If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a blue surprise

Spring has sprung and with it a flower like no other is appearing in our woodlands as a blanket of blue and violet. However, do you know how to spot the difference between our native British bluebells and the non-native hybrids which resulted from cross breeding with Spanish bluebells?

How to identify native bluebells

British bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

  • Flowers are a darker violet-blue colour however you may come across the occasional white or pink flower
  • Pollen is cream or white
  • Almost all flowers are on one side of the stem and the stem usually droops to one side
  • Flowers are narrow with straight sides, bell-shaped and have reflexed (curved back) petal tips
  • Sweet scent

Hybrid bluebells (Hyacinthoides massartiana)

  • Flowers are paler blue and often pink or white
  • Pollen is green or blue (but can also be cream or white!)
  • Stem is normally stiff and upright but occasionally may droop
  • Flowers are wider and more cone-shaped. Can also be bell-shaped
  • May be scented or unscented

As you can see from the descriptions above, it is often difficult to accurately identify a hybrid bluebell as it may carry several characteristics of native bluebells. This is one of the biggest challenges conservationists face in trying to protect our native species. If you have Spanish bluebells in your garden, only remove them once they have finished flowering, allow the plant to dry out and make sure the bulb is dead before you compost or bin it.

Why are non-native species a threat to the British bluebell?

The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is a garden-escapee first brought to the UK in the 17th century as an ornamental garden plant. However it readily breeds with the British bluebell forming a fertile hybrid which dilutes the genetic pool of British bluebells. The loss of woodland habitat and climate change are already threatening British bluebells and as the hybrids grow faster and spread quicker, they make a serious competitor.

You can help protect our British Bluebells by letting the Woodland Trust know of any bluebells you see whilst out and about as part of the Big Bluebell Watch


Let’s go Seasearching

Do you, like me, wonder what on earth all of the wonderful creatures and plants you see are whilst diving around the UK coast? The Marine Conservation Society’s Seasearch course is a fantastic way to gain identification skills, learn about the different marine communities in UK waters and also allows you to contribute to the protection and understanding of these amazing habitats.


It would surprise you to learn that some of the ‘plants’ you see on dives are in fact animals!

The Course

Earlier in the year I organised the Seasearch Observer course for my dive club with the wonderful Paula, Wendy and Kerry. This is the first level of training and once you have completed it you will be qualified to record the flora and fauna you see on dives and contribute to the Seasearch database. The data you collect will help to provide a picture of the diversity and health of our coast. The information collected by Seasearch volunteers has previously helped with the identification of sites as Marine Conservation Zones! Once you have completed the Observer course you then have the option of progressing to become a Seasearch Surveyor or taking part in one of the specialty courses.

The Dives

Over the summer myself and my partner Ian participated in a day of Seasearch diving. And they were quite probably some of the best dives I have ever done in the UK.


Scuba selfie in the blue on our safety stop

Unfortunately my extremely amateur photography skills have not done these dives justice. Every single one of the three dives we did off the coast of South Shields were packed full of life. I’m not sure if it’s because the dive sites were new to me or that my newfound Seasearch skills meant that I was just taking more notice of the animals and plants around me, but each dive was breathtakingly beautiful.

We saw animals we’d never seen before such as Tompot blenny’s, Flounder and even a sea spider! There were more nudibranch’s on one dive than I have seen in my four years of diving and a beautiful adult Small-spotted catshark who was too quick for me to get a photo.


Blue jellyfish

So if you want to learn a bit more about the life in our waters, enhance your diving and contribute to the conservation of the UK coastline I thoroughly recommend this course. Get in touch with your regional coordinator for more information and start Seasearching!


Let’s go Seasearching!

Fieldwork in Kenya

When I chose my course at the University of Leeds I had the option of paying extra to go on a field course to Kenya and undertake a short research project. The new postgraduate loan meant that I could afford to go, so how could I say no? I may never have the opportunity, or money to visit Kenya again.

If you find a course that gives you the option of conducting fieldwork somewhere other than your native country go.

It’s one thing to learn about conservation in your home country and how we go about protecting the places and creatures that are important to us. But conservation is a global issue. Go and experience the struggles and triumphs of conservation within other countries. Some aspects may be hard to deal with, but this is the reality of the field we have chosen to go into. You can never truly understand an issue until you experience it for yourself.

So just go!

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Me trying to look nonchalant at the top of Mukenya

Mpala Research Centre

The Mpala Research Centre was our home for the two weeks we spent in Kenya. The centre lies within the Laikipia plateau just to the Northwest of Mt Kenya. It has the fourth largest African Wild Dog population and scores of endangered Grevy’s Zebra. We stayed in small groups in houses across the Mpala campsite which we also shared with Dik-dik, Kudu, lizards and the occasional spider.

