The bare-foot conference: SCAPE 2014

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Not strictly bare-foot, most of us are wearing socks and padding around the Tovetorp Research Station in Sweden, where outdoor shoes are banned in the building.  The Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology is holding its 28th annual meeting here, starting Thursday evening with three initial talks, and continuing all today.  I’ve posted about SCAPE previously: it’s my favourite conference by a long margin, friendly and informal and attracting some great science.  Although I missed it last year due to my trip to Brazil, coming back this year is a little like coming back to a family gathering, where as well as the elder aunts and uncles, there’s also a large group of younger nieces and nephews, and some long-lost cousins – it’s a great mix of older professors, and newer PhD students.

This is a quick post before we have dinner and the bar opens.  In the last 24 hours I have learned a lot about pollination ecology that I didn’t know before, including:

  • Vincetoxicum hirundinaria does not vary in its outcrossing rate, regardless of the size of population (Anne Muola, Swedish Agricultural University)
  • Arum italicum and Arum maculatum hybridise in some populations (Marion Chartier, University of Vienna)
  • variable weather conditions can result in low bumblebee numbers and increased fly pollination in a north American mountain plant community (Diane Campbell, University of California)
  • nocturnal pollination by moths is more common than expected in Spanish mountain plant communities (Marcos Mendez, Rey Juan Carlos University)
  • “double mutualists” that both pollinate plants and disperse their seeds seem to be more common on islands than elsewhere (Jens Olesen, Aarhus University)
  • colour “purity” is more important than other aspects of flower colouration (Klaus Lunau, Heinrich-Heine University)
  • there’s very little evidence to support any of the current hypotheses regarding the evolution of andromonoecy (Marcos Mendez, again!)

Those are just a few of the highlights from a conference that’s showcasing some of the best pollination ecology research currently being conducted.  Looks like dinner’s ready so I’ll sign off for now.  My talk is tomorrow at 4.30pm – wish me luck!

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Biodiversity miscellany

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It’s been a few weeks since my last post, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but rather because there’s been too much to say, and too much to do to have time to say it!  A lot has been happening personally, professionally and in the wider world that I could have talked about, so I’ve summarised a few things below.

Late September saw the start of a new academic year, with all of the organisation and effort that entails.  Recruitment in our Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences is healthy and the new intake of students are bright and keen.  In addition to my usual teaching and research in the Department I’ve been asked to take on the role of Head of Research and Enterprise for the whole School of Science and Technology.  Which will be interesting as it covers a vast range of subjects, including computing, leather technology, and engineering, as well as the environmental and geographical area with which I’m more familiar.  It’s a two-year post which should be enough time to do some good work.

The Local Nature Partnership annual meeting took place at the university on 25th September. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science Lord de Mauley popped up again, and gave a better and more focused speech than he did previously at the recent Nature Improvement Area conference in London.   It’s a pity he didn’t stay for the afternoon session as there was a very interesting presentation from the company who are developing the Rushden Lakes site in the Nene Valley. Part of the development is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and it’s within the Special Protection Area, designated for over-wintering birds.  The Wildlife Trust is working closely with the developers and, if the latter deliver what they say they will deliver, it will enhance and protect the site even further.  Time will tell; you can watch a video of the plans here.

Lots of news stories related to biodiversity and conservation have appeared recently, including a scare-mongering piece in the Guardian that “The Earth has lost half its wildlife in the last 40 years” according to a report from WWF.    Of course that’s journalistic crap and the report does not say that at all.  I can’t sum it up any better than did our former student Ian WIlson, now Reserves Manager at Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows, who commented (on Facebook) that “There have been terrible losses but this sort of misuse of statistics is unhelpful and misleading. It particularly undermines the ecosystem services arguments which suggest that loss of wildlife will directly affect human populations. You can’t maintain that argument and claim that we’ve lost 50% of wildlife over the last 40 years without having to explain why human populations are still so high. Conservation would be better served by more good science and less journalistic sound bites.”  Well said Ian!  Fifty percent of wildlife has not be lost; the statistic is actually that “the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent since 1970″.  Those “representative populations” are highly skewed towards large, easily counted species of vertebrates, predominantly in temperate areas, and exclude plants and invertebrates – you can download the full report here.  I’m not suggesting that these statistics are anything less than worrying, but the scale of the loss of “wildlife” (in its fullest sense) is not as great as the Guardian’s report suggests.

