2016 – An Eventful Year

This year has been  a very eventful year, both for wildlife conservation worldwide and for me personally. So I’ve decided to write a little blog post on the highlights. Please excuse me if I miss anything out – I’ve tried my hardest to gather all of the significant news.

First of all, on an international scale,  the world’s largest marine reserve was declared in Antarctica, specifically in the Ross Sea. It covers 600 000 square miles of ocean, all of which is now protected (to an extent). As part of the negotiations, in some areas fishing for krill and toothfish will still be allowed for research purposes, but everywhere else there is a ‘no take’ policy, where nothing can be removed from the sea.
It is an important area to conserve because it contains 38% of the world’s Adelie Penguins, 30% of its Antarctic Petrels,  and 6% of its Minke Whales, as well as upwelling nutrients from deeper waters which are then transported around the world on currents and housing huge numbers of krill which are a vital food source for whales and seals.
This is a triumph for conservation, especially if you include the formal establishment of the second largest ocean marine reserve in the Pitcairn Islands of the Pacific, covering 320 000 square miles.

For me, the year kicked off with what I consider to be its climax – my trip to the Cairngorms. In short, I won a nature presenting competition, where I had to enter a 90 second documentary I had made featuring a species of my choice. It was then judged, and selected to be one of a shortlist of 10. The public voted for their favourite, and, in the end, I won! Here is the documentary I entered:

This led to me going to the Cairngorms National Park in February, watching wildlife for a week and getting to meet Iolo Williams, Miranda Krestovnikoff, and several knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers. You can read about the trip here
 But this wasn’t the end of the experience. The competition has given me a lot more opportunities since (which are some of the other highlights below).

Back on the topic of international conservation, two of our most enigmatic declining species have been saved from their seemingly inevitable course to extinction.
Giant pandas, the very logo of the WWF, were taken off the endangered list, with a 17% rise in its wild population in the last decade.
Tigers are on the increase for the first time in a century, increasing their population to 3, 890 from 3, 200 in 2010.
These figures are both signs of hope for the future, showing that human conservation can have an impact, and we can save what might at first have seemed like a lost cause.
However, it wouldn’t be right to merely mention those things which portray all to be okay in the natural world – it obviously isn’t.
An iconic species has replaced the Giant Panda – the Eastern Gorilla is now threatened with extinction due to poaching.

I got a bit of media attention after the Cairngorms Young Nature Presenter Competition, and had several interviews with BBC Radio Scotland, as well as writing some articles for various people, including the RSPB and BBC Wildlife. It would be good to get my name out early to establish a foothold for a potential career in that area.
After writing these initial articles, I was invited to become a member of the RSPB’s Phoenix Forum, (a group of 10 teenagers) and now write for the RSPB’s Wingbeat magazine regularly, as well as partly influencing the RSPB’s plans and strategies and representing the views of our generation (which is very exciting). It also means I get to meet up regularly with like minded teenagers!

To return to the national scale, several species, unfortunately, went extinct. Extinctions are inevitable, especially with the way we are exploiting our planet. Some species only went extinct locally, others were wiped off the planet entirely.
The San Cristobal Vermilion Flycatcher (a stunning bird found in the Galapagos), for example, as well as the Bramble Cays Melomys (a small rodent), Rabb’s Treefrog, the Barbados Racer (a snake), and both the Tatum Cave Beetle and Stephan’s Riffle Beetle. They have declined for many different reasons – everything from being predated by alien introduced species to a deadly fungus – some we caused, others were natural.
These are probably just some of the many species that disappear every year – many are too small or too similar to other species to have their decline noticed. Sadly, some species will most likely have disappeared before we even discover them.
On the brighter side, a few people were lucky enough to discover new species this year. To be exact, 133 new species were discovered. Here are some of my favourites…
DRACULA ANTS – Madagascan ants that wound larvae and then suck their blood.

