Ian Thornhill

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Is rewilding already a misplaced and misused term?

Many of the one thousand or so audience participants that have last night (16th October 2014) attended the Earthwatch event entitled ‘Rewilding the UK: Living in the Past or Preparing for the Future?’ will have made their way to the Royal Geographic Society via the heavily managed and relatively ecologically redundant Hyde Park. There would be few poorer candidate landscapes in the UK in which to reintroduce the Eurasian lynx or wolf. This irony notwithstanding, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of cart-before-horse about the whole thing.

Kate Humble sat as chair, and was accompanied by Andrew Bauer (Deputy Director of Policy, NFU Scotland), Dr. Cristina-Eisenberg (Earthwatch Scientist), Jonathan Hughes (CEO Scottish Wildlife Trust), Dr. Paul Jepson (Oxford University) and Prof. William McGill (Rhine Waal University). Each presented their perspective with a short presentation before some introspection and an all too brief question and answer session with the audience. Nevertheless, Earthwatch should be commended on bringing together a good balance of views, generally in favour of rewilding but each with a distinctly different take.

Rewilding has been attributed several definitions, but generally is to restore an area of land to its natural uncultivated state, used especially with relevance to the reintroduction of species of wild animal that have been driven out or extirpated. It is perhaps unfortunate that it is the latter half of the definition that receives most of the attention and appeals to a wider audience. It is also perhaps unfortunate therefore that Andrew Bauer potentially set the parameters of the debate by highlighting the most commonly considered reintroductions through pictures as some form of cumulative hierarchy and asking the audience to show their hands when they felt suitably ‘rewilded’. That there was no consideration of landscape and that the hypothetical collection of animals within it would comprise of both marine, freshwater and terrestrial wildlife didn’t seem to matter. This did however, typify the evenings proceedings, with far too much focus on reintroductions, or introductions, than on the landscapes and habitats that would be required to support them. I would pose the question, is there much point in considering a wolf reintroduction when the UK as a whole is still afraid of spiders?

Let me not be mistaken. I love the concept of rewilding, I would love to walk through the UK countryside and feel less safe. It is great that talk about rewilding has entered the mainstream, with some degree of thanks to the likes of George Monbiot et al. However, there is a huge void between our heavily manicured gardens and parks and a robust case for rewilding in a manner that is not synonymous with the creation of a safari park. For example, if there was Eurasian lynx reintroduction into a far flung (relatively) Scottish estate, will it change the mindset of the average urbanite? I suspect not, though the Scottish tourist trade may see a benefit. It is only my opinion, but I feel strongly that rewilding the UK starts with us taking a good long look in the mirror. Could we recycle more? Be a little less wasteful? A little less clean? Pick the spider up and put it outside rather than show it the sole of our shoe? There are some encouraging signs, with more people on their bikes rather than in their cars, foraging is fashionable and we are recycling more than ever, but at the same time we are increasingly unhealthy and cod is still critically endangered whilst our chip shops continue to sell it with gay abandon – and we continue to buy it.

Then we step outside. Jonathan Hughes displayed a very interesting graph from the World Urbanisation Prospects suggesting that the proportion of people living in rural areas is stabilising whilst more and more of us will be living in urban areas as the decades ensue. On the face of it yes, there would seem a natural slide towards an abandoned countryside which could lead to an organic rewilding. However, we must surely consider that urban areas will gradually engulf the rural, and fewer people will be required to work and manage vast tracts of agriculture. Consequently, the prospects for incidental rewilding in the absence of human intervention looks far more bleak, as much as I like the idea. As we step outside therefore, I question how the reintroduction of an apex predator into a remote area of the UK will benefit my local wildlife site when the wildlife corridors that might otherwise link it are horribly convoluted. An excess of human intervention has rendered all but the designated pockets of our landscape ecologically dysfunctional and species-poor. We complain when the road verges are not cut, rather than celebrate them when they are ‘overgrown’. Yet, it is in this mildly un-managed state that they support a wide variety of life, particularly insects responsible for so many of the ecosystem services we take for granted. It is in this state that the verges are the wildlife highways running parallel to our own, but because the most vocal only see them as untidy, the majority of our councils cut them back in their prime and reduce them to little more than green deserts suitable only for the most hardy and tolerant of organisms.