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Heathrow House was home to six of us during our stay at Mpala

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One of the beautiful Kudu that we frequently watched from our veranda

The centre has a library, equipped with articles published at the centre and every book you could possibly need for the research you might be conducting there. It also has a classroom, laboratory and kitchen (which serves the best chapati and lentil curry you will ever taste). The campsite is surrounded by fences which mostly keep out Elephants and larger animals such as Wild Dogs and Leopards. However smaller animals can get in, we were often joined for breakfast by Vervet monkeys and Hornbills. Just outside of the camp is hippo pool, which is self explanatory, and you can watch it live here! I could spend all day describing the parts of the 48,000 acres of the research centre that I got to see. However I feel like pictures will describe it much better than my rambling words, so I’ve put a short slideshow at the end of this post.

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A Hornbill joining us for breakfast

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The Vervet monkeys were very confident. Sneaking into the vans if the roofs were accidentally left open. They would even steal snacks right from your backpack!

My research project

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Team Thorn feat. James

Our group of six (Abi, Katherine, Aggeliki, Megan and Rosie) were looking at the relationship between four ant species and the whistling thorn acacia (Acacia drepanolobium). The acacias provide their own defense in the form of stipular thorns, and produce extrafloral nectaries and domatia to encourage ants to colonise and protect them. Nectaries are sites at the bottom of leaves which produce nectar for the ants and domatia are swollen pseudogalls at the base of the thorns which the ants hollow out and colonise.

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Myself and Abi with an A. drepanolobium on our last day. When we realised we might miss the prickly so and so’s a little

In return the ants remove insect herbivores and swarm to attack mammalian herbivores when they feed on the tree, protecting it from overgrazing. They can even defend against Elephants! In fact we saw an Elephant kick one over in disgust – I don’t think they’re fans. Within these four ant species (Tetraponera penzigi, Crematogaster nigriceps, Crematogaster mimosae and Crematogaster sjostedti) there is a dominance hierarchy, with more dominant species displacing the initial colonising species T. penzigi. Some of these ants are more useful to the Acacia than others however. C. nigriceps is even known to castrate the trees so that they cannot bear fruit!


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This Elephant did not appreciate the ants making it difficult to get a meal!

Black cotton soil is a unique habitat as it is almost entirely a monoculture of whistling thorn acacia. Many studies have been conducted into the relationships between the acacias and these ant species within black cotton soils. However it is unclear if the nature of these relationships are the same in marginal, nutrient depleted soil. Our study found that ant species had a greater impact on the allocation of resources for anti-herbivore defense than soil type. And also that thorn length was greater in transitional soils. We found that there was a correlation between investment in the size of both ant and thorn defenses in transitional soils. However, whether a trade-off between ant and thorn defense investment exists due to reduced nutrient availability still remains unclear.

If you’re interested in reading a bit more about ant-acacia mutualisms some key papers are  Young et al 1997, Stanton et al 2002 and Stanton et al 2011.

Unforgettable moments

A chameleon fell out of an acacia tree onto Ben’s head. There’s not really much else to that one. Just imagine it. It was hilarious. (N.B. both the chameleon and Ben were unharmed).

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Not said chameleon but another we met on our climb up Mt Kenya

We found the most adorable frog on an acacia tree. Frogs in the Savannah. Who knew?

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If anyone can identify this species please get in touch!

The gentle Dik-dik and Kudu that were nearly always present at our house. One evening we were sitting reading outside and the Kudu walked right past us.

Getting the call on the radio that Wild Dogs had been spotted. They had just made a kill and we were lucky enough to glimpse a pair through the scrub and long grass. My first wild dog. Ever. I was beyond elated and close to tears. Seeing Jackal puppies at the end of the trip nearly sent me over the edge! (For those of you that haven’t seen my first blog post I am obsessed with Wolves and dogs in general, so this was a huge event for me).

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The African Wild Dogs stuck around for over 10 minutes

Hyenas singing me to sleep each night.

And a moment I honestly believe I will carry in my memory forever. Up on Baboon Cliff we were looking out across the landscape spotting Elephants and Giraffes in the distance. Steve suddenly shouts out. It becomes quickly apparent that just below us is a Hyena den. We looked on as six Hyena lope out from the den and bound across the Savannah. A few seconds after the Hyenas disappeared the sky darkened and rain fell like I’ve never seen. Breaking the terrible drought that the region had been experiencing. We pelted back to the van singing Toto’s “Africa” and laughing our heads off.


Steve, Team Thorns project supervisor, was the first to spot the Hyenas (credit: Abi Harrison captured the moment perfectly)


Please note: whilst we visited a reserve where White and Black Rhinos were present I cannot post pictures of them due to risk of poaching. Unfortunately the reserve we visited has lost many rhinos to poaching.

