butterfly on Lantana (Photo: Public Domain)

I couldn't believe it when I read the news that Butterfly World was to close permanently. The Butterfly World Project in Chiswell Green, St Albans has reluctantly announced that they will not be reopening next year.  As usual it appears that money is at the root of the problem.  Butterfly World has been failing to make the profit it needs.

Phase IV of the Butterfly World Project was going to be the construction of a 100-metre-wide rainforest bio dome. It was intended to house hundreds of tropical butterflies, hummingbirds, insects, spiders and tropical plants. Sadly it has not attracted the funding it needs to go ahead, and John Breheny, who is the chairman of the engineering project for the centre, has put the blame on a "succession of trading losses."

Clive Farrell

Butterfly World was founded by lepidopterist and author Clive Farrell in 2009, and has attracted over 500, 000 visitors. 

 Farrell, by the way, co-authored The Butterfly Gardener with the late Miriam Rothschild.  I personally recommend this book, which looks in detail at how butterflies can be attracted to our gardens throughout the year, and what the insects really need to thrive. The Butterfly Gardener is an excellent book to get if you want to find out how we can help butterfly conservation.

Clive Farrell at the launch of Butterfly World

Celebrity Support for Butterfly World

As well as attracting thousands of visitors and the support of countless members of the public, Butterfly World has been supported by a number of well-known celebrities, including Sir David Attenborough, Professor David Bellamy. broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh and actress Emilia Fox. 

David Bellamy talks about Butterfly World

Petition to Save Butterfly World from closure

With butterflies disappearing in the UK and throughout the world in alarming numbers, we need more places like Butterfly World not less. Many people still think that we can turn things around and save Butterfly World, and so a petition has been launched.

Small Blue Cupido minimus (Photo: Valerius Geng)

Please sign Petition To Save Butterfly World and help by circulating this news! Blog about it, Tweet about it, share on Facebook and let us help Butterfly World to make a comeback, just like the many species, species such as the Small Blue, it was helping to do so!

And sign this petition too:

Sunday 13 December 2015

British hedgehog numbers in serious decline

The British Hedgehog is no longer common

Hedgehogs were once a very common animal in the UK, and in the 1950s there were an estimated 36 million living in our gardens, parks and countryside.  Very sadly this is no longer the case and The People's Trust for Endangered Species now believes there are fewer than one million left.  The alarming decline in hedgehog numbers has been reported on in The Guardian and by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

Hedgehog (Photo: Public Domain)

Threats to the hedgehog

Like so many endangered species of wildlife the hedgehog has many threats to its continued survival. Pesticides, such as slug bait,  can potentially harm hedgehogs that inadvertently eat poisoned slugs and snails. Even if the slug killer doesn't kill a hedgehog directly, the slugs and snails it does kill could have been food for the spiny animal. Habitat loss and degradation is another problem hedgehogs face. Many gardens are now paved over or kept so tidy that the number of insects and other invertebrates that hedgehogs feed on are drastically reduced in numbers. Hibernating hedgehogs can get burned to death if they are sleeping under a large pile of branches, twigs, leaves and other rubbish that someone has accumulated as a bonfire. 

Flooding caused by Climate Change is another threat to sleeping hedgehogs. Although the animals can swim to safety they are unlikely to be able to do so if water floods where they are resting or hibernating. The hedgehogs would be drowned in their sleep.

Hedgehogs are a very adaptable species that can live in a very great range of habitats and eat a wide variety of foods, including slugs, snails, worms, insects, centipedes, frogs, mice and snakes even. They can climb and swim. They wear a spiny suit-of-armour as a means of defence. They were once very common and widely distributed in the UK, however, like so many forms of British wildlife they have been unable to adapt fast enough to survive the sweeping changes humans have brought to the countryside.


A hedgehog after dark (Photo: Public Domain)

Hedgehogs are one of the main animals that become victims of roadkill. Hedgehogs are mainly nocturnal creatures and this means that drivers have less chance of seeing them in the road ahead, and in any case, the animals are very bad at getting out of the way, even if they do sense danger. 

