Thursday, 1 August 2013

Should scientists be neutral?

This is something I have been pondering over recently as I started reading up on ‘issues in nature’ and writing my series about ‘the science behind the nature headlines’ (which alas has been rather stalled due to massive overload on the work front, redecoration of our house and the ever demanding (but ever gorgeous) toddlers.

So as I wrote my article, for example on the badger cull, I read around all the issues, read many of the papers on the subject, wrote it up and pronounced my sentence… ‘I pronounce the badger cull wrong on so many counts’. It’s not even my field. I’m not even sure when I say ‘hey you policy makers why haven’t we got Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for harbour porpoises when we’re supposed to by law’… and that is my area (I even wrote a paper on it here). So should I be an advocate for nature? Or should I just stick to what I do know about my science & not state a position?

This blog post that I’m writing now has been dwelling in my brain for a few months, I’d keep going back to the question and ponder it & leave it to ponder again at a later date. Then today on twitter (I’m a bit behind on my twitter feed) there were several posts about science & advocacy – an excellent post by Carina Wyborn reflecting on the role of advocacy in conservation science ‘Is advocacy still a four letter word?’ and a very thought provoking post in the Guardian by Tamsin Edwards ‘Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies’.  It got me thinking again…

Carina’s blog post had a really good quote that really resonated with me:
‘Those who have the privilege to know, have the responsibility to act’

I work on marine ecosystems – I can see the influence of human activity on our marine ecosystems and worry about it. Should I therefore start advocating change or certain policies based on my best knowledge as a scientist? Tamsin would say no. Our role as scientists is to investigate and report our findings as clearly and coherently as possible so that people can judge for themselves. I can see much logic in this view, and it has been mostly the approach I have used for the majority of my science career to date. I say was, because of late I have found myself getting much more ‘shouty’ and taking a stance on issues because I am and always have been passionate for nature & feel as though I need to take a stand and try to make a difference. If scientists who work in the fields don’t take action on what they can see happening, who can? I say this but I’m still not convincing myself, it makes me uneasy to take a stance. And it is very much for the reasons Tamsin states – I am a scientist working in nature conservation, people might  take what I say as gospel because it’s my field (regardless of the fact my area is very small & my statements on anything other than pelagic marine ecosystems are not much better informed than a well-informed lay person…). So maybe I should go back to being neutral...

So, should I have just stated the facts with the badger cull and not stated an opinion? I mean it’s not my field, and in the end it’s a matter of weighing up the evidence & making a call. So with the badger cull, maybe it would work and have a big impact on reducing bTB in cattle, and we’d get in the position of actually getting on top of the disease? I mean we push our fish stocks to near extinction and people don’t kick up a fuss, so what’s the fuss about killing badgers to save killing even more cattle? (I’m playing devil’s advocate here, in my ideal world we’d have a society & culture in balance with nature, I’m on the side of nature at my core). Also, if scientists take a position (like the very highly respected scientist Lord Krebs) on the badger cull saying they disagree with it, are they wrong to be stating an opinion because they aren’t letting the government weigh up the pros and cons & make a decision that supports the majority?

And what about my area – marine conservation zones? Should we as scientists not take a position on these & let the government go ahead with only designating 32 out of the 127? After all who are we to tell the government that they should be taking money away from, say, healthcare, to have a well-managed network of marine conservation zones… because in the end that’s what it’s down to – cost. Because let’s face it, it’s all very well saying that we’ll have 1, 32, or even all 127 MCZs plus reference areas where no human activity likely to have an impact is banned… but without proper protection and policing we’d end up with ‘paper parks’ – protected on paper but not in reality. And completely down my area of research – why advocate for marine protected areas for such mobile species as harbour porpoises, when we know that these species range over large areas, and are likely to change their distribution as their prey distributions change… i.e. an MPA designated one year could be defunct in a few years once the porpoises move away following their prey*. See, even with information at our fingertips, conservation science is not simple. I am never sure whether the approach I advocate at the time is the right approach to be advocating.

But… I guess one of my arguments for advocating our science is this: governments make the decisions, governments are short-termist (not thinking much beyond their 4 year term), and thankfully we do live in a democracy in the UK, so governments also respond to their people. We saw this with ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight’ – huge numbers of people got behind the no discard principle, and this movement of action by the public had a massive influence in stopping discard practice. Do we, as scientists, have a duty to take up the banner of advocacy to push forward action that we believe is important? E.g. telling the government they are wrong about the badger cull like Lord Krebs & many other scientists did, or telling the government they were wrong not to go forward with all 127 MCZs plus reference zones like Callum Roberts has done. Big industry lobby government, why not scientists?

