The invasion of Ukraine by hostile Russian forces is a humanitarian disaster the likes of which Europe has not seen for decades, and hoped never to see again. Like many people, Karin and I have been watching the news about the war with a sense of helplessness, bewilderment and alarm, wondering how such things can come to pass in the 21st century. We thought we were past the stage where aggressive, narrow-minded dictators could bully their way into adjacent countries.
Faced with 24 hour media coverage of such desperate events, it’s easy to lose touch with the world around us. Karin and I are fortunate to be able to bicycle to some beautiful local spots where we can reflect and try to find some solace in nature. That’s what we did yesterday with a late afternoon visit to the Hov Vig bird reserve. In addition to my photos, which I’ll let speak for themselves, Karin filmed a short video for her YouTube channel which includes a marvelous array of bird calls.
Tonight we are taking part in a fund-raising event at the local culture house. Please think about how you can help to support Ukraine, in however modest a way, but also don’t forget to connect with nature. It will always endure, despite the destructive efforts of humans.
It’s just over one year since I stepped down from my full time professorship at the University of Northampton in order to work independently as a consulting scientist and author. It was a move precipitated by a number of factors, not least that after 25 years at that institution I needed some new challenges. I was starting to feel stale, jaded, and not a little burned out.
Since making the decision to leave the university (where I still hold a Visiting Professorship) Karinand I have down-sized our lives by selling our house, disposing of possessions that we didn’t need (though there’s still a lot in storage in the UK) and moving to Denmark, where we are renting a small apartment for the time being. Karin is Danish and, yes, both Brexit and the pandemic have played a role in our decision making.
A few people have asked me recently how I’m managing to earn a living as an independent academic so I thought I’d share with you my experiences so far. I’ve looked at my various sources of income over the past year and put them into four broad categories: Conservation, Research, Education and Writing. Then I worked out the proportion of my income that can be attributed to each area, keeping in mind that there’s overlap between them. This is the result:
Conservation-related activities accounted for the largest fraction, about 46% of my income. This includes direct advisory and consulting, on pollinator-related projects but also on wider, biodiversity-related topics. For example I worked with the Stanwick Lakes nature reserve in Northamptonshire, advising on how best to enhance and manage the site for pollinators.
It’s a site that I know very well but which was set up mainly because it’s important bird habitat. Seeing it from a pollinator’s perspective allowed me to make suggestions for improving the amount and timing of floral resources, opportunities for ground nesting bees, and so forth.
Also included in the Conservation category are the many, many talks (mainly online) that I’ve done for various natural history, gardening and beekeeping groups, plus training sessions that I’ve done with ecological consultancies, estates departments, and local government. There’s a list of those available on my training and public speaking page.
Research projects funded by UK and international agencies accounted for about 32% of my income. Some of these are projects that started when I was still employed at the University of Northampton and which are paying for my time (including completing the supervision of my remaining PhD students), others are new ones. You can find a list of present and past projects on this page of my website.
I am a partner on several funding applications that are in the process of being assessed and I’ll report back when we know if they have been successful.
As well as my own research I’m also reviewing grant applications for funding organisations, advising research groups and departments on their research strategies, and working with the Turkish Journal of Botany to promote the work it publishes to a wider international audience.
Education is the third, very broad category that includes things such as external examining (both taught and research degrees), assessing staff applications for promotion, and doing the occasional online lecture. It accounted for 11% of my income, less than I might have expected given that I’ve spent over 30 years teaching in higher education, educational consulting is quite a crowded field and unless you’re a high-profile specialist, it doesn’t pay well.
Writing accounted for about 11% of my income. As well as royalties from my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, I earned money from writing for magazines such as BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, New Scientist, British Wildlife, and Bees & Other Pollinators Quarterly.
In addition I’ve done some advisory work for publishers, including reviewing text and making suggestions for a forthcoming children’s book about bees and other pollinators, and some paid manuscript editing.
At the moment the balance of my work feels about right; I’ll never stop being a scientist so working on research projects is, and always will be, an important part of my life. I wish that it was possible to earn more from writing, but outside of the best-seller lists it’s difficult for authors to earn a decent living. However I’m working on my next book at the moment, as is Karin whose Essential Companion to Talking Therapy has been well received.
