Monthly Archives: April 2012

Darwin’s Unrequited Isle (part 1)

A busy week of biodiversity-related activities terminated last Friday in a frantic rush to make sure everything was organised for this week’s field course in Tenerife.  The field course has been running for 10 years and has proven to be both popular with students and productive, generating data for a couple of research papers, with more in the pipeline.

Tenerife is an extraordinary island as Charles Darwin recognised; it’s the place that Darwin really wanted to go to when he embarked on H.M.S. Beagle, though he never made it due to the Beagle having to be quarantined before anyone was allowed onto the island.  The captain decided to sail away and Darwin was devastated.  Hopefully the rest of his trip made up for it, but it’s interesting to speculate whether Darwin’s ideas about evolution may have taken a different path had he been able to visit the Canary Islands, in many ways an Atlantic analogue of the Galapagos……but I’m getting ahead of myself…..this week I hope (time willing) to post some updates about out Tenerifean activities.  But back to last week.

The comments sections below the articles on the Times Higher Education Supplement are frequently mires of vile, obnoxious trolling that would embarrass even Shrek.  However an interesting article by Alice Bell has raised a debate about what exactly it is that scientists (and other academics) should be writing.  Widening science communication should also include giving talks about one’s work to a non-specialist audience.  Which is exactly what I did on Wednesday evening when I spoke to an audience of 65 beekeepers, gardeners and farmers in South Warwickshire.  They were very attentive and asked some insightful questions for about 40 minutes after I’d finished speaking, stopping only when someone mentioned that the tea and biscuits were ready.   All told it was a 90 mile round trip through heavy rain but worth it for such an engaging audience.

Earlier that morning I had been interviewed by BBC Radio Northampton  about a report that has just been released indicating that the “native” [sic] Black Honey Bee variety is more common in the British Isles than previously thought.  Lovely.   Good news for the beekeepers I told them.  Now let’s pay a bit more attention to our 250 REALLY native bees, many of which have declined numbers, and 23 of which have gone extinct since 1800.  Not to mention the butterflies (though there’s recently been some good news as far as they are concerned too) and the hoverflies and other pollinators.

Thursday was Think Tank day for the SEED project and I took part in the biodiversity session, which was ably chaired and coordinated by Gareth.  It went as well as we could have wished and hopefully some concrete partnerships are going to come out of it.  But ultimately it was a talking shop and biodiversity should be about doing and experiencing more than talking.  Which brings us back to Tenerife.

On Monday we took the students up to the Guimar Badlands (Malpais de Guimar) a 40 minute drive north east from where we are staying in San Eugenio.  I like to take students to Guimar on their first day in the field:  the pine and laurel forests that we visit later in the week are physiognomically similar to such forests in Britain.  But the succulent dominated xerophytic scrub of Guimar is utterly unlike anything that most of them have experienced previously.  The field work we do at this site is always related to plant community structure, trying to understand how the biodiversity of the primary producers is “organised”.  There’s lots of different ways to measure community “organisation” in an ecological sense, of course, and this year we are looking at how the plant community changes along a gradient from the strand line limit of the vegetation, inland and away from the salty influence of the sea.  It’s an exercise I’ve wanted to do for a while because it’s always been clear that the plants DO change; we’re just never put numbers on it.  So we ran out four 120 metre transects and identified all of the plants that they intercepted at 5m intervals.  Lots of student frustration as they used a combination of identification keys, hints from me and guesswork to put a name to these unfamiliar species.  But by the peak of the day’s heat in the mid afternoon we had a data set and several sunburned students  [no matter how often you mention the word “sun block” there will always be some who think they don’t need it].

Back at our apartment complex there was time for a rest/shower/power nap, depending on your preference, before we reconvened to enter the data into spreadsheets and start generating some graphs.  And these preliminary data look really good, showing how the salt tolerant halophytes are replaced by the various euphorbias and other species that dominate the rest of the Badlands within about 40m of the lower limit of the vegetation, with other species even less salt tolerant and only making a show after about 90m.  This is biodiversity doing interesting things………

Tuesday was a trip up through the pine forest zone to Las Canadas at the foot of Mt Teide.  A long day through some spectacular scenery, interspersed with collecting data on bird behaviour at a picnic site and checking some populations of an endemic plant the Canary Wallflower (Erysimum scoparium).  Interestingly the populations to the south of Las Canadas have more or less failed to flower this year, probably because of the very dry winter on Tenerife.  Many other species have also not flowered and there are some implications for the pollination biology of this plant which I’m hoping we can quantify later in the week.   Will report back when I get a chance………..over and out for now.

