Climate change: effect on forests could last millennia, ancient ruins suggest

 

Jonathan Lenoir, Author provided

Jonathan Lenoir, Université de Picardie Jules Verne (UPJV) and Tommaso Jucker, University of Bristol

Forests are home to 80% of land-based biodiversity, but these arks of life are under threat. The rising average global temperature is forcing tiny plants like sidebells wintergreen on the forest floor (known as the understory) to shift upslope in search of cooler climes. Forest plants can’t keep up with the speed at which the climate is changing – they lag behind.

The pace at which forests adapt to changing conditions is so slow that species living in forest understories today are probably responding to more ancient changes in their environment. For instance, the Mormal Forest floor in northern France is, in several places, covered by a carpet of quaking sedge. This long grass-like plant betrays the former settlements of German soldiers who used it to make straw mattresses during the first world war.

Changes in how people managed the land, sometimes dating back to the Middle Ages or even earlier, leave a lasting fingerprint on the biodiversity of forest understories. Knowing how long the presence of a given species can carry on the memory of past human activities can tell scientists how long climate change is likely to have an influence.

A forest carpeted with tall grass.
The wind whispering through Mormal’s sedge evokes the region’s wartime past.
Jonathan Lenoir, Author provided

Ecologists are turning to technologies such as lidar to rewind the wheel of time. Lidar works on the same principles as radar and sonar, using millions of laser pulses to analyse echoes and generate detailed 3D reconstructions of the surrounding environment. This is what driverless cars use to sense and navigate the world. Since the late 1990s, lidar has enabled amazing discoveries, such as the imprints of Mayan civilisation preserved beneath the canopy of tropical forest.

In a new paper, I, along with experts in ecology, history, archaeology and remote sensing, used lidar to trace human activity in the Compiègne Forest in northern France back to Roman times – much later than historical maps could ever do.

Illuminating ghosts from the past

Compared to farm fields, which are ceaselessly disturbed, forest floors tend to be well-preserved environments. As a result, the ground below the forest canopy may still bear the imprints of ancient human occupation.

Archaeologists know this pretty well and they increasingly rely on lidar technology as a prospecting tool. It allows them to virtually remove all the trees from aerial images and hunt artefacts hidden below treetops and fossilised under forest floors.

Using airborne lidar data acquired in 2014 over the Compiègne Forest in northern France, a team of archaeologists and historians found well-preserved Roman settlements, farm fields and roads. Long considered a remnant of prehistoric forest, the Compiègne was, in fact, a busy agricultural landscape 1,800 years ago.

A black-and-white aerial photo of a landscape marked by depressions and boundaries.
Lidar can reveal the terrain hidden beneath forests.
Jonathan Lenoir, Author provided

A closer look at these ghostly images of the Compiègne Forest reveals several depressions within a fossilised network of Roman farm fields. Archaeologists excavated numerous depressions like this across many forests in north-eastern France and found that people from the late iron age and Roman era carved them.

These depressions were made to extract marls (lime-rich mud) to enrich farm fields in carbonate minerals for growing crops and to create local depressions where rainwater collects naturally for livestock to drink. Marling is still a widespread practice in crop production in northern France.

A hillside with a large, white crater in.
A pit for extracting marl in Northern France.
Jonathan Lenoir, Author provided

The long-lasting effects of human activity

These signs of Roman occupation in modern forests provide clues to why some plant species are present where we wouldn’t expect them to be.

On a summer day in 2007 in a corner of the Tronçais Forest in central France, a team of botanists found a little patch of nitrogen-loving species – blue bugle, woodland figwort and stinging nettle – nestled among more acid-loving plants.

Nothing special at first sight. Until archaeologists found that Roman farm buildings had once stood in that spot, with cattle manure probably enriching the soil in phosphorous and nitrogen.

A shrub with bright blue flowers.
Blue bugle heralds an ancient Roman farm.
Kateryna Pavliuk/Shutterstock

If a clutch of tiny plants can betray ancient farming practices dating back centuries or millennia, ongoing environmental changes, such as climate change, will have similarly long-lasting effects. Even if the Earth stopped heating, the biodiversity of its forests would continue changing in response to the warming signal, in a delayed manner, through the establishment of more and more warm-loving species for several centuries into the future.

Just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has a mission to provide plausible scenarios on future climate change, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services aims to provide plausible scenarios on the fate of biodiversity. Yet none of the biodiversity models so far incorporate this lag effect. This means that model predictions are more prone to errors in forecasting the fate of biodiversity under future climate change.

Knowing about the past of modern forests can help decode their present state and model their future biodiversity. Now lidar technology is there to help ecologists travel back in time and explore the forest past. Improving the accuracy of predictions from biodiversity models by incorporating lagging dynamics is a big challenge, but it is a necessary endeavour for more effective conservation strategies.

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This blog is written by Jonathan Lenoir, Senior Researcher in Ecology & Biostatistics (CNRS), Université de Picardie Jules Verne (UPJV) and Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Tommaso Jucker, Research Fellow and Lecturer, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Drone Ecologies: Exploring the opportunities and risks of aerial monitoring for biodiversity conservation

Drones, also known as unmanned [sic] aerial vehicles (UAVs), are becoming an increasingly common technology within conservation, with uses ranging from mapping vegetation cover, to detecting poachers, to delineating community land claims. Drones are favoured as they’re cheaper and simpler than rival remote sensing technologies such as satellites, yet despite their benefits, they pose a number of issues regarding personal privacy rights and can be difficult to navigate in environments like dense forests. Moreover, as social scientists have previously highlighted, monitoring technologies such as drones have the potential to be used for covert surveillance in conservation areas as part of what they call ‘green securitisation’ (Kelly and Ybarra, 2016; Massé, 2018). To date, however, there has been limited discussion between drone practitioners and scientists across disciplines regarding what a drone can do, and how it is done.

This was the inspiration behind Drone Ecologies, an online workshop hosted by the University of Bristol on the 5th and 6th of July 2021. With over 60 participants representing various disciplines across the social and natural sciences, as well as experts from the arts, industry, and NGOs, the workshop aimed to create an open space for important interdisciplinary dialogues concerning the use of drones for conservation purposes. Through a series of panels, presentations, and breakout activities, we discussed the technical, operational, and analytical dimensions of drones, as well as the ethical, political, and sociocultural impacts of introducing drones and other monitoring technologies into conservation spaces. This essay offers an overview of the conversations that took place during the workshop, and we invite others to take part in these ongoing discussions.

