Tag Archives: University of Northampton

Metaphors in oak: my Images of Research entry for 2018

Metaphors in oak.png

The Annual University of Northampton “Images of Research” competition has been running for 5 years and this year’s event has seen a bumper entry of 38 images with accompanying text in fewer than 150 words (including one from our Vice Chancellor).

I think that I’ve entered an image every year – this is from 2016 – and you can see my entry from this year above.  It’s called “Metaphors in oak” and here’s my 150 words – perhaps a little fanciful in retrospect, but it’s what the photo said to me at the time:

“This photograph was taken on a recent field trip to Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. I was drawn to the colours and textures of this fallen oak branch as a piece of natural art, but also to its ecological significance. The bark has been attacked by insects then decomposed by fungi and bacteria, leaving behind the wooden core of the branch, which has subsequently been colonised by lichens and mosses. Decay, recycling, colonisation, biodiversity: fundamental ecological patterns and processes. But, with a little imagination, there are also metaphors for research to be seen in this picture. The growth patterns of the wood seem to flow, and in it we can envision a journey of both smooth waters and turbulent times. The diversity of organisms captured in the image reminds us of the varied experiences we can expect during research, not all positive, but all adding to the colour and texture of our lives. What does this image say, and what metaphors does it reveal, to you?”


Here’s a link to the exhibition catalogue and to the online voting system – well worth browsing through to see the range and diversity of research being carried out at our university.


Spiral Sunday #6 – Journey by Charlotte Mayer

Journey 20161026_165922.png

For this week’s Spiral Sunday I’ve captured an image of a piece of sculpture I’ve known and loved, and regularly walked past, for over 20 years, as it sits prominently outside the main restaurant at the University of Northampton’s Park Campus.

Journey by sculptor Charlotte Mayer depicts a flattened, ridged spiral shape cast in bronze. Like most people, when I first saw it, I assumed that Journey represented a stylised fossil ammonite.  But I recall reading (or hearing?) that in fact it was inspired by a seed, possibly of a species of Malvaceae, but I may be mis-remembering.  Can anyone enlighten me?

Accompanying the sculpture is a plaque that includes a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding:

“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Journey originally sat within a small raised pond that was frequently empty other than for wind-blown trash.  I was happy to see this week that the pond has been filled in and planted with a diversity of pollinator attracting flowers.  A much more fitting setting for a lovely piece of art.

This week’s Spiral Sunday is dedicated to my wife Karin, who is starting an end and contemplating a beginning, in true spiral fashion.


Journey 20161026_165947.png

A bee in a hurry, a plant at its leisure – for Biodiversity Day 2016

Male B lap on Salvia cropped P1120309Happy Biodiversity Day everyone!  In celebration I thought I’d share with you my entry for this year’s University of Northampton Images of Research competition, the winners of which have just been announced (I wasn’t one of them, but congratulations to those who were).

Here’s the text I wrote to accompany the image:

Sometimes it’s difficult to photograph fast-moving bees, but this blurred image of a male Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) captures something of the essence of why plants use pollinators such as bees. Plants are static and cannot go searching for mates, so they sit and wait and use pollen vectors to move their male gametes to the flowers of other plants of the same species. Sometimes this involves wind or water currents; but for most plants this means using animal pollinators.

The bumblebee has been caught with its tongue extended, having just loaded up on nectar to fuel its search for virgin queen bumblebees with which to mate. The plant is a cultivated salvia variety growing in my garden: some of my research group’s work has involved studying pollinator diversity in urban and rural gardens, with a view to understanding the role of these artificial environments for conserving pollinators.

Biodiversity monitoring on the University of Northampton’s new campus – a video of my recent talk

Waterside - 20160504_081622

In a recent post I mentioned the talk that I had presented at a one-day conference on “delivering biodiversity” organised by the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges at the University of Worcester.  The subject of the presentation was the work we’ve been doing with a couple of our students looking at how the building of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus is impacting on biodiversity on the site, with a particular focus on birds.

