Friday, 31 October 2008

Participate in BTO Bird Map Efforts

Tomorrow, 1 November 2008, marks the beginning of the second British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) winter assessment of bird population distributions.

Climate change is causing species' distributions to shift in a northward direction, however information is lacking or incomplete for many shy and illusive species, that could potentially be affected by climate change.

To gain a better picture of how climate change is affecting bird distributions, the BTO invite members of the public to participate in their efforts to map the current distribution of British bird species.

To take part and to see which areas are lacking adequate data, visit:

Insect Seed Predators as Important as Pollinators

Recent research published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology suggests greater attention ought to be paid to seed predators, especially in the context of natural and agro-ecosystems.

Whilst a great deal of work and policy has focused on the functional importance of pollinators in the agricultural landscape, scant attention has duly been paid to insect seed predators.

A body of work has shown that the experimental removal of insect seed predators can have positive effects on annual plant populations. Insect predators play an important role in competition, specifically apparent competition. Apparent competition is where for example, two tree species appear to compete for similar resources, yet are in fact limited by a shared natural enemy that in turn responds to changes in abundance or distribution of either species.

Although apparent competition is thought to be widespread, so far few studies have so far been able to quantify this effect in long-lived species. Food webs, that describe the abundance and interaction of different species within a community can reveal the importance of this effect. Research in Sarawak tropical forests has shown that the diet of insect predators depends heavily on the abundance of their favoured prey type.

Humans can also directly and indirectly mediate the impact of insect seed predation. Given how sensitive insects are to light and humidity, even if a logged area of rainforest retains an insect's main food source, the change in local conditions could have seriously detrimental affects on the insect population. The resulting change in abundance and distribution of insect species could thus have serious consequences for local plant community dynamics.

Many scientists consider tropical forests to be more resilient to climate change than other ecosystems. Changes in the phenology of plants (timing of flowering), could result in asynchrony with insect predators. If plant species begin to bare fruit more regularly this could result in elevated insect predator populations. It is thought that increased predator numbers could thus reduce the rate of forest regeneration.

Thought should be given to the impacts of plant or seed predators introduced to combat invasive species, especially in the context of changes that could occur in the wider food web. The authors recommend that insect predators should be given equivalent consideration to functionally important groups such as pollinators, in the wider research agenda.

Source: Lewis, O.T. & Gripenberg, S. (2008) Insect seed predators and environmental change, Journal of Applied Ecology, DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01575.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

RAMSAR Convention: Wetlands Key in Fight Against Climate Change

Speaking to the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General introduced proceedings highlighting the important role wetlands have in the fight against climate change.

The Secretary General recognised how wetlands contribute to livelihoods and human well-being. Wetlands also provide ecosystem services, and are an important sink for carbon, hence play a key role in the fight against climate change.

The conservation of wetlands will play an important role in reaching the Millennium Development Goals too, he said.

Ban Ki-Moon spoke of the unsustainable way we are currently using water, and how this use is set to increase in the near future:

"Our unsustainable use of water coupled with growing demand is making it worse... ...that is why the Ramsar Convention has never been more important. It enjoys global consensus. It provides technical know-how. It gives rise to guidance and support networks."

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

WWF Report: Ecological Credit Crunch Officially Worse than Financial Credit Crunch

An international study by the WWF, ZSL and partners - the Living Planet Report - reveals that we will need 'two planets' by 2030 in order to sustain current rates of consumption. Three quarters of the world's population are consuming more than can be replaced each year.

The study examined the 'ecological footprint' of countries across the world, and the rate at which we are degrading all the necessary life support systems of the planet. Rainforests provide clear air and carbon sequestration, fresh water supplies are being spoilt and marine fisheries are being consistently over harvested.

The reports authors estimate that the financial equivalent of this degradation, dwarfs the losses of the present financial crisis - the ecological debt reaching at least £2.5 trillion every year.

Sir David King, the British government's former chief scientific adviser, added:

"We all need to agree that there's a crisis of understanding, that we're removing the planet's biodiverse resources at a rate which is as fast if not faster than the world's last great extinction."

Read the full report here:

UK Science Advisory Council Meeting October 08

Yesterday, the BES policy team attended the Science Advisory Council Meeting at Westminster, London. The day provided an opportunity to meet with members of Defra, the media, other NGOs, listen to talks from senior scientists and learn about Defra's present and future plans.

The keynote speech was presented by the Chief Scientific Advisor, Prof. John Beddington. The scope of the speech was global, emphasising the need for a systems approach to tackling all of the biggest challenges mankind faces: an expected surge in demand for water, food, energy and an increasingly erratic climate.

Professor Beddington spoke of the need to be mindful of an increasing world population, coupled with a rise in economic prosperity in India and China in the context of meat demand and climate change, and a rise in demand for fundamental resources.

Climate change featured very highly on the agenda, with particular attention brought to ocean acidification and coastal vulnerability. Professor Beddington noted the startling prediction concerning the world's major ports; of the 135 major ports around the world, there is a 75% chance that at least one of these will be inundated by the sea over the next five years.

Continuing on the water theme, concerns were raised over the implications of water shortages, brought about by a combination of increased demand, and reduced supply because of climate change. For example, the political tension between India and Pakistan could be exacerbated as these vital resources become more scarce.

