Category Archives: Personal biodiversity

Tuggie lanterns, Hallowe’en, and the botany of festivities

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The plant that most people now associate with the 31st October Hallowe’en festivities is, of course, the pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo).   Carved into hideous faces, pumpkin jack o’lanterns are supposed to ward off evil spirits.  But it was not always so; in Britain and Ireland, where these traditions originated, other vegetables were used.  In the north east of England, as a child, we carved large turnips (varieties of Brassica napus or B. rapa) into “tuggie lanterns”, the word tuggie being a colloquial term for that vegetable.  Proudly displaying our string-hung lanterns, we’d walk around the local neighbourhood trying to scare each other.

This tradition has a long history, going back at least to the 17th century.  Theres a great painting from 1838 by artist William Henry Hunt called The Turnip Lantern, which captures the juvenile excitement of Hallowe’en, even if the lantern itself is rather tame by modern standards.  Given that Hallowe’en is supposed to be derived from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain it is interesting that there appear to be n0 earlier references than this. Did Shakespeare or any of the other Tudor playwrights not mention them, nor any of the Mediaeval writers?  Perhaps they did but it’s not been widely acknowledged.

The “botany of festivities” (i.e. plants, particularly non-edible ones, associated with specific annual events or periods of the calendar) is a fascinating area of study that spans both biodiversity and cultural history. I’m particualrly interested in how traditional festivals exploit novel (but analogous) plants when they travel with immigrants to new parts of the world.  The pumpkin is an obvious example, but there are others, e.g. the use of a New World mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) at Christmas in the USA, in the absence of European mistletoes (Viscum album). The reverse of this also occurs, i.e. the incorporation of non-native plants into traditional rituals and festivities, such as the use of Forsythia (a mainly Asian genus) as a decoration in early spring in some parts of Scandinavia.

Yesterday evening, Karin, our sons Oli and James, and myself indulged in some pumpkin carving, and I relived my youth with a small turnip (see the photograph above).  Happy Hallowe’en everyone!

Renovating a front garden for pollinators: because there has to be more to a scientist’s life than just…..science!

Over at the Standingoutinmyfield blog, the author has posted some “Photos from a hardwood floor“, and contrasted the satisfaction to be derived from a project such as (in this case) laying a new floor in her home (and great it looks too!) with the dissatisfaction that life as a scientist can bring.  Don’t get me wrong, I think I have the best job in the world, but I agree with her that there has to be more than science in the life of a scientist.

It’s probably not widely realised amongst non-academics, but failure and rejection are MUCH more common than success and acceptance in our professional lives.

Rejection rates for most journals are greater than 50%, and frequently as high as 80% to 90%; success rates for large grants are typically lower than 20%.  In the past seven months I’ve had one grant application and five papers rejected.  It can be very disheartening,  which is why I have to have more in my life than just science.

Of course there’s the teaching and admin that is a vital part of my job, but, like Standingoutinmyfield, other projects are important.  So Karin and I have spent part of the summer refurbishing an old summer house at the back of the garden (on-going) and renovating and planting our front garden (almost done).  As the latter project involves plants that are good nectar and pollen sources for pollinators, I thought I’d post some photographs:

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The original front wall – built in the late 1980s/early 1990s I think, and not at all in character with the late Victorian house.

The garden itself was paved and concreted over:

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Demolition in progress!  While I supervise…..:

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We salvaged what bricks we could, for other projects, and the rubble was taken to the local recycling centre to be used as hardcore.

It’s amazing where plants will grow:

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The site is almost cleared, ready for a local semi-retired bricklayer (with 56 years of experience!) to build us a new wall using similar bricks to those of the house:

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And here it is:

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The soil in the front garden was very poor, varying from solid clay to builder’s rubble, so needed a lot of peat-free compost and sharp sand to improve it.  But finally we were ready to plant it up:

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The garden is south facing so we had to choose plants that would do well in a hot, dry summer (not that we have many of those at the moment….).  It will take a year or two for them to get established and knit into a full display.  The plants are a mixture of pollen- and nectar-sources for pollinators plus things we just like – here’s the full list:

A small scrambling rose Rosa “Warm Welcome” – a beautiful, unusual colour, a very nice scent, and appropriate name for the front garden!