There’s been huge concern about the disturbing Ebola outbreak in West Africa and beyond, including a statement from IUCN on the links between emergent diseases such as Ebola and loss of biodiversity.  In short, deforestation allows humans to hunt animals in previously unexploited areas, increasing the likelihood that rare and novel diseases that use wild animals as a vector (such as Ebola) can pass to humans.  Worrying, and yet another reason why we need to slow down, and ultimately stop, such habitat destruction.

On a happier note, my colleague Duncan McCollin had a paper entitled ‘Reconstructing long-term ecological data from annual census returns: a test for observer bias in counts of bird populations on Skokholm 1928–2002‘ published in the journal Ecological Indicators.  It highlights a really nice example of an ecological monitoring scheme that, as Duncan puts it, deserves “the recognition of such long-term data for science in terms of an appropriate conservation designation”.

Finally, here’s a link to an impassioned blog post by my friend and colleague Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex.   Dave is a longstanding researcher and campaigner about the adverse effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators and other biodiversity.  Dave’s post originated as a letter in reply to a (misinformed and biased) opinion piece in The Times, which the newspaper saw fit not to print (freedom of the press, eh?)  It’s well worth reading and sets out the scientific case for the impact of these pesticides.  And if Dave’s blog is not sufficient for you, there’s also been a recent paper from Charles Godfray’s group at Oxford called “A restatement of the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators” which received comments and input from many scientists involved in pollinator research (myself included) as well as formal peer review.  Hopefully that’s enough rigour for the sceptics.

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Nature Improvement Area Annual Forum 2014 – influencing the future of conservation in England

NIA Forum - Sept 2014

The Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Annual Forum took place in London yesterday and the Nene Valley NIA was well represented, with five of us from the University of Northampton attending, plus representatives from our partners in the Wildlife Trust, the River Nene Regional Park, the RSPB, and the River Restoration Centre.  It was an opportunity to see and hear what the twelve NIAs have achieved in the two and a half years since their inception, to compare notes, and (importantly) to think about the future of the NIAs.

The NIAs, as I’ve mentioned before, were meant to be pilot, flagship schemes to show how the future of conservation in England could become bigger, better and more connected across large swathes of landscape.  Their origin lies in the Lawton Report and Professor Sir John Lawton kicked off the day with a general introduction that, from the very beginning, brought up the one thing on everybody’s mind that day: the financial sustainability of the NIAs. The money runs out in March 2015, so where do we go from there?  All of the NIAs (ourselves included) have been applying for funding to continue the good work being done, but, as John Lawton, pointed out, if the Government is serous about the NIAs and wishes them to continue, there needs to be an investment of public money.  I deliberately use the term “investment” because we know that the natural environment of our islands plays a significant role in public health and the national economy more broadly.

John Lawton’s introduction was followed by a short speech by Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science (who, incidentally, gave a nod in his speech to the National Pollinator Strategy). The Minister said a lot of the right things, how impressed he was with the NIA programme, that the government was committed to it in practice (but not necessarily financially), etc., etc.  There followed another speech by Andrew Sells, Chair of Natural England, who listed some of the achievements of the NIAs (see below), including the fact that for every £1 of Government funding, £3.50 was leveraged from other sources to support the activities of NIAs across the country.

There was an opportunity to ask questions of the first two speakers, plus representatives from the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, the first of which came from our own Oliver Burke who asked about the government’s vision of the future of the NIAs.  All of the panel agree that there was a future, they just were not sure what it was, though there was commitment from Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) that their staff would continue to advise and support NIA activities as part of their core activities.  That’s promising though perhaps not surprising given the nature of most of the partnerships, involving organisations that the NE and the EA would normally work with anyway.