Professor Beddington cited South East Asia's achievement in increasing productivity since 1961 without a concurrent increase in land use, (although he failed to mention any implications for biodiversity). Given SE Asia's successes, he called for greater ingenuity in feeding a growing world population - a key challenge for the future. Selective plant genomics, (i.e. preferential propagation of plants with favourable traits), will enhance agricultural practices around the world, so long as we can improve our understanding of the plant genome.

Other news:

Tom Meagher gave a brief update on bluetongue disease, which affects ruminants such as cattle, but also affects deer, camels and goats. Its thought to have been spreading North from North Africa by wind-borne Cullicoides flies since the late 90s. There are 25 known serotypes, and in spring this year a vaccine rollout programme began. Currently vaccinations are optional, but not against all serotypes, however this is under review.

Based on the best available scientific evidence and after stakeholder engagement, Hilary Benn has no plans to cull badgers to prevent TB outbreaks in cattle. Plans to vaccinate badgers against TB have been put forward, but the practical and economic implications make this an unfeasible proposal.


Overall, Defra will seek to forge greater cross-sectoral links within government and urges research councils to facilitate multidisciplinary research. This will enable better evaluation of ecosystem services, and the broader implications of climate change. Greater links with the social sciences must also be sought to better evaluate the non-economic aspects of ecosystem services, for example historically significant sites and their place within the broader landscape.

The broad issues of food security, water, energy and climate change are all interlinked, and therefore should be considered holistically. Efforts to share information and expertise between government departments and research groups in order to face the challenges ahead is essential.

Blog readers are invited to comment

Monday, 27 October 2008

Aviation and Shipping to be Included in Climate Change Bill

After years of hard campaigning by many environmental organisations, the public and non-government organisations, the government has pledged to include shipping and aviation in the forthcoming Climate Change Bill. The bill aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) to 80% of 1990s levels by 2050.

The next step for Britain will be to somehow calculate which shipping lanes, and flights Britain will be held accountable for in terms of emissions.

The announcement coincides with plans by the Transport Minister, Geoff Hoon, for much greater investment in green transport for local councils. He will also unveil plans to kit out Britain with charging points for electric cars, in anticipation of growth in this sector in the near future.

Translating Science to Policy Effectively: Looking to the Amazon

A high citation index is an interpretation of the effectiveness of science communication between scientists, not to mention the importance and relevance of the research, within that particular field. But is a highly cited paper an indication of effective communication to the public and policy makers?

Writing in NERC's Planet Earth publication, Alan Grainger recalled that research by Oliver Phillips in the late nineties illustrated just how tropical forests, not only store, but sequester carbon, set about a chain of events that resulted in the creation of RAINFOR, a multinational scientific network.

RAINFOR has published and continues to publish an extensive body of research in highly ranked journals. The research has reached policy makers in two distinct ways; indirectly through the IPCC and directly through a report by the British Government that used a synthesis of RAINFOR research at a UN convention on climate change.

Because the results of RAINFOR's work has been effectively communicated to policy-makers, initiatives such as carbon-offset schemes that involve planting forests have been operationalised. However international policy has yet to fully take on board the full implications of their research, such as conserving existing natural forests. If effectively valued and incorporated into the carbon offset markets, forests are worth orders of magnitude more standing then cleared.

Publishing in leading journals such as Science and Nature often results in a level of exposure to the media that would not otherwise be received in the 'smaller' journals. The BES journals (Journal of Ecology, Functional Ecology, Journal of Animal Ecology and Journal of Applied Ecology) are ranked some of the highest within ecology; all but one ranked inside the top twenty ecology journals. Concurrently, extensive media coverage highlights scientific developments to policy-makers. This can be particularly effective when the paper clearly has policy relevance, such as Professor Bill Sutherland's paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology in 2006: The identification of 100 questions of high policy-relevance in the UK.

When Alan Grainier reported that UN estimates of forest loss could be overinflated due to their statistical modeling techniques, and possibly underestimating the influence of natural forest regrowth, he stressed the importance of errors when making forest estimates. So that the message wasn't misinterpreted in his research, he emphasised the need for a better monitoring system. After exposure from the BBC, and subsequently across the globe, it is hoped that carbon credits trading under REDD, (Reducing GHG Emissions through Deforestation and forest Degradation), will consider Alan's idea of creating a World Forest Observatory.

Finally, interacting directly with ministers is an effective means of translating science into policy. Meetings and conferences attended by ministers, are a great opportunity for scientists to interact with politicians and present their ideas and findings.

Scientists must always be mindful that, in order to get the message across, they should be clear, non-technical and succinct, so as not to alienate their subject.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Ecosystem Services Lack Congruence with Conservation Priorities

New research published in PNAS indicates that although policy is successful in designating areas to protect biodiversity, these areas rarely environ ecosystem services. The lack of congruence is such that, in terms of protecting ecosystem services, these areas could be considered to have been selected completely at random.

The authors call for much more research into elucidating the mechanisms that underpin how ecosystems confer well-being to humans. Although the EU has a strong policy initiative to conserve biodiversity (Nature 2000 Network, 2008), policy to incorporate ecosystem services within this framework remains in its infancy.

Currently the way that ecosystem services are valued remains fairly crude, based on a seminal paper written years ago (Constanza et al., 1997), and yet most research in this area continues to use these crude methods, rather than adapting methods used to identify conservation effort. Creating maps that identify how ecosystem services are globally distributed would be a start, identifying what benefits they provide to local people and what threats they face is an essential next step to make.

