Visit our home page at bristol.ac.uk/botanic-garden/

Friday, 21 October 2016

The wondrous creatures that share our gardens part 2: feathers and fur

By Alida Robey

This week’s post continues to separate the facts from the fallacies concerning the creatures that cross our paths while we garden. In my last post I looked at invertebrates and this week, I look at creatures with feathers and fur.

Is that little robin back again this year?

Robins live just over a year.
Photo credit: Linda Stanley [via Flickr CC by 2.0]
Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely. Robins are relatively short-lived birds, with an average lifespan of 1.1 years. The oldest known robin lived to 12 years. Compare this with blackbirds (2.4 year average; 20 year max) or starlings (2.5 average; 22 year max). This sadly means that the robin you see in your garden year after year is unlikely to be the same one.

How long do foxes live?

Whilst in captivity, foxes can live as long as 14 years, but they usually live 5 years in the wild. In rural areas where fox control is practised, up to 80% of the fox population may be less than 1 year old.

Foxes can dig their own dens, but sometimes they prefer to simply renovate vacated rabbit holes, or even co-habitate with badgers, amicably occupying the other end of their sett.

Foxes have been known to travel 5-10 miles from their den on their nocturnal hunt for food.

If you are troubled by foxes - and increasingly in urban areas such as Bristol this can be the case – I am reliably informed that rural chicken keepers get the males in their family to take a pee around the hen house. This being one of the best-known deterrents to these wily poachers!


Are moles really blind?
Moles can create havoc in the garden.
Photo credit: Stephan Caspar [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Moles can be the bane of your life if you get them tunnelling in your lawn or garden. These amazing little creatures can shift twice their body weight in soil in a minute, which amounts to 540 times their body weight in a day. This can have a rather disruptive effect on your lawn if you are unfortunate enough to have them as neighbours - and given there are 35-40 million of them in the UK, the chances of that are fairly high! Moles are solitary except when mating and they only surface at night to forage for food and nesting material. They live mainly on worms, grubs and larvae.

Contrary to the popular myth, moles are not blind. They have very small eyes as they spend so much time tunnelling. Their eyes are light-sensitive, but don’t detect colour; they rely heavily on sound and smell. They are the only mammal that lives totally underground. Their blood composition allows them to cope with significantly less oxygen than other mammals require.


How far do hedgehogs travel? 

Hedgehogs travel up to 3 km a night in search of food. They can swim and even climb the lower branches of hedges in search of bugs and caterpillars. Their spindly little legs can help them reach speeds of up to 4.5 mph if they need to, which is more than twice my average pace as a steady walker (with significantly longer legs)!

Hedgehog numbers are in decline.
Photo credit: Milo Bostock [via Flickr CC BY 2.0]
We do love hedgehogs, yet we don't seem to love them enough, as their numbers are in drastic decline due to human lifestyle choices. Whilst hedgehogs can live 10 years with a bit of care and attention, their average life in today’s urban environment is only  2-3 years with 20% of baby hoglets dying before they even show their little noses out of the nest. A large number then die during their precarious first hibernation. Roadkill, pesticides and urban development contribute to mortality, so less than 0.4% ever reach 10 years of age.

A hedgehog diet is mainly slugs, snails and beetles, but they also eat worms and spiders, and occasionally carrion and birds eggs. Milk and bread that is left out for these carnivores can actually be fatal to them. And to dispel yet another myth, hedgehogs do have fleas, but these are a variety exclusive to hedgehogs and will not transfer to pets or humans. It is also the case that if you should try to treat any hedgehogs you find with other animal flea treatment you will again almost certainly  kill the poor hedgehog.

Hibernation gets the hedgehog through winter when the availability of its normal diet is scarce. To cope, its body temperature drops from 35 degrees Celsius to around 4 degrees Celsius. It breaths only every 6 seconds and drops its heartbeat to one tenth the normal rate. A hedgehog can lose around half its body weight in the process of getting through the long cold winter.

The stark fact is that without drastic measures by householders and others, hedgehogs are heading rapidly towards extinction having fallen in number from some 30 million in the 1950s to 1.1 million by 1995 and further loss since then means there are now fewer than a million left in the UK.

Slug bait and pesticides kill hedgehogs, so if you want to do your bit, then please do consider nematodes and other hedgehog-friendly pest control methods. Nematodes can be bought online and simply watered onto your garden a few times a year. Doing so as an alternative to slugbait should help both your bird population and any of the few remaining hedgehogs in the country – both of which will help reduce slug devastation in your garden. Worms, birds, hedgehogs and many other wild creatures perform vital ecosystem services for us - they are workers in our gardens and countryside. The more we protect them, the more help they give. So when you are fighting the battle to take control of the  unruly creatures in your garden remember to keep some room for ‘the wild side!’

Alida Robey has a small gardening business in Bristol. For several years in New Zealand she worked with others to support projects to establish composting on both domestic and a ‘city-to-farm’ basis. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault: a safe haven for seed

By Helen Roberts


Svalbard is a group of Norwegian islands located in the high Arctic and only 1,300 km from the North Pole. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The landscape is stark, unforgiving and wholly memorable. I visited these islands more than 16 years ago as part of a 6-week science expedition - I was part of a botanical group looking at the exceptionally low-growing Arctic Willow. 

Memories of that place are still strong today. Its beauty and sense of isolation is unique. The humdrum of everyday life is simply stripped away here. You are left with the landscape, weather and incredible flora and fauna. Although life became simple, the vastness of the place was exhilarating and I felt totally and utterly free. 
The stark landscape of Svalbard
Photo credit: Paul Williams [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]


The Arctic is an ideal refuge for seeds


Within this unforgiving landscape, nestled deep within a mountainside, is a seed bank of global importance. It holds 12,000 years of agricultural history and contains the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. 

