Category Archives: Nene Valley NIA

How do we value nature? Costanza, Monbiot and the clash of concepts

2012-05-31 13.57.26

Is nature something that we should simply value for its own sake?  Or should we take account of how nature supports our society and our economy in real financial terms?  Back in 1997 Australian academic Robert Costanza and colleagues published a now classic paper in the journal Nature called “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital” that proved to be hugely influential and has been cited more than 3,500 times by other researchers in ecology, conservation, and ecological economics.  Soon after publication I began to use the paper in some of my classes, asking students how they felt about putting a monetary ($) value on how nature supports ecosystem services such as soil formation, pollination, carbon storage, climate regulation, etc.  Opinions were mixed, reflecting the fact that economic valuation of nature is controversial in theory, difficult to do in practice, and results in vast estimations of the “worth” of nature that seem to be fantastical.  The Costanza et al. study, for example, suggested that ecosystem services were worth $33 trillion per year to the global economy, a figure almost twice as large as the Global GDP at the time!

More than a decade and a half later, Costanza has published a follow up paper that updates the figures in the 1997 paper and arrives at a global valuation of natural capital of between $125 and $145 trillion per year, depending on assumptions made about changes to the area of biomes such as temperate forest, grassland, coral reefs, etc.  This last point is critical as loss of biome area due to changes in land use from agriculture and urbanisation has resulted in an estimated loss of ecosystem services of between $4.3 and $20.2 trillion per year between 1997 and 2011.  That’s a big change and, if nothing else, gives an indication of how we are altering the face of the planet at an ever faster rate, something I will come back to later in this post.

In this new paper Costanza and colleagues have also responded to some of the criticisms of the earlier work, particularly by journalist and activist George Monbiot who, as I’ve previously discussed on this blog, has a genuine, but I feel misguided, aversion to the whole notion of ecosystem services and natural capital. Monbiot’s been repeating these criticisms in a lecture, a video and text of which is available on the Guardian website.  I won’t go into a detailed discussion of his position, some of which I agree with, but I do believe that his major criticisms fail on two points.

The first is that Monbiot mixes up some very different concepts, bundling ecosystem services (a reasonable way of thinking about nature in relation to society) with biodiversity offsetting (a load of bollocks), green infrastructure (the importance of green space to urban development), carbon trading (dubious in theory and practice), and payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes (which can work on a regional scale, as in the case of South West Water’s upland catchments project), as if they were all the same thing, which they are not.  In the Nene Valley NIA Project, for example, we are using an ecosystem services approach and are trying to develop a PES, but are wholly against biodiversity offsetting.

The second is that Monbiot sees all of this as some kind of neoliberal agenda to sell off the natural world to the highest bidder.  That’s really not the case and ecosystem services are being promoted as a concept by conservationists, NGOs and scientists whose motivation is saving the natural world, not selling it.  As Costanza et al. (2014) rightly state: “It is a misconception to assume that valuing ecosystem services in monetary units is the same as privatizing them or commodifying them for trade in private markets”

In his lecture Monbiot uses the classic rhetorician’s device of using partial quotes to support his point.  For example he quotes Dieter Helm as saying that:

“The environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed”.

Sounds bad, I agree.  But the full quote actually gives a very different and more profoundly “green” message:

“Over the coming decades, there will be a major programme to develop the UK’s infrastructure. The National Infrastructure Plan 2013 sets out ambitious plans – for new railways, roads, airport expansions, energy systems, water resources, sewerage investments, flood defences and a major increase in house building …….. In taking forward this major investment, it is important not to lose sight of natural infrastructure and the integral part that natural capital plays in delivering sustainable economic growth. …… the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.  Integrating the environment into the economy is hampered by the almost complete absence of proper accounting for natural assets. What is not measured is usually ignored.”

Monbiot does make some good points in relation to how power can trump any environmental monetary valuation, and how political influence works, but his solution of “mobilisation”, is most effective at a relatively small scale, for example the defeat of Derby Council over plans to develop a nature reserve.  Mobilisation by passionate environmentalists has failed to protect large swathes of Brazil’s natural environment, but arguments about the link between vegetation and rainfall, underscored by financial assessments of agricultural crop reductions, just might.

What is interesting about the lecture (which I encourage you to watch, Monbiot is a great speaker and it’s more entertaining than the transcript) is that not one of the audience questions afterwards actually dealt with the main topic of the lecture, namely the pricing of nature.  Is that because he won over the audience completely with his arguments?  Or is it because the ecosystem services approach to nature conservation is too recent a concept for its technicalities to have embedded themselves within public consciousness, and a general audience such as this might not feel confident enough to make challenging comments?  I suspect the latter because whenever I give public lectures to gardening and wildlife groups, for instance, I always ask who has heard of “ecosystem services”, and invariably it’s a minority of the audience.

