"The Fellowship virtually opened up the way to collaborating with many scientists from the UK"

Dr Robert Kajobe Overseas Bursary and Fellowship Award Winner

Female chamois in France age faster than in Switzerland

Studying the survival and reproductive success of animals gives important insights into population changes over time. Many studies have demonstrated variation in survival patterns within a single population but comparisons between populations are rare. It’s important to compare the survival patterns of different populations to gain an insight into the selective pressures that affect wild animals in different areas.

Dr. Josefa Bleu from the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics NTNU in Norway studied the changes in three chamois populations over the last 25 years: one population in France and two in Switzerland. In her presentation at the BES/SFE conference in Lille, Dr. Bleu revealed that female chamois living in the Game and Wildlife Reserve of the Bauges massif in France have lower survival and faster rates of ageing than populations in Switzerland.

A group of chamois at sunrise (© Marc Cornillon)

A group of chamois at sunrise (© Marc Cornillon)

Some of the differences may come from the effects of hunting: chamois from the Bauges population are subject to hunting while hunting is not allowed in the areas inhabited by the Swiss populations. In combination with harsher environmental conditions, hunting may have selected for a faster pace of life in the French chamois populations.

As Dr. Bleu explained, “The fact that age-specific survival varies between populations may have profound impacts on how each population will be affected by environmental changes. It is now necessary to understand the demographic consequences of these results to know how we can extrapolate the effects of environmental changes on population dynamics between different populations”.

A female chamois with her young (© Marc Cornillon)

A female chamois with her young (© Marc Cornillon)

The next step for the team will be to study more populations of chamois and to figure out what is causing the variation in survival and reproductive strategies among different groups.

Sive (BES Press Intern)
Twitter: @SiveFinlay

Posted in BES Annual Meeting, Conference, Conservation, Research | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charles Elton’s diaries shed new light on Wytham Woods

The output of scientific research is often distilled into bite size research chunks that can be neatly wrapped into a publication. Many of the careful observations, recordings and field notes created as part of a research project rarely make it into the final publication. However, these long term, observational records can yield important insights that inform and develop later research.

The re-discovery of Charles Elton’s diaries is revealing new insights into the history of Wytham Woods, once of the most intensively studied woodlands in the world. Dr. Keith Kirby from Oxford University presented an overview of the valuable information that can be gleaned from Elton’s diaries at the joint BES/SFE conference in Lille today.

Tucked away in the cabinets at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, the diaries contain many valuable records, observations and insights into ecological research in the mid 20th century.

One entry from 18th May 1967 makes for ironic reading today, “There is excitement at the arrival, recorded elsewhere in the Survey, of 4 muntjac deer…..”

As Dr. Kirby pointed out, “The muntjac deer escaped from Woburn Park during the war and have since spread across much of England.  There might have been less ‘excitement’ if the future extent of damage that their descendents would do to the Woods had been appreciated.”

Muntjac deer arrived in Wytham in 1967 (© K. Kirby)

Muntjac deer arrived in Wytham in 1967 (© K. Kirby)

Other entries show just how much our climate has changed in the past century:

8th November 1956 “The lateness of leaf-fall is quite remarkable. Probitts cannot remember a year like it and says beech mast is also late and continues to fall. The individual trees vary greatly, but there are some of practically all species with a lot of leaf. Beeches are in wonderful yellow and brown colours.”

Nowadays we have become used to leaves staying on the trees well into November, as a result of climate change, but then it was unusual.

Ecologists have also changed. Students were much more smartly dressed for their fieldwork outings.

The class at work 1953 Elton holding the long handled net. Image reproduced with the permission of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

The class at work 1953 Elton holding the long handled net. Image reproduced with the permission of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

Although modern health and safety regulations might have a few things to say about their work practices.

Hunting beetles with machete and cigarette 1952. Reproduced with the permission of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

Hunting beetles with machete and cigarette 1952. Reproduced with the permission of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

You can find out more about Elton’s diaries here

Sive (BES Press Intern)

Twitter; @SiveFinlay

Posted in BES Annual Meeting, Conference, Ecology, Forests, Research | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joint BES/SFE meeting in Lille

This week sees the first ever joint meeting between the BES and the Société Française d’Ecologie at the Grand Palais in Lille. The BES team will be posting regular updates on the latest policy and research discussed at the conference.

