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.

5 thoughts on “Walking the turkeys to London

  1. Hooded Birder

    Very interesting post there Jeff, its like a seminar of Biodiversity and Conservation all over again…. except this time im under the influence of 7.3 pints of Fosters and am struggling to keep up more than usual!

  2. Ian

    It can be used to refer to parliamentary elections.
    “You can vote for who you damn well choose but at the end of the day we’re just walking the turkeys to London”

  3. Pingback: Six Kingdoms for Christmas: the cultural biodiversity of a winter festival | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

Leave a Reply to jeffollerton Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s