The most important book you’ll read this year: What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper

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Being on holiday should be about getting away from the pressures of work and the daily routine, and relaxing with an easy novel or some magazines, turning off your brain and recharging ready for a return to reality. So what am I doing writing a book review in a sun-flooded apartment in Nice on France’s Cote d’Azur? A good question that is answered by the fact that this is a book that has been engaging me since I bought it at the airport on the way out. I’d known for some time that What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper was about to be published as I’d received an invitation to the book launch in Cambridge in February. It was an invitation precipitated by the small contribution I’d made to the research for the book, when I was happy to provide some facts and figures on pollinator importance and decline in Britain. Unfortunately I missed the launch due to a prior engagement, and a poorly stocked WH Smith at Luton Airport was my first opportunity to buy a copy.

Tony Juniper is well known for his environmental writing and broadcasting so I had an idea that the book would be readable and interesting. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was just how good the book actually is, and that it’s the most important book you could read this year. Let me rephrase that: it’s the most important book that our politicians, business leaders, bankers and economists could read this year. In fact individuals with any leverage to influence government policies and business strategies should be made to sit down and read this book. But for anyone with an interest in the future of this country (and indeed of the planet) this really is a book worth reading. And, if you are British, preferably read it before the General Election in May.

Over the course of nine chapters, Juniper looks at how nature (broadly defined and including geology and physical processes, as well as biodiversity) underpins our society through its positive contributions to food production, water resources, flood mitigation, energy security, and our physical and mental health. At the end of each chapter Juniper sets out a series of manifestos that he challenges the government of the next five years to adopt and develop. Whichever party/ies form the government come the May election, its MPs need to rise to this challenge. And whichever parties are in opposition, it’s important that they read them too because they should understand where and how the government can get it right and get it wrong.

One of the refreshing things for me was how holistic and connected are the scenarios Juniper develops as he tours Britain to find case studies of where people and organisations are getting it right, working WITH nature, not against it. It’s easy for those of us working in particular fields, as academics or practitioners, to become over-focused on one’s own specialism: for me that would be obsessing about biodiversity, for others it could be energy generation or the economics of farming or infrastructure investment or wastes management. What this book does brilliantly is to bring together all of these elements, and more, and weave them into a single, seamless narrative. For example, large offshore wind farms generate renewable energy AND contribute to reducing CO2 emissions AND create marine nature reserves for sea life AND thereby boost regional fish stocks AND create jobs on the local mainland AND provide investment opportunities for banks and pension schemes AND develop new, exportable technologies. Yes, there may be downsides and Juniper doesn’t shy away from discussing these, for example bird collisions with turbines. But it ought to be possible to minimise these negatives, such as with appropriate design and siting strategies.

Although I was aware of many of the broad arguments presented in this book, it’s been a revelation to see the details set out so clearly and the linkages made so effectively, and with rigour: my word there’s an impressive amount of research on show here. I mentioned that I was consulted, but Juniper and his researcher Lucy McRobert have talked wide and deep with academics, conservationists, business leaders, civil servants, and other experts. The acknowledgements section runs to more than five pages and I counted over 100 names of individuals who were thanked for their contributions. Presumably everyone who was quoted was given the chance to comment on what was being written, as I was.   The sources for the information presented are provided on Juniper’s website (http://www.tonyjuniper.com/). This is a thorough book, all the more impressive because it had to be researched and written quickly in order to be published, and read, prior to the election.

Juniper’s vision of a future Britain is one in which we can have it all: economic security, functioning ecosystems, endless energy, jobs aplenty, and solutions to our most pressing environmental problems, including future effects of climate change. Clearly he’s an optimist. And that’s refreshing in a country where pessimism and cynicism seems to be the plat du jour (sorry, been eating in too many over-priced French restaurants).  If he isn’t right then the worst that will have happened will be that we have engaged in a series of experiments with our social, natural and economic capital that are no worse, and could be a lot better, than some of the experiments that have been foisted upon us by a series of government and private business strategies. But my gut feeling (supported by the evidence) is that he’s right and that this book provides us with a road map towards a virtuous ecological circle with society at its centre.

The sad thing is that the people who really ought to be reading this book, and who would gain most from its vision, are those politicians, business leaders and economists who are least likely to open its pages because either they’ve “heard it all before”, and disagree, or because the momentum of their vested interests and entrenched views leaves no opportunity to redirect the course on which they are travelling.

