It's okay to drone on...

It’s okay to drone on…

Find out why in the latest collection of unusual tales for Subs Club members only!

Counting on drones

With apologies to citizen scientists: a University of Adelaide study has shown that when it comes to wildlife counts, technology can sometimes provide a more accurate answer.

“For a few years now, drones have been used to monitor different animals that can be seen from above, including elephants, seals and nesting birds. But, until now, the accuracy of using drones to count wildlife was unclear,” says the study’s lead author Jarrod Hodgson.

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“We needed to test the technology where we knew the correct answer. We couldn’t use wild animals because we could never be sure of the real number of individuals present.” The answer was a few thousand rubber ducks and the #EpicDuckChallenge.

The researchers used the ducks to create fake bird colonies on a beach in Adelaide. Experienced wildlife spotters with binoculars were then pitted against a team counting the ducks from drone imagery to see which group could get closest to the actual number. The drone approach won.

“Accurate monitoring can detect small changes in animal numbers. That is important because if we had to wait for a big shift in those numbers to notice the decline, it might be too late to conserve a threatened species,” says Jarrod Hodgson. “Our results show that monitoring animals with drones produces better data that we can use to proactively manage wildlife.”

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Pollinator monitors needed

Meanwhile, however, human citizen scientists are required for two new surveys being launched by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). Its Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership aims to combine improved analyses of long-term records with new systematic surveys to establish how insect pollinator populations are changing across Britain.

Two new surveys will form the Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS). The Flower-Insect Timed Count is a simple survey which aims to engage a wide range of volunteers, collecting data on how often a range of pollinators visit specific flowers.

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The second, more comprehensive survey involves designated 1km squares. This is a systematic survey of pollinators and floral resources on cropped and non-cropped land across England, Wales and Scotland. The site network and baseline surveys have been set up by CEH surveyors, and there are now opportunities for volunteers to ‘adopt’ the squares and help carry out the surveys.

Many insect pollinators are becoming less widespread in Britain, says CEH, and we have limited understanding of the effect on pollination. This is largely due to the lack of long-term, standardised monitoring. The problem with many previous surveys is that they have been biased towards places recorders like to visit, or particular species of interest, and this new systematic survey aims to address that.

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Slugs slide off top pest spot

The box tree moth caterpillar was the top pest in 2017. Picture: RHS/Carol Sheppard

Slugs and snails have been pushed off the podium by box tree moth caterpillars, which have regained the number one position they held in 2015. Increasingly common in London and the Home Counties, the caterpillar feeds on the leaves of box, causing severe defoliation. Honey fungus retained the top spot for plant diseases in 2017 – for the 22nd year running.

These dubious claims to fame derive from the RHS annual rankings of the top 10 pests and diseases. These reflect the number of enquiries received by its Gardening Advice service, meaning that novel issues tend to outrank more perennial problems, but they nevertheless serve to highlight new and growing areas of concern for gardeners.

Top 10 pests 2017

1 Box tree caterpillar

2 Fuchsia gall mite

3 Vine weevil

4 Slugs and snails

5 Alder leaf beetle

6 Viburnum beetle

7 Tortrix moth

= 8 Glasshouse mealybug

= 8 Pear blister mite

10 Woolly aphid

Top 10 diseases 2017

1 Honey fungus

2 Phytophthora root rots

3 Rusts

4 Powdery mildews

5 Box blight

6 Volutella blight of box

7 Leaf spot and canker of Prunus

8 Verticillium wilt

9 Blossom wilt of fruit trees

10 Kerria twig and leaf blight

Gerard Clover, head of plant health at the RHS, says: “This year’s pest and disease ranking points to the continuing problems inflicted on gardens by old foes like honey fungus but also new and emerging threats like box tree caterpillar, fuchsia gall mite and kerria twig and leaf blight. With new pests and diseases emerging in continental Europe, it has never been more important that people get to grips with what is going on in their gardens.”

RHS predictions of problems to look out for in 2018 include diseases of edible crops. With changing weather conditions, the withdrawal of fungicides and the use of highly susceptible cultivars, problems such as apple and pear scab, which causes dark, scabby markings on fruit, and pear rust, which causes bright orange spots on leaves, are expected to become increasingly troublesome.

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Seed store reaches 1,000,000

Svalbard – variety is the spice of life here in the seed vault!

The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, in the Arctic Circle north of Norway, has celebrated its 10th anniversary – and has also just taken delivery of a consignment that brings its seed variety count up to the one million mark.

More than 70,000 new crops were added, and one of the vault’s three chambers is now almost full. The reinforced vault, which contains frozen storage chambers buried deep within a mountain, is designed to hold back-ups of samples stored in seed banks around the world, to safeguard the world’s food supply amid pressures such as drought and climate change.

The vault opens about twice a year for deposits. The latest additions include unique varieties of rice, wheat and maize; Bambara groundnut, which is being developed as a drought-tolerant crop in Africa; the rare Estonian onion potato; and barley used to brew Irish beer. Scientists estimate that there are about 2.2 million unique varieties of crops in the world’s gene banks that will eventually be deposited at Svalbard.

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About the Author

Steve Ott
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