If Monbiot was correct and it’s possible to sell off natural capital in the way he describes, then we would expect the coalition UK government, for one, as well as big business, to buy into the concept wholeheartedly and to invest much more than they currently do in order to make a quick buck out of biodiversity.  But they aren’t, and in fact this government has a track record that shows it has only the most cursory of interests in the UK’s natural ecosystems, and is willing to ignore scientific evidence to placate special interest groups who happen to be Conservative Party supporters (witness the recent badger cull debacle and the lack of action over illegal activity on grouse moors).

This is no doubt a debate that will continue but time is running out for the natural world and we don’t have many options: in Table 3 of Costanza et al. (2014) the authors present worrying data on how some biomes have greatly reduced in area since 1997 (e.g. coral reefs, wetlands) whilst croplands and urban settlement has increased.  That can’t go on: the natural world is too valuable, in all senses of that world, to lose, something I’m sure George Monbiot would agree with even if he doesn’t believe that monetary valuation is the way to do it.


Disturbed birds? Results of a visitor access study to the Upper Nene Valley

Parrot from Coton Manor

Human activities can have significant impacts on wildlife in quite subtle ways that are not always appreciated by those of us who enjoy going out to look at nature.  For example, simply walking close to sensitive areas such as bird nesting or roosting sites has the potential to drive those birds from an area.  This was the theme of a workshop we attended yesterday afternoon, hosted by the local Wildlife Trust as part of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Project.

During the afternoon Colin Wilkinson from the RSPB presented the results of a survey that had been commissioned to assess the level of public access and usage of the Upper Nene Valley gravel pits.  These pits have Special Protected Area status due to the numbers of migratory over-wintering birds that use them.  They are also well used by the public but at the moment we have no idea what impact this is having on the birds, though there is anecdotal evidence that it is considerable at some sites.

The consultants who conducted the study used a combination of face-to-face interviews, site surveys, etc.  There’s too much in the report to go into all of the detail – you can access the full text here – but I’ve copied the highlights from the summary below:

  • The majority (98%) of visitors were on a short visit from their home
  • Group size for interviewed groups ranged from 1-8; 51% of interviewees were visiting on their own. Stanwick Lakes was notable in that group size tended to be larger here.
  • Half of the 939 interviewees had dogs with them (636 dogs in total).
  • Across all sites and survey periods, dog walking was the most common main activity (48% of interviewees).
  • During the winter, a higher proportion of people interviewed were dog walking (48% of interviews during the winter compared to 36% in the spring at the 6 locations surveyed in both seasons).
  • Over the winter, the main activities given by interviewees were: dog walking (53%), walking (26%), and wildlife watching (6%).
  • Most (77%) interviewees had arrived by car to the survey point
  • Most interviewees were frequent visitors (60% indicated that they visited at least once a week).
  • Most visits were short: 50% of visitors stated that they spent less than one hour on site and, in total, 88% spent less than two hours at the survey location.
  • The quality of the site was the most common reason for choice of site (61% interviewees), but was not the most common ‘main’ reason’; 32% interviewees gave proximity to home as the main factor underpinning their choice of site. Proximity to home seemed particularly important for dog walkers (44%) and those fishing (40%).
  • A total of 863 visitor routes were collected, either through lines on paper maps during the interview or via GPS units which were given out.
  • There were significant differences between sites in the lengths of routes taken by visitors. There were also differences between activities. The mean route length for dog walkers was 3.1km. For cyclists the average route was 7.3km while those fishing tended to have the shortest routes (0.6km average).
  • At three of the six sites that were surveyed in the winter and the spring/summer, the median route length increased in the spring/summer when compared to the winter, stayed the same at two and fell at one, suggesting no real pattern of people walking further in the summer .
  • A relatively high proportion (78% of interviewees) indicated that they were aware of the importance of the area for wintering birds. Around a quarter (24%) of all interviewees responded that they were aware that of the international importance of the area for nature conservation.
  • 908 postcodes were mapped reflecting the home postcodes of visitors. The two main settlements were Northampton (137 postcodes from the winter interviews fell within the settlement) and Wellingborough (88 postcodes from the winter interviews).
  • Dog walkers and joggers lived closest to the site at which they were visiting, with median values of 2.3 and 2.9km respectively
  • Visitor rates (visits per household) declined rapidly with distance such that a relatively small proportion of people visit from distances beyond 3km of the surveyed access points.

The challenge now will be to understand if and how these visitors are impacting on the abundance and diversity of birds in the Upper Nene Valley, and what can be done to minimise any disturbance.  Clearly there’s a balance to be struck between public recreation and wildlife protection, and this will be the theme of future work by the Nene Valley NIA Project.

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 coiled Spring

Wellcome Trust - June 2009 006

April, according to T.S. Elliot, “is the cruellest month”.  Not sure about that, though April 2013 proved to be both frustrating (as we in northern Europe waited for Spring to arrive) and busy, as I tried to pack in a whole set of activities.  That’s my only excuse for not updating my blog, so the aim of this post is to catch up with biodiversity-related activities and observations over the past few weeks.