I leave this to debate, I’m still not sure what approach is best – I have become more of an advocate of late, but an unsure advocate, because I also suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ so never believe I’m right anyway (always feel like there could be something I’m missing which means that my opinion will always be wrong). I feel more comfortable being a neutral scientist, it’s a safer position – ‘state facts, don’t give an opinion, then nobody can criticise you’. Being an advocate is a nerve-racking place to be, so I’d gladly retreat back into scientist mode.  But part of me feels a duty to act, that science without action just isn’t enough…

Hmmm… thoughts?

*Just to say that this is giving conservation of mobile species a very broad brush, there are many other issues! Conservation of mobile marine species definitely warrants its own blog post...

Friday, 21 June 2013

Question time: Urban nature

This week I was a panellist on the Big Green Week’s ‘Question Time: The state of nature, the next step’ (watch it here). It was a huge honour to be asked to be on the panel, and really inspiring :) We discussed everything from the badger cull (emotive topic!), to farming to feed the world, to urban nature and inspiring children and adults to reconnect with nature.

I think the most moving testimony was that of a secondary school geography teacher who said that she got her students to grow sunflower seeds, and 8 of them had never planted a seed before!

I have so many thoughts bounding around my head as a result of the panel discussion, it’s difficult to know where to start – I think the best way is to do weekly posts on each of the topics. The questions covered (i) urban nature; (ii) farming to feed the world; (iii) marine conservation; (iv) two questions from young folks – why do farmers use pesticides when they are bad for bees? & How can we engage children in schools with nature; (v) the badger cull; (vi) one big thing for nature.

Firstly, urban nature. Bristol was awarded European Green Capital for 2015 – what benefits will this give the people of Bristol? I must admit I didn't know that Bristol had been given this status, and don’t really know what it will mean to the city. However, here's an interesting fact: 90% of our UK population live in urban areas. We are a democracy, so we need to engage those 90% (and the rest!) with nature if we want people to vote for green issues and nature. We cannot hope to engage people in nature issues if they are not inspired and educated on the importance of nature on our well-being  Making nature a natural part of our urban environment is one of the main ways in which we can engage people in nature. We need to increase our green spaces, and we need to make our green spaces work for us, and engage people with our urban nature.

Bristol City Hall fronted by a large 'pond' & lots of greenery
It was beautiful weather in Bristol for the panel (shame we couldn’t have had it outside), and as I walked through the beautiful leafy streets of Bristol, and the wide green spaces filled with people, making the most of the sun and the green spaces, I thought about our connection with nature. Outside Bristol City Hall is a wide green space with trees & flowered borders, all ordered and neat, and a big stretch of clear water. I sat on a bench looking at the nature around me, and I thought… here is a space that we could make more of – plant the borders, not with neat rows of flowers, but with pollinator-friendly flowers & plants, turn the huge space of water into a thriving pond that attracts dragonflies & other water loving creatures. Then anyone sitting in the open green space would see wildlife around them, buzzing bees, flitting dragonflies, and the birds that are attracted to the insects… swifts, swallows… put up panels to explain urban wildlife, run events to engage the public with the urban wildlife & what we can do to help it.

Gardens are also a great opportunity for nature, a resource that is little considered. I have a very small garden & when we were choosing plants I had no idea of what to plant, we chose plants quite randomly. But there are lots of ways that we can make our gardens wildlife friendly [e.g. see this 'give nature a home where you live' campaign by the RSPB] – leave a bit to go wild & plant wildflower pollinator-friendly seeds, put in a small pond & let it self-colonise with plants & insects (and amphibians if you’re lucky!), make a compost heap – it’s not just good for putting on your garden to help it grow but is home to lots of bugs too, make a bee hotel, install a bird-box (here are guidelines for where to place them - don't put them in direct sunlight or you will end up with cooked chicks!), leave piles of stones & dead wood for other bugs, and whatever you do DON’T USE PESTICIDES. I think this is a topic I will talk more about when I’m talking about farming practices. But our pollinator species are really not doing well – without pollinators (which aren’t just honeybees but other wild bees, butterflies, moths, flies & even beetles!) we wouldn’t have fruit, vegetables and cereals. Pesticides are designed for killing pests, i.e. our bees, butterflies, moths (& caterpillars), flies, beetles… it is a NO BRAINER in my book – of course our pollinators are in decline when they get clobbered with pesticides  - and us gardeners are a large part of that problem. The pesticides don’t just kill or build up in our inverts, but get into water courses and kill our stream invertebrates (dragonflies, mayflies…), & build up in the soil and affect other species too. And let us not forget that a lot of our wildlife, birds, mammals, survive on eating these bugs – so no bugs, no pollination, no crops, no wildlife… & no us…

