Tag Archives: nature

Protecting and valuing our public rights of way

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have, because of the covid pandemic, been doing a lot of walking recently. As a result I have discovered a lot of public footpaths and bridleways in the immediate neighbourhood, some of which are much more well-trodden and accessible than others.

The one of the left only became visible after I hacked back the vegetation 🙂

I’ve always been an advocate of the “great outdoors” albeit, as a child, having to be occasionally chased outdoors by my parents when they thought I had been reading too much 🙂 There is plenty of evidence that contact with nature is good for our mental and physical health (e.g. Hartig et al., 2014; Shanahan et al., 2016; Lackey et al., 2018) and this had never been more evident since the global pandemic locked so many of us into restricted areas. I’m very lucky, I’m stuck in a small hamlet in a rural area of Staffordshire.

My walking area

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, walking in the countryside became a popular and inexpensive form of recreation for less well-off city dwellers. The popularity of this activity led to the formation of several local walking or ramblers groups. Access to the countryside was, however, frustrated by the activities of landowners who taking advantage of the Enclosure Act, fenced off their land and often took ramblers to court for trespass.   In 1932, Benny Rothman, of the Young Communist League, frustrated by this, organised a mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District (regarded by the government as an act of civil disobedience).  As a result this of this and with support from leading politicians of the day, a number of new public rights of way came into being, including, the, to me, iconic Pennine Way. More recently, the Country Side Rights of Way Act of 2000, has reinforced the concept of the right to roam and the UK now allows more access to the countryside than most countries of the World. Note that the Scandinavian countries are even more liberal when it comes to the freedom to roam, something that I was immensely grateful for when doing fieldwork in Finland, as I often found myself stumbling into someone’s back garden while hunting down bird cherry trees in the winter gloaming 🙂 We are fortunate in the UK, that there exists a well-mapped, and in many cases, well sign-posted, 260 000 km of public footpaths and bridleways available to use.

A well maintained example of public footpath ‘furniture’.  The footpath itself in this case has not been reinstated by the farmer and is not very visible.

I suspect that most people, even those that use public footpaths and bridleways are unaware of who is responsible for marinating (left this in so that Emily’s comment makes sense) managing this remarkable network, so here goes.

The Highway Authority (via the local council) and the landowner (or occupier) are the two bodies with the most responsibilities.  Parish councils have some duties, but not all are compulsory and the people who use the paths and bridleways are also expected to follow some simple rules. I’ll go through what these are, one by one. 

Highway Authority

The Highway Authority via the local council must:

keep the surface of the public path network in good repair and control vegetation (other than crops) growing from it maintain bridges over natural water courses, including farm ditches

signpost rights of way from metalled roads and provide additional signs and waymarks as necessary along the route

 protect the public’s right to use and enjoy rights of way

secure the removal of obstructions, including ensuring that paths over cultivated land are reinstated and marked out after they have been disturbed

ensure that there are no intimidating notices that would deter the public from any paths

As far as I can tell, although for example, Staffordshire County Council in which I live, has a department that deals with footpaths and bridleways, councils are  not very proactive in any of the above, relying on members of the public to report any issues. For example, there are several signposts in the village in which I live that are in very poor condition, and yet in the seven years I have lived in it, the only ones that have been repaired are the ones that I have notified the council about. The take home message here is, don’t assume the council will do something about of their own bat, you need to report it, don’t assume that other users will.  Even some of the most used paths in my area have broken stiles and when I logged on to the council site, I found that I was the first person to report them, despite some of them having been in disrepair for a couple of years.

provide a minimum 25% contribution towards any costs incurred by a landowner in maintaining stiles or gates on public rights of way

One of the formerly obstructed and broken stiles that I reported last year. Now much more usable.

Next, the landowners.  According to the Staffordshire County Council web site, “The vast majority of landowners fulfil their legal duties to keep paths on their land open, safe and accessible by keeping routes clear and maintaining stiles and gates, but some don’t. The majority of the 2,000 calls we receive every year is about problems on private paths.”  All I can say is that those of us living where I do are very unlucky in that the local farmers are either not aware of their responsibilities or are deliberately ignoring them. I have listed their duties below with a commentary base donmy personal experiences over the last eighteen months.

