Sunday, 31 August 2008

Collins New Naturalists

The Collins New Naturalists are a British institution. Not only are they a particularly fine series of reference books on British wildlife and natural history, the series has become even better known as highly collectible. There is no question that the volumes contained within the series remain among the finest books available on the topics they cover, and even those that are out of date, still remain useful as historical documents. Some of the volumes have been completely rewritten and revised, but even in these cases, the original, long out of date volume, still remains useful.

But as collectors items, the series epitomises the stupidity of collectors, who collect for collecting's sake. The fanatical collector of new Naturalists must have the first printing of the first edition, complete with mint dust wrapper. And of course, this often means that the first printing of a first edition had minor printing errors, that were later corrected. And in many cases dust jackets were what they claimed to be: Covers to keep the book clean, before sale. In the case of the Collins NNs, however, the dust wrappers were beautifully designed, and deservedly became collectors items in their own right. However, because of the collectors' market, dust wrappers became valued beyond any real intrinsic worth, and of course are very easy indeed, with modern high quality photocopying facilities, to fake.

If ever you come across a New Naturalist collector (and many of them are genuinely interested in natural history as well, they will, like so many collectors tell you how much this and that is worth, and how their prized possessions are increasing in value. The reality is rather different. If you were to compare the price of many of the books with their original value when sold, they have declined. A book costing 30s in the 1940s, when a week's wage could be under £5.00, may still only fetch £20-£30 . And a quick search of the internet will show that many of the so-called rarer volumes can still be picked up for relatively modest sums. And of course, for the real naturalist, there is the advantage, that reprints and ex-library copies, usually under a fiver, abound. Allegedly, one of the rarest was a monograph on Ants, published in the 1950s, and apparently withdrawn from sale soon after publication. But if this was the case, there are still a remarkable number of even this, which should be the rarest of the rare, floating around.

I cannot take too seriously the collectors market, but it is gratifying in one way -- it means that HarperCollins have got a guaranteed market for new volumes, on almost any subject they like to publish, however specialised.

Friday, 22 August 2008

The World Land Trust builds on success

By June this year, the WLT had already raised over £1 ($2) million in the UK alone, and is all set to at least double its 2007 income. And this is good news, as the increase in income is not matched by an increase in fundraising expenditure. This means that even more of the income goes to projects, and in particular buying land.

The downside is that land prices are escalating almost everywhere. As the world's population increases day by day, and there is a demand for more and more food, even marginal lands are being gobbled up. The WLT recognises that land often has even more important values -- water catchment, for one -- and that we must not allow short-term profits erode the world's natural heritage.

That's why the world Land Trust's approach to saving land has been so important. In the 20 years since we were founded (initially to support Programme for Belize) we have seen more and more organisations follow us. When we started, hardly any NGOs were funding land purchase internationally. Now its a veritable bandwagon, on which everyone wants to ride. And that has to be a good thing. But as as our partners know, there are significant differences in the way we operate, and we believe that the long term success of our projects is largely due to the strength of our partners. Fundacion Patagonia Natural, REGUA, Fundacion Jocotoco, Philippines Reef and Rainforest, Ecominga, Guyra Paraguay, and the Wildlife Trust of India are just a few of our project partners. But our partners are not just a group we give money to. We have long-lasting well-developed working relationships with them. I have just spent a 5 week sabbatical in Paraguay, and for the next three months a member of the Guyra Paraguay team will be working in the WLT Office, to ensure that we work closely together for the long-term success of conservation in Paraguay.

But all this needs funding, land is disappearing under the axe and the plough. So please make a regular commitment to the WLT The price of a bottle of wine a month is enough to save the area of a small vineyard every year!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

chiffchaffs and Spaniards

Biologists are currently going through a phase of species 'splitting'. That is to say that what were once considered variable, widespread species are now being split into two or more species. Little green warblers in Europe, lots of marmosets and monkeys in South America and numerous other species all over the world are suddenly being created. But some of the differences are so small that I wonder if these splits are justified. If an Iberian Chiffchaff has a slight difference in song, and some very minor plumage differences to those found in England does it really make it a different species? After all Spaniards sound different to Englishmen, sing different songs, and on average look darker. But they are certainly not a different species. They can (and often do) interbreed with English women. And so, I suspect, could the Iberian Chiffchaffs, interbreed with English ones, given a chance. Just like their human counterparts, language differences may make it difficult, but not impossible

In terms of taxonomy, it makes relatively little difference whether or not they are considered geographical races (subspecies) or allopatric species. It does however, have a conservation benefit, in as much as it can highlight declines more accurately, and it probably has increased the number of endangered species being identified. But is this a good thing? Or is it misleading? Answers please......