Just as iconic decades begin part-way through a given ten year period (the 60s didn’t really kick off until about 1963, for instance) so April for me actually began at the end of March.  In the last week of that month I completed my formal teaching for the term and celebrated the first anniversary of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Project.  I also picked up my daughter Ellen from Heathrow Airport, on a two week visit back from working in China.  On the way I counted over 20 red kites flying near the M40 motorway – what an incredible success story their re-introduction has been!

One of the reasons Ellen had come back was that I was due to give my inaugural professorial lecture, entitled “How many bees does it take to wake up in the morning?  The importance of biotic pollination in a changing world”.  Another reason was to to celebrate my eldest son Patrick’s 18th birthday the following day.  Both once in a lifetime events and both had family at their heart.  It was a great week.

Some leave time followed, much needed after what seemed like an endless 12 week university term, during which I hoped to plant potatoes and do some other work in the garden.  But Spring refused to uncoil.  The northerly winds brought cold weather that froze all vernal activity in the act.  Flower and leaf buds were there waiting to unfurl; insects would occasionally appear then just as quickly disappear; and birds clearly wanted to get on with the important activities of raising young.  But all was delayed.  One could sense the tension, the build up of seasonal energy, biology waiting to happen.

A talk at Earlsdon Gardening Club near Coventry on Monday 8th April was well received and took my mind off the organisation of the biennial Bumblebee Working Group meeting on the 11th.  This semi-formal get together of scientists, NGOs, and other Bombus-minded individuals, shifts between venues every two years.  At the last meeting in 2011 I volunteered to host the next event and then put it out of my mind for 18 months.  Organising a scientific meeting is always a bit of a mad panic as the day draws closer and one wonders if anyone will actually turn up.  But as it turned out the event was well attended, with over 80 people listening to talks on diverse topics including the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bumblebee colonies;  I’ve uploaded a copy of the programme.

Friday 12th April was a frantic dash around office and lab to get books, equipment and sundries organised for our annual undergraduate Tenerife Field Course, which was flying out on the following Sunday.  A great time was had by all as we explored the biodiversity of Darwin’s Unrequited Isle and we came back with a wealth of great data plus not a little sunburn.  No matter how often I tell students that they really need to wear a hat and use sun block, some will never listen.

Arriving from Tenerife early on Monday 22nd, I slept for a few hours then was back at the university for the oral PhD examination of Hilary Erenler, whose work I have mentioned previously.  These exams are always stressfull for both student and supervisors but in the event Hils performed wonderfully and passed with only minor amendments.  A great result!  Now looking forward to publishing some papers from that work.

April ended, and May began, with a change in the weather.  Much warmer winds blew in from the south west and life suddenly erupted: pressure had been removed from the coiled Spring.  Lots of pollinators appeared in our garden including: Anthophora plumipes, one of my favourites for its glossy, black females and aggressively flower patrolling males; the relatively newly arrived Bombus hypnorum; the bee fly Bombylius major; and several different butterflies.

Clearly it’s time to plant those potatoes!

A (bird) book for bedtime (and a bit about bees besides)

2012-10-27 14.28.28

Biodiversity as it’s generally defined and conceived includes not only diversity of species and habitats, but also diversity within species, often (but not always) genetic in origin.   Eddie Izzard’s new two-part television series Meet the Izzards neatly captures the idea of genetic diversity, and how it informs our  understanding  of the past evolution and prehistorical dispersal of a large, bipedal mammalian omnivore.  “Cultural biodiversity” in Homo sapiens is less easy to define in this way as it has probably only a limited genetic component and is passed from individual to individual by copying and refining.  Other species have “culture”,  for example New Caledonian crows and chimpanzees, but human cultural diversity is more varied than that of any other species.

Take book reading as an example.  Some individuals of our species never read.  Others read only one book.  Incessantly.  And then argue about what it means with others who read the same book.  Other individuals gorge on a book a day or snack on one a  month, or manage on a starvation diet of one per year.  I’m a two book nibbler.  Normally I always have a novel and a volume of non-fiction on the go.  The novel is for last thing at night when I need to turn off my mind and do some easy reading; a few pages then it’s time to sleep.  Nibble, nibble.  The non-fiction is for the morning, if I wake up early enough, or weekends if they are free; or train journeys.  Still nibbling, but this time on more solid fare.

As with all cultural diversity, none of this is inflexible and at the moment I’m also reading a non-fiction book at night:  Fighting for Birds:  25 years. in nature conservation by Mark Avery, former Conservation Director of the RSPB.  Mark kindly came to give a talk at the university recently and brought copies of his book to sign and sell.  It was a stimulating lecture and feedback from the students who attended was very positive.  For those students who didn’t make it (and there were a lot) I have to ask:  why are you paying thousands of pounds a year to not turn up to events that will inspire, educate and develop you?  You had the chance of bending the ear of a very prominent British conservationist.  At the very least you could have asked:  “How do I get to do the job that you do?”  You’re currently investing a LOT of money in your future and, frankly, wasted opportunities such as this are the equivalent of failing to claim a share dividend.