13 NEW PEACOCK SPIDERS – If I could discover a new species, I would probably want to discover a peacock spider. They are elaborate-looking spiders, with ridiculously colourful abdomens. But the best thing about them is their  courtship dance. Each species’ male has its own individual performance, during which it shakes its abdomen, raises its legs and does a while lot more. Search it up – it’s well worth a look!

3 NEW MOUSE LEMURS – You wouldn’t have thought it possible for there to be any species as large as a lemur still left undiscovered in the world – but there are, simply because they are not recognised as new species. The scientists had to use genetic analysis to differentiate them.

BRIANNE’S GROPPO – a striking pink and yellow fish that lives deep underwater – the deepest fish to have been discovered by diving.

SILVER BOA – the rarest Boa species in the world, and it looks very elegant.

KANKUAMO MARQUEZI – an awesome new  species of tarantula that stuns its enemies by shooting balls of barbed hairs at them. It does this by vigorously rubbing its legs against its belly.

NEW SCOPS OWL SPECIES – I love owls, so this couldn’t avoid my list. I believe it has only gone under the scientific radar so far because of its nocturnal habits and elusiveness.

GASTRODIA KUROSHEMENSIS – this is something completely new; an orchid that doesn’t bloom, and parasitises fungus!

ERIOVIXIA GRYFFINDORI – Yes, this was named after Harry Potter! It is a species of spider that looks like the Sorting Hat – or a dead leaf, thinking in terms of actual evolution.

NEW RAFFLESIA SPECIES – This member of the corpse flower group (those big ones that smell like rotting meat) is very small in comparison to the other flowers of its genus, measuring a mere 9.73cm!

THE 13 RED BELLIED PITTAS – this extraordinary example highlights a very interesting problem in conservation. The red bellied pitta was originally thought to be a single species, but after genetic analysis, it was decided to actually be 13 different species! And while as one species it was listed as a species of Least Concern, but now several are listed as nearing extinction. This shows that species can be disappearing right under our noses without us even realising!

Those scientists were undoubtedly over the moon, just as I was when I was asked if I wanted to give a talk at the Birdfair this year! I had never been to the Birdfair before, but I am certainly going to go again!
This was again a result of winning the Cairngorms Young Nature Presenter Competition, and a very kind offer from the people at Speyside Wildlife.
I had an amazing time, and had a day or so wandering around listening to some amazing talks on a variety of topics ranging from The Endemics of Dreamland (a talk about recording birds you see in your dreams) to Rewilding, given by speakers ranging from the guides of Speyside to Chris Packham.
Finally, I got to meet a few people I had communicated with before, as well as an entire community of young naturalists I had no idea existed, whom I now keep in regular contact with.
I was truly inspired, as well as being entertained non-stop for 2 and a half days. I even got a book signed by Chris Packham – Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, a very poignant book, well worth a read. I might do a proper book review on it when I get a moment.
My actual talk wasn’t such a success, unfortunately, with very little people turning up and me fumbling a bit in my nervousness. But overall, it was good for me, and boosted my confidence just a little bit. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

For conservationists and the nature-loving public in the UK, there have been many battles in the cause of our wildlife; some won, others lost. Usually they run along the lines of the badger cull and fox hunting, but although those were also in debate, two new causes took the limelight.

Driven grouse shooting 
came so close to being banned, after reaching 123, 077  signatures as a petition and then being brought to parliament, where it failed to jump the last hurdle.
This wasn’t simply to stop another blood sport. This was to stop the illegal shooting of the Hen Harrier, an increasingly rare bird of prey that is now nearly completely gone from England, with just a handful of pairs left.
This was a sad year for them, with several satellite birds suddenly stopping transmitting at intervals throughout the year. What made it even more depressing was that it was predicted – we knew this was going to happen, and were apparently powerless to stop it.
Some lucky pairs of hen harriers had the advantage of a full time 24/7 guard by a group of dedicated volunteers – a pat on the back to them.
Similar disappearances were seen with Golden Eagles in the same areas. There is a considerable amount of evidence to show that at least a few of these are being illegally shot by landowners, who want to see their grouse populations rise to unnaturally high numbers, only to be killed later on.
The government’s main reasons for allowing driven grouse shooting to continue was that it brings a considerable income to the country, and the predator control helps ground nesting birds to breed more successfully.
Mark Avery, a representative of the conservationists who set up the petition, has plans for next year and is confident that we can succeed.
We will all fight harder next year, and I too have complete confidence that in the end, we will win.

