Category Archives: Hedgerows

Insect pollinators boost the market price of holly and mistletoe: a new study just published

Holly and mistletoe 20161211_103252.png

Each year I’ve always added at least one Christmas-themed biodiversity post to the blog, for example: Thank the insects for Christmas, A Christmas vignette, and Six Kingdoms for Christmas.  That’s partly because I really like Christmas as a winter festival, with its folklore and customs.  But it’s also because these are a great vehicle to demonstrate how pervasive and important is natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides to society.

This year I’ve gone one stage further and actually published some Christmassy research to back up the blog post.  Now, in a new study published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology, we have shown how important insect pollinators are in determining the market value of two of the most emblematic of Christmas plants: holly (Ilex aquifolium) and mistletoe (Viscum album).  Here’s the full reference with a link to the paper itself, which is open access:

Ollerton, J., Rouquette, J.R. & Breeze, T.D. (2016) Insect pollinators boost the market price of culturally important crops: holly, mistletoe and the spirit of Christmas. Journal of Pollination Ecology 19: 93-97

Holly and mistletoe are two seasonal crops that play a culturally important role as symbols of Christmas across the world, though both also have pre-Christian pagan roots. Now for the first time the role of insect pollinators in determining the commercial value of these plants has been investigated, using sales records going back over the last eleven years from Britain’s largest annual auction of holly and mistletoe, held every year in Worcestershire.

Analysis of the sales records of Nick Champion Auctions in Tenbury Wells shows that insect pollination raises the sale price of these crops by on average two to three times. This is because holly and mistletoe with berries is more sought after than material without berries, with wholesale buyers paying higher prices at auction. These berries in turn are the result of pollination by insects such as flies and bees: both holly and mistletoe are 100% dependent on insect pollination due to their having separate male and female plants.

There is some annual variation to the prices, and in years where berries are scarce (possibly due to low insect numbers) the price difference can be four-fold.

Due to concerns about pollinator declines and food security there is huge interest in the role of bees and other insects in supporting agriculture, and how we can value that role. However we believe that this is the first study showing that insect pollinators play a large part in determining the value of culturally symbolic, non-food crops. Almost all of the economic valuations of insect pollination to agriculture have focused on food crops such as beans, apples, cocoa, coffee, and so forth. Very little is known about how the value of non-food crops (fibres, construction materials, pharmaceuticals, ornamentals, etc.) is enhanced by insect pollination. This is an area where much more research is required.

But in the mean time, where better to end than with a bit of seasonal John Clare?

The shepherd, now no more afraid,
Since custom doth the chance bestow,
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of mistletoe
That ‘neath each cottage beam is seen,
With pearl-like berries shining gay;
The shadow still of what hath been,
Which fashion yearly fades away.

The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827)

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Ecosystem services, Hedgerows, Mutualism, Pollination, University of Northampton

The National Pollinator Strategy – some reflections

Moth in hand 2014-08-25 19.47.20

After many months of consultation and workshops, the National Pollinator Strategy for England has finally been released by Defra, and can be downloaded from this website.  It reflects an important, wider change in societal attitudes to nature, and specifically the ecosystem services it provides, though the strategy itself is by no means perfect.  I rather wish that it had been a UK-wide strategy, as biodiversity does not respect political boundaries, but such is a the nature of our partly-devolved political system. Wales already has an Action Plan for Pollinators and I hope that the rest of the UK follows, though a strategy for Northern Ireland would surely have to include the Republic of Ireland?

In the following sections I’ve quoted liberally from the summary section of the National Pollinator Strategy, and added a few comments and reflections of my own in italics.  As always, your views and comments would be very welcome.

The 10 year National Pollinator Strategy aims to deliver across five key areas:

1. Supporting pollinators on farmland

  • Working with farmers to support pollinators through the Common Agricultural Policy and with voluntary initiatives to provide food, shelter and nesting sites.
  • Minimising the risks for pollinators associated with the use of pesticides through best practice, including Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Comment: at the moment many farmers are already pro-actively encouraging pollinators and other wildlife, but most are not.  Will “voluntary initiatives“, including encouraging Integrated Pest Management, be sufficient?  About 70% of the country is farmed and any wildlife conservation strategy has got to include agricultural stakeholders.  But the influence of large agro-chemical businesses should not be under-estimated.  I’ve seen figures suggesting that fields of oil seed rape in this country receive applications of up to 20 different chemicals (biocides and fertilisers) each year.  That represents a significant profit for these companies, who will not want to change the status quo.  Data showing a slow down in the rate of decline of  plants and pollinators in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium may be evidence that CAP agri-environmental schemes have had a positive impact, but I’d like to see more data addressing that question (and not just for pollinators – farmland birds are doing worse than any other category of birds in the UK).

2. Supporting pollinators across towns, cities and the countryside

  • Working with large-scale landowners, and their advisers, contractors and facility managers, to promote simple changes to land management to provide food, shelter and nest sites.
  • Ensuring good practice to help pollinators through initiatives with a wide range of organisations and professional networks including managers of public and amenity spaces, utility and transport companies, brownfield site managers, local authorities, developers and planners
  • Encouraging the public to take action in their gardens, allotments, window boxes and balconies to make them pollinator-friendly or through other opportunities such as community gardening and volunteering on nature reserves.

Comment:  “simple changes to land management” can do a lot for supporting local biodiversity, even in the most unlikely, urban settings, which is the underlying philosophy behind our award-winning Biodiversity Index tool.  Quite a number of local authorities are getting the message that it’s A Good Thing to reduce the frequency of cutting amenity grasslands, both for pollinators and for budgets.  But local authorities are also taking foolish decisions with regard to developing sites that should be protected, and brownfield areas are being specifically targeted for building urban housing, despite the fact that we have long known that they are some of our best sites for pollinators.  How do we reconcile these different priorities?  Brownfield sites by their nature are transitory, early successional habitats, so perhaps local authorities should be encouraged (made?) to have a rolling stock of a minimum proportion of undeveloped brownfield sites as part of their portfolio of land holdings?  Or how about a requirement that all developed areas of brownfield land are replaced by an equivalent area of brown roofs?

3. Enhancing the response to pest and disease risks

  • Working to address pest and disease risks to honey bees whilst further improving beekeepers’ husbandry and management practices to strengthen the resilience of bee colonies.
  • Keeping under active review any evidence of pest and disease risks associated with commercially produced pollinators used for high-value crop production.

Comment:  interestingly there’s no mention of disease risks to non-managed pollinators, yet we know that honey bee diseases can be passed to bumblebees, for instance.

 Actions to support these priority areas:

4. Raising awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive

  • Developing and disseminating further advice to a wide range of land owners, managers and gardeners as part of Bees’ Needs.
  • Improving the sharing of knowledge and evidence between scientists, conservation practitioners and non-government organisations (NGOs) to ensure that actions taken to support pollinators are based on up-to-date evidence.

Comment: yes, dissemination of sound, evidence-based knowledge has got to be a priority.

5. Improving evidence on the status of pollinators and the service they provide

  • Developing a sustainable long-term monitoring programme so we better understand their status, the causes of any declines and where our actions will have most effect.
  • Improving our understanding of the value and benefits pollinators provide, and how resilient natural and agricultural systems are to changes in their populations.

Comment: monitoring of pollinators is a real sticking point in the strategy, as there’s still no consensus on what should be monitored, how, where, and how frequently.  This was the subject of a workshop at the Natural History Museum in London that I attended about a year ago, and there’s still much that is undecided.  I know that a partnership led by CEH Wallingford is working on this at the moment, and hopefully a scheme will be in place by next year.  Let’s see what they come up with.

In taking action across these five areas, the National Pollinator Strategy wants to achieve the following outcomes:

  • More, bigger, better, joined-up, diverse and high-quality flower-rich habitats (including nesting places and shelter) supporting our pollinators across the country.
  • Healthy bees and other pollinators which are more resilient to climate change and severe weather events.
  • No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species.
  • Enhanced awareness across a wide range of businesses, other organisations and the public of the essential needs of pollinators.
  • Evidence of actions taken to support pollinators.

Comment:  “More, bigger, better, joined up…” has been the buzz phrase in British conservation since at least the Lawton Report.  One of the outcomes of that report was the setting up of twelve flagship Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs), one of which is the Nene Valley NIA, a project on which my research group has been working.  The Strategy mentions the NIAs several times and states that “extending the monitoring and evaluation framework for Nature Improvement Areas to include pollinators” is one of its interim aims.  But as I recently mentioned, funding for the NIAs finishes at the end of March 2015 and Defra has indicated that there will be no additional government money.  How will this aim be met?  I’d be very interested to know as the Nene Valley NIA is one of the few which specifically focused on pollinators as part of our remit.  It would be a terrible shame to lose the expertise and momentum that we’ve built up when funding stops next year.  As regards “No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species“, the talk I gave at SCAPE 2014 was on that very topic and a paper outlining our results is currently in press.  I hope to be able to share those findings with the broad readership of this blog very shortly.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Hedgerows, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

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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Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Hedgerows, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton

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.

P1110935

 

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

Ordinary by Choice

August 2009 - including Gardeners World shoot 029

Until the system changed a few years ago it was a requirement of all course leaders at the University of Northampton to attend Award Boards at which the students graduating that year were named and their degree classification confirmed.  It was not popular with academics, as you can imagine, as we spent half a day waiting for the turn of “our” course.  Typically we would take manuscripts to revise or crosswords to complete, or a good book to read, until such time as it came to our own students.  As each student’s name was read aloud, their degree classification was confirmed:  “First Class Honours”, “Two-One” (Upper Second Class Honours), “Third” (Third Class Honours), and so forth.

One category was rarely used:  “Ordinary by Choice”, meaning that the student had not completed a final year dissertation and had opted to take an Ordinary, as opposed to Honours, degree.  It is a phrase that I was always struck by: except for a (perfectly respectable) Higher Education qualification, would anyone elect to be “Ordinary by Choice”?  Do we want that for our lives, our country, our society,  or even our environment: Ordinary by Choice?

