Category Archives: Personal biodiversity

Invasive Species Week 2021: Invasive Alien Species of Herpetofauna in the UK

This is a guest post by Helen Tedds who is currently researching for a PhD at the University of Northampton. Although Helen’s work is far removed from my usual research and consultancy interests of plant-pollinator interactions, I’m proud to be part of her supervisory team! Amphibians were one of my early natural history obsessions, and invasive plants and pollinators are a long standing interest of mine. In this post Helen discusses her research on the UK reptile and amphibian pet trade.


This week (24th-30th May 2021) is Invasive Species Week, an annual event led by the GB NNSS (Non-Native Species Secretariat) to raise awareness of invasive species and how we can help prevent their spread. Generally, the term ‘invasive species’ is defined as an introduced organism that has an adverse impact on its environment by causing ecological and economic damage. They are one of the top five causes of worldwide biodiversity loss through habitat damage, preying on or out-competing other species. They can also spread disease to other species, including humans. The estimated cost of invasive species to the UK’s economy is more than £1.7 billion [1] which is caused by things like damage to buildings [e.g. from the dreaded Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica – fig. 1)], interference with food production, delays on work projects, and the expense of dealing with them. The number of new species being introduced to the UK is rapidly on the increase and can be exacerbated by climate change. This is an urgent problem that without intervention will continue to escalate!

Fig. 1: Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) damaging a brick wall

In 2015 I embarked on a PhD that aimed to quantify the pet herpetofauna (reptile and amphibian) trade across England, mainly to understand the associated socio-economic factors and animal welfare consequences of this. Investigating invasive species was low on my already-full agenda, however, it has been a rabbit hole I ended up going down (pun intended: rabbits were named Britain’s most costly invasive species in 2010 according to The Guardian[2])!  

The exotic pet trade has long been known to be a means of new species entering an environment (either through escape or deliberate release), but according to a recent study in Frontiers of Ecology it now ranks as a primary cause of invasive species[3]. It has long been illegal to release any non-native species into the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, however more recent legislation has been enacted to prohibit the trade of invasive species. Whilst the term ‘invasive’ can be subjective, in the UK a species officially considered to be invasive is listed in retained EU law: Invasive non-native (alien) animal species: rules in England and Wales. That’s not to say that other ‘feral’ pets are not ‘invasive’. There are concerns that Indian ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameria – fig. 2) that have spread across the UK are potentially out-competing some of our native birds for nesting sites in tree hollows[4]. However there needs to be a body of evidence built to support these claims before a species is added to the legislation.

Fig. 2: Indian ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameria)

In terms of herpetofauna, there is only one invasive species of amphibian listed in the legislation, the North American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus- fig. 3), and one species of reptile, the common slider turtle (Trachemys scripta) along with all sub-species, including T. s. elegans, T. s. scripta, and T. s. troostii -fig. 4-6)[5]. North American bullfrogs pose a threat to our already vulnerable native amphibians as they will eat frogs, newts, and other similar sized animals[6], and slider turtles threaten our waterfowl as they will eat bird eggs, as well as insect larvae[7].

The law has prohibited anyone from keeping, breeding, and selling these species since August 2016. If you owned one before the law came into force (turtles can be very long-lived) then you have what are called ‘grandfather rights’ where the animal can remain in your possession until the end of its days. If an owner can no longer take care of the turtle they cannot re-sell it- it is best to relinquish them to a rehoming centre that has the relevant license where they can live out the rest of their lives[8], such as The National Turtle Sanctuary at Lincolnshire Wildlife Park[9].

Part of my research into quantifying the herpetofauna trade has involved sampling from pet shops and online classified adverts as to what species are for sale. So far, I have officially documented 431 different reptile species, and 122 different amphibian species[10], and this number is set to grow as I continue to analyse four years’ worth of data. All these species are non-native, and whilst most of them would not survive in our British climate, there are some causes for concern.