Four ecosystem services were the focus of the research: carbon sequestration, water provision, grassland production of livestock and carbon storage. They found very limited congruence between these services and their measures of conservation effort, (which included biodiversity 'hotspots', and ecoregions - as defined by the WWF. There are many different kinds of ecosystem services in addition to those chosen by the authors, (provision of fuel, clean air, food, well being, medicinal, psychological to name but a few). However they were only able to use the aforementioned, therefore much greater interdisciplinarity work is urgently needed in order to quantify and map the bare minimum ecosystem services.

The authors recognise the limitations of their study; many ecosystem services are limited to the local level, therefore such a coarse global-scale study misses the nuances occurring at smaller spatial scales.

In order to fully assess who benefits from ecosystem services and how, work between sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and ecologists is required. Payments for ecosystems services (PES) are a potential policy option to take the ecosystems approach forward. PES enables stakeholders at the local level to not only benefit financially from the true value of the surroundings they inhabit, but incentivizes them to conserve their surroundings. PES presents the opportunity to simultaneously protect ecosystem services and biodiversity.

Source: Naidoo, R., Balmford, A., Costanza, R., et al. (2008). Global mapping of ecosystem services and conservation priorities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105: 9495-9500.


Costanza R, et al. (1997) The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital.
Nature 387:253–260.

Nature 2000 Network, (2008), Accessed 24 October 2008

Thursday, 23 October 2008

UK Farming Dependent on Soil Health

Speaking on the Today Programme, Professor Dick Godwin spoke of the overemphasis on environmental issues in farming, rather than growing food for the people. The Royal Agricultural Society of England released a report today warning that England's soils are being overworked.

Professor Dick Godwin said: "I think the major concern of the Royal Agricultural Society of England in commissioning this report was really in 'Where do farmers get their advice from, where do they get new applied research?'." Professor Godwin called for more research into how soil will adapt to a changing climate.

The society cite a combination of intensive agricultural techniques, dry summers and shifting growing seasons as causing a decline in soil quality. Certainly intensive agriculture has been at the heart of many of the problems that farmland specialist species have faced.

However in the report, Professor Godwin stressed the aim is to provide farmers with relevant up to date information, in order to secure Britain's food supplies for the future.

A scheme similar to Professor Bill Sutherland's Conservation Evidence may be the way forward in terms of effectively disseminating information. The success of the Conservation Evidence scheme so far, with the help of the British Ecological Society, has been highlighted in a recent interview with NERC in their Planet Earth publication.

Access the NERC interview here:

Check out the Conservation Evidence website here.

Future For Algal Biofuel Use in the UK Outlined

The Carbon Trust, a government funded agency, is to unveil plans that will set the agenda for algal biofuels becoming a significant alternative to fossil fuels by 2020. £26m has been allocated to research and development of infrastructure that will make algal biofuels a commercial reality, facilitating their use for UK road transport.

Given that transport contributes 25 per cent of Britain's greenhouse gas emissions, finding a 'carbon neutral' alternative to fossil fuels is essential. Algae do not replicate the problems associated with crop-type biofuels, which have contributed to a massive rise in food prices as well as widespread natural habitat loss.

John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Council, said:

"Algae are potentially attractive means to harvest solar energy: they reproduce themselves, so there's no manufacturing cost for the solar converter, they can live in areas not useful for food or similar productive use, they don't need clean or even fresh water so don't add to global water stress, and can give oils, biomass, or even hydrogen as a product. Perhaps they'll be the stem cells of the energy world."

The Carbon Trust believes that by 2030, 12% of aviation fuel and 6% of road transport fuel could be replaced by algal biofuels, resulting in a net reduction in 160million tonnes of carbon.

Recent hikes in oil prices mean that interest could has been renewed in algal biofuels. Initial efforts in the 80s appeared promising, but commercial viability was always one step away because these fuels simply couldn't compete with the cheap oil of that era.

Transport Minister Andrew Adonis supports the move towards sustainable biofuels: "This project demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that second generation biofuels are truly sustainable — and will further our understanding of the potential for microalgae to be refined for use in renewable transport fuel development, to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions."

The Wellcome Trust is backing a company developing some of the most advanced genetically modified algal biofuels, Sapphire Energy.

Previous hysterical reports in the media have made blanket references to biofuels, overlooking the disparity between the unsustainable fuels such as palm oil grown in south east Asia, with promising options such as algae. It is encouraging therefore that the mass media and ministers are now making a clear distinction between these, and looking closer at viable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

UK Woodland Loss Unprecedented

The Woodland Trust claim that an area of ancient woodland the size of Birmingham (100 square miles) has been lost in the last decade. The rate of this loss is said to be comparable to the rate of forest loss in the Amazon.

Keith Kirby, of the British Ecological Society's Forestry group said: "The pressure on these very valuable woods is great, but there are major restoration programmes taking place. We are encouraging the Forestry Commission and private owners to protect them, but we are aware that planning authorities still take other things into account when deciding on developments,"

Present and future threats to Britain's ancient woodland include transport development, golf courses, pylons, housing and airport expansion.

The report coincides with plans by the government to purchase and level a wood outside of Weymouth for a motorway bypass. The ancient wood is associated with the writer Thomas Hardy and famed for beautiful bluebell displays.

