One of the few benefits of the Covid-19 pandemic is that I have been able to spend a lot more time outdoors roaming the country lanes around my lockdown prison*. Prior to my move to Harper Adams University, I had, from 1992-2012, spent two days a week doing fieldwork at Silwood Park. When I moved from there to Harper Adams, I resisted the temptation to set up yet another long-term field study, and decided to concentrate (not very successfully) on analysing my data backlog and getting the MSc courses well and truly established at their new location. At the time I hadn’t realised how much I had benefited, physically and mentally, from my Silwood transects until I started my lunchtime lockdown treks. I have over the past eleven weeks, added four new aphid species to my personal list, plus a couple of beetles (including one notable species), counted butterflies, seen a hare, reacquainted myself with lots of grasses and herbaceous plants, talked to trees, fumbled a few fungal identifications, and even taken a passing interest in birds :-). I mention all this because I am a great believer in fieldwork and the benefits that accrue in terms of ideas if you keep your eyes open to all the other things that are happening around your study organisms. Given the vast number of insect species and the close relationships most of them have with plants, it behoves a field entomologist to have more than a passing interest in natural history.
This past week has seen a flurry of interest in the study of natural history in the UK. One of the national exam boards (OCR), after a lot of lobbying from the author Mary Colwell and organisations such as the UK Plant Science Federation, has set out a consultation document about the launch of a new GCSE** qualification in Natural History. As someone who has been bemoaning the lack of natural history training at all levels for many years, this, on the face of it, seems a great idea.
Learning the basics
This is their proposed statement on the purpose of studying Natural History: (so lack of appropriate punctuation is not due to me)
“Natural history offers a unique opportunity to observe and engage with the natural world to develop a deeper understanding of the flora and fauna (life on Earth) within it. It is a study of how the natural world has been shaped and has evolved as well as how humans (as part of that natural world) influence, conserve and protect it. It is vital that we continue to develop our understanding of the natural world in order to safeguard the future.
To fully appreciate the complexities of the natural world it is important to study it closely and interact with it through field research and measurement. Natural history provides opportunities to develop skills out in the field as well as in a classroom and/or laboratory. Studying natural history makes an important contribution to understanding the relationship between the natural world and culture, policy decisions, scientific research and technology.
Study of science, geography, history and the arts at key stages 3 and 4 provides a variety of complementary skills and knowledge which support the study of Natural history. This subject supports the development of unique skills and knowledge which give a sharper focus and depth to the complexities of the natural world. The progression pathway for this subject at key stage 5 and beyond could be scientific, geographical, environmental, ecological or natural history itself.”
This is all very laudable and something I think that all of us interested in natural history would support wholeheartedly. In the UK, the problem is particularly acute and is something that has been recognised for some time (Leather & Quicke, 2010). Natural history training at all levels has been appalling over the last couple of decades, and has been aided and abetted by the way in which research councils have awarded funding over that period (Clark & May, 2002; Leather, 2009, 2013). This, and the typical media coverage, see us living in a world where ecology and conservation, is largely perceived to be vertebrate biased, and insects, with the exception of honeybees, portrayed as the enemies of humankind.
Typical reporting of the biodiversity crisis in the UK
Vertebrate bias not just confined to the UK
A very natural (and to me fascinating) phenomenon provoking hysterical reactions on Twitter. Most of the replies were similar to these “Just RUN, RUN, Ew, Look for a spaceship – it’s an alien, we’re doomed, we’re all doomed”
This is a problem and something one would hope that a pre-university qualification in natural history would seek to address. Now, although I very much like and support the idea of a secondary school qualification in Natural History, I can see a couple of problems looming ahead. First, I may be biased, but looking at how the macro-species are represented globally, one would justifiably expect the study of natural history to focus on plants, insects and other invertebrates.
Estimated number of species globally within the macro-world (invertebrates other than insects number approximately 300 000 species).
Where are the invertebrates? Surely rather than the rise of the mammals, it should be mammals gain a precarious claw hold? The invertebrates were, and continue to be the dominant animal life from on Earth, but don’t get a mention. Then in another part of the consultation document, under topics to be considered, we see yet another anti plant and insect bias creeping in and a pro-vertebrate slant.
- Effects of introducing non-native species (e.g. harlequin ladybirds, Rhododendron)
- Species reintroduction (e.g. wolves, beavers, red kites)
There are lots of vertebrate non-native species that could be named (Eatherley, 2019) and many notable insect reintroductions (e.g. Andersen, 2016)..but where are they?
Despite the fact that the much respected book series The New Naturalist,and the equally respected journal, The American Naturalist, proudly include the word naturalist in their titles, sometime in the last thirty years or so, natural history and naturalist became words that were regarded with some scorn and suspicion within the hallowed halls of academia. Whereas in the past, to be an ecologist necessitated an understanding and knowledge of the living world (Travis, 2020), the ability to produce mathematical models and run complex statistical analyses became the route to tenure and laboratories chock a block with postdocs and PhD students. In universities, computers and molecular biology labs replaced plant and animal based practical classes. Ecology field courses based around insect, and plant identification disappeared, to reappear rebadged as conservation courses and moved to exotic climes with a focus on the large and easily seen furry, feathered and scaled vertebrates. (OK, I’m being a bit hyperbolic here but you know what I mean; and this is a true story, when I was at Imperial College and it was very obvious that we were running out of entomologists to teach the subject, my Head of Department on me drawing this to his attention, suggested that we could do more modelling). At the same time, biology teaching in secondary schools was also changing in scope, moving away from the outdoors and whole organisms, to molecules, genetics and humans. The age of plant blindness, entomyopia, entoalexia and nature deficit disorder (Louw, 2005) was well and truly established by the beginning of the 21st Century.
This brings me to my biggest concern. Insects and plants dominate the natural world, but, as we know, entomologists and botanists are in very short supply. In the UK, Botany and Zoology departments have mostly been subsumed into BioScience and Life Sciences departments to the detriment of whole organism teaching. There are no Botany Departments per se, and in the few remaining Zoology Departments, entomologists, make up at the most, half of the tenured staff, so where are the teachers going to come from?
Who will teach Natural History?
Finally, even if we find the teachers and the curriculum is appropriately balanced to reflect the natural world, unless we make it compulsory to all, as is the case with English and Mathematics, it will only ever remain a niche subject taken by relatively few students. Consequently, elephant hawk moth caterpillars will continue to be beaten to death by suburban parents afraid of snakes, the press will continue to vilify harmless wood wasps, bumbling beautiful cockchafers will be swatted to death and hoverflies squashed by rolled up newspapers for no good reason.
Andersen, A. , Simcox, D.J., Thomas, J.A. & Nash, D.R. (2016) Assessing reintroduction schemes by comparing genetic diversity of reintroduced and source populations: A case study of the globally threatened large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion). Biological Conservation, 175, 34-41.
Eatherley, D. (2019) Invasive Aliens, William Collins, London.
Leather, S.R. (2013) Institutional vertebratism hampers insect conservation generally; not just saproxylic beetle conservation. Animal Conservation, 16, 379-380.
Louw, R. (2005) Last Child in the Woods, Atlantic Books, London.
Purvis, A. (2020) A single apex target for biodiversity would be bad news for both nature and people. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4, 768-769.
Travis, J. (2020) Where is natural history in ecological, evolutionary and behavioral science? The American Naturalist, 196,
*my wife and I managed to end up being lock-downed 250 km apart 😦
**Non UK residents see here for an explanation