In October 2020 a fellow PhD student, Ali North, got in touch with me as she is currently investigating the drivers of establishment and spread of a non-native amphibian in the UK, the alpine newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris- fig. 7). Her project uses distribution data of alpine newts in their native range across mid-Europe with an aim to predict the invasion risk of this species in the UK[11]. I was interested to learn from her that these newts have established various populations in the UK but most concerningly are known to be a vector of chytridiomycosis which can be transmitted to our native amphibians[12]. As part of her research at the University of Plymouth, ZSL Institute of Zoology, and the ARC Trust, Ali wanted to know how often alpine newts had occurred in my data sampling seeing as the pet trade is a potential route for non-native species entering the wild. It turns out that my data set had only 16 records of alpine newts (out of tens of thousands of records) which is not very many, however, do not be fooled by small numbers! It does not take many individual pets being released into the wild for a potentially invasive species to wreak havoc on an ecosystem. Whilst the understanding of alpine newts as an invader is in its infancy, I was delighted to be able to assist Ali with this part of her research and I look forward to reading her final thesis. If you have spotted an alpine newt in the UK you can also help towards her project by reporting it here: https://www.arc-trust.org/news/have-you-seen-an-alpine-newt-in-the-uk 

Another interesting thing that my data collection has highlighted is that despite slider turtles being banned from sale for over four years now, they are still appearing on online classified websites such as Preloved, Pets4Homes, and Gumtree. Not only is this illegal, but it is also against the minimum standards set out by the Pet Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG) which these websites agree to adhere to as voluntary members[13]. Since I started collecting data in July 2017 to the time of publishing this blog there have been at least 102 adverts selling slider turtles, and these were the more obvious ones. On deeper investigation some adverts selling yellow-bellied sliders listed them as just the letters ‘YBS’ meaning that they would not be flagged when searching using key words. These adverts have consistently appeared in my data set at a rate of about two per month, with a noticeable spike in Oct-Dec 2020 at a rate of five per month, so there does not appear to be a downward trend since the legislation came into force. Also, some other adverts just listed animals using the word ‘turtle’ or ‘terrapin’; not only does this allow the potential for slider adverts to slip through the net but it also further violates PAAG minimum standards by not advising potential buyers what the species is. How can someone research the correct care information if they don’t know what species they are buying?

Another invasive species that I came into close contact with recently, coincidentally whilst in the process of writing this blog, was in my local park- Elmdon Park in Solihull. An invasive water weed, Azolla filiculoides, or red water fern (fig. 8), had suddenly appeared in one of the park’s ponds. This weed is believed to have entered UK water systems from the ornamental pond and aquarium trade either by spreading via birds’ legs between ponds or from people emptying fish tanks into wild water bodies. It spreads on the surface of water bodies, blocking out sunlight and decreasing oxygen, thereby killing native wildlife[14].

Fig. 8: Red water fern (Azolla filiculoides) in Elmdon Park, Solihull

I sit as Secretary on Elmdon Park Support Group’s[15] committee and run their social media pages, so I found myself reading more about this weed and treatments used to control it, in order to inform the local community on what would happen. The Warwickshire Wildlife Trust lease the land and therefore must foot the treatment bill, which turns out to be the use of a weevil (Stenopelmus rufinasus- fig. 9), affectionately known as ‘Weevil Knievel’ The weevil eats the weed but doesn’t come cheap at a cost of a few hundred pounds for just one container of them[16]. So here we have another casualty to our native wildlife because of the pet trade.

Fig 9: ‘Weevil Knievel’ (Stenopelmus rufinasus)

So, what can we do? Further research into identifying potentially invasive species will help in raising public awareness, whilst initiatives such as Invasive Species Week will spread the message on the consequences of releasing non-native species into our UK ecosystems. But there persists a deeper problem whereby some people fail to properly research the needs of the pets they buy, or fully understand how big they will grow, and feel that it’s easier to release them into the wild rather than to relinquish them via more responsible methods. This is perhaps the area of human-animal interactions that needs more attention and research.

