It’s been a convoluted month and I’ve tried to find a thread that links it all together in a way that relates to the topic of this blog: biodiversity. Not sure that I’ve been altogether successful but the linking theme seems to be…….hedgerows? Perhaps the link is too tenuous in places, we’ll see.
The start of this trail is close to Swanage in Dorset where I spent a weekend away with some friends from my undergraduate days in Oxford at what was then the Polytechnic, now Oxford Brookes University. A group of anything up to 10 of us try to get together once or twice a year, often camping on the south coast or revisiting Oxford haunts, and pretend that we’re once again in our early 20s and not really in our 40s with careers, mortgages, kids and life issues. Beer is drunk and the same stories get told, each year more embellished than the last. Most of us work, one way or another, in the environmental sector and share a love of evocative landscapes, rural and urban. During this latest reunion we walked along a section of coastal path through some beautiful cliff top grasslands. The area is riddled with former Portland Stone quarries and deep galleries, making for a dramatic, human-influenced cliffscape.
The plants we encountered were a combination of typical species of chalk and limestone grasslands, together with others that can tolerate (or perhaps require?) the particular combination of salt and exposure found in such maritime habitats, for example sea aster (Aster tripolium). These cliff top grasslands host a wider variety of crop plant ancestors than any other habitat I know of; on our walk we spotted the wild progenitors of carrot (Daucus carota), beetroot (Beta vulgaris) and cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Along the path we were protected intermittently by wind trimmed natural hedgerows containing blackberry (Rubus fruticosus), a wild rose (Rosa sp.), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and ivy (Hedera helix). They clung to the edge of the cliff, exactly pruned to curved shapes as though by an obsessive topiarist.
Our destination was the small 13th century chapel of St Aldhelm’s, an odd little building that may not have had an original religious function at all and was possibly a coastal watch tower for Corfe Castle. From the chapel we followed more hedges down towards the shore line at Chapman’s Pool where the fissile Kimmeridge Clay deposits yielded some very nice fossil ammonites. One of the fascinating things about this coastline is the way that the modern, living biodiversity is underlain by deposits created by the ancient organisms that built the limestones during the Jurassic period. Life builds upon life.
The walk ended where all good walks should, in a pub; in this case the 18th century Square and Compass in Worth Matravers (“Twinned with Royston Vasey” according to a very professional looking addition to the village sign).
Back from Dorset on Sunday evening, I packed for an early start the following day to get to the University of Staffordshire for the Hedgerow Futures conference. I was only able to attend the first day but this proved to be an interesting and diverse set of talks. In the afternoon I spoke about the research conducted by one of our former PhD students, Louise Cranmer, on how bumblebees use hedgerows to navigate around the landscape. This work was published last year in Oikos and picked up by the Guardian newspaper as one of their research features. The talk was well received and there were some interesting questions and comments afterwards.
The latter half of that week was spent in Dublin acting as external examiner for University College Dublin’s MSc Environmental Science course. I had a chance to chat with a keen group of students on the course and to talk to them about their research theses. The range of topics studied was impressive, as was their interaction with external bodies and agencies and their use of historical data as a comparison to recent environmental changes. None of the students worked on hedgerows though I did see some nice ones as I flew into Dublin airport. The School of Biology and Environmental Science has a large display case containing a number of skeletons, books and other biological artefacts, including a box of glass slides presented to the department many years ago by Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. It reminded me that 2013 is the centenary of his death. Hopefully it will give him more of the attention he deserves, a process that has already started with the launch of the Wallace Online project and a campaign to erect a statue of the great man in the Natural History Museum in London.
Returning to Northampton, work began in earnest to get ready for the start of the new academic year. It’s always exciting seeing the university coming back to life again after the slower pace of summer and the last two weeks have been a bustle of activity as we welcomed new students and said hello to those returning for their second and third years. Preparations are under way for student laboratory work and field visits this term, always a process of hope over weather as we leave summer behind. The month culminated in the announcement that Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion gig is to be released as a movie. This is good news for those (many millions) of us who applied for tickets to the event but were unsuccessful. So this autumn, if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now. It’s probably some of our students doing field work.