The State of Nature in the UK

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This week, a coalition of 25 organisations which campaign and research on wildlife in the UK have launched a landmark report – The State of Nature.  This is the first time that the UK’s wildlife advocates have collaborated to produce such a comprehensive overview of the current status of native species, and it represents a significant achievement in biological monitoring.

The headlines from the report aren’t encouraging.  60% of the 3000-plus species studied have declined over the last 50 years, with 31% showing a strong decline.  There have been some alarming recent drastic declines, including some well-known species; numbers of Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) have fallen by around a third since 2000, for instance.

Of particular concern is the fate of a selection of species from the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, which have been a priority for active conservation efforts since at least the 1990s. The abundance of these 155 species, most of which are birds or lepidopterans, have been aggregated into a “Watchlist” which indicates the population trends of these priority species.

As the graph makes clear, the general trend is a steady fall – despite some welcome gains shown by certain species such as Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), the overall pattern is a 77% decline in these 155 species over the last four decades.  Of course, most would have been in trouble before this period (that’s why they were chosen as conservation priorities!), but it’s chastening to realise that despite 40 years of conservation efforts, these species have continued to struggle.

Overall, this impressive report paints a sobering picture of biodiversity in decline, but it also highlights how little we actually know.  There was sufficient data on 3,148 species to allow them to be included in the report, but this is only 5% of the estimated 59,000+ species in the UK, with some groups (such as invertebrates) particularly underrepresented.  This strikes me as a remarkable statistic.  The UK is densely-populated and relatively small, and has a long natural history tradition and an enviable network of both amateur and professional recording – and yet we have a good understanding of such a small fraction of our biota.  The data deficit in larger, less studied and more biodiverse regions such as the tropics must be larger still.

So, we can’t really say how 95% of UK wildlife is faring, and that worries me as much as anything.  It seems to me that if we don’t know enough about a species to evaluate its conservation prospects, it’s unlikely to be quietly doing well.  One of the findings of the State of Nature report is the fact that adaptable generalists are doing better that species with more specific requirements – and little-studied and under-appreciated species are unlikely to be adaptable generalists.  It’s not at all surprising that adaptable species are at an advantage.  Dramatic environmental changes (including climate change) are the harbingers of the Eremozoic, and so adaptability to change will be a crucial factor in ecosystems.

birdgraphDespite the limited data available, this important report is the best overview yet of the fortunes of UK biodiversity…..and it’s not looking good.  So, have UK conservationists lost the battle?  David Attenborough‘s introduction to the report smartly navigates the terrain between crisis and optimism, presenting it as a “stark warning” whilst taking “hope and inspiration” from the conservation efforts it highlights.  I wonder which message will predominate in reaction to the publicity gained by the report.

I choose to see The State of Nature as a call to arms rather than an inventory of defeat.  The biodiversity crisis is incredibly daunting, in the UK as elsewhere, but for me this report itself is a weapon in the fight against the crisis.  Knowing more about what’s at risk is an essential first step in trying to change things, and I hope the report will help to inspire people to appreciate what may be lost, and thus consider what might be done.

As a personal example, I’ll highlight the plight of poor, unloved Corn Cleavers (Galium tricornutum), which the report cites as an example of one of the most dramatic plant declines.  It was formerly widespread as an arable weed, but is now found at a single site in southern England, and classed as Critically Endangered.  For some reason I was particularly struck by the plight of this unglamorous, obscure plant, forced to the edge of extinction by agricultural intensification, and which looks very similar to its extremely abundant relative Cleavers (Galium aparine).  I’ll probably never get a chance to try and tell the two species apart, but I’m now engaged by the story of Corn Cleavers and will be watching it’s progress with interest.  There’s one more person now who would notice, and mourn, if it were to go extinct, and that’s a tiny spark of hope.  Perhaps conservation efforts need to start by capturing the imagination.

Corn cleavers

Eco or Eco?

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Thanks to the excellent blog ConservationBytes for sharing this eye-catching cartoon (original artist unknown)….

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The simple graphic suggests that questioning our prejudices about our place in the biosphere might help us to interact with it less disastrously.  I also like the way it echoes the fact that simple “food chain” depictions of ecosystems, though useful as illustrative aids, can only represent a one-dimensional understanding of the myriad complex interactions between organisms which actually occur.  There is still a huge amount to discover about the subtleties of ecosystem function and the remarkable mysteries of the natural world – in many ways we still understand very little.

“The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”   Eden Phillpotts

Extinction explored at the Natural History Museum

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London’s famous Natural History Museum is currently running a major temporary exhibition on the subject of extinction.  Extinction – Not the End of the World opened in February, and aims to explore issues around biotic extinctions; the scope of the exhibition includes the five previous mass extinction events which have punctuated the evolution of life on Earth, and the current sixth mass extinction, precipitated by human influence.

I was discouraged by the irony of UK environment minister, climate sceptic and general anti-environmentalist Owen Paterson (who has just approved the controversial UK badger cull) speaking at the exhibition launch.  Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to visiting the exhibition.  It’s good to see high-profile debate and information about extinction issues, and I’m interested to see how this important subject is presented by the museum.

I’ll be writing more about the exhibition once I’ve actually seen it.  Meanwhile, I recommend the short animation, Early Birds by Suki Best, which reflects on the beauty of birdsong and the decline in bird populations, and which features in the exhibition.  It can be watched here.

British Moths in decline

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A recent report from the charity Butterfly Conservation and the agricultural research station Rothamsted Research has cast a revealing light on the status of Britain’s moths.  The report is based on analysis of data from light traps, to which the insects are attracted (like a moth to a flame…) and safely held so they can be identified before release.  The study uses trapping records dating back to 1968 from a nationwide network of traps, and thus represents a uniquely comprehensive overview of trends in moth populations.

Unfortunately, it’s not good news.  The report reveals that populations of two-thirds of Britain’s macro-moths declined since 1968, with some suffering drastic declines, and 62 species suffering extinction in the 20th Century.  Population declines were more marked in southern England than in northern areas of the British Isles.  The study also identifies a (much smaller) influx of previously unrecorded species, with 27 new moths found here since 2000.

Garden Tiger (Arctia caja) : 92% decline in 40 years

Garden Tiger (Arctia caja): 92% decline in 40 years

There are several factors thought to be driving this general decline, notably urbanisation and habitat loss, and increased use of agricultural and garden pesticides.  It also seems that climate change – an increasingly significant pressure on biodiversity - is exerting a measurable effect on moth populations; for example, warmer conditions in the north of Britain may contribute to the less drastic population declines there relative to the south (which has also suffered the most intense habitat depletion).  Climate change is also thought to be encouraging the colonisation of southern areas by continental species new to the UK.

Although this significant report did attract some mainstream media attention, it’s fair to say that this decline will, in practice, not trigger widespread concern.  Although UK moth species outnumber butterfly species by over 40 to one, moths are much less appreciated than their more glamorous relatives.  Popular interest in nature conservation all too often foregrounds more attractive or charismatic species, and neglects the less prominent or “important”, a bias also reflected in conservation biology research.  Moreover, despite the essential role moths play in ecosystems – the Rothamsted report estimates a mind-boggling 35 billion caterpillars are eaten by chicks of Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) in Britain every year! – moths are easily overlooked and unappreciated.

This is a shame.  Moths are a fascinating group, with names that seem to evoke the world of the 18th Century naturalists who first named them.  True Lover’s Knot, Figure of Eighty, The Confused, Archer’s Dart, Green Horned Fairy, The Sprawler, Merveille du Jour, Scarce Silver Lines, The Lackey, Maiden’s Blush, Dark Dagger, Angle Shades, Red-Necked Footman: it reads like a list of characters from some fantasy novel.  For me, moths have a definite air of mystery about them, an association reinforced by the fact that most fly only at night.

Most of us are familiar with the classic sight of a disorientated moth fluttering around a candle or lightbulb, perhaps to its doom; it is drawn to the many artificial light sources with which humans have blitzed the night, and is suddenly blind to the moon its ancestors have followed for millions of years.  When one of these mysterious, less-appreciated Lepidopterans careers confusedly towards the light, we’re seeing a mysterious denizen of the natural world colliding headlong with the inhospitable human-dominated one, and often coming off worst.

However, the same phenomenon can be used deliberately and benignly to study moths via light traps, and thus inform measures to conserve them and their habitats.  I hold out hope that the light shone on the moth decline by this recent report may increase the will to address it.

“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

E. O. Wilson

A Raven and a phone

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My mobile phone broke the other day, and it made me think of rocky mountains and wild birds.  The phone succumbed to a damaged screen after I sat on it, making it unreadable; but the story began when it was initially cracked in May last year, by a hungry Raven’s beak.

Climbing with friends in the Cuillin mountains of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland, we left rucksacks unattended whilst diverting off the main ridge to the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.  On returning, I was surprised to see the rucksack pocket unzipped, with several chocolate bars missing.  Nothing else had been taken and the rucksack was undamaged, although my phone was now cracked.

Although I initially suspected a ravenous and unscrupulous mountaineer, subsequent conversations suggested the culprit was a Raven (Corvus corax); a friend climbing a nearby crag had witnessed (helplessly, from halfway up!) a bird calmly and precisely unzip his rucksack at the foot of the crag, and help itself to his lunch.  It seems certain that a similar fate befell my chocolate bars, and the cracked phone screen was a result of the Raven’s exploratory pecking.  Apparently this is not an unusual phenomenon on the Cuillin; local birds have learnt to exploit the exotic treats which they know mountaineers leave in their rucksack pockets.  This versatile intelligence is characteristic of the corvids, and along with their adaptability and boldness, suggests they will fare much better than most in the Eremozoic era.

ravenI liked the resulting crack on my phone, which did not affect its usability, and which reminded me of the glories of the wild mountains, and of the wild creatures that live there.  Mobile phones and similar devices are thoroughly indispensible now for nearly all of us (in richer countries at least), and there’s no doubt that our insatiable appetite for consumer electronics is a significant driver of environmental and social problems, especially in the majority world.  Moreover, to me they powerfully symbolise alienation from the rest of the natural world.  They encourage absorption in the abstract and virtual, whilst perversely giving the impression of immediacy and “connection”.

I’m convinced of the importance of direct contact with, and understanding and appreciation of, the living world.  As long as we erroneously see ourselves as separated from, or somehow above, the rest of the biosphere, there is little chance that we will be capable of rising to the enormous challenge of the extinction crisis.  Modern communications technology is a tremendous tool for information sharing, education, and debate on conservation biology – and I’m certainly spending more time in front of my computer as I explore issues around biodiversity and write this blog – but the Cuillin Raven’s cheeky peck reminds of the importance of looking beyond the alienating screen, and maintaining a meaningful, personal connection with nature.

When I sat on the phone the other day, the Raven’s work was finally completed, and the alienating device was dead.  Of course, I bought another one straight away – the same model (albeit second-hand), but with a pristine screen.  It’s a traditional time for resolutions; this year I reckon I’ll try to spend more time looking up to see the birds fly, rather than staring down at the screen.

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Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” Rollo May

20 years of the CBD

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Today, Saturday 29th December, is the 20th anniversary of the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  This anniversary is not generally commemorated, as the UN prefer to promote International Day for Biodiversity on 22 May instead each year.  Nonetheless, it’s instructive to use today to remember that the international diplomatic process has been in train for two decades, and to consider its effectiveness.

The 20 years of the Convention has seen biodiversity depletion continue unabated, and although there have been numerous individual success stories and some signs of hope, the general trend remains the same : a steady slide towards an Eremozoic future.  Those binding decisions which have been agreed by the Convention conferences have been disappointing in scope, and meaningful global agreements which might seriously tackle the biodiversity crisis have been elusive.  From that point of view, the CBD has failed.

In its favour, the Convention has been an important focus of international awareness, and does at least put the issue of biodiversity conservation on the diplomatic agenda – the intention is there, in black-and-white, in the text of the Convention.  Furthermore, the CBD has spawned various targets which set out measurable goals for “biodiversity indicators“, although I don’t see most of them being met; as biodiversity continues to be ravaged, it’s arguably a good thing to have the UN admitting, in terms of definite criteria, that it’s happening, and that governments are incapable of implementing their own plans to tackle it.  At least that would reinforce the urgency of the problem, and the scale of change required.

The frustration remains that the convoluted process of conferences, protocols, targets and so on are, in the main, failing to do the job.  There is a strong impression that, although the CBD is legally binding, it is not taken as seriously as certain other UN Conventions when it comes to compliance.  There is also the notable omission of the USA on the list of ratifying nations, which otherwise includes nearly every territory on earth.  It says something about how seriously the most powerful country on the planet takes the CBD process when it consistently refuses to ratify and implement it.

US President Barack Obama has a reputation for being relatively sympathetic to environmental concerns – not difficult considering his predecessors!  He has been honoured by having several new species named after him during 2012, including a darter fish, Etheostoma obama, a californian trapdoor spider, Aptostichus barackobamai, and an extinct lizard, Obamadon gracilis (which didn’t survive the previous mass extinction 65million years ago); he’s also previously had a lichen, Caloplaca obamae, named after him.

These species will, naturally, be unaware of their link to the most powerful politician on earth (and Obamadon gracilis, of course, is now, forever unaware of anything).  The taxonomists who chose the names surely did so, at least in part, with the intention of attracting attention and awareness of their new discoveries (not least from the US political establishment itself).  We don’t know how these newly discovered “Obama species” will fare over the next 20 years of the CBD; but, in common with the less-glamorously named majority of species, they’re likely to need all the good fortune they can get.  A more meaningful badge of conservation committment for Obama than these cute namings would be to prioritise persuading the US Senate and Congress to ratify the CBD, and then, crucially, to start to make that mean something.

The end of the world….?

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Unsurprisingly, the world didn’t end yesterday, despite all the hype about the “Mayan Prophecy” which is derived from the end of a cycle of the Mayan calendar.  It’s been interesting to see how this idea, in common with many an apocalyptic prediction, has successfully and widely entered public culture.  There’s an uncomfortable irony that people will talk, often jokingly, more easily about ideas such as the Mayan doomsday – for which there is scant evidence – than about the slow, seemingly inevitable slide towards real crisis which is unrolling in the biosphere, and for which evidence exists in grim abundance.

It’s possible that catastrophic events have led to extinction events in the past – for example, the KT Extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic is often attributed to an asteroid impact, or extreme volcanic activity.  It’s clear the the current mass extinction, however, is a cumulative process, more death-by-1000-cuts than guillotine.  Although gradual, it’s alarmingly fast, with the species extinction rate estimated to be between 1000 and 10,000 times the “normal” background rate.  This (along with climate change, which contributes to biodiversity decline) is the real crisis in the natural world.  It’s a shame so few people are talking about that.

The attention drawn to the Mayan civilization by the current doomsday chat, however, is instructive.  In their day, they were one of the most impressive and stable civilizations on Earth, but their civilization collapsed in a relatively short period of time.  Most scholars attribute this to a complex of factors driven by overwhelming environmental stresses; that’s worth pondering amidst the talk about the “end of the world”.

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The untimely demise of “Bowland Betty”

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Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus) are amongst the rarest raptors in England, with only four pairs breeding successfully in 2011, all in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire.  Once widespread in the UK, habitat loss and persecution led to eradication of the species on mainland Britain by the start of the 20th Century, and it survived only on the Scottish Western Isles and Orkney.  It slowly recolonised the mainland from these outposts during the second half of the 20th Century, returning to northern England by the 1960s.

With such a tenuous foothold in England, every individual bird matters – so recent news that a Hen Harrier was shot in North Yorkshire is disturbing.  The female bird, known as “Bowland Betty”, had become something of a figurehead for the conservation of the species in northern England.  Her untimely (and illegal) death by shotgun is symbolic of the intense pressure that such conservation efforts are under.  There is estimated to be suitable habitat to support 320 breeding pairs in northern England, so the species would be expected to be much more successful – but for severe persecution.

HHarrier2

Hen Harriers breed on grass and heather moors, where their prey consists mostly of rodents (especially voles), small birds (especially pipits), and nestlings.  This can include the young of Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus), a subspecies of Grouse endemic to the British Isles.  Red Grouse are a popular gamebird, and much moorland in northern England and southern Scotland is managed exclusively for the “sport” of shooting them.  Gamekeepers who manage these moors have therefore long regarded the Hen Harrier as an enemy, and you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce what’s driving the persecution of the beleaguered raptor; a 2008 study by Natural England found that persecution pressures were much higher in moors managed for grouse shooting.

Grouse moors are managed to provide an expanse of Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris), the main food source for Red Grouse.  Although regimes vary, the main components of such management tend to be burning to encourage regeneration of heather, eradication of predators (which legally includes corvids, foxes and mustelids), and drainage of wet ground.  It is certainly true that management for grouse has maintained areas of heather moorland habitat that might otherwise have been lost to agriculture or intensive forestry, and that such management can benefit certain other bird species such as Curlew (Numenius arquata) and Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus).  It’s also true that Red Grouse is itself a declining species which is, to some extent, being maintained by management for shooting. These facts, along with the general impetus to conserve heather moorland, sometimes lead to grouse shooting being cited as an example of good management for biodiversity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I don’t subscribe to this opinion. The picture is admittedly complex, with both costs and benefits to wildlife from management for grouse, but the overall balance sheet for biodiversity is negative. It’s hard to see management for grouse as much more than a specialised form of livestock farming; the fact that the “livestock” is a wild endemic does not alter that basic impression.  All management operations are geared towards maximising the density of Red Grouse, and effects on all other components of the ecosystem are subsidiary or incidental to that objective.  Heather burning and drainage of moors tend to create a less diverse botanical community, with concomitant effects on other species, and burning can also exacerbate soil erosion if not very carefully controlled.  The grouse themselves are encouraged to reach artificially high local densities so as to produce a “shootable surplus”, which tends to encourage the strongylosis parasite, and requiring grouse to be fed medicated meal to treat outbreaks.  And of course there is the energetic elimination of predators – which the early demise of Bowland Betty reminds us, may not just include those which it is legal to kill.

There is a large amount of evidence of persecution of raptors across the UK, often with strong implications that shooting estates are implicated.  Prosecutions for killing a protected bird of prey are rare, however, and there is a general impression that the law is failing to protect raptors from persecution by gamekeepers.  It is becoming widelhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2012/apr/20/richard-benyons-inclosure-quarryy accepted by ecologists that the health of an ecosystem depends on the survival of its top predators, and so raptor persecution has significance well beyond the effects on the persecuted species itself – it is, in general, an attack on the biodiversity of the upland ecosystem.

Shooting on upland estates is a lucrative business, with participants typically paying £3,000 for a day’s shooting.  This high value, and the cultural significance of grouse shooting to the British landed classes, justify the £52.5million which the estates say they spend per year on moorland management in England and Wales.  With financial stakes such as these, Hen Harriers and other rare predators will never be welcome.

The shooting estates also have friends in high places; UK Prime Minister David Cameron is a shooter himself, but the key player in government here is Richard Benyon, the UK minister with responsibility for biodiversity and wildlife.  Benyon, who is MP for Newbury (readers with long memories may recall his enthusiastic support for the Newbury Bypass) is rolling in inherited wealth, including a 20,000 acre estate in Berkshire, complete with Pheasant shoot, and an 8,000 acre grouse moor in the Scottish highlands.  He embodies the traditional landed gentry, with attitudes towards wildlife to match….

benyon2Benyon’s tenure as wildlife minister has been peppered with controversial decisions that blatantly bespeak his shooting heritage.  Recent broadsides from Benyon’s department include dropping a prosecution against the owner of Walshaw Moor shooting estate for draining and burning ecologically-rich blanket bog; proposing a plan to capture buzzards and blast their nests with shotguns in order to protect pheasant shooting (fortunately abandoned after a public outcry); and refusing a request from a parliamentary committee to extend a ban on possession of the outlawed pesticide Carbofuran, even though it is one of the main agents of illegal poisoning of raptors.  It really does look as if – to use a metaphor Benyon would appreciate – the fox has been put in charge of the henhouse.

Shooting estates claim to be wise stewards of the countryside.  In a sense this is true – they are very adept at manipulating an ecosystem to produce good numbers of their desired quarry species, at the expense of competitors and predators.  While this blinkered and skewed attitude to ecology holds sway in large parts of the UK uplands, the outlook for the likes of “Bowland Betty” will remain bleak.

New Snake Species found in Biodiversity Hotspot

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Finding a new species always excites conservationists, especially when the species is as distinctive as Imantodes chocoensis - a previously undiscovered blunt-headed vine snake found in north-western Ecuador.  The species is described in a recent paper by scientists from Quito, who confirm it as a novel species, differing from the very similar Amazonian snake Imantodes lentiferus in only minor anatomical details.  This has led to the theory that the two snakes, which occur on different sides of the Andes, are descended from a common ancestor, populations of which were separated by the uplift of the Andes millions of years ago and evolved into different species.

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Blunt-headed vine snakes, which are only found in Latin America, are beautiful slender creatures which “swim” through foliage by balancing their long bodies against branches and lianas; they can hold themselves rigidly against vegetation using the lower part of their bodies, thus leaving their head and neck free to seize prey, which are generally frogs, hunted by night.

The Chocó region where the new snake was discovered, and after which it is named, is one of the wettest and most biodiverse areas of rainforest on the planet, and is part of a global biodiversity hotspot.  The area is, predictably, threatened by deforestation – mostly for agriculture – but it’s certain that more species unknown to science still hide in its tangled forests.  It is, sadly, all too likely that some unknown number of these will become extinct before scientists get a chance to catalogue them.

Street art on the extinction crisis

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I’m not aware of much street art which highlights biodiversity depletion, so it’s refreshing to discover London artist Xylo.  His interesting and provocative work addresses a number of subjects, but species extinction is a particular focus.

The Critically Endangered Panamanian Golden Frog (Atelopus zeteki) symbolises the extinction crisis for Xylo, and has appeared in various guises in London streets…..

This species is an all-too-appropriate choice as an icon of the looming Eremozoic.  It has long been seen as a rare symbol of good luck in its native Panama, and is a popular symbol there, appearing on lottery tickets, for instance.  The animal itself is running low on luck, however, and it’s likely that the golden frog is now functionally extinct in the wild; it is sobering to reflect that there might now be more of these frogs painted on walls in London than there are living free in Panama.

Xylo’s other recurrent image in response to biodiversity depletion is his extinction symbol, which is reproduced in the sidebar of this blog.  The idea is that the simple symbol can be freely copied and re-interpreted to spread awareness of the mass extinction; some interpretations have been shared in an online photo-sharing group.  This simple but potent concept is an imaginative approach to increasing consciousness of the issue.

Xylo has also brought his work into the aisles of supermarkets, with several cheeky interventions…..

It’s good to see a street artist addressing biodiversity in novel settings and through a variety of creative approaches. The slide into an Eremozoic future, though arguably one of the most pressing issues of the 21st Century, remains poorly recognised or discussed in general culture, and Xylo’s imaginative tactics are a welcome intervention.

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