The talks from that conference were videoed and can be viewed on the EAUC event site.  All of the presentations are worth viewing, but if you’re particularly interested in the Waterside project, my talk is the fourth one down.  I’ll apologise in advance for the occasional pauses – someone in the first couple of rows was wearing perfume and it was really catching my throat!

Spiders: a guide for first-year students!


Yesterday I had a phone call from a colleague in the university’s marketing department.  Apparently there’s been a lot of complaints, and some hysteria on social media, about spiders appearing in the rooms of first year students in our halls of residence.  My colleague asked if I’d write something about spiders, and how they were harmless and nothing to worry about, that they could use to placate the students’ worries.  This is what I wrote and I thought it worth sharing on the blog.


Spiders! Ugly. Unpleasant. Spooky. Dangerous…..even deadly?! Spiders in Britain are all of these things, right?

No! Absolutely not! Spiders are fascinating, sometimes beautiful, and are an ecologically important groups of animals. Although it’s true that large spiders can sometimes give us the jitters, myself included: I don’t like walking into them in the garden! In fact as a kid I had a real phobia of spiders that I got over by handling increasingly bigger ones until eventually I could pick up even the largest spider we have in this country.

Most of the fear of spiders is based on myths and misconceptions, rather than reality. Ignore the DRAMATIC HEADLINES about False Widow Spiders – it’s an uncommon species and it’s extremely rare to encounter one of these, never mind be bitten. They make their webs near rocks where there are deep cracks into which they can hide. So you’re not likely to find them in your room!

Spiders play a really important role in the environment by eating large numbers of flies, including some that bite or carry disease or that might otherwise be much more harmful to humans than spiders. Spiders in turn are a food source for many of our birds, and in the spring some birds also use spider webs to construct their nests. If we had no spiders then we’d lose a lot of the birds that are so familiar in our gardens, such as Blue Tits and Blackbirds.

At this time of the year spiders are more apparent than ever, and the one you are most likely to see is a large, beautifully patterned species know as the European Garden Spider. The big ones are the females; males are much smaller. They sometimes make their way into houses and can construct large webs. But they are harmless and would only bite if held tightly in the hand, and they are much happier outside than in your room. They can’t jump on you and they do not attack!

What to do if you find a spider in your room and you want to get it out but can’t bear to go near? Find a friend who is not so squeamish and ask them to use a glass and a book or piece of cardboard to gently capture the spider and take it outside. Don’t worry, it won’t find its way back! Before you release it, though, try to find the courage to look really closely at this creature: they are attractively speckled and really very pretty!

The other thing you can do is find some conkers from the Horse Chestnut trees on campus and put them on your windowsill. It’s an old folk tradition that spiders don’t like the smell of conkers and there is some evidence that it keeps them out of the house.

I’ll let you into a secret. As Professor of Biodiversity I’ve done ecological field work all over the world, including the rainforests of Africa and the savannahs of South America. Every now and again I come across spiders that are much larger, and potentially more dangerous, than anything we find in Britain. Initially they still give me a shiver; but once I’ve spotted them I can take time to study their colours and forms and beautiful webs, and appreciate just how amazing and important spiders really are.

Have a great year at university and don’t worry about the spiders!

A University of Northampton student interview about bees and pollinator declines

A few weeks ago I was approached by Kady Middleton, a first year undergraduate student studying journalism at the University of Northampton, to be interviewed for a short radio-interview style report that she was putting together as one of her assignments.

The topic was urban bee diversity and pollinators declines – Kady had seen my blog post about urban bees in Northampton.  I was very happy to oblige and I think that Kady’s done a great job; it’s a nice example of how very different university departments can cooperate and collaborate.  You can listen to Kady’s report here:

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ Aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story

River Wear in the 1980s

Every other Thursday I try to make it to the 6pm seminar organised by the Media, English and Culture department of the School of The Arts.  The seminars take place in the building adjacent to the one in which I work; they feature a diverse mix of internal and external speakers; and wine is always served.