Lavender “Hidcote” – planted as a low hedge along the full length – even as we were putting in the plants, worker Buff-Tailed Bumblebees were visiting the flowers.

Plectranthus argentatus –  not hardy here but a lovely foliage plant, fast growing, and with flowers that bees like.  I’ll take cuttings in the autumn to keep it going.

Wisteria – this is quite a large plant that was a birthday present for Karin.  But I’ve lost the variety name so will have to try to track it down.

A fig – Ficus “Panache” – because we like figs.  The roots have been constrained in a sunken container to encourage the plant to produce more fruit and less growth.

A self-sown privet (probably Ligustrum vulgare) that was already in the front garden; we allow it to flower (rather than treating it as a hedge) as the bees love it and the black fruit can be eaten by birds.

Potentilla “Gibson’s Scarlet and “Jean Jabber” – deep red and vivid orange, respectively.

Achillea “Fanal” – also deep red and favoured by hoverflies.

Salvia nemorosa “Caradonna” – beautiful, intense purple.

Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) because we love the smell and hoverflies love the flowers.

Japanese Anemone x hybrida “Honorine Jobert” – pure white and late flowering.

A perennial sunflower Helianthus “Lemon Queen” – likewise a late flowering hit with the pollinators.

Lamb’s Ear – Stachys byzantina – particularly favoured by the Wool-carder bee Anthidium manicatum.

There will be more to come in the near future.  Meanwhile, here’s a before-and-after shot:

 

Scientists and gardens

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This morning I tied in some tomato plants to their canes and removed a few side shoots and lower leaves,  the scent of the foliage transporting me back to my father’s allotment in Sunderland.  There, in a greenhouse constructed from old window panes, he grew luscious, sweet tomatoes, fed and watered by “filtered beer”.  It was some years before we realised that he was filtering the beer through his kidneys, which didn’t impress my mother.  Stephen King captured it beautifully when he said that we don’t buy beer, we only rent it*, and feeding tomato plants rather than flushing it down the toilet is certainly the environmentally savvy solution.  Clearly my dad was an environmentalist before his time.

These childhood allotment memories represent my first exposure to horticulture, an interest and a practise that has remained with me ever since.  I’ve always gardened and, even when I didn’t own or rent a garden, I grew house plants.  This link between scientists and their gardens is a persistent one.  For example I’ve recently finished reading The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf’s great biography of Alexander von Humboldt, and gardens feature several times as places of calm and inspiration for both Humboldt and his mentor Goethe.

There are many other historical scientists who have used and been inspired by the gardens they have cultivated.  Humboldt’s friend and colleague Aimé Bonpland maintained a garden during his time in South America. Darwin’s garden at Down House certainly inspired the great man, and he carried out numerous experiments on plants and earthworms there.  The University of Uppsala maintains the garden in which Linnaeus cultivated plants that he used in his teaching and research (I’ve visited this a couple of times, well worth the trip if you are in that part of Sweden).

More recently I can think of several prominent scientists in my own area of pollination ecology and plant reproduction who are also keen gardeners.  These include: John Richards (formerly of Newcastle University); Spencer Barrett (whose garden photo gallery shows the location where he did some of the work on the mating costs of large floral displays, subsequently published in Nature!); Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex; and Simon Potts (University of Reading) who (if my memory of a talk he gave a couple of years ago is correct) has experimental plots set up on his lawn.

There must be many others and I’d be grateful for other examples – please comment below.  All of the individuals noted above are “biologists” in the broadest sense so I’d be particularly interested for suggestions of scientists in other fields who are also gardeners, or inspired by gardens.

The garden that Karin and I are developing in Northampton (pictured above) serves many functions: as a centre of quiet relaxation, a place to write, to be inspired by the pollinators and their behaviour, to enjoy physical labour, grow food, and (occasionally) to collect data.  I cannot imagine being a scientist without a garden; as Francis Bacon said, “it is the purest of human pleasures”.  However he was writing in the 16th century before the advent of pesticides, herbicides, inorganic fertilisers, electric mowers, and other gardening modernities that, one way or another, can have a profound environmental impact.  Good gardening must be tempered with a sense of how we go about those activities in a way that minimises that impact.

 

*I first read it in King’s novel From a Buick 8, but a quick google suggests that it was originally an Archie Bunker line.

Connecting with Nash, connecting with “nature” – reflections on a recent discussion

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Last night I took a trip up to London with my long-time friend and sounding board Barry Percy-Smith (Professor of Childhood and Participatory Practice at the University of Huddersfield) to watch Graham Nash being interviewed and playing music for a recording of Radio 4’s Mastertapes series.  Regular blog readers may remember that we did the same thing a couple of years ago when Nash’s compadre David Crosby did a similar recording, which I wove into a blog post.

Although I had no intention of using the Nash gig as a jumping-off point for a post, walking through Maida Vale yesterday evening, looking for a good pub, I was thinking about a discussion that’s going on over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog called “Is connection with nature an oxymoron?“.

The discussion centres around a very interesting recent paper by Robert Fletcher in which he argues that “a sense of separation from “nature” is in fact paradoxically reinforced by the very environmental education and related practices employed to overcome it“.  I’d recommend that you read both the paper and the blog post, with comments: there are a number of points raised on Ideas for Sustainability, including whether or not “oxymoron” is the correct term to use here and, more importantly, that Fletcher’s paper has a very narrow frame of reference in terms of how it’s critiquing “connecting with nature”.

But in addition I think that there’s a point to be made that no person on the planet (unless they have been kept in a sealed, sterile, environment their whole life and fed artificial food supplements) is actually “disconnected from nature”.  Directly and indirectly we are all of us connected with non-human life and landscapes, whether we are aware of it or not – and most of the time we are not – via the food we eat or just the subliminal perception of the commonplace wildlife and horticulture that you can see even in the most urbanised of environments.

During our pub quest through what is a very built-up part of London – a city synonymous (at least in the UK) with the idea of disconnection from nature – I was seeing non-human life everywhere: plants were growing in the most inhospitable of places (see the images below of a large wisteria covering most of an apartment block, and a proudly tended balcony of plants in pots); large gulls were crying overhead; house sparrows were chirruping in gardens; “weeds” were popping up in the most unlikely spots.

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Yes it’s common-place stuff, and yes much of it is anthropogenic, but that doesn’t make it any less “nature” or lessen our connection with it. The real question for me is about how many people actually perceive this, either consciously or subliminally. I suspect there’s far more of the latter than the former, but that if the non-human elements of “nature” were removed from even the most built-up parts of large cities like London, that people would notice and respond negatively to its removal.  Perhaps rather than trying to reconnect people with some idealised view of “nature” that is separate from their usual existence we should actually be encouraging (“teaching”?) them to think about the non-human life that they encounter in their daily lives, a process that ought to start at an early age.

On that note it seems appropriate to sign off with one of my favourite Graham Nash songs – Teach Your Children. – and a bad photo from the gig.

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Something for the weekend #3

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

 

  • A new report by WWF documents over 1000 new species discovered in Papua New Guinea between 1998 and 2008, and the risks to their survival from logging and other human activities.

 

  • How does history inform ecological restoration?  Ian Lunt has a great post on this topic.

 

 

  • In the latest in a series of high-profile rewilding initiatives, the conservation charity Lynx UK Trust has launched a survey to elicit public views on their proposal to reintroduce these large cats – make your views known here.

 

 

  • The University of Northampton’s annual Images of Research exhibition is available to view online and you can vote for your favourite three images.  Now I’m not saying that you should vote for “An ecosystem in a cup”.  But you could.  If you wanted to.

 

  • Staying with the University of Northampton, the Press Office has made me the first Staff Blogger of the Month.  Which is nice.  Not sure exactly how many other staff blog, but my impression is that it’s not many so it may be only a matter of time before I’m honoured again.  I thought I’d share what I wrote when asked about why I blog:

“Why do I blog? The main aim is to communicate the science relating to the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services (and therefore why we need to conserve species and habitats) to as wide an audience as possible, including the general public, students, non-governmental organisations, businesses, and policy makers, as well as other academics.  Some of that communication relates to examples from our own research, and I also draw on the work of others in the field.  A secondary aim is to give my students a flavour of what it is that I actually do in the rest of my job: teaching is only part of the story!”

 

  • All of which links nicely to the recent post by Jeremy Fox, and subsequent discussion, over at Dynamic Ecology about whether science blogging (and specifically “ecology” blogs, whatever they might be) is on the decline.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think it is and I also think that the definition of what “ecology” blogging actually covers is much wider than the discussion suggests.

 

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related links.

Clever crows!

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Back in October I was staring out of the window of the office that I share with my colleagues, something I often do when I’m pondering a question or trying to add a tick to our “Birds Seen Out of the Window” list*, when I spotted something odd.  A pair of crows had focused their attention on a brown patch of lawn and appeared to be eating the grass.  I’m not much of a birder but I do know enough about crows to realise that grass is not a regular feature of their diet.  The same behaviour was observed a few other times after that, and on other occasions magpies were seen doing the same thing.  What could be going on?

Once I’d taken a closer look at the patch of dead grass the explanation was clear.  During our first year undergraduate induction week about a month earlier there had been a barbeque set up on that spot which had leaked hot fat onto the grass.  What the birds were eating was dead grass coated in lard, a useful source of fat to store for the cold conditions of the oncoming winter.

That’s one of things I love about urban birds such as corvids and gulls: they are adaptable and will exploit any resource that becomes available.  But how had they located the patch of fatty grass?  Were they simply exploring the lawn and stumbled across it by accident?  Seems plausible especially as they often feed on earthworms on the adjacent parkland.  Could they smell it?  The acuity of birds’ sense of smell has been the topic of considerable debate, but that’s certainly a possibility.

I was reminded to post this (originally half-written before Christmas) by a story on the BBC news website this morning about a young girl in the USA who receives gifts from the crows in her garden.  If you’ve not read it, please do: it’s a wonderful example of positive interactions between humans and the rest of biodiversity.

Crows (and other corvids) get a bad press, being often described as “evil” (surely a term that only applies to humans) and blamed for the demise of “nicer” birds – a reputation that is not completely justified, as a recent post on Kaeli Swift’s crow research site demonstrates.

So, learn to appreciate (even love) the crows in your local neighborhood; they will reward you with some entertainment as you watch their behaviour, if not necessarily with gifts.

 

*currently standing at 19 species and rising every month.

Evolving a naturalist – happy birthday to me!

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Somehow, today is my 50th birthday.  So I thought I’d mark it with a short post about my personal evolution as a naturalist and, ultimately, professional scientist.

One of the great things about the internet and social media such as Facebook is that you can make exciting discoveries on a weekly basis.  Recently I found out something that means a lot to me on a very personal level: I discovered that a family* who lived in the same street when I was growing up in Sunderland in the 60s and 70s have digitised some old home movies and made them available on YouTube.  In our digital age in which every phone and camera can capture and share events as they happen, it’s sometimes easy to forget that owning a movie camera in the 60s was quite a rarity and the majority of kids living at that time were never filmed.   

These movies are exciting not just because one of them shows me aged about 5 years (in the blue shirt) playing with friends (I’m there from 3’53”) but because it documents, in colour and moving pictures, one of the reasons why I became a professional naturalist with a deep fascination for biodiversity. 

The grassland in which we are erecting a tee-pee is not some country meadow, the kind of wild rural landscape cited by so many other naturalists as inspiring their childhood fascination with natural history.  These grasslands had arisen spontaneously on cleared demolition sites, following the removal of Victorian terraced housing and tenement blocks, some of which were slums and others that had suffered bomb damage in the Second World War (now that does make me sound old!)

Up until the 1950s this area had been very built up, with the houses, shops and pubs serving the local families who were employed mainly in the shipyards and coal mines to the north of the town.  You can get a sense of how urban it was from this 1898 map of Southwick; the places I refer to are just south-west of The Green to the left of the map. 

Following demolition the sites were left to their own ends, and were colonised by plants, insects, birds and mammals from patches of habitat closer to the river that had either been cleared of buildings earlier in the century, or which had never been built upon at all.  There are some nice areas of magnesian limestone grassland nearby along the higher banks of the River Wear valley, and typical calcicole plants such as Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) could be found on these post-demolition grasslands.  In fact, in the absence of horse chestnut trees, we used to play a version of conkers using the unripe seed heads of Greater Knapweed.  Was that an echo of earlier children’s games in Britain, prior to the introduction of horse chestnuts in the 17th century?  Apparently similar games were played with snail shells and hazelnuts.  

If you watch the opening minute of this piece of footage from the same series, and ignore the girls posing and playing in the foreground, the background reveals a rich flora of plants, with butterflies hopping between flowers.  The first bird species that I can remember identifying, and being fascinated by its bright colours, was Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) feeding on the seeds of tall thistles in the very area where this was filmed.   The first butterfly that I could put a name to was the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), also feeding on thistles, but this time on the nectar-rich flower heads, as a pollinator.  We’d collect its caterpillars from the nearby nettles and raise them in jars.

So you don’t have to have had a rural upbringing to appreciate and benefit from nature, and to later influence your profession and passions, any piece of land can inspire interest in kids, regardless of its origin, if nature is left to colonise. Unmanaged, semi-wild green space within towns and cities has huge value, both for wildlife and for the culture of childhood.  They need to be protected just as much as rural nature reserves, including the generally disparaged but actually biodiverse “brownfield” sites, as Sarah Arnold has discussed in a recent blog post.

Some of the riverside grasslands still remain and I hope that they are fascinating new generations of kids with their colour and diversity and flouncing butterflies. But the post-industrial grasslands on which I played and looked for bugs and flowers are all gone; they were cleared and built upon in a flurry of housing and retail development in the 1980s.  Perhaps in the future they may return if those buildings are themselves demolished and the land allowed to lie undisturbed for a while.  That is what nature does: it ebbs and flows across our landscapes in response to human, and natural, interventions, endlessly changing and endlessly fascinating to the curious minds of children and scientists, no matter how old they are.

 

*My sincere thanks to the Scrafton family who took the original footage, made it available on YouTube, and gave me permission to use it in this post.

Garden chickens and biodiversity – some thoughts

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Keeping chickens as a hobby is very popular at the moment and many gardeners are finding space for a few chooks in their own patch.  It’s been particularly trendy amongst urban gardeners, ourselves included: we have a run with 6 hens that make us self sufficient in eggs and chicken shit (the latter a vital addition to our soil’s fertility).  They are also fascinating, relaxing animals to watch as they go about their chickeny business of scratching, pecking, clucking, and dust bathing.  They are intelligent, social, inquisitive birds, that I’d recommend to anyone who has the space to accommodate a decent sized run and (importantly) the time to look after them.

There are plenty of magazines, books and websites offering advice on keeping hens on a small scale.  One of the most active and interesting blogs is The Garden Smallholder which generally has some good advice and ideas.  Back in November, however, a post about preparing a new kitchen garden caught my attention, specifically the fact that the writer’s chickens were let out onto the plot and that:

Chickens are great at scratching and turning over soil with their enthusiastic feet, and excellent pest control too

Let’s think about that last point, that chickens provide “excellent pest control”.  It’s a statement that I’ve seen repeated many times in books and articles, and it usually doesn’t solicit any comments.  But the logic behind it is that hens can differentiate between “pests” and “non-pests” in a garden, that they will gobble up the slugs and cutworms, leaving behind the worms, beetles, spiders, and other beneficial (or neutral) invertebrates.  This is nonsense, of course: chickens will eat anything they find and do not differentiate between the different elements of soil biodiversity*.

For this reason we don’t allow our hens to free range on our vegetable patch: we want to keep the soil’s fauna intact, allowing the earthworms to aerate and turn over the soil, let the beetles eat the slugs, give ground-nesting bees some space in which to live, and so forth.  A few weeks of digging with chickens present would destroy all of that.

The vast majority of invertebrates that live in the soil are not pests and a significant  proportion are certainly good for our gardens (particularly the earthworms and carnivorous beetles).  Allowing your chickens to feed freely on these animals will significantly reduce your soil biodiversity, which is a bad thing in its own right (if we accept that these animals are a measure of your soil’s “health” and productivity), and could reduce the numbers of invertebrate-eating wildlife, such as thrushes, hedgehogs and toads, visiting your garden.

If you want your chickens to eat garden pests my advice would be to take the pests to them: scoop up several slugs with a trowel, throw them into their run, and watch the birds excitedly scramble for their treat.  But remember that slugs play a positive role in the garden too, demolishing huge amounts of garden waste in compost bins and (in our garden) eating up cat shit.  That’s a topic for a future post though.

 

*I made a comment to this effect on the Garden Smallholder post but the blog owner saw fit not to allow it to appear.  Draw your own conclusions from that.

Urban pollinators for urban agriculture (and horticulture!)

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about urban pollinators, that is to say bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other animals, living and foraging in towns and cities.  As I recounted in my recent post about the National Pollinator Strategy seminar at Westminster, Jane Memmott presented some of the first data from the Urban Pollinators Initiative which is looking very interesting.  At the same time, Muzafar Hussain has submitted the first manuscript from his PhD study of urban solitary bees in Northampton, and will hopefully be defending his thesis early next year.  More recently I was asked to examine the PhD thesis of  Rob Fowler at the University of Birmingham, whose focus has been on pollinators across an urban-rural gradient.  Rob did very well and I look forward to seeing his work published.

Interesting though all this work is, it’s largely being done outside the context of crop pollination per se, focusing mainly on the identity and abundance of these urban pollinators.  It’s timely, therefore that a study has just been published by Thebo et al. in the journal Environmental Research Letters entitled  “Global assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture: irrigated and rainfed croplands” which gives the first comprehensive figures on the extent of agriculture in and around the world’s large towns and cities.  The paper is open-access so you can read its findings for yourself, but the main message is that urban agriculture is more extensive and important than previously assumed, and there are significant implications for food security and water resources.

The research has (justifiably) received quite a lot of publicity in the media, for example on the BBC News website, and is a great contribution to a still limited field of study.  One aspect jumped out at me though; when discussing the limitations of their methods the authors state that: “the scale and methods used……are not structured to capture very small, spatially dispersed areas of urban croplands”.  In other words, urban gardens and allotments are not included in this assessment.  In the UK at least this is a significant limitation as we know that urban fruit and vegetable growing is widespread, though as far as I’m aware there’s no published figures on the volume and value of this local horticulture of food crops.

Which brings us back to urban pollinators: a significant fraction of these crops (large-scale and local garden) requires pollination by insects.  As I reported back in July, in our own urban garden this includes at least 15 crops (strawberries, apples, greengages, cherries, blackcurrants, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, fennel, runner beans, french beans, passion fruit, tomatoes, raspberries, and radish pods).  An integrated study of urban agriculture/horticulture in the context of pollinator diversity and abundance would be a great piece of research and is long overdue.

 

A giant falls: the Tolkien tree is no more

 

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Perhaps more than any other aspect of biodiversity, big trees hold a special place in our emotions.  Sure, whales do too, but it’s hard to hug a whale.  Trees on the other hand can be approachable behemoths, instilling awe into the observer and grandeur into a locality.  So I was hugely saddened to discover today that the vast Black Pine (Pinus nigra) at Oxford Botanic Garden had been badly damaged a few months ago and has been felled.  I’ve known this tree since 1987, and have introduced generations of undergraduates to it during our annual trip to the Garden.  Each time I tell the story that it was one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s favourite trees and probably inspired his creation of the ents in Lord of the Rings.

The damage to the tree and its subsequent felling has been caught on camera, though I should warn you that for anyone who knew and loved the tree it’s an emotionally charged video.  The tree has been propagated and its offspring will live on, but it will be another 200 years before one of them becomes quite so majestic.

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