The landowner or occupier of land must:

keep rights of way clear of obstructions

Hollow laughter on my part!

cut back vegetation encroaching from the sides and overhanging the path, so that it does not inconvenience the public or prevent the line of the path from being apparent on the ground. (On bridleways, horse riders should be allowed 3 metres [10 feet] of headroom)

Again, not much signs of this – I take a pair of secateurs with me on my walks

ensure that all field-edge public paths are never cultivated

The two examples that I know and use, were both cultivated this year and the previous one

ensure that cross-field footpaths and bridleways are cultivated (i.e. ploughed or disturbed) only when it is not convenient to avoid them and are properly reinstated after disturbance

keep paths clear of crops to ensure that they do not inconvenience users

Not something I have seen in the local area – all reinstatement is done by users walking over the ploughed field. Our local landowners are not exactly the best “stewards of the countryside”.

Two examples of paths not reinstated after cultivation by the farmer – Luckily these are well used by me and others so soon became apparent.

maintain any stiles or gates on a public path in a safe condition

Again, ample evidence that landowners are not very proactive in doing what they are supposed to

ensure that bulls are not kept in a field crossed by a path unless they do not exceed 10 months old or are both not of a recognised dairy breed and are accompanied by cows or heifers

I’m not sure what they mean here by recognised dairy breed.  Do they mean pedigree herds or just recognisable breeds? Many of the fields I crossed last year were stocked with dairy cattle accompanied by bulls. Also, several fields that I had to cross last year were stocked with fair sized bullocks, although they may have been under 10 months

ensure that any warning notices are displayed only when a bull is present in a field

I have seen no warning notices in the local area, not even for electrified fences

never keep any animal which is known to be aggressive in a field to which the public has access

I haven’t been chased yet, followed by curious bullocks, which can be a bit intimidating at times, but not chased.  I do know that some of my neighbours with less agricultural experience than me, avoid using paths when the fields are full of livestock.

ensure that no misleading signs are placed near rights of way that might discourage access.

I am happy to report that I haven’t seen any of these in my area.

Parish councils

Another stakeholder with somewhat fewer duties, but with a very important role to play is youjr local Parish council.  They can do any of the following.

maintain any footpath or bridleway within its area which is maintainable at public expense

I guess this will depend on their budget

erect lighting on any footpath or bridleway. Although the number of public paths likely to require lighting is small, lighting can be important on paths leading to a village or bus stop for example

erect notices, with the consent of the landowner, on or near a footpath or bridleway, warning of local dangers

create new footpaths and bridleways by agreement with the landowner over land in their own and adjoining parishes if satisfied that the creation would be beneficial to all or, any part of, the parish or community

This would be very useful and welcome

signpost and waymark public paths on behalf of, and with the consent of the highway authority. A highway authority can give permission for other persons such as parish councils to erect and maintain signposts on its behalf

Again this would be very useful and welcome in our area – I am, however, not sure if their budget could cover it.

provide seats and shelters at the side of public paths

These would be very welcome – so far none in our immediate area 🙂

You the user

Finally what about me and other users? As a user of public rights of way you have a duty to treat the pathways and surroundings with respect.

“The public’s right over a highway is a right of passage. Path users must keep strictly to the line of the path and must not loiter.

This one is a bit odd, does it mean that you shouldn’t have a picnic sitting on the actual path or stand still at a particular viewpoint? 

On public rights of way, you can:

Take a pram, pushchair or wheelchair if practical

Take a dog (on a lead or under close control)

Dog owners are one of my bête noires.  Thankfully most that I meet, either have their dogs on a lead or if not, hurriedly put one on. There are, however, a few whose definition of under close control, differs markedly for mine.  I don’t consider dogs that rush up and jump up at you as being under control, no matter how much their owner tells you they are just being friendly. That also goes for those dogs that hurtle towards you and then run round and round you barking.  It might also be nice if dog owners didn’t let their dogs defecate on the footpath but a good distance away from it.  Some people bag it up, which as the bags are plastic is not that environmentally friendly, especially if they don’t actually take it home with them.

I often wonder about dog owners 😦

Take a short, reasonable detour to get round any illegal obstruction.”

Sometimes this latter instruction is not that easy especially as in one case the farmer had blocked the stile, with barbed wire so I had to try and find another way to regain the path which meant walking across some of his crops.



Farm gate obscura
Once, open and shut daily,
Now long forgotten
 

I have now found eight of these – while they may not have been public rights of way, they did once allow access to the fields.  They are also, indicators of the way in which over the last fifty or sixty years, fields have been enlarged by the removal of interior hedges to cater for ever larger farm machinery.