Working independently in this way, and putting together what amounts to a “portfolio career”, is not for everyone. It’s hard work and there are lots of uncertainties along the way, especially with regard to month-to-month consistency of one’s income. However a career as a university academic has prepared me for this in ways which I’m only just beginning to discover. Aside from the obvious subject expertise, familiarity with literature searching, and confidence when giving talks, the uncertainties associated with the high proportion of unsuccessful funding applications and navigating the (often contradictory) requirements of peer reviews has been extremely valuable experience. And of course I’ve established a large and diverse network of colleagues with whom I can collaborate and go to for advice. The diversity of paid work with which I’m engaged, plus the pro bono activities such as peer reviewing for journals, ensures that there’s never a dull day. I have absolutely no regrets about this latest step in my career!
If you’re interested in working with me or want to discuss any aspect of what I’ve written about, please do get in touch via my Contact page.
On Sunday, following almost a week of form-filling, covid-testing and passport-stamping, Karin and I flew back to the UK to see friends and spend time with our kids. We’ve rented a large cottage in Glastonbury for the duration and the above image is taken from the back garden.
I hope that all of my blog readers have a healthy and happy Christmas, and that the New Year is both more prosperous and more biodiverse for you.
After being in rural Denmark for five months, Britain feels very congested and busy. All going to plan, we’ll be back walking the beaches of Odsherred and enjoying the scenery. See you in 2022!
A couple of weeks ago we visited Karin’s family in Jutland and went for a couple of long walks around the area. One of these took us through some very nice mixed pine, oak, and birch forest close to a river. The forest was anchored into a thin horizon of mulchy topsoil, beneath which was almost pure sand, a post-glacial legacy of the wider, wilder rivers that ran through the region at the end of the last Ice Age.
Where our path ran parallel to the river I noticed that the exposed vertical sections were far from lifeless: the sandy faces had been colonised by algae, lichens, fungi, cyanobacteria, and mosses. These biological crusts had stabilised the sand and prevented it from eroding further back into the bank. On a miniature scale they were doing what forests and other vegetation does in mountainous areas all over the world: preventing landslides.
Biological crusts in turn provide opportunities for ferns and seed plants to germinate and gain a foothold: they are often the starting point for further ecological succession.
Not only are these crusts acting as substrate stabilisers and seed beds, but all of the usual ecological processes of photosynthesis, nutrient acquisition, decomposition, carbon storage, symbiosis and competition are taking place in just a few millimetres of biodiversity. There’s a lot going on in these thin veneers of life.
When I was teaching undergraduate ecology I always impressed upon my students the idea that the categorisations we use to describe “communities” and “ecosystems” are really loose, artificial attempts to put boundaries around borderless ecological systems. Nowhere is this more true than in coastal ecosystems, where the transition from “sea” to “shore” to “sand dune” to “coastal woodland”, for example, is a blur of overlapping habitat types linked by the movement of organisms, nutrients and energy from one to another.
Birds are especially important linkages in this respect, because they are highly mobile and thus effective at connecting “land” to “sea”. Consider gulls, for example, which may be feeding in coastal waters and on grasslands some distance away, and defecating and being preyed upon in both, resulting in transfer of sea-derived nutrients and energy into terrestrial ecosystems, and vice versa. There’s considerable interest amongst ecosystem ecologists in understanding such transfers; for example, here’s the opening sentences from the abstract from the 2013 paper Donor-Control of Scavenging Food Webs at the Land-Ocean Interface by Thomas Scholar and colleagues:
Food webs near the interface of adjacent ecosystems are potentially subsidised by the flux of organic matter across system boundaries. Such subsidies, including carrion of marine provenance, are predicted to be instrumental on open-coast sandy shores where in situ productivity is low and boundaries are long and highly permeable to imports from the sea.
Here on the coastal beaches of the Kattegat I’ve been intrigued by the behaviour of hooded crows (Corvus cornix), which are acting, it appears, as just such facilitators of the “flux of organic matter” from sea to land.
There are six corvid species in the area, and hooded crows are by no means the most common: there’s at least as many rooks (Corvus frugilegus) and jackdaws (Coloeus monedula), and we often see all three species foraging together on ploughed fields or suburban grassland. That’s not surprising, because like many members of the crow family these species are opportunistic omnivores that eat a wide range of animal and plant material, both living and dead, as well as clearing up human food waste, which I described a few years ago during a visit to Kathmandu.
But hooded crows are the only species that we see scavenging on the shoreline.