As gardeners we have a responsibility on par with farmers – a responsibility to work with wildlife not against it. And if we can both manage our gardens for wildlife, and stop using pesticides on our garden we can help nature right there, and it’s immediate… by stopping pesticide use and letting our gardens work in balance with nature we can have a more natural garden with thriving wildlife, and see the benefits right there on our doorstep. In the words of buglife ‘hug a slug’. See the beauty in a slug (& all our other garden invertebrates… yes even aphids) ;) Join the RSPB campaign to give nature a home where you live.

But back to urban nature… I don’t know what the solution is for engaging our 90% of urban dwellers in nature, but it is our responsibility as nature loving citizens to try to do our bit to engage people with nature in our cities. Through increasing the benefits to wildlife of our green spaces, making more green spaces, valuing and protecting our important wildlife habitats within cities (the State of Nature report highlighted the importance of brownfield sites for rare species of plants and invertebrates), and running wildlife events that get people up & personal with the green spaces in our urban environments… these are ways of engaging people with nature & helping to educate people in the importance of nature to our survival (e.g. the Wild about Plymouth events & events run by organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts).

Daisy planting flower seeds
One of member of the audience at the panel highlighted the importance of nature to our health and wellbeing. There are studies that show the importance of getting out in nature for our own physical and mental wellbeing. As I said in an earlier blog post, I see this with my children, cooped up inside they are sullen, grumpy, tetchy & difficult to manage, but outside in nature, my daughters are animated, happy, fascinated. I have spent 15 minutes with my then 2 year old watching a slug slowly slither its way across a path, she was fascinated. Just writing this makes me realise that I don’t get out & in the dirt in nature enough with my daughters. I spend too much time turning on the tv to entertain them while I sit and keep up with nature issues on twitter – not engaging with them (to be honest it is usually first thing in the morning when I am rather lacking in energy! Am I allowed to make excuses?). But engaging with nature is critical for us adults too – I get crabby stuck indoors all the time too. And yes, I am a nature hugger, and pre-inclined to love nature, but just getting outside in touch with nature, whether just in Mutley Park while the girls are playing on the swings and slides while I get absorbed listening to the vibrant song of the blackbird, or in the cemetery trying to control the dog as a rabbit hops past making my dog salivate… or go to a beach where little sandeels wriggle out of the sand onto my toes,… nature is reviving. It lifts the spirits. And there is scientific evidence to show this.

So urban nature is essential for (i) supporting urban wildlife; (ii) getting that 90% of our population engaged with nature so that as a democracy we can vote for nature-friendly policies; (iii) for our health and wellbeing.

So get out there, hug a tree, build a wildlife garden, lie and roll in the grass & watch the clouds go by overhead, marvel at a slug, help a toad to cross the road, protect our remaining urban green spaces. Be advocates for nature. DO IT!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Question Time: the state of nature, the next step

To follow the discussion this evening listen on live streaming here  from 7pm or follow the twitter stream #SNQT
To quote:
Big green week logo
'This special State of Nature Question Time follows on directly from the State of Nature report publication last month. The report showed clearly that nature in the UK is in trouble. What we now need to do is look urgently for creative solutions - and what better place to debate this than in Bristol as part of Bristol's Big Green Week.
The panel taking questions tonight from the audience in Bristol is naturalist, broadcaster and author Simon King; marine biologist, Dr Clare Embling of Exeter University’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation; RSPB Conservation Director Martin Harper; South Devon farmer Rebecca Hosking; and Dr Gary Mantle, Director of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. The evening will be chaired by TV producer and author Stephen Moss.
If you have any questions, we will be tweeting throughout the event and using #SNQT
You can also use the chat facility on the webcast page.'