References

  1. NNSS (2021) What are invasive species and why are they a problem? (online) Available from: http://www.nonnativespecies.org/index.cfm?pageid=640 (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  2. The Guardian (2010) Rabbits named Britain’s most costly invasive species (online) Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/dec/15/rabbits-invasive-species-cost#:~:text=They%20were%20introduced%20to%20Britain,infrastructure%2C%20a%20report%20says%20today. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  3. National Geographic (2019) Why you should never release exotic pets into the wild (online) Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/2019/07/why-you-should-never-release-exotic-pets-the-wild (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  4. RSPB (ND) Ring-necked parakeets in the UK (online) Available from https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/policy-insight/species/invasive-non-native-species/ring-necked-parakeets/ (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  5. GOV.UK (2020) Invasive non-native (alien) animal species: rules in England and Wales (online) Available from: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/invasive-non-native-alien-animal-species-rules-in-england-and-wales#leaving-the-eu (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  6. Froglife (2021) American Bullfrogs (online) Available from https://www.froglife.org/info-advice/amphibians-and-reptiles/american-bull-frog/#:~:text=The%20North%20American%20Bullfrog%20is,other%20animals%20of%20similar%20size. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  7. Canal and River Trust (2020) Terrapins (online) Available from: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-wildlife/the-rogues-gallery-of-invasive-species/terrapins (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  8. GOV.UK (2020) Invasive non-native (alien) animal species: rules in England and Wales (online) Available from: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/invasive-non-native-alien-animal-species-rules-in-england-and-wales#:~:text=You%20cannot%20legally%20keep%20these,these%20animals%20into%20the%20wild. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  9. Lincolnshire Wildlife Park (ND) The National Turtle Sanctuary (online) Available from: http://www.lincswildlife.com/national-turtle-sanctuary/ (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  10. Tedds, H.L., Sneddon, S., Ollerton, J., Clubb, R., and McCormick, W.D., Herps across England: investigating the scale of the reptile and amphibian trade: UFAW Recent Advances in Animal Welfare Science VII Conference Poster, 30th June- 1st July 2020, online.
  11. ARC (ND) Have you seen an alpine newt in the UK? (online) Available from: https://www.arc-trust.org/news/have-you-seen-an-alpine-newt-in-the-uk (Accessed 13th May 2021)
  12. Inside Ecology (2018) Invasive non-native species (UK) – Alpine newt (online) Available from: https://insideecology.com/2018/01/04/invasive-non-native-species-uk-alpine-newt/#:~:text=The%20Alpine%20newt%20is%20known,accidentally%20be%20spread%20between%20waterbodies. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  13. Pet Advertising Advisory Group (2018) Selling a pet (online) Available from: https://paag.org.uk/selling-a-pet/ (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  14. RHS (2021) Aquatic Weeds (online) Available from: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=429 (Accessed 13th May 2021).
  15. Elmdon Park Support Group (ND) About us (online) Available from: https://www.elmdonpark.org.uk/ (Accessed 13th May 2021).
  16. Birmingham Live (2021) Thousands of weevils to be realised in Solihull’s red lagoon (online) Available from: https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/thousands-weevils-released-solihulls-red-20580339 (Accessed 13th May 2021).

Figures

  1. Japanese knotweed https://environetuk.com/Blog/Does-Japanese-knotweed-cause-property-damage
  2. Female Ring-necked parakeet https://metro.co.uk/2021/01/01/parakeets-could-be-culled-by-government-after-rapid-rise-in-population-13834746/
  3. North American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/aquatic/fish-and-other-vertebrates/bullfrog
  4. Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans) https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-wildlife/the-rogues-gallery-of-invasive-species/terrapins
  5. Yellow-bellied slider turtle (Trachemys scripta scripta) https://www.petguide.com/breeds/turtle/yellow-bellied-slider/
  6. Cumberland slider turtle (Trachemys scripta troostii) https://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/reptiles/turtles/cumberland-slider/cumberland_slider.php
  7. Alpine newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris) https://insideecology.com/2018/01/04/invasive-non-native-species-uk-alpine-newt/#:~:text=The%20Alpine%20newt%20is%20known,accidentally%20be%20spread%20between%20waterbodies.
  8. Red water fern (Azolla filiculoides) in Elmdon Park, Solihull https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/warning-hidden-solihull-pool-turns-20484665
  9. ‘Weevil Knievel’ (Stenopelmus rufinasus) https://insideecology.com/2017/11/01/invasive-non-native-species-uk-water-fern/

Finally, a physical copy of my book!