On Sunday, for example, I took a late afternoon stroll along the local beach with my binoculars and, as usual, I saw hooded crows in small groups of two or three, sometimes in the company of gulls. As I watched, in quick succession I saw two lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) paddle onto the beach, one with a large, flapping flatfish in its beak, the other with a struggling shore crab. As the gulls tore apart their respective prey they were quickly joined by some hooded crows that had been hanging around nearby. Once the gulls had eaten their fill the crows moved in and demolished the rest. The crows seem to be particularly adept at getting the last bit of meat from inside crab carapaces.
That’s behaviour I’ve seen a many times since we arrived here in August, crows picking over the remains of fish or crabs or (in one instance) a dead harbour porpoise that had also attracted the interest of gulls.
This focus on relatively large carrion items by the crows is understandable, but relatively rare because it’s controlled by the frequency with which such dead animals become available on the shore. It´s much more common to see the crows working their way systematically along the strandline, turning over seaweed in search of insects, crustaceans, and other small food items. I’ve even seen them hack away at washed-up acorns in the beach. It must be a productive way of finding food because they do it with such regularity.
But there’s a number of things about this behaviour that are puzzling me.
For example, why is it only the crows that work the strandline? Why do we never see jackdaws or rooks, which are at least as common, and equally omnivorous scavengers? They are also just as intelligent as the hooded crows and presumably could learn that this is a good place to find food. Also, are the crows that we see strandline “specialists” that spend most of the time on the beach, and nest in the nearby dune woodlands? Or is there a constant turnover of individual birds from the surrounding countryside to the beach and back? Do the birds learn this behaviour from one another and is it passed down from parents to offspring?
I’d be interested in your comments on these observations, as always. If you’d like to know more about corvid behaviour and ecology, I can highly recommend Dr Kaeli Swift’s Corvid Research Blog.
Since arriving in Odsherred towards the end of August I’ve been looking out for one plant in particular on our bicycle rides and hikes around the region. Vincetoxicum hirundinaria is a widespread asclepiad or milkweed: a member of the family Apocynaceae, subfamily Asclepiadoideae. This is a group of plants on which I’ve published quite a few research papers and which feature heavily in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society.
So far the species has proven elusive and a few Danish ecologists that I’d spoken with told me they had never seen it in the wild. The GBIF account of the species shows a few populations in this part of Denmark but I wasn’t sure if they were old records of populations that no longer exist. But as of yesterday I can confirm that at least one of those populations is extant!
We had cycled out to the small town of Klint about 13km west of us, to see the glacial moraine landscape for which the area is famous and which gives Odsherred UNESCO Geopark status. As we approached the small fishing harbour at Klint I let out an excited shout to Karin who was just ahead of me: in amongst the roadside vegetation I’d spotted the distinctive and immediately recognisable yellow of Vincetoxicumhirundinaria in its autumnal hues! In the photos that follow you can see how well that yellow stands out against the colours of the other plants in the community.
At this time of the year the plant has ceased flowering, but the occasional swollen green seed pod was evidence of successful pollination of their morphologically complex flowers.
I was surprised at just how close to the sea the plants were growing; they must get inundated by sea water during stormy tidal surges.
So what is pollinating these flowers on this exposed shoreline? That’s a question that I want to pursue in the coming years. The Pollinators of Apocynaceae Database has remarkably few records of pollinators in this species, given how widespread it is. Flies certainly pollinate it, but there’s also records of wasps and bees as visitors, including bumblebees on flowers of a plant that I had in cultivation in Northampton. There’s a couple of other research groups in Scandinavia and Europe who are looking at the pollination ecology of the species and I’m hoping that we can collaborate on a study of spatial variation in its reproduction. Vincetoxicum is quite a large genus (around 150 species) and only around 10% of the species have been studied in any detail. But these studies are revealing a complex diversity of pollinators, including most recently, cockroaches in the Chinese species Vincetoxicumhainanense. I’m sure this intriguing group of plants has more fascinating stories to tell us about the ecology and evolution of its pollination systems.
As well as working on a variety of writing and research projects, Karin and I have spent the last few weeks getting out and about in the Odsherred region of Denmark, exploring the culture and ecology of our new home. Not far from where we are living is the Hov Vig bird reserve which I’d put off visiting until last weekend when my friend and colleague Bo Dalsgaard was due to come and stay with us. Bo is primarily an ornithologist (we’ve collaborated on quite a few hummingbird-flower network studies), so it was going to be a good opportunity to get to know more about the birds of this part of the world.