The EU Nature Directives were also a main focus of attention, and this time it is a good news story. These laws are the guardians of our native wildlife, and have stood in place for 35 years. But when we decided to leave the EU, they were placed in a very precarious position.
But a great number of people spoke up for nature, through a petition or otherwise – and by a great number of people, I mean more than 520, 000 – the largest number of people to respond to a consultation by miles, with the average being only 75!
17 000 messages were sent to MPs, and 80% voted to keep the laws unchanged.
This, for me, is one of the most optimistic examples in this blog post. It shows that the public does have a voice, we can win, and nature can be given a priority.
It gives me great hope for the future, and I’m sure similar results can be achieved in other campaigns as well.

On a vaguely similar theme (sorry, it’s difficult to find smooth transitions!), I was lucky enough to get an interview with Mark Chambers on the progress of the TB vaccine for badgershave a look if you missed it, it gives you a good idea of the situation at hand.

This was one of my first blog posts – I only began this year after my trip to the Cairngorms, and have so far posted 35 blog posts (this is number 36). I have also joined twitter. Both have enabled me to meet new people, have my voice heard, and find new opportunities. My twitter account is @JamesNaturalist if you want to have a look.

A milestone was reached in the saving of elephants – China has announced the banning of all ivory trade and processing by the end of 2017. This is an amazing step for elephant conservation – China has the largest ivory market in the world, estimates of up to 70% of all ivory trade takes place there. It’s great to hear that such an industrial nation is doing it’s bit for conservation, and setting a good example for other countries – including ourselves.

I was lucky enough to win a prize in a second competition this year  – the RSPB’s Wildart Competition.
It was an wildlife art competition run by the RSPB (as I’m sure you will have guessed) and I entered a watercolour depicting Fox Urbanisation…
This was then displayed in the Mall Galleries as part of the Society of Wildlife Artist’s Natural Eye Exhibition. I visited it as part of a trip to London.

At pretty much the same time as this excitement, I was also offered another very exciting opportunity by the Cairngorms National Park Authority. I was asked to help judge their presenting competition for this year!
It was very interesting, and there were a lot of good entries; it was very difficult to make a shortlist of 10.
It was a fun job though, and I really enjoyed it.

Struggling to find any more top conservation stories from 2016, I was reminded of the stunning Planet Earth II
narrated by the marvelous Sir David Attenborough. This, although it isn’t directly conservation, is so influential upon the public that I had to include it in my list. More young people watched Planet Earth II than the X Factor! I think this is probably the case because people of my generation will remember being enthralled by Planet Earth I as an infant, and will therefore be more open to seeing the second series – even if just for the nostalgia.
This documentary series was absolutely stunning – I can’t sing its praises highly enough. The footage was just perfect, the editing extraordinary (particular credit to Matt Meech and co for the excellent Iguana and Racer Snake scene). That scene was said to be one of the greatest documentary sequences ever – just like a Hollywood car chase.
Documentaries such as this are vital for promoting nature’s cause, and making people see why we should save it.
My only criticism is that they should have made more episodes!