Up a Mountain, Darkly

Someone (probably claiming to be wise) once said something along the lines of:  “There are many paths but only one mountain”.  Or possibly: “There’s only one mountain but many paths”.  Or some other contortion of those words and ideas.  I don’t know where it originated and a quick google doesn’t really help; there’s lots of permutations and attributions out there in cyberspace.  Whoever the author and whatever the original meaning behind it, the notion has now come to refer to religious and spiritual pluralism: believe what you like, worship how you will, we’ll all get to God in the end.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m in no way religious, and spiritual only in so far as wild landscapes, beautiful organisms, profound notions and great buildings make me feel a bit strange inside.  But it struck me recently that the paths and mountain concept could equally apply to approaches to environmentalism and biodiversity conservation.  It came out of  a conversation I’ve been following that’s going on over at Thoreau Farm between Wen Stephenson and Paul Kingsnorth.  The discussion began as a rather bad tempered exchange on Twitter but ended with a large degree of mutual respect and an agreement to differ.  It’s worth reading.

A few years ago I met writer and (former) environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth when he came to the university to give a talk about the ideas he was developing (with Dougald Hine) around the Dark Mountain Project.  Paul is an engaging writer and thinker, and the notion of the Dark Mountain intrigued me both as a metaphor and as a framework for exploring what it is to be “environmentally aware” or “green” or an “ecologist” (in all senses of that widely used word).  The debate with Seth centres around his (initial) impression that Paul and the Dark Mountain Project were promoting giving up the environmental struggle and letting things run their course: our society collapses, ultimately, and then we dust ourselves off and build something new.  However a lot of what the Dark Mountain is about is to build stories and ideas and other acts of creativity that will prepare us for this “Uncivilisation”.  As Paul argues, this is very different to “giving up”.

Some months after we met I sent Paul the first draft of an article that was subsequently published in issue one of the Dark Mountain book.  W(h)ither science was a very personal take on the role of scientists, and the knowledge they generate, in the early 21st century.  It was framed within the context of the Dark Mountain’s ideas of “what happens when it all goes wrong?”  I prefer to think of it as “if” rather than “when” because, as I originally put it, “knowledge is not predictable”.  In other words, we don’t know what will happen in the future, we can only prepare for a range of outcomes.  In the last two centuries England has lost about 95% of its diverse meadows and grasslands to intensive agriculture.  Linked to this around 10% of our bee and butterfly species have gone extinct and many others have declined enormously.  Yet our natural and agricultural ecosystems, and the society they support, continue to function.  How long that can last, who knows?

I am drawn to the Dark Mountain because it scares me.  The implications of its message are profound: our western (and increasingly eastern and southern) civilisation in its present form is doomed because our lifestyles cannot possibly be maintained at their present levels of resource use.  The resulting environmental degradation, intensified by climate change, will reach a point where ecosystem services will no longer be sustained and our societies will collapse.  It’s a bleak prospect but Paul sees it as an honest one;  as he puts it: “I am trying to walk away from dishonesty, my own included. Much environmental campaigning, and thinking, is dishonest. It has to be, to keep going.”

Sometimes it’s good to be scared.  Karin and I attended the first Dark Mountain Festival in summer 2010 and thoroughly enjoyed the mix of spoken word, music, art and creativity (but not the Welsh weather, the walk back to the camp site or the crappy beer).  However we missed the second festival in 2011 as I was teaching on the TBA Tanzania field course I referred to in an earlier blog.  Also teaching on that course was a remarkable Dutch entomologist Klaas-Douwe Dijkstra.   K.-D., as he is known universally, is an authority on the Odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies.  He is probably the most widely traveled African odonatologist there is, with an encyclopaedic memory for the details of African dragonfly biodiversity.  This week he and a raft of colleagues have published an important paper on the diversity of African Odonata and how they can be considered as “guardians of the watershed”.

Also this week, our research group has been joined by André Rodgrigo Rech from Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil.  André will be working with me for the next 12 months on his doctoral thesis on pollination and reproductive biology in some neotropical members of the plant family  Dilleniaceae.  He’s also going to get involved with some of this season’s field work.  These collaborative processes are important to scientists as they widen the scope of our knowledge: I’m going to learn a lot about some plants that I’m unfamiliar with and André will gain an understanding of temperate European plants and pollinators.

The contrast between these ways of doing scientific conservation and the Dark Mountain project is striking.  But I see them not as at odds with one another, but as complimentary.   As Paul says in one of his contributions to the debate with Seth: “Do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right.”  To paraphrase: find your own path.  The mountain is dark and we have no idea what’s at the top.  But there are plenty of mountaineers traveling up its many faces, some on paths well trod and others hacking their own trails.  See you at the summit.

Walking the turkeys to London

The March 2012 issue of the British Ecological Society’s quarterly Bulletin contains an article by Bill Sutherland and colleagues entitled “What are the forthcoming legislative issues of interest to ecologists and conservationists in 2012?”  This is the second of their annual “horizon scanning” exercises and provides a very useful map of UK, European and international developments that relate to the conservation of biodiversity.   The article identifies 35 (THIRTY FIVE!) separate conventions, policies, legislative tools and reviews that we need to keep at least half an eye on over the next 12 months.  These include high profile international events like the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development; European initiatives such as the proposed reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy; and UK developments of more (The 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity) or less (Reform of the House of Lords) direct importance to biodiversity.

