Sunday, 18 December 2016

Strategic issues for biological recording

In my last post I highlighted the role that Government plays in generating biological/taxonomic skills that are critical to maintaining biological recording capacity. I used the analogy of architects and engineers to show how we look very differently upon nature conservation and wildlife data collection. Why is it that taxonomic skills are so under-valued?

Nature conservation has always been a low-paid profession and is populated by motivated people and has never been fiercely protective of its skill-base. You can just imagine the engineering profession's outrage if it was proposed that retired engineers should do the work of the existing cohort on a voluntary basis because Government cannot afford to pay for it! By contrast, Conservation professionals have very little access to standardised data because it is generally not funded. So, they have always turned to volunteer networks. Volunteer data has underpinned most of protected site designation and many of us volunteer in our spare time. The caring professions see much the same effect - there is always a charity there to step in when Government cuts social care funding - so Government feels that it can cut these aspects and somebody (the big society) will pick up the tab.

Unfortunately, we are hoisted on our own petard because we have shown what is possible. The problem now arises because these data are becoming a very powerful tool and Government Agencies and Departments and the NGOs want more of it. In my view, that is slowly changing the relationship towards biological recording being seen as an unpaid provider of essential data.

For me, the issue is not that we should be trying to reverse the trend in making biological recording data available for serious analysis. Nor should we be saying it has a financial value. People go out and record for any number of reasons. I'll use my own example - these days I have a 'patch' for birds that I put on BirdTrack. I do it because it gives me a reason to go out each day in the winter - forces me to get some exercise. In the summer I have regular walks that are effectively constant effort transects - but the primary purpose is to get exercise and stave off diabetes! In the process of doing this I generate useful information and maintain/develop skills.

A strategic disconnect

The problem that I see with biological recording is that there is now a disconnect between the users and the providers. The (seemingly) continuous effort to generate more data and efforts to set up new voluntary networks highlights very little understanding of the hierarchy that is needed to deliver data. This comprises

  • Troops on the ground - the recorders whose main interest is enjoyment of the countryside, learning about wildlife and acquiring new skills (and maybe new friendship groups).
  • Organisers - a lot of work goes into running a publicly-facing scheme. In the case of popular taxa that organisation can be vast - just think of the county flora committees and rare bird panels, not to mention the local organisers for WeBs counts. Within the Hoverfly Recording Scheme we have seen the impact of growing interest and activity - there are now eight people involved in running the Scheme. The work involves: ID of photos/specimens; data extraction; managing the FB page; data management; report-writing and production of newsletters. Just four years ago there were three of us (Stuart, me and David Iliff). The diagram I produced for a previous post serves to illustrate the volume of work that goes into scheme administration. 
  • The professionals - data managers in LRCs and BRC, programmers who write the data management and dissemination packages. 
  • Analysts - the statisticians who do the number crunching and deliver the outputs wanted by Government and NGOs.
Schematic representation of administrative jobs for running a modern recording scheme


At each level the numbers diminish but all are essential. What is generally overlooked is that although in some disciplines the technical ID skills are honed strictly on a non-vocational basis (e.g. most birding, butterflies, dragonflies), many others require an element of formal training and many years of study that is rarely achieved without access to museum collections and to other 'professionals' who play an important mentoring role. Those skills were once developed by local and national museums, research institutes such as ITE and the Commonwealth Institute, and even Government agencies - e.g. the late lamented 'Chief Scientists Team' of the Nature Conservancy Council. This latter team spawned many of the leading specialists of today, but has been disbanded and there is no replacement. When the CST generation goes, there is nothing to follow them.

I think it is absolutely essential that Government and its agencies start to understand this relationship and ensures that there is reliable employment and skills development. It is also essential that this process includes the maintenance/re-establishment of the link between one-s professional interest and non-vocational engagement. The challenge is, how do this.

It is noticeable that if you want an internationally recognised engineer with thirty year's experience you can expect to pay anything between £700 and £1000+ per day for those skills. By contrast, an entomologist with the same level of expertise will generally attract under £400 per day! True, the engineer will be creating commercially or socially important structures. But then, the recognised taxonomist may well produce the information that might help to avert a very different crisis. It is all about risks and values - the risk of ecosystem collapse is very poorly understood, whereas the collapse of a building is not uncommon, and its effects are immediate and high impact!

Friday, 16 December 2016

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry Opportunities

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has invited the science community and the wider public to suggest science and technology areas for scrutiny. Understandably, the biological recording community has started to discuss possibilities. As is often the case, the issue of funding emerges as a critical concern. I have seen this before in various other ecological disciplines and have been at the receiving end of negative comments as the representative of a Government Agency whose funding stream was diminishing.

My experience in those days has profoundly coloured my views, but my thinking may well be pertinent to current issues for biological recording. When we ran a contract to investigate the value of Estuary Partnerships, it rapidly developed into a situation where 'partnership officers' interpreted this as an attempt to close down 'partnerships'. I have never forgotten being met with comments at the English Coastal Forum in 1999 (Dorset) as 'here come the men that want to close down coastal partnerships' - aimed at me and Pete Barham. Nothing could have been further from the truth but the very fact that we were prepared to challenge the 'partnerships and to ask 'what benefits can we be sure about' was enough to put us in the position of 'the enemy'.

My rationale then and now is the same. If you can demonstrate your value in a way that resonates with those that hold the purse strings you stand a great deal more chance of maintaining funding. If you cannot, then don't be surprised if funding is cut. However supportive the responsible officers are, they will not be able to present a compelling case to senior officers who make the decisions!

So, let us look at biological recording. We have seen cuts in various ecological monitoring programmes - the Rothamstead Insect Survey and the National Moth Recording Scheme are obvious examples. Government wants the data, but does not want to spend the money. The fact that so much of the data come from volunteers implies that data are actually quite easy to acquire. The data generate results that do not shock after the first analysis - we know that moth numbers are declining - so what? There are no new high impact papers to be written, just an ongoing and generally negative message!

At the moment, Defra is evaluating bids to develop a national pollinator monitoring scheme. It might get 3+ years funding but you can be certain that funding will cease and it will be assumed that it will continue as a totally voluntary initiative. Is this really the way to treat monitoring of essential ecosystem services? To me, this is the nub of the current problem for biological recording. Would you expect the architectural community to monitor the state of our historic buildings for free? Of course not - they are valued professionals and are entitled to payment for their skills. Likewise, you would not dream of engaging volunteers to act as structural engineers to oversee the maintenance of the Dartford Crossing or the Forth Road Bridge! So, why expect volunteers to provide all the data on vital ecosystem services? Answer - it is ecology - anybody can do this as a 'citizen scientist'.

What Government tends to overlook is the role its own current and, increasingly, former employees play in biological recording. Many of the essential technical specialists are former employees of Government Departments, Agencies and Museums. The impact of reducing these posts is long-term and will only be felt in the coming decades. My friends ask with incredulity why I spend so much time on data collection for the Government when I am not being paid. In their professions they would not dream of doing 'owt for nowt'; so why is it that environmental issues are so different?

My feeling is that there is a serious need to investigate the value placed on specialist taxonomic skills and whether they can be maintained without relevant careers to develop the critical skills? Government is now almost totally reliant upon voluntary capacity to supply the vast bulk of ecological information. In any other profession this would be regarded as a serious erosion of the country's intellectual capacity, but in ecology it seems to be perfectly acceptable. That has serious long-term implications for GB Plc because we under-estimate how much current capacity is provided by people who have developed their skills whilst employed by Government bodies - cut that capacity and you cut a great deal of the long-term non-vocational capacity.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Trust the troops on point duty

We hear that Donald Trump does not believe the CIA and FBI analysis of Russian interference in the recent presidential elections. That has echoes of the experience many of us had with the erstwhile Chief Executive of Natural England.

In 2006, we rapidly got to realise that our CEO did not trust us. We frequently heard about meetings between the CEO and 'partner' organisations from our counterparts in said organisation. We had no firm clue about what was said and agreed (you cannot always trust your counterparts if they spot a weakness in your intelligence systems). Our CEO announced that we would be' told what we needed to know'! We had no firm idea about what our policy should be - try writing a policy paper with the instruction 'I'll know what I want when I see it'! Worse still, we had no clue about the information that would actually be valued by the CEO. Needless to say, this relationship was accompanied by an exodus of technical skills that have been lost for ever. It does not take a lot to kill off the relationship between management and the troops on point duty. Why stick your neck out if the Chief is as likely to chop it off than the opposition might seek to do!

If I was a member of the CIA or FBI I would be very worried. If the Chief does not trust you, and won't take briefings other than on an intermittent basis, you are in serious trouble. I always took the view that one should at least listen to the troops on point duty - they have the most relevant experience and are the eyes and ears of the organisation. If you don't trust them, then you are exposing the whole army (country/organisation) to acting blind.

God help the western World!

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

A future for mankind

President-elect Donald Trump's appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency should be greeted with delight by those of us who believe in Gaia Theory.