The question I wanted to ask, had I found the right form of words, would have been about the current Government’s poor record on the environment.  But by the time I worked out a way of saying it that didn’t make it sound like a simple attack on the coalition, the opportunity was over.  A whistle-stop tour by the Minister and his coterie of the displays set out by the NIAs followed, which John Lawton later said had visibly impressed Lord de Mauley.  Amongst the achievements of the twelve NIAs, after only two years of activity, are:

  • Tens of thousand of hectares of priority and other habitats created, restored and/or improved in condition
  • Hundreds of kilometres of boundary and linear habitat (e.g. hedgerows) restored/created/improved
  • Tens of thousands of days of volunteer time devoted to the NIAs
  • Thousands of  people participating in educational visits.
  • Thousands of hectares of habitat managed specifically for ecosystem services such as improving water quality.

After lunch there were further talks including one from Simon Smith about the Cotswolds Ecological Networks project which had been one of the 70 applicants for NIA funding, was unsuccessful, and (impressively) went ahead with the project anyway as an “unofficial” NIA.  The Nene Valley NIA’s interactive website and photography competition was also highlighted in a talk by Helen Ashley from Dialogue by Design, and Dr Andy Stott from Defra discussed the monitoring and evaluation report for year 2 of the NIA programme.

Later in the afternoon we had a workshop at which, in small groups, we brainstormed some pressing questions, including (not surprisingly) innovative funding streams, and using the evidence base to demonstrate the effectiveness of the NIAs.  With regard to the latter it would seem sensible to use independent, long-term monitoring data such as the repeated species counts done by Butterfly Conservation (e.g. Big Butterfly Count) and the British Trust for Ornithology (e.g. Breeding Bird Survey) to verify whether or not the NIAs are being effective, though this of course requires that surveys have historically taken place within the NIAs (something that is certainly true for the Nene Valley NIA).  This would require quite a bit of coordination with the NGOs concerned, but should be doable.  I’d happily develop such a project if there’s someone out there with funding!

And then, with some final, supportive words from John Lawton, the day was over and we started to disperse out into an unseasonably warm mid-September London.  Several of us from the Nene Valley and the RSPB decamped to a great local pub (The Lord John Russell) to discuss the day.  One of the topics that everyone was talking about was, of course, the Scottish Referendum.  As I write this the country is absorbing the news that Scotland is to remain part of the UK.  As far as I’m concerned that’s a very good thing because (amongst other reasons) I think that a vote for independence would have negatively affected conservation in the British Isles.  Political focus of all government departments would move from environmental issues and on to trying to manage the split, which would take up a huge amount of time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.  And NGOs such as the RSPB would have to devote time and resources to considering how they manage and fund their organisations, given their cross-border roles. That could have been to the detriment of Scottish conservation given that most of the funding is flowing south to north (which is purely a function of population size – there are many times more members in England and Wales than in Scotland).

Thank you Scotland, you’ve done the right thing.  And thank you to all 12 NIAs, you’ve shown the Government how successful large-scale nature conservation can be: let us hope they take notice.

 

 

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Is the current UK government the “greenest” ever?

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No.

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Is Booterstown Marsh the best small urban nature reserve in Europe?

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On a recent visit to Dublin, where I’m External Examiner for some courses at UCD, my host Dr Jan-Robert Baars took me on a short early evening excursion south of the city to Booterstown Marsh.  What a great little nature reserve it is!  It’s tiny (only 4.3 ha) and is boxed in by urban development on all four sides.  To the north there are buildings; to the east runs a busy main road and housing; on the southern side is a car park and the entrance to Booterstown train station, with the railway line completing the rectangle of infrastructure to the east.  Beyond that is a beach and the open water of Dublin Bay.

The reserve is largely saltmarsh, fringed with trees, with a freshwater stream coming in from the north (visible in the bottom right corner below.

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As the tide turns, seawater rapidly ebbs and flows from the reserve, bringing with it food particles and nutrients for the plants and invertebrates of the marsh.  The next photograph was taken only a few minutes after the previous one.