Image 1: Calibrating drone sensors. Credit: Isla Myers-Smith

Our opening panel explored some of the operational benefits of drone technologies for environmental researchers. Drones can provide optical coverage over large areas with high spatial and temporal resolution, and have been successfully deployed to monitor various wildlife populations; assess changes in land cover; and map human-landscape interactions. However, with an increase in the technical capabilities of both drones and the sensors they carry, drones are becoming more than just airborne cameras. They can now be used to monitor other environmental components—e.g. noise, air pollution, and pollen levels—opening the door for new and diverse forms of data generation and analysis. Another emerging feature with huge potential for data collection is the integration of drones with other devices as part of the Internet of Things (IoT). Networks of coordinated drones that are able to share information and react in real-time could become instrumental in new anti-poaching efforts and for long-term, large-scale environmental monitoring.

Alongside a discussion of the advantages that drones provide for researchers and state agencies, much attention was given to the ways in which drones may be used to benefit local communities by, for example, monitoring forest fires within their concessions, or by demonstrating sustainable forest stewardship. Speakers such as Jaime Paneque-Gálvez and Nicolás Vargas-Ramírez from the National Autonomous University of Mexico showed how several community-based projects in South and Central America successfully utilised low-cost drones for participatory mapping processes. The researchers presented their experiences in teaching peasant and Indigenous communities in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru how to pilot and maintain drones, and how to incorporate drone-based imagery and orthomosaics into GIS products. These high-resolution, geo-referenced maps could then be used as evidence for territorial claims, or to expose environmental damage to forests and rivers. The use of drones granted the communities access to greater levels of spatial and temporal resolution with lower financial barriers, as well as greater degrees of inclusivity and autonomy over data collection when compared to satellite products.

Image 2: Composite imagery of illegal gold mining and participants of a community drone workshop in Peru. Credit: Paneque-Gálvez et al. (2017)

Despite the logistical advantages of drones, there are still drawbacks regarding their use in environmental monitoring. Although they may reduce some environmental disturbances associated with monitoring—e.g. the cutting of tracks for transects—they also introduce new concerns, such as acoustic disturbance to wildlife under observation (and otherwise). However, some of the biggest concerns discussed during the second panel of the workshop were the negative impacts that drones may have on the communities living in and around the conservation areas being monitored. Trishant Simlai, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, gave a plenary presentation showing how drones in India, along with other technologies used for conservation monitoring, form part of a deliberate system of surveillance and harassment of forest communities by the forestry department, exacerbating local inequalities along lines of class, caste, and gender, and producing ‘atmospheres’ of control. The second panel’s presentations also highlighted how, regardless of the operator’s intent, communities and individuals alter their behaviour when monitoring technologies are deployed by, for instance, avoiding areas that may have previously provided refuge and privacy.

During a group dialogue on green securitisation, Boise State University’s Libby Lunstrum posited several key observations on drones which formed the basis of ongoing conversations. Firstly, the militaristic origin of drone technologies raises concerns about the complicity of drone use with broader shifts towards militarised conservation and human rights violations. Secondly, unlike the cases presented by Paneque-Gálvez and Vargas-Ramírez, underlying power relations may mean that drone technologies are not always truly accessible for all community members. There are also epistemic concerns regarding the relationship between the disembodied and ‘objective’ knowledge purportedly produced by drones and the embodied and situated forms of knowledges produced by other, on-the-ground methods. Finally, there are a range of critical questions concerning the political economy of drone production: who is investing in these technologies? How do militarised actors participate in conservation, at times greenwashing harmful practices against local communities? How are drones complicit with these dynamics, and how do we reconcile that with their positive uses?

Given the above considerations, and the increasing use of drones for data collection, much of the final discussion at the workshop focused on the ethical implications of using drones within conservation. Drawing inspiration from Sandbrook et al.’s (2021) recent paper on the socially responsible use of conservation monitoring technology, we amended the guidelines set out in their paper to be specifically applicable to drones. Some key concerns included issues of proportionality—whether drones are always necessary tools for conservation practices—and the importance of recognising and foreseeing the potential for social implications in the first place. These concerns, we believe, are often obscured by the techno-optimism that surrounds drones, alongside a generally prevalent faith in technological solutions to conservation problems.

Image 3: Various groups involved in a community drone workshop in Panama. Credit: Paneque-Gálvez et al. (2017)

By the end of the workshop, it was clear that the use of drones for conservation purposes is a complex matter, and their use is subject to many conflicting ideas. Drones configure power relations in which social, political, and economic asymmetries and vulnerabilities can be exacerbated. However, drones can also be used for environmental justice purposes and can aid in the reduction of inequalities when their use is democratised and appropriate for local communities. The workshop also revealed some of the networks, assemblages, and ecosystems that drones inhabit, and that constitute power relations in which drones could play a role. It is important that these networks of relationships and interests that mobilise drones and other complementary technologies—e.g. satellite images—are made explicit, so that we can understand new configurations of power that are developing and identify those who benefit from the introduction of drones.

Additionally, the workshop also highlighted the relevance of multi- and interdisciplinary dialogues in understanding and developing the use of drones and other types of monitoring technologies for conservation purposes. We believe that it is important for these interdisciplinary networks to be established, and to continue exploring the complex impacts that drones have on environments, humans, and conservation practices. The interdisciplinarity approach simultaneously engages different disciplinary approaches and ethics, mitigating any blind spots within research and fully illuminating any potential damage or disturbances arising from drone use. This workshop marked an opening of these dialogues which we hope will continue within this emerging space, building towards the development of cross-disciplinary guidelines and policies for the ethical and responsible use of drones in conservation.

Recorded sessions from the workshop can be viewed at http://www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot/events/2021/drone-ecologies.html

References

Kelly AB and Ybarra M (2016) Introduction to themed issue: ‘Green security in protected areas’. Geoforum 69: 171–175. DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2015.09.013.

Massé F (2018) Topographies of security and the multiple spatialities of (conservation) power: Verticality, surveillance, and space-time compression in the bush. Political Geography 67: 56–64. DOI: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.10.001.

Paneque-Gálvez J, Vargas-Ramírez N, Napoletano B, et al. (2017) Grassroots innovation using drones for Indigenous mapping and monitoring. Land 6(4): 86. DOI: 10.3390/land6040086.

Sandbrook C, Clark D, Toivonen T, et al. (2021) Principles for the socially responsible use of conservation monitoring technology and data. Conservation Science and Practice 3(5). DOI: 10.1111/csp2.374.

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This blog was written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members Ben Newport and Georgios Tzoumas; and Mónica Amador and Juan Felipe Riaño. It has been reposted with kind permission. View the original blog.