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The state of nature - a call for action

Have you noticed changes in our natural world over your lifetime? Without keeping records it’s difficult to know what nature is doing… I grew up in the heart of the Derbyshire hills, with a pond full of great crested newts & frogs and a garden full of birds & wildlife.  I would lie in the grass watching the birds perching above my head, watch little newly hatched froglets leap from the grass as I walked through it, collect the caterpillers from the swept up dead leaves in autumn & put them out for the birds & watch them all feast on them (cruel?), I’d feed sugar solution to ants (and occasionally the odd insect out of curiosity). If I’d stayed in the same place would I have noticed declines in the species found in our garden? I now live in a city, so it’s difficult to compare.  I can say that we clearly have a local abundance of clothes moths, and with all the wonderfully wet summers, an abundance of snails & slugs (even in the house!). I see the small group of swifts above the city with a mix of joy (such a wonderful sound of summer, the sound of swifts overhead), and depression (it seems such a small group of swifts – surely there should be more?).

An abundance of snails in Ford Park Cemetary, Plymouth :)
So how is nature doing?  Well recently the nature NGOs released a report called ‘The State of Nature’ examining all available data to look at how nature is doing in the whole of the UK. It is based on the best available data for detecting trends in species abundance and distribution – whether by scientists, or the UK’s huge network of nature enthusiasts who volunteer their time to help survey or simply report their sightings*.  Reading the report is pretty depressing reading.  For all habitat types (marine, coastal, wetland, farmland, uplands, lowlands (e.g. heaths), woodlands & urban) 60% of all species have declined over the last 50 years & 31% have declined strongly.  I don’t need to examine the science behind these statements – the statements are based on science.  I guess the only thing that should be emphasised about the report is that (as it says itself) it is only examines trends for species with enough data – this is just a fraction of all the species found in the UK.  For example, as a marine biologist, I know that very little is known about the trends of most marine species: they are difficult to study being below the sea, and many species range over large distances making it even more difficult to monitor their status (more on this in my next blog post).

Why should it matter?! I’m sometimes asked this question – why does it matter that we lose 70% of our invertebrates (flies, beetles, spiders, moths, butterflies…)? – because inverts have fared the worst according to the report. Well inverts are easy – they are essential for pollination – there’d be no crops if we didn’t have our pollinators (or at least we’d have to hand pollinate our crops… and I don’t know what that involves but it sounds pretty labour intensive). Every species has its place in the ecosystem, helping it to function, and providing value to us in the form of food (fish, crops, food for our cattle…), maintaining climate (trees lock away large amounts of carbon, so helping control climate change), and a multitude of other functions. 

You can evaluate how much value nature provides us with in economic terms & it is enormous (this is called ecosystem services).  For example, there is a really neat paper recently published looking at the economic value provided by streams passing through plantation forests. Plantation forests tend to be pretty lacking in value to nature (densely packed trees, lack of variety in species…), & there tends to be a lack of dead wood that would be natural in any other wooded or forested ecosystem.  Dead wood plays a really important role in forests and woods, providing clearings for smaller plants to thrive, providing and abundance of food and homes for a host of fungi, plants and animals to thrive.  And dead wood in streams is vital for a range of purposes including water purification (as well as increased number of stream life!).  Water flowing through intensively managed forests does not have the dead wood input which reduces food to river fish, and the water flowing into reservoirs is unfiltered so any organic material (eg. leaves) are just swept into the reservoirs, fall to the botttom & rots, polluting the drinking water (this is a rather brief oversimplified description!).  Their simple study showed that just by adding dead wood to streams in managed forests provided huge value simply for ensuring a pure source of water for us to drink, nevermind the other benefits on biodiversity, fish, and recreation.  They showed a 10 to 100 times increase in the economic value of the stream with the increase of dead wood.

This type of study (this is one of many on this growing field) shows the value of nature in terms of monetary value (since this is the way that our society functions). But on a personal level, for me nature is something that I could not do without on an emotional level. I, like many, love walking through the woods, hearing the birds sing, hear the wind rustle through the trees, hear the buzz of bees around flowers, watch the breeze ruffle meadows of grasses and flowers, delight in hedgehogs snuffling around, even delight in watching a snail unfurl its tentacles and make its slow progression across the lawn… and nature has been shown to have huge benefit to children. I spent my childhood running around outside, escaping out the bottom of the garden to run around in the fields. Nature is an adventure ground for children… and I don’t know about other parents out there, but my girls are happiest when they are outside enjoying the fresh air & most tetchy when cooped up in the house. [good link here for article on reconnecting children with nature]

So nature is important, both economically and emotionally. Thus the 'State of Nature' report (well worth a read) should be a wake-up call, a call for action… in my view, a call for change. The report is littered with positive stories, stories of actions that we have taken that have rescued species from the edge, reversed declines. We can make a difference, both at an individual level (manage your garden for wildlife, put a pond in your garden, report your nature sightings, lobby government to change policies), and at a government level (e.g. giving protection to all 127 marine conservation zones, giving our protected areas more protection e.g. not allowing development on SSSIs or other important areas for nature, protect our pollinators…).

Bluebells in National Trust owned Plymbridge woods & ploughed up to make the new mountain bike trail :(
My personal view is that in the longer term there also needs to be a total change in culture, to one where nature is valued as a necessary commodity, where the value of the services that nature provides us with is included in decision making… an ecological economy.  However culture changes take time, so for now let’s use the ‘State of Nature’ as a call for action, and cheer ourselves with the thought that with nature, even one person can make a big difference :)

To follow: a focus on the state of our seas (Marine conservation zones, fisheries management & effects of climate change)

…& I think a guide to wildlife gardening, since alongside protection of rare and important habitats, gardens can make a huge difference to many of our UK species, and provide an interconnected web of patches of habitat for a range of species (& its about time I put a pond in my garden… I miss my pond life!).

* Have a smart phone? Then there are lots of Apps available for reporting sightings! E.g. on my phone I have ‘Tree Alert’ & ‘AshTag’ for reporting tree diseases, ‘Magpie Mapper’ for reporting any magpie sightings, ‘BirdTrack’ for reporting any bird species sightings, and report all my reptile & frog sightings to ARGuk via the web.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The science behind the badger cull

Before reading this blog post, please bear in mind that I am a marine ecologist not a badger ecologist! So this post reflects my personal investigation of the topic & my interpretation of the science behind the badger cull.

Most of us know what badgers look like though few of us will have ever seen them in the wild – sadly the only sight I’ve had of a badger is dead at the side of the road. They're difficult to see because these beautiful native mammals are nocturnal, so only emerge from their ‘setts’ (their underground burrows) at night to hunt and socialise.

European badger (c) ukwildlife
According to the recent state of nature report, badgers are one of the few species in the UK that have been increasing.  Based on a survey of badger setts carried out in the 90s, the number of badger social groups had increased over the previous decade by around 24% (each sett has a group of badgers that live together) – extrapolating this, the report estimated an increase in total numbers of badgers of around 77%. And current estimates suggest that there are around 350,000 badgers in the whole of the UK (a new population survey is currently in progress). One reason behind this increase may be the introduction of new laws to protect badgers introduced in the 1970s and subsequently (Badger Act 1973, Wildlife & Countryside Act 1982, Protection of Badgers act 1992).

But badgers also carry bovine TB (bTB) and are one of the causes of the transmission of bTB to cattle. Their increase is believed to be one of the factors in the recent increase of bTB in cattle. In 2012, over 28,000 cattle infected with bTB in England had to be slaughtered to the cost of £100m to the taxpayer, and unknown cost to the farmers themselves. The incidence of bTB in cattle has been increasing year on year to increasing concern to farmers.  But what can be done to reverse this trend? The Chief Scientific Advisor to DEFRA, Prof Ian Boyd, mentions 4 pillars of action in this video interview: (i) cattle testing & removal (i.e. killing) of infected animals; (ii) reducing cattle movement to avoid contact between infected & non-infected animals; (iii) vaccination; and (iv) wildlife control (i.e. culling).

As of the 1st June the government issued licences for trial culls of badgers in two areas to reduce the spread of bTB in cattle.  This cull will involve killing 5000 badgers in the two pilot zones in the southwest over a 6 week period, which is effectively 50-70 badgers killed per day. This will be repeated for 4 years. Sounds pretty grim!  The trial is to test that the cull can be done humanely, not that it is effective for reducing the spread of bTB.  So what science is the cull based on?

A large, near decade-long, scientific study was carried out 1998-2007 to scientifically examine the effectiveness of a cull – the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (report here if you have the energy to read the whole tome – it does make interesting reading, not that I've managed to read it all!). If you don’t want to read the whole tome, the BBC's Kate Humble’s video summary of the findings is a good overview. The study carried out trial culling of badgers in ten locations in the SW where bTB was on the increase in cattle. In 100 km2 patches (3 per area) badgers were either: (i) left undisturbed (as a control); (ii) killed only in and around farms with reported bTB; (iii) all animals trapped within the patch were killed (i.e. removal of 70% of the local population). The study showed that where badgers were only killed around farms with bTB, bTB incidence rose in cattle because the remaining badgers were ranging over larger areas increasing their contact with cattle (& with other badgers).  In the area where 70% of badgers were killed, although there was a reduction of bTB in cattle within the area (by 28%), outside the area there was an increase in bTB (of 9%) in adjacent farms.   So a cull would only work if culling was carried out at a massive scale, the cost of which was estimated to be higher than the current cost to farmers (& taxpayers) of dealing with infected cattle (not to mention the impact on badger populations).

The overall recommendation of the report was that ‘badger culling would make no meaningful contribution to TB control in cattle’. This view has been repeatedly endorsed by scientists such as Lord John Krebs who initially set up the trial.

I’m a scientist, and I like decisions to be based on good solid science – in my field there is often too little research carried out to have even a reasonable idea of effects of a particular action.  So to have a large study carried out over a long period of time looking at the effects of a cull on bTB in cattle, and for the study to conclude that culling is not scientifically justified… well it just doesn’t make sense in my mind!

What are the alternatives? The RBCT report suggests well-researched alternatives such as better bTB tests on cattle and further restrictions on cattle movement. Their report showed that a high level of bTB transmission occurs between cattle, so early diagnosis and eradication is essential to control the spread of the disease. And of course there is the vaccination route – either by vaccinating badgers or cattle (or both). This option has its own difficulties – catching and vaccinating every badger is challenging, and vaccinating cattle is currently prohibited by EU legislation because the vaccine interferes with the TB skin test (i.e. vaccinated cattle would test positive for bTB as would infected animals, the test can't distinguish between vaccinated & infected animals). I’m guessing that if the EU used the alternative TB test suggested in the RBCT report, this would get over this problem – so should we be lobbying at a European level? Though DEFRA say that a cattle TB vaccine is still a few years off.  One of the pro-cull arguments is that there is no science yet to show a positive effect of any badger vaccination program. This is true, though scientifically monitored trials of badger vaccination is currently being carried out in one area in the SW. Though this is only being carried out in one area rather than the 10 in the culling trial, and less than the original 6 planned (i.e. my interpretation is that the government are not really committed to the vaccination route).

Vaccination aside, the RBCT report suggested that even by carrying out the testing & cattle control measures they recommended could bring about a reduction in bTB incidence in cattle.  So I am hoping that the first two ‘pillars’ of action against bTB that Prof Ian Boyd mentions address these recommendations.

In conclusion? I tried to be unbiased in my investigation of the science behind the cull and really sympathised reading about the farmers who have had to kill so many of their infected cattle. But I am a scientist & the science seems pretty clear to me - researchers who have spent years/decades studying these animals, experts in this field of badger ecology and disease transmission, say that the cull is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on bTB in cattle. And putting aside the cute fluffy nature of badgers, I believe the science speaks for itself.

GREAT RESOURCE: the Wildlife Trust badger campaign with information on how to take action against the cull & really good background information.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The state of nature...

I’ve been very lax on the blogging front of late – blame it on a manic workload combined with too many bank holidays (I work Mondays which means that my 3 day weeks have been reduced to 2 day weeks in May – makes a big difference when you’re working part time!), too many bugs (grrr), and my husband being away a lot on fieldwork (or being paid to go on fieldwork for tv documentaries – nice for some! Check out his work on dolphins co-operating with fishermen by herding fish into their nets).

I’ve been asked to be a panellist on a ‘State of Nature –the next step’ question time at Bristol’s Big Green week, and I accepted (with a certain amount of trepidation!)… so I’m trying to make an extra effort to keep up with all the science behind the nature news stories.  And it’s been a pretty awful time for nature in this country… I feel like going on a rant about politics, but I’ll try not to.  I’m not sure whether I’m just more aware of all the depressing nature news now that I’m keeping up to date using twitter, or that there is just lots of depressing nature in the news:

* badgers are to be culled to reduce the spread of TB to cattle – this is due to start on the 1st June, so if you don’t want the government to go ahead with the cull – please sign this petition (& here is a bit of background to the petition).

* lots of dead seabirds being washed up on our beaches either linked with pollutants or the cold prolonged winter – is this normal or was it particularly bad this year?

* our trees are under attack from a disease brought in from tree imports attacking ash trees and processionary moths are attacking our beautiful oak trees (oak trees have a special place in my heart from my childhood)... and more tree diseases threatening.

* All topped off by the ‘State of Nature’ report put together by many of the nature NGOs, reporting massive declines in most species that we have sufficient data for (and a few success stories for species on the increase).

So in the lead-up to The State of Nature – Next Steps Question Time, I will be taking each of the main topics and looking at the science behind the media coverage & giving my personal take on the news stories.  I will start with the background to the badger cull since this is due to start 1st June.  So watch this space!

And because it’s not much fun to have a blog with so much depressing news, I’ll end it on a couple of positives…

We can make a difference! Through campaigns like ‘Hugh’s fish fight’ we have managed to bring in measures to reduce fisheries discards, so we can make a difference if we push for it! 

Ford Park Cemetery in early spring (a well delayed early spring!)
And… it’s spring! It’s hard not to be joyful with fresh green leaves bursting forth, birds in full song, a multitude of colourful flowers topped off by the beautiful glowing bluey-purple carpet of bluebells in verges & woodlands :) Spring, a time for rejoicing in nature :)

Monday, 8 April 2013

...musings (while drowned in work)...

Alas no proper blog post... I'm well overdue a new post but just been on catch-up mode since the girls were sick for so much of February/March.

At the moment it's really tough, my husband is off on fieldwork & I'm juggling the two girls AND walking the dog. This means that before I get to work not only do I have to get the girls up, fed & dresssed (& me) but we all traipse out to walk the dog, before I drop them at nursery, pick up my routine morning coffee & collapse at my desk.  Then in the evening I need to leave with enough time to squeeze in walking the dog before the girls dinner... this has meant late dinners for them, grumpy toddlers (and hence grumpy me), they go to bed late, I tidy up their mess, contemplate what to eat for dinner, & then try to weigh up whether I'm allowed to collapse on the sofa or need to squeeze in more work before bed.  I don't know how single parents do it... maybe they're sensible enough not to have a dog AND children ;)  
...Though having a dog has its advantages... this morning we revelled in the lustrous song of the blackbird which always lifts the heart & a weary soul (and makes my toddler sing in imitation) :)  

Work wise I'm firefighting at the moment, juggling too much i.e. the normal life of an academic (just feels more acute than usual)... working on multiple projects, writing reports, processing & analysing data, writing papers, making changes to co-authored papers, making changes to papers back from review, reviewing other peoples papers, keeping on top of what is going on in science through twitter and email feeds... and still not feeling like I'm achieving enough :(

But for future 'proper' blogs there is plenty on the twittersphere that has got me itching to write...
* there's lots of articles on women in science at the moment, it seems to be a real hot topic... already I'm wanting to start commenting on posts but aware I haven't the time to do it justice at the moment. But this blog post has got me itching to write...
* bees & neonicotinoids - I'm all in a buzz (ha ha) about what we should do... wait for more evidence or go down the precautionary approach & ban neonicotinoids?  And this got me thinking about my attitudes - I am a precautionary approach type of scientist & have had to argue my corner quite a bit recently (not to do with bees but the bees got me thinking)... but reality is perhaps not quite so straightforward... this is definitely a blog post on its own...
* MCZs - so the government admitted it couldn't afford to assign all 127 MCZs, but can we afford not to have them?  I've had long discussions over this issue...

Plenty of food for thought & plenty of blogs waiting to be written, not to mention 'noise in the sea part II' ;)

But for now back to the grind & work on two urgent reports...
                              ...& then collect the girls, walk the dog, feed dog & girls...

p.s. advice for 'young' (i.e. un-tenured) researchers - do not agree to write reports or get involved in projects unless they lead to papers!  Learn to say 'no' ;) I'm learning this the hard way (a good blog post on this here).