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If you click on these photographs above to maximise their size you can see something of what makes this reserve so special – the bird life that is supported by those plants and invertebrates.  The very abundant dark birds are Black-tailed godwits, the white ones are Black-headed gulls.  During our visit, which lasted less than an hour, we saw a total of 12 species including other wading birds such as Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Little egret, Grey heron, and Redshank.  These are birds that one often sees from a distance, foraging on lake margins or mudflats.  But here they are just a few metres from a busy railway line which funnels commuters to and from the city every day.

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Whether by accident or design the open-ended station bridge makes a great viewing platform; here you can see Grey heron and Little egret.

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At its eastern side the bridge looks over Dublin Bay and provides further birding opportunities.

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If you have the opportunity to visit Booterstown Marsh (and I strongly recommend it) there’s a useful guide produced by the Irish Wildlife Trust.  This urban nature reserve is one of the most interesting I’ve ever visited, because it affords the opportunity to get very close to a diverse assemblage of birds that are not normally so confiding.  Clearly these birds feel secure despite the rumbling traffic and the dashing trains.  I almost envy the local commuters!

If you think you know of a more interesting small urban nature reserve I’d be interested to hear about it – feel free to comment below.

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My thanks to Jan (pictured below on the bridge) for introducing me to this wonderful site.  The final list of birds that we saw on the reserve was:  Black-tailed godwit, Dunlin, Grey heron, Little egret, an unidentified duck, Black-headed gull, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Woodpigeon, Moorhen, Mute swan, Jackdaw.  On the Dublin Bay side we also spotted Pied wagtail and (from a distance) a Curlew.

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Bad news for British biodiversity and a comment on ecosystem services

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Two related things have caught my eye this morning that I think deserve a quick blog entry.  The first is that Julia Leventon has posted an interesting piece on her frustrations with the ecosystem services concept over on the Ideas for Sustainability blog.  Go and read it – Julia raises some important points about the mismatch between our ever-more sophisticated concepts of ecosystem services and what it means to actually manage/support them within our society.  One of the things she said really struck me as it chimes with what I feel is a weakness of the current ecosystem services research agenda.  Julia says that:

I feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits.”

This I completely agree with. The underlying science (ecology/biodiversity/natural history/call it what you will) of ecosystem services is hugely complex, even for a reasonably well defined service such as crop pollination. As someone who has studied pollination ecology for 25 years I know how little we truly understand – yet this is supposed to be one of the more “straightforward” ecosystem services!

But to implement the ecosystem services concept within society we don’t need to know the finer details and dynamics of the species/communities/ecosystems involved (as interesting as they are). What we require is as much natural and semi-natural habitat within a landscape as is possible, appropriately managed (or left alone), and with as few anthropogenic stressors on it as possible (e.g. pesticides and other pollutants).  And we’ve known that for many years, long before ecosystem services was coined as a term in the 1980s.

Yet governments and agri-business consistently fail to deliver this basic requirement and our natural environment is becoming ever-less diverse and hospitable to the biodiversity that sustains ecosystem services.  See for example the latest bit of bad news regarding species-rich meadows in the UK, which are still declining long after it was pointed out that over 90% had disappeared: legislation designed to protect these grasslands seems to have had the opposite effect.  These are exactly the same kinds of habitats that are considered most important for the pollinators that agriculture relies upon!

The concept of ecosystem services, in my opinion, is a valuable one for focusing attention on the importance of the natural world, though there are others who disagree.  But the concept does not have to become mired down in the “ever more complex physical constructs” that Julia describes in her post. Let’s keep it simple and focus on what’s important rather than disappearing into a conceptual black hole that excludes practitioners, government, business and the public*.

 

*The photograph above was taken a couple of weeks ago at Northampton’s Umbrella Fair, where I presented an over view of the importance of pollinators, and the idea of ecosystem services, to a small, [ahem] “mixed” audience, which included restless kids and incomprehensible drunks, in a marquee which was too light for the laptop projector to work.  But if even one of those who attended “got” the idea of ecosystem services I consider my job well done!

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Gatekeeper in the garden

Gatekeeper 1 - summer 2014

Since moving into our house in January 2012 I’ve been keeping a list of butterflies and day-flying moths seen in the garden (as well as birds and bees, of course). That list currently contains 14 species*, one of the most interesting of which is the Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus).