Hedgerow remnants

Lines of trees such as those in the middle of fields are usually an indicator that there was once a hedge and that two fields have been combined into one larger field – hence the presence of defunct gates hidden inside roadside hedges.

Those gates that have survived have then had to be enlarged to cater for the larger machinery.

What can you do to help?

The UK government has set a deadline of 1 January 2026 for all historic paths to be registered for inclusion on official maps. You, as a footpath user can use existing paths and petition your local Parish Council or County Council for new paths to be registered. Very importantly, make sure that you report obstructions to existing paths when you come across them.  Don’t expect others to do so, the more of us who report blocked paths and broken stiles, the more chance there is that they will be unblocked and repaired. Also go to your local council web site and download the footpath map of your local area.  You will be surprised at how many there are, and how many have been hidden by the landowners. We need to make sure that these hidden gems are revealed.

If you want to protect and enhance our public footpath network, please consider joining the Slow Ways project, their aim is to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages. You can find out more here.

Enough writing, time to get out and do some walking.

References

Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., de Vries, S. & Frumkin, H. (2014) Nature and health, Annual Review of Public Health, 35, 207-228.

Hey, D. (2011). “Kinder Scout and the Legend of Mass Trespass” (PDF). Agricultural History Review59, 199-216.

Lackey, N.Q., Tysor, D.A., McNay, G.D., Joyner, L., Baker, K.H. & Hodge, C. (2019) Mental health benefits of nature-based recreation: a systematic review, Annals of Leisure Research,

Shanahan, D., Bush, R., Gaston, K., Lin, B.B., Dean, J., Barber, E. & Fuller, R.A. (2016) Health benefits from Nature experiences depend on dose. Scientific Reports, 6, 28551

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The Natural World in Haiku Form – volume 4

Thanks to covid and cancer, I spent most of last year (2020) away from the campus.  Luckily, I live in a very rural area so I was able to do a lot of walking and interacting with Nature.  This year’s collection of haikus are thus geographically constrained.  I hope that some of them will strike a chord with some of you.

Memories

Oak, standing alone

Hoarding Nature’s memories,

Safe, beneath her bark.

February 6th 2020 Sutton

Nature prevails

Stalwart oak still stands.

Despite lightning’s flashing bolt

Nature will prevail

15 April 2020 Forton

Sentry duty

Oaken sentinels;

marking the perimeter

of the farmer’s field

Sutton 18th May 2020

Inner strength

Pointing at the sky

Twin stags, hoarding resources

Not ready to die

1st June 2020 Sutton

Fresh air

Busy buzzing bees
Old hedgerow oaks in a row
Loud Lapwings mewing

25th March 2020 Sutton

Covid-19

Together apart,

Socially distancing pines,

A sign of our times

24th March 2020 Sutton

Insect Heaven

Yellow furze crowned slope

basking in April’s warm sun.

Heaven for insects

22nd April 2020 Oulton by Sutton

Dandelions

Spherical fluffy

timely seed distributing,

dandelion clocks

4th May 2020 Sutton

Welcome trespassers

A part but apart,

encroaching the wheat desert;

delightful colour

16th August 2020 Sutton

Spring flush

Spring, pinkly blushing,

but soon to be clipped and hacked

By the groundsman’s shears.

Harper Adams 16th March 2020

Farmscape

Green ivy, brown thorn
frame the farmer’s verdant fields;
awaiting spring’s warmth

Sutton 28th March 2020

Sloe gin beckons

Blackthorn, lustrous white

brightening up our spring hedges;

later on, sloe gin

Sutton 10th April 2020

Wrekin view

Bird, high in the sky

Soars above the farmer’s fields;

Views Hazy Wrekin

Sutton April 3rd 2020

Grey

Sultry leaden sky.

Oh for a clap of thunder

To bring the rain down

May 26th 2020 Sutton

Wonder

Blue, glimpsed behind

the cloud rippled firmament.

A wondrous beauty

March 31st 2020 Sutton

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Pick & Mix 41 – some links to entertain and inform

Which species do we save – so many to choose from and not enough money

The moths of Whittingehame – following in the footsteps of Alice Blanche Balfour

The science behind prejudice – do cultures grow more prejudiced when they tighten cultural norms in response to destabilizing ecological threats?

Did bird vaginas evolve to fight invading penises?