Who’s at the table? Priorities after a year of food justice dialogue

Defining ‘Food Justice’ is not easy. When it comes to ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ in relation to our food system, should we be concerned with questions of individual citizens’ access to sustainable sources of subsistence, or issues of production, labour and the practices of agri-business? Do people have clear rights to food? And should such rights focus on quantity alone, or take account of the quality and nature of food? Furthermore, when defining ‘food justice’ should we be primarily concerned with human rights, or are we dealing with complex systems that oblige us to think about non-human persons and actors, including animals and the environment? Whatever our responses to these questions might be, it seems clear that thinking about climate change cannot ignore either food or justice.

An artistic collaboration is stimulating discussion about who is at the table in (un)just food systems.

Over the last year, we have established the Bristol Researchers Food Justice Network. Primarily, this has been through setting up a regular fortnightly seminar series, a workshop exploring the core purpose, values and potential for the Network, and an artistic collaboration to experiment with interactive ways of thinking about the food system and food justice. As it moves into its second year, we reflect on some of the key themes discussed so far. Recent models suggest that policy decisions that focus on climate alone will likely result in rapid growth in social inequalities, including and especially in the global food system. As we focus on questions of environmental sustainability and climate change in the light of the Cop-26 conference, some key food justice issues come to mind:

1. The way that we see food justice is systemic, equally as environmental as it is social

Every part of the food system is connected. Problems with diet are not disconnected to labour force, or price of food, or access to land, or environmentally sustainable farming. It is possible to have a food justice perspective towards understanding food systems. This involves seeing and considering people and other beings everywhere in the system and their being recognised as having an inherent value, with such value not being cheapened in the name of economic cost.

What clearly emerged from the network workshop, which involved researchers from vets to social scientists, historians and lawyers, was that we valued word and concept of ‘justice’ because it captures the common understanding that we are committed to change where we see injustice. While many network members understand food interactions as part of a ‘food system’, the concept of justice helps us maintain a critical and action-led approach where we see problems in those food systems.

2. Justice in food systems is bound up with structures of trade and foreign policy agendas

Since the mid-nineteenth century, Britain has largely relied on food imports, a model which has today become normalised. For many, changing this model is fundamental to building a more sustainable food system. But this cannot be a choice between either climate or society Recent government initiatives promise radical new directions in agriculture policy but keep this trade-centred model intact. Thus, the UK is determined to get farmers away from food subsidies, having committed to end direct payments by 2027. This would turn farmers into environmental stewards whilst offshoring the production of food elsewhere. Moreover, trade deals can increasingly be seen to trade away local and national food production in favour of other priorities, something that the network held a ‘policy hack’ discussion about following the approval of the UK-Australian Free Trade deal in June 2021.

Lauren explores how the table at the heart of the artistic collaboration is supported and wired together.

3. The Dutch model alone cannot save the world

Many models for the future of farming, food supply and food consumption, focus on technical solutions. Accounts of the ‘miracle’ of Dutch agriculture, for example, cite the emphasis on the investment in research and innovation that have underpinned the country’s apparent success in agricultural research and development. But what are the social implications of technological solutions – and what if we end up sacrificing quality for efficiency?

Will research led by agri-food corporations underpin a genuine revolution in global food production, or create intellectual property that marginalises small-scale and community-centred farming enterprises in ecologically-vulnerable territories in the Global South? Some agri-tech policies pioneered by countries such as the Netherlands – such as responsible antibiotic use – are to be lauded, but if these are pursued in the service of intensive agriculture, real problems remain.

4. Consumers are key to change – but we need to do more than blame and shame

As individual consumers, we all have a role to play in transforming the food system; but individualising systemic problems simply places the onus on the consumer in ways that often inhibit radical action. Moreover, as recent polling suggests, individuals are reluctant to embrace environmental actions – such as reducing meat consumption – that have the greatest impact on their own lives.

The choices we make certainly matter, but the notion of ‘choice’ is in many cases an illusory, erroneous and pernicious concept. In effect, consumers  are presented as ‘both the cause and the solution to potential health problems and thus are made to be accountable for their own health.’ This is especially true when we consider questions of poverty and its relation with obesity and other diet-based non-communicable disease. The idea that consumers, by choosing to consume ‘ethically’, ‘sustainably’ or ‘healthily’ can on their own resolve social and environmental deep-seated problems. Policies that place the responsibility for making healthy, ethical and sustainable food choices on individuals fail to address the contexts in which individuals and families live and work.

5. Agriculture and the people within it are being consistently undervalued, around the world

The current food system involves at least 1.1 billion people working in agriculture, who are often among the world’s poorest people. Peasant and self-sufficient farming practices, which often involve very low carbon emitting practices are routinely undermined by large infrastructure and deforestation practices, perpetuating a cycle of the mobility of people away from the agricultural sector that does not compensate them well (including through low international prices for primary agricultural products) towards more intensive practices in the same sector, or into other types of work.

Intensive agriculture relies on a waged labour force of 300-500 million, including many who depend on jobs in plantation work, which is degrading and, in some cases, involves forced labour and modern slavery, having emerged from systems of production developed under conditions of colonial slavery, such as in sugar plantations. Meanwhile, migrant workers make up a large proportion of seasonal and harvest workers in many rich countries because they are in a weak position in the labour force and are therefore, overall, are paid lower wages and offered poorer conditions than their national counterparts. Small producers across the world attempting to live in low-impact lifestyles are usually excluded from subsidies, but often even wealthy farmers, find their land crops and livestock are undervalued. To stay in the sector people working within it are frequently pushed into other activities to diversify and supplement their livelihoods through ecotourism or other specialised initiatives drawing income from the service sector. Why isn’t there inherent value to producing food?

6. The combined challenges of climate and biodiversity crisis for agriculture must be addressed as issues of food justice

A (contested) narrative is emerging that suggests it is possible to divide the world into areas which protect nature and areas which intensively produce food but have negative environmental consequences. We are thus presented with ‘difficult choices’ premised on the belief that farming is inherently incompatible with conservation and climate change mitigation.

This is an off-setting approach which uses a logic of ecological destruction in one place to be compensated for by nature promotion/restoration in another place. However, such ‘land sparing’ approaches simply maintain the status quo and distract our attention from the root causes of a problematic food system. We should be wary of policies that further outsource food production (and environmental damage) to prioritise environmental conservation/restoration in the UK and elsewhere.

Lead artist and ceramicist, Amy Rose, considers the dynamics present at the table. The collaboration is supported by the Brigstow Institute of the University of Bristol.

These represent some of the central issues we have begun to tackle in the Food Justice Network. As researchers, we also recognise that to fully address concerns around our contemporary food system, we need processes that expand our conversation, allow everyone to tell their stories and to fully engage all our senses. Working with artists and creative practitioners has started to help us broaden and clarify our definitions of food justice and will give us opportunities to engage and interact between and beyond the boundaries of research, public knowledge, and practice.