After reading the article I was left feeling over whelmed by it all.  It’s no wonder that many scientists don’t engage with the societal impacts and implications of their work and stick squarely to the science.  Nothing wrong with that at all and a few years ago I would have agreed with them:  I was happy to keep away from the touchy-feely politico-gabfest end of it all too.  But after 20 years of doing science that was relatively “pure” in the sense that it was concerned with the fundamental aspects of the biodiversity of species interactions (particularly plant-pollinator relationships) my research seems to have shifted more towards work that feeds into biodiversity conservation.  Of course I always argued (and will continue to) that conservation requires a sound scientific underpinning if it is to be effective: it’s hard to conserve what we don’t understand.   But much of the research that’s taken place in the LBRG over the last five years or so has been more or less directly conservation focused.  For example, some of my current and former postgraduates work on topics such as the biodiversity of restored landfill sites (Lutfor Rahman and Sam Tarrant) and the management of small fragments of habitat on commercial sites (Gareth Thomas).   In part this has been purely pragmatic: it’s easier to convince organisations to fund research if you say: “This has important implications for conservation” rather than saying: “This is an interesting scientific question”.  But one should never lose sight of the science that makes the work meaningful in the first place.  Getting that balance between applied conservation (and potentially policy) and the fundamental science can be hard.  Articles such as Bill’s, important though they are, can make one feel like a migrating salmon swimming against the river’s current and trying to make headway in a stream of oncoming information from NGOs, government and international agencies, not to mention the scientific journals.

Overwhelming, as I said, so it’s nice therefore to have some down time.  I’ve been on leave most of this week apart from a couple of meetings on Wednesday, and have caught up with various tasks relating to car, house, life and family.  It’s also been good to get into the garden and plant potatoes and other veg.  We only moved into this house at the end of January so the garden has been slowly evolving from its original state of 90% lawn and 10% side borders, to something a lot more interesting.  Whilst planting I’m keeping track of the number of species of bees and other pollinators I spot in the garden and will report back later in the year.

As well as gardening the Easter break is a good opportunity to reconnect with some real biodiversity rather than just talking and writing about or teaching it.  With this in mind on Thursday Karin and I took ourselves on a six mile round trip hike from home, up through Kingsley and on to Bradlaugh Fields.   Named after 19th century radical atheist politician Charles Bradlaugh, this urban park is one of my favourite places in Northampton, both for relaxing and as a site for teaching and research projects.  As well as a system of very ancient hedgerows, some of which may be at least 1000 years old if you apply Hooper’s Rule, Bradlaugh Fields also includes two ecologically valuable Local Nature Reserves that are managed by one of our graduates, Ian Wilson.  Over the years we’ve visited them with students to look at how different grazing regimes can be used to manage grasslands and how the underlying geology affects the local mosaic of plant assemblages.  Published research from the site includes work on: the function of floral traits in wild carrot (Daucus carota); pollinator sharing between a parasitic plant and its host; and how natural selection may be shaping the flowering times of plant species.  There’s more data to be published in the future including a 15 year (and counting) phenological study of flowering time in the parasitic plant/host system.

The day was rather cold and grey but the fine weather during March meant that quite a lot of plants were in full flower including great swathes of ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), an important early nectar source for solitary bees, bee flies, queen bumblebees and other early emerging pollinators.

It was a really pleasant walk and set us up for a nice cup of tea when we returned.  But what, I hear you asking, does the title of this blog have to do with biodiversity or conservation or ecology?  Or anything for that matter?  Well, “walking the turkeys to London” was an expression that Karin and I dreamt up on our Bradlaugh Fields walk.  We were chatting about a TV programme we’d watched the other evening about traditional ways of producing food in Britain.  One of the items featured was about black turkey raising in Norfolk.  Following the fattening of the birds on recently harvested grain fields, the birds along with sheep, pigs, and other livestock were transported to Smithfield Market in London.  On foot.  The drovers and their animals would average only 3 miles a day and take several weeks to travel to the capital.  It was all redolent of a slower paced way of life, before there were 35 (THIRTY FIVE!) things to bear in mind before we consider the science.  It seemed to us that “walking the turkeys to London” could be the next catch phrase to follow on from clichés such as “thinking outside the box”, “running it up the flagpole and seeing if it flies” and (my current bête noir) “going forward” (what other bloody direction are events likely to move in?).  Only thing is, we are not sure what “walking the turkeys to London” might refer to.  It could relate to the opening of this blog; the idea of the slow slide of science from the labs and research groups towards informing action and policy in the centre of things at Westminster.  Except that “turkey” has such negative connotations: how many scientists, keen to show that their research has impact, are likely to say “let’s walk this turkey to London”?

Whatever it means, the phrase is out there now; it will either be picked up and used or fall flat.  That’s language and it evolves, or stays static, just like the rest of biodiversity.