Back to the book.  Although Mark claims Fighting for Birds is not an autobiography,  it is very autobiographical in scope and provides some great personal insights into the RSPB and the development of bird (and broader) conservation in the UK and the EU.  His description of the battles fought over the fate of the Flow Country brought back memories of writing an essay on that topic during my undergraduate years in the late 1980s.  I’ve still not visited that part of Scotland but I have in mind a road trip this summer that may take it in.  The RSPB is one of our partners on the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area project so I was particularly interested in finding out more about what makes our most important wildlife charity tick.  Mark is an engaging and candid writer, forthright in his opinions political and ecological (and their interactions)  as you can see from his blog.        

By pure coincidence, this week Mark hosted a guest blogger in the shape of Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive of Buglife, talking about the current controversies over banning the group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.  Matt puts forward a compelling case for withdrawing these chemicals from general use.  I don’t dispute anything he says about the role of neonicotinoids in bee deaths (though there is some debate about dosage levels used in some of the published studies and how this might translate into effects in the field).  But it does concern me that this new focus on pesticides is taking the spotlight off habitat loss, particularly grasslands, which is a far more important threat to pollinator populations.   There is a real danger that this single issue will be seen as an easy fix by government when a broader reform of farming practices is what’s really required.  The decline of wild bees and other pollinators can be tracked back to long before the introduction of neonicotinoids. There were some silly comments on the blog about neonics currently being the single most important conservation issue.  This is short sighted hyperbole and (again coincidently) Lynn Dicks has written an interesting piece on the subject of rhetoric, lies and over-the-top claims in the journal Nature.

The decline and extinction of pollinators in the UK has been an ongoing process since the 19th century.  I’d hate to see the government think that it’s “fixed” the pollinator problem by banning some pesticides, a much simpler task than protecting and restoring habitats, and encouraging farmers to manage their land more sensitively.  With 70% of the UK’s land dedicated to farming, human (agri)culture has got to be a key element in conserving biodiversity.

Thank the insects for Christmas (reduce, reuse, recycle part 2)

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The university term has drawn to a close in a flurry of activity as we complete our pre-Christmas teaching and assessments, and the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences conducted a successful five-yearly Periodic Subject Review of its degree programmes.  I’m conscious that some of the things I wanted to write about since my last blog entry have slipped past without action, including a week that was bookended by visits with students to iconic localities on the biodiversity and conservation map.  These were a Monday trip to the Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum in London with students on my final year Biodiversity and Conservation module; followed by a Friday visit to Wicken Fen, arranged by my colleague Janet Jackson for second year students on her Habitat Ecology and Management module.  Both great days away from the lecture room, if for different reasons.

At the Natural History Museum we looked at the insect research collections, behind the scenes where the public does not normally venture.  Wicken Fen, on the other hand, is open to all and we met birders and walkers as we toured the site.  I kept a tally of the number of bird species we identified and the final count was 29 (30 if you include the chickens being kept in a back garden close to the visitor centre).  It would have been impossible to make a meaningful species count  at the Musuem as we were overwhelmed by the statistics presented by the curators:  85,000 butterfly and moth specimens in the Lepidoptera section, 3 to 4 million specimens of true flies (Diptera).  On it went; wonderful diversity and an incredible scientific resource.

Which brings me neatly to the main topic of this entry: the importance of insects at Christmas!  I’ve mentioned before that one of the intentions of this blog was to reuse some of the writing I’ve done over the years in various fora, sometimes updating and re-casting it ro reflect recent activities or events (hence the “reduce, reuse, recycle” epithet).  The publication this month of the final report of the Government-sponsored workshop Insect Pollinators: Linking Research and Policy in which I was involved has prompted me to modify and re-post an entry that first appeared on the University of Northampton’s blog at this time last year.

The social and economic news is not great, global poverty is on the increase even in the richest countries and the range of human-influenced assaults on the natural environment seems to be escalating on a weekly basis.  But at least it’s Christmas!  A time to relax and enjoy ourselves, to share time with family and friends, and to unwind during the cold and gloom of winter.  Whatever your faith, or lack of it, Christmas should be about taking a break and reflecting on the year that has passed.  We’re helped in that respect by the ceremonial seasonal trimmings: the Christmas tree, strings of flashing lights, baubles and tinsel.  So while you’re kissing a loved one under the mistletoe, admiring that glossy holly wreath, or tucking into your Christmas dinner, spare a thought for the insects.