I have been quite active myself in filming and film-making. I have regular updated films from my badger sett on my Badgers page and in spring, you can see the progress of the Tawny Owlets as they grow up and fledge. 
Some of these films I managed to put together and make documentaries from. You can see the documentaries I have made so far on my documentary page. Unfortunately, there are only 2 so far. This is partly because of time constraints (busy GCSE years), partly because of technical issues (windows movie maker keeps failing me), and partly because I am waiting for more footage from next year to complete them.
Several more documentaries are on their way, including a long half hour one on Tawny Owls (very in-depth)
and one on spiders – crab spiders, zebra jumping spiders and golden orb spiders. Three fascinating species, all with different hunting techniques, all common garden residents. It won’t quite be Planet Earth III, but hopefully it will be alright.

I have made one video compilation displaying badger behaviour on Christmas Eve – it includes some very interesting stuff: mating, grooming, fighting and replacing bedding. Please have a look if you have a moment:

I also took a few photos – nothing special unfortunately, but if you want a look you can see them on my Gallery page

A report launched by Sir David Attenborough and several UK conservation organisations – The State of Nature Report – shows some worrying figures. 56% of all assessed species have declined, while more than 10% are at risk of disappearing from the UK altogether.  I had previously thought the UK was comparatively good at conserving its biodiversity, but out of 218 countries assessed, the UK was ranked at number 189 at maintaining biodiversity. That is, it is towards the bad end of the scale.
This is the latest most detailed report on our native species’ population trends and has stirred people to action and shown where conservation efforts need to be focused.
You can find out more about this report on the RSPB’s website

One of the opportunities I have come across online is bird ringing. For several years I have been trying to find a bird ringing group nearby, and this year I discovered one 40 minutes away that was willing to give me a go.
The only problem is, I have weekend commitments, so I found it difficult to go regularly, which is what you need to do to get a permit.
I have, however, managed to go three times so far. On the first time I was absolutely hooked after we caught a little owl! Since then, nothing rare was caught, but I have still enjoyed learning about what you can tell from common birds when in the hand. 

For the penultimate highlight of my year, one of my photos was featured on Autumnwatch! A dream come true.
It may have been for 15 seconds, but it was featured nonetheless. I had posted a photo of a pipistrelle on twitter in response to a post from the Wildlife Trusts, and it appears that some of the researchers on the crew noticed it. They asked me if they could use it, and of course I agreed.
Here is a short snippet during which it was mentioned:

And here is the photo in more detail:

And finally, when I thought it couldn’t get much better, I visited the Autumnwatch set!
Thanks very much to my mum for driving (to Arne and everywhere else!)
It was an amazing experience, and I got a tour, thanks to some very helpful production team members. I got to meet Martin Hughes-Games, who is as nice in real life as on screen, I got a peep at Chris Packham as he was working his socks off in preparation for the night’s program, and I accidentally blocked Michaela from entering the studio. Who could wish for more?
I also got to meet some very nice people working behind the scenes, who showed me how the cameras worked and how the show functioned. But the highlight was probably watching a prop rehearsal before the program went on air, and I was shown some of the equipment that they used in the final episode – remember the special audio equipment for picking up migrating birds? I was there when some of them flew over… very exciting.
A big thank you to all of the team who gave up some time to give me a tour – all for nothing.

So what is the conservation action plan for next year?

– The fight to ban driven grouse shooting still continues, and this year we shall fight even harder.
– We are hoping to ban the Boxing Day Hunts completely and utterly
– The ivory trade is set on track to be completely banned in the UK
– Rewilding beavers should hopefully be set in motion soon, it has already started locally in controlled areas
– Scientists are still striving to find an alternative to the badger cull
– There is a big movement to stop the shooting of waders, especially rare or declining ones such as snipe.
– Scientists and politicians will still try to set about mitigating global warming
– Who knows? Only time will tell.

My personal plan for next year
– Visit the Cairngorms again
– make more documentaries
– keep filming wildlife
– play a bigger part in conservation and get my voice heard
– keep blogging!

If you read any of that, thank you, if you read all, thanks and congratulations!
Happy New Year!

James Miller

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