True, both Trump and Pruitt are climate-change deniers. But then, they also have no respect for science, so there is precious little point in the scientific community getting very exercised about the political change. Realistically, Trump represents the view of at least 50% of the western World and probably closer to 70% of that World. I rarely come across people who really believe in climate change. Often, they argue that sea level rise is not happening, that the climate has always changed, and that there is no proof that humankind has changed the climate. It is a view that will be embraced by most people because the alternatives are pretty unpalatable.

Do we want to face up to reality and take action that will hurt us, or should we bury our heads in the sand and wait to be kicked up the behind by something rather unpleasant? In reality it is not my generation that will face the biggest kick up the backside. It is the next generation: my friend's children and grand children. My sadness is for them.

Nevertheless, the sooner that climate change kicks us hard, the better. That way, perhaps mankind will start to die out. Sadly, many of the iconic plants and animals that currently exist will also be lost. BUT, I take comfort from the 'Great Permian Extinction' and from the K-T event that led to the demise of the Dinosaurs. If mankind is eliminated, the world in 10 million years time could be a fantastic place. Donald Trump will be an irrelevance and mankind just a narrow footnote in history. Most of the major epochs lasted tens of millions of years but the Anthropocene may well last less than 10,000 years - a minor footnote in history! Should we care? Yes, because we love our decendents but no if we care more about the long-term possibilities for the World.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Do statutory bodies have a responsibility for countryside management?

A bit of history

My view of organisations passing responsibility to voluntary sector were greatly influenced by experience when I became Conservation Officer for South Humberside back in 1994. It was a baptism by fire for me. I arrived to find that the leadership team in Wakefield had decided to withdraw funding for the Humber Wildfowl Refuge. Until that time English Nature had employed a  warden on behalf of the Refuge Committee. The cessation of funding coincided with my arrival and caused mayhem. My first year or more was occupied trying to find alternative funding streams. I was accused by some in the Refuge Committee of being incompetent because I was not fighting off the move - by the time I arrived it was a fait accompli but somebody had to be blamed.

Leadership suggestions were that the Refuge Committee should look for alternative funding sources such as sponsorship. That was a big 'ask' and as the nominated secretary to the Refuge Committee I found that much of the work fell to me (part of my EN job). I put in vast numbers of hours attending evening meetings and drew comments from my line manager that I should not be doing such levels of work. I was threatened a reduced (performance) box marking at the end of the year if I did not cut my hours. Not much chance of that - I still had to achieve my performance agreement, which included sorting out the Refuge Committee problems. So my workload management failed completely! We never did find sponsorship for wardening but did find funds for other projects that required yet more work from me to manage the projects.

Lesson 1. I've never forgotten that experience and the lessons it conveyed. Anybody that thinks you can replace long-term funding for maintenance of an organisation or site forgets that sponsors need some big sound bites. Project funding explicitly excludes maintenance of the fabric that makes a project possible. So do not fall for the idea that you can replace long-term funding by 'sponsorship' - to do that you will have to spend a lot more of staff to raise funds to keep their jobs going and maybe provide a surplus to do some worthy projects.

A parallel experience

Later on, I found myself picking up the pieces when English Nature's Estuaries Initiative was drawing to a close. This was a 'pump-priming project that had a clearly defined timeframe for funding. It was always the case that funding would diminish. I arrived in post to find that the funds were rapidly dropping and an alternative funding stream was needed; does that sound familiar! A study was commissioned to look at the value of Estuary Partnerships. I, and several others felt that if funding was to be maintained there was a need for the partnerships to have some clear evidence of the benefits that employing a project officer brought to the funding bodies (including EN). I've never forgotten the English Coastal Partnerships meeting in Dorset when Pete Barham and I were met with vocal comments - here are the men who want to close down Estuary Partnerships. How wrong they were, but we did want them to actually understand that funding organisations need some tangible evidence of what they will loose if they stop funding.

Some of the Partnerships have survived because they were genuinely needed. Others, perhaps because of the skills of their project officer finding funding initiatives - often European projects. Yet, over time their numbers have dwindled. Not that long ago, Natural England cut the last funding route - European Marine Site management.

Lesson 2 - don't set up pump-priming projects - they will turn round and bite you! Likewise, don't think your withdrawal from funding will not convey a clear message that you are no longer committed. If you work on a project, please recognise that it is a project and not mainstream - thus you will always be vulnerable to funding cuts. Those cuts will be decisions by more senior people than the manager of the initiative who will probably have little or no say in the outcome.