The phrase came to mind last week when I heard about an interview with Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the current British Government.  Paterson, who coincidently studied at the precursor to the British School of Leather Technology here at Northampton, said that in the future it might be perfectly acceptable to build on ancient woodland if the destruction of that site was offset by planting trees elsewhere.  A spokesperson for his department later said that it was “highly unlikely” that such development would ever occur on ancient woodland, but that’s not the same as “never”.

In fact such destruction of ancient woodlands is currently being proposed by the development of the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) line from London to points north.  An analysis by the Wildlife Trusts of the currently proposed HS2 route shows that it will pass through “10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), more than 50 ancient woodlands and numerous local wildlife sites”.  Important wildlife sites are perhaps not as safe as government would have us believe.

From the outset let me say that in my opinion this notion of “biodiversity offsetting“, in which one can apparently trade like-for-like in the destruction and recreation of natural habitats, putting back or even enhancing the biodiversity of a region, is pure fantasy dreamt up by government.  It can’t be done.  It’s not possible.  The reason?  There are no complete inventories of the biodiversity of any patch of planet earth.  None.  Not even of a few square metres of arable grassland in rural England, a simple habitat in comparison to the fantastically complex biodiversity of an ancient woodland.  Such All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventories (ATBIs) have been proposed in the past, but never completed.

Now I am using a strict definition of biodiversity to include all of the diversity of life within an area, including not only plants, birds, mammals, and large insects, but also the many smaller insects and other invertebrates, algae, protists, fungi, and bacteria.  But that’s not what the proponents of “biodiversity offsetting” such as Owen Paterson have in mind when they champion the system.  What they really mean is “species offsetting”: for example cutting down an oak forest and replacing it with young oak trees planted some distance way; or destroying a wetland used by over-wintering birds and creating an artificial wetland at another locality.  In both cases the species in question will persist: oaks will grow and birds will over-winter.  The assumption is that the other elements of biodiversity, the neglected micr0-invertebrates, bacteria, lichens, fungi, and so on, will also return.  It may take some time, perhaps hundreds of years, but (goes the logic) they will eventually come back and the habitat will contain the richness of species that there was previously.

This may happen, but not for all species, particularly naturally rare organisms with small populations and low dispersal abilities.  The fact that (as I’ve noted) we have no complete inventories of biodiversity for anywhere on the planet means that we currently cannot be certain about how “biodiversity”, as opposed to “some of the larger and obvious elements of biodiversity”, can spread and re-establish.  In contrast, all of the available evidence suggests that the historical continuity of a site is vital to its current biodiversity.  Let me give you an example, in fact from a data set that I’ve never published.

About the time I arrived in Northampton (in 1995) I started to develop a more serious interest in fungi – moulds, mushrooms, and toadstools.  Together with colleagues in the department and some of my students I began to systematically identify the fungi in a long, narrow patch of woodland (the “Shelter Belt”) on Park Campus.  Early on I set out a series of 1m x 1m quadrats and every week for two months I recorded which fungi appeared.  It was a short survey but very revealing because it was clear that there were differences in the diversity of fungi in different parts of the Shelter Belt, and that some areas had much richer diversity than others, even over a distance of a few tens of metres.

In fact the western side of the Shelter Belt contained almost twice as many species of fungi as the eastern side.  In addition there were few species on the eastern side that were unique to that area: most species were also found in the western portion.  This is despite the fact that the woodland appeared very homogenous: a linear strip dominated mainly by the non-native Black Pine (Pinus nigra) with an under-storey of common small trees such as Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Elder (Sambucus nigra) and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

A likely reason for this difference was revealed when we studied some old maps of the area; a sixteenth century map showed that there was a hedgerow on the site of the western part of the Shelter Belt from at least Tudor times, and probably much earlier.  This hedgerow may have been planted as a boundary for livestock, or may have been a remnant of an even older patch of woodland that was felled and managed to partition agricultural fields.  The presence of plants which are known ancient woodland indicator species, such as Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa), Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) was further evidence.

So an ancient hedgerow, now erased and replaced by later planting that was at least 50 years old (it appears on Google Earth historical imagery for 1945), was continuing to influence the biodiversity of a site long after it was gone.  But that influence was subtle and involved a neglected element of wildlife that is nonetheless vital to the natural world: fungi, which act as decomposers, consumers and recyclers, and without which a woodland could not function.

The definition of “ancient woodland” in England and Wales is an area of woodland that existed prior to 1600 and the Shelter Belt example shows why this definition is important: the history of a site has a huge impact on its biodiversity.  Simply planting a new woodland of young trees will not replace what is lost by the destruction of a site with historical continuity of habitat which is supporting slow-spreading species.

Government and the public have a choice: we can sanction the destruction of truly biodiverse sites such as ancient woodland and replace them with ordinary ones, such as new planting of trees on farmland.  Is that what we want, an environment in Britain that is Ordinary by Choice?

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Hedgerows, University of Northampton

Hedge on the edge

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.

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Filed under Alfred Russel Wallace, Hedgerows, University of Northampton