Invariably I’m the only scientist in a room full of staff and postgrads with research and teaching interests as varied as 19th Century Gothic literature, Elizabethan playwrights, the history of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and the scientific romances of HG Wells.  So the wine helps to imbue a cosy sense of oneness with my fellow academics and by the second glass I’ve convinced myself that I can contribute something meaningful to the discussion which follows.  (One day I’ll have to record those conversations and listen to them sober…..)

The seminar this week was by Dr Jon Mackley, a specialist in the literature of the early Medieval and “Dark Age” periods.  Jon talked about the writing he’s been doing aimed at understanding the lost pantheon of gods worshipped by our Anglo Saxon ancestors, and their fates as feast days and rituals were absorbed into British Christian culture.  This replacement of deities put me in mind of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant novel American Gods, but that’s by the by.

What has this got to do with biodiversity, you ask?  Bear with me…..

Conversation afterwards got onto dragon-hero myths and (fortified by some cheap red) I brought up the story of the Lambton Worm.  This legend originates from County Durham, the part of England in which I grew up, and so has always been a part of my personal culture.  My dad often sang the first few lines of the 19th Century  song when I was young and in turn I’d occasionally sing it to my kids when they were very small, in a broad Durham dialect:

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the worm.

(Wikipedia provides a useful translation of the song for anyone born south of Darlington)

When I was thinking about the legend afterwards it struck me that there were some interesting metaphors regarding biodiversity and ecosystem services contained within it, beyond the culturally important “mythical biodiversity” of such creatures as dragons, unicorns and griffins.

The story of the Lambton Worm begins with young Sir John Lambton fishing in the River Wear:

One Sunda morn young Lambton went
A-fishing in the Wear;
An’ catched a fish upon he’s heuk
He thowt leuk’t vary queer.

Exploitation of wild fish stocks has always been an important provisioning ecosystem service for human societies in a local context, with Sunday fishermen such as John Lambton taking the occasional fish for their family; and at a national level, providing significant amounts of protein for the human food chain.  Global fish stocks are beyond the level at which they can be sustainability exploited, however, and a scandalous proportion of what is currently netted is thrown back into the sea, often dead, as “bycatch“.   The “fish” that Lambton caught was in fact a juvenile dragon (or “worm”) which looked so strange (and presumably inedible) to the young knight that he disposed of it:

But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was
Young Lambton cudden’t tell-
He waddn’t fash te carry’d hyem,
So he hoyed it doon a well

John Lambton throwing the worm into a well could be a metaphor for the way in which our society so often gets rid of the things that we produce and that we don’t want, with no real thought for its fate.  As a kid growing up in the 1970s close to the banks of the very same River Wear where John Lambton fished the Worm, I well remember the stream of turds, condoms, tampons and filth slicks that the river was expected to absorb and to transport into the North Sea.  Later I worked for a while in the local Vaux Brewery which flushed its untreated waste water in vast volumes into the Wear.  By then no one was bothering to fish the river.  In the 1980s new sewage treatment works were built to deal with the effluent of what was at that time the largest town in Britain. Slowly the water quality of the River Wear improved until it is now considered by the Environment Agency to be “one of the most improved rivers in England“.  A river which John Lambton would perhaps now recognise.

Alongside the quality of the water, the quality of life of people who live by or visit the Wear has also improved as the river’s ability to sustain cultural ecosystem services related to work, tourism and leisure has increased.  Which brings us back to the department of Media, English and Culture.  What is a muddy boots ecologist with interests in the biodiversity of species interactions doing sitting in on their seminars on a Thursday evening?  Beyond the fact that they are always entertaining and informative (and they serve wine), it’s the opportunities these seminars provide to draw parallels and create metaphors which relate to my own area of expertise which fascinates me.  Making such connections and spinning these stories is something my brain does without me asking it and I find them useful for understanding not just the complexity of the science I deal with, but also the environmental challenges facing humanity.  As a species we cannot get away from our evolutionary and ecological roots within the totality of biodiversity of planet Earth (a topic which I’ll return to in future blogs) and that is reflected in the cultural biodiversity of ideas and research topics that a university such as Northampton sustains.

