News from Richard Tanner for May 2016

  • In praise of bluebells

    13:18 27 May 2016
    By John Atkinson, Nick Petrie, Paul Kear , Richard Tanner, Rob Clarke, Glenn Bailey, Sarah Anderson, Sam Stalker, Ian Griffiths, Matthew Allmark, Stuart Graham, Paul Farrington, John Moffat, Craig Hutchinson, Clair Payne, Luke Sherwen

    In praise of bluebells

    A fine and subtle spirit dwells
    In every little flower,
    Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
    With more or less of power.
    There is a silent eloquence
    In every wild bluebell
    That fills my softened heart with bliss
    That words could never tell.

    Anne Bronte, 1840.

     They’re on the wane now, those carpets of frosted blue, melting back into the woodland floor as the mercury rises and the canopy closes over. Yet for an all-too-brief window every spring, bluebells bring woods all over Britain bursting into life. To many these azure seas of flowers are as emblematic of the returning sun and lengthening days as the call of cuckoos or the sight of swallows. It’s little wonder that our native hyacinthoides non-scripta is amongst the favourite of the nation’s wildflowers. This charismatic, ‘eloquent’ little flower is rich in folklore and history too, and perhaps because they are found in ‘ancient’ woodland, or perhaps because they contain poisonous glycoside compounds, bluebells have long been associated with fairies. Legend has it that the ‘bells’ were rung to summon fairies to gatherings deep in the woods, but should the ringing fall upon a human ear, alas death would soon come upon that unfortunate soul. 
    A meeting place for fairies?

    To witness the spectacle of a bluebell wood in full bloom, whilst hopefully avoiding an untimely demise, there are few better places than here in the Lake District. Bluebells have a preference for oceanic climates, so the UK, and the west coast in particular, with our prevailing weather bringing mild and wet fronts off the Atlantic, creates the perfect growing conditions. In fact, so well suited are they to our climate that the UK is home to around half the world’s population of hyacinthoides non-scripta.

    Bluebells also grow best in undisturbed soil, in ground that has remained free from the plough or other intrusions for as long as possible. They tend to take a long time to become established in new habitat, yet this apparent torpidity also means that they can linger long after conditions have changed. Like organic archaeology, to come across an open field of bluebells is to bear witness to a changing landscape, a persisting footprint of a now-vanished habitat. They, along with a handful of other plants, are an indicator of ancient woodland. Ancient in this sense meaning pre- 1600 AD, before maps became widely available and woodland management became commonplace, though some may have lineage that traces all the way back to the most recent ice-age, 10,000 years ago. It’s a rare and shrinking habitat, covering just 2% of the UK’s land surface, though unfortunately it’s rarity often doesn’t equate to value, and many sites remain unprotected in law, at the mercy of human development and exploitation.
    Bluebells in open habitat are an indicator of ancient woodland.

    Bluebells themselves however, do enjoy a certain level of protection. Although not officially endangered, since 1998 it has been illegal to collect them for sale, and they are further safeguarded from intentional uprooting under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. The major threats to our native flowers however, come in rather more subtle guises than unscrupulous plant collectors. They first started to appear in the 1960’s, immigrants from Spain escaping from confinement in gardens and parks. Over the following decades increasing amounts of this modern-day Spanish armada has appeared in our woodlands. More robust, more adaptable, and more vigorous than UK bluebells, hyacinthoides hispanica will out-compete native flowers wherever they gain a foothold. To further cloud the picture the two species will readily interbreed, producing a hybridized variety with characteristics of both, and which could ultimately lead to the loss of the genetically distinct non-scripta species. Ominously, in a recent survey by the charity Plantlife, it was found that one in six bluebell woods contained either Spanish or hybrid bluebells alongside native UK plants.

