Monthly Archives: August 2014

Blackberry Week

2014-08-23 11.11.25

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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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Ecosystem services online lecture by Robert Costanza

goldsworthy1

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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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Fleet on foot

Fleet photo 7
A few weeks ago my sons Patrick and James and I spent a very enjoyable day walking the full length of the River Fleet at the invitation of my colleague Ian Livingstone, together with his wife Jane, her Australian colleague Matt Butler and his partner Kate.  “Walking the River Fleet” sounds like it should involve a gentle, rural amble along willow fringed banks, accompanied by clouds of damselflies and the occasional splash of a water vole sliding into the shallows. And that’s exactly what it was like –  two hundred years ago.  Nowadays “walking the River Fleet” is an urban hike through heavily built up areas in one of the largest cities in the world, for the Fleet is a “Lost River” of London, commemorated only by the names of streets and businesses:
Fleet photo 8
Our 7 mile walk started on Hampstead Heath where the Fleet rises and feeds a series of 18th Century ponds, originally reservoirs and now used for bathing and recreation.  As we walked I began to list the birds that we saw and, of course, these ponds added considerably to the list as diversity of habitats = diversity of species. In fact one of these water bodies is known as Bird Sanctuary Pond and in less than a minute yielded coot, mallard, black-headed gull, common gull, mute swan and tufted duck.  None of which you can see in the following photograph:
Fleet photo 6
From Hampstead we walked through winding streets that occasionally name-checked the river we were following (see the top photo on this post) down into Camden, where we stopped beside the canal to eat lunch and tick off another water-associated bird, Canada goose.  Then on to St Pancras where we paused at St Pancras Old Church and imagined the Fleet running past it in the early 19th century, before pollution and the need for more land on which to build had submerged it beneath the surrounding infrastructure:
Fleet photo 4
The churchyard is a green oasis in this part of London and we looked at the Thomas Hardy gravestones, which are being slowly absorbed by the bole of an impressive ash tree:
 Fleet photo 5
We continued through St Pancras, where the river runs under the attractively refurbished railway station (a huge contrast to the horrors of Birmingham New Street), and on to Holborn, past Fleet Street (of course)…..
Fleet photo 3
 ….to our final destination at Blackfriars.  All the while we were following subtle changes in the geography of the urban landscape, often obvious only to a physical geographer such as Ian, because the river is wholly covered and has been confined to pipes and sewers.  The Fleet emerges into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge where it is visible at low tide, part-hidden in the shadows of this image which could only be taken by hanging precariously over the river (where I also ticked herring gull):
Fleet photo 2
When ecologists think about the environmental changes associated with “urbanisation” we’re often considering processes that are modest in scale and impact, perhaps the building of a new housing development on what was once farmland.  Sometimes such urbanisation can have positive effects for biodiversity, for example gardens increasing local populations of birds and beneficial insects such as pollinators.  But in the case of metropolises like London, the effect of urban development has been to wholly remodel the physical geography of the landscape, covering or filling in features such as open rivers, ponds and valleys that would once have harboured wildlife, replacing them with stone and steel and concrete, and the occasional London Plane tree to provide shade on a hot day.  Restoring these culverted rivers has become an important focus for research and action.  While doing some reading for this post I came across Adam Broadhead’s blog about Sheffield’s rivers and the work he is doing on “daylighting” water courses that have been hidden.  It’s exciting stuff and has great potential for both urban biodiversity and the quality of life of city dwellers.On the way back to the tube station we passed through the surrounding gardens of St Paul’s Cathedral and encountered the Robert Hooke Biodiversity Bell:

Fleet photo 1
This is part of the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory project and marked a fitting end to our trip, a reminder of the populations of organisms that were displaced as the River Fleet was first polluted then enclosed.  Perhaps opening up the Fleet and regaining this biodiversity is too much of a task in a city with some of the highest real estate prices in the world, but as I’ve said before, we can always dream a river.The final total of birds for the day was a paltry 14* – how many might it have been if the Fleet was still a visible, viable water course?

*carrion crow, woodpigeon, robin, coot, mallard, feral pigeon, black-headed gull, mute swan, tufted duck, magpie, swift, Canada goose, herring gull.

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