Back From

The Brink

Words by Alex Morss

Photography by Alex Hyde

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This article is part of Issue #3

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What if the biggest barrier to saving our planet is simply that we have stopped noticing nature? A creative approach to conservation, based on research into the link between nature and wellbeing, delves into how much wild connections matter for us.

A little whirlpool ramshorn snail (Anisus vorticulus). (opening image) / Surveying the population of little whirlpool ramshorn snails (Anisus vorticulus). / The 5mm snails can only be found in Pulborough Brooks RSPB Reserve, West Sussex, UK.

The man gushes with invigorating optimism over the phone: “This one has such an emotive, galactic quality,” he enthuses. “And the particles shine like stars in dark water.” We are discussing microscopic snails - one of many obscure, delightful, and almost extinct tiny British animals - and how to save them. James Harding-Morris, a spokesman for England’s £7.7m Back from the Brink conservation project – developed by Natural England and a consortium of conservation charities - has the job of bringing people closer to nature in a bid to make the world fall in love with rarities like this and help save them. And like most of the fascinating and often unknown wildlife that he is working with, barely anyone has heard of the charm to be found in a little whirlpool ramshorn snail.

Developing spawn of the natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita) in a dune slack pond, Ainsdale Nature Reserve, Merseyside, UK.
How can you get people to love and care for endangered life they don’t meet and only ever see a smudgy picture of, or worse, if no photo can even be found?

The dainty snail, with its 5mm-wide coiled shell, wrapped like a cinnamon bun of coppery caramel and coffee swirls, is largely unknown and unseen, except by those prepared to wade into one of only three favoured chalky sites in the UK, wearing a pair of magnifying goggles.

“How can you get people to love and care for endangered life they don’t meet and only ever see a smudgy picture of, or worse, if no photo can even be found?” says Harding-Morris. “We decided to commission some of the world’s best photography of the species we are working to save, we didn’t want anyone to ever struggle to find a picture. But importantly we are also building creative projects and communities around them."

His approach is based on recent findings by researchers at the University of Derby that suggest “noticing nature” more often and in particular ways results not only in better health and wellbeing for people, but stronger outcomes for conservation, resulting in people being more likely to take personal action to respect and care for wildlife.

Rough Bank nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest, is a flower-rich limestone grassland reserve in Gloucestershire, UK. / Prostrate perennial knawel (Scleranthus perennis spp. prostratus) in flower. This species is globally restricted to the Breckland area of Norfolk and Suffolk, UK. It thrives in the sandy, nutrient-poor soils and climate of the Breckland heaths but it is unable to compete with more vigorous plants such as grasses.

Over the past three years, Harding-Morris and his team have been adopting an increasingly more creative, emotive approach, using visualisation and sensory experiences to save some of the most at-risk species across England from extinction, and to help 200 other threatened plants and animals. Among these are the black-tailed godwit, field cricket, grey long-eared bat, ladybird spider, willow tit, pine marten, narrow-headed ant, shrill carder bee, barberry carpet moth and lesser butterfly orchid. This endeavour is about people as much as the wildlife. The project’s leaders are aiming to inspire a love for nature, to re-wild a diverse range of people and woo more of us into falling under the spell, the charm, of nature that is disappearing on our doorstep.

So they have devised a number of ways to get volunteers involved with iteresting and lesser-known wildlife, while becoming healthier, being creative, and building friendships. Deep in Rockingham Forest, Northamptonshire, an exquisite butterfly, the chequered skipper, now glides the glades again, having been reintroduced from Belgium after vanishing in England in 1976. Its coppiced woodland habitats were disappearing under deer grazing, neglect, and conifer plantations. The habitat restoration is also helping other declining woodland animals too, such as the willow tit, lesser spotted woodpecker and barbastelle bat.

Getting creative while learning about the Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail. / Drawing from nature in Cornwall, learning about flowers, in particular - the Lesser Butterfly Orchid;

Volunteers in that area can enjoy an uplifting wander through sunlit wooded rides doing butterfly monitoring as they seek out this exciting little stunner, with its gold and chocolate speckled wings, dotted with strings of pearls. Elsewhere, woodland volunteers have had a chance to work with pine martens. This mammal was virtually wiped out by woodland clearance by game keepers and land owners, but now these agile woodland climbers are recolonising Northumberland and Cumbria, giving volunteers a chance to build den boxes, make feeders and monitor their activity.

Meanwhile, along a rugged 22-mile stretch of the Sefton Coast, artists have resurrected a Victorian cyanotype printing technique using photosensitive paper to create vivid electric blue prints of flowers. The flowers exist alongside a number of other scarce or threatened plants and animals including the Merseyside sand lizard, natterjack toad and northern dune tiger beetle.