Although the focus is on the United Kingdom, the proposals that Juniper sets out could apply to any country and the book be renamed “What Nature Does For _____” [insert country of choice].  In truth the issues presented, and their broad solutions, are global. So, this is the most important book you could read this year, wherever you live.  Buy a copy, read it (on holiday, in bed, while commuting, or wherever) and pass it on to the person you know who is least likely to buy it for themselves. Or send it to your local MP.  That’s what I will be doing in the days following the election.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Book review, Ecosystem services

Should biodiversity scientists be campaigners and polemicists?

NPS workshop

Earlier this week I attended a two day research funding workshop intended to develop initial project ideas to address evidence gaps in the recent National Pollinator Strategy.  It was a productive meeting from which will hopefully emerge some important, focused science.  As is so often the case at scientific meetings, many of the most interesting conversations occurred after the end of the day’s formal work, in the pub.  There was a little bar stool criticism of some of the recent published work on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinator health, and specifically whether or not researchers engaged in this kind of controversial science should be polemicists, stirring up controversy, or even activists with particular agendas that they wish to promote.

Whilst I agree that there is a difficult line to walk between scientist as campaigner and scientist as neutral presenter of facts, I also think that polemicist/activist is quite an admirable position for a scientist to take in many ways, as long as the rhetoric is backed up by sound science. It’s also brave given that perceptions of scientists can change the likelihood of their research being funded or even published – reviews and reviewers are rarely as objective as we would like to believe.

So should scientists, and specifically those, like myself, who are engaged with biodiversity science in all its myriad forms, be also engaged in campaigns and polemics?  Is this what wider society wants from its scientists?  How do other scientists feel about this?  I’d really be interested in your views.

In this blog I’ve made no secret of the fact that I take certain positions on subjects such as the impact of poorly conceived development on nature reserves, the fallacies of political spin, and future developments in UK nature conservation.  Those are positions that are predicated as much by my personal motivations as an “environmentalist” (a term I don’t like but which is widely understood and will do for now) as they are by my professional role as a university scientist who does research and teaches.  I am not a neutral observer, though I hope that I’m an objective one.

There’s a lot of questions that can spin off from reflecting on the role of biodiversity science and scientists in the modern age, which I don’t have time to properly explore but which I hope will emerge in the comments.  I was prompted to write this by a really interesting post by Joern Fischer over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog entitled “Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask“.  In it Joern develops some ideas about the kind of science that we should be doing “for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world”.  I’d add that what is important is not just the science that we do, it’s how we present that science (the passion and the story telling) to a range of audiences, and also the personal positions we take on the issues that the science illuminates.

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BREAKING NEWS: Living population of the dodo discovered in Mauritius!

Very briefly, I’m hearing exciting reports over the web that a small population of the dodo has been discovered living alive and well in Mauritius, hundreds of years after it was thought to have gone extinct!  Here’s the source.  More information will be posted as and when I get it.

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Something for the weekend #5

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

  • The British Government’s official line on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on bee health is largely based on a widely criticised study conducted by the UK’s Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) which concluded that there was no link to bumblebee pesticide exposure and colony performance.  Professor Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex has now reanalysed the original data and shown that in fact there was a significant effect of the pesticides on those nests.  You can read the study in full here.  How could the FERA scientists get it so wrong?  Were they influenced by Defra’s desire to come to a particular conclusion?
  • It will be interesting to see how FERA responds to this criticism of their work, though it may take a while to get a full answer: the lead scientist on the study now works for agrochemicals firm Syngenta….
  • The story has also been picked up by some media outlets, notably the Guardian.  Pity they confused honey bees with bumblebees though – managed honey bees use human-made hives; bumblebees use nests (even artificial ones).
  • The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which I talked about in a post earlier this year, has reported its results.  There seems to be good news for some species, but for others it was bad: for example, there’s been an 80% drop in observations of starling since the scheme began in 1979.  Starlings are now RSPB Red Status due to their worrying decline; whilst they are still common, they are not anywhere near as common as they used to be.

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

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

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Geology, Honey bees, RSPB

The state of bees: the European Red List has been published

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As I’ve frequently reported on this blog, there is growing global concern about declines in pollinator diversity and abundance across many regions, and much research is going on into what is causing those declines, their scale and consequences, and what can be done to reverse pollinator loss. It’s therefore great to see the publication of the European Red List of Bees which provides information on the conservation status of the c. 2000 species of bees in Europe.

The report uses standard IUCN criteria for assessing each species and has been picked up by various media and NGOs, who have typically promoted it with claims such as “Nearly one in 10 of Europe’s wild bee species face extinction“.  However the reality of what the report has found is much more complex and nuanced than the headlines suggest.  Over half of the bee species were classified as Data Deficient, meaning that we don’t have enough information to assess whether they are threatened or not.  Of those that could be classified, 7 species are Critically Endangered, including 3 that are endemic to Europe and found nowhere else in the world; 46 are Endangered including 12 endemics; 24 are Vulnerable, with 7 endemic; 101 are Near Threatened with 17 endemic; 663 are Least Concern (68 endemic), meaning that there are no immediate threats to their survival.

If we turn the “1 in 10″ headline around, then a more accurate statement would be “Over 90% of Europe’s bees (for which we have sufficient data) are not immediately threatened by extinction”.  Of course that could change once data for the poorly studied species becomes available.  These are not grounds for complacency; but neither are they grounds for panic.

The scale at which we assess biodiversity is critical if we are to fully understand the threats to species, and when and where limited funds can be prioritised for conservation actions.  Species that are locally endangered or even extinct may actually be quite common when assessed across the whole of their distributional range.  For this reason it’s important to consider the status of species in as wide a geographic region as is possible.  Preferably this would mean a global assessment; but for most species we simply don’t have enough information to be able to undertake such a study, particularly for developing countries where there are limited historical records of species occurrences on which to draw.  Even in a relatively developed region such as Europe, with a long history of natural history observation and monitoring, there are huge gaps in our knowledge – in this case for more than half of Europe’s bees.

With this in mind I looked at the European status of those bee species which are now extinct in the UK, as I discussed in December.  Two of the extinct species are considered Critical (Bombus cullumanus and Andrena tridentata); two are Near Threatened (Dufourea minuta and D. halictula); seven other species are Least Concern; and the remaining two (Andrena lepida and A. lathyri) are Data Deficient.  Clearly some of the UK extinct species are in trouble across Europe, but others are not and may re-colonise the UK in the future, as we believe may have happened in the last couple of years for Andrena vaga.  Or they could be helped to re-colonise via a reintroduction programme, as has been done for Bombus subterraneus

Another way in which to put the findings of this report into a wider context is to consider how the level of threat to bees compares with that of other groups of species.  The authors helpfully provide some comparative data in the summary, which I’ve graphed below (click on it for a better view):

IUCN stats

Overall the proportion of threatened bees is identical to that of butterflies, perhaps because they require some similar resources (flowers on which to feed) and tend to be found in broadly similar habitats.  But other taxa are at much greater risk, particularly freshwater fish and molluscs: yet these taxa have not received the same level of publicity about their plight.  Their are no “Save the Mussels” campaigns, or television series about endangered fish in rivers and lakes.  This is surprising: clearly bees have grabbed the public’s attention because of the role they play in crop pollination, but freshwater fish are also suppliers of ecosystem services either directly (fishing) or indirectly (playing a role in maintaining the “health” of these ecosystems, as do the molluscs). Perhaps more importantly for these species, they are also indicators of water quality, an aspect of natural capital that concerns us all.

The authors of the European Red List of Bees are to be congratulated on a fine piece of work that makes a major contribution to our understanding of pollinator conservation, and is timely, coming soon after the publication of the National Pollinator Strategy for England.  However there’s still a lot of work to do to fill in the gaps for species that are Data Deficient and to understand the more detailed population trends, which are unknown for almost 80% of the bee species.

One of the most surprising findings, though, is that the honey bee (Apis mellifera), the most intensively researched pollinating insect on the planet, is considered Data Deficient “until further research enables us to differentiate between wild and non-wild colonies in order to determine the conservation status of the species in the wild.”  That’s an interesting state of affairs!

Full citation:

Nieto, A., Roberts, S.P.M., Kemp, J., Rasmont, P., Kuhlmann, M., García Criado, M., Biesmeijer, J.C., Bogusch, P., Dathe, H.H., De la Rúa, P., De Meulemeester, T., Dehon, M., Dewulf, A., Ortiz-Sánchez, F.J., Lhomme, P., Pauly, A., Potts, S.G., Praz, C., Quaranta, M., Radchenko, V.G., Scheuchl, E., Smit, J., Straka, J., Terzo, M., Tomozii, B., Window, J. and Michez, D. 2014. European Red List of bees. Luxembourg: Publication Office of the European Union.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Pollination

How do animals respond to solar eclipses? Please share your observations.

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If you have been anywhere in the Palearctic during the past 48 hours then you can’t have missed the fact that we experienced that most rare of astronomical phenomena, a solar eclipse.  The eclipse was total only as far north as the Faroe Islands and Svalbard; further south it was partial and here in Northampton the eclipse was perhaps 80-90% total.

It’s been big news with lots of public interest.  As well as explaining the astronomy of eclipses, various commentators on current affairs and science programmes have talked about how animals respond to eclipses.  This is a topic that’s intrigued me ever since the August 1999 eclipse.  During that event I was carrying out field work in a Northampton grassland and as the eclipse reached its maximum the bumblebees and butterflies on the site stopped flying and foraging, and settled into the grass.  Once the eclipse had passed they carried on as before.  I don’t have any hard data to demonstrate the effect, it was purely an observation of what was happening around me.

Since then I’ve waited over 15 years for the next opportunity to observe how solar eclipses affect animal behaviour.  Unfortunately there are few pollinators flying at the moment so I had to content myself with watching the gulls, woodpigeons, carrion crows and other birds on the Racecourse park adjacent to the university.

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This time I took some video footage before, during and after the eclipse, noted the birds’ behaviour, flying, calls and singing.  And guess what? As far as I could tell the eclipse had no effect on the birds!  They behaved as if nothing was happening.  Even a mistle thrush than had been singing all morning from a perch in one of the boundary lime trees continued its song as the moon passed in front of the sun.

That really surprised me!  I was expecting the birds to at least reduce their activity as has been noted in previous eclipses.  But they didn’t as far as I could tell.  Perhaps it was the type of birds I was observing?  Or the time of year?  Or the fact that the eclipse was only partial?  Lots of questions but it’s difficult to do repeat observations for this kind of science – the next British total eclipse is not until 2090!

What did you see?  Did you notice any effect of the eclipse on animal behaviour?  Or did you, like me, see no effect of the eclipse.  I’d be interested to hear your observations.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Something for the weekend #4

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

 

  • It’s been a good week for birds: Jerdon’s babbler, a species thought to have been extinct for over 70 years, has been rediscovered in Myanmar, whilst the Blue-bearded helmetcrest, a hummingbird not seen for 69 years, has recently been photographed in Colombia.

 

 

  • Related to this, prominent ecologist Charley Krebs asks why physical sciences take the largest share of science budgets, given the importance (and urgency) of global environmental problems.  Charley’s text books have long been required reading on our undergraduate degrees, including his latest The Ecological World View.

 

 

 

 

  • Finally and close to home, the Northampton Greyfriars Bus Station, widely regarded as one of the ugliest buildings in Britain, was demolished with a set of controlled explosions.  What’s that got to do with biodiversity, I hear you ask?  Well the area of green space visible as a still before the video starts, and shown later at 0:45 and 1:15, was one of the field sites used by my PhD student Muzafar Hussain during his surveys of urban solitary bees, which I’ve talked about previously, e.g. here and here.   That patch of green, a rather neglected area of urban grassland with some scattered trees, was home to at least 17 species of bees.  Will they survive the demolition?  Hopefully, though the future redevelopment of the area may result in their loss.  But that’s been happening to urban bee populations for centuries, and they are adaptable and mobile.  I’ll talk more about Muzafar’s work in a post in the near future as the first manuscript from his PhD research has been accepted for publication.

 

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

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

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem services, Urban biodiversity

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.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Personal biodiversity, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

What Einstein didn’t say about bees – UPDATED

https://i0.wp.com/www.impawards.com/intl/misc/2012/thumbs/sq_more_than_honey.jpg

 

In the 100th anniversary year since Albert Einstein published the paper on his General Theory of Relativity, it’s saddening to think that one of the things that he will be best remembered for is something he did not say.  There are various versions of it, but they all amount to the same thing:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

This statement could be dissected and disproved in numerous ways:  for example, there’s over 20,000 species of bees, so what is “the bee”?  Plus most of our crops are not bee (or even insect) pollinated, they are wind pollinated grasses such as wheat and rice.  Etc. etc.

But what is particularly annoying about it is – EINSTEIN NEVER SAID IT!  As far as anyone is aware he had no interest in bees whatsoever and the original source was a Canadian beekeepers’ journal in the 1940s.

It’s even more annoying that, despite the fact that we’ve known the statement is both factually incorrect and not by the great man, documentary film makers and journalists are STILL using it to support their work.  The latest example I’ve seen is this documentary, the poster of which is shown above.

Rant over: back to reading paperwork for a meeting this afternoon.

 

UPDATE:  I’d forgotten that Tom Breeze at University of Reading posted a fuller account of Einstein’s (non) quote last year – here’s the link.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Ecosystem services, History of science, Honey bees, Pollination

Something for the weekend #2

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

 

 

  • If you’d like to help raise money for bird conservation projects, please consider sponsoring Northants County Bird Recorder Mike Alibone’s team in the Champions of the Flyway event

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Finally, if you’re the only person on the planet who has not seen a weasel riding on the back of a woodpecker, would you like to?  Of course you would!
*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related links.
**Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

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