Monthly Archives: July 2013

More dreams of a river

The Power station - enhanced

Britain has been baking in a long, hot, dry period over the past few weeks, ending spectacularly in thunderstorms and torrential rain last Tuesday; the very day chosen for a walk-over of the University of Northampton’s proposed new campus site at Nunn Mills by the ad hoc ecology group that is discussing the wildlife potential of the project.  To say that we got wet would be an understatement: the only way I could have got wetter would have been to jump into the nearby River Nene.  But it was a useful day for us that generated lots of ideas on how the biodiversity of the site might be conserved and enhanced.  The group included my colleague Duncan McCollin and myself from the University, officers from the Wildlife Trust, a team from Betts Ecology who have been formally assessing the site, plus other building and landscape consultants. 

In an earlier post I mentioned the eastern half of this site and its interesting “urban tundra” plant community.  The purpose of last Tuesday’s visit was to also assess the western half which is the former factory of the Avon cosmetics company.  If you want to take a look at the area for yourself, go to Google Earth and search “Northampton Nunn Mills” and it will take you straight there.  The imagery is from 2009 but it hasn’t changed much in that time, except that what looks like a small lake on the north side of the river is now a marina for canal boats.   The roughly oblong site has the company headquarters for Avon right in the middle, with the redundant factory to the west and south.  To the east is the former power station.  In terms of wildlife and biodiversity more broadly, the mix of standing buildings, bare concrete and piles of rubble look unpromising.  But there’s lots of wildlife already on the site (including common lizards, peregrine falcons and various bats) and great potential because of its proximity to other areas.  

The River Nene forms the northern boundary of the proposed Waterside Campus and is rich in fish, insect and (especially) bird life, though it has potential to be richer, particuarly if the river banks can be reprofiled in places to remove the concrete walls and create more river edge habitat.  On this brief visit we saw a range of bird species, including grey herons, common terns, black headed gulls, swans, mallards, coots, and an LBJ (possibly reed warbler), all directly reliant on the river.  None of these birds is especially uncommon but they hint at a much richer diversity along the river valley as a whole, including internationally important sites for over-wintering migrant species.  There’s also otters along this part of the river and one of the plans for the campus is to have a quiet, secluded stretch that includes an otter holt. 

The southern border of the site is delimited by both the Hardingstone Dyke (a drainage channel) and a disused railway track, both good habitats for a range of species, especially ground nesting solitary bees and wasps on the dry soils of the railway line.  To the east, beyond the large electricity substation, these features link with the Barnes Meadow Local Nature Reserve.  This all provides a local context for nature to colonise the Waterside Campus if opportunities are provided.  The broader geographical context for the Waterside Campus is provided by the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area project that I’ve discussed before.  The feeling amongst the group on the day was that there is great potential to enhance and create wildlife areas and it’s our desire to see these through to completion.  This will include ongoing collaboration between academics, consultants, NGOs and developers, as well as the University’s senior management team.  As an academic I’m also excited by the educational opportunities it will provide for our students as they monitor and assess the biodiversity of the development.  The next few years will be  interesting ones for us!  But we’re also interested in hearing from local people who know the area well and may have ideas about how biodiversity can be supported on the site; feel free to comment.            

A (Green) Apple for teacher (reduce, reuse, recycle part 5)

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At a small ceremony attended by businesses and local authorities on Friday, the team who developed the Biodiversity Index received a Green Apple Gold Award from The Green Organisation.  I proudly accepted the award on behalf of everyone and made a short speech which, in the spirit of my “reduce, reuse, recycle” policy, I’m posting here.  Thanks to Bobbie Lane for the photo, Richard Moore for help with the speech, and Gareth Thomas for the notion of biodiversity as the “fourth resource”.  


Ladies and gentlemen.

In June 2011 the UK National Ecosystem Assessment reported to Government that the value of the natural environment to the British economy was at least £30 billion per year in terms of the ecosystem services it provides, such as carbon storage, soil fertility, tourism and pollination.

In contrast, earlier this year the State of Nature Report by 25 of the UK’s leading wildlife organisations, suggested that 60% of animal and plant species for which we have data have declined in the past 50 years.  To add to this, some recent work by my research group at the University of Northampton has shown that 23 species of pollinating bees and wasps have gone extinct in Britain since the late 19th century.