Processing cyanotypes in the sun on the dunes. / Completed cyanotypes after a day out in the dunes.

In Norfolk, children have made banners, flags and sculptures of the elusive wormwood moonshiner beetle. “We’re aiming to inspire people to want to learn more about the animals, plants and fungi close to them, that could be lost without their help,” says Back from the Brink’s community and outreach officer, Emma Burt. In Kent, Back from the Brink artists have taken on the challenge of finding and celebrating England’s vanishing arable wild flowers by making natural inks out of berries, bark, soil and clay from the landscape where the hare still roams and red hemp nettle still clings to clumps of ploughed ground.

With these, and alongside the local communities, they then transform the landscape’s natural purples,reds and yellow dyes into permanent outlines of these threatened flowers. And in Cornwall, one headland of arable ‘weeds’ is home to 154 different species, many extremely rare due to herbicides and monocultures of sprayed wheat and barley. Now they have shepherd’s needle, sharp-leaved fluellen, night-flowering catchfly and weasel’s snout.

Field Cricket (Gryllus campestris) nymph being translocated to a new site in Surrey.

Back from the Brink artists have taken on the challenge of finding and celebrating England’s vanishing arable wild flowers.

Banners made to celebrate the species found in and around ancient trees. / Volunteers learning and helping at a project on the Sefton coast.

And a project in Bovey Heathfield, Devon, has seen a doubling of the British population of the narrow-headed ant. Project manager Stephen Carroll’s team created a giant foam ant model to gain insight into the strength and size of the insect’s exoskeleton. So little was known about this ant that volunteers took on the task of monitoring every individual ant, each one painted with markings as they went about building, relocating, foraging, nesting and exploring, a process Carroll likened to “trying to keep track of a multi-dimensional chess game”. The results of the project have rescued the ant on the once-degraded moonscape of the heathland “from the brink of destruction”, he said.

When the University of Derby surveyed 2,000 people about their relationship to nature, the researchers found that roughly four out of five people never, or hardly ever, smelled wild flowers, and the majority did not often listen to birdsong. But those adults with a strong connection to nature were happier: even the simple act of smelling flowers was a significant predictor of feeling happier, and the researchers found that those scoring in the top quartile on closeness to nature were linked with a 9% higher score on health and wellbeing.

Detail of fissured wood of an ancient oak tree, Moccas Park National Nature Reserve, Herefordshire, UK.

Leading research professor Miles Richardson said: “People with higher levels of nature connectedness are more likely to do more for nature, both in reducing their impact on the environment through using fewer resources and taking positive actions to help wildlife. This closer relationship with nature also tends to help people feel good and function well, even improving mental health."

The 2019 UK State of Nature Report, produced by a network of over 70 partners drawn from conservation NGOs, research institutes, and the UK and national governments, also called for people to get closer to nature in order to save it. It revealed that England’s wildlife is continuing to decline, and that the UK as a whole is one of the most nature-depleted nations on earth.

Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) growing on the dune system at Ainsdale Nature Reserve, Merseyside, UK. The grass protects the dunes from erosion, and helps create a suitable habitat for sand lizards and the northern dune tiger beetle.
We could have spent three and a half years delivering pure conservation, no engagement, no art, no events, but in the long term the only thing that willsave nature is people who care and know something special about a narrow-headed ant, a barberry carpet moth and so on.

Some 15% of species assessed are now at risk of extinction in the UK, and 41% of all species have declined since 1970. England-specific data shows a similar trend, with a 35% decline in the abundance of species, and 13% of species at risk of extinction. The main culprits on land and freshwater habitats have included farming, climate change, development, pollution, water management, woodland management and alien species. “We could have spent three and a half years delivering pure conservation, no engagement, no art, no events, but in the long term the only thing that will save nature is people who care and know something special about a narrow-headed ant, a barberry carpet moth and so on,” says Harding-Morris.

“We need tens of thousands more people in each local area who care about this interesting, odd, local little species. We need to encourage different people to get closer. This is so important for future species conservation.” Here lies hope for a mutualism between humans and wildlife where people will better protect the world around them as they come to value it more highly.

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Words by

Alex Morss

Alex Morss is a UK-based ecologist, journalist and author who has worked with a wide range of protected species and their habitats.

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Photography by

Alex Hyde

Alex Hyde is a professional natural history photographer based in the Peak District National Park, UK. He specialises in macro photography, taking … Learn more

This article is part of Issue #3

Cover of  Issue #3
Extinction / Reconnection / Redesign

This issue explores Indigenous fire management in Australia, plant resilience in disasters, nature's role in conservation, innovative food initiati…

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