I’ve also been working with the press officer, Becky Allen, to put together an exciting mix of press releases that highlight the interesting and varied research being presented over the next few days. Keep an eye on our press release page for regular updates.

I will be tweeting from different sessions and posting updates to the blog with some more research highlights. I’m looking forward to a great couple of days filled with lots of new research, interesting discussions and hopefully exploring Christmas markets!

Sive (BES Press Intern)

Twitter: @SiveFinlay

Posted in BES Annual Meeting, Conference, Event | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Scottish Beaver Trial publishes final report

The partner organisations behind the Scottish Beaver Trial, the first licensed release of a mammal species ever to take place in the UK, have published the Trial’s final report. The report details the entire process of the Scottish Beaver Trial, from capture of the Norwegian beavers, through their release and to the end of the monitoring period. This follows the publication last month of six independent scientific reports on the Trials and will help Scottish government ministers decide on the future of beavers in Scotland.

The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) is thought to have become extinct in England and Wales between the 12th and 13th centuries and in Scotland by the 16th century as a result of over-exploitation by humans. The beaver is widely considered to be a ‘keystone species’ in forest and riparian environments because, by modifying their habitats through their feeding, digging and damming behaviours, they have a significant and positive influence on ecosystem health and function.

The Scottish Beaver Trial – a partnership between the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) – received a licence from the Scottish government in May 2008 to undertake a five-year, scientifically monitored trial reintroduction of beavers to Knapdale Forest. Three families of beavers (totalling 11 animals) were subsequently released the following year within separate freshwater lochs.

Over the following five years, a detailed scientific monitoring programme collected data on the ecology of the released beavers and their impacts on the environmental features in and around the Trial area. Researchers also assessed the social and economic impacts of the Trials on nearby communities. The monitoring programme ceased in May 2014.

In line with their notoriety as ‘ecosystem engineers’, the beavers considerably changed the shape of woodland along loch shores. They also increased water levels in some of the lochs through dam building. The effects of beavers on trees led to a more open woodland canopy with a lower vertical density which, in turn, led to greater ground cover by grasses and woody debris and less leaf litter cover. The beavers also greatly altered aquatic plant communities through herbivory and water level rise, which had considerable impact on plant cover and, in places, led to increased species richness and heterogeneity. Moreover, newly inundated areas of the shoreline were rapidly colonised by aquatic plants which facilitated colonisation by a diversity of invertebrates.

Research on the socio-economic impact of the Trials concluded that there were “modest” benefits to local businesses, with slight increases observed in turnover. The authors of the report did, however, speculate that businesses might be able to boost earnings and job opportunities if the beavers were allowed to stay on a permanent basis. The Trials also generated high media interest, with the release day alone estimated to have reached over 10 million people via newspaper circulation. This contributed to 32,000 members of the general public, school and university students visiting Knapdale over the five years for guided walks and to attend talks.

The final results of the Trials will be collated and presented to the Scottish Government in May 2015, after which the Scottish Government will decide on the future of the Knapdale beavers and further beaver reintroductions. Supporters of further reintroductions will gain optimism from the findings of a YouGov poll which found that only 5% of the surveyed Scottish public opposed the reintroduction of beavers at a national scale, with 60% of survey respondents backing their reintroduction. Nevertheless, reservations have been expressed by some in the agricultural, forestry, fieldsports and fishing sectors in particular, who fear potential detrimental impacts that beavers may cause and have called for further trials to take place in more intensive farming and forestry areas before any decisions are made.

There are currently over 100 beavers living wild in the River Tay catchment and Scottish government ministers have previously shelved plans to trap the beavers due to concerns regarding the cost of such an exercise. Their future will also be reviewed next year.

European nations currently have a commitment to consider reintroductions of extinct native species under the EU’s Directive 92/43/EEC Conservation of Natural Habitats and Wild Flora and Fauna (the Habitats and Species Directive), Article 22. Beavers are often considered ‘flagship’ species and there is some evidence to suggest that their presence in the future might raise awareness about nature and conservation in the UK. With current biodiversity indicators painting a rather bleak picture for much of the UK’s existing native biodiversity, a decision to re-establish the beaver in parts of the UK would be a welcome break in an otherwise typical downward trend in the state of our wildlife.

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, Ecology, Plant and Tree Health, Scotland | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

UK Biodiversity Indicators 2014: The good, the bad, and the uncertain

4th December saw the release of the 2014 UK Biodiversity Indicators, designed to summarise and communicate broad trends about the health of the nation’s species, habitats and ecosystems. The indicators are used to report the UK’s progress towards the Aichi targets, agreed as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Twenty-four indicators have been developed, comprised of a total of 47 measures assessed where possible on both the long-term (since measurements began), and on the short-term (over the last five years). The indicators are grouped according to the five strategic Aichi targets, namely:

  • A: Address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society.
  • B: Reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use.
  • C: Improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.
  • D: Enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystems.
  • E: Enhance implementation through planning, knowledge management and capacity building.

So how are we doing? Overall, the indicators paint a very mixed picture. The positive news is that several measures show sustained improvement over the long-term: more land is being managed under agri-environment schemes, pressure from air pollution is reducing, the total area of protected areas on land and at sea has grown, plant genetic resource collections have improved and more fisheries are in sustainable management. However, other measures are much less encouraging: the prevalence of marine, freshwater and land-based species is increasing; the status of UK priority species has deteriorated in the long-term; and populations of woodland, farmland and wetland birds are all exhibiting long-term declines.

What conclusions can we draw from such variable trends? Firstly, at appears that on the whole we are seeing greater improvement in indicators that measure a reduction in the pressures on biodiversity (Aichi Target B), than in those that improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity (Aichi Target C). For instance, while two of the strongest positive trends are in the amount of land covered by agri-environment schemes, and the total area of protected areas, to what extent do these changes in land management translate into quantifiable positive impacts on biodiversity? A number of reviews have suggested that the evidence for the positive impact of agri-environment schemes on biodiversity is mixed. Similarly, whilst the increase in the total area of protected areas is clearly a positive step, interventions such as the Lawton Report have argued that a landscape approach extending beyond protected areas to create a coherent ecological network is required to achieve a step-change in biodiversity conservation.

A second issue that stands out from the report is the lack of sufficiently robust data for many of the indicators. While the report encouragingly shows a significant increase in the number of biological records being submitted to the National Biodiversity Network database, many indicators remain in development. For example, the measure of the status of pollinating insects remains as an “experimental, interim statistic”, there is no suitable measure for assessing short-term trends in insect populations, and the data for plant species richness in the wider countryside are deemed “too out-of-date to be fit for purpose”. Improved monitoring of our natural environment is essential, and initiatives such as the recently launched National Pollinator Strategy, which has monitoring at its core, are a welcome step in the right direction. Yet as the recent Scottish Biodiversity Conference highlighted, effectively integrating monitoring schemes to track change across the environment is a difficult, potentially resource-intensive challenge.

Finally, if we are to achieve significant and sustained improvement in the state of UK biodiversity, then it is perhaps another set of indicators still under development which are of most importance. Aichi Target A seeks to “address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society”, and to this end, indicators are under development to assess public awareness, understanding and action; the integration of the value of biodiversity into decision making, and the integration of biodiversity considerations into business activity. Here, the development of natural capital accounting and reporting, and its integration across government and business, could have a real impact.

This year the release of the Biodiversity Indicators came just a day after the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget Statement. How different would the figures look if the state of nature and the state of the economy were reported as one and the same?

Posted in 2020 Biodiversity Target, Biodiversity, Defra, Environmental Monitoring, Government, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Autumn Statement: how did nature fare?

Yesterday the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement revealed government plans for further cuts in public spending. Another period of austerity awaits the British public. While today’s newspaper headlines will focus on the keynote measures – changes in stamp duty and NHS spending for instance – here at the BES we are most interested in how the ecological sciences will, or will not as the case may be, benefit from this latest review of government spending.

In delivering his budget, Chancellor George Osborne reaffirmed that reducing the deficit is central to the government’s long-term economic plans. In addition to £10 billion of ‘efficiency’ savings being planned over the course of the next parliament, public spending will fall from £5,650 per head in 2009-10 to £3,880 in 2019-20.

Government departments have already had their budgets dramatically reduced since the coalition government came into power. Defra has borne much of the brunt of previous cuts, with the department agreeing to a reported saving of £661 million between 2010 and 2014-15. This came on top of an additional £162 million of efficiency savings. The RSPB estimates that Defra will have seen cuts of approximately 50% in real terms since 2009-10. Consequently, they are concerned that a further reduction in their budget might compromise their ability to deliver on statutory responsibilities, such as the delivery of the National Pollinator Strategy and the implementation of the Natural Environment White Paper.

Notable by its absence in the Autumn Statement was any mention of natural capital and a ‘green economy’. Wildlife and environmental groups are increasingly calling for political parties to recognise the valuable contribution that nature makes to our country’s finances, whether that is via ecosystem services, savings in health care costs, or the creation of green jobs in the renewables and clean energy sectors. The value of nature was the central-theme of discussion at the Natural Capital Initiative’s recent ‘Valuing our Life Support Systems’ event, which brought together economists, accountants and academics to facilitate cross-disciplinary dialogue on how best to ensure natural capital is embedded in policy. However, the Chancellor’s silence on this issue suggests that government does not yet consider investment in nature as a valuable contribution to economic progress or a vote winner in next year’s general election. With newly released Biodiversity Indicators showing a mixed picture of the state of the UK’s fauna and flora and potential cuts in the budgets for both Defra and Natural England, the campaign to ensure that nature and the environment is considered across all areas of policy is at a critical moment.

The Autumn Statement also mentioned the government’s new long-term programme of investment in flood defences, as part of the National Infrastructure Plan. £2.3 billion of existing funds will be distributed across 1,400 flood defence schemes over the next 6 years to protect some 300,000 homes. Business contributions to flood defence schemes are also to become tax deductible so as to encourage private sector investment in the programme. This announcement follows stark warnings of the adverse impact that the increase in weather extremes from climate change will have on the UK economy. However, the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management (CIWEM) stated that “the Autumn Statement from the government does nothing to address the real and sustained levels of funding that will be required if we are to meet the challenges of climate change and the major flooding we see on an almost annual basis.” In particular, CIWEM are concerned that the temporary increase in funding for flood risk management after the winter floods of 2013/14 has not been sustained.

The issues raised by CIWEM were supported by a report published by the National Audit Office which concluded that the limited resources of the Environmental Agency and Defra and current spending levels are insufficient to meet the maintenance of existing flood defences. Critics might therefore argue that the government are channelling spending into major headline projects rather than committing to a long-term flood management plan. In the latest Ecological Issues publication – ‘The Impact of Extreme Events on Freshwater Ecosystems’ – the BES argued that increasing the country’s resilience to weather extremes can be achieved by making use of the natural ability of ecosystems to endure extreme events. Ensuring that policy-makers think long-term when tackling climate change impacts represents a challenge with which ecologists will have to increasingly engage over the coming parliaments.

However, one announcement in the Autumn Statement that could have a direct positive impact on the ecological sciences was the creation of a student loan system for postgraduate master’s degrees; loans worth up to £10,000 will be available from 2016-17. The proposals are expected to bring an extra 10,000 students into postgraduate study and have been broadly welcomed as a step in the right direction to ensure that students are not priced out of further study. Hopefully this measure will improve young ecologists’ access to postgraduate training and facilitate the increased uptake of ecology master’s degrees by students irrespective of their financial background.

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, recently described how rigorous scientific evidence has a vital role to play in government policy. With the Autumn Statement having a focus on economic growth and presenting a mixed bag for those with environmental interest, perhaps the most pertinent challenge for ecologists now is to clearly communicate how nature plays a vital role in any viable long-term economic plan.

Posted in Chief Scientific Advisor, Climate Change, Defra, Economics, Flooding, Government, Natural Capital Initiative, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.