What in Saint Nicholas’s name”  you are asking ”have insects got to do with Christmas?!”  Well, like the turkey, we’d be stuffed without them:  they play an essential part in providing us with the things we associate with the Christmas.  If we had no flies, wasps, bees and other bugs acting as pollinators there’d be no berries on your mistletoe or your holly.  Kissing and admiring would be a less festive affair and that’s just for starters.  These insects also pollinate many of the vegetables, herbs and spices on your plate, as well as some of the forage that went to fatten your roast bird or tender joint of meat.   Not to forget much of what went into the nut roast that’s feeding the vegetarian relatives.

The economic value of insect pollination in the UK was estimated by the recent National Ecosystem Assessment to be about £430 million per year .  In fact this is a huge under valuation because the labour costs alone of paying people to hand pollinate those crops would run into billions of pounds.  This sounds far fetched but it’s already happening to fruit crops in parts of China.  The answer is to encourage wild insects, not artificially  managed honey bees, because collectively the former are far more abundant, and often more effective, as pollinators.  Their diversity is an insurance against losing any one species in the future.

The NEA’s valuation is also too low because it only deals with edible crops.  Mistletoe and holly are both dioecious species, which is to say that individual plants are either male or female, as is the case with most animals.  This means that the plants cannot self pollinate and insects are absolutely vital to their reproduction and to the production of the decorative berries we so value (a holly wreath without berries is just a big spiky doughnut, in my opinion).  Whilst researching the economic value of the annual mistletoe and holly crops for this blog posting I’ve been having a conversation with Jonathan Briggs over at Mistletoe Matters and he tells me that “the mistletoe trade in Britain is entirely unregulated and not documented in any tangible way” and the same is true of holly.  We therefore have no idea what the economic value actually is.  But some back-of-the-red-and-gold-Christmas-lunch-napkin calculations can at least give us an insight.  Auction reports this year  show that on average the best quality berried holly was selling for £2.50 per kg whilst equivalent quality holly without berries cost only 75p per kg.  In other words, pollination by insects increases the value of that crop by over 300%.   Similarly the high quality mistletoe averaged 80p per kg, whilst the second grade stuff was only 20p per kg.  And the best holly wreaths (presumably with berries!) were averaging £3.40 each.  These are wholesale prices, of course; retail cost to the customer is much greater.  A decent holly wreath will set you back between £15 and £30 whilst online shopping for mistletoe is in the £5 to £15 bracket.  The national census of 2011 shows us that there are 23.4 million households in England and Wales, plus there are 2.36 million in Scotland and 0.70 million in Northern Ireland.  Let’s round it down and say there’s 26 million households in the whole of the UK.  Let’s also be very conservative and estimate that only 5% of those households bought one holly wreath and some mistletoe at a total cost of £20.  Multiply that by the small proportion of households buying these festive crops and you arrive at a figure of about £26.5 million!  And that doesn’t include non-household use in shops, offices and businesses.  So there you have it: an industry worth a few 10s of millions (at least) all being ultimately supported by insects.

With pollination, timing is everything, and Jonathan also made the point that spring flowering mistletoe and holly can be important early nectar sources for insects.  Therefore despite the poor  summer weather, this year has been a good one for mistletoe berries because the pollination happened before the heavy rains began.  Despite being quite common plants, rather little research has been done on either holly or mistletoe pollination in the UK and it would make for an interesting student project.

The Landscape and Biodiversity Research Group here at the university is playing its part by working to understand the ecology of plants and pollinators, and how to best conserve them.  In this blog I’ve referred a few times to some ongoing projects researching how the wider landscape is supporting pollinators in habitats such as country house gardens   (Hilary Erenler’s PhD work which she’s currently writing up) and urban centres (ongoing PhD work by Muzafar Hussain).  There’s also the recently completed work by Sam Tarrant and Lutfor Rahman on pollinator (and other) biodiversity on restored landfill sites.   Plus work that’s only just started by Kat Harrold on how whole landscapes support pollinators in the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area. This is all part of a broader programme of research into the conservation of biodiversity in our region and beyond, including a contribution to the Shared Enterprise Empowering Delivery (SEED) sustainability project.   Biodiversity matters and its importance to our society is being increasingly recognised by government, business and the public.

So if you make one New Year’s resolution on the 31st December, let it be that you will put away your bug sprays for 2013 and learn to love the insects (even wasps!) who give us so much and help to support our economy in a very real way.  It costs us nothing; all we need to give them is well managed, diverse, unpolluted habitats in which to live.

Have a great Christmas everyone!

We are so very ‘umble

Studying biodiversity can be a humbling experience.  It is humbling to contemplate the intricate ecological context in which species exist, embedded within a matrix of other organisms with which they engage in competition or cooperation or feeding relationships.  It is also humbling to learn that, for some scientists, the focus of their research into ecological complexity and biodiversity is on a single system of species interacting in a single place over a period of decades.