Clearly there’s a contradiction here: at a time when we value biodiversity more than ever, it is declining at an ever-faster rate.  So what can we do about this situation?  How can individuals and organisations help to reverse this trend?  This is one of the aims of the Biodiversity Index.

Energy, water and waste are typically the main resources actively managed by businesses and organisations, but there is growing interest in understanding and managing biodiversity as a fourth resource that is critical for society as a whole.  In contrast to some of the other speakers you have heard today, the Biodiversity Index is not going to make you money.  In fact, if you are in the commercial sector, it will cost you a small amount of cash to join.  But the broader benefits of staff engagement with wildlife conservation, and the positive effect this will have on our country as a whole, are priceless.    

The Biodiversity Index is an interactive web-based tool, developed by the University of Northampton and believed to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.  It enables organisations with little or no knowledge of biodiversity to undertake a rapid but scientific assessment of the level of plant diversity on their site and suggests ways to improve each habitat.

The Index widens access to the knowledge and tools required to make a start in improving the management of biodiversity on urban sites, with the potential to assist schools and colleges, universities, hospitals, local authorities, SMEs and larger businesses to improve the environment in which we work and live.

The tool was developed as part of the SEED Project and was launched at the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges annual conference in April 2013.  To date the Biodiversity Index has been used by over 30 UK universities and endorsed by several companies including Ricoh UK Ltd, a Global 100 sustainability company.

On behalf of the team that developed the Biodiversity Index I am delighted to accept this Green Apple Gold Award as an acknowledgment of the innovative work undertaken in this collaboration between the School of Science and Technology and the Department of Infrastructure Services at the University of Northampton.

Thank you.

Are honey bees native to Britain? And does it matter?

2013-04-15 13.54.19-2

It’s no secret that I’ve become frustrated over recent years by the general confusion in the media between the concerns relating to honey bee health (which are largely veterinary/husbandry problems, though pesticides may also play a role) and declines in wild pollinators, which are a wildlife conservation issue mainly due to habitat destruction, though again pesticides are probably having an impact.

That frustration came to a head last year when colleagues and I published a short letter in the influential journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution that was prompted by a throwaway remark in an earlier article stating that honey bees “are essential pollinators for the maintenance of natural biodiversity”  No they are not.  And you can read for yourself why we responded to that article if you follow the link above.

In a recent posting on the Adventuresinbeeland blog, Emily Heath discussed her attendance at a recent British Library event about pollinators and pesticides.   I commented on the blog and in passing mentioned honey bees as being “not native” to which one respondent demurred and wrote:   “I thought honey bees ARE native to Britain, although they have been bred with various breeds ……. Apis mellifera mellifera is a British native, isn’t it?”.   I’ll paraphrase my response here:

The only study that I’m aware of that has addressed this question is Norman Carreck’s paper from 2008 – you can download a PDF of that article here.  Norman is convinced that Apis mellifera mellifera is native to Britain but, as I interpret it,  the evidence he presents is circumstantial and the earliest archaeological remains of honey bees are all associated with human settlements. Even if honey bees were originally native to Britain, the present situation, in which honey bees have been selectively bred and hybridised, is akin to using Tamworth pigs as evidence that wild boar are native.

However for me the most compelling evidence that honey bees are not native is ecological: despite their generalist nature and ability to form large colonies when managed, out in the wider countryside of Britain honey bees do not do particularly well. “Wild” honey bees are never very abundant (compared with some bumblebee species, for instance) and feral colonies in natural settings are few and far between.

This prompted a to-and-fro discussion with Emily that you can read for yourself.

Are honey bees native to Britain?  The jury is out but the balance of evidence as I see it is pointing to them being a human introduction.  Does it matter?  In many respects, no.  Honey bees are (like any other agricultural animal) a utilitarian species that provides us with a range of benefits.  But in one respect it DOES matter – and that is in relation to how we formulate and put in place strategies to reverse the decline of wild pollinators such as bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies.  If honey bees become the central focus of such strategies (and funding), due to confusion in the minds of the public, MPs, policy makers, businesses, the media and other influential bodies, then wild pollinators would lose out.  In my opinion that would be a great mistake.  I’d be interested to know what other people think.