Modern parallels

I was therefore very surprised when Surrey Wildlife Trust took on management of Chobham Common and other Nature Reserves on behalf of Surrey County Council. I thought it was a brave move by the Trust and suspected they would get caught by removal of funding some time later. I gather that this is now happening and that the Council is doing what happened to me - passing responsibility to the Trust and removing the agreed funding stream and suggesting that funds be sourced from 'sponsorship'. There is a big lesson to be learned from this experience!

Lesson 3: Beware the gifts that carry a funding stream that can be cut!

Moving on to issues closer to me. I have had an interest in Mitcham Common ever since I could walk. It was my playground as a child and was instrumental in the early development of my science 'skills'. Until the late 1970s the Common had very limited funds, even though three Local Authorities (Croydon, Merton and Sutton) were required by law to maintain the common on behalf of the communities they served. The 'Conservators' response was to use the common as a tip - gaining a significant investment opportunity and establishing a pot of money that provides a diminishing investment return. It was not the first time that the common had been used as a tip - there are several low-lying tips of domestic rubbish and one huge one - that accommodated the rubbish of the London Borough of Croydon for several years - at zero cost to the Council!

Today, we find that both Croydon and Sutton Councils are reducing or ceasing their contributions that fund staff to keep the common in good order for the enjoyment of local people. There is a serious risk that Local Authority funding streams will stop completely. Current funding levels are really insufficient to maintain the common - scrub has advanced inexorably, despite lots of action by the wardening team and volunteers. In recent years there has been additional funding under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme - effectively EU funding. That funding stream is also threatened by Brexit. Whilst it would be nice to think that such schemes will be maintained after Brexit, the track record of Governments and Local Authorities is very dubious based on my past experience.

Lesson 4: Do not believe that statutory responsibility means that funding cannot or will not be cut. It can, and it happens with frightening regularity. It is all a matter of priorities.

So, from these lessons, I urge the 'Friends of Mitcham Common' to put pressure on the three Local Authorities (Croydon, Sutton and Merton) to recognise that the common is a fantastic resource for the peoples of the three Boroughs. It cannot be maintained by voluntary effort alone; nor can it be resourced by project funding.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

State of Nature report

On Wednesday the latest 'State of Nature' report was published. It got good press on the Radio that morning - I listened as I prepared to leave for a Workshop in Germany. The message is hardly surprising - some species are expanding their range/recovering, but rather more are declining. The biggest declines, inevitably, are amongst invertebrates and plants, whilst the most prominent gains seem to be amongst vertebrates. Why should anybody be surprised?

The positive message?

On the plus side, we are still seeing the bounce-back from the effects of DDT on predatory birds. Coupled with a decline in persecution of raptors in some areas, this change in land management has to be welcomed. It is noteworthy, however, that the agricultural sector is highlighting the improvement as a significant reason for a decline in other species! And, of course there are lobbies to reverse the improvements - badger culls and buzzard culls are just two initiatives; calls for a cull of sparrowhawks is another! So, I guess as part of the new Conservative administration's programme we might well see measures to reverse the trend in wildlife recovery!

The other gains are not necessarily positive. In my experience, gains are happening amongst introduced species, some of which are pests and others are simply establishing as part of the background mesh of wildlife. Other gains are happening where species at the edge of range are improving their foothold as clime change affects the landscape. Whilst such improvements are to be welcomed, we should perhaps treat them with some caution.

there is always a 'but' ....

So, I will be accused of having a glass half empty! Well let that be so. I recall parts of the 'leadership' of my erstwhile employers saying 'I don't want to hear about problems I simply want the good news'. The same holds with the NFU response - the NGOs should have been crowing about successes and brushing the declines under the table.

Well, I for one hope that the NGOs will continue to highlight the problems. In my experience they lie primarily amongst the specialist species and paint a very worrying picture of wildlife's future. The State of Nature  report particularly highlights problems with invertebrates, which on the basis of my field experience I think is correct.

A balanced view of why?

The State of Nature report is actually reasonably balanced. It does highlight changing agricultural practice, but then it also highlights the role a changing climate can play. As always, there will be gains and losses, and different people will lay the blame primarily on one factor. Placing emphasis on a particular cause is an easy way out but it won't solve the problem.

Using the NFU argument, if raptor numbers are increasing we should expect to see a diminution of prey items. That is a good theory, but it starts to fall apart as one travels down the food chain. Perhaps a case could be developed to link declines in smaller birds and mammals to increased raptor numbers? But, I don't think the data are telling us this. The loss of a favourite blackbird from the bird table is a visible expression of nature red in tooth and claw, but it does not mean that there is a problem with raptors. Large-scale losses in farmland birds have not been accompanied by vast increases in sparrowhawk numbers. The scale of sparrowhawk increases would have had to have been much greater to have resulted in the scale of declines in farmland birds. Moreover, the declines in farmland birds started well before a significant increase in sparrowhawks was detectable.

It is invertebrates that are perhaps the best indicators. If the NFU argument was correct, then by rights we should be seen huge increases in invertebrate populations as bird predation diminishes with the decline in their numbers. Sadly, that is not the case. When did you last have to clear your windscreen of splatted insects? When did you last drive through clouds of moths on a balmy summer's evening? I don't remember the last time I saw large numbers of ghost swift moths over a grassland, yet there are plenty of grasslands and the site where I used to see them still exists.

So, I am sorry NFU, you cannot deflect the blame onto 'predators'. nor can you duck the issue by asking that we accentuate the positives and brush the bad news under the carpet.

But who is to blame?

I must depart from the accepted mantra is that the problem primarily lies with changing agriculture. I agree that this is a significant issue, but my instincts and experience suggest that other factors are at work too.

Extreme weather, especially major droughts and exceptionally warm winters, is possibly a far more important influence on our NATIVE wildlife. I would put to one side those at the extreme of range, whose fortune wax and wane with the climate. My feeling is that it is far more important to focus on species that are primarily associated with the equable Atlantic climate. Chilly winters and warm wet summers.

Short warm winters such as that of 2015/16 mean that species adapted to longer cold conditions will not be able to survive and will shift to their favoured climate envelope (more northerly and western). Meanwhile, those species that rely on wet conditions will fail if there are prolonged droughts. There have been several major droughts in the past 30 years, starting with 1976/77, followed by a similar event in the early 1990s and again in the mid-1990s, and then again in the early 2000s. Each time, the wetland assemblage took a hammering and as far as I can see parts of it have never recovered. Good indicators might be the craneflies and snail-killing flies, but the data just are not robust enough to work from. Hoverfly data certainly point to drought as an important factor.

My feeling is that climate change is a very significant factor, but that we should not lose sight of the other big concern: loss of the fabric of the countryside as hedgerows and ditches are cleared and field sizes have been vastly increased. Loss of mixed farms and concentration on bigger areas of just a few crops cannot be positive. Landscape heterogeneity is a major factor in the overall abundance of wildlife, but the loss of unusual habitats such as seepages, log jams, wet soils and semi-permanent water bodies is equally significant.

So, NFU, I cannot let you off the hook, but the problems are much broader and these were properly discussed in the State of Nature report.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

It seems I must blame Golf for my lack of work overseas!

Oh what fun! I find it really amusing to hear Dr Liam Fox's views on what is wrong with British Industry! It strikes me that he completely fails to understand what drives industry. Perhaps the following would be a useful insight for him as to why I am not chasing business deals in the Far East:

There may be opportunities in some parts of the Far East, but there are some obvious impediments to progress by smaller businesses:

  • Lack of contacts
  • Cost of travel
  •  The need for visas
  • Lack of language skills
  • Lack of a clear understanding of what might be marketable
  • Why should developing nations use overseas specialists when they have their own specialists in up-and-coming universities.

I am part of the UK service industry, which a massive part of UK exports but is dismissed as irrelevant by the Brexiteers - all they seem to see as UK industry is widget-makers. Unfortunately, I also work in a business area where most of Government spending is wrapped up in call-off contracts with the biggest consultancies. As such there is precious little chance of making a solid income, let alone one where there is sufficient money to invest in speculative travel to suitable venues. I get innumerable invitations to conferences in China, Thailand and goodness knows where else, but I simply cannot afford the costs - one needs a strong income to support speculative travel. Therefore, I am sorry to say that I won't be contributing more to the UK export drive.

My main overseas market is/was northern Europe - which is fast slipping away from me as Brexit makes it less likely that my services will be wanted - who in Europe will want a consultant from a country that has stuck two fingers up at them and the legislation that I specialise in?

So, wake up Brexiteers - you have destroyed one market for the UK service industry and have placed your faith in doing business in parts of the world where their labour costs are lower. Whilst they may speak English we don't have a clue what they are saying - we are very definitely on the back foot. So, maybe a few parts of business do put more emphasis on their golf handicap but I suspect those businesses that can secure overseas markets have already done so. The service industry best placed to secure these markets is already there - American-owned giants with British outposts. I saw no evidence presented by Brexiteers of any market research that really showed that there was this gaping market for British goods.

Me thinks this is the start of the chickens coming home to roost.