Ant behaviour tracked by tiny radio receivers in pioneering scientific study

Researchers from the University of York are fitting one thousand northern hairy wood ants with tiny radio receivers in a world first experiment to find out how they communicate and travel between their complex nests.

The three-year research project will take place on the National Trust’s Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire a hotspot for these internationally protected ants. This unique site contains more than a thousand nests and is home to up to 50 million worker ants.

Experts will carefully catch the ants and in a few seconds attach a radio receiver of one millimetre to each one. The ants are the size of an adult thumbnail but this process will not interfere with, nor harm them in any way.

Researchers will examine how the ants communicate with each other in their colonies, which are housed in several nests connected by a network of ant highways, with multiple ant queens spread between the nests.

The findings from the research will then be used by National Trust staff on the Longshaw estate to manage the ancient woodland, made up of oak and birch trees, where the ants can be found.

Samuel Ellis, the biologist from the University of York, who will be carrying out the research, said: “This research is about trying to find out how the ants communicate and commute between the vast network of nests and how they travel in this environment.

“The radio receivers act like a barcode to mark out each individual ant. A single ant is not particularly clever but is part of an elaborate system that is clearly performing very effectively at Longshaw.

“The way the ants use this network has important implications for how they interact with their environment. And the way information is passed through the network may even have implications for our information and telecommunications networks.”

Findings will also influence the land management of Longshaw as the ants depend on sap-sucking aphids that favour oak, birch and pine trees but northern hairy wood ant populations struggle in dense woodland of this kind.

The ants use the honeydew produced by gently stroking these aphids to feed their young and in return the ants protect the aphids.

Chris Millner, National Trust Area Ranger at Longshaw, said: “It is fascinating to sit and watch the ants as they go about their business and they are easy to spot on a sunny day as they gather in vast numbers around their nests at this very special site.

“We will be carrying out some forestry work over the next few years, removing lots of conifer trees from modern plantations which will create a larger area of wood pasture, ideal for the ants to move into.

“The study will give us a real picture of where the ants are and how we can improve the habitat for them and other wildlife without causing disturbance.”

The northern hairy wood ant has an international near-threatened conservation status with the two main populations in England found in the Peak District (including Longshaw) and in the North York Moors.


Counting the cost on nature

Fears that the cold and wet summer has had a negative impact on some of our favourite bird species has been confirmed by the RSPB today.

Results from the Make Your Nature Count survey have revealed that less baby blackbirds, song thrushes and robins were seen in gardens of the 78000 participants in June. The cold and wet weather could be to blame, making finding sufficient food difficult. Let’s hope that later broods have done better.

In my garden I was lucky enough to have robins and blackbirds breed successfully (although the single chick of the latter species was lucky to escape the clutches of one of the dozen or so cats that prowl the garden). It’s possible that these species managed to fare better due to them nesting in the dense ivy that clothes an oak tree.

More worrying has been the almost total lack of swifts in my vicinity.  Usually in late summer dozens of young and adults indulge in frenetic aerial chases, screaming as they tear across the sky. This year though my local swifts have been silent, solitary and almost mournful. The lack of breeding success seemingly crushing their normal joie de vivre.

Hopefully the fact that swifts are relatively long lived (twenty years or more in some cases), means that like some of our seabirds a blank year need not have a catastrophic impact on populations.

So what has done well in this dreadful summer? Slugs, snails, midges and mosquitoes have loved the wet and we might be able to add another ‘pest’, the cranefly. Using the strictly unscientific analysis of how many I’m gently removing from my house, I’d say daddy long-legs are more common than in any of the last five years. Gardeners may disagree but for birds and bats it could be good news as they attempt to fatten up for migration, hibernation or braving the cold of winter. Or will winter, like summer,  be cancelled too?


By Peter Brash, National Trust Animal Ecologist

Life on a Special Point

I load my weekly supplies onto the boat and steer along a winding creek into Blakeney harbour. I pass a boat full of smiling people on their way back from watching the seals. A tern dives head-first into the water and emerges with a small fish. In the distance a blue building catches the early June sun: Home. I tie the boat to its mooring, a colleague unloads my bags and we trudge along the shingle to the blue house.

A couple with two children see the National Trust oak leaf on my shirt and ask what the small fenced enclosures are for. I point out a black-and-white bird with an orange bill.

“That’s an oystercatcher. They lay their eggs on the shingle. The eggs are camouflaged to protect them from predators, such as gulls, that will eat them. But this makes them hard for us to see, and easy to tread on. Have a look inside the fence-line and see if you can see any.”

At first they tell me there is nothing there, but then one of the children excitedly points out four eggs in the middle of the enclosure. I explain that I am one of the four people that live out here over the summer and protecting eggs is part of our job. I then explain that we must move on to allow the parent bird to return to its incubation duties.

“What a cool job” remarks the older child. It certainly is. In fact, it was very cool indeed when we moved into the former lifeboat house in April; there’s no central heating.

But this year, 100 years after the first National Trust warden worked on Blakeney Point, we have running electricity for the first time, due to the installation of photovoltaic panels; a luxury in this remote location.

Discussing today’s jobs with my colleagues over a cup of tea, I realise I had forgotten to buy any milk. Thankfully there is still enough left in the fridge. Tea has to be hurried as the conditions are perfect for a butterfly transect and the toilets need cleaning. Work is certainly varied out here. I will be savouring every moment until the season ends in September.

Ajay Tegala

Seasonal Ranger




Not so grim up north

This headline in the Daily Mail this morning caught our eye this morning:

Birds, butterflies and bugs that live in southern England are setting up home further north because of warming temperatures.

Experts at the University of York have studied 250 species which have historically lived in the warmer South and results show they are tending to colonise new areas which were previously too cold for them.

Matthew Oates, a naturalist for the National Trust, gives his thoughts on this research:

This is a really useful piece of research, and one which offers some hope – at least for a few species!  It is great to see success stories and rays of hope amongst the doom and gloom.

I do wonder, though, whether we still severely underestimate the true dynamism of nature?  Surely the status and distribution of species have never been stable, even within a relatively small country like the UK – and never will be?  Status and distribution must operate within a massive dynamic flux, which is hard for us to get our heads around, let alone measure scientifically?   Many of our more mobile species, such as some butterflies, seem to have curious cycles of expansion and contraction, over relatively long periods of time.  We are only just beginning to spot these cycles.  This type of research will help us understand this flux and these cycles, together with the impact of weather and climate.

Much of our wildlife is remarkably adept at pushing limits and exploiting windows of opportunity, provided by changes in weather or climate, and by changes in the distribution and quality of habitat.  Our gloriously variable climate assists and stimulates this dynamism.

It is great that our amateur naturalists produce so much useful data, on population size and distribution, which is then analysed by top scientists studying climate change.  Our children and grandchildren will appreciate this work.  Carry on!


Dame Helen Ghosh named as next National Trust director-general

Dame Helen Ghosh DCB will be the next director-general of the National Trust, Europe’s largest conservation charity.

Helen joins the Trust from her current role as permanent secretary to the Home Office. Previously, Helen held a variety of civil service roles including as permanent secretary to Defra between 2005 and 2010.

She will take over from Fiona Reynolds who has been at the helm for nearly 12 years. During that time, Fiona has grown the charity’s membership to four million and built a volunteer base of more than 67,000 people.

Credit 'Crown Copyright'

Helen said:  “I have been an admirer of the Trust and its work all my life, and I am thrilled that I have been given the chance to be part of its future.  I am delighted to be able to build on Fiona Reynolds’ great work in setting the Trust’s direction for the 21st century”.

Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, said: “The Board of Trustees is delighted that Helen will be the Trust’s next director-general. The Trustees’ strategy is to widen the Trust’s appeal and grow its membership. Helen is a distinguished and energetic public servant. We are convinced she is ideal to lead the organisation through what is proving a challenging time. We all look forward to working with her”.

Fiona Reynolds, who moves on to become Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 2013, said “I am delighted by Helen’s appointment.  The National Trust is a fantastic organisation to work for and I wish her, and the Trust, all the very best for the future”.

The National Trust was founded in 1895 to protect threatened coastline, countryside and buildings for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone.

Today the Trust employs more than 5,500 people and cares for special places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including 250,000 hectares of countryside, 710 miles of coastline and 300 historic houses and gardens.

Remembering Octavia Hill

In this Olympic year, we also remember the centenary of the death of Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust.

She died on 13 August 1912, after a long career fighting for social justice, decent homes and open spaces.

Octavia Hill was a tireless campaigner and activist. Her letters brim with passion, determination and a ceaseless commitment to the cause of improving the health and welfare of the poorest in society.

In 1888 Octavia Hill published an essay, ‘More Air for London’. It was a clarion call for the value of open green space to London’s rapidly multiplying population, particularly those crammed into the slums and narrow streets of the East End.

Hill measured the open green spaces available in different parts of the city. She found that the affluent residents of west London had access to nearly eight times as much open space as those in the eastern half of the city.

Octavia Hill examined closely the provision of open green spaces for recreation and sport in the 1880s

But this was far from being a dry piece of social analysis.

‘This is different from reason and science: this is life, and this is pain. This urges me to speak, making it my duty to speak, and that before it is too late.’

Along with Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, Octavia Hill set up the National Trust to own beautiful places on behalf of the broader public.

Huge parts of the East End may now have been regenerated with the Olympic Park. But we know the social causes that Octavia Hill championed are still very real, in London and elsewhere in the country.

There remain huge problems of social inequality, urban deprivation, and a lack of access to open green spaces.

The green and pleasant land that Danny Boyle showed us at the start of the fantastic Olympic opening ceremony continues to be at risk from inappropriate and short-term development.

Therefore, as we remember Octavia Hill in the year that marks the centenary of her death, we can reflect on the continuing power of her ideas. There is much in our Natural Childhood report, for example, that Octavia Hill would have recognised and sympathised with.

The links between the causes Octavia Hill espoused and our present-day social issues are explored in more detail in a collection of essays published by Demos earlier this year while a conference at Sutton House on 27/28 September will take a closer look at Octavia Hill’s life and times.

On 22 October a special memorial service will be held at Westminster Abbey to unveil a new memorial stone to Octavia Hill – the first of the Trust’s founders to be commemorated in this way.