The conservationists and researchers at Hampshire’s most popular attractions
PUBLISHED: 16:25 23 November 2015 | UPDATED: 16:25 23 November 2015
Behind two of Hampshire’s most popular visitor attractions there are a number of brilliant conservationists and researchers who work tirelessly to study and save wildlife and habitats both here and around the world – Claire Pitcher went to meet them
Marwell is probably one of Hampshire’s most popular attractions, with over half a million visitors a year. Families go along for a fun day out and children on school visits get to see many, many species of animals and birds that they’ve never seen or perhaps heard of before. It’s a 140-acre world of wonder.
This summer, the park saw the arrival of a very different attraction - the Wild Explorers exhibit. It aims to illustrate to visitors the wonderful and vitally important work that Marwell’s conservation team carries out both here in Hampshire and abroad.
Dr Tim Woodfine is director of conservation: “The idea behind Wild Explorers is to talk about the subject matter behind the animals, bringing together three species that we work with out in Africa. They are iconic species, and while they are individually important we also wanted to take a broader focus on their habitat and environment – restoration, essentially,” he says.
The first species discussed is the Grevy’s zebra. Their numbers in Africa have dwindled to 2,000, making them rarer than the Black rhino and Pandas - a catastrophic decline. “We’ve been working with communities in Kenya and have been able to stabilise the zebra population,” says Tim.
Another species the new exhibit focuses on is the Oryx, which was hunted out of existence.
“At one point there were about a million in the north of Africa. We’ve now reintroduced them into Tunisia, as well as Chad.”
Then there are the White Rhinos. There were only 20 individual Southern white rhinos in all of South Africa. Now heavily protected they have been reintroduced: “We now have around 20,000 of them - so although you see a lot in the news about illegal poaching of rhinos, actually these guys are doing far better than they were.” Wild Explorers is a fun, interactive experience for visitors and, so far, Tim and his team are pleased with the feedback: “It’s working the way we want – to get people to stop and think about what’s happening around them.”
Conservation and restoration is also their focus here in Hampshire, whether it’s working with our ancient woodland or restoring local heathland. “We’ve just celebrated 20 years of habitat restoration in north Hampshire in Eelmoor Marsh.
“In 1995 we introduced Przewalski’s horses and highland cattle to graze. What we’ve done is restore the natural process in that eco system and the results have been amazing. We’ve seen the diversification of flora, rare plants have increased in populations, butterflies and dragonfly populations are doing well - we’re learning things all the time.”
There are still things Tim and his team plan to do at Eelmoor: “We would like to reintroduce reptiles like the Sand Lizard and Smooth Snake, as long as the conditions are absolutely right.”
For Tim in particular, conservation and research brings many rewards, but it’s not just about the animals: “People are benefitting too - when nature is in good order, the people are better off for it. My biggest pleasure is seeing people whose livelihoods have benefitted from conservation. Here at Marwell we’re all about showing that you don’t have to go to South Africa to explore wildlife and nature - it can be in the South Downs, the Common in Southampton, wherever it may be, there’s always nature around.”
The Hawk Conservancy Trust
Over in Andover, at the Hawk Conservancy Trust, their conservation and research work focuses on White-headed vultures in South Africa as well as a variety of birds here in the UK. Matt Stevens has been focusing on four different species of birds that make Hampshire their home.
“I’ve always had an obsession with birds since I was seven, and in 2011 I took over the UK projects here at the Trust to develop them, so they had a more scientific rigor about them.”
Matt has been looking into the benefits of the introduction of nest boxes, and to find some definitive answers on how the local and national populations of raptors are doing in the UK, focusing mainly on Tawny owls, Barn owls, Little owls and Kestrels. There are 550 boxes, mostly in Hampshire and into surrounding counties that he and volunteers keep track of throughout the year.
“The reason we chose these four species is because they all like to nest in cavities. You would expect, if nest boxes were as good as people expect them to be, that the birds that use them would produce more young…” but Matt can’t yet give away the results of his study as they haven’t been published. With limited funding, the Trust has to ensure they’re spending money in the right places and, if not, redirect it elsewhere.
“The difficulty is that because there’s only the two of us, and 500 boxes, with potentially four to six chicks in each and only 80 days to survey, it’s a challenging job. We rely on volunteers, plus we have a collaborative programme with the South Downs National Park where a ranger is running a campaign involving Barn owls. It’s great to be able to share information.”
As well as these four species, Matt has also been looking into the impact of Red Kites and Buzzards.
“We researched their physiology, the size of their talons, how much they could carry and how much they could take away from a site, what would be their likely prey items, and if there was any real cause for some of the alarm that’s arisen recently. We want to allay the fears that so many people have. There doesn’t seem to be a negative interaction with other species, they can’t carry off peoples’ pets.”
Campbell Murn is head of conservation and research at the Trust and his main focus has been a long-running programme in Africa looking at the welfare of vultures, primarily White-headed vultures. The team out there monitors the populations in four national parks in South Africa. But it’s not just Africa.
In Asia, because of (mainly) incidental poisoning, there has been a 97 per cent decline: “The biggest loss in terms of numbers to a population of any species,” says Matt. “The chemical that’s poisoning the vultures was used to treat cattle and has now been banned, but it is still on the black market and it can be synthesised. In Africa, poachers use the poison to kill vultures, so that rangers are unable to notice an animal has been slaughtered. The vultures die within a couple of days and there are no tell-tale signs.”
Working alongside the local people has helped tremendously, but Campbell’s work will be ongoing, as Matt points out: “Things don’t happen over night in conservation. It’s hard to convince people to fund projects that will not have an impact until five or ten years down the line. People want instant results.”
“It’s all a matter of perspective, if you spend most of your time in Hampshire, then you’re more interested in your local environment, and if people see positive things come from that they are more likely to think things can happen internationally.”
How you can help
There are several ways to support the conservation projects at Marwell Wildlife from adopting an animal to leaving a gift in your will. You can download a fundraisers pack from their marwell.org.uk if you want to make a donation and help to spread the word about the work that they do.
At the Hawk Conservancy Trust you can become a member from as little as £3 per month, give one off donations or fundraise using JustGiving and Virgin Money Giving. Find out more at hawk-conservancy.org.
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