The number of hedgehogs reported as roadkill has fallen drastically too, which suggests that their populations have seriously dwindled in numbers. The animals are not there to run the risk of being killed crossing a road to begin with!

Hedgehogs in popular culture

Hedgehogs have been featured in popular culture in Britain in literature, poetry and song. Beatrix Potter's Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is a character so many children have loved.  Folk-rock icons The Incredible String Band wrote a song entitled The Hedgehog's Song that was included on their album 5000 Spirits

The prickly but cute little animal is a firm favourite of very many people, so it is really saddening to know that the number of hedgehogs in the UK has dropped so dramatically. 

Fortunately, very many people are trying to do something to reverse the decline in hedgehog numbers and to save the little animals before it is too late.  Campaigns have been set up like this one.

It is hard to imagine a British countryside where hedgehogs are an extinct species, so let us do what we can to prevent this ever happening! 

Monday 7 December 2015

Help save the last wolves in Norway from hunters

11,000 people want to kill half of the last 30 wolves in Norway

Wolves have declined in numbers in many parts of the world and are extinct in the UK and other places where they once lived. In Norway, they are down to just 30 animals but that has not stopped over 11,000 people wanting to hunt half of these remaining wolves and kill them!

Wolves (Canis lupus lupus) at Polar Zoo in municipality of Bardu, Troms County, Norway (Photo: Taral Jansen)

Yes, despite the very low numbers of this magnificent animal still surviving in this Scandinavian country, it has been reported in The Guardian,  that 11,571 people have applied for hunting licenses so they can kill 16 of these wolves. That means we have the alarming figure of 723 hunters for each wolf! And, how can anyone ensure that no more than 16 wolves are killed in any case, and what about illegal hunting? 

Norwegian Wolves

The hunting season in Norway started on 1 October and continues until the end of March, so that means six months of extreme danger for the Norwegian wolves. 

Why do people want to hunt wolves? 

Hunting is very popular with Norwegian men who view it as a traditional sport, and presumably makes them feel macho. It is reported that there are 200,000 registered hunters in Norway. Most of these hunters are men, and only 500 women signed up to hunt this year.

Hunting licenses are granted so that hunters can help protect livestock. Sadly in many parts of the world, wolves are forced to kill farmed animals or go without food because their natural prey are so low in numbers and the habitats are so degraded due to humans. Wolves also are forced to scavenge on garbage like foxes. 

Updated range of grey wolves in Eurasia. (Photo: Public Domain)

Norway's wolf populations would stand a better chance if they were in Sweden, Finland or Russia, where the animals have better governmental protection. Wolves are a fully protected species in Sweden where their numbers are increasing. 

Bears in Norway

Bears in Norway are under serious threat from hunters too.  10,930 registered hunters want to track down and shoot 18 Norwegian brown bears

Brown bear (Photo: Public Domain)

Petition to Save the Wolves of Norway

Fortunately, there is something you can do if, like me, you want to help save the Norwegian wolves. There is a petition that can be signed, and sometimes petitions really do get results and are worth signing!

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Couch Grass for Healthy Cats

Couch Grass is a natural Cat Grass

Cat on Couch (Photo: Public Domain)

If you are a cat owner you have probably seen your cat eating grass, and you may already know that they do this because it is a natural medicine. Many shops sell "Cat Grass" as seeds but this is not the type that many cats will choose if given a choice, though it serves the same purpose and helps with digestive problems. Cat Grass seeds are usually wheat or rye. Couch grass is a common weed that many cats, and dogs too, will graze on if they find it in the garden. 

I once had a cat called Tiggy who was fussy. She would only accept proper couch grass and turned her nose up, literally, at commercially available Cat Grass.  I tried growing these grass seeds available from the stores a few times but she would not touch this type of grass, however, couch grass she would grab at in her eagerness. Several times when she was poorly I saw her get better fast after eating couch grass.  I used to grow it in pots so she had a supply available. 