Yesterday I was delighted to finally receive an advance copy of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society! It’s been over three years in the writing and production, much longer than I had anticipated. But, as I describe in its pages, the book is the culmination of >50 years of experience, study and research. So perhaps three years isn’t so bad…

If you’re interested in buying a copy you can order it direct from Pelagic Publishing and from most of the large online booksellers. Let me know what you think.

The chapter titles for my book: Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society

A few people have asked me about what’s covered in my book which is being published by Pelagic and is currently in production. Here’s the chapter titles:

Preface                                                                                                                        

1         The importance of pollinators and pollination                               

2         More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators                           

3         To be a flower                                                                                               

4         Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank                 

5         The evolution of pollination strategies                                              

6         A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change                 

7         Agricultural perspectives                                                                        

8         Urban environments                                                                                  

9         The significance of gardens                                                                    

10      The shifting fates of pollinators                                                            

11      New bees on the block                                                                              

12      Managing, restoring and connecting habitats                                 

13      The politics of pollination                                                                        

14      Studying pollinators and pollination                                                  

As you can see it’s a very wide-ranging overview of the subject, and written to be accessible to both specialists and non-specialists alike. To quote what I wrote in the Preface:

“While the book is aimed at a very broad audience, and is intended to be comprehensible to anyone with an interest in science and the environment, and their intersection with human societies, I hope it will also be of interest to those dealing professionally with plants and pollinators. The subject is vast, and those working on bee or hoverfly biology, for example, or plant reproductive ecology, may learn something new about topics adjacent to their specialisms. I certainly learned a lot from writing the book.”

The book is about 100,000 words in length, lots of illustrations, and there will be an index. My copy editor reckons there’s 450 references cited, though I haven’t counted. I do know that they run to 28 pages in the manuscript, and that’s with 11pt text. All going well it will be published before Christmas.

Get a 30% discount if you pre-order my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society

PollinatorsandPollination-frontcover

In the next few months my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society will be published.  As you can imagine, I’m very excited! The book is currently available to pre-order: you can find full details here at the Pelagic Publishing website.  If you do pre-order it you can claim a 30% discount by using the pre-publication offer code POLLINATOR.

As with my blog, the book is aimed at a very broad audience including the interested public, gardeners, conservationists, and scientists working in the various sub-fields of pollinator and pollination research. The chapter titles are as follows:

Preface and Acknowledgements
1. The importance of pollinators and pollination
2. More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators
3. To be a flower
4. Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank
5. The evolution of pollination strategies
6. A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change
7. Agricultural perspectives
8. Urban environments
9. The significance of gardens
10. Shifting fates of pollinators
11. New bees on the block
12. Managing, restoring and connecting habitats
13. The politics of pollination
14. Studying pollinators and pollination
References
Index

 

 

“The time of the singing of birds is come” – a Nottinghamshire gravestone with a bird bath

 

2019-08-22 14.50.20

Yesterday Karin and I took the day off and explored an area along the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border with friends.  In the small village of Normanton on Soar we found a very unusual headstone in the churchyard, carved in granite and surmounted by a bird bath.  Around the bowl some lead text reads:  “The time of the singing of birds is come”

The bowl was empty when we arrived so I filled it: it’s going to be a hot weekend and the birds might appreciate it.

The headstone marks the burial place of Edward Hands and Ethel Maud Hands, presumably husband and wife; the smaller marker commemorates Derek Hands (their son?).  None had a long life; Edward was 42 when he died, Ethel 56, and Derek just 36.  The headstone was erected originally for Edward (who pre-deceased his wife by 20 years) so perhaps it was he who was keen on birds?

I’ve never seen a headstone in the form of a bird bath though I can’t believe that it’s unique: does anyone know of others?

Here’s the full grave; it was only after I took the picture that I noticed the feather.

2019-08-22 14.43.39

The text around the bird bath is from the Bible, the Song of Solomon 2:12.  The fuller version is:

“The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

We didn’t hear any turtles, but here were plenty of flowers around the village, including a buddleia that was smothered in very fresh looking painted lady butterflies that are likely to have been born nearby rather than migrating over from the continent:

2019-08-22 14.59.19

It was also a time of bees such as this very active feral honey bee colony in a lovely 15th century  timber framed house:

Photograph and poem: the only alien here

2018-11-01 23.21.44

Wind the propagator propels air-borne seeds

To urban refuge and new opportunity

Where they germinate, elongate, grow, and flower,

Roots seeking soil, making do with mortar and render,

As, persistent in its invader role,

Buddleia grips a gable cliff, dispensing offspring

From house wall warmth into frigid space

And a clear night of stars backdrops the only alien here.

 

The explosion in orchids as houseplants: what does it tell us about how flowers evolve?

Orchids 20180512_112533.jpg

One of the major trends in horticulture over the last 20 years or so has been the rise in popularity of orchids as house plants.  Orchids used to have a reputation as being delicate, choosy, costly things that needed expensive glasshouses, heating, and humidity systems to grow.  Some groups of orchids are certainly like that, but many are not (Orchidaceae is one of the two largest families of plants, after all).  These days it’s impossible to walk into any supermarket or department store and not see orchids for sale at a reasonable price, orchids that are tough and can withstand the relatively dry, centrally heated houses in which most of us in Britain live. 

The majority of these orchids are varieties of Phalaenopsis, the moth orchids.  Intensive hybridisation by commercial growers has meant that there is an almost inexhaustible range of flower colours, shapes, sizes and patterning available.  Take a look at this gallery of images and you’ll see what I mean, or go into a shop that sells such orchids and observe that almost no two are alike.

This is the stuff of natural selection: genetic variation in the phenotype that can be acted upon by a selective agent.  In this case it’s the growers of orchids who choose the most attractive types to sell and discard the others.  If this variation emerged in wild populations most of it would disappear over time, but some, just occasionally, would be selected for by a different group of pollinators and go on to form a new species.  This is much more likely to happen if the individuals with this variation are isolated from the rest of the population in time or space, for example if they flower later or have been dispersed to a distant valley or mountaintop (termed allopatric speciation).  But it can also happen within populations – sympatric speciation.

Back in 1996, near the start of this orchid explosion, one of my earliest papers was a speculative commentary in Journal of Ecology called “Reconciling ecological processes with phylogenetic patterns: the apparent paradox of plant-pollinator systems”.  It generated some interest in the field at the time and has picked up >250 citations over the years, mostly other researchers using it as supporting evidence for the discrepancies we see when trying to understand how flowers evolve within a milieu of lots of different types of potential pollinators selecting for possibly diverse and contradictory aspects of floral form.  In that paper I made a passing comment that I expected the reviewers to criticise, which they did not.  Once it was published I thought that perhaps other researchers in the field would critique it or use it as a jumping off point for further study, which has not really happened either.  This is what I wrote:

         “It appears that pollination systems are labile and may evolve quite rapidly….plant breeders can obtain a fantastic range of horticultural novelties through selective breeding over just a few generations.”

This is horticulture holding up a mirror to the natural world and saying: “This is how we do it in the glasshouse, look at the variety we can produce over a short space of time by selecting for flower forms; can nature do it as quickly, and if so what are the mechanisms?”  

I still believe that pollination ecologists could learn a lot from horticulture and there’s some fruitful (flowerful?) lines of enquiry that could be pursued by creative PhD students or postdocs.  Here’s one suggestion: part of the reason why these Phalaenopsis orchids are so popular as house plants is that they have very long individual flower life times, often many weeks.  Now we suspect that floral longevity is under strong selection; see for example research by Tia-Lynn Ashman and Daniel Schoen in the 1990s.  This showed that there is a negative correlation between rate of pollinator visitation and how long flowers stay open.  Plants with flowers that are not visited very frequently stay open much longer, for example the bird-pollinated flowers of the Canary Islands that may only be visited once or twice a day, and which can remain open for more than 20 days.  Is the floral longevity shown by these orchids (or other groups of plants that have been horticulturally selected) beyond the range found in natural populations?  If so, what are the underlying physiological mechanisms that allow such extreme longevity?  If not, does this mean that there is an upper limit to the lifespan of flowers, and if so, why?  

In the mean time I’m going to enjoy the orchids above that sit on our kitchen windowsill.  They actually belong to my wife Karin who has developed something of an interest in them in recent months.  The big spotty one is a late birthday gift for her that I picked up this morning from a local flower shop, and which stimulated this post as I was walking home.  I’d bet that we never see another one like it!

The Danish for garden is “haven”: five reasons why I love Gardeners’ World

20160702_100724

The latest series of the BBC’s flagship horticulture programme Gardeners’ World started on Friday, heralding its 50th year of broadcast – quite an achievement.  I’ve long been a fan, and a few years ago jumped at the chance to take part in one Science in the Garden special episode with Carol Klein (which I’ve posted about previously).  Since Friday I’ve given some thought as to what I get from the programme and have come up with a list of the main reasons why I love watching it:

1.  At its heart, Gardeners’ World is about the main subject of this blog and of my career: biodiversity.  Specifically the programme is centred on the biological richness of wild plants and the diversity of the horticultural varieties that we have created from them, for food and for ornament.  Spinning off from this is the acknowledgement that, although much of it is not native to Britain, this plant biodiversity (and the way in which we manage it in our gardens) can have important positive benefits for the wildlife of our country, including birds, amphibians and reptiles, and insects such as bees and butterflies.  This is particularly the case in urban settings and I’ve noticed a welcome trend in recent years for Gardeners’ World to include more features about city horticulture.

2.  Gardeners’ World has long championed a more environmentally friendly approach to horticulture, bringing in ideas about using peat-free compost, minimal use of biocides, recycling and upcycling, composting, and growing your own food, long before any of this became fashionable.  Indeed there’s a strong argument to be made that earlier presenters such as the late Geoff Hamilton were responsible for such fashions gaining mainstream exposure, influencing the habits of millions of people in Britain.  That kind of influence should not be under-estimated.

3. Gardeners’ World reminds me of my dad, who died in 1996.  I can recall him watching it back in the 1970s when Percy Thrower was the presenter and my dad had an allotment a short walk from our small terraced cottage house, with its tiny concrete backyard.  Some of my earliest memories of plants and nature relate to that allotment: a huge rambling rose along the fence; a greenhouse made from old window panes, filled with the rich scent of tomatoes; a toad that dad put in that greenhouse to eat the slugs; rainwater tanks hosting little communities of wriggling insect larvae.  After the allotment plots were cleared by the local council and sold for development my dad erected a greenhouse in the backyard, and grew shrubs and bedding in large pots.  In the early 1980s this was joined by a second small greenhouse for my cactus and succulent collection, many of which I still have.  Some of the best stories in Gardeners’ World are as much about people and their relationships with one another and with their gardens, as they are about plants and gardening per se (see also number 5, below).

4.  Despite having watched the programme for many years I still get new things from it.  Each season I gain inspiration for new plants and new ways of working with the garden that Karin and I are developing here in Northampton, which I’ve talked about quite a few time; see for example:  Renovating a front garden…, my post about Scientists and gardens, and the series I did on pollinators in the garden for Pollinator Awareness Week.  Gardeners never stop learning.

5. Being from the north of England I’m intrigued by the linguistic links between that part of our country and Scandinavia, particularly shared words such as “bairn”, and place-name elements such as “holm”.  Karin is Danish and these connections of language are something we often discuss.  Recently she pointed out that the Danish word for garden is “haven”.  Although it’s not pronounced in the English manner that word is probably the best single way of describing how I feel about our garden; it’s a haven from from the outside world, a place of rest and security, contemplation and physical activity, emotionally supporting us, and providing resources and space for the wildlife that uses it.  Although we don’t do much work in the garden during the winter, each year the start of a new season of Gardeners’ World reminds me of the pleasures to come in our own haven.

Of course there are sometimes things that irritate me about the programme: it can be a bit too cosily middle class at times, occasionally the advice offered can be simplistic or inaccurate, and some of the “scientific” trials of plant varieties lack rigour and replication.  Nonetheless, it’s a programme I have grown up with and one that I love to watch.  Happy Anniversary Gardeners’ World, here’s to 50 more years!

When did plastic plants become acceptable?

Plants are important.  Really, really important.  They play important roles in society and in the nature that supports our societies: plants feed us; they are a source of many pharmaceuticals; they produce oxygen and store up carbon dioxide; they can remove pollutants from city atmospheres; and they are the foundation for much of the world’s ecological functioning.  In addition they inspire poets, artists, musicians, and have huge cultural significance, as well as bringing beauty and biodiversity to even the most urban of environments. Plants positively add to our quality of life, and make us happy, whether we are aware of it or not.

OK, there’s a bit of personal bias going on here: I’ve always loved studying and growing plants, they are a huge part of my life.  But the basic facts of what I laid out in that opening paragraph are correct: plants matter.  So I find it troubling that there seems to be a recent trend in using artificial (mainly plastic) plants indoors and in outside “gardens”.  When did this happen?  When did plastic plants become acceptable?

It first struck me that there had been a recent shift in how we view plastic plants back in the summer when I visited the newly refurbished main restaurant at the university’s Park Campus.  The refurb was very nicely done and there’s a big display about how much of the university’s waste we are recycling, and there’s lots of greenery about the place – except that most of it is plastic.

Then in November we visited my son Patrick in Lancaster.  We stayed a night in a nice hotel in the city centre, in a room that led out into a private courtyard – full of plastic plants.  There was a plastic lawn, a plastic palm, even plastic ivy.  Ivy!  One of the easiest plants in the world to grow – why would you need to make it out of plastic?!  It makes itself perfectly well which you can see if you peep over the wall at the back of the courtyard:

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Then the following week I was in London at the Wellcome Trust to take part in a project review panel.  The Wellcome’s building near Euston Station is wonderful, really striking on the inside, full of light and life.  I was initially please to see an avenue of fig trees in large containers arrayed along the centre of the main concourse:

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But when I looked closely I realised that although the trunks and branches were real, these were not living plants: the leaves are artificial, made from wire and synthetic material.  So someone has gone to the trouble of growing real fig trees only to dismember them and festoon them with faux foliage.  Please, no one tell Mike Shanahan!

I’m really surprised at the Wellcome Trust, an organisation I have a lot of respect for;  we know that real plants have a positive effect on psychology and health, though I very much doubt that the same can be said for artificial ones.  In their defence the Wellcome Trust building does have some real plants scattered about the place, but they missed a huge opportunity in not using real figs here.  Even that cathedral to capitalism that is the Milton Keynes shopping centre uses real plants in most of its displays, including some lovely tree ferns:

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And splendid palms:

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Finally, insult was added to injury as we entered the New Year.  As I mentioned in my Spiral Sunday post a couple of weeks ago, we bought a wreath as a Christmas decoration and I took it apart to compost and recycle at the start of the year.  What I hadn’t noticed when we bought it was that half of the holly berries were plastic:

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This was hugely ironic given our recent study of how insects boost the value of holly by pollinating the female flowers that produce the berries!

All of this is more than just snobbery on my part.  Yes, you can argue that plastic plants are a bit naff and can never take the place of the “real” thing.  But my main concern here is an environmental one: plastic plants require resources (usually oil-based polymers and energy) to make.  And I doubt very much whether they are recycled very often.  Yes, real plants also cost resources to grow (though that can be minimised depending on how they are grown).  But they also provide a range of benefits and, at the end of their life, they can be composted.  Not something I can do with my plastic holly berries.  Not only that, but I suspect that most (all?) of the plastic plants that are sold are manufactured in the Far East.  Using British- or Europe-grown real plants would cut down on the carbon-miles required and support more local horticultural industries.

Early in 2017 Andrew Lucas at Swansea University, on Twitter, described what he thought was the most depressing tweet of 2017 so far:  “Transform your garden today: buy Artificial Grass from ExpressGrass. Cut to your size for easy DIY installation”.

Agreed, hugely depressing, but we can do something about it: stop buying fake plants.  Perhaps we need a Campaign for Real Plants?  Its theme tune could be Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees:

Her green plastic watering can
For her fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself…..

……It wears me out

Engaging students with the fundamentals of biodiversity (1) – “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy”

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This term we have started refreshing and reformatting our first year undergraduate modules, partly in preparation for the move to our new Waterside Campus, but also because they were beginning to feel a bit tired and jaded.  We have begun with ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction, a 20 CATS module which mainly services our BSc Environmental Science and BSc Biology programmes.

One of the changes has been to go from a “long-thin” delivery of 2 class hours per week over two terms, to a “short-fat” delivery of 4 hours per week in one term.  The advantages of this, we think, are two-fold: (1) it provides students with a richer, more immersive experience because they are not mind-flitting between different topics; (2) it frees up longer blocks of time for academic staff to focus on programme development, research activities, etc.

For now we have opted to deliver the 4 hours in a single session.  That’s quite a long time for the students (and staff) to be taught (teaching) but it’s punctuated by short breaks and includes a lot of practical work in the field, lab, and computer suite.

One of the aims of ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction is to engage the students with the use of taxonomic names of species and higher groups, familiarise them with the principles of biological classification, why this is important (and why it underpins the rest of biology and much of the environmental sciences), and so forth.  Building confidence in how scientific names are used, and the diversity of species that all of us encounter on a day-to-day basis, are important aspects of this, and I developed a couple of new exercises that we are trialling this term which are focused on these areas.

The first one is called “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy” and was partly inspired by a conversation I had with Steve Heard when he posted about The Plant Gastrodiversity Game.  It works like this. I begin with an interactive lecture that sets out the basic ideas behind taxonomic classification and its importance.  After a short break the students then begin the hands-on part of the exercise.  Working in groups of three they use a work sheet that lists 10 culinary dishes, including:  fried cod, chips, and mushy peas; spotted dick; spaghetti bolognese; Thai green curry with tofu & okra; chocolate brownies, etc. (this can easily be varied and adapted according to needs).

The students’ first task is to find a recipe online for each dish.  For each biological ingredient in that dish, they list its common name and find its taxonomic family, genus, and species (italicising the latter two, as per taxonomic conventions).  I emphasise that it is important to be accurate with names as they will be doing something similar in a later assessed exercise.

This takes a couple of hours and then they feedback their results in a debriefing session, including finding out who had the longest list of species in a meal – the winner was 17 species in a moussaka recipe, with a Jamie Oliver fish and chips recipe coming a credible second with 12!  We also discuss particularly common taxa that turn up frequently, for example plant families such as Solanaceae – the relatedness of tomatoes, chillies, peppers, potatoes, and aubergine, the students found very intriguing.

By the end of this exercise the students will have gained familiarity with researching, understanding, handling, and writing scientific names of species and higher taxonomic groups.  In addition they will have a better understanding of the taxonomic diversity of organisms that we consume, and their relatedness.  It may also have encouraged them to try out some new recipes!

If anyone wishes to comment or add suggestions for improvements, please do.  If you’d like to try this yourself with your own students feel free to adapt it to your own needs, though an acknowledgement somewhere would be polite.