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Students for sustainability

It makes me incredibly happy that my first post since I started this blog is one of very good news. Today I presented two ideas at Leeds University Union’s ‘Better Union’ forum alongside Plastic-Free Me’s Suzie Hall. I’m pleased to say both of the ideas were accepted!

Our first idea was for the Union to make the change from disposable plastics to biodegradable materials. Most of their disposable goods such as coffee cups and salad containers are already made from biodegradable material, however there are still a few items they haven’t made the switch with yet. Part of this idea was also that non-essential items such as straws and cocktail stirrers would not be given out unless asked for.

Photo from Sian Steel

Take that straws!

The second idea was to have a package-free food aisle in our Union supermarket. This would help to reduce the amount of waste produced both as individuals and as a Union. It would work by having weigh stations at which you can bring your own containers to – or you can buy one if you forget! Therefore you can just buy the amount of a product that you need so that less is wasted. I know I’m guilty of buying the larger boxes of things like mushrooms because they’re cheaper. However I never end up getting through them in time and have to compost those last three mouldy ones that I forgot about.

Disposable plastic and excessive waste production are monstrous environmental issues. They are things we often don’t think about as they don’t immediately affect us. And unless you live near the sea or a landfill site, it’s something we don’t see the physical effects of. Here are some quick facts for you

  • Over 50% of the plastic we use is single use, but can take up to 1000 years to break down1
  • Plastic can break down into toxic chemicals such as PCB’s and micro-particles which can accumulate in the bodies of animals. And us2
  • A recent study found that seafood eaters consume up to 11,000 pieces of micro-plastic per year3
  • By 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh the amount of fish4
  • UK households throw away around 30 million tonnes of waste each year5
  • Around 16% of the money you spend on a product is for the packaging6

These two ideas aren’t rocket science, and they are policies that are being implemented more and more around the globe. Biodegradable cups are becoming more common and we’ve had our first waste-free supermarket open in the UK this year. Our Union is already taking those important steps toward being more sustainable, and some of the ideas discussed were already being considered. It feels good to walk away from a forum where so many of the ideas were environmentally focused, and everyone had constructive, positive ideas for how we can work together to make sure these ideas are a success.

Hello world.

Hi, my name is Sian.


Hanging out with one happy husky on a frozen lake in Beitostølen, Norway

I am a Biodiversity and Conservation master’s student and I am about to step out into the big, wide world to start my career in conservation science.

Being outside, exploring places that border on wilderness excites me. Becoming lost in a dense forest where only the tunes of songbirds and the patter of deer’s feet keep you company, or taking solace a few metres below the powerful breaking waves of the North Sea. These are the places I love and want to protect. And I know there are thousands of you out there who feel this way too. So hello to you.

Outside of my studies I am an avid scuba diver. Four years ago I was a weak swimmer and preferred to observe the beauty of the ocean from the shallows or the safety of a boat (would you believe!). However after going a ‘Try Dive’ in the Uni swimming pool, 20 minutes later I knew I couldn’t bear to never dive again. And now I have a wonderful scuba family and have been able to experience in breath-taking detail an ecosystem so unlike anything I’d ever seen before.


Diving in the Red Sea, Egypt

Learning to dive invoked an intense urge to protect these environments that I was dipping into. It was a stark reminder that our carelessness can have a significant impact on marine communities. There’s nothing quite like the first time you see a beautiful sea fan hopelessly entangled with fishing line or the sea bed littered with beer cans.

My other love is wolves. I cannot explain it. Although I have never seen one in the wild (and will undoubtedly be a complete mess if I ever do), looking at wolves gives me that weak in the gut, overwhelming feeling – like when you fell head over heels in love for the first time. And if I am ever fortunate enough to be involved in the conservation of wolves, I will count myself as one incredibly lucky human.


Hudson Bay wolves (Canis lupus hudsonicus) native to Canada

This is my first blog. I am writing because I want to share my experiences and lessons learned with others who are trying to do the same. I also hope to inspire and share my passion with those of you adore the natural world around you, and to make it easier for you to make sustainable choices.

Conservation science is a difficult career path to take, as there are so many intelligent, impassioned people around the world that want to protect our planet. This may seem a little disheartening for someone just starting out, as the competition is so fierce. However it makes me incredibly happy that there are just so many of us that are willing to fight for conservation, and to have a career doing what we care about most. My wish is to share my experiences as I venture into this field of work, in the hope to create a network of like-minded people and share our collective experiences, which will enable us to strengthen each other.

So please, leave comments and feedback, send me an email with a question or suggest ways I can improve. Social media has allowed us to broadcast to the world that nature needs our help. Let’s keep using it to educate and inspire those around us.