Couch Grass (Elytrigia repens) Photo: Public Domain

Couch grass (Agropyron repens) is also known to botanists as Elytrigia repens and Elymus repens, and humans also call it quick grass, quitch grass, dog grass, witchgrass and quackgrass.  Whatever you call the plant, it is a very useful medicinal herb, even though most gardeners hate it.

Couch grass rhizomes have anti-microbial properties, as well as being anti-inflammatory, astringent and a mild diuretic.  The leaf blades have these properties too and are the parts that cats and dogs will eat.

Kweek Elytrigia repens (Photo: Rasbak)

Couch grass is native to Europe,  Asia and northwest Africa but is found all around the world today and is considered an invasive weed. It spreads rapidly via its creeping rhizomes and will rapidly regenerate from broken bits of these rhizomes left in the ground. Bad news for gardeners but great news for cats and dogs with a bad tummy! It is quite amazing to see how our pets instinctively know the natural herbal medicine this grass species is.

When cats and dogs eat couch grass they will frequently vomit it back up but this is no cause for concern. The animals are trying to cleanse their digestive systems. They know what is best for them, but not always, because in the house and deprived of couch grass, they will often try eating toxic houseplants, and some of these are very poisonous to them. 

Couch grass is good for us too. The rhizomes have been used as a traditional Austrian remedy for fever, taken as a tea, syrup or in the form of a maceration in cold water. As a medicine for humans, couch grass has been used to treat gout, rheumatism, urinary tract problems, bladder and kidney disorders and skin conditions.

Couch grass is the food-plant for the caterpillars of several moths and butterflies, and the seeds are eaten by many small birds, including species of finch and bunting. It is not just cats and dogs that like couch grass! 

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Grey Squirrels to be culled in the UK in EU plan

Grey Squirrel cull

Like me you may think that grey squirrels are cute animals that you enjoy seeing in parks and woodlands, so you will no doubt be saddened and angry to hear that plans are afoot to cull tens of thousands of them in the UK.

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) Photo: Public Domain

The Forestry Commission and the UK Government are planning to pay British landowners to rid their estates of the animals and grants will be available for up to five years that will pay £100 per hectare of land.  European Union politicians have devised this scheme and it will also be applicable in Ireland and Italy. 

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) Photo: Public Domain

There are around five million grey squirrels in the UK. It is being claimed that the grey squirrel is a harmful pest that has displaced the native red squirrel and that causes serious damage to forests. 

But not everyone agrees with these claims, and many animal activists are opposing the cull. It is argued that the grey squirrel is being blamed for a problem they did not cause. Further it is being stated by the Interactive Centre For Scientific Research About Squirrels (ICSRS) that the grey squirrel is actually of great benefit to our woodlands because it is responsible for the regeneration of forests. Scientific studies have shown that the animals are "unrivalled leaders in seed dispersion."  This is because grey squirrels bury a lot of the nuts and seeds they find. The nuts they forget about germinate in spring and can grow into new trees. 

I can confirm this because my father had a grey squirrel that visited his garden each autumn and planted hundreds of filberts that it collected from his tree. This caused the seedlings to germinate all over my dad's garden to his annoyance, though he used to like seeing the squirrel, all the same.

Furthermore, there is much evidence to show that the grey squirrel should not be blamed for the decline in red squirrel numbers that it is said to have caused. Grey squirrels are adaptable and can live in deciduous woodlands and in parks. Red squirrels are more suited to conifer forests and pinewoods than the greys. Humans have destroyed the habitats of the red squirrel with the continuing destruction of forests throughout the UK. 

Cruel methods can be used to kill squirrels in the cull. Shooting, bludgeoning, trapping and poisoning are all allowed. Poisoning with warfarin, a blood anticoagulant, causes the animals to bleed to death in the same way that rats are killed. Squirrels can be killed in the breeding season too, which means that many baby animals will starve if their mothers are killed.

Petition to Stop the Grey Squirrel Cull

A petition to Stop The European Union Squirrel Cull has been set up, so add your signature if you oppose the killing of these woodland animals.