A variety of species from different groups depend upon ancient woodland, these include: the willow tit, marsh tit, barbastelle bat, Bechstein's bat, pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly and dormouse. Both the willow and marsh tit as well as the pearl-bordered fritillary are known to be seriously declining, and this report highlights their plight. Changes in woodland management are thought to be linked to these declines too.

Many of the woods that have been lost so far in are in the South east, notably in East Sussex. A third of these woods are threatened by road schemes.

Ed Pomfret of the Woodland Trust said: “It’s up to the public to put a stop to this destruction; we can’t rely on any official body to help us. We need eyes and ears for woodland to help stop ancient woodland destruction on our doorsteps. That’s why the Woodland Trust has launched WoodWatch to provide tools and information for people to find and save threatened woodland in their local areas.”

The Woodland Trust lists woodland locations around the UK that face various threats:

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Climate Policymakers Must Consider Small Livestock Farmers

The director general of the International Livestock Research Institute, Carlos Sere has urged policy makers not to impose policies on farmers in developing countries to curb livestock use and production.

The institute recognises that livestock production is responsible for an estimated 18% of global greenhouse gases (GHGs), whilst transport contributes 13% overall.

Policies aimed at globally reducing meat consumption might make the livelihoods of small scale farmers in developing countries even more difficult than they already are.

Sere recognised the plight of the half a billion people around the world that rely upon domestic livestock: "If you stop [livestock] production, it will make a lot of people become poor … it's important to have policies to facilitate these people so they can live and adapt to more modern challenges." Sere believes that policymakers need to recognise the impacts of the decisions that they make.

As with so many global policy issues the policy, in most cases, must be fine tuned to the local level. In the Sci Dev article, Carlos Sere failed to mention the proportional impact that the enormous meat production industry in the West has, particularly the US and Europe. Carlos is right that small-scale independent farmers should not be 'forgotten' when policy is proposed. However the link between consumer demand, and where the impact of that demand is felt must be of chief importance in policy development in this area.

BES members and blog readers are invited to comment.

Monday, 20 October 2008

UK Seals Suffering Massive Decline

Marine Biologists have disturbingly discovered that some of the UK's harbour seal Phoca vitulina vitulina populations have and are undergoing 'massive' declines. The results are particularly concerning given that scientists are as yet, unable to account for exactly why these declines are occurring at their present rate.

Ian Boyd, a professor with the sea mammals research unit at St Andrew's University said:

"This is very abnormal. To give you an idea of the level of abnormality, the rates of decline are equivalent to these populations producing no offspring for five or six years."

The declines coincide with reports that other groups in these areas (Orkney islands and East England) such as sea birds are undergoing similarly rapid declines. Last month scientists at the University of Stockholm reported that their 'junk food hypothesis' could offer some explanation to the declines. The theory goes, that as key prey populations in the North Sea such as cod Gadus morhua have depleted to near extinction, fish such as sprat Sprattus sprattus have grown considerably in abundance, replacing the cod's ecological niche. However despite their abundance, they lack the nutritional value of cod leading to leaner seabirds and lower survival rates in young.

Other theories researchers have put forward include an increasing range overlap with gray seals Halichoerus grypus resulting in greater competition, direct persecution at fishing grounds by shooting, and a greater reported abundance of killer whales around Orkney and the North sea, leading to increased mortality of seal pups.

The report comes at a time when Scotland is consulting on a Scottish Marine Bill. Conservationists have called for the abolishment of the Seal Conservation Act that permits seal shooting near fisheries, and for protection under the existing Wildlife & Countryside Act.

Since top predators such as seals are sensitive to perturbations in community dynamics, the declining trend seen in many of their British populations should be a considerable cause for concern. Continued monitoring will provide a better understanding of whether this is a natural fluctuation in their population dynamics or a more concerning trend.

Blog readers are invited to comment on this article

Climate Change & International Relations Conference Announced

A conference is being held in Brussels on 11 November entitled: “A Global Contract Based on Climate Justice – The Need for a New Approach Concerning International Relations."

The conference aims to highlight the ongoing need for international agreement and collaboration in the fight against climate change, given that it is known to worsen existing global inequality. It is hoped that a post-2012 agreement will result in much greater progress towards global sustainable development.

Notable speakers at the event include Lord Nicholas Stern, Pavan Sukhdev, and Hans Joachim.

The conference will be held in the Hemicycle of the European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium on 11 November 2008.

Registration for the event is essential but free, available at

Friday, 17 October 2008

No Link Found Between Pollinator Declines and Agriculture

Considerable research efforts have suggested that there is, or could be a link between insect pollinator decline and agricultural output. The body of science on the subject of pollinators and agriculture has influenced policy at the highest level; the creation of the International Initiative for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Pollinators (IPI) at a United Nations meeting in 2000.

However, new research published in Current Biology suggests that agriculture has not been affected by the decline of key insect pollinators.

Examining a period spanning over 40 years, Alexandra Klein's research time investigated agricultural productivity of crops requiring pollinators with those that do not. Contrary to popular belief, the researchers found that crop yields have gone up consistently, with growth rates of up to 1.5%, despite the falling numbers of pollinators. Focusing on tropical agricultural regions, no difference in yields were found between breeze and insect pollinated crops, (though it is not known whether these regions had experienced significant concurrent pollinator declines).

It is possible that the researchers, having grouped together all crops globally, might not be picking up on detail happening at finer spatial scales.

The results of this work are out of sync with the work of many others such as Taylor Ricketts, director of WWF's conservation science programme. Rickett's group found that coffee plantations were 20 per cent more productive when grown within 1km of forested areas. Other work has also suggested that an abundant diversity of pollinators increases crop yields.

Some scientists remain sceptical. Jaboury Ghazoul, a plant ecologist at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, believes that few crop species actually depend on pollinator species.

Klein however does not rescind the notion that pollinators are very important for agriculture. She suggests that actions by farmers at the local level, (such as hand pollination or pollinator transplantation) may mask the extent of pollinator decline. Klein anticipates that a crop productivity crash could occur any time soon - many major crop plants now are pollinator dependent, 15% up from 8% in 1961.

Do blog readers think that agricultural productivity can continue with a concurrent decline in pollinators? Is there an optimum spatial scale to conduct this kind of research? Is pollinator diversity important?

Source: Aizen M. A., Garibaldi, L. A., Cunningham, S. A. & Klein, A. M., 2008, Current Biology, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2008.08.066

Climate Change Strengthens Hurricanes

New research published in Nature indicates that tropical Atlantic cyclones are increasing strength, concurrently with warming oceans.

The suggestion is that as sea surface temperatures (SST) rise, the seas have more energy and thus increase the likelihood of more severe hurricanes occurring. This theory is known as the 'heat-engine theory of cyclone intensity.'

Looking at maximum wind velocities in tropical cyclones from global satellite data, the researchers revealed that stronger cyclones were associated with the highest recorded wind speeds; a 31 per cent increase per year for each one degree rise in SST.

The researchers also found regional trends. They expect that warming of the coolest oceans such as the North Atlantic, the eastern Pacific and the southern Indian Ocean, should expect to show the greatest increase in intensity of tropical cyclones.

Source: Elsner, J.B., Kossin, J.P., Jagger, T.H. (2008). The increasing intensity of the strongest tropical cyclones. Nature. 455: 92-95.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Continuing Global Oil Demand Driving Biodiversity Loss in Western Amazonia

As existing oil supply reaches its peak and begins to dwindle, rather than investing in clean alternatives, oil companies are seeking to continue profiteering from remaining stocks that are locked up in remote, sensitive and fragile biomes such as the Amazon.

The western Amazon, (which includes Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and Columbia) is relatively untouched, yet plans have been hatched to open up the region to scout for and extract oil.

Close to 180 'blocks' that have been allocated by regional governments overlap with some of the most biologically diverse regions of Amazonia, not to mention some of the last few uncontacted tribes in the region. In Peru, 58 of the 64 blocks allocated to prospective oil companies have already been allocated to indigenous tribes.

As directly illustrated by the recent documentary led by Bruce Parry on the BBC, once roads have been carved through the forest, it can become cleared for at least 30km either side of the road. Spillover effects include increased levels of illegal bushmeat hunting, logging and human settlement.

However the human element cannot be taken out of the equation. Many involved in activities that lead to forest destruction directly or indirectly, do it out of financial necessity or survival. Positive engagement and incentivisation not to destroy and take at the local level is required, and this needs to begin at the government level. Research into the value of the ecosystem services provided by the forests suggests they are worth considerably more standing than cleared. However, without funds directed from the thriving 'carbon market' and invested in the forest, they will continue to be destroyed for local and commercial purposes.

The researchers in Finer et al's study outline the following policy initiatives to curb the social and ecological breakdown:

  • roadless extraction methods to greatly reduce these impacts
  • attention to be paid to the rights of indigenous peoples, especially those living in voluntary isolation who by definition cannot be consulted or give their consent
  • clarification of who controls the land and its oil and gas resources as this would greatly influence the development of the region
  • regional Strategic Environmental Assessments conducted by neutral parties to prevent habitat fragmentation and progressive damage across large areas of untouched forest
  • support Ecuador's Yasuni-ITT proposal2, which seeks compensation from the international community in exchange for leaving the country's largest oil fields, located beneath untouched rainforest, unexploited.

Sceptics believe that economising the forests could lead to rich countries being allocated funds for their remaining rainforest's as well. Priority really should be given to developing countries that house some of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. What is certain is unless real action is taken soon, there will be little left on the ground to conserve.

BES members and genuine blog readers are invited to comment

Source: Finer, M., Jenkins, C., Pimm, S., et al. (2008). Oil and Gas Projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to Wilderness, Biodiversity, and Indigenous Peoples. PLoS One. 3(8): e2932 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002932.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Alien vs. Predator: Battle of the Non-Natives

Two non-native invasive species; the chinese mitten crab and the non-native crayfishs' ranges are set to overlap in the near future.

Both crustaceans are formidable predators, with a tendency to damage the ecology of their local environment. The signal crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus, has so far caused the most widespread damage, in part because it is a vector for the plague disease that affects our native white-clawed crayfish Austropotamobius pallipes.

Speaking to the BBC, ecologist Stephanie Peay said: "Where the non-natives move in, the white-clawed crayfish [sic] are lost. Survey work has shown that it only takes between four and seven years from first arrival to achieve a complete local extinction. The only future for the white claws is in isolated water bodies that are completely free from non-native crayfish."

Both the mitten crab and the crayfish have a broad, generalist diet, the mitten crab being particularly unfussy when it comes to prey items, (plants, fish eggs and molluscs among these). The ecological niches of both species directly overlap, so it is likely there will be some kind of clash when the two species inevitably meet.

When either species is present in any British waterway, they will cause an overall loss in biological diversity and abundance of native species. One of the known mechanisms leading to invasiveness is enemy release. Because of the practicality of introducing natural enemies to curb these exotic beasts, this approach will remain unlikely. Conventional removal of these species by local authorities is currently probably the best method of dealing with these alien predators.

Defra's invasive non-native species framework strategy can be downloaded here.

The Environment Agency website lists some of the UK's worst offending non-native invasives.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

End in Sight for Japanese Knotweed?

A team of scientists based at the Centre for Agricultural and Biosciences International (CABI), after extensive experimental trials, have finally found a solution to the super invasive Japanese Knotweed Fallopia japonica.

Japanese knotweed is one of several invasive non-native species, that are collectively estimated to cost the UK billions of pounds in eradication programmes. It is notorious for growing rapidly from tiny fragments, and has the ability to pierce and break-up concrete and tarmac.

The research team at CABI, have discovered that Aphalara itadori, a type of jumping plant lice, is an effective biological control agent against japanese knotweed. The louse could potentially save millions of pounds in chemicals and other means of removal that is otherwise necessary.

The leader of CABI's research, Dick Shaw, said: “In the case of Japanese knotweed, doing nothing is not an option, so we are applying a century-old technique to a new target and are very hopeful of an effective and sustainable outcome.”

A. itadori has been through extensive trials, to make sure it has an exclusive preference to knotweed (over our native flora - 70 species having been tested). Only after having undergone a public consultation will the lice be ready for widespread use in the UK.

BES members and blog readers are invited to comment on this article

Wales Pioneer Green Technology

In a recent visit to a G24i, a solar energy technology centre, Assembly Minister Jane Davidson highlighted how clean technology lies at the heart of efforts to tackle climate change:

"Our ability to develop 21st century technologies that cuts our carbon and environmental footprints will be vital. G24i is a great example of how Wales is playing its part. The solar technology being developed and manufactured here is the future."

Advanced solar cells that can be incorporated into fabrics in rucksacks are amongst some of the innovations G24i have developed. In a recent review of the top 100 technology companies in Europe, Wales is host to six of these; G24i featuring in the list.

Ms. Davidson went on:

"Here in Wales we are providing a lead when it comes to green technology. We have a number of pioneering companies that are developing science that will play a huge role in our lives. Climate change, the global economic situation and the rising costs of fuel mean mankind will have to discover and develop new ways to live and work - we are determined Wales plays a central part in this."

Wales is currently the UK's leader when it comes to developing clean technology. Of the UK's regional administrations, Wales was the first to publish a Renewable Energy route map, leading the way on innovative alternative energy. Europe's leading eco-centre - the Centre for Alternative Technology, also resides in Wales.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Avoiding Imminent North Sea Cod Extinction

Cod is historically one of the most popular commercial fish species in the UK, not to mention popular across the European continent. Because of this, major commercial fisheries have been forced to close, and existing fisheries may also soon face closure.

Exacerbated by the mismatch in timing of their young's main food source, the copepod, caused by predicted warming events, Cod face an uncertain future.

If cod populations disappear completely, it is likely that 'trophic cascade' events could occur, i.e. the food chain within the broader community could be severely disrupted, as happened when the Canadian cod stocks collapsed.

A recent review paper published in Biology Letters suggests that fisheries management should be at the species-fishery scale, rather than a broad species-specific approach to management. The motivations for the author's suggestion lie in the considerable variability in genetic make-up and spawning aggregations between different cod populations, and the potential for small meta-populations to crash without being detected, since these are amalgamated with the whole population. Therefore data collection should be accurate and well-timed for effective management.

Targeted conservation measures are recommended to policy-makers where appropriate, however the socio-economic consequences of any decisions made must be given serious consideration.

Blog Readers are invited to comment on this article!

Source: Hutchinson, W.F. (2008). The dangers of ignoring stock complexity in fishery management: the case of the North Sea cod. Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0443

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Thursday, 9 October 2008

Climate Change Heightens Disease Threat

Speaking from the IUCN conference in Barcelona, William Karesh of the Wildlife Conservation Society spoke of potential fresh outbreaks of various diseases as a result of the effects of climate change. Changes in rainfall patterns and temperature variation could be important contributory factors to a rise in diseases.

Dr Karesh said that by monitoring wildlife it is possible to spot early signs of potential epidemics:

“What we are calling for today is a comprehensive approach to disease globally. Our long-term vision is a comprehensive monitoring network to watch the health of wildlife across the globe.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, preliminary trials have proved a success in preventing human epidemics; by keeping an eye on gorilla and chimp deaths brought about by the Ebola virus.

Warmer weather can help diseases thrive, dry conditions resulting in an increased frequency of watering by animals and thus a greater exposure to potential sources of disease. Some of the diseases that could become more of a threat include, Babesiosis in East Africa, Cholera and Sleeping Sickness.

A comprehensive review of wildlife diseases can be found in April's Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology POSTnote.

Read more about POST at

Click here to read about how to apply for this fellowship.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Royal Society Urge Stronger Action for Ozone Pollution

A recent report conducted by leading experts from across Europe published by the Royal Society, suggests we need much stronger legislation regarding tropospheric (low/ground-level atmosphere) ozone pollution.

Tropospheric ozone lowers crop yields, damages natural ecosystems and harms human health potentially leading to respiratory problems. It is created from reactions between compounds released from fossil fuels burnt in vehicles, power stations and aviation.

It has been estimated that over 1,500 people died in the UK in 2003 as a result of ozone pollution. The EU is said to have lost billions of Euros as a result of yield reduction caused by ozone. The 'precursor' pollutants such as methane and oxides of nitrogen are also active greenhouse gases, so a reduction in ozone pollution would contribute to the fight against climate change.

The Royal Society would like to see legislation that results in a decoupling of ozone pollution from economic growth. It is vital that greater regulation is imposed upon the shipping industry. The chair of the working group, Prof David Fowler, said that by 2020, pollution from shipping in Europe will outstrip land based sources. If ozone pollution continues as current trends predict, it will become a considerably more serious problem by the end of this century.

Download the report here:

The BES invites BES members and readers of the blog to comment on this and any other articles

Scotland Set to Lead on 'Zero Waste' Society

The Scottish Government aims to create a 'zero waste' society, and the supermarket chain Tesco are set to helping them to achieve this aim.

Scottish Tesco stores are set to pioneer a 'reverse vending machine' whereby customers are rewarded for returning packing and recyclable products in in-store machines. The machine is capable of identifying and sorting items, and it is believed many vehicle journeys will be saved as the machine compresses and shreds the waste on site.

At the recent waste conference in Glasgow, Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said:

"I am delighted to see that Tesco shares my vision of a 'Zero Waste Scotland' and is seeking to introduce reverse vending in Scotland. Reverse vending has terrific potential to improve our rates of recycling and evidence from Scandinavia and Canada shows that it has reaped real rewards."

The Scottish Government remains committed to cutting growth of municipal waste by 2010.

Monday, 6 October 2008

At Least a Quarter of World's Mammals Face Extinction

This year's report by the IUCN suggests that in excess of 25% of the world's mammals could become extinct by the turn of the century. The number probably exceeds a quarter given that over 800 species status have not been assessed due to lack of data.

The findings were unveiled at this year's IUCN conference in Barcelona, attended by the British Ecological Society's executive director.

Jan Schipper, the director of the global mammals assessment said:

"We're looking at a 25% decline over the long term, yet for mammals there is no bail out plan. There is no long term conservation strategy that is going to prevent species extinction in the future. As human beings, we should be ensuring that we don't cause other species to go extinct."

Globally, the future is more bleak in some areas than others. The most biologically diverse regions in the world tend to be in the tropics, often where habitat destruction is rife. In south and south-east Asia 79 per cent of apes and monkeys face extinction.

Some of the most newly discovered species are among the most threatened, with 51 per cent of the 349 new species recorded in the last 16 years being classed as critically endangered.

Conservation effort has reversed the fortunes of some endangered species, through captive and in situ breeding and reintroduction programmes. Having suffered catastrophic population decline, the southern white rhino has recovered exceptionally well. With government will power and sufficient public interest and support, it is yet possible to halt many species declines and prevent extinctions occurring. It is imperative that efforts persist in combating climate change too, as this potentially is the biggest threat to species globally.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Cabinet Reshuffle: Full details

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has this afternoon announced the full results of his Cabinet reshuffle. Ed Milliband is to become Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, in a new department, full details of which are yet to be announced. Hilary Benn will stay at Defra as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Defra will no longer be responsible for climate change, and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) will give up responsibilities for energy to the new department.

John Denham will remain as the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, at DIUS, the department responsible for the Government's science portfolio. Lord Drayson becomes Minister for Science at DIUS, replacing Ian Pearson MP.

A full list of members of the new Cabinet can be found here.

Brown Reshuffles Cabinet: What's Happening to Defra?

Gordon Brown has this morning announced the first results of his long-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle. Hilary Benn, currently Secretary of State for Defra, will stay in the Cabinet but in a slimmed-down role, responsible for food. There is to be a new department for climate change and energy, to be led by Ed Milliband. The Prime Minister is also expected to shuffle the Junior Ministers in the Government and it is not yet clear what will happen to the current Junior Ministers at Defra.

Check latest reports at

Funding Crisis Puts Kew Seed Bank in Jeopardy

A £100 Million funding shortfall in funding paints an uncertain future for the world's leading seed bank project in Kew, London.

Scientists are said to have less than a year to raise the enormous sum, after which the Millenium Seed Bank, the most important of its kind, could face closure.

Dr. Paul Smith, head of the seed bank believes the ominous economic climate could worsen the hopes of finding the necessary cash: "We have enough to maintain things as they are but we have the vast majority of the funding still to raise. If we can't get it our hopes of collecting seeds from the many plants under threat - the purpose for which the seed bank was built - will disappear."

The aim of the seed bank, located in Wakehurst Place, West Sussex, is to collect 25 per cent of seeds from flowering plants by 2020 - a 15 per cent increase on the existing stock. A number of species' seeds stored in the seed bank have already died out in the wild. Failure to secure the future of the seed bank could mean the ultimate extinction of species that already no longer exist in the wild.

Defra and other government departments are keen to keep costs down, despite negotiation efforts on behalf of Kew. A special lobbying team has been created to try and recruit funding before existing funds expire at the end of next year.

As climate change continues to make more land less suitable for existing major crop species, and more diverse and virulent viruses potentially loom, it is imperative that, at the very least, the world has a genetically diverse 'backup' of historical cultivars or crop varieties to fall back on. Not to mention the moral obligation of conserving as much of the diversity of plant life as we possibly can, especially if it becomes impossible to do so in situ.

Writing for The Times, Editor of British Ecological Society's Functional Ecology journal Dr. Ken Thompson highlighted the "important role the seed bank plays in enthusing botanists from around the world." Dr. Thompson also drew attention to the implications for research: "Not only are there seeds of plants that are endangered or have even become extinct, but the seeds are a vital resource for researchers who need them in a hurry... ...seeds known to be viable and with growing instructions because of the work done before they were stored."

Sense about Science: Standing up for Science Media Workshop, Edinburgh, 21 November

To all early-career researchers in the biological sciences:

  • Are you passionate about your research?
  • Do you think it is important for good science and evidence to be
    communicated to a wider audience?
  • What can you do about misconceptions and misinformation about

Science in the media: What happens when research announcements go wrong; statistics are
manipulated; risk factors are distorted; or discussions become polarised?

Speakers: Professor John Atkinson, Associate Dean Research & Commercialisation, School of Health Nursing and Midwifery, University of The West of Scotland; Dr Dave Reay, Lecturer in Carbon Management, University of Edinburgh; Dr Debbie Wake, Clinician in Endocrinology, Diabetes and General Medicine, NHS Lothian; Dr Shaun Treweek, Health Services researcher, Dundee University.

What journalists are looking for: How do journalists approach stories? Balance the need for news and entertainment with reporting science? And deal with accusations of polarising debates and mis-representing the facts?

Speakers: Fiona MacRae, The Daily Mail; Margaret McCartney, The Financial Times; and others to be confirmed!

Standing up for science; the nuts and bolts: What is there for early career researchers to play for? Not yet the leaders in the field what can you do to encourage good science and evidence in the public domain? This session offers practical guidance for early career researchers to get their voices heard in debates about science; how to respond to bad science when you see it; and top tips for if you come face-to-face with a journalist!

Speakers: Ellen Raphael, Director, Sense About Science; Alice Tuff, Voice of Young Science; Ronald Kerr, Press and PR Manager, University of Edinburgh.

These workshops are very popular and there are only 40 places available. The closing date for applications is 24 October. For more information see Sense about Science: Voice of Young Science

Urban Expansion Impedes Biodiversity Conservation

Often urban expansion occurs concomitantly with economic growth in developing countries, not to mention land use change including the conversion of forest to agricultural land. A new study in Landscape and Urban Planning suggests that expansion of Panama City and Colon, both of which are surrounded by richly biodiverse rainforests, could result in future biodiversity loss.

Increased urbanisation is anticipated in these cities after a planned expansion of the shipping canal, and it is likely that this will result in increased forest loss. This could be exacerbated by the rural population, 61 per cent of whom live below the poverty threshold, and presently have no alternative but to remove standing forest for agriculture and income purposes.

The researchers looked at potential socio-economic and biophysical correlates of biodiversity loss including population density and growth, road density and poverty levels, rainfall, forest age and land use. They found that population wealth was linked to conversion of land to urban areas, i.e. the more wealth the more conversion. The researchers also found that agriculture was expanding into mature forests.

The rainforests offer a wealth of ecosystem services including the provision of clean water, flood and landslide prevention through water capture not to mention the carbon storage and climate regulating influences. However if an ecosystem services approach is not applied to the forests appropriately, it is likely that, as affluence increases in the urban areas, the true value of the forests will be taken for granted. This could result in increased forest clearance for what is perceived as more valuable urban development projects.

The authors suggest that ecotourism and agroforestry could provide alternative less destructive economic opportunities. If alternatives are positively explored it could assist the rural population move above the poverty threshold without destroying the valuable forests which they, and we all depend upon.

Source: Rompré G, Robinson WD and Desrochers A (2008). Causes of habitat loss in a Neotropical landscape: The Panama Canal corridor. Landscape and Urban Planning. 87: 129-139.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Windfarm Bird Impacts Overestimated

New research published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology suggests the impact of wind farms on farmland birds is less serious than previously thought.

Dr Mark Whittingham and co-authors focused their study on farmland birds overwintering in East Anglia, in early 2007. The birds were allocated to functional groups (that is, grouped alongside birds with similar ecological requirements and taxonomic characteristics).

The researchers found no effect of proximity to wind turbines on grain-eating birds, corvids (crows), gamebirds and the skylark. However, the researchers found pheasants, which are widespread across Britain, to be more abundant further away from the wind turbines. Importantly, among the 33 bird species recorded (of which five are red-listed), wind farms were not found to be a threat.

In order to meet growing energy demands and combat climate change, wind farms are one of a suite of potential alternative energy options that could contribute to a shift from our present fossil-fuel dependency. The European Commission has set a target of creating 20% of EU Energy from renewable sources by 2020, and farmland, as the most abundant land cover in Europe is the most likely place to put them. Future EU policy calling for more wind farms on farmland should not be incompatible with existing EU policy (Agri-Environment Schemes) to increase biodiversity on farmland.

Dr. Whittingham said: "This is the first evidence suggesting that the present and future location of large numbers of wind turbines on European farmland is unlikely to have detrimental effects on farmland birds. This should be welcome news for nature conservationists, wind energy companies and policy makers."

This article received extensive coverage in the media including:

The Today Show, Radio 4
The Telegraph

Reference: Claire L Devereux, Matthew J H Denny and Mark J Whittingham. Minimal effects of wind turbines on the distribution of wintering farmland birds. Journal of Applied Ecology, 2008; DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01560.x