An outstanding Hertfordshire naturalist

Phil Attewell, is the winner of the 1875 Award this year for an outstanding Hertfordshire naturalist this year and has been our county recorder for ants since he was a 17-year old schoolboy. In other words, almost half a century. From that remarkable record of commitment you would suspect that he is fascinated by Formicidae, and you would be absolutely right. As a student, Phil studied Zoology and Applied Entomology at Imperial College, crediting his place there to a sequence of interview questions based on observation nests of Formica sanguinea, the ‘Slave-making’ Ant, that enabled him to wax lyrical.

His paid work was in the emerging field of laser technology. This left him time to pursue his interest in ants while continuing to live in Hertfordshire. There are a few sites of potential interest across the county that he has not been able to visit – not least because they are on private land – but he can safely be said to have pursued his quest for ants from side to side and end to end. This is just as well since some of his most memorable finds have occurred at Hertfordshire’s geographical extremes. They include the discovery of a colony of a largish mound-nesting ant, Formica cunicularia, near Bishop’s Stortford in a red form only found in five per cent of the European population. The other known colony of this ant is in the south of ‘old’ Hertfordshire, now part of Barnet. During Phil’s time as recorder the number of confirmed ant species found in Hertfordshire has almost doubled from 13 to 24, including two ‘exotics’. Species he has added to the county list include Temnothorax nylanderi  – a small ant found in woodland leaf litter – and the tree-nesting Lasius brunneus that is now widely distributed. The dull black Formica fusca – an ant of heath and woodland – was rated  ‘hardly known’ in Herts in the 1960s, whereas we now know, thanks to Phil, that it is “pretty ubiquitous.”

His fieldwork reveals that Therfield Heath and Fox Covert are the most diverse place in Hertfordshire for ant species, which include his ‘new to Herts’ discovery from 2014 of Lasius sabularum, a yellow subterranean ant. He also delights in finding nationally scarce species in new locations, such as the nocturnal red ant, Myrmica schencki, which he has turned up at Nomansland and Therfield and Myrmica lobicornis identified at Nomansland, again. Phil is also credited with discovering two new ant species for the British Isles, though sadly neither has made it as far as Hertfordshire. Through microscope work he established that a specimen from the subfamily Ponerinae from Dungeness was the first, verified UK record of a mainly Mediterranean species, Ponera Testacea, that had been ‘split’ some years earlier from the better known Ponera coarctata. He also collaborated with an Austrian entomologist to identify of Tetramorium impurum, a species of so-called ‘Pavement Ant’ that had appeared in the Channel Islands.

For decades, Phil has been a consistent contributor to The Hertfordshire Naturalist and through the 2019 and 2020 issues that HNHS members will have discovered his important contribution to conservation through the reintroduction of a species not found in Hertfordshire since the 1950s, the impressive and internationally ‘near-threatened’ Wood Ant Formica rufa. Working in woodland on either side of the border with London (old Middlesex) he has collaborated with Burnham Beeches reserve in Buckinghamshire to translocate whole Wood Ant colonies. In Pear Wood, on the Middlesex side, a thriving  population has been established with a critical mass capable of withstanding predation by Badgers and Green Woodpeckers. More recently, in Bishop’s Wood, on the Hertfordshire side, Badgers dug out some promising nests in 2019 and the coronavirus lockdown impeded efforts to reinforce a depleted Wood Ant population. Phil, however, has high hopes for further relocations next spring. He is our outstanding Hertfordshire naturalist and 1875 Award winner for 2020.

David Utting, HNHS Secretary