Ever since moving to Cornwall, I’ve been itching to see a Basking Shark. I even fell over and hurt myself on the coast path once because I was concentrating more on hopefully gazing out to sea than on where my feet were going. Basking Sharks are in My Cornish Ark (see my earlier post), and deservedly so for such an amazing big fish.
And now, at long last, I’ve seen one! And not from the top of the cliff, but from a boat, really close. I was with a group of students from Exeter University’s Cornwall Campus – they’d been working on an end-of-term project considering the challenges in balancing growth and conservation – and we were all really excited, as none of us had seen one of these magnificent creatures ‘in the flesh’ before. At one point the shark was swimming slowly towards us giving us a clear view of its wide-open plankton-filtering mouth. Incredible!
Basking Sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) are the largest fish in the seas round our coastline, visiting us in spring and summer, and can reach up to 12 m in length. They might be big, but they are harmless, feeding as they do on plankton. They are also still somewhat mysterious, and we are only just beginning to understand their life history better. A protected species since the late 1990s, this would appear to have resulted in an increase in numbers compared to when they were hunted commercially for meat and oil in the twentieth century. Recent research confirms this, highlighting the seas of the South West coast of Britain as one of three Basking Shark ‘hotspots’.
Taking a wildlife boat trip out of either Penzance or Falmouth will give you a reasonable chance of seeing one at the right time of year. I took my trip with AK Wildlife Cruises from Falmouth Docks – you can follow them on Facebook for lots of information on sightings and comments from the knowledgeable team.
Like me, you may have enjoyed watching David Attenborough last night (Friday 9 November) on the BBC talking about which 10 endangered species he would save by taking on to his ‘Ark’. I was both entranced by the charismatic (and in some cases, very cute!) species he chose, but also saddened to be reminded about the threats facing them – all are at some danger of extinction, all because of us humans.
It got me thinking about what species from Cornwall I would want to save in my own Ark. So here is my list (of 8 rather than 10) – not all are unique to Cornwall, but all can be found here (for now) and are loved members of our Cornish countryside. It’s also a list based on my own knowledge and interests – what species would you choose?
1. Cornish Chough: No apologies for the Cornish prefix – although making a comeback elsewhere across Britain, this is an iconic bird of Cornwall. Absent from Cornish shores for three decades, a breeding pair first reappeared on the Lizard in 2001 (they’re still there! – choughs pair for life). The population has been growing since and choughs can now be found all around the Cornwall coast, in no small part due to the amazing army of volunteers organised by the RSPB who help each year in nest monitoring and guarding. A conservation success story – fingers crossed for the chough!
2. Hedgehog: Hedgehogs are in trouble across the UK. A report The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2011found that numbers have decreased by 25% in just 10 years – and that’s a conservative estimate. More research is needed into why, but loss of habitat is doubtless one reason. I’d like to see more hedgehogs in Cornwall, so they are in my Ark.
3. Basking sharks: I’ve yet to see a basking shark on the Cornish coast, though I’ve been trying – I fell over and hurt my knee on the coastal path last year when spending more time gazing oceanwards than at where my feet were going! Like the Choughs, these plankton-feeding majestic creatures are on the increase, due to their comparatively recent protection from commercial hunting, as shown by recent research. They’re in my Ark to make sure the success continues – I’m not sure how I’m going to fit a pair in, though!
4. Marsh Fritillary Butterfly: This is one of our most endangered butterfly species. It’s hanging on in a few locations in Cornwall, thanks to the work of various wildlife charities, including the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Butterfly Conservation (plus the dedicated volunteers of its Cornwall branch). I’ll need some Devil’s Bit Scabious in my Ark as well, of course – the food plant of its caterpillar.
5. White-clawed crayfish: This is another seriously endangered species – our only native freshwater crayfish – at threat from being outcompeted by the introduced non-native American Signal Crayfish, which also carries a fungal infection fatal to our home-grown species. Buglife and the Environment Agency have been leading on conservation efforts for this small but beautiful creature, including a release in Cornwall, so here’s hoping for success.
6. Skylark: A lovely bird, and we do still see it in Cornwall but, like all farmland birds, it has been seriously declining. I was once walking a little-used heathland path in the Cornish spring and accidentally disturbed a skylark who was nesting, hidden away right at the path’s edge – I retreated and watched to make sure she made it back safe and sound, but skylarks are in my Ark as an apology to her, and because I would hate to lose the sight and song of this bird from our Cornish countryside. Read the chapter ‘Hope for farmland birds’ in Mark Avery’s excellent book Fighting for Birds for a balanced and insightful account of efforts to save this and other farmland birds.
7. Short-snouted Seahorse: Some people are surprised to learn there are seahorses round the British Coast, but there they are, nestling beneath the waves. Mostly they are found in the warmer south-west British waters, including Cornwall. All are at risk – partly due to disturbance to the eelgrass and seagrass beds they need for their habitat – and the Short-snouted Seahorse is the rarest. Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Living Sea’s programme works to protect the places they live, as does The Seahorse Trust. Possibly my favourite fish, they are welcome in my Ark!
8. Pigmy Rush: In a departure from Ark-ish tradition, I am including a plant on my Cornish Ark. Pigmy Rush is an endangered plant, found in Europe, but in the UK only found on the Lizard in Cornwall. It is one of the smallest rushes, and colonises bare ground so likes land that is a little bit disturbed. Thanks to conservation management efforts, it has done well over the last year or so, including at Windmill Farm where artificial disturbance has been successful. You need to get up close and personal to appreciate its pink-flushed beauty, but it’s worth the effort!
Discover Cornwalls best trails. With over 250 miles of continuous coast path, areas of outstanding natural beauty, prehistoric burial sites and abandoned mine trails, Cornwall is a great place to go trail running, hiking or walking. Get out there and enjoy the experience!