Procrastination in academia – most of us do it – here is a scientific exploration and analysis – be warned it is riddled with jargon

What goes on inside an aphid and why Nancy Moran does what she does

James Wong examines the evidence (or lack of) for an impending “agricultural Armageddon”

Here Patrick Barkham recommends some books about Nature and muses on how we as individuals can make a difference

Overlooked and underused crops – a possible solution to the food crisis?

Great pictures and story – all about swallowtail caterpillars and their defence mechanism – another tour de force from Charlie Eiseman

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The Natural World in Haiku Form – Volume 2

Nature versified.

Haikus from the year gone by

To enjoy or not.

 

Cryptic and not

Grasshoppers blend in;

 Busy ants don’t care at all

 If you see them there

17th August 2018 Vinca

 

Ants

Mountainous thunder

Sends ants scuttling to their nest.

Seeds await the wind

 

Ants again – Reverse Haiku

Ants, sensing distant thunder,

Scuttle to their nest,

While seeds pods wait for the wind.

22nd May 2018 Vinca

 

Aphids

 

Aphids are so cool.

Three generations, making

One clonal body

25 December 2017

 

Raucous Rooks

Starkly black on blue.

Rudely cawing rooks disturb

My morning coffee

15 February 2018

 

Raucous rooks railing.

Sable, swooping, skyward sailing,

Disturb my morning

26th February 2018

 

Mountain

Sunny Canigou,

Snowy peak shining brightly.

Winter in Vinca

20th January 2018

 

Malham Tarn

Rising from the rain

Summer mist, slowly rolling,

Hides Malham Tarn

July 16th 2018

 

Prunella

Commonly overlooked,

 Elastically plastic;

Purple Prunella

July 17th 2018

 

Four Brothers?

Four trees in a row
Standing smallest to tallest.
What is their story?

August  20th 2018, Vinca

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Brilliantly, Beautifully Beetle Filled – The Beetle Collector’s Handbook

A book to hold and cherish – it is a very tangible experience

According to the frontispiece, Bartholomew Cuttle got this book when he was 9 years old and it passed into his son Darcus’s keeping when he was 13, I’m guessing at the end of the Beetle Boy Trilogy.  At round about the same age as Bartholomew (I was 8), I pinned my first insects and discovered the Dr Dolittle books, both events that shaped my life significantly, engendering as they did, a life-long love of Nature.

 

If someone had given me Maya Leonard’s latest offering, The Beetle Collector’s Handbook then, and not now, I would have been over the moon and have immediately rushed off to read it cover to cover in one sitting, which is pretty much what I did, and, how I felt, when it arrived in the post at work a couple of weeks ago 😊 As you may have guessed from the above, I am a great fan of this, the latest outing by Maya Leonard.  Despite the frontispiece, the artificial but subtle signs of aging and loving usage, and the connection with the Beetle Boy novels indicated by the fictional, annotations*  by Darcus and his friends, this is not a work of fiction.

Fantastic Silphid with extra annotations

Neither is it a text-book or a manual.  So, what is it exactly?  It’s instructional, educational and, very importantly, fun.   So, what do I mean by instructional.  I have, for example,  written about the history of the Pooter which I consider educational, whereas, The Handbook shows you how to make your own, hence instructional.

 

Everyone needs to know how to make a Pooter

Keeping proper records is very important.

 

Also instructional is the advice on how to record your observations.  In terms of education, you are regaled with salient facts and figures about a number of beetles, albeit only a tiny fraction of those that have been described by entomologists, but that in the words of the author are  “..the species of beetles that I think are the most surprising, beautiful and impressive…”

Stag beetle, I particularly like the fact that many of the illustrations show you the actual size of the beetle.

Maya, or should that be the fictional author, Monty Leonard, has shunned traditional taxonomy-based listing and instead presented the beetles in a playful grouping of shared traits, skills or appearance, so fun and educational.  What really makes this book something very special is the quality of the illustrations by a very gifted young artist, Carim Nahaboo.  I can’t praise them enough.  Buy the book and enjoy them in their high-quality format and not via my poorly photographed versions.

The Great Diving Beetle – marvellously life-like

 

This is a book that all primary schools should buy, two copies at the very least, one to subtly place in the library area and the other for use by the staff member tasked with encouraging their pupils to appreciate the wonders of Nature. I also think that secondary schools should invest in a copy or two.

