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Spring is marching on and keeping us all very busy. As the season progresses colour becomes more varied and the changes are noticed daily - its an exciting time!.


The dates of first flowers are early compared to last year's late Spring: trees in blossom this month - several of which first flowered in March - included Wild cherry (Prunus avium), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), bird cherry (Prunus padus), apple (Malus domestica), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and last week - also earlier than in previous years - elder (Sambucus nigra).

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Apple blossom, Malus domestica, from the 'Brownlees Russett' variety in the Wildlife Garden

© Jonathan Jackson


On the ground the variety of texture, scent and colour is changing even more dramatically, especially in woodland areas, which are now bright with whites: sweet woodruff (Galium odorata), wild garlic (Allium ursinum), greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea); blues: bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), bugle (Ajuga reptans), wood speedwell (Veronica montana); and yellows: a few primroses and celendines remain with the more recent flowering of yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon); and, of course, the deep pink of red campion (Silene dioica) as well as grasses wood millet (Milium effusum), false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum) and more.


While in water, the delicate flowers of bogbean float daintily in the upper pond...


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Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata
© Jonathan Jackson


But the star of April is undoubtedly cowslip. In grassland areas cowslips have provided a long season - a few were spotted in flower on 25 February; ten days earlier than the first cowslip flower last year -  and there has been a succession ever since.


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Cowslip, Primula veris
© Derek Adams


Cowslips were once a common sight throughout April and May on chalk downland, and in meadows and pastures as well as hedge banks and railway embankments throughout downland areas of Britain.


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Cowslip on Wye National Nature Reserve
© Natural England


But although now sadly a rare sight generally, cowslips are still plentiful on nature reserves such as Wye NNR managed by Natural England and there are many conservation projects encouraging the return of cowslips to their former habitats…


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Cowslips in a restored meadow on the north downs in Kent this week.
© Peta Rudduck


And, some say they are returning to road sides and motorway embankments. In gardens once established they will reward you by continuing to spread both vegetatively and by seed. Our own chalk downland and pond-side meadow habitats have been crowded with cowslips all month.


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Chalk downland, with cowslips, in the Garden.

© Jonathan Jackson


And there are still a few in bud in our meadow where the flowering has been delayed due to recent grazing (at the end of March our sheep were here for a short visit, to graze the too-lush grasses in the meadow).


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March grazing in the meadow
© Sue Snell


In rural areas cowslips were traditionally harvested to make wine which was also taken medicinally. They are rich in nectar and, in former times when cowslips were a common sight, children would pick flowers and sip the nectar. Here in our Wildlife Garden, the nectar is strictly for the bees and early butterflies including the brimstone. Cowslip is also the food plant of the rare Duke of Burgundy fritillary. Other insects benefit, including pollen beetles...


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A pollen beetle, Meligethes aeneus, pays a visit to a cowslip flower.
© Jonathan Jackson


Once cowslips are in bloom I feel that spring is really, truly here and although I want these beautiful flowers to last a little longer, there are now many seed heads amongst the blooms. Not so radiantly yellow, but it's good news for next year.


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Cowslip seed heads

© Jonathan Jackson


You can find out more about cowslips in folklore from Roy Vickery. If you are out and about this weekend and spot the violets of bluebells rather than the yellows of cowslips, do join in with the Museum's survey.


And at the end of May visit us here in the Garden and discover more about Britain's most common flower, the stinging nettle. Nettle Weekend is 31 May to 1 June. More on that soon...




During the Wallace100 year, I will be selecting a letter every month to write about. This letter could be historically important, scientifically significant or just funny and interesting!


I thought I’d start the series by writing about two letters – a letter written to Wallace and his reply to it. Wallace received the letter very late on in his life, in 1912, and his response to it gives a great insight into his thoughts and feelings of his long and illustrious career.


Wallace was great friends with Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell, an American zoologist who, in 1912, was professor of systematic zoology and a lecturer at the University of Colorado, USA. Cockerell’s students sent Wallace a letter of appreciation and greeting’s card for his 89th birthday in January 1912 which was signed by 129 students. They wrote at the top the letter:


"To Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace:

We, the students in the General Biology Class at the University of Colorado, ardent admirers of your work on Evolution, send you respectful greetings on the occasion of your eighty-ninth birthday, wishing you health and happiness."


Above: Letter to Wallace from Biology students at Colorado University
© Natural History Museum, London


Wallace wrote a reply to the students, enclosing it in a letter to Cockerell. He wrote to his friend that he was writing in response "to the very kind greetings of the members of your class of general Biology" and that they can have "no more capable and enthusiastic teacher".


