It’s been a few weeks since my last post, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but rather because there’s been too much to say, and too much to do to have time to say it! A lot has been happening personally, professionally and in the wider world that I could have talked about, so I’ve summarised a few things below.
Late September saw the start of a new academic year, with all of the organisation and effort that entails. Recruitment in our Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences is healthy and the new intake of students are bright and keen. In addition to my usual teaching and research in the Department I’ve been asked to take on the role of Head of Research and Enterprise for the whole School of Science and Technology. Which will be interesting as it covers a vast range of subjects, including computing, leather technology, and engineering, as well as the environmental and geographical area with which I’m more familiar. It’s a two-year post which should be enough time to do some good work.
The Local Nature Partnership annual meeting took place at the university on 25th September. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science Lord de Mauley popped up again, and gave a better and more focused speech than he did previously at the recent Nature Improvement Area conference in London. It’s a pity he didn’t stay for the afternoon session as there was a very interesting presentation from the company who are developing the Rushden Lakes site in the Nene Valley. Part of the development is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and it’s within the Special Protection Area, designated for over-wintering birds. The Wildlife Trust is working closely with the developers and, if the latter deliver what they say they will deliver, it will enhance and protect the site even further. Time will tell; you can watch a video of the plans here.
Lots of news stories related to biodiversity and conservation have appeared recently, including a scare-mongering piece in the Guardian that “The Earth has lost half its wildlife in the last 40 years” according to a report from WWF. Of course that’s journalistic crap and the report does not say that at all. I can’t sum it up any better than did our former student Ian WIlson, now Reserves Manager at Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows, who commented (on Facebook) that “There have been terrible losses but this sort of misuse of statistics is unhelpful and misleading. It particularly undermines the ecosystem services arguments which suggest that loss of wildlife will directly affect human populations. You can’t maintain that argument and claim that we’ve lost 50% of wildlife over the last 40 years without having to explain why human populations are still so high. Conservation would be better served by more good science and less journalistic sound bites.” Well said Ian! Fifty percent of wildlife has not be lost; the statistic is actually that “the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent since 1970”. Those “representative populations” are highly skewed towards large, easily counted species of vertebrates, predominantly in temperate areas, and exclude plants and invertebrates – you can download the full report here. I’m not suggesting that these statistics are anything less than worrying, but the scale of the loss of “wildlife” (in its fullest sense) is not as great as the Guardian’s report suggests.
There’s been huge concern about the disturbing Ebola outbreak in West Africa and beyond, including a statement from IUCN on the links between emergent diseases such as Ebola and loss of biodiversity. In short, deforestation allows humans to hunt animals in previously unexploited areas, increasing the likelihood that rare and novel diseases that use wild animals as a vector (such as Ebola) can pass to humans. Worrying, and yet another reason why we need to slow down, and ultimately stop, such habitat destruction.
On a happier note, my colleague Duncan McCollin had a paper entitled ‘Reconstructing long-term ecological data from annual census returns: a test for observer bias in counts of bird populations on Skokholm 1928–2002‘ published in the journal Ecological Indicators. It highlights a really nice example of an ecological monitoring scheme that, as Duncan puts it, deserves “the recognition of such long-term data for science in terms of an appropriate conservation designation”.
Finally, here’s a link to an impassioned blog post by my friend and colleague Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex. Dave is a longstanding researcher and campaigner about the adverse effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators and other biodiversity. Dave’s post originated as a letter in reply to a (misinformed and biased) opinion piece in The Times, which the newspaper saw fit not to print (freedom of the press, eh?) It’s well worth reading and sets out the scientific case for the impact of these pesticides. And if Dave’s blog is not sufficient for you, there’s also been a recent paper from Charles Godfray’s group at Oxford called “A restatement of the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators” which received comments and input from many scientists involved in pollinator research (myself included) as well as formal peer review. Hopefully that’s enough rigour for the sceptics.