A recent article by Professor Tim Birkhead on the Times Higher Education website illustrates this nicely and conveys beautifully the long term passion and commitment demonstrated by some field biologists and ecologists to research projects.  However I disagree with one of his statements that “….long-term studies are rare. In total there aren’t many more than a dozen or so”.  I suspect that Tim is talking about long term studies of breeding success and population dynamics of vertebrates in the UK.  If one broadens both the taxonomic scale (to take in plants and invertebrates) and the geographic coverage, then there are many, many ecological studies that have continued for decades.  The Park Grass plant community experiment, for example, begun at Rothamsted in 1856, is the oldest ecological experiment anywhere in the world.

Other long term studies are documented in the recent edited volume by Ian Billick and Mary Price – The Ecology of Place.  Highly recommended for its demonstration of the scientific and conservation value of long term ecological research.  Ecology of Place was one of the books I took with me to Tenerife during field work earlier in the summer and I’ve been working through it ever since, absorbed by its chapters more than I can recall in any other edited volume of research.  Some scientists have committed their professional (and sometimes personal) lives to the study of a single locality for over 50 years and the ecological insights from such work have been enormous.  It’s a commitment to the science that I could not possibly mirror; I’m not that kind of scientist.  Whereas I am capable of building up “long term” datasets that span up to 16 years (and counting) these are not the kinds of highly focused, in-depth studies that Mary and Ian have picked for their book.  Perhaps my problem has always been a short attention span and a desire for novelty, like a kid in a toy shop wanting to pick up and play with all of the exciting things on offer.  There’s no single right way to be a scientist (though there are lots of wrong ways).

But back to Uriah Heep and his expressions of ’umbleness.  It’s always been my opinion that  as a society we require some humility when we consider how reliant we are on the processes and resources provided by the biosphere, something that has come to be called ecosystem services, and which I’ve discussed before in a number of blog posts, starting here.  The fact that we rely on the natural world to provide soil nutrients, fresh water, carbon storage, crop pollination, and a whole range of other goods and services, is beyond dispute.  More controversial, however, is the valuation of ecosystem services: how (indeed, should) do we put a monetary value on what nature provides?

A lot of words have been written about these questions in the past few years and recently the writer and environmental activist George Monbiot has weighed into the discussion with an article for the Guardian newspaper that argues that the whole notion of valuation of ecosystem services “diminishes us, it diminishes nature. By turning the natural world into a subsidiary of the corporate economy, it reasserts the biblical doctrine of dominion”.

Now, I have a lot of respect for George, whose writing is always provocative and pulls no punches.  He also puts his money where his mouth is, not least in publicly declaring his earnings.  And on a philosophical level I don’t have a problem with George’s thesis that valuing nature in terms of money is fundamentally wrong; it is wrong, but it’s also the best wrong strategy amongst a whole set of strategies for biodiversity conservation.  Before I explain why, I should also say that I don’t think George argues his case very effectively.  He begins by setting up something of a journalistic straw man in his article by initially claiming that at “a cost of £100,000, [the government] commissioned a research company to produce a total annual price for England’s ecosystems. After taking the money, the company reported….”.

George is presumably referring to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment which as its website clearly states: “was an inclusive process; many government, academic, NGO and private sector institutions helped to design the assessment, contribute information and analyses, review the preliminary findings, and promote the results.”

Not a “research company” then.

George Monbiot also misses the point that spiritual and cultural ecosystem services are explicitly valued within this framework, making a lie of his claim that in the future we won’t ” be able to argue that an ecosystem or a landscape should be protected because it affords us wonder and delight”.  Yes we can, it just so happens that the argument is being framed in economic terms.

Clearly George believes that valuation of ecosystem services is just some neoliberal government/big business conspiracy to rip off the public.  But that’s not its purpose, even if it may be one possible outcome, and one which we must guard against.  As environmentalist Tony Juniper recognises in a response to George Monbiot’s article,  ecosystem service valuation is a serious attempt to value something which has been dismissed by big business as valueless. Regardless of whether the actual monetary values are in any way accurate, it’s backed up by some very sound science and scientists, including some who have the kind of long term commitments to ecology that I discussed above.  Ecosystem services valuation is not perfect but it’s a way forward that should not be dismissed.  It’s an approach that we are using within the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area project that I’ve talked about previously, most recently with respect to the River Nene.

Those of us who have had an interest in environmentalism and ecology for many years have noticed a slow shift in public attitudes to “green” issues.  What was once the preserve of hippies and tree huggers is now mainstream.  Most people “get” that the environment is important, even if they can’t articulate what that importance is.  There are some, including those good folks currently climbing the Dark Mountain, who believe that despite this mainstreaming of environmentalism, we are still going to hell in a handcart and the future is bleak.  Perhaps we are and it is, I don’t know.  But the valuation of our natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides may be our last chance to save the natural world, including our society and our species.  You will note that I wrote “including” not “and”.  That’s important:  I don’t distinguish between the two because Homo sapiens is part of “nature” – we evolved within and are shaped by this biosphere and nothing that we do is therefore “unnatural”.  Some of our decisions and activities may be perverse and misguided and against the long term interests of both ourselves and the planet we inhabit.  But it’s not against nature.  How can we be against something of which we fundamentally are a part?  Understanding that we are saving ourselves by conserving the biosphere is a more humbling conclusion that any pretence that we have stewardship, or worse dominion, over “nature”.

