Naturalists show that city is buzzing with wildlife

Sheffield BioBlitz at Weston Park: Paul Richards of Sorby examines a millipede by the incoming computer records
Sheffield BioBlitz at Weston Park: Paul Richards of Sorby examines a millipede by the incoming computer records

“HAVE we got a mute swan yet?”

Time was running out on Saturday afternoon and ranks of naturalists were scanning species lists and computer files at Weston Park Museum.

The Sheffield Bird Study Group had two mute swans at Catcliffe Flash, with cygnets. “No good. That’s in Rotherham,” said Derek Whiteley.

The Sheffield BioBlitz was culminating at 3pm after 48 hours of recording by professionals and keen amateurs across the city. The naturalists at the museum BioBlitz hub were sifting through emails, lists and occasional small jars containing invertebrate Sheffielders.

Paul Richards, for example, was very excited about a Cryptops anomalans.

“It was in some builders’ rubble in Neepsend,” he explained. “I squealed when I saw it. But that might have been the nettles.”

Cryptops anomalans is a type of centipede, rare to Sheffield. This was the third sighting, he noted. He’d also come up with a ring ouzel and a striped snake millipede, the latter of which was waving at him, presumably to hold his attention after he’d dropped it on the museum floor.

A BioBlitz is a timed search for species of wildlife in a particular area. Professional naturalist Derek Whiteley was inspired to set up one in Sheffield after taking part in a similar event in Scarborough.

“There was a real buzz about the event,” said Derek. “There was lots going on, people going out and finding species, the clock ticking as the number of species was going up, meeting lots of people with different interests. It was all very exciting.”

A one-day blitz at Shirebrook last year proved successful, so Derek got together the Sorby Natural History Society, Museums Sheffield, Sheffield Biological Records Centre, Sheffield Environment Weeks, Sheffield Eco-Schools and a host of local (and national) wildlife groups and unleashed them into the country’s greenest city.

The aim was to count 1,000 different species. By the 3pm deadline over 800 had already been amassed, but there were plenty more to come in, said Derek. “I’ve got a pile of insects waiting on my desk at home,” he noted.

The blitz was counting everything that could be counted: from trees to lichens, from mountain hares to ants. The limits were set only on the experts available: in future, microscopic life forms could readily be included.

“One of the aims was simply to engage the public and local schools,” said Derek. “And it’s a lot of fun. But there is a serious side, as these records will be added to the Sheffield Biological Records database and can then be used for science and conservation.”

Sheffield’s natural history records are recognised as being some of the best in any city in the world, thanks to the work of local naturalists dating back to the 18th century, Derek said.

The event found how such records can work: during a foray in Holbrook, the blitzers found the pill wood louse settling in to its new home.

“The database influences how places are managed,” said Derek “In this case a cycle path was being built through the site where the pill wood louse lived, so a new habitat was created next to the path.

“The cycle path went through and destroyed the original habitat but we found the wood louse had moved to the new habitat. This happens a lot now: it’s called mitigation, and it works.”

Fifteen wildlife groups had led species-finding events over the 48 hours from 3pm on Thursday and several local schools had got involved. The Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland had even organised a national trip to investigate the snails of the Rivelin Valley.

Highlights for Derek, Paul and the museum’s curator of Natural History Alistair McLean were varied: the Natterer’s bat sweeping like a pale ghost over Wire Mill Dam, the mountain hares bounding over the city boundary from the moors, the peregrine falcon and chick near Broad Lane roundabout, the unidentified stonewort, a primitive plant that ecologist Jean Glasscock hadn’t seen for years and the tiny pseudo scorpion, which “blew everyone’s minds”, said Paul Richards.

People are interested in the wildlife around them, said Derek Whiteley. “It’s a spiritual thing, to do with well-being, and people do realise we need to conserve nature.”

The numbers continued to creep up on Monday until Sorby Natural History Society was able to announce that the 1,000 target had been reached. Alistair had felt that would be the case, despite overcast weather that may have been good for the Conchological Society but kept most flying insects hiding in the bushes.

The event was a success, said Derek Whiteley, and there’ll be another Sheffield BioBlitz next May when we’ll have another chance to blitz our biscuit beetles, our bulbous buttercups, our banded snails, our buzzards and our buff-tailed bumble bees.;