It is ironic that some of our most diverse urban habitats are brownfield sites. There is a lesson here. At the risk of quoting Jurassic Park, nature does find a way. This is a reason to be optimistic too (in a piece that might sound quite the opposite). Given a chance wildlife does recolonize and habitats do restore – though not always in the way we expect them too; William McGill. This is what has happened in Canada. Dr. Christina Eisenberg lives in an area colloquially known as Carnivore Way (also the title of her book). It traces the ridge of the Rocky Mountains and it is the corridor through which many large carnivores have managed to recolonize the northern United States. The United Kingdom is considerably smaller than the US. This presents both an opportunity and a constraint. Our landscape is far more densely populated with people than The Carnivore Way, which makes the concept of large carnivore reintroductions either academic, or as alluded to earlier, restricted to only remote areas of our nation. I say this not only because of potential human conflict but also because the intact habitats needed to support such fauna simply aren’t there, or nearly abundant enough. However, if we could scale back our rewilding ambitions to something more in proportion to the potential capacity of our habitat network throughout the UK, and not just Scotland, then we may realise something we can all appreciate and interact with in the medium term and then in the long term – why not wolf packs?!

Now we arrive at another problem. In the short-term, as we are no longer considering the reintroduction of wolves, though we may increase our dwindling population of hedgehog and at the same time improve  the resilience of our invertebrate communities, we have lost the charismatic appeal which has tempted so many into the rewilding debate. As both Jonathan Hughes and a member of the audience attested, acknowledging the economic value of functioning ecosystems may talk sense to those vested in the countries economy. Establishing a consistent and representative valuation of biodiversity through Natural Capital assessments may help keep big business interested in doing something positive for nature conservation. However, it is likely to alienate the wider public from the process through rationalising wildlife into checks and balances.

I think we need to be looking for further ahead. If we want to make a sustainable difference surely we need to educate the next generation(s) to the benefits of biodiversity not just for its intrinsic value, but as the cornerstone to a vibrant future. It is so much more important than we give it credit for. Sustainable growth is a fallacy if we cannot protect and enhance what we have got, let alone spending vast sums of money on reintroducing long lost wildlife. Could ecosystem services and natural capital become a feature in school curriculum as opposed to learning about plate tectonics or V-shaped valleys? Could there be an economics module entitled natural capital? If this is already the case, do forgive me. The point is that the average conservationist looks at scrub and sees life, yet the average person, I fear, just sees scrub that’s got out of hand. There are fewer skilled taxonomists than ever, and when the average person can name all but the most common plants (and those are probably ornamental) it is clear that education has a pivotal part to play in all of this.

Education aside (I don’t claim to be a skilled taxonomist), much could be done with just a subtle change in attitude. So, keep wolf reintroduction as the ambition for it is not unrealistic, but extend the concept of rewilding to include our backyards and ourselves. Bridge the gap between amenity grassland and wild places to realise the ambition. If we could all learn to be a little more hands off and a little less controlling, put ourselves as a part of the environment rather than getting irritated when it fails to obey our arbitrary boundaries we may just get somewhere. Similarly, to those who would consider species introductions in advance of climate change – slow down, this is already happening naturally.

Finally, should there ever be a large carnivore reintroduction in the UK without them being ringfenced, perhaps we should remind ourselves that it is because of us that they are no longer present (this cuts in many directions) and there are many peoples worldwide, past and present that have managed to find a truce with nature. I am sure we can too.



The Wildlife Trusts were worth a Marouane Fellaini

My earliest ever memory is turning around to ask my dad who the team in claret and blue were on the television, “It’s Aston Villa” he said, and I have followed them ever since. I have played the game since I was five and I can remember sliding through a team-mates’ legs at the training ground (the park) in the rain in order to score my first ever goal from all of a yard out. I can even just about remember Villa going 2-0 up against Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup 1990, only to lose the away leg 3-0 (we watched it in a holiday caravan) and can certainly remember Dalian Atkinson scoring a wonderful goal against Manchester United, when we won 3-1 to take the Coca Cola Cup in 1994; what a day!

In 1994 the football transfer record stood at £13m paid to Torino by Milan in 1992 for Gianluigi Lentini. In today’s money, that roughly equates to £22m (BoE inflation calculator). At the same time the British record stood at £5.5m paid to Tottenham Hotspur by Lazio in 1992 for Paul Gascoigne; around £9.3m by today’s standards. By comparison, the £85.3m paid by Real Madrid for Gareth Bale in August this year (2013) would have been worth around £51m in 1994. This sum is 3.9 and 15.5 times greater respectively than the world and British transfer records of 1994. Plainly put, the money in football today is beyond absurd and, although I’ll never be able to turn my back on the game, I find it physically sickening when I think of the vast fortunes that are made by it and that are passed around like candy. And so, the rest of this piece is going to be devoted to some very broad comparisons between the money incorporated into two of my biggest passions, namely, wildlife conservation and football. I won’t even begin to explore the disconnection between what is a game for the working classes i.e. you only really need a ball, and the millionaires that it creates as well as the sometimes dubious personalities it  promotes, unavoidably, as role models.

I started out by trawling the web in search of accounts information. I didn’t have a particularly strategic approach, but I found accounts information for either 2010, 2011 or 2012 for 17 well know national and international conservation organisations. The average total income for these organisations was about £25.8m (from £464,000 to £159m) and the average voluntary income i.e. income amassed from donations, memberships and the like, was £12.1m or 48% (from 2% to 93%). The sum paid for Gareth Bale’s services would have ranked third in this list of total annual income, just behind the WWF and the RSPB, and above ZSL; this is for one single player, one single man. This is how the table looks:

Year end Voluntary In. Total income Voluntary/total
WWF 2012 £57,784,920 159,041,159 0.363
RSPB 2012 £92,883,000 119,677,000 0.776
ZSL 2011 £3,238,000 45,845,054 0.071
The Wildlife Trusts 2011 £2,485,000 27,845,000 0.089
Woodland Trust 2012 £21,016,000 26,128,000 0.804
Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust 2011 £15,089,000 25,861,000 0.583
BirdLife 2010 £845,354 11,897,821 0.071
Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society 2011 £3,718,564 4,357,552 0.853
Born Free Foundation 2012 £2,284,648 3,174,484 0.720
World Land Trust 2011 £1,551,225 3,133,626 0.495
Butterfly Conservation 2013 £1,277,987 3,066,423 0.417
Plantlife 2012 £1,043,839 2,818,818 0.370
Tusk Trust 2010 £1,606,337 2,146,200 0.748
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust 2011 £978,000 1,056,000 0.926
Pond Conservation (now Freshwater Habitats Trust) 2012 £10,647 642,154 0.017
Landlife 2011 £62,380 605,915 0.103
A Rocha International 2011 £376,973 464,064 0.812
Average: £12,132,463 £25,750,604 0.48
Total: £206,251,874 £437,760,270

In case you are interested, the total amount of transfer fees spent during the summer transfer window this year (using only those fees where the amount was disclosed) was over half a billion (£576m), of which around £160m would have been made up of agents fees according to this Guardian article. That’s an average of £12m per player (48 transfers). The total, £576m, is about £1.4m in excess of the total combined incomes of the 17 conservation organisations I looked at. Actually, ZSL are approximately worth Mesut Özil, the Wildlife Trusts were worth a Marouane Fellaini, The Woodland Trust a Roberta Soldado, Butterfly Conservation a Christian Atsu and Landlife, a Johnny Russell. And by the way, this is only those transfers involving a Premier League club; a single national league.

Voluntary income vs. gate receipts

Next I wondered just how much income people regularly volunteer to football matches. Before I go any further, let me stress that I know there can be no direct comparison here. By going to a football match you are paying for an instantaneous service and you are going to be entertained (hopefully) for a few hours. By contributing to a conservation organisation you could argue you are paying for an ecosystem service, however, I know that this is not an easily appreciated concept, also, it’s just never going to match the exhiliration of ball hitting net. Afterall, you can’t really ‘see’ an ecosystem service, you just might feel a little better about yourself. Nonetheless, it’s again quite interesting. Using this Guardian article as reference, for the 2012-2013 football season, Manchester United accrued £99 million in gate receipts, shortly followed by Arsenal (£95m) and a little further away, by Chelsea (£78m). So the top three clubs received more in gate recipts for one year (£272m) than the total voluntary contribution made to the 17 conservation organisations. In fact, if you had the total gate receipts received across the Premier League (excluding QPR and Swansea), you would still have £57m leftover if you took away the £438m volunteered to the 17 organisations.

My main point, of course, is one of shock; I was shocked. I expected this kind of answer, but I never expected there to be quite so much of a gap and I find it scary. I don’t propose conservation deserves to get anything from football, but, my over riding thought is – if only we could!

This all said, after a quick search, I did find a few good football and conservation collaborations; so maybe I shouldn’t despair quite so much:

Perhaps not surprisingly though, this appears to be conservation organisations entering the world of football rather than the other way around. Yet, perhaps when we start to consider the environmental impact of football (view this BBC video, Costing the Earth), perhaps there is more reason for football to contribute to conservation after all…

Look after the pennies and nature will do the rest

I was watching a TED talk last night, one of ten excellent talks in a series called Ocean Wonders, to which I was exposed through the magic of Twitter. The talk was by Mike deGruy, an underwater cameraman, and entitled Hooked by an octopus. Mike recalled being enthralled by an octopus he picked up as a child, at the manner in which it manifested it’s tentacles and shifted, shaped and recoloured its body, before he placed it back down and within a moment it was vanished, camouflaged, and there was the hook. Each one of the talks in this series have been fascinating. They have been as good as any David Attenborough production (which I don’t say lightly) and always with a poignant and heart-felt message.

The message in Mike’s talk was founded upon two experiences he had whilst filming corals. The first example is a return to film at a once ‘gorgeous’ location. Here, since his previous visit some five years prior, the bay had turned into ‘pea soup’, and the coral dead due to excessive nutrient, pesticide and fine sediment input deposited from a golf course and a contruction site. By contrast, the second example is taken from a once ‘pretty trashed bay’. Here the construction site and golf course are managed responsibly to control and reduce the impact upon the bay, to the point whereby the bay is now ‘gorgeous’ again. This was not achieved by some major public outcry, or through any hard-hitting national legislature, but by the action of the local community, which enacted this change and gave nature a chance to repair. The story is beautifully summed up by the use of a quote from Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978), an American cultural anthropologist, that:

“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
I, like Mike, have all too often encountered people who are of the attitude that they cannot make a difference, being only one. “I don’t think what I do matters…” or “but what difference will it make if I…” or “I don’t think it’ll matter if I…” Typically this has been over recycling, and normally it has been housemates; be they relations or not. Though I hope I have, I doubt I have ever really changed anyone’s mind; and I try not to be the preachy sort. My normal sentiment was to try and get the person to consider themselves a representation of a much larger group of people. “If you recycle your drinks bottle, you can bet there are thousands more just like you, doing exactly the same thing”, I would say. Add up all the people making this one small change and you get a big change.
I don’t think my case has been particularly persuasive, mostly because I think I’ve confused the point. However, I am absolutely certain that everyone knows the value of what I, and many others like me are trying to communicate. We ALL very well know the old addage ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’ or ‘look after the cents and the dollar will look after itself’. Frankly, to suggest that one person cannot make a difference is lazy and at best it is entirely unimaginative. For example, it’s just easier to go with the majority and throw the Coke can into the general waste rather than make the effort to find an appropriate recycling bin. Here, one is safe in the knowledge that you are amongst many thousands being just as blazé. Perhaps a clearer sentiment is that:
In this world we are the pennies and it is the dollar. We will do good by it if we all just contribute a little, and altogether we can be richer.


The 11th INTECOL Congress, Ecology: Into the next 100 years**

Advancing ecology and making it count.

18th to 23rd August 2013

This year marked the 100th year since the establishment of the British Ecological Society (BES) in 1913. The birthday has been celebrated during the course of 2013 through a number of events and campaigns, but perhaps the jewel in crown was the 11th International Association for Ecology (INTECOL) Congress held at the ExCeL exhibition and convention centre, London. The conference, jointly organised by the BES and INTECOL, was a huge success and was attended by 2105 delegates from around the world during the six day event. INTECOL featured 43 symposia, 31 interactive workshops, 56 oral sessions and 11 plenary speakers as well as two dedicated poster sessions.

Highlights from the conference included some inspirational plenary talks. Nancy Grimm (Arizona State University) discussed dramatic global change brought about by urbanisation and the compounding impact of climate change. She continued to speak about how we will need to find new solutions to improve the resilience of the cities of tomorrow, explored through the lens of urban water systems. Ilkka Hanski (University of Helsinki) proposed several questions worthy of further study to improve our understanding of the spatial structure of populations and discussed how the species-fragmented area relationship (SFAR), which is an extension of the familiar species-area relationship (SAR), can be used to assess the threat to biodiversity from habitat loss and fragmentation. David Tilman (University of Minnesota) gave an extremely thought-provoking talk on the overwhelming importance of biodiversity in biomass production and the ecological puzzle of creating sustainable agriculture. Former and current BES presidents Georgina Mace (University College London) and Bill Sutherland (University of Cambridge) gave equally accomplished and inspiring talks on the gradual shifts in ecological thinking and research towards the maintenance of future form, function and resilience of ecosystems and the importance of evidence in conservation decision making. Further, from a hydrology/ecohydrology/hydroecology approach (depending on your flavour) a number of talks were of interest throughout the conference.

On day 1, 18th August 2013, Franz lker (Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries) assessed the impact of artificial lighting upon aquatic insect dispersal by monitoring the effect of artificial lights as dispersal traps. In the first Aquatic Ecology session, Nishikant Gupta (King’s College London) discussed the significant threat posed to Himalayan Rivers and the endangered Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora), which provides socio-economic benefits to local communities. The conservation of critical fish habitats could be achieved using a flagship species approach, with support from recreational anglers. Caitlin Pearson (Cardiff University) presented how the physico-chemical effects of intensive pastoral agriculture result in altered invertebrate communities, which have an increased reliance on terrestrial leaf litter as a basal resource. Alexei Ryabov and Bernd Blasius (University of Oldenburg) demonstrated a striking difference between competition mechanisms in uniform systems and deep aquatic environments. Phytoplankton traits, which lead to alternative stable states in uniform environments, favour coexistence in the deep layers of a water column, and vice versa. The species composition depends on the level of resource supplies, rather than their ratio. Luca Marazzi (University College London) discussed key drivers to algal species richness in the Okavango Delta (Botswana), which were found to be habitat diversity and, to a lesser extent, flooding frequency. David Harper (University of Leicester) described alternative states in the East African River Valley lake ecosystems which are buffered by lake water level. Interestingly such a switch can result in a pelican community rather than that of flamingos. Kieran Monaghan (CESAM) revisited Taylor’s Power Law for freshwater macroinvertebrates and research presented by Per Hedström (Umeå University) suggested that climate change may, counter intuitively, have negative effects on fish recruitment due to temperature dependent increase in energy requirements in fish in relation to the net effects on ecosystem productivity.

During day 2, 19th August 2013, in the second Aquatic Ecology session, Hino Takafumi (Hokkaido University) showed how coarse woody debris provided protection for endangered aquatic plants from sika deer (Cervus Nippon yesoensis). Matthias Liess (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research) called for more interaction between ecotoxicologists and ecologists. Ian Thornhill (University of Birmingham) presented the results of a study of urban ponds. He found that, despite considerable habitat loss, urban ponds can be highly diverse and that local physical habitat factors e.g. tree-shading and unsympathetic engineering had a significant impact upon community structure. Mark Urban (University of Connecticut) presented a recent paper on local adaptations of a meso-predator (Ambystoma maculatum) to an apex predator (Ambystoma opacum), which can strongly mediate effects from apex predation on local food webs. Consequently, community ecologists might often need to consider the evolutionary history of populations to understand local diversity patterns, food web dynamics, resource gradients and their responses to disturbance. Heather Moorhouse (University of Nottingham) showed how regional precipitation has predominantly driven past shifts in algal communities through the delivery of atmospheric pollutants to upland tarns, and the hydraulic flushing of nutrient enriched lowland lakes. Lee Brown (Leeds University) discussed how vegetation burning in the UK uplands for the management of recreational game birds could impact aquatic biota. The results suggested a significant impact upon the macroinvertebrate community, which is similar to community responses to terrestrial fires (wild and prescribed) found across northern Europe, North America and South Africa.

On day 3, 20th August 2013, Leonard Sandin (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) discussed the long-term effects of warming and nutrients on the invertebrate community in a lake mesocosm experiment. Eoin O’Gorman (Queen Mary University of London) discussed new research from a geothermally-heated stream system in Iceland, which shows that warming induces a shallower whole-stream mass-abundance relationship, in direct contrast to predictions based on metabolic theory and temperature-size rules. Andrew Dolman (Brandenburg Technical University) answered the question ‘when, where and why do lake phytoplankton become nitrogen limited?’ and James Rouquette (The Open University) discussed how we can manage urban river corridors to enhance species richness across multiple taxonomic groups.

On day 4, 21st August 2013, Phil James (Salford University) demonstrated how ecosystem services associated with the River Irwell varied over time and how those changes related to the aspirations of the Rivers Return Partnership. In his research, Lars Högbom (Skogforsk) found that by leaving a forest buffer along the stream, concentrations of both ammonium and nitrate was substantially reduced in the run-off, whilst total-P was not affected and Hiromo Uno (Berkeley) reported an unusual mayfly migration in California, Ephemerella maculata (Ephemerellidae), which develop in the productive main-stem but as adults migrate and oviposit in tributaries. In an experiment it was shown how the resource subsidy provided by the dead adult mayfly helps to sustain steelhead trout populations in otherwise food limited tributaries.

Each day also sported several workshops which ranged from early career workshops, organised by the International Network of Next Generation Ecologists (INNGE, www.innnge.net), to biodiversity and ecosystem services in a changing world and ecological data handling. We personally attended the early career workshops, which provided some useful insight into potential funding sources and in particular, how to improve your social media profile. Ian also attended ‘Rethinking the basis of the current conservation paradigm’ and ‘Hands-on citizen science’. As an urban ecologist, these two workshops strongly resounded with Ian. As urbanisation increases, there is a clear need to consolidate society with conservation objectives. The first workshop discussed the intrinsic value of nature and the worrying disconnection of people from nature in urban areas. The second, in many ways, provided a means by which urban populations can become reconnected with their environment, whilst being an active and potentially powerful component of scientific research.

An intriguing and progressive aspect of INTECOL was the consistent encouragement for delegates to engage with Twitter (#INT13), particularly for submitting questions to plenary speakers. This refreshing approach left a minority of delegates in the cold, but for the majority it was embraced and provided equal opportunity for all to voice their queries; not just those with the confidence to raise their hands. The use of Twitter also meant that delegates could be passively present in other sessions (through the Twitter feed), that those who could not attend could still be kept up to date on the key points and that delegates were more engaged with one another. A total of 10404 tweets were sent using the hashtag #INT13 during INTECOL, with 1202 contributors!

Overall the conference was intensely stimulating, with a packed schedule of high quality talks, posters and workshops that covered a huge range of topics. On top of this were plenty of opportunities to meet and network with like-minded people over coffee breaks, wine receptions and several evening ‘mixers’ and the centenary party held at Old Billingsgate. The conference has no doubt left an impression on the attendees, which was most evident through feedback which can be found through the Twitter-feed and the BES website. We would like to take this opportunity to thank the BHS for making this event possible for us as it has provided much in the way of inspiration, links and prospects for the future.

Ian Thornhill (www.ianthornhill.com / @ThornyIan)

Gavin Williams (GMW809@bham.ac.uk / @DriStream / @drought_impacts)

                The University of Birmingham

**Written for the monthly British Hydrological Society newsletter ‘Circulation’