In his letter to Cockerell’s students, dated 12 January 1912, Wallace gives a fascinating insight into his feelings of nature that he describes as the "solace of my life". He goes on to write "my first views of the grand forests of the Amazon; thence to the Malay Archipelago, where every fresh island with its marvellous novelties and beauties was an additional delight – nature has afforded me an ever increasing rapture". Wallace describes how his love of nature has not dwindled over the years but has in fact been cultivated in a different way through his "wild garden and greenhouse". Wallace’s letter to the Biology students is very touching and insightful and the students were extremely privileged indeed to receive such a letter.


You can read the letters for yourself here and here and can explore the many thousands more that are available on Wallace Letters Online.


Check back next month, when I’ll be delving into the Wallace correspondence again to write about another letter that caught my eye.


David Ng is a science literacy academic based at the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, Canada.  His interests generally look at unconventional intersections between public outreach, creative art, science education, as well as web dynamics.  He is currently on sabbatical at the Natural History Museum, London and encourages you to check out the PHYLO project.


I just noticed, with some amusement, that the 2010 Toy of the Year is something akin to a cute robotic rodent. Specifically, they are called Zhu Zhu Pets, a mechanical universe of furry and mobile hamsters, expandable with a hamster-like ecosystem complete with wheels, balls, and see through tunnels. The fact that this was announced during the International Year of Biodiversity seems deliciously ironic but maybe also informative?


Lest you think my thoughts on biodiversity outreach and education will settle uncomfortably on robotics, or perhaps even more frightening, hamsters, let me reassure you that, instead, I think this nugget of toy trivia highlights a problem with developed society in general. That is, we and more importantly, our children, have an apparent lack of connection with nature. After all, I'm pretty sure that any patch of green will reveal much more interesting examples of ‘animals that move’, which is unfortunate, because despite this obvious logic, I suspect that when presented to the eyes of the young, we all know who will win in a ‘Zhu Zhu versus the Green’ showdown.


This lack of connection is, I think, a very bad thing. In our television, computer, and now robot hamster driven world, we appear to be slowly losing the will to go outside and simply ‘take a look.’


After all, the act of going outdoors to look for biodiversity is still one of those few things that allow the citizen and child to undergo the very real act of discovery - a wondrous sensation that is not soon forgotten and often an entry into both awe for the environment and respect for the scientific method. Still, this is something that requires a bit of effort: a quick look doesn't suffice - you need a good long look, sometimes in the rain, which is perhaps why in the end the objects with batteries are winning.


There is, of course, another interpretation of connection. In this case, I'm referring to the general importance of biodiversity in the things that are near and dear to us, even things that an average person might not quickly equate with the natural world. Take our Toy of the Year as an example. No doubt, Zhu Zhu pets would not have been possible without careful study of the original prototype (an actual hamster). We can safely assume that the wheels would work a little less efficiently without our knowledge and use of materials from the rubber plant. The table from which people sat around to develop this toy idea was probably made of wood. I can also surmise that the room where this table might be found, is likely in a city or town placed ‘just so’ on a map, chosen to be there because the location was close to natural resources like forests for materials, soil rich in microbes for agriculture, a river ecology for clean water and transport. And let us not forget the food fuel required to power the minds that came up with the idea in the first place!

Seriously, it goes on. Truth is, if you were to imagine yourself part of a cult, one that rigorously abhorred the very thought of using anything connected to nature - a sort of extreme anti-vegan philosophy - your life would be severely lacking. Indeed, you might also be dead.


All to say that I think my point is this: that biodiversity education represents a wonderful opportunity to connect things. Whether it's the linkage between a child's thrilled senses and the backyard, or a person's bottom line to their natural surroundings, there is value in the discussion of biodiversity as yet another means to provide a holistic context in this noisy and frenetic world. In other words, why not with even more vigour, promote this connection to nature?


And how would this be achieved? I'd imagine this is already happening in wonderful ways, in many places, many projects. More so, I'd imagine that there are many opportunities where these values can be more emphatically applied. But I think this is where having a venue like this website where readers can post their ideas is fitting. Biodiversity is great because it is on the one hand represented by brilliant diversity and variety, and yet on the other hand, is unified in theme and focus.


Shouldn't there be an educational prerogative that works in the same way? I'd like to think so, since I know that that is one kind of noise I and others would love to hear more about.


Paul Wilkinson is head of Living Landscapes for The Wildlife Trusts, and has responsibility for leading and supporting the achievement of their Living Landscapes vision across the UK.


Conservation groups such as The Wildlife Trusts will never give up our efforts to protect the UK's wildlife and habitats, but the truth is this can't be enough to ensure a bright future for biodiversity into the 21st century and beyond. Although we manage around 2,300 nature reserves across the UK, it's still not enough - we need nature to be thriving on a landscape scale.


The Wildlife Trusts' vision for A Living Landscape, a recovery plan for nature, was launched in 2006 and there are now more than 100 landscape scale schemes across the UK, covering over 3.5million acres.


Image: Pumlumon, Montgomeryshire, the site of one of The Wildlife Trusts flagship Living Landscape schemes. © Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust


In trying to deliver these schemes we are working amid Government policies that tell us how land should be used and managed, few of them designed with nature in mind and virtually none actively supporting its restoration. Decisions about land use are being made by different organisations and government departments, with different interests, but this decision making is not aligned or suitably integrated towards achieving a common vision, and so wildlife and the natural services on which we all depend continue to decline.


Ahead of the General Election this year we were pushing for a White Paper on the natural environment as a way of addressing this. We envisioned this being a new driver to restore the natural environment, putting wildlife back on the front foot. It was a great cause for celebration when the coalition Government committed to a Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) in England. It's currently at a public consultation stage, where anyone can submit their views on what should be included. You can find out more on our website. We'd recommend doing so to anyone with an interest in nature and wildlife.


From The Wildlife Trusts' point of view, the NEWP should ensure all our existing wildlife areas are fully protected and valued, that they are enlarged and connected so wildlife can move between them, and that we are making the most of natural processes for the purposes of flood prevention, carbon absorption and crop pollination. It should also see partnerships continuing to develop between central and local government, businesses, communities, voluntary sector and landowners - a joint commitment to restoring nature. Wildlife, with the myriad benefits it brings, should be part of all of our lives. And Government needs to provide the impetus and means for this to happen.


From Nanning we went north (backwards!) to try to find a locality where an old collection of Solanum macaonense, an enigmatic aubergine relative, had been collected. We failed in that, but did find Solanum torvum (pea eggplant commonly used in Thai cooking) growing in the rubbish dump of Gansu – solanums often grow in the most unsalubrious places!


On the rubbish heap  (click to enlarge images)           Fields, Naling



Near Gansu there was ample evidence of the threats to these beautiful and biologically interesting limestone hills – mining for stone and gravel is all but destroying many of them, by next year these will be completely gone, along with the endemic flora that grows there.


We carried on, passing fields with many people working to prepare for planting, harvesting sugarcane and manioc. Manioc is grown as a starch crop here, where I know it better in South America it is a staple food crop. My companions were surprised at this and asked an elderly man if they ever ate it - he replied something like only if we have to! It is amazing that fields of such extent are all prepared, fertilized and planted by hand, and ploughed by water buffalo.



Solanum violaceum                                                                      Collecting Solanum violaceum

We went to look at the base of some cliffs, found a cave tomb with the deceased in a jar so he/she could be moved if necessary and in the brush found our first exciting solanum – Solanum violaceum. This is a common species, but I am interested in comparing it carefully throughout its range to other species that may or may not be the same.



Field in rocks                                                                                         Polytunnels

Turning south off the main road to head for the Jing Xi, a town near the Vietnamese border, we went through a region of extensive banana cultivation, where many of the crops were being grown as seedlings in polytunnels – the fields looked white striped. This is not only to increase the heat, but to save water – we saw a man with a funnel and a bucket watering each seedling in the tunnel by hand. There has been a severe drought in this region this year – it shows.


Near Long Ho


We then crossed some spectacular limestone mountains, where the Long Ha Nature Reserve is said to be home to monkeys. In these mountains every square inch of cultivatable land is cultivated – between rocks and in spectacular terraces in all the valleys (like near Naling, where the rice paddies were being readied for planting and followed the contours of the land beautifully).


From today the Nature Live blog will become the Nature Live community. This means that we will still have regular blog posts, but we now have our own area on the website where you can discuss what’s happening with Nature Live, including questions or issues that are thrown up by our discussion events.


If you are attending a Nature Live in person you can now continue the conversation online. If you are too far away from London to attend a Nature Live you can put your question or comment on the forum instead.  Have a look at the discussions that have already started, or start your own. And don’t forget to vote on our current poll.

Puffin in the snow by Jan Vemeer


If you haven’t already, take a peek at the highly commended images from this year’s Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in our preview slideshow. From bristling baby orangutans and languid lions to perfect pike and white water waves, there are magic moments captured in these fantastic wildlife photographs from around the world. Come to the exhibition to see all the winners from 23 October when it opens.


This puffin shot has a magical ‘hurtling through the snow’ kind of innocence to it, I think. It was taken by the photographer Jan Vemeer who timed a visit to Norway’s remote Varanger Fjord at the arrival of 1000s of seabirds flying back to the cliffs to breed. 


On the second day of Jan’s visit, the first puffins arrived. He recalls: 'I glanced out over the sea and saw them coming. At that very same instant, it began to snow. There are golden moments in your life you never forget - this is one of them.' Five minutes later, the snowstorm ended.