Creative practice and public engagement can become critical tools as we address the twin challenges of climate emergency and social inequality and their radical impact on our food systems – at local, national, and global scales. Above all, an  emphasis on food justice will be imperative if we wish to develop food policies that sustain both our environmental and human futures. Our current food system embodies historical systemic inequalities that reflect the diverse legacies of colonialism, industrialization, and globalization; these must be addressed rather than amplified in our responses to the climate emergency.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute members Dr Lauren Blake, Dr Lydia Medland, and Dr Rob Skinner from “Who’s in our food?”. This blog has been reposted from the Bristow Institute blog with kind permission from the Brigstow Institute. View the original blog.

The ‘Ecological Emergency’ and what The Cabot Institute for the Environment are doing about it

The white rhino. Image credit: Meg Barstow, Postgraduate Student at the University of Bristol.

Biodiversity loss and ecological decline pose enormous threats to humans and ecosystems alike, yet due to human activity they are occurring on a scale not seen since the last mass extinction. As part of our campaign running alongside the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), this blog will highlight The Cabot Institute for the Environment’s research contributions to the fight against the ‘Ecological Emergency’. 

The Ecological Emergency and the need for evidence 

Human activity is pushing the natural world beyond the limits of its own resilience, causing populations of species to plummet and ecosystems to collapse. As well as the widely appreciated beauty of the natural world and our responsibility to protect it, our reliance on ecosystems makes their survival essential to our own. Ecosystems provide us with food, oxygen, carbon capture, air and water purification, nutrient cycling as well as protection from erosion, floods and droughts. Under current trends, we could see ecosystems and the fundamental services they provide disintegrate within a lifetime.

The urgent need for action is starting to be recognised; a number of UK councils and organizations have declared ‘Ecological Emergency’ and the Climate and Ecological Emergency bill has recently been put forward to replace the ‘outdated’ 2008 Climate Change Act. Last year’s UN Summit on Biodiversity saw leaders from all regions of the world take the ‘Leader’s Pledge for Nature’, which commits to reversing alarming global trends and putting biodiversity and nature on the path to recovery by 2030. If ambitious but necessary targets are to be met, a strong evidence base surrounding ecological decline and its drivers will be fundamental in devising effective restoration and conservation strategies.

Caboteers have made significant contributions to global knowledge, directly influencing both local, national and international policy. Using statements from our experts, this blog will highlight some of our key research contributions to the field and discuss why they are so important in the fight against the ecological emergency. This is as part of the Cabot ‘Ecological Emergency’ Campaign, which is running alongside COP15, the UN Biodiversity Conference, which is taking place this week.

A coral reef. Image credit: Meg Barstow, Postgraduate Student at the University of Bristol.

Restoration ecology 

Restoration ecology is the science which underpins ecological restoration – the much-needed repair of damaged and degraded ecosystems. Professor Jane Memmott, leader of the restoration ecology group, explained, “We work on the links betweenspecies, things like pollination, seed dispersal and predation, as it’s really important to reinstate these links between species, as well as the species themselves. We are particularly interested in species that have disproportionately beneficial effects – keystone species – as these can be used to help jump start restoration programmes.”

Identifying which habitats are the most effective to target in restoration strategies is another key element of the Memmott groups research. For example, ‘The Urban Pollinators Project’ led by Jane, was a inter-city, study surveying urban, natural and farmland pollinator habitats run over four years, with the aim of establishing urban restoration opportunities.

While urbanisation is known to be one of the drivers of biodiversity loss, the project found that cities in fact provide unique restoration opportunities. It found that the most beneficial actions for supporting pollinator networks were increasing the area of allotments, which were pollinator hot-spots, as well as strategic management of gardens and green space through incorporation of pollinator-supporting flower margins and meadows. Our reliance on insects to pollinate 75% of our crops and the alarming rate at which their populations are declining make this research particularly fundamental, and the findings have gone on to advise both local and national policy.

A bee, or ‘pollinator’.  Image credit: Meg Barstow, Postgraduate Student at the University of Bristol.

Experimental conservation 

Experimental conservation is research involving the testing and optimisation of conservation strategies. The experimental ecology and conservation group use mathematical models, small-scale experimental systems and long-term wild population data to do this. These techniques have the advantage of being generally non-invasive, leaving the ecosystems largely undisturbed, while giving huge amounts of crucial conservation information.

Dr Chris Clements, the experimental conservation group leader, explains, “My group develops and tests models which might help us to make more reliable conservation decisions. Our work covers a range of topics, including trying to predict what species and populations might be at most risk of collapse or extinction to understanding how multiple anthropogenically derived stressors might interact to increase extinction risk.” As time is limited and extinction is irreversible, ensuring conservation strategies are optimized and supported by a strong scientific evidence base is crucial to their success.

Forest ecosystems 

Forests are home to more than 80% of all land species of animals, plants and insects and are fundamental to our climate, as an integral part of the carbon cycle. Numerous global changes are causing their coverage to rapidly decline, and as well as this exacerbating climate change through reducing their ability to sequester carbon, it poses an extinction threat to the many species that call them home.

Dr Tommaso Jucker leads research investigating forests and the processes which shape their structure, composition and function. Tommaso explains “We hope to not only understand how forest ecosystems are responding to rapid global change, but also lead research that directly informs the conservation and restoration of the world’s forests.” Establishing a clear picture of what the world’s forests might look like in future is crucial to the conservation of the creatures which inhabit them, as well as for preparing for the impacts on people and climate.

A sloth in its forest habitat. Image credit: Sam J. England, PhD student at the University of Bristol.

Aquatic habitats and oceans 

The ocean constitutes over 90% of habitable space on the planet and the ecosystems within it contribute enormously to biodiversity, livelihoods, the carbon cycle and our food supply. This makes understanding the impact of human activity on these submerged worlds essential. As well as the pressure put on ecosystems by over-exploitation, pollution and habitat destruction, rising CO2 levels and are causing environmental changes in oceans, including warming and acidification.

Microbial ecologist, Professor Marian Yallop, and her group investigate aquatic microorganisms, such as algae and cyanobacteria, and their responses to environmental changes such as temperature, pH and pollutants. These often invisible microorganisms are pivotal to global oxygen production and carbon dioxide absorption, as well as occupying a critical position at the base of many food chains. This makes their fate crucial to that of the planet and all of the organisms on it.

Under the sea. Image credit: Meg Barstow, Postgraduate Student at the University of Bristol.

Behavioral and evolutionary ecology 

Evolution and adaptations are at the core of a species ability to survive. In animals, a key element of this is behaviour. Rapid global changes are having complex implications on species and in many cases, the implications of human activity on animal behaviour are only just starting to be realised. Cabot has a number of behavioural experts working to better understand a variety of species behavioural responses to human activity, in order to understand how we can better manage our environment for their conservation.