After an early breakfast we set out for Hog Vig and I have to say that I was extremely impressed by the reserve. As you can see from the map below it’s been created by installing a low causeway across a bay in the fjord, resulting in a shallow, brackish lagoon that is absolutely teeming with bird life! Shallow lagoons like this are very productive, with lots of invertebrates and plants on which the birds can feed.
You can see the start of the causeway on the middle left of this photo:
I hadn’t realised just how shallow the lagoon was until I spotted a Great White Egret wading across the centre, the water barely reaching the middle of its legs. In all we counted 8 of these egrets, though a local birder we encountered told us he’d seen 14 that day. Interestingly, Little Egrets are considered quite uncommon here, a reverse of the situation in the UK.
Although the total area of the reserve, including woodland, is only 334 ha, an extraordinary 267 species of birds have been recorded there:
On the reserve itself we identified 39 species, and a handful more when we visited the nearby coast. Including those that we were unsure of we had just over 50 species, not bad for a day of birding. As well as the egrets, particular highlights were huge numbers of Teal, on the water, large active flocks of Golden Plovers and Lapwings set into motion by a hunting Sparrowhawk, and Bar-tailed Godwits, Stonechats and Eiders.
The most exciting birds for us, however, was a pair of White-tailed Sea Eagles that descended onto one of the low islands in the lagoon to feed on a dead cormorant! The locals describe these birds as ‘flying doors’, very apt given their huge wingspans. Needless to say, their appearance also sent much of the bird life into the air. Here’s a poor photo taken with my camera through Bo’s telescope:
At the end of August I was back in Copenhagen for a couple of days to take part in the PhD defence of Céline Moreaux, who has been working on coffee pollination and bee conservation. While I was there I snapped a couple more images for my Copenhagen Bestiary series. However I’ve also seen some interesting sculpture and building decoration further afield this month, in Aarhus, Silkeborg, and Nykøbing Sjælland. I especially like the wooden carved canopy support in the form of a duck, from Aarhus: it’s very subtle and I almost walked past it.
And before anyone asks, no, Karin and I are NOT part of the bestiary, but I didn’t get a shot of the troll by itself.
Cycling back from town this afternoon, Karin and I passed a hedgerow that was bursting with wild myrobalan or (cherry) plums (Prunus cerasifera). We had to stop and collect some, and soon filled a bag. What’s always intrigued me about these small, tart little plums is just how diverse they are: the image above shows the plums from six different trees. All of these are, in theory, the same species; but clearly there’s a lot of genetic diversity. In colour, the ripe fruits range from golden yellow through to dark purple, and vary in the amount of dark-contrasting streaking, lighter speckling, and waxy bloom. They are also variable in size, shape and taste.
All of this variation probably reflects the long history of cultivation of this European archaeophyte. The species is originally native to southeast Europe and western Asia, and was likely spread throughout Europe by the Romans. The local deer population is very fond of the fruit and we’re seeing a lot of deer droppings that are packed with seeds. We don’t usually think of these large mammals as seed dispersers, but I suspect that they are very successful in that ecological role.
As well as being a great source of wild fruit, for humans and wildlife alike, at the other end of the year these trees are important for pollinating insects. As I pointed out in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, Prunus cerasifera is one of the earliest flowering woody plants in northern Europe, and its flowers are an important nectar and pollen source for early emerging bumblebee queens, hoverflies, and honey bees.
Delicious, abundant fruit combined with a valuable role for pollinators: what’s not to like?
Earlier today we had a message from the owner of the AirBnB that we are staying in to let us know that he’s expecting a guy to come and spray pesticide around the house to kill the ‘invasive’ beewolves. The European beewolf (Philanthus triangulum) is a type of wasp in the family Crabronidae that is only distantly related to the typical wasps that you find trying to share your barbecue and beer. As its name suggests, it preys upon bees, but it’s actually a pollinator itself and visits a range of flowers.
I immediately got back to our host and pointed out that beewolves are gentle insects, completely harmless, and less dangerous than the pesticide the company would use to kill them, and that he was wasting his money. He informed us that the pest control company had told him that he needed to control them other wise he’d be ‘over-run’ with them next year!
When I explained to him that this was nonsense, and that the beewolves cause no damage to people or property, he promised to get back to the company to cancel the order, and thanked me for the information. I’m hoping that I’ve made a convert to the cause of insect conservation!
It maddens me that pest control companies are preying on people’s fear of insects to make money in this way. Insects are subjected to enough assaults by human activities without making up spurious reasons for poisoning them.
So if you are lucky enough to have beewolves in your garden, please treat them with respect and watch their fascinating behaviour: