Monthly Archives: October 2013

Je ne egret rien

Little Egret - cropped

Conservation does not mean the same as preservation, despite the popular synonymy of these two words.  Preservation implies that something remains the same, is static and held in the same unchanging state.  One can preserve an old book, or fruit, or traditions for instance.  But one cannot preserve biodiversity because species change in abundance and distribution, regardless of the activities of humans.  That’s just how nature is.  One could take a deep time view of such change and consider the ancient habitats and organisms that built much of Britain’s underlying geology, as I mentioned when I described some walking on the Dorset coast a while back.  But even over shorter time scales that are comprehendible to humans, biodiversity changes, by the day, the month and the year.

That’s where egrets, and the pitiful punning title of this post, come in.  At the end of last week Karin and I spent a long weekend on the Suffolk coast, in the village of Walberswick.  It’s an old stomping ground for Karin but I don’t really know this area very well at all.  We spent our time talking and reconnecting, eating local food, drinking the good local Adnams beer, walking along the beaches, through saltmarsh and reed beds, and collecting stones and sea glass (I really like sea glass and have amassed bottles of the stuff over the years that we keep on sunny windowsills – think of it as aesthetic waste management).  And we looked at birds as we encountered them in these rich, diverse habitats.  Final total for the weekend was a respectable 37 species, including a few I couldn’t identify, helped along by a trip to the RSPB’s Minsmere Reserve (with, it seemed, every other birder in Suffolk; we had to queue to get into some hides). 

Two of the species we saw were egrets, a common name that covers several genera in the heron family Ardeiedae.  As the Wikipedia entry for egrets notes: “The distinction between a heron and an egret is rather vague, and depends more on appearance than biology”, as good an argument for the importance of scientific species names as any I’ve encountered. 

The first of the two species I spotted was the Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), an elegantly roaming bird that actively hunts along river margins and through marshland and flooded fields.  I was able to get within 10 metres or so of a bird at Walberswick and could admire its poised movements on vivid yellow feet, contrasting with black legs to make it look like a woman wearing footless stockings, as Karin put it (she took the photograph that accompanies this entry).  The second species of egret was the Great White Egret (Ardea alba), a much taller bird than the first, and an ambush hunter; like the related Grey Heron its strategy is to stand still and wait until prey comes to it.

The earliest record of a Little Egret in Britain was almost 200 years ago, in East Yorkshire in 1826.  However it is not known to have bred in this country until a pair did so in Dorset in 1996.  In other words, just 20 years ago this was an uncommon bird in Britain whose rare arrival would have generated a flurry of local twitching.  Now it hardly gets a mention on birding sites, we are so familiar with it.  Not so the Great White Egret which still raises some excitement when it appears.  Although this species was also recorded as early as 1821 in Britain, Great White Egrets only began to breed in Britain in 2012 and there is considerable anticipation that it will follow the Little Egret in expanding its population in this country.

We could add other birds to this list of species which have naturally colonised Britain within living memory, such as the almost ubiquitous Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) as well as insects such as the Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum and the Ivy Bee Colletes hederae.  Others will undoubtedly follow in the future, and perhaps the Cattle Egret will be the next member of the heron family to take up permanent residence on our shores.

Of course the flip side of new arrivals such as these is extinction, a topic that I will return to at some point as we’re currently putting the finishing touches to what I hope will be an exciting new paper on British bee and wasp extinctions.   Understanding the ebbs and flows of biodiversity over time requires data to be collected and we are fortunate in Britain to have a number of active monitoring schemes that regularly survey different groups of organisms.  This activity is vital if we are to be able to monitor our wildlife and to take action if we see declines, though the most recent results for the Status of Priority Species index makes grim reading:  the overall abundance of threatened species in the UK declined by 68% between 1970 and 2010.  It’s a complex message, though, and there are some success stories within those statistics.  But the animals that have fared worst have been the insects, particularly moths and some of the bees, wasps and ants.

Against this background of monitoring and decline I was happy to accept an invitation last week to attend a Defra-sponsored meeting at the Natural History Museum in London to discuss the setting up of an insect pollinator monitoring scheme.  A group of about 50 scientists and conservationists discussed what such a scheme might look like and how it could be implemented.  I’ll report back in more detail about this in the future once some decisions have been made as to how to proceed.

Meetings such as this, as well as being important in their own right, provide an opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues and discuss their latest work, or latest child/house move/job move, as appropriate.  So it was good to have a couple of beers after the meeting and chat with a few people including Dave Goulson, arguably one of the most significant scientists working in British pollinator conservation, and an outspoken critic of the current use of neonicotinoid pesticides.  Dave founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and has produced a lot of the scientific literature on bumblebees as he describes with wit and passion in his recent book A Sting in the Tale.  I’ve known Dave for over twenty years (we were PhD students together) so I was a little embarrassed to ask him to sign my copy of his book, but as a collector of signed editions I wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip.  Dave mentioned that the book has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and I hope it wins: ok, I’m biased, and can read it in Dave’s own voice which adds enormously to the book.  But it’s a great read for anyone interested in pollinators, or conservation, or just in the processes which turn a natural history obsessed kid into a professional scientist. 

This will be my last blog entry from Britain for a month; on 31st October I fly out to Brazil to spend time with André Rodrigo Rech, running a short pollination biology course, speaking at the Brazilian Botanical Congress, and conducting field work.  I’ll try to blog as I go along.  In a happy coincidence the Great White Egret is depicted on the Brazilian five real banknote.  I’ll look out for it.

Cities and biodiversity – a new resource


This is by way of a re-post from the good folks over at the bio-Diverse blog.  They’ve noted that there is now  an online, interactive version of the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook report.  It’s a product of a collaboration between the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) and Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), and was launched at the at the CBD COP in Hyderabad in 2012. There’s a video introduction narrated by actor Edward Norton and it deals with the huge increase in urbanisation that is predicted for the next few decades, together with the impacts it is likely to have on biodiversity, as well as the opportunities for nature within urban cityscapes.

It’s an interesting resource that deserves to be more widely advertised.  As more of us become city folk, these are messages to which we need to pay heed if our descendants are to have healthy and happy lives.

Conservation: from CSN to CSR


The history of what might be loosely called “the conservation movement” is a complex one with roots that are both deep and ramified.  In the west, direct antecedents can be found in the work of 19th century pro-environmental writers such as Henry David Thoreau  and George Perkins Marsh, but there are arguably also more subtle influences from other sources, for example the “Northamptonshire Peasant Poet” John Clare  whose natural history inspired verse captured a rural way of life and a landscape that was rapidly disappearing:

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books

The later foundation of organisations such as the RSPB, the Audubon Society, and the precursors of the Wildlife Trusts gave impetus to environmental campaigns focused on specific issues such as species extinctions and destruction of important wildlife sites.  But it was in the 1960s that nature conservation, and environmentalism more generally, began to become of wider concern.  Again the influences were broad but certainly included both popular science writing such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and  the attitudes and campaigning of the counter-culture.   Yet a generation later, as a student studying the subject in the 1980s, it was clear to me that the mainstream had not fully engaged with what was still considered hippy, tree-hugging notions of saving the planet/whale/rainforest/ [delete as appropriate].

Having always been a fan of vintage West Coast rock,  these hippy ideals were on my mind at the start of last week when I travelled to the BBC’s Maida Vale studios to attend a recording of Radio 4’s Mastertapes featuring David Crosby and his band.  As well as playing music from his first solo album, the haunting and majestic If Only I Could Remember My Name, Crosby talked about his life and political activism.  The following evening Karin and I were back in London, this time at the Royal Albert Hall to see Crosby with his compadres Steven Stills and Graham Nash, performing as the incomparable CSN.  A number of songs from their back catalogue feature environmentalism in one form or another and, despite their vintage, they are as in touch with the political scene as ever.

Now, in the first decades of the 21st century, the green agenda has gone mainstream and it seems that every large business discusses the environment in their Corporate Social Responsibility statements.  So with only a few hours sleep I jumped from CSN to CSR, a theme that recurred during  the first Northamptonshire Local Nature Partnership conference held at the University the next day.  One hundred and twenty delegates heard talks that presented environmentalism and nature conservation from the perspectives of citizen health and well being, Christianity, on-the-ground conservation activities, and the needs of business and enterprise.  In the afternoon there were smaller showcase sessions and I presented an overview of pollination as an ecosystem service.  

Every organisation (public and private sector) wants to be “green” these days, which is a good thing of course if it’s genuine and well conceived.  But as David Rolton pointed out in his talk, businesses were few and far between at this event.  During the question-and-answer session I followed up David’s comment with a description of our experiences with the Biodiversity Index.  Despite winning a Green Apple Award, and having lots of verbal encouragement from the private sector, as soon as we explain to businesses that they have to pay to use the Index, all interest dissipates.  These are the same businesses who are willing to invest in green initiatives such as recycling and energy efficiency, presumably because it saves them money as well: it seems that CSR for most businesses does not extend beyond paying lip service to biodiversity, despite an economic input of over £30 billion that the UK receives  from the natural environment every year.  

It took time for businesses and other organisations to acknowledge their responsibilities to the environment, and to develop policies relating to recycling, non-pollution and resource efficiency.  It seems that businesses are only just beginning to acknowledge their societal (rather than corporate) responsibilities with regard to conservation, and it’s an ongoing process that exercises government.  But conservation of biodiversity has got to become a priority; once a species is lost it’s lost forever, and we erode not only a natural heritage that has evolved over billions of years, but also the direct and tangible benefits biodiversity gives us.  In the words of CSN: “It’s been a long time coming; it’s going to be a long time gone.

Biodiversity and urban cultural fabric


It’s easy to take for granted the biodiversity of our towns and cities, though “urban ecology” has become a buzz phrase within the subject and there’s lots of research groups working on this topic, as I’ve mentioned previously in relation to Muzafar Hussain‘s work on solitary bee diversity within Northampton.  Muzafar is currently analysing his data and writing up the results, and I hope to share some of his exciting findings with you at some point in the future.

However another aspect of urban “biodiversity” has hardly been researched at all, as far as I’m aware:  the way in which elements of the natural world have been incorporated into the physical fabric of urban landscapes. The use of flower and animal figures around doorways and windows, and in the metalwork, of Victorian town houses in Northampton, for example.  Some of the most impressive are to be found on a couple of houses in the Barrack Road Conservation Area, where the iron railings around street-side balconies have been cast to resemble botanically accurate Epihyllum cacti in full flower.  There are many others, including birds incorporated into boot scrapers, and flowers and trees used for house names  (“Holly Cottage”, “Lonicera House”, “The Lindens”).  Much of the housing and commercial architecture in Northampton dates to the back end of the 19th century and the use of such motifs possibly reflects the influence of the iconic Natural History Museum in London, Alfred Waterhouse’s cathedral of biodiversity a century before the term was coined.

The names of pubs and inns may sometimes reflect our fascination with the natural world (“The White Elephant”) or with agricultural biodiversity (“The Cock Hotel”), a topic that I’ve written about in the past.  I was therefore unhappy to read that a pub in Northampton town centre is to be renamed, despite the fact that its old name of The Fish Inn reflects a history of that part of town which goes back to at least the 16th century and was included in a town heritage trail.  Why do councils allow this to happen?  It devalues the cultural fabric of the town ever further.  

Oxford, I’d like to think, might treat its local history a little better, regardless of whether one can spin a loose link to biodiversity.  It’s always a pleasure to return to the city which turned me into a professional scientist so I was happy to make the almost two hour early morning car and bus trip to attend the first day of the Biodiversity Resilience symposium.  I was teaching on the second day so had to miss it, but the first half of the symposium was interesting and thought provoking.  Highlights for me included:

  • Sam Turvey‘s analysis of whether or not human range expansion over the past several thousand years has driven the extinction of large mammals.   In some cases the evidence is clear cut, in others it’s not.
  • Lydia Cole on using the fossil pollen record of tropical forests to estimate recovery times of forest vegetation following disturbance; it appears that whilst all forests can recover, not all regions do so equally quickly, with time scales varying from around 150 to 350 years.
  • Graham Stone describing his group’s work on  how the history of interactions between oak gall wasps and their parasitoids in Europe can be reconstructed using molecular genetic data.
  • Guy Woodward on the effects of stressors such as pollution and drought on freshwater food webs.
  • John Dearing linking social science with natural science in an analysis of how population growth and exploitation of natural resources might lead to environmental problems in some parts of China in the near future.

These should give you a sense of the diversity of topics covered and that was the overwhelming impression that I came away with at the end of a long day: the study of biodiversity is as broad as one can imagine, from genes to ecosystems, interactions to extinctions.  Notions of what is meant by “resilience” were equally wide, with each presenter having a subtly different take on a slippery concept.  This illustrates the value of conferences such as this: it brings together a community of individuals who might work in complete ignorance of one another’s work, even though it could inform and challenge their own studies.  If day two was as stimulating as day one, then the organisers can count it a success.