Professor Gareth Jones, who predominantly works on bats, investigates their behaviour, evolution and responses to human activity, for example, how anthropogenic light can affect them and their insect pray, as well as how they can be deterred from dangerous infrastructure, such as wind turbines.

Professor Andrew Radford is a behavioural ecologist working on bioacoustics, so the production and reception of sound, on species from all across the animal kingdom. Anthropogenic, or ‘man-made’ noise has significantly altered the sound scape of habitats throughout land and sea, therefore, it is essential to understand how this might interfere with development and behaviour so that negative effects can be mitigated. Incorporation of behavioural insights into conservation and restoration strategies can contribute significantly to their success, therefore, research in the field is a key pillar of conservation.

A bat in flight. Image credit: Meg Barstow,  Postgraduate Student at the University of Bristol.

Conservation Law 

If scientific research is to have a positive impact translated into the real world, it must be implemented in policy, meaning law is a hugely important element of conservation. Dr Margherita Pieraccini from the School of Law, who works predominantly on marine conservation law, explains “My research investigates the socio-legal aspects around ecological governance, with the aim of providing a critical understanding of existing conservation laws and envisaging ecologically just ways of governance.” Ecological decline will negatively affect everyone, however the consequences do not affect communities equally, therefore, evidence based conservation laws are essential to prevent inequality and poverty being exacerbated.

The Nocturnal Problem 

Establishing a full and accurate picture of where evidence is available, and where it is missing, is fundamental to shaping the future path of research and enabling us to protect all ecosystems. Dr Andrew Flack, an environmental and animal historian, is investigating what is known as ‘The Nocturnal Problem’, which is the significant underrepresentation of night-time ecologies in research. Dr Flack explains “My own historical research draws attention to the ways in which nocturnal ecologies and the threats to them have been understood, and that until very recently, scientists have neglected the impact of human activity on night-time ecologies.” Half of everything that has happened or will happen has happened in the night, therefore, nocturnal species make up significant proportions of our ecosystems. Neglecting nocturnal species in research can therefore have catastrophic consequences not only to those species, but to the diurnal (day-time) species that they are intertwined with through ecosystems.

A fox cub. Image credit: Adam Hearne, Student at the University of Bristol.

The University of Bristol’s action on ecology and climate 

As well as being at the forefront of research, Cabot’s home institute, the University of Bristol, has taken a number of actions to support ecology. Wildlife supporting infrastructure, such as wild-flower meadows, bug hotels and ‘living buildings’ are dotted strategically around the campus. The Universities green space, Royal Fort Garden, is a hub of wildlife and supports a variety of species, as well as hosting an installation, ‘Hollow’, made of fragments of 10,000 species of tree from all over the world, inspiring interest in global biodiversity. The University was also the first UK university to declare a climate emergency in April 2019, and has set world-leading targets to reach net-zero by 2030. Mitigating climate change is fundamental to protecting ecosystems, however, as ecological decline could continue alongside decarbonization, or even be exacerbated by the means to get to net-zero, it is essential that it is not overlooked in sustainability strategies.

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This blog was written by Hilary McCarthy, a University of Bristol PhD Student and part of the Cabot Communicators group.

 

Thank you to University of Bristol students and staff for wildlife photography submissions used in this blog and across the campaign: 
Adam Hearne (UoB Zoology student and wildlife photographer, www.adamhearnewildlife.co.uk, Instagram: @adamhearnewildlife) 
Meg Barstow (UoB, wildlife photographer, Instagram: @cardboard.rocket) 
Sam J. England (PhD student researching aerial electroreception in insects and wildlife photographer, Instagram @sam.j.england, https://www.samjengland.com)

Ecological decline: an overlooked emergency?

A blue tit landing. Image credit: Adam Hearne, Student at the University of Bristol.
The words ‘Ecological Emergency’ are appearing in an increasing number of environmental declarations, strategies and parliamentary bills. This blog will discuss the need to recognise ecological decline as an emergency in its own right, as well as being an element of the climate emergency. This will be part of an ‘Ecological Emergency’ Cabot Campaign which will run alongside the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), which is happening this week.

Last year, The Cabot Institute for the Environment’s home city Bristol became the first major city to declare an ecological emergency. This declaration came only two years after Bristol became the first European city to declare a climate emergency. Many UK councils and organizations have since declared joint “Climate and Ecological” emergencies, and the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill has been put forward to replace the ‘outdated’ 2008 Climate Change Act. These declarations show that while climate and ecology are intrinsically linked, there is increasing recognition of ecological decline as an emergency in its own right as well as being a consequence of and contributor to the climate emergency. Climate mitigation is fundamental to safeguarding ecosystems, however, ecological decline could continue alongside decarbonisation and even be exacerbated by the means to get to net-zero, if the ecological emergency is overlooked in sustainability strategies and policy.

The UN Convention on Biodiversity (COP15) is taking place this week and a Cabot Campaign on the ‘Ecological Emergency’ will run alongside it. The campaign will include a series of blogs and posts across our website and social media. Using statements from Cabot researchers in relevant fields, this blog will discuss the ecological emergency and the need for targeted action.

 

Bristol suspension bridge. Image credit: Meg Barstow, Postgraduate Student at the University of Bristol.
 
What is the ecological emergency?

Biodiversity is being lost on a scale not seen since the last mass extinctionDr Chris Clements Caboteer and leader of the experimental conservation group explains. While Dr Andrew Flack, an environmental and animal historian, described the ecological emergency as “among the most profound crises of our time, diminishing not only planetary diversity but also the very experience of being human on our beautiful, rich planet“.

More quantitively, the statistics which drove Bristol’s pioneering ‘Ecological Emergency’ declaration include:

  • 60% of the worlds wild animals have been lost since 1970
  • One in seven UK wildlife species are at risk of extinction
  • More locally in Bristol and the surrounding areas, swift and starling populations have dropped by more than 96% since 1994
  • 41% of insects are threatened with extinction, posing a huge threat to our global food supply due to 75% of our crops being reliant on pollination by insects
  • Three-quarters of land and two-thirds of marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions
 
A honey bee on a flower. Image credit: Callum Mclellan, Student at the University of Bristol.

In their statements, many of our academics highlighted that, as well as the beauty of the natural world and our responsibility to preserve it, our reliance on ecosystems makes their survival essential to our own. Ecosystems provide us with food, oxygen, nutrient cycling, carbon absorption, air and water purification, and protection from erosion, floods and droughts. Many of these services are already under increased pressure due to climate change, which ecological decline is intertwined with. Destruction of ecosystems and exploitation of wildlife can also cause the emergence of infectious disease, as has been demonstrated by the occurrence of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Biodiversity loss and climate action failure both earned their own place in the top five threats to humanity in the next five years, according to the 2020 Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum. Though these interdependent crises will drastically affect everyone, their consequences will not be felt equally among communities and are sadly already intensifying inequality and poverty.

Intertwined emergencies

 “The climate emergency is certainly exacerbating the ecological emergency” Professor Jane Memmott, a leading restoration ecologist, explained. Under current trends, climate change is projected to drive many ecosystems to collapse. Simultaneously, large-scale destruction of ecological carbon sinks, such as forests, wetlands and mangroves, is contributing to climate change. There are several feedback loops at play: destruction of carbon sinks is increasing atmospheric CO2, which drives climate change and in turn further ecological degradation, which then further debilitates natures ability to store carbon. This forms a vicious cycle, with profound consequences for the planet.

The interdependent emergencies share similar causes, consequences and solutions, however, Dr Tommaso Jucker, whose research is on forests and their responses to rapid global change, explains “it is not only climate change that threatens biodiversity, and the effects of biodiversity loss on people will not just be a subset of those brought on by climate change”. As well as climate change, threats to ecosystems include species over-exploitation, habitat destruction, pesticides and pollution of land, air and water. These could all continue simultaneously to our efforts to decarbonise, and even be exacerbated by the means to get to net-zero, if the ecological emergency is overlooked in sustainability strategies.
 
A forest. Image credit: Dr. Stephen Montgomery, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol

A coordinated approach to climate and ecology

The climate emergency is becoming mainstream conversation and it is now widely accepted that huge changes in policy, infrastructure and behaviour are needed. However, while the climate emergency is gaining recognition, the ecological emergency is comparatively overlooked. If we are to avoid ecological collapse, a co-ordinated approach to the crises is essential; focusing purely on technological advancement and decarbonisation runs the risk of allowing and even exacerbating further ecosystem destruction.

Natural climate solutions, such as strategic management of forests, grasslands and wetlands, can offer around a third of the climate mitigation required by 2030 to keep warming below 2 °C. These environments are not only carbon sinks, but biodiversity havens, making them effective solutions for ecological decline as well as climate change. Protecting ecosystems is also often significantly more cost-effective than human-made climate interventions. However, due to our often unnatural lifestyles and a fast-growing population, nature alone will not be enough to mitigate human impact on the environment.  

A peacock butterfly. Image credit: Sam J. England, PhD Student at the University of Bristol.

The need for targeted action 

As well as the intrinsic links and coordinated solutions to the climate and ecological emergencies, there is a lot that can be done to specifically alleviate the ecological emergency. This is exemplified by Bristol’s ‘One City Ecological Emergency Strategy‘ which predominantly focuses on land management, pesticide use, water quality and consumption of products that undermine global ecosystems. This is in addition to climate mitigation, already covered in the Climate Emergency Action Plan.

Last year’s UN Summit for Biological Diversity saw leaders from all regions of the world take the ‘Leader’s Pledge for Nature’, which commits to reversing alarming global biodiversity loss trends by 2030. To achieve this ambitious but necessary goal, both climate action and targeted conservation and restoration strategies will be needed on both a local and global level. For these crises to be mitigated, some uncomfortable truths surrounding lifestyles many have become accustomed to will have to be faced.

The word ‘emergency’ from a scientific perspective 

Despite widespread agreement on the obvious threats posed by biodiversity loss and the need for action, the word ‘emergency’ can be controversial, especially amongst the scientific community. Professor Richard Wallexplained “As a research scientist, my view is that the sound-bite ‘ecological emergency’ is not sufficiently nuanced to be useful in scientific discourse and is best left to journalists and campaigners; it has no scale or quantification and what constitutes an ‘emergency’ is highly subjective.”

Public awareness surrounding our changing climate and declining ecosystems are important, however, if action doesn’t follow declarations, then they run the risk of being no more than empty PR stunt and can increase public immunity to the word as well as the impacts of the crisis itself. COP15, which is happening this week, will be pivotal in deciding the future of our own species, as well as all the other species that share our planet.

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This blog was written by Hilary McCarthy, a University of Bristol PhD Student and part of the Cabot Communicators group.

Thank you to University of Bristol students and staff for wildlife photography submissions used in this blog and across the campaign: Adam Hearne (UoB student and wildlife photographer, www.adamhearnewildlife.co.uk, Instagram: @adamhearnewildlife) Meg Barstow (UoB student, wildlife photographer, Instagram: @cardboard.rocket)
Dr Stephen Montgomery (Senior Research Fellow, Neurobiology and Behaviour, School of Biological Sciences) Sam J. England (PhD student researching aerial electroreception in insects and wildlife photographer, Instagram @sam.j.england, https://www.samjengland.com)

 

Global Environmental Change mini-symposium

At the end of June, the Cabot Institute hosted the Global Environmental Change mini-symposium – a one hour whistle-stop tour showcasing the breadth of research within this theme of the Cabot Institute. Speakers represented different schools from the University that actively work on the spectrum of Global Environmental Change challenges, such as environmental law and policy, biodiversity conservation, biogeochemical cycles, environmental justice and environmental history.

 
Each speaker had time for a very short talk, with some choosing to focus on specific aspects of their work in depth and others instead covering the breadth of research carried out by colleagues in their school. The audience too came from a wide background, with everyone from undergraduate and masters students up to professors represented. Although with five speakers (plus some words from the theme leaders, Jo House and Matt Rigby) there was not much time for questions during the hour of talks, there was plenty of time for discussion over food and drinks afterwards.

Although it was billed as a miniature event, it set out to address grand, ambitious, global challenges. It was a short, punchy reminder of the huge range of research skills found within the Cabot Institute. We might not have solved the Earth’s challenges in an hour or two, but now that the dust has settled we certainly have a good idea of who to ask and how to start taking them on. I look forward to the mini-symposiums for the Cabot Institute’s other five research themes!

The speakers were:
Kath Baldock – Life Sciences
Alice Venn – Social Sciences and Law
Alix Dietzel – SPAIS
Kate Hendry – Earth Sciences
Daniel Haines – History

The event was hosted by:
Jo House – Geographical Sciences
Matt Rigby – Chemistry

Blog post by Press Gang member Alan Kennedy.

Sea and Sky

I’ve always loved the sea. Pursuing a major in oceanography led me to chose a degree in Physics and it was I realised that studying the atmosphere was just as, amazing, if not more so! I therefore decided to pursue a PhD in atmospheric sciences. But once the sea captures you, it never really lets you go. That is how I found myself between the sea and sky.


Several years ago, a group of like-minded friends and I decided to start an NGO, based in Croatia, called Deep Blue Explorers that would focus on marine and atmospheric sciences and research. That task proved to be extremely challenging as getting the funding we needed to start our adventures seemed to be a little harder than we had anticipated. However, we were fortunate enough and, after a very rough first season, we started to collaborate with Operation Wallacea who design and implement biodiversity and conservation management research expeditions with university and high school students from all over the world.


At the same time, we started collaborating with another Croatian NGO called 20.000 Leagues who have over 10 years of experience in marine research. Together, we are running the Adriatic Ecology Course that aims to bring together scientists and experts from all over the world to give international students a hands-on experience of field work and high-quality research. The course takes place in the National Park of Mljet and the research includes fish, sea urchin and sea grass surveys. Additionally, the students conduct boat monitoring in Lokva bay, three times a day, in order to record the pressure of
boats anchoring in the Bay.
 

The expedition is supported by scientific lectures regarding conservation in the Adriatic; the ecosystem and biodiversity of the island of Mljet; sustainability; research methods and global challenges such as marine pollution. The students also have the opportunity to be involved in workshops to discuss conservation and global challenges issues and to take part in personal and professional development training activities that focus on sustainability and protection of marine life.
 

It is an amazing experience for everyone and the students leave the Island with a new understanding and new appreciation of the ecology Island of Mljet, the contribution of the National Park regarding conservation and the need and importance of supporting the National Park’s efforts.
 

As for me, being able to work both with the sea and the sky, I can just say, I have never been happier!


Blog post by Eleni Michalopoulou. Eleni is currently a PhD student in the department of Chemistry and part of the ACRG Group. Her PhD focuses on studying the PFCs CF4 and C2F6. A physicist by training with a major in Oceanography, environment and meteorology she has spend most of her early career working on marine conservation, microplastics oceanography and Atmospheric dynamics.  She is one of the lecturers of the Sustainable Development open unit and one of the lead educators for Bristol Futures and the Sustainable Futures pathway. Her scientific interests cover a variety of topics such as climate change, conservation, sustainability, marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

Do we care too much about nature?

Over 80% of British adults believe that the natural environment should be protected at all costs. Yet, a recent report suggests that “government progress on commitments to the natural environment has been largely static” (1). Indeed, the budget for DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has been slashed by 10% (£37m) and a reduction in green levies is likely as the government attempts to reduce domestic energy bills.

Has the government lost interest in the environment? Or do we care too much about nature?
To discuss this further, the Cabot Institute hosted a public recording of BBC Radio 4′s Shared Planeta show which explores the complex relationship between the human populations and wildlife. John Burton, CEO of the World Land Trust (WLT), was the first panellist and is a well known journalist and conservationist who has raised £19m for nature conservation in Africa, Asia and Central and Southern America. He believes that we should think about policy on “the life scale of an oak tree” and that further measures are required to protect the environment, both at home and abroad. The second panellist, Hannah Stoddart, is the head of the economic justice policy team at Oxfam GB and believes that fairer redistribution of wealth is more important than wildlife conservation.
Do we care about nature?
A new report, by the Environmental Funders Network, suggests that one in ten UK adults are now a member or supporter of Britain’s environmental and conservation groups (2). This equates to nearly 4.5 million people, with 81 organisations protecting species and 78 working on climate change. Although 44% of funding is allocated to biodiversity and nature protection, only 7.3% of total funds have been allocated to the climate and the atmosphere. This suggests we are more interested in ‘traditional’ environmental issues than climate change. A recent research project by the RSPB indicates that four out of five UK children are no longer connected with nature (3). Dr Mike Clarke, the chief executive of the RSPB, explains that “…nature is in trouble, and children’s connection to nature is closely linked to this”. At a time where UK species are in decline, are we doing enough to engage young people in the natural world?
An alternative to conservation
Both John Burton and Hannah Stoddart agree that nature is important and that conservation can help protect endangered landscapes. However, many conservation sites are maintained in ”favourable condition”. In other words, they are kept in the condition they were found when designated as conversation sites. A alternative concept, known as rewilding, attempts to reverse the destruction of nature by standing back and allowing nature to control its own destiny.
Currently, farmers have to prevent the development of foreign or exotic vegetation on their land. This results in the development of bare land, lacking in biodiversity. Removal of the ‘agricultural condition’ rule and the introduction of rewilding may allow this land to flourish once again. George Monbiot, author of Feral, is particularly interested in the reintroduction of megafauna, large animals that existed at the end of the last glacial period (>11ka) (4). It seems hard to believe, but over ten thousand years ago, elephants, rhinoceri and camels roamed Europe while other animals, such as bison, wolves and wildcats, were particularly widespread throughout the UK.
Indeed, the re-introduction of missing species can have a profound effect on wildlife. In 1995, grey wolves were reintroducedto Yellowstone National Park for the first time in 50 years (5). The elk population, who were now at risk of predation by wolves, began to redistribute. This allowed willow and aspen trees to flourish and increased the habitat for certain bird species, small mammals, beavers, and moose. This effect, known as a trophic cascade, suggests that careful reintroduction of megafauna into the wild can allow ecosystems to flourish. However, rewilding can backfire. In 2008, endangered Mallorcan toads were reintroduced into the natural population but were infected with Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a well-known fungus that can threaten amphibians (6). As a result, the Mallorcan toads are now in danger of being wiped out once again. Despite this, I believe that rewilding in the UK is feasible and could allow the public, especially children, to reconnect with nature in new and exciting ways.
  1. Nature Check 2013. http://www.wcl.org.uk/docs/Link_Nature_Check_Report_November_2013.pdf
  2. Passionate Collaboraton. http://www.greenfunders.org/wp-content/uploads/Passionate-Collaboration-Full-Report.pdf
  3. RSPB Connecting with Nature. http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/connecting-with-nature_tcm9-354603.pdf
  4. Monbiot, G. Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. Allen Lane.
  5. Ripple et al,. 2001. Trophic cascades among wolves, elk and aspen on Yellowstone National Parks’s northern range.Biological Conservation102. 227-234
  6. Walker et al, 2008. Invasive pathogens threaten species recovery programs. Current Biology18. R853-R854

Can we share our planet with wildlife?

Monty Don, Shared Planet, BBC Radio 4

Our environment provides us with amazing resources. As well as the obvious things like food, wood and water, it provides services like pollination, climate regulation and waste decomposition. However we are putting our delicate ecosystem out of balance by destroying habitats, over-exploiting animals and plants, polluting the air and rivers and causing climate change at a rate that hasn’t been seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Last week the Cabot Institute hosted a debate for BBC Radio 4’s Shared Planet programme, asking whether we can better manage resources to live within our planet’s means, or whether there are simply too many of us to co-exist with wildlife.

Fred Pearce

Fred Pearce, science and environment writer, was one of the panellists. He argued that nature is dynamic and with better management of the resources we already have, we can reduce our consumption and live within the planet’s ability to recover.

Kieran Suckling

Kieran Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona, had a more pessimistic view. He believes that the human population is going to rise to a level far greater than the planet can sustain, and if we do not control our population level we will not be able to prevent ecological destruction on a global scale.



Global Extinctions
We are losing biodiversiy at an unprecedented rate. The 2012 Living Planet Report by the WWF estimated that we lost 28% of global biodiversity between 1970 and 2008. Fred took a more holistic view, that while of course we have a huge effect on the natural environment and should try and minimise damage, nature is resilient and will fight back. Foxes invading urban environments, weeds in a garden and rainforests’ ability to regrow in 15 years show that nature isn’t as fragile as we think. Animals and plants that depend on very specific environments are likely to be more at risk than more generalist species however and Kieran argued that we have an “ethical responsibility” to keep all remaining species alive.

How can we feed everyone sustainably?

Riau deforestation for oil palm plantation
Image by Aidenvironment, 2006

Every day around 870 million people do not get enough food. How can we hope to feed a predicted 9.6 billion people by 2050 whilst growing food more sustainably? Suckling described how industrial agricultural practices are highly damaging to the environment, for example pesticides which probably have a severe impact on bees. He argued that organic farms are unlikely to provide enough food for the growing population.

Globally, 19% of forests are protected, but rising demand for fuel and agricultural land means we are losing 80,000 acres of rainforest each day and probably 50,000 species of animals and plants every year. The good news, Pearce said, is that that we already produce enough food to feed the predicted 9 billion people, although we waste enough for 3 billion. Recent reports showed that 15 million tonnes of food is thrown away in the UK each year. He argued that we should be encouraged by the notion that “we can reduce our footprint just by being more economical”. The real challenge is how to make people understand that food waste is both socially and environmentally unethical.

Education
Fred mentioned that overall women are having half the number of children that their mothers had. This is in part thanks to medical advances, meaning that most children will survive to adulthood so fewer births are needed to build a family. It is also an education success story. Both the panellists agreed that “when education and freedom levels rise, the population starts to grow more slowly”. Opportunities for women to educate themselves will be critical in changing gender stereotypes and reducing the numbers of unwanted pregnancies. This is good news for human rights as well as managing our growing population’s impact on the environment.

Economics
The environment provides $33 trillion of benefit to us every year by pollinating crops, purifying water, cycling nutrients and keeping our climate stable. It would cost an estimated $76 billion annually to protect the environment, which is only about 20% of the money spent on soft drinks each year. Fred believes that putting a true price on economic resources and the cost of carbon emissions means that simple economics could solve the problem of environmental degradation by showing businesses that conservation is the less costly option. Kieran disagreed, arguing that both environmental and social problems stem from a capitalist consumer society. As the WWF Living Planet Report stated, “in too many cases, the over-exploitation of resources and damage or destruction of ecosystems are highly profitable for a few stakeholders in the short term”. Businesses and politicians work on too short a time scale to care about the long-term effects of environmental degradation.

So are there too many people for wildlife to thrive?
The debate ventured into the ethical question of whether animals and the environment should have the same right to live as humans. Does sustainable living have to be an “us versus them” question? Fred took a humanist view, but argued that we as a species need the services that nature provides. Kieran argued that we must not simply steal the most resources we can get away with, but live sustainably with other species.

Before the debate I believed that there are too many people on the planet for wildlife to flourish and at the end I would probably say I still felt the same way, however Fred managed to instil a bigger sense of hope in me. If governments really do get their acts together and we as a global population get our wasteful consumerism under control, we can turn the tides and make this a better world for both people and the wildlife we share it with.

If you would like to listen to the Shared Planet programme, it will be aired on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 24 December 2013 at 11 am.



This blog is written by Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci
Sarah Jose

Is ash dieback under control?

Image by FERA

European ash tree is an important component of British woodlands. It has been stayed popular and recommended for planting due to its economic and aesthetic value, also the fact that its resistance towards grey squirrels. In UK, it has been estimated that among all the 141000ha big woodlands (>0.5ha), 5.4% of their composition is ash trees. However, since its first discovery in Poland in 1992, the ash dieback disease, caused by fungus Chalara fraxinea, has spread over the European continent and devastated ash populations in certain areas. On 19.Sep, Rob Spence for Forestry Commission came to Bristol to talk about thecurrent stage of ash dieback control in England.

Chalara fraxinea is the asexual stage of Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, and also the infectious stage. Ascospores are produced from fruiting bodies on the dead branches in the litter, and can be transmitted by wind to more than 10km. Ascospores are not durable, thus its infection window is limited to summer months. The spores tend to attack the young trees due to their lower resistance to the disease, cause crown necrosis and eventually death. In mature plants, the effect of the disease is less severe. However, the disease can seriously compromise the condition of mature trees, and make them succumb to other diseases.

Source: BBC website

Current distribution of the disease in England is largely constrained in tree nurseries, except for East Anglia, where a number of cases have been reported in the wild. The prevalence of the disease in the nurseries all over the country is thought to be due to the fact that seeds are germinated outside of UK, and then saplings and young trees are imported back into UK from the continent, which may already be infected. However, the large outbreak in East Anglia is more likely attributed to extreme weather conditions which bring spores from the continent.

The control effort in southwest is focusing on confining the disease. Unlike East Anglia, the cases of ash dieback in wild are still rare. The Forestry Commission has been conducting aerial surveys to spot early infections, also, two smartphone apps, Tree Alert and OPAL can be used to take photos of suspected infected trees and send to the experts for identification. As the staff of the Forestry Commission is very limited, it becomes very unrealistic for them to come to field for most cases.

It is also worth noting that around 1-2% of the natural population is resistant against the disease. Researches are going on in The Sainsbury’s Lab and John Innes Centre in Norwich, as well as some European institutes trying to identify the resistant genes and possible approaches to deter the spread of the fungus through biological approaches. On country level, a ban has been placed on ash import from outside of the country and transfer of living ash tissues within the country, though the timber transport are still allowed as they are regarded as low risk.

In my point of view, ash dieback is well controlled at this stage. Despite the eventual widespread is inevitable, but this kind of selection bottlenecks has happened widely in nature since the evolution starts. Although there is no reason to reduce our effort in protecting ash trees, as long as we keep the genetic diversity with the susceptible populations while introducing and expanding the resistant traits within the population, the disease will be controlled in macro-scale.

This blog is written by Dan Lan, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol