Category Archives: University of Northampton

The role of press freedom in protecting the environment

Ollerton et al Press freedom Figure 1

Recently I’ve been working with a couple of journalist colleagues at the University of Northampton on a short article exploring the relationship between press freedom and environmental protection in different countries.  That piece has just been published on the Democratic Audit website – here’s the link.

I think that the findings are really interesting, and timely in an age when press freedoms are being eroded and journalists physically attacked and even murdered.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, University of Northampton

Celebrating the environmental and historical heritage of the Nene Valley

One of the great privileges of the job I have is working with individuals and organisations across all aspects of conservation and science; people who are asking the most fundamental of ecological or evolutionary questions, through to those addressing on-the-ground questions of habitat management and restoration.  One of my current roles is as a board member for Nenescape Landscape Partnership Scheme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (2016-2021) and involving multiple Northamptonshire partners, with the University of Northampton acting as the Competent Authority for the financing of the scheme.  Our students and staff are also involved in various ways, volunteering their time and expertise.

Friday and Saturday this week was taken up representing the University and the Nenescape board at events that showcased Nenescape-funded projects.  First up was the East Northants Greenway project where we admired the new benches that had been installed, the clearance of rubbish along this former railway, tree planting, the All Aboard for Rushden Art Codes project, and a new mural, and chatted with local residents who seem to be very happy with the work that’s been done.  Then it was along to Rushden Transport Museum to look at the work that’s been done on the old railway goods shed.  On Saturday I was up at Ferry Meadows near Peterborough to try out the new boardwalk that has been installed and to see the restoration of Heron Meadow as a site for overwintering wild fowl and waders.  I now have temporary tattoos of pollinators…. Later in the afternoon I headed to Stanwick Lakes for a celebration of the new barn and heritage garden that’s been created as part of the Settlers of the Nene Valley project, complete with a Viking re-enactment group.  Here are some images from the two days:

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Nene Valley NIA, Nenescape, Northants LNP, University of Northampton

Chequered skippers are back: extinct English butterfly breeds for the first time in over 40 years!

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Last year I wrote about our involvement with the chequered skipper reintroduction project that’s happening in north Northamptonshire, and specifically the work of University of Northampton postgraduate researcher Jamie Wildman.  For the past month we’ve been sitting on some news that we were not allowed reveal: the reintroduction has been a success!  That is to say, adult butterflies emerged in May this year, having overwintered as pupae, and have been seen breeding in Rockingham Forest.  The secrecy was to prevent hordes of butterfly twitchers (buttwitchers?) descending on the site and possibly doing unintentional harm as they searched for the adults.  The population just isn’t large enough to be able to withstand that sort of pressure.

The BBC has run with the story this morning – here’s the link – and we have issued a piece via the university’s press team: the link to that is here.

In a time when the media is dominated by profoundly depressing stories about wildlife and the environment it’s great to be able to end the week with some positive news.  Here’s to the long-term success of this lovely little critter!

 

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Rediscovery of a plant species 170 years after it was lost from the Northamptonshire flora

 

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This past week I’ve been hosting a postgraduate researcher from the University of New South Wales in Australia.  Zoe Xirocostas has been recruited to work on a project on which I’m a collaborating with Prof. Angela Moles and Dr Stephen Bonser (University of New South Wales) and Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy (CSIRO).  It’s funded by the Australian Research Council and will run from 2019-2022.

Zoe’s PhD is about understanding the role of herbivores and pollinators in determining how plant species native to Europe have become invasive in Australia.  She arrived with a wish-list of species that she wants to study at sites in the UK (Northampton), Spain, Estonia, France and Austria, in order to compare them with populations in Australia.  One of those species was small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica), a plant that I hadn’t seen in Northamptonshire.  The NBN Atlas account for the species shows almost no records for central England and when I checked the Northamptonshire Flora it stated that the species had last been recorded in the county in 1843.  Clearly this was not a plant we could study for this phase of the project.  Or so we thought.

By coincidence, the week of Zoe’s preliminary fieldwork coincided with two days of surveys of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus by staff and students.  This is part of an ongoing project to understand how the development has affected local biodiversity.  Friday was to be the last spring bird survey of the season (see this recent post updating that project) and Thursday was to be devoted to plants and bees.