The Global Seed Vault is the brainchild of renowned scientist Cary Fowler, a former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It started as a simple idea back in the 1980s in the spirit of global collaboration, and finally came to fruition in 2008 when the building was completed. However, building the collection within is ongoing.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Photo credit: Amber Case [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]
The facility currently holds about 850,000 different varieties of seed and acts as the back up for seed banks across the globe. This is a collection that is vastly important for food security and the safeguarding of crop diversity. Those 850,000 packets of seed represent more than 5,000 species and nearly half of the world’s most important food crops, from cereal and rice to unique varieties of legumes. The seed deposits come from over 60 different institutions and represent nearly every country in the world. 

The chosen location of the global seed vault is an interesting story. It needed to be located somewhere safe from both potential natural disasters and human conflict. Svalbard itself is a safe place to store seed both in terms of physical and social factors. Svalbard's remoteness ensures an extra layer of security, while its geological stability and location, 130m above sea level, means the vault would be safe even in the worst-case scenario of sea-level rise. The storage facility is buried 150m deep into the side of a mountain where there is no radiation and where humidity levels remain low. The mountain also acts as a natural freezer, reducing the facility's reliance on mechanical refrigeration. The local infrastructure on Svalbard is also very good despite its remoteness - Svalbard is serviced by regular scheduled flights.

Svalbard itself is also politically very stable and military activity is prohibited in the region under the terms of the Treaty of Svalbard of 1920. The local government is highly competent and Norway has long been recognised as a key country in the international efforts to conserve Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA). 

Building and running the vault


The Global Seed Vault is built to store up to 4.5 million different varieties of seed. Constructed to be highly functional, the rectangular edifice emerging from the side of the mountain is stark but architecturally beautiful. The structure is energy efficient; insulated by the mountainside, it maintains an ambient temperature of -7°C and therefore only needs a further temperature drop to -18°C to reach the recognised standard temperature for the storage of viable seed. 

The vault was built and paid for by the Norwegian government to provide a service to the world community. The structure took 12 months to build and cost NOK 50 million (approximately £4.6 million). The facility runs as a partnership between the Government of Norway, the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Operations regarding the vault are administered and controlled by an international advisory council of experts representing the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), national gene banks, the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). 

Inside the building


Some people are lucky enough to visit the seed vault on the rare occasions that you can gain access inside. I had to see the interior of the facility via a virtual tour. 

The front entrance is understated, although to gain access you have to go through half a dozen locked doors, each requiring a different key. Although, security appears minimal, it’s not. The facility is under constant surveillance by Staatsbygg, the government of Norway’s property manager and developer;  security cameras and sensors are located throughout the building. There is some natural security, of course, as the roaming polar bears outside outnumber the human population of Svalbard. 

From the entrance lobby, a 150m long tunnel extends into the mountain before reaching the three main storage chambers. At the moment, only one storage chamber is in use, in time the others will be filled as more seed varieties are deposited. 

Seed is only deposited three times a year and this is the only time when the vault is opened. 

Making a deposit


The metal shelves inside the Global Seed Vault.
Photo credit: Dag Terje Filip Endresen
[via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]
On arrival to Svalbard, seed lots are x-rayed and taken to the vault by NordGen staff members. The seed boxes containing the seed, which have been carefully placed in 3-ply aluminium packages, are then wheeled by trolley to the main storage chamber within the vault. Each package will contain on average 500 seeds. 

The seed lots are placed on simple metal shelving and are assigned bar codes to allow easy retrieval. They are catalogued using an information system called the Seed Portal of The Svalbard Seed Vault. This allows depositors to submit seed inventories and the general public to look at basic information about the seed that is stored within. Storage is free to depositors and they control access to the deposits. It is an International Black Box system, which ensures that only the depositor can access the raw seed and open the boxes. 

The most recent seed deposits


Last year, the first tree seeds were deposited from Norway and Finland. In February, pine and spruce seed was taken to the vault for storage from the Norwegian Forest Seed Center and the Finnish gene reserves forests of Lappträsk and Puolango, and Filpula and Lovisa. This deposit provides a back-up in the event that global climate change, forest management techniques and other factors, such as pests and disease begin to compromise the genetic diversity of these forests. It is a method of conserving the existing genetic resources and enabling long-term monitoring of the genetic variation within these forests, including any changes that occur because of tree breeding. This long-term tree seed project involves the countries of Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Norway. 

The last deposit of seed was on 26th May 2016, with deposits from Germany, Thailand, New Zealand and the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan. Germany placed over 6,000 accessions into the vault of a number of different crop varieties, New Zealand deposited a number of varieties of sheep food including rye grass and white clover, Thailand deposited some 20 samples of very special chilli peppers and the World Vegetable Center deposited 1,200 seed lots from a number of different nations. 

Our agricultural future


The importance of this seed vault is apparent; it ensures the survival of the world's most important crop species. Some seed varieties within the depths of this safe haven can survive for up to 4,000 years. In terms of food security, that is long term planning for human agriculture. 

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.


References:

Doomsday Vault Opened for Syrian Seeds: 

What is NordGen?:

Croptrust: 

Forest seed destined for Svalbard:

Forest tree seeds arrive at Svalbard's 'Doomsday vault':

Arctic seed vault 'key to future global crops':

Storing the World's Seeds in a Frozen Mountainside:

From sheep food to chili peppers - seed deposit at Arctic Vault takes the world one step closer to future food security: 

In the vault: David Osit:

Svaalbard Global Seed Vault: