Tag Archives: science policy

A songbird makes a welcome return

The Cirl Bunting is an attractive songbird once found throughout the southern half of the UK.  Its numbers declined precipitously in the second half of the 20th century following changes in farming practice and, by the late 1980s, it was confined to coastal farmland in south Devon and might have become nationally extinct.  The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recognised the problem and worked with farmers to support the bird resulting in a dramatic increase in its numbers. In a recent expansion of its range the bird has established itself in East Devon at Stantyway Farm near Otterton having been absent for more than 30 years.  I wanted to find out more so I went to Stantyway to see for myself.

Male cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)
Female cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)

The Cirl Bunting was first reported in the UK by Montagu in the winter of 1800 near Kingsbridge in south Devon in the west of the country.  It is roughly sparrow-sized and the male, in particular, is very distinctive with its black and yellow striped head and olive-green breast band.  The bird gradually spread across the southern half of the UK, its numbers peaking in the early years of the 20th century.  Since then it has declined and by the late 1980s only 118 pairs remained, confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.

With the Cirl Bunting facing national extinction, the RSPB identified changes in farming practice linked to agricultural intensification as responsible for the precipitous decline.  In the winter, the bird forages for insects and spilt grain in weedy stubble fields.  In the summer, it nests in hedges or scrub and forages on unimproved grassland rich in invertebrates with grasshoppers being important food for chicks.  With agricultural intensification, there was a shift from spring-sown cereals to autumn sowing so that far fewer arable fields were left as winter stubble; grubbing out of hedges took away nest sites and loss of the hay meadows and increased use of pesticides reduced invertebrate numbers and summer food for the bird.

Once the cause of the decline had been identified, the RSPB worked with farmers in south Devon to support the birds by reinstating some traditional agricultural practices, supported by government agrienvironment schemes.  The effect was spectacular and by 2016, numbers of Cirl Buntings had increased to over 1000 pairs. Most of the increase occurred in the bird’s core range but there was some spread along the coast and inland where habitat was suitable.   This was a major conservation success, also benefitting other species.

The coast of south Devon showing the core range of the cirl bunting and the location of Stantyway Farm across the Exe estuary in East Devon (from British Birds).

The bird has a reputation for being sedentary and it had been assumed that the estuary of the river Exe would be a barrier to further eastwards expansion of its range.   So, it was a surprise when, around the end of 2010, a single Cirl Bunting was seen at Stantyway Farm near Otterton in East Devon followed by several more sightings early in 2011.  Since then, the numbers at Stantyway have increased suggesting that the local conditions suit the birds and from 2015 it was clear that a breeding population existed.

Stantyway Farm is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and when the tenant, Mr Williams, retired in 2014, the farm was taken back into Clinton’s own Farm Partnership.   Clinton Devon Estates were keen to support Cirl Buntings and other species on their arable farm at Stantyway so they took advice from the RSPB and applied for agrienvironment support.  This was awarded in 2016 and supports planting hedges to provide more nest sites, leaving wildlife margins around fields to provide invertebrates as summer food, and planting spring cereal crops that are harvested in the autumn leaving weedy winter stubbles with seed as food.  These are all activities shown to be critical in supporting these birds in south Devon.  The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2016; organic farming by its nature supports wildlife and increases invertebrates.  Cirl Bunting numbers at Stantyway gradually increased across this time.

In 2017, Clinton Estates advertised for a new tenant farmer at Stantyway and Sam Walker was appointed.  Although the farm is still mainly arable, Sam keeps 52 cows whose calves are raised and sold on to beef finishers.  About a third of the land is now devoted to grass for silage production for winter animal feed.  Sam has, however, embraced the existing philosophy of the farm in supporting wildlife: he has maintained the organic status and intends to apply for further agrienvironment support when the current scheme runs out in 2021.

I wanted to see the farm for myself so, on a mild early April day, I went to Stantyway.  I left the car on the rough ground across from Stantyway Farmhouse and stood for a few moments enjoying the sunshine.  The air was filled with the endlessly inventive song of the skylark and occasionally a buzzard mewed as it circled lazily overhead.  Sometimes a low buzz cut through all of this and when I looked, I realised this was from all the insects about.

I walked away from the farm along the gentle downhill slope of Stantyway Road with views developing over rolling East Devon countryside on one side and to the hazy mid-blue sea on the other. The lane descended between wide grassy verges backed by luxuriant hedges. Spring flowers grew through the thick grass including stitchwort, celandine, dandelions, violets and white dead nettle.  The dominant flowering plant was, however, alexanders, with its fleshy green stems, copious shiny dark green foliage and pale mop head flowers.  This was proving very popular with many kinds of fly and a selection of solitary mining bees, some collecting large lumps of white pollen on their back legs.

My walk included a long section of the coast path skirting the edge of Stantyway fields.  Thick scrubby hedges, mainly flowering blackthorn, lined the cliff edge along with more alexanders. The occasional hedge break afforded spectacular views along the red cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Ladram bay with its crumbling stacks, past the white elegance of Sidmouth and finishing in the chalk of Beer Head (see picture at the top).   Again, there were many solitary mining bees taking advantage of the flowers.    I did not see any Cirl Buntings on my walk but, on two occasions I heard their distinctive, rattling, metallic trill telling me the birds were about.

It’s a beautiful place made all the better by glorious early April weather and I was surprised to see so many insects along the paths.  Perhaps this reflects the methods used at Stantyway, showing that productive farming and wildlife can coexist and prosper. Around the farm, each field gate has an information board giving the crop and some other useful information.  An Honesty Café has been installed near the farmhouse providing continuous hot water for tea or coffee and homemade cakes that I can strongly recommend.  All of this suggests an outward looking, open approach to farming.  When I met Sam Walker, the farmer, he explained that, in addition to the provisions of the agrienvironment scheme, he has put skylark plots in cereal fields, created wild bird seed corridors and put up swift boxes to support wildlife.  I came away feeling that at Stantyway, Cirl Buntings were getting the best support they could.  His methods have already benefitted other farmland birds with numbers of skylarks and reed buntings doubling over the past year and in a further twist to the Cirl Bunting story, some of the birds have now been seen to the east of Sidmouth.

I should like to thank Sam Walker, Doug and Joan Cullen, Kate Ponting and David White for generous help in preparing this article which appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.


One of the farm gate signs


Alexanders and blackthorn
Alexanders (greenish-yellow) and blackthorn (white) along the coast path. The cliff edge is behind the hedge!


Solitary mining bee on Blackthorn
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena flavipes) feeding from blackthorn.


Solitary mining bee on Alexanders
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena nitida) feeding from Alexanders


Honesty Cafe
The Honesty Cafe at Stantyway Farm


The surprising story of oil in Dorset.

[Please read the important amendment at the end of this article]

A few months ago, I visited Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I went  to look at the oil well on the cliffs above the beach and wrote about my experience.  The Kimmeridge oil reserve is quite small but further east there are huge additional reserves of oil extending for several kilometres under Poole Harbour and Poole Bay.  I wanted to write about these much larger deposits and the environmental effects of extraction: my article, which also takes another look at some of the Kimmeridge story, appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. Here is the article:

It’s difficult to believe but one of the most beautiful parts of Dorset in the south west of the UK is home to the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe. And yet the day to day impact on most residents and on the local environment is minimal. Perhaps the Dorset oil experience can help us predict the potential environmental effects of shale gas extraction by fracking in other parts of the UK? Let’s look at the story of oil in Dorset and see what we can learn.

“Kimmeridge Coal”

Medieval times were harsh for most people but if you lived near Kimmeridge Bay in the Isle of Purbeck, you had one thing going for you; some of the rocks exposed in the cliffs would burn so you had a ready-made fuel for heating and cooking. The locals called it “Kimmeridge Coal” and it didn’t matter that it smelt awful, it was available and it was free. The same logic drove Sir William Clavell in the 17th century to set up alum works at Kimmeridge using the fuel. His efforts came to nothing because of patent restrictions so he turned to making salt by boiling sea water and subsequently he set up a glass works, but neither enterprise prospered.

“Kimmeridge Coal” is found in bands of bituminous shale in the cliffs around Kimmeridge Bay but further exploitation of the material had to wait until the 19th century when it was realised that useful hydrocarbons might be extractable. Processing plants were set up at Weymouth and at Wareham making varnish, grease, pitch, naphtha, paraffin and paraffin wax and in 1848 the street lights of Wareham were lit by 130 lamps powered by gas derived from the shale. The industry never prospered, possibly because the high sulphur content made the gas unsuitable for domestic use.

Kimmeridge oil shale is a useful material but it is not a source of conventional crude oil. Ironically, the first discovery of crude oil in Dorset also occurred at Kimmeridge Bay but it comes from rocks lying well below the shale deposits.

The Kimmeridge “nodding donkey”

Oil pump
The Kimmeridge nodding donkey

The search for oil in Dorset began in the 1930s but it was not until 1959 that the first well producing oil and gas was discovered below Kimmeridge Bay. The well is extracted by a single beam “nodding donkey” pump on the cliffs above the Bay that has worked continuously for more than 50 years; it is the oldest working oil well in the UK and the “nodding donkey” is now part of the local scenery. The Kimmeridge well produced 350 barrels of oil a day at its peak but this has now declined to a fifth of that level. Although the Kimmeridge reservoir is not large, the discovery prompted the search for other oil deposits in Dorset.

The largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe – hidden near Poole Harbour

The energy crises of the 1970s led to further exploration in Dorset and in 1974, oil and gas were discovered by the Gas Council at Wytch Farm on the southern side of Poole Harbour. Production started in 1979 and nowadays the Anglo-French company Perenco owns the majority stake in the oil field. There are three large reservoirs of oil 1-2 km below the sea, extending up to 10 km under Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island, Sandbanks and to the south of Bournemouth. Peak production was in 1997 at 110,000 barrels of oil per day; current levels are about 18,000 barrels per day. The field also produces natural gas (for domestic use) and liquid petroleum gas.

nodding donkeys Wytch Farm
Some of the Wytch Farm nodding donkeys (photo courtesy of Perenco)


Furzey Island
Furzey Island in Poole Harbour showing the “hidden” oil wells (photo courtesy of Perenco)


There are 12 well sites distributed around Wytch Farm, the Goathorn Peninsula and Furzey island from which more than 100 wells have been drilled. There is also a gathering station where the products of the wells are collected, processed and distributed. This is a large industrial enterprise, the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe and the second largest consumer of electricity in the South of England (after Heathrow Airport).

Hengistbury Head looking west
Poole Bay viewed from Hengistbury Head – oil reservoirs and long distance drills extend under the sea 1-2 km below the surface (from Wikipedia).
The paradox is that this industrial complex operates in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so the site has been developed with this is mind. Buildings are on sites that have been excavated to reduce height and are screened by trees. Facilities are painted a dull brown and the number of well sites has been minimised by drilling long distances horizontally away from the well site in to the oil deposits; until 2008 Wytch Farm held the world record for the longest drill extending 10.1 km under Poole Bay. In consequence, this large industrial complex has minimal impact on the surrounding countryside and most people are unaware of the activity.

Goathorn Peninsula
An oil rig on the Goathorn Peninsula used for long distance directional drilling (Photo from Wikipedia, taken in 2006) .


Lessons from Dorset oil

Wytch Farm is a great success story, both in terms of the oil and gas produced and the minimal environmental impact. Some have used the Wytch Farm experience to suggest that fracking (hydraulic fracturing for shale gas) in other parts of the UK will also have a minimal environmental impact, even suggesting, incorrectly, that fracking has already occurred at Wytch Farm.

Although similar drilling technology is used to extract crude oil and to release shale gas, fracking uses large volumes of high pressure liquid (mostly water) to create fissures in low permeability rock and this has not been carried out at Wytch Farm. Also each potential fracking site is likely to be unique and different from Wytch Farm in terms of the density of wells required, the density of population and the nature of the countryside. Dorset oil has been managed to minimise environmental impact but it would be wrong to use the Dorset oil experience to predict the general environmental impact of fracking elsewhere.

There is, of course, one important issue I have not considered here:  should we continue to extract and use oil given the need to prevent global climate change?  Take a look at the complementary article for my views on that.

Important amendment:  In September 2018 it was revealed that the Kimmeridge oil pump has been legally  leaking the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere for nearly 60 years.  The story is covered here.  This disclosure changes very considerably my view of the environmental impact of the Kimmeridge oil pump.

Renewable energy from a Devon river – the new Totnes Weir Hydro

About a mile upstream of the south Devon town of Totnes, the tree-lined tranquillity of the river Dart is interrupted by a weir. Water cascades over this concrete barrier and after heavy rain there is a spectacular display of power with swirling whirlpools and foamy white water. Slate-grey herons and sparkling white egrets stand sentinel by the weir and the occasional grey seal lurks below, waiting to feast on fish that linger too long. There has been a weir at this bend in the Dart since the 16th century, built originally to harness the power of the river; the present rather bland construction dates largely from the 20th century.

Totnes weir
The Totnes Weir viewed from the upstream pool. The picture shows the concrete weir after the installation of the new Hydro (off the picture to the right) and after a period of low rainfall so that water flow across the weir is quite low. The gulls are enjoying the calm conditions.


The weir is a downwards-sloping concrete barrier that interrupts the flow of the river so that a large pool of water accumulates upstream, isolated from the tidal downstream water about three metres below. This pool of water is a store of potential energy that was used in the past to drive several water mills in the town a mile away. A channel, the leat, ran from the pool all the way in to Totnes and providing the leat stayed above the level of the river it contained the energy to drive a water wheel. Only one mill building now survives: the Town Mill dating from the 17th century but with 19th century additions. This was used as a water mill until 1945 and currently houses the Tourist Information Centre. The leat is still intact and can be viewed along much of its path, through an industrial estate, under the main railway line and passing near the front of Morrisons superstore. The leat is celebrated in the name of the town’s large medical centre, the Leatside Surgery.

Water Mill
A water mill at Dartington in Devon showing the principle of the leat. The leat takes water from the stream and providing the leat stays above the stream it can drive the mill wheel.


Turbine Building exterior
The turbine building of the Totnes Weir Hydro. The Archimedes Screws can be seen on the right.


Hydro and weir
The two Archimedes Screws alongside the weir


Over the past year, a neat, stone-clad, turf-roofed building has materialised by the side of the weir. This is the turbine house of the new Totnes Hydro which once again harnesses the power of the Dart. On the downstream side of the building are two tube-like structures roughly aligned with the descending surface of the weir, each tube containing an Archimedes Screw. Water from the pool behind the weir passes under the turbine building to enter the tubes, pressing on the blades of each Archimedes Screw causing them to turn and driving the turbines. The Archimedes Screws can be viewed from the downstream side and I find them mesmerising – turning steadily, water splashing, feeling almost alive – as they transform the potential energy of the water in to kinetic energy and subsequently electrical energy.

turbine in action
Renewable energy in action: a close up of water emerging from one Archimedes Screw.


When there is a good head of water, the turbines generate about 250 kW of power.  Output will depend on flow in the river (higher power after heavy rain) and the head across the weir (typically about 3m but reduced by spring tides).   Generation may cease altogether for about two weeks in a dry summer when water flow in the Dart is low.   Currently, the electricity generated is powering the local comprehensive school and an aluminium foundry on the nearby industrial estate and any surplus enters the grid.  To put this in to perspective the overall energy produced is enough to power the equivalent of about 300 homes. In time, the hydro will also provide electricity for the new ATMOS project.  This is a community-led development of homes and businesses on the former Dairy Crest site in Totnes.

The river Dart is an important route for migrating fish and the weir already contained a fish pass to help sea trout and salmon overcome the barrier. The pass was, however, in poor condition so that fish were having difficulty moving up the weir leading to losses to hungry herons and seals. The new Hydro project includes renovating the existing fish pass and building an additional modern fish pass alongside the turbine building. These should help migrating fish so that, in time, the piscine population on the Dart increases; new fish counters have also been installed to help monitor traffic.


So far so good, but if equipment is installed to capture the energy of the river it is bound to alter the flow over and around the weir.   You can see this clearly on the upstream side of the turbine house where water in the pool flows towards the new building to enter the Archimedes Screws, eventually discharging in to the river below.   Although water flow through the turbines is carefully regulated by sluices to make sure that the weir does not dry out, less water now flows across the weir than before.  This redistribution of water has remodelled islands in the river downstream and night fishermen have had to relearn safety on the river.    We should not forget, however, that when the weir was first built and water was directed down the leat to power the Totnes mills some 500 years ago, water flow in the river must have been changed to a much greater extent.    There is also the question of noise.  The new Archimedes Screw turbines do emit noise as they turn and there is some splashing of water.  The turbine building is insulated and the current level of noise from the new installation is no more than I can remember coming from the weir on a full flood.

Water enters hydro
The pool of water behind the weir showing water preferentially entering the turbine building.


The Weir Hydro project was developed by the owners of the weir, Dart Renewables, working closely with the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC). TRESOC was set up by local residents to enable the community to develop renewable energy and to retain control of the resources. On a practical level TRESOC aims to supply local homes and businesses with “local” energy. If everything works to plan, the Totnes Weir Hydro should generate 1.35 GWh of electricity each year, saving 550 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The majority of this electricity will be used to power local enterprises.

Disclaimer: I am a member of TRESOC and have invested in some of their projects.

We need to act now to protect the world from damaging climate change

It is clear: to restrict global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade we need to leave most of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We must stop using oil, coal and gas and, instead, we must use renewable, zero-carbon energy sources.

And yet, politicians sit on their hands and do very little to encourage both reduced use of fossil fuels and increased use of renewables.

The Guardian Newspaper has decided to increase their coverage of these issues, giving them a much higher priority and starting with a series of articles on its front page. With the Guardian’s global on-line reach this is a step change in both thinking and action on this topic.

The articles are an excellent resource for understanding the current situation and begin with a statement from their chief editor, Alan Rusbridger: Climate change: why the Guardian is putting threat to Earth front and centre

This is followed by:

Two extracts from Naomi Klein’s book “This changes everything”

“Climate fight won’t wait for Paris, vive la resistance” by climate activist Bill McKibben

“Keep it in the ground” by George Monbiot

I urge you to read some or all of these articles.


Here is a link to an article by another blogger that also covers the Guardian’s climate change series.

The image at the head of this article is of a tornado and comes from Wikipedia.

Lifestyle and life expectancy

During the summer, life expectancy figures were published for England and Wales showing huge disparities between different parts of the country. I was intrigued to see that people in Dorset have some of the highest life expectancies in the country. When I looked in to the background I found that the disparities in life expectancy reflected shocking differences in lifestyle and here is what I wrote in the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.


You already knew it was a good place to live but now it’s confirmed by official figures. In the whole of England and Wales, people in East Dorset have the highest life expectancy; men live on average 83.0 years and women 86.4 years. North Dorset and Purbeck also appear near the top of the list. By contrast, the lowest life expectancy is in the North West of England with men in Blackpool living for an average of 73.8 years and women in Manchester living for 79.3 years. These figures are shocking in that people in the North West can expect to die nearly ten years earlier than their East Dorset counterparts.

Wimborne Minster
Wimborne Minster
Let’s compare the different regions to see if that sheds any light on why life expectancy is so different. East Dorset extends from the edge of the Bournemouth/Poole conurbation in the south to the Wiltshire border in the north. The North and West of the region retain a rural feel but there are several centres of population in the south including the historic market town of Wimborne. The region has very low levels of deprivation and violent crime and low unemployment. It scores well on most health indicators although the rates of malignant melanoma and of injury and death by road accident are higher than the national average. Even in East Dorset, however, there are 1400 children living in poverty (1.6% of the population).

Blackpool promenade - DSC07204
Blackpool promenade showing the Tower
Blackpool is a well-known seaside town with its iconic Tower, Pleasure Beach and Illuminations. It is also one of the most densely populated boroughs outside London. Like many former “bucket and spade” resorts, Blackpool has suffered badly from the shift to foreign holidays and now has high levels of deprivation and high unemployment. Many former guest houses have been converted into multiple bed-sits providing poor but cheap accommodation attractive to people unable to find affordable housing elsewhere. 8200 children (6% of the population) live in poverty and there are high levels of violent crime, drug and alcohol misuse and teenage pregnancy. One third of women smoke during pregnancy and nearly a third of the total population are smokers. The outcome of these behaviour patterns is high levels of death related to smoking and early death due to cancer, cirrhosis, heart disease and violence.

The two regions could hardly be more different and the comparison suggests that people’s social and economic conditions are closely linked to their health. We should, of course, be pleased that health in East Dorset is so good but, as a civilised and prosperous nation, we should be concerned about the health of people in Blackpool and in other parts of the North West. Not only is it possible to live longer and more healthily but, in regions where health is poor, huge burdens and costs are placed on healthcare systems. The only way to reduce these health inequalities in the long term is to tackle the social inequalities. This means increasing employment, investing in housing, and addressing lifestyle issues such as excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and substance abuse, all of which are linked to poor health and which are rife in Blackpool. Tackling these inequalities is a matter for government policy and requires huge investment as well as the political will.

I want to focus on one issue, excessive alcohol consumption, as it has been in the headlines recently. The issue of alcohol consumption raises many uncomfortable questions. Alcohol is a drug, but one that is legal and consumed with few restrictions. It is also recognised to cause significant harms, both to individuals and to society. There are as many as a million alcohol-related hospital admissions each year in the UK, alcohol fuels crime and civil disorder and is estimated to cost the economy up to £20 billion a year. It has been suggested that the overall harm caused by alcohol is greater than that due to some illegal drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy. The issue was recognised by the government in 2012 when it published its Alcohol Strategy aimed at tackling problem drinking. One of the key proposals was to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol.

The situation in Blackpool illustrates many of the problems of alcohol misuse. More than a quarter of adults drink hazardously or harmfully. Alcohol consumption is thought to be a key factor in violent crime and domestic violence as well as in the occurrence of heart disease and cirrhosis; alcohol contributes significantly to the low life expectancy. Blackpool has many licensed premises and in one part of the town there is one off-licence for every 250 people. Some pubs and clubs stay open until 5 am so that there is an entrenched drinking culture; as one pub landlord put it “The mainstay of Blackpool is the river of alcohol that runs through it and keeps it alive”.

Public health officials in Blackpool want to limit opening hours for pubs and had hoped the government would bring in minimum unit pricing for alcohol to stop supermarkets and off licences selling alcohol for “pocket money prices”. These very cheap sources of alcohol contribute to “pre loading” by drinkers at home before going out. Now the government has abandoned national plans for minimum unit pricing, several councils in the North West intend to impose this locally.

Despite the high life expectancy of people living in Dorset, the region is not exempt from the effects of alcohol. The large numbers of licensed premises in the town centres of Bournemouth and Weymouth attract alcohol-related problems such as violent crime. For the health and safety of the people involved and to make our town centres pleasant places for an evening visit we need to redouble efforts to curb problem drinking.

Beauty incomplete

Ayrmer Cove is a secluded beach on the South Devon Coast and like so many of these small inlets it’s only accessible easily on foot, making it a deserted but beautiful spot. On a recent visit, it’s warm here and the sunlight shimmers on the waves as they make their relentless passage over the sand. The only other sound is the song of the skylarks which repeats and repeats as though the birds are continually asking a question but it is never answered.

Aymer Cove 1
The beach and sea at Ayrmer Cove

As we poke around the beach it’s clear that the beauty of this place is incomplete. All over the beach we find small plastic items, pieces of rope, shards of rubber from old tyres, fragments of plastic bottles etc. All kinds of maritime rubbish are on display here.

Aymer Cove 2
Maritime rubbish at Ayrmer Cove

Happily we do not find any dead seabirds. Quite recently more than a thousand dead seabirds have been found washed up on beaches in Devon and Cornwall. In fact this is the second time this has occurred this year. On both occasions the seabirds have been killed by a chemical (polyisobutene (PIB)) carried by ships and discharged in to the sea when they wash out their tanks. The discharged PIB does not mix with water and so forms a sticky mass; the birds become coated in the chemical and cannot dive or feed.
The chemical is not toxic to humans and is used extensively in different forms as an oil additive, in chewing gum and in cosmetics and as a synthetic rubber. Its effects on seabirds and marine life in general have not been well researched and the RSPB is calling for increased regulation and scientific investigation. 38 degrees also has a petition.
All I really want to do here is to draw some attention to the problems of indiscriminate dumping in the seas. It’s another example of our cavalier attitude to the natural world and I am not sure what we can do about it or how long it can go on.

2012: the year of the disappearing apples – and bees

Cider apples on a tree in Devon

Behold the apples’ rounded worlds:

juice-green of July rain,

the black polestar of flowers, the rind

mapped with its crimson stain.


The russet, crab and cottage red

burn to the sun’s hot brass

then drop like sweat from every branch

and bubble in the grass.


They lie as wanton as they fall,

and where they fall and break,

the stallion clamps his crunching jaws

the starling stabs his beak.


In each plump gourd the cidery bite

of boys’ teeth tears the skin;

the waltzing wasp consumes his share,

the bent worm enters in.


I, with as easy hunger, take

entire my season’s dole;

welcome the ripe, the sweet, the sour,

the hollow and the whole.


This poem, Apples, by Laurie Lee is a gentle celebration of the place of these fruit in a mid-twentieth century country life.   The apples mature in the “sun’s hot brass” and fall from the tree as if to herald the arrival of autumn.  Now in 2012 it is autumn.  It should be the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” but this year one of those seasonal signs, the apple, has been badly hit.  According to English Apples and Pears, the apple harvest is down by 25% overall compared to last year.  Some varieties such as Cox’s have been hit much harder.  It gets worse.  Even those apples that make it to our shops will be blemished, having taken a battering in the wet and windy weather.  Taste, we are assured, will not be affected but you can be sure that prices will be higher. 

Cider apples ready for pressing (2010 season)

Cider apples have been particularly badly affected and much less cider will be made this year.  One Somerset cider producer, Julian Temperley, reports a 50% overall reduction in cider apples this season, although one of his varieties, the Kingston Black, has loved the weather and cropped heavily.   

So, what has caused this apple disaster?  April, May, June this year was the wettest three month period in the UK since modern rainfall records began in 1910.  This meant that the bees were unable to fly.  Because the bees sheltered in their hives and nests, the flowers on the apple trees were not fully pollinated.  Some fruitlets did develop but a proportion of these then suffered wind damage.  It is also possible that the trees were “exhausted” by cropping so well in 2011.  Hopefully, this year’s poor harvest will be followed by a much better apple harvest in 2013. 

A honeybee foraging on a Hardy Geranium

I do also wonder how the bees are going to be affected by the poor summer.  Because they couldn’t fly in the poor weather, they couldn’t forage for pollen and nectar and many beekeepers had to feed their bees artificially.  Bees may enter the winter in a depleted state and there could be higher than usual losses of bees this winter. 

This is a grim story but it has a silver lining.  It shows very clearly how critical the bees are for agriculture in this country.  Bees act as as pollinators for so many of our crops.  Without adequate pollination the apple crop has been badly hit.  We need to make sure our bees are protected.  Friends of the Earth continue to pursue their Bee Cause campaign but it is very reassuring to see that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has recently decided to examine the emotive issue of whether insecticides are harming bee health.   These are hopeful signs that the welfare of the bees is being taken seriously.

[Thanks to “A Woman of the Soil” for alerting me to the poem by Laurie Lee]

Cider apples (2010 season)

Climate change – more uncertainty or better presentation?


What do the following have in common?  Driving our cars, flying in a plane or using electricity made by burning coal or gas.  They all consume fossil fuels and they all put extra carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere.  The carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas” and there is broad agreement among scientists that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have driven an increase of just under one degree in global temperature during the last century.  There is also broad agreement that if we continue with our cars, planes and electricity the way we are, this will lead to further increases in global temperature coupled with climate instability.  These will lead in time to major effects on human lifestyle.

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How the planet has warmed over the past 50 years

We rely on climate models to predict the extent of future change in global temperature.  These models are complex computer simulations that try to take account of as many of the variables affecting the climate as possible.  They are, however, only models and their predictions are affected by the uncertainty of some of the information used.  For example, a key variable is the amount of carbon dioxide that will be produced in the future and this is difficult to predict with accuracy, especially with the current economic upheavals. 

A problem is now emerging with the climate models which may provide new ammunition for the climate change-deniers.  The models are becoming ever more sophisticated, which sounds good, but according to Mark Maslin and Patrick Austin, writing in last week’s Nature (“Climate models at their limit”) the new more sophisticated models may contain greater uncertainty in their predictions.   This seems to be because the models now include a wider range of influences on the climate.  If there is uncertainty in each of these influences then there will be even more uncertainty in the outcome.   This does not mean the models are worthless.  The models are still able to predict future climate change; it’s just that there is a bit more wobble on the predictions.

Maslin and Austin are concerned that “To the public and to policy makers, this will look as though the scientific understanding of climate change is become less, rather than more, clear.”   

They continue: “Scientists need to decide how to explain this effect.  Above all, the public and policy makers need to be made to understand that climate models may have reached their limit.  They must stop waiting for further certainty or persuasion and simply act.”

Maslin and Austin propose a subtle change in presentation of modelling data and call this the “when” not “if” approach.  They suggest placing the uncertainty of predictions on the date by which things will happen rather than onto whether they will happen at all.   

Let’s restate this to emphasise this important conclusion:  we know that climate change is occurring and will get worse but we cannot be sure about the precise time scale.

Somehow also we need to unblock the political process whereby so little is being done about the problem of global warming.  As Maslin and Austin put it “Politicians use public opinion and scientific uncertainty as excuses for inaction.  They used to say “we need to wait until scientists prove that mankind is causing climate change”.  That hurdle has, arguably, passed, so now they have moved on to “we need to wait until scientists can tell us exactly what will happen and what the costs are” or “we need to wait for public opinion to be behind action””. 

The reality is that scientists have already provided enough information showing that something needs to be done to halt climate change.  All countries now need to set carbon reduction targets.  These do not need to be the same for all countries and may reflect different local circumstances but unless we move to carbon reduction there will at some point be severe consequences for the planet.

Fields of Gold or Killing Fields?

Rapeseed is a major cash crop in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, so when you see those familiar strips of yellow in the late spring – think profits for farmers.  Rapeseed is heavily treated with insecticides and fungicides – so also think profits for agrochemical companies.  One of these insecticides, the improbably named Cruiser OSR, is a big earner for the agrochemical company Syngenta.  In a surprise move last week, the French Minister of Agriculture has issued a warning that he intends to revoke the licence for Cruiser OSR.   This story has hardly featured in the UK press but it has considerable significance. 

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One of the active ingredients in Cruiser OSR is thiamethoxam, a member of the class of neonicotinoid insecticides that act by poisoning the nervous system of insect pests.   These insecticides are used either as seed dressing or as systemic treatments.  Either way the compound is present throughout the plant and available to kill insect pests.

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Not all insects are pests, however.  Bees perform a crucial role in pollinating crops and without bees food would be much more expensive and the countryside would look very different.   Evidence has been accumulating that, as well as killing insect pests, the neonicotinoid insecticides can have harmful effects on bees.   In crops treated with these insecticides the harmful chemical is present throughout the plant and may be picked up by bees when they forage for pollen or nectar.  Rapeseed, for example, provides an important source of food for bees when they emerge after winter.  If the crop has been treated with Cruiser OSR then it is likely that bees will feed on contaminated pollen and nectar and may pick up the thiamethoxam.

In Italy it was found that when maize seed coated with the insecticide imidacloprid  (another neonicotinoid)  began to be used there were bee deaths coincident with sowing.  Most likely, dust from the treated seeds was contaminating land used by bees.  When the use of neonicotinoid-coated maize seed was banned in Italy these bee deaths did not occur.    France and Germany have joined Italy in banning the use of some neonicotinoids  as seed dressing also because of effects on bees.     

The agrochemical companies claim that these insecticides are safe for bees if used properly but new research published earlier this year showed that under field conditions and at sub-lethal doses, the neonicotinoids can have serious effects on the ability of bees to navigate and may affect the survival of bee colonies.  The response of DEFRA in this country was as follows: “We have considered all recently published studies and have concluded that they do not present any new evidence”.

In France, the response has been different.  The National Agency for Safety of Food and the Environment (ANSES) was asked to report on the significance of the new work.  ANSES concluded that the new studies did provide evidence of a threat and the Minister acted accordingly.

Syngenta has responded to the proposed ban on Cruiser OSR:  “This is a dark day for French and European agriculture – 30% of rapeseed will be lost”

Bees are under pressure from many influences including loss of habitat, climate change, hive pathogens and insecticides.  If France considers these insecticides to pose a threat to bees, I do hope DEFRA will now reconsider the effects of these compounds on bees in the UK.

Lists – Don’t they make you sick?

Lists start to appear in UK newspapers in December, rather like migrating swallows in spring.  Let’s take two examples from the Guardian.  On December 10, the Weekend Magazine published a list of people who have achieved success at a very young age (Overachievers:  what it takes to be a bright young thing.).  There were playwrights, designers, novelists, directors, DJs, entrepreneurs but no scientists or engineers.  On December 16, The Women of the Year 2011 list appeared in the G2 section of the paper.  Politicians, sportswomen, actors, singers were rightly celebrated but no scientists or engineers were featured. 

Science and engineering are two important parts of our creative culture.  I find such casual neglect of these disciplines increasingly tiresome and I wrote a short note for the Weekend Magazine pointing out the omission.  I can only think that very little time is spent in compiling these lists (see below) and it is likely that the journalists involved are not scientists.  It’s all the more surprising in the Women of the Year category as a female scientist has already been singled out elsewhere for awards.  This is Jenny Rohn of University College London, who received the Achiever of the Year Award for setting up Science is Vital leading to a change in government policy on science funding.

The journalistic bias exposed by these lists is just another example of the “Two Cultures” that continue to pervade society in the UK.   We see it in education where children must begin to express preferences for humanities versus sciences from the age of 14.  University degrees in humanities subjects make little or no reference to science and vice versa.  Few science graduates enter politics or the media with the result that governments exhibit little understanding of science and reporting of science in the media is poor and often incorrect.   The outcome of this may be serious for public health, for public policy and for general understanding of science.  Unjustified fear spread by some papers about the MMR vaccine lead to a drop in herd immunity leaving some children at risk of measles infection.    Repeated stories, usually incorrect, about the cancer promoting or protecting properties of food substances must leave people bemused and untrusting.  The paucity of science reporting in quality papers such as the Guardian continues to surprise me.

It’s no good just moaning, however,we need to propose solutions.  The education system could be altered to allow less specialisation.  For students at senior school the International Baccalaureate provides a broader alternative to A levels and some schools are now offering this qualification.    Degree courses in humanities could include discussion of current scientific issues so that the methods used by scientists are more widely understood.  For science students, cross cultural teaching could focus on understanding the place of science in society and examining portrayals of science in literature.  More generally, scientists need to come out of their labs to explain the importance of their work, illustrate its creativity and its importance for society.

Let’s finish on a lighter note.  The Independent on Sunday newspaper in the UK publishes an annual Pink List.  In 2010 Peter Tatchell was number 7 in the list whereas he was surprisingly absent from the list in 2011.  It seems that he was omitted from the main list deliberately as he had been selected for a special award as “national treasure” alongside Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig.  In the end Tatchell was missing completely from any category because the post-it note with his name was shuffled in to the wrong pile and no one noticed.  It shows just how much trouble is taken in compiling these lists.