To help with this we had the assistance of two County Recorders: Ryan Clark for the bees and Brian Laney for the plants, both hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Northamptonshire’s.  We started the surveys on an area of short-cropped, species-rich turf that is being maintained by a combination of rabbit and Canada goose grazing:

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In no time at all Brian had racked up dozens of plant species; it’s really a very rich site indeed.  Bees were fewer and further between, but after an hour we had a list of about 10 species, including one of my favourites, the ashy mining bee:

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Zoe and her field assistant Susmita were busy bagging flower heads for the pollination experiments when suddenly we heard an excited shout from Brian.  He had moved on to look at some plants that were coming up in a disturbed area of ground some distance away.  Unbelievably, Brian had found small-flowered catchfly!  More than 170 years after it had last been record in the county.  On our campus!  We rushed over to take a look, and there it was, near a path that Zoe and I had walked just a couple of days before and completely failed to spot it.  In our defence, although it is striking in close up (see the image at the top of this post) it hides itself very well among other plants:

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An amazing discovery!  But what is this plant doing here?  The answer is that small-flowered catchfly is an annual species of disturbed areas, it requires soil to be turned over in order to allow its seeds to germinate from the soil seed bank.  The construction work on the site has involved moving around hundreds of tons of soil and this has provided ideal conditions for the plant and for many others that are associated with this kind of habitat.  The challenge now will be to work with the university’s estates department to decide on a management plan that involves regular rotovating of that area.  That shouldn’t be too hard, they are as keen to maximise the biodiversity of the campus as we are.

The natural world is full of surprises, especially “lost” species turning up unexpectedly.  Soil seed banks for some species can be very persistent, with seeds remaining dormant for decades or even hundreds of years until conditions are right for germination.  It’s very satisfying to be present at just the right time to see it happen!

To finish here’s a shot of the survey team, minus one member (Vivienne) who had to leave early; from left to right – Ryan, me, Brian, Susmita Aown, Duncan McCollin, Zoe, Janet Jackson:

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

What happens when pollinators lose their flowers? A new study suggests some answers

 

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Pollinators such as bees and butterflies are highly dependent on flowers to provide nectar as food; at the same time, those plants are reliant on the pollinators for reproduction.  Over the past few decades, declines in both flower and pollinator diversity and abundance have prompted ecologists to wonder about the consequences of flower loss for pollinator communities and for plant pollination.

In a ground breaking new study, a team from institutions in the Czech Republic and the University of Northampton in the UK have published the results of experiments that seek to answer these questions.  Led by PhD researcher Dr Paolo Biella, the team performed experiments in both countries that involved temporarily removing thousands of flower heads from grassland plant communities.  They assessed how the pollinator assemblage responded to their removal, and how effectively the remaining flowers were pollinated.  The team focused on generalist plant species that support the majority of pollinators within a community because these have traditionally been less well studied than highly specialised relationships.

The results are published today in the open access journal Scientific Reports and provide the first demonstration of the ways in which pollinators flexibly adjust their behaviour when faced with a sequential loss of resources.  This flexibility is constrained by the type of flowers they visit, however:  pollinators will tend to switch to flowers of a similar shape to the ones that have been lost.  From the plant’s perspective, things are less clear: the patterns of pollination for the remaining species were idiosyncratic and not as predictable.  Some plants received more pollination during the experiment than before, others less.

For the first time we are seeing the consequences of sudden loss of flowers for both the pollinators and the plants in a habitat.  That the pollinators can respond flexibly to this loss is a welcome indication that these insects might be more resilient to sudden changes than we had thought.  However, the erratic pollination of the flowers shows that there is a great deal of random chance within these ecological systems that is not easily predictable.  In the same week that the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was published, our study reminds us that there is much that we do not currently understand about the consequences of sudden changes in the natural world.

One of the team’s recommendations is that pollination-generalist plant species should be given much more attention in conservation assessments than has previously been the case.  These plants are at the core of plant-pollinator communities and without them the rarer and more specialised species could not exist.