To Dream a River

The notion of streams and rivers as the veins and arteries of a nation, bringing life giving fluids to the country’s urban hearts, is an overplayed one for sure.  But it’s accurate nonetheless, even if these fluids contain biodiversity enough to give any blood disease specialist palpitations.   Given their importance it is therefore odd (I’m tempted to write “suicidal”)  that in Britain we have a history of our towns turning their backs, both metaphorically and literally, on our rivers, ignoring their cultural, social, biological and frankly life sustaining importance.  I’ve mentioned the brewery and sewage effluent entering the River Wear at Sunderland in an earlier posting.  As the pollution went in so there was a  gradual receding of business, industry and habitation away from the river.  There seems to be a correlation between the use and value of a river and the condition of its water and biodiversity: as rivers become ignored and disconnected from urban centres, so they become dumping grounds for whatever can be flushed or piped into them.

This process of riparian neglect was repeated throughout the twentieth century across the country and Northampton’s River Nene is no exception.  From its central place in the town’s commercial activities in the nineteenth century, with its links to the Grand Union Canal and to the North Sea, the Nene has declined in both importance to the town and in its ability to support wildlife, at least in the stretch running through the town and just down river.  Much of the ecological quality of water in this stretch is considered “moderate” to “poor” against the criteria set out by the Water Framework Directive, the main driver of European (and therefore UK) water management.

Against this backdrop of neglect and  river decline, recently a group of us went for a seven mile hike along the River Nene, from the western fringes of Northampton at Duston Mill, through the centre of the town, out to Billing Mill.   The trek was organised by a former student of ours, Neil Monaghan, now working for the River Nene Regional Park (RNRP).  The purpose of this walk was (quoting Neil’s brief for the day) “to inform the Northampton Enterprise Zone River Nene Re-naturalisation Study” by “identify[ing] issues and opportunities for works in-stream and in areas influencing the watercourse which would be likely to facilitate improvements (or at least negate degradation) through land use change or water management”.  My particular interest in this relates to the work we are doing as part of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) project I’ve mentioned before. Also taking part in the hike were representatives from most of the groups with an interest in the River Nene’s ecology, water quality and flood risk management, including my university colleagues Duncan McCollin & Chris Holt; another former student Hugh Bunker, now working for the Environment Agency (EA); independent consultant ecologist Steve Brayshaw; Heather Ball and Oliver Burke from the Wildlife Trust; Martin Janes from the River Restoration Centre; and other staff from RNRP, the EA, Northants County Council and Northampton Borough Council.  All in all, a wide range of interests and expertise, giving their own perspectives on the River Nene.

Although I’d visited parts of the area that we walked, I’d never before hiked this whole stretch.  It was a revelation.  We passed some really pleasant stretches of river and lake close to commercial centres in Northampton that I know well, in the sense of “drive there, buy things, drive away”.  But I was wholly ignorant of just how close the river is to some of these points.

One of the reasons why it’s easy to lose track of the water courses and lakes, is that it is so geographically complex.  Take a look at the Nene Valley on Google Earth and what you’ll see what I mean.  The aerial view reveals a network of river branches, tributaries, canals and lakes, traced across the landscape.  Some of these seem to have no obvious starting point, or end abruptly.  At one point a lower lying stream passes under the river via a siphon.  It’s very confusing for a predominantly terrestrial ecologist!  The whole area is historically prone to flooding, as Chris has discussed in some of his published research and so understanding the dynamics of the whole catchment is an important task for the Environment Agency and local government.

Away from the river, one of the highlights of the trip was a guerrilla visit to a post-industrial site that is posited as the new campus for the university.  It’s actually the site of the former Northampton power station and like many abandoned brownfields across the country, it has developed its own ecological community of invasive alien plants (for example buddleia, in abundance) and native species, many of them normally at home on dry grasslands.  One section was described by Steve, half seriously, as “urban tundra” as it was dominated by a species of lichen from the genus Cladonia.   

Our main attention was the River Nene, of course, never far from the path that we walked.  Further down the course we came to the Northampton Washlands, an area of low lying grassland and flooded gravel pits that serves to store flood water when the river overtops its banks.  It’s also an internationally important site for migratory birds such as lapwing and golden plover, and is part of the recently designated  Special Protection Area (SPA).  It was another highlight in a day of exploration and surprises.