Business and Biodiversity: Oil & Water?

An early start yesterday to get to London for a meeting/workshop called “Biodiversity & ecosystem services: new collaboration opportunities for academics with businesses”.  The meeting was organised by the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network , a fairly new government initiative trying to link industry/businesses with university-level researchers and third sector organisations.  The aim of the day was to:

“….bring together academics and businesses with an interest in the Natural Capital/Ecosystem Services approach that the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) envisages for the UK.  The Natural Environment White Paper has put business at the centre of the stage to deliver the sustainable economy that the Government pledges to provide.”

There’s a lot of scepticism in both camps about whether businesses and researchers can really ever talk mutually comprehensible languages or have convergent priorities.  But I’m open minded enough to attend these events and see what I can learn from them.  It was also an opportunity to catch up with some old friends who I hadn’t seen for a while, and to promote the biodiversity bit of the SEED project.

Highlight of the day for me (other than seeing said friends) was Professor Ian Bateman’s presentation on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment and the ecosystem services approach to valuing nature.  Whilst there wasn’t anything in the presentation that I was not already broadly familiar with, it was a wonderfully clear and forthright exposition on just how much we have under valued the natural capital of the UK.  Putting a monetary value on our biodiversity leaves a lot of scientists and activists uncomfortable and I share some of that discomfort.  But it may be our best opportunity to safeguard biodiversity for the future.

Also impressive (and dryly funny) was the presentation by Martin Ross from South West Water on how his company is providing grants to farmers with land in their catchments to manage farms in a way which minimises pollution and therefore the cost of water treatment.

Lowlight of the day was a (rather young and I think naive) environmental consultant’s claims that “we know almost nothing about biodiversity in this country except for a few charismatic species” and “nature conservation has failed in the UK”.  I thought that a guy from the JNCC was going to explode when he heard that last statement!   The first comment betrayed a lack of historical understanding: we have an enormous reservoir of biodiversity knowledge in this country, added to and developed by both professional and amateur researchers.  What we lack is a truly comprehensive method of bringing all of this together in a way that is usable for biodiversity planning.

In the workshop I attended there was some discussion as to whether technical language such as “biodiversity”, “natural capital” and “ecosystem services” (which one contributor referred to as “eco-babble”) deters senior business managers from engaging with nature conservation.  I pointed out that words and phrases such as “email”, “internet” and “world wide web” were not so very long ago similarly considered to be technical jargon but are now part of our every day language.  Don’t think they were convinced.

Left a very sunny, spring-y London on a packed train, arriving in a colder, over cast Northampton.  A short taxi ride took me to the university in time to enjoy a really stimulating evening lecture by photographer John Hilliard, part of the School of The Arts’ Articulation series.  Great to see a packed audience of mainly students listening intently to an artist of his reputation.  Look forward to next week’s talk by Ian McKeever.

Home by 8.30pm to enjoy delicious chicken soup and (at 9.00pm) furious ranting at the BBC Horizon programme about the subconscious mind, both courtesy of my psychotherapist partner Karin.  Too exhausted by 10pm to watch anything more than the news headlines.  Sleep came easily….

Hello world!

bi·o·di·ver·si·ty [bahy-oh-di-vur-si-tee]


1.  The variety of life at all levels from species to communities and ecosystems, and ultimately the whole planet, incorporating both genetic and ecological variation. 

2.  What Jeff studies.   

This will (hopefully) become a regular series of blogs all about the variety of life around us and why it’s so important to the continued survival of planet Earth and Homo sapiens sapiens.  Some of it will be linked to my current and past research projects at the University of Northampton, some will be relevant to teaching, and much will be off the cuff comments about stuff that interests me.

Almost 25 years of university teaching and research has convinced me that that there’s far more to still find out about biodiversity than we have so far discovered.  That’s not likely to change very soon.