Details of the study are as follows:

Biella P., Akter A., Ollerton J., Tarrant S., Janeček Š., Jersáková J. & Klecka J. (2019) Experimental loss of generalist plants reveals alterations in plant-pollinator interactions and a constrained flexibility of foraging.  Scientific Reports 9: 1-13

Here’s the abstract:

Species extinctions undermine ecosystem functioning, with the loss of a small subset of functionally important species having a disproportionate impact. However, little is known about the effects of species loss on plant-pollinator interactions. We addressed this issue in a field experiment by removing the plant species with the highest visitation frequency, then measuring the impact of plant removal on flower visitation, pollinator effectiveness and insect foraging in several sites. Our results show that total visitation decreased exponentially after removing 1-4 most visited plants, suggesting that these plants could benefit co-occurring ones by maintaining high flower visitor abundances. Although we found large variation among plant species, the redistribution of the pollinator guild affected mostly the other plants with high visitor richness. Also, the plant traits mediated the effect of removal on flower visitation; while visitation of plants which had smaller inflorescences and more sugar per flower increased after removal, flower visitors did not switch between flower shapes and visitation decreased mostly in plants visited by many morpho-species of flower visitors. Together, these results suggest that the potential adaptive foraging was constrained by flower traits. Moreover, pollinator effectiveness fluctuated but was not directly linked to changes of flower visitation. In conclusion, it seems that the loss of generalist plants alters plant-pollinator interactions by decreasing pollinator abundance with implications for pollination and insect foraging. Therefore, generalist plants have high conservation value because they sustain the complex pattern of plant-pollinator interactions.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Hoverflies, Pollination, University of Northampton, Wasps

Is the angry response of (some) environmentalists in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire reasonable?

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Last night Karin and I returned from two weeks of field work plus a period of writing in Tenerife.  The first week was devoted to our annual University of Northampton undergraduate field course which I’ve written about before – see this recent book review for instance.

I don’t normally watch much television when I’m in Tenerife; we tend to get back from field work early evening, jump in the shower, then go for a beer and a meal, then early to bed for field work the next day.  But there were two bits of TV that I made a point of viewing, and actually for the same reasons: news reports about the fire that severely damaged Notre Dame Cathedral and David Attenborough’s documentary about the current effects of climate change.  Both of these were about the destruction of heritage (cultural and natural) and how this affects people.  I have to say that I shed a tear watching them.

The response of some billionaires and large companies, offering millions of Euros towards Notre Dame’s restoration, was criticised by some environmentalists and others concerned with social justice.  Here are some examples:

https://www.joe.ie/amp/life-style/notre-dame-feature-665670

Over at the Ecology for the Masses blog, Sam Perrin in turn criticised these responses, suggesting that “What environmentally-minded people need to start doing is examine the other cause. Why do they get more attention? How have they gone about making their issue so ubiquitous? Try and examine WHY the Notre Dame Cathedral has received over 1 billion USD in reconstruction pledges when the Great Barrier Reef languishes every day.”

Jeremy Fox of the Dynamic Ecology blog clearly agrees  with this sentiment (read his comments) and posted a link to Sam’s piece.  I have to say that I got a bit irritated at Jeremy’s use of the phrase “pet causes”, and responded that: “I wouldn’t describe wholesale destruction of habitats, over-exploitation of natural resources, species’ extinction rates orders of magnitude higher than the background, environmental degradation that is affecting people’s health and livelihoods, and the accelerating effects of climate change as a “pet cause”. We’re not talking about raising funds for new books in the local library here!”

If you follow that series of comments and replies on Dynamic Ecology you’ll see that Jeremy pushed back strongly against my response, and I replied in return.  I stand by what I said though, that people do not react to these sorts of events logically, they react emotionally.  Hence the initial emotional outpouring of offering millions of Euros to restore Notre Dame is matched by an equally emotional response of “think of all of the other things that we could do with that money”.   The response from environmentalists and others was a reasonable one, as was the offer of millions of Euros for Notre Dame.  Both are equally valid.  Whether both are equally “important” is something that we could debate forever and I urge you to read through the posts and comments and make up your own mind.

On our last full day in Tenerife Karin and I explored an area of xerophytic scrub vegetation that surrounded a small rocky hill (see image below).  On top of the hill is a set of ancient rock carvings produced by the indigenous Guanches, one thousand years ago or more (the image at the start of this post).  The Guanches had positioned some of the rocks so that they produced different notes when struck.  It was clearly a site that had deep significance to these people prior to the European conquest of the islands.  However the site is completely unprotected and there’s been no effort to interpret what is a culturally important bit of archaeology – such carvings are not common in the Canary Islands.  In addition the surrounding vegetation is being slowly degraded by illegal tipping of rubbish.  These struck me as a depressingly fitting accompaniment to the subject of this post.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Tenerife, University of Northampton

The persistent crisp packet: 23 years in the environment and still going strong

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Last night Karin and I returned from Buxton in the Peak District where we had hired a cottage and assembled most of our kids and their partners for a weekend get together.  During a walk in the surrounding countryside I spotted this crisp packet sticking out of the ground.  From the typography of the logo I could tell it was old and a bit of internet sleuthing suggests that it was from a special limited edition produced to commemorate the UEFA 1996 European Football Championship.  So it’s been hanging around in the environment for about 23 years, hardly decaying, possibly releasing harmful chemicals into the environment.

Needless to say, I took it home and binned it.  But this one crisp packet is a microcosm of an enormous global problem of single-use plastic waste that is not being disposed of properly or recycled.  It’s a particular issue in the developing world where wastes management infrastructure is simply not able to cope with the volume of plastic bags and packaging, as I saw recently on my trip to Nepal:

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This sort of waste is more than just unsightly: it is harming the world’s ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain.  Manufacturers of plastic need to step up and address this issue.  Action is happening as I know from discussions with colleagues such as Prof. Margaret Bates and Dr Terry Tudor who are actively researching, educating and advising in this area.  But I worry that it may be too little and too late.

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Beekeeping at 7000 ft: Nepal field work part 4

On the last day of field work, while we were waiting for a bus to take us back down to Kathmandu, I spotted some small bee hives next to one of the houses belonging to the local Tamang peoples:

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With a few minutes to spare before the bus left, I quickly investigated and discovered that only one of the hives was actually in use:

But interestingly, the bees inside where the native Asiatic or eastern honeybee (Apis cerana) rather than the European or western honeybee (A. mellifera) that is more familiar in Europe.  The bees are a bit smaller and more distinctively striped than their western counterpart:

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There didn’t seem to be much around for the bees to forage on, just a few flowering mustard plants, so I suspect that they were travelling some distance to find nectar and pollen:

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At this altitude of 2092 masl, or about 7000 feet, the winters are long and cold and the summers dry and hot, so the bees must be tough if they are kept there all year round.  I wonder if A. mellifera would survive these conditions?

All too soon the bus driver sounded his horn and it was time to go; an interesting encounter with a bee species I’d not previously seen.

 

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A unique oak: Nepal field trip part 3

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One of the plants that really intrigued me during my time in Nepal was a species of evergreen oak that is native to the Himalayas and nearby mountainous areas of Asia.  It goes by the name of Quercus semecarpifolia and, as far as I am aware, has no common English name.  Two things surprised me about this species.

First of all, it is heterophyllous, meaning that its leaves come in more than one type.  Leaves close to the ground are spiky and look a lot like those of holly (Ilex spp.) which is what I thought they were when I first saw them:

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Leaves higher up on the plant have far fewer, if any, spikes:

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One of the things I discussed with the students was the job of scientists to identify patterns and to develop hypotheses about processes, i.e. what had caused those patterns.  In this case, after some discussion, we decided that the heterophylly was probably an adaptation to defend the leaves against small browsing mammals such as deer (thanks to Narayan for this image):

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The other thing that interested me about the oak was its overall growth form, which was tall (they grow to 30m) with rather short, stubby branches, very distinctive from a distance:

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The tree were especially striking in the evening mist:

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They look as though someone has been out with a chainsaw and trimmed them, but that’s not the case, they naturally grow that way.  The best hypothesis that we could come up with is that this is an adaptation that prevents the trees from accumulating large, heavy loads of snow which could result in branches breaking.

I’ve never seen this growth form, not heterophylly, in any other oak species, but Quercus is a large genus of about 600 species, so I wouldn’t be surprised if similar species exist.

Part 4 to follow.

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Tracks in the snow: Nepal field trip part 2

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As I mentioned in part 1 of this series of posts, there was unseasonable snow at higher elevations during my trip to Nepal.  This made walking a bit treacherous and at night the temperatures dropped to below freezing.  However it did mean that we could see where animals had been moving about the landscape, including the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) which made the tracks in the image above.

Tracks from a total of seven different types of mammals were recorded, such as black bear:

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And the pika, a member of the group that includes rabbits and hares:

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No yetis, but some very yeti-like, moss covered trees:

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There were some very tough flowers dealing with the snow, such as this Primula denticulata:

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And what I think might be a gentian (Gentiana sp.):

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Walking conditions were very challenging at times:

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But the students really enjoyed it:

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The dining rooms of the hostels in which we stayed were cosy:

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And of course the landscapes were fabulous:

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Part 3 to follow

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