The dream of a river which can support biodiversity, provide drinking water, allow a wide range of recreation, and be flood managed, is a hugely ambitious one.  But there are many people and organisations working hard to see it flourish because the River Nene is a  vital part of the life of the town and the county.  And without dreams, what are we….?

Angry Birds! (and startled bees)

The texture of the life academic is nothing if not varied.  After a couple of days working from home thanks to a dose of flu,  Thursday was spent supervising three one hour tests for my first year students, scattered throughout the day from 0930 to 1600.  As I watched over these hurriedly scribbling undergraduates their shifting expressions ranged across boredom, panic, rapt intensity, smugness and exhaustion.   The latter because it’s been a long term and we’ve worked them hard.  The Easter break will be a relief.  Whilst they pored over the questions I shifted between marking second year literature reviews, checking email and gazing thoughtfully out of the window.

Between tests I went back to the office and worked on completing the first draft of a manuscript that I’ve been promising to send to my co-author Clive Nuttman of the Tropical Biology Association.  It’s based on data we collected in Tanzania last year during the TBA field course whilst observing aggressive interactions between nectar feeding male sunbirds and large Xylocopa carpenter bees.  The bees sneak into the sunbirds’ territories and, if spotted, the birds fly at them, chasing them through the forest.  The plant on which they were feeding is a member of the squash and melon family (Cucurbitaceae) and like many in that family it has separate male and female plants.  Only the male flowers produce nectar;  the females function, in effect, as rewardless mimics of the males.  In addition it seems as though only the bees are pollinators as the birds don’t pick up pollen on their feathers and (crucially) don’t visit the female flowers.  However the birds might be providing a service to the plants by driving the bees to move between plants rather than staying on the male flowers most of the time.  It’s a complex story (which ones in ecology aren’t?) and we’ve only scratched the surface of what is going on, but the aggressive interactions side of it makes a nice starting point for further work.  We’re calling it:   “Angry Birds!  Aggressive displacement of Xylocopa carpenter bees from flowers of Lagenaria sphaerica (Cucurbitaceae) by territorial male Eastern Olive Sunbirds (Cyanomitra olivacea) in Tanzania”.  Let’s see if the journal editor and reviewers will go along with the tongue in cheek pre-title.

Friday started with a meeting between Muzafar Hussain, on of my PhD students you met last time, and Peter Nalder from South Court Environmental.  SCE is a local co-operative dedicated to environmental projects, and organic and permaculture food production.  The group is responsible for managing a number of old, remnant fruit tree orchards around Northampton.  We took a look at a really interesting site over in Abington that was originally a farm.  It’s now been converted into sheltered housing for old folks and a nature conservation area that includes an orchard.  Muzafar is planning to incorporate some of these orchards into his urban bees surveys.  This will add to what we know about the diversity of habitats available to these bees and relates it directly to the ecosystem service of crop pollination that the bees provide.

In the afternoon I drove up to the Wildlife Trust’s offices at Lings House for the first formal meeting of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area partners to be held since the announcement that we had secured the funding back in February.   I intend to write more about the Nene Valley NIA in the coming months and years.  But for now it’s enough to say that we’re incredibly excited about the opportunities the NIA will bring to improve the level of biodiversity conservation in the region.  The university is leading on one of five objectives: to assess the range of ecosystem services being delivered in the Nene Valley and the condition of the biodiversity (including habitat as well as taxonomic diversity) that is supporting those services.  We’ll focus on pollination, naturally, but also on other services including fresh water provision and flood alleviation, and possibly carbon storage.  These are new areas for me and it’s going to be a steep learning curve.  A PhD student has already been recruited to work on pollinator diversity and in the near future we’ll take on a post-doc for the main part of the project (if you know of anyone who might be interested ask them to send me their CVs).

Chairing the meeting was Oliver Burke the Wildlife Trust’s energetic and enthusiastic Conservation Manager who has been the real driving force behind the NIA  (which on a map looks like a large intestine squiggling its way across the landscape; in honour of him I renamed it “Oliver’s Colon”.  Not sure if it will stick but I intend to use it in all official NIA documents from now on).  Most of the meeting was concerned with the nuts and bolts of how the finances will work, reporting of activities, membership of the steering group, etc.  Dull but vital if the Nene Valley NIA is to be the success we want it to be.

Also at the meeting was Adrian Southern from the RSPB, standing in for a colleague.  I keep bumping into Adrian in the most unlikely places, first at Biosphere 2 in Arizona in 2001 during an Ecological Society of America meeting that ultimately led to the Waser & Ollerton (2006) edited volume.  Then a few years later at another conference when he was a PhD student at University of East Anglia.  We never really kept in touch so it was a surprise to see him.  Now Adrian’s with the RSPB I hope to talk more with him about some ecosystem services projects he’s working with as part of their Futurescapes programme.  So add that to the lots of different things going on at the moment.  But varied is good.  If tiring.  So looking forward to a week off over Easter.