Gatekeeper 3 - summer 2014

According to the account of this species on the UK Butterflies web site, the Gatekeeper:

“can be found wherever shrubs grow close to rough grassland. ……some of the largest colonies can be found at field edges and along hedgerows and we can expect to find this butterfly in scrubby grassland, woodland rides, country lanes, hedgerows and the like anywhere within its range”.

So what is it doing in an urban garden?  The BTO’s summary of the species mentions that:

“It is rare for Gatekeepers to appear in city-centre gardens. However, in recent years this species has been recorded at some urban sites across north-east London and Hampstead Heath and, more recently, on Wimbledon and Mitcham Commons. Such range expansion into urban areas may be due in part to changes in the management of urban parks and cemeteries”.

Clearly, in order to exist in an urban setting the Gatekeeper must have its basic requirements met by the habitat in which it finds itself.  As I’ve mentioned before, the lawn in our garden is quite diverse and contains a number of native species, including a range of grasses that could be used as food plants by the caterpillars, though we do keep it quite short.  It’s more likely that the caterpillars are feeding in some of our neighbouring gardens, which are rarely troubled by a mower (do neglected gardens host more biodiversity than highly managed gardens?  I suppose it depends on the type of management; would be an interesting question to research).

Gatekeeper 4 - summer 2014

As well as the larval food plants required by Gatekeepers, there’s a range of nectar sources available in a mixed native/introduced hedge along the northwest boundary, including the bramble I recently discussed, oval-leafed privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium), and the buddleia (Buddleja davidii var.) seen in these photographs.

It will be interesting to see if this colony persists over time (I also recorded the species in 2013 but not in 2012).  I get the impression that there’s only a small number of individuals, though it’s difficult to assess the population size of butterflies without catching and marking individuals, which I plan to do next year. It’s a lovely species and we’re fortunate that it likes our garden.  I’d be very interested to hear from any other urban gardeners who have seen it in their patch.

 

*Large White, Speckled Wood, Small White, Holly Blue, Red Admiral, Cinnabar, Large Skipper, Meadow Brown, Peacock, Gatekeeper, Comma, Brimstone, Orange Tip, Small Tortoiseshell.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Butterflies, Gardens, Hedgerows, Urban biodiversity

Blackberry Week

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As a kid growing up in the north-east of England in the 1970s, the half-term school holiday that occurred early in October was always referred to as “Blackberry Week”.  A quick on-line search suggests that the phrase goes back to at least the 1930s (can anyone trace it earlier than this?) and it refers to the time when blackberries (Rubus fruticosus agg.) were ready for picking.  The local kids would spend hours at our favourite blackberry patches, picking bags full of dark, luscious berries to take home for our mothers to cook into pies and crumbles, or stewed to eat with cream. As much fruit was scoffed as was collected (“one for the bag, one for me, one for the bag, one for me…”) and over-ripe ones were pelted at one another until we looked like road casualties.

All of this has been brought to mind recently, since we began to pick blackberries in our garden – at the end of July.  That’s at least two months earlier than I recall doing as a youngster.  Part of this difference can be attributed to latitude; I now live more than 200 miles further south than I did, with a concomitant advance in relative dates of flowering and fruiting, amongst other phenological indicators.  But that can’t be the only answer, the difference is too extreme, though I have not (and I doubt if anyone has) assessed it systematically.

The main reason for the difference, it seems to me, is that our seasons are shifting. We know that spring is generally earlier now in the UK than it was 20 years ago, and with that shift, autumn has likewise been brought forward and is lasting longer, as shown by changes in fungi fruiting patterns.  There’s a lot of research interest in these changes, for example the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s collaborative project.  Whilst phenology scientists usually express these changes quantitatively, as number of days difference between events, such as bird migration dates or plant flower times, across a period of years, any person with an interest in the natural world can see these changes for themselves, even in gardens.

Without realising it, as kids we were also making decisions about where to pick blackberries that go directly to the heart of biodiversity, which is essentially about variation and difference in the natural world.  As part of our own knowledge of the local (and very personal) biodiversity of the area in which we played and explored, we would know the best bushes from which to pick fruit, and the ones to avoid because the plants produced berries that were small, or had a poor flavour. Blackberries are hugely variable in all manner of ways, including leaf shape, number and size of prickles, flower size and colour and, most importantly for us, characteristics of fruit quality.

Much of this variation is genetic rather than environmental and reflects the complex biology of the species, or should I say group of species. Let’s go back to the scientific name of blackberries: Rubus fruticosus agg.  I’ve posted in the past about the formalities of writing scientific names of species, and the “agg.” element is an unusual addition not often seen.  It’s an abbreviation of “aggregate”, which in its taxonomic sense means a collection of species that are very similar to, and may even be synonymous with, that species.  The plant that we know and love as the blackberry is actually an aggregate of many hundreds of “microspecies”, at least according to some plant taxonomists.  This is because of the variable sexual behaviour of blackberries and their tendency to hybridise.

Blackberries are often taken for granted and dismissed as invasive woodland dominators that need to be kept in check.  But they are important for their cultural significance, have a fascinating biology, attract a wide range of insects to their flowers, and provide both fruit and habitat for birds and mammals.  Blackberries are worth making space for if your garden is large enough.

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Ecosystem services online lecture by Robert Costanza

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A few weeks ago I posted about ecosystem services and the differing opinions of writers such as George Monbiot and academics like Robert Costanza, together with a link to Monbiot’s lecture on the topic.  A new online lecture by Costanza has just been released, based on a webinar he presented last week.  It’s well worth watching, highly recommended as a state of the art over view of the concepts and progress in this area.

George Monbiot will not like it.

 

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How do YOU value the Nene Valley?

Plane in river at Irthlingborough

Following on from my recent post about how contrasting ways in which to value nature, today sees the launch of a new interactive web site that is asking people which areas of the Nene Valley they value, and why.  There is also a photography competition with a chance to win pairs of binoculars.  The website link is:

www.nenevalleynia.org

 

Here’s the text from today’s joint University of Northampton/Wildlife Trust press release:

The Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) project has today launched a new interactive website, which aims to encourage people to share their views on the local natural environment.

Covering over 41,000 hectares across Northamptonshire, Huntingdon and Peterborough­, the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area features a variety of natural habitats, including wildflower meadows, wetlands, marshes, woodlands and wet grasslands. With fishing lakes, bird watching opportunities and children’s adventure playgrounds, the NIA is an attractive area for animals – such as otters, kingfishers and grass snakes – to call home.

Researchers from the University of Northampton have joined forces with conservation organisations and the national Sciencewise initiative to launch the new NIA website, which features a wealth of information, a virtual tour and a discussion forum.

The website provides an opportunity for local people to share their thoughts on the Nene Valley, and an online mapping survey has been developed to identify areas of the valley that are particularly valued and why these areas are important to visitors.  This will provide University researchers with valuable data that can be used to inform future plans for the valley.

A photo competition has also been launched to find some of the best images of the Nene Valley and to encourage people to explore the area over the summer.  Judges are looking for images of wildlife, landscapes, people, heritage, water, and the built environment taken in the Nene Valley.  There are separate categories for children so everyone can enter. Images should be submitted through the NIA website, and the winners will be selected through an online vote. The most popular photos will be displayed in the Autumn as part of the Nene Valley Festival, and the photographers of the top two images will each win a pair of Opticron binoculars. The competition closes for entries and voting at 5pm on 30 September.

Project co-ordinator Heather Ball from the Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust commented: “The new website is a great way to have your say about what goes on in the Nene Valley and share some fabulous images.”

University of Northampton researcher Dr Jim Rouquette added: “We need to gather information on the local places that people particularly value and the benefits that people gain from visiting.  By better understanding what is important to different people, we can start to target conservation efforts and ensure that local knowledge and values are incorporated into decision-making.”

​If you would like to contribute to this important project or take part in the photo competition please go to: www.nenevalleynia.org

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