    Recognising the three varieties of bluebell now encountered in the UK woodlands (image reproduced courtesy of Cumbria

    Yet it is it is a different threat which represents the most uncertain future for our beloved bluebells. Native seeds can and are being banked. Spanish invaders can to an extent be eradicated (though it is illegal to uproot any plant without landowner consent). A changing climate however, could see bluebell carpets disappear into memory as the ecological niche to which they are so superbly adapted is swallowed up by shifting patterns and seasons.  If the trend for earlier springs continues, the advancing overhead canopy and competition from other plants on the woodland floor could close the window on bluebells forever.
    Could sights like this become a thing of the past?

    I for one hope not. I hope that the spectacle of a bluebell wood in full bloom, surely one of the most delightful and uplifting treasures of the British countryside, is around for many years to come. I hope that future generations can experience and wonder at their subtle majesty, and fill their own softened hearts with bliss as they do so.
  • Postcard from Clair in the USA

    16:49 26 May 2016
    By John Atkinson, Nick Petrie, Paul Kear , Richard Tanner, Rob Clarke, Glenn Bailey, Sarah Anderson, Sam Stalker, Ian Griffiths, Matthew Allmark, Stuart Graham, Paul Farrington, John Moffat, Craig Hutchinson, Clair Payne, Luke Sherwen


    I'm sending a blog 'postcard' from the USA, about my recent adventures to the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument and Lake Mead National Recreation Area (this is the first time they’ve offered shadow assignments at the World Ranger Congress). I’ve tried to pick out the highlights as there is so much I want to talk about!

    Andy Dutton (an Australian ranger from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service) and I spent a week with key staff and rangers at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument and Pipe Springs National Monument as well as the awe-inspiring Zion National Park. We shared stories about our respective areas and learnt about issues facing each of these areas. The American protected area system is so different to the UK, many of these areas are owned by the federal government. It was a fantastic experience to compare how the three different countries approach the ranger profession. And my, do the Americans know how to make people feel welcome.

    Lake Mead is a huge area outside Las Vegas (think a huge version of Windermere) popular with boaters, day trippers and those seeking a wilderness experience.

    The vastness of Lake Mead, where they're facing issues with historical lowering water levels.
    We also experienced the Colorado river in all it’s glory by taking a rafting trip below the Hoover Dam to see some of their visitor and resource management issues. Obviously enjoying the mid-30 degrees heat!
    Rafting down the Black Canyon, meeting local specialists including a meteorologist, the chief Law Enforcement ranger and a biologist.

    Ranger pilot Scott Taylor also took us between Boulder City (where we were based) to St George in a small plane. In between bouts of nausea (the updrafts were pretty intense) I took what seemed to be a million photos of the Grand Canyon en route. The scale of land they manage out here makes having a small plane an essential part of their role, particularly for law enforcement and fire management.
    What a view! 

    As a contrast,we also saw the Grand Canyon from the Parashant (the flatter lands to the North of the main Grand Canyon that the tourists go to).

    It was great to spend time with their ecologist, their physical scientist, archaeologist and other rangers and to learn more about what it takes to manage this huge piece of land.

    And finally, imagine being a backcountry ranger and being given a government issued mountain bike to patrol around on? Often the roads in this part of the country are so difficult to navigate (particularly when it rains!) that this is the best way to get around (being a long distance runner also helps too, naturally). I am sure job applications from any of you fit and hardy souls would be welcome!

    From one extreme to another. Zion National Park has 4 million visitors a year. Most going to the main canyon, with concrete pavements and double buses getting visitors up to the main walking routes up the valley. It seems in order for everyone to be able to enjoy these special places such apparent extreme measures are necessary.

    One of the key things I’ve got from this experience is that as rangers we all face similar issues regardless of our location. However rangers in America have comparable powers to the police, have responsibility for fighting wilderness fires and play a key role in search and rescue. But then America is much much larger than the UK.

    Many thanks to my hosts at both Lake Mead and the Parashant. I look forward to showing them the delights of our wonderful Lake District in the future!

    I’ll leave you with this little guy…

    Ground squirrel plotting something! 

    I’m now at Estes Park in the Rocky Mountain National Park for the World Ranger Congress and it is quite a contrast to the very dry desert.