I suspect that not all the fans of Darcus & Co will read this cover to cover, but those that do, will, I am sure, end up studying entomology, perhaps on the new Zoology & Entomology BSc at Harper Adams or on our MSc course 😊

Thank you, Maya, for yet another very enjoyable read.  May you long continue to enthrall audiences, young and not so young, with your tales of beetles and their deeds.

M.G. Leonard (2018) The Beetle Collectors’ Handbook, Scholastic Children’s Books, ISBN 978 1407 18566 8

 

*

 

 

 

 

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Pick and mix 19 – a mixed bag

George Monbiot on how big coroporations are using viral marketing techniques to rubbish their opponents and even get scientific papesr retracted – very disturbing if true

When should a non-aggressive exotic species be demoted to a harmless naturalized resident?

David Zaruk on the two sides of communicating the perceived and real risks of pesticides

It turns out that moths and butterflies are a lot older than we thought – 70 000 000 years older!

More evidence that plants talk to each other

Why imaginary treehouses help children engage with Nature

Embedding real insects in resin – a great outreach tool

Taxonomy is essential for global conservation, not a hindrance

Why you shouldn’t kill or remove your house spiders

And yet more evidence to show that insects are under threat, this time from climate change

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Pick and mix 11 – Another ten links to look at

I’m still on holiday in France so just a series of links this week.


Links to things I thought interesting (picture is the room door of the Ibis Style hotel we stayed at in Paris)

 

Is “novelty” holding science back?

Using radio tagging to improve the conservation of stag beetles

How ‘Nature’ keeps us healthy, from potted plants to hiking

How scientists at Rothamsted Research and the University of North Texas have engineered a relative of cabbage to produce fish oil

Agricultural efficiency will feed the world, not dogma

A really interesting article about migration and movement of people

Dave Goulson’s work on pesticide residues in garden plants summarised by plant ecologist Ken Thompson

Using a field journal to strengthen learning

At the risk of seeming big-headed an interesting episode of Entocast

I don’t normally post about birds but after this golden oriole

committed suicide against our patio doors thought that this deserved a mention

 

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The Natural World in Haiku form

Traditionally in the world of journalism, August is regarded as lacking any news of note, and is, in the UK at any rate, dubbed the “Silly Season”.  In homage to that view-point, and instead of doing one of of my usual blog posts, I searched for all the haikus I have tweeted over the last three years and present them here for light relief.

 

Thirsty snails

Short of water, snails

Circle and swirl on the rocks,

Waiting for a storm.

All the stones of any consequence were encrusted with snails.  Then the rain came and they were gone.

Italy 25 July 2014

 

Evening lift-off

Italian evening;

Bats swoop as stag beetles lift

Into lurching flight

Note the hole in the left elytrum, the resident kitten at our Italian holiday villa really enjoyed herslf snatching the poor lumbering beasties (in this case a Rhinoceros beetle) out of the air ☹

Italy 27 July 2014

 

Breakfast?

Italian morning;

Lizards scurry on the stairs

as cicadas sing

Admittedly not on the stairs, but close enough 😊

28 July 2014

 

Seasons

 

Spring has sprung

 White, pink fluttering,

the gentle breeze scattering;

cherry blossom falls

Outside my office – 24 May 2016

 

Summer?

Blue sky, sun shining

Ducklings following mother

Winged aphids – summer?

4 May 2016

 

Summer?

Dull, damp, cold drizzle.

Clouds glowering down on me.

Flaming June my foot 😦

29 June 2017

 

St Martin

September sunshine;

Eating lunch sitting outside.

What could be better?

10 September 2014

 

On the way

 September morning,

Sunlit, moist mist-laden trees;

Autumn is coming

8 September 2014

Autumn

Crickle, crackle; leaves,

underneath my slipping feet.

Autumn is with us.

20 October 2015

 

I used to camp here as a lad!

Sodden tent, wet feet.

Rolling hills and drystone walls.

English Lake District

8 October 2014

 

Damp

How I hate mizzle;

as wet as real rain, but no

comforting refrain

26 November 2015

 

Satisfaction

Shuffling through brown leaves

On a sunny autumn day;

So satisfying.

2 November 2016

 

Wet Pavements in Lille

Desert boots are great

except when soles are holey.

Then rain means wet feet

10 December 2014

 

Transience

Icing sugar snow,

Gently being washed away;

Grey drizzle falling

29 January 2015

Miscellanea

 

Job downside

Academics hate

marking student assignments

on a sunny day

7 December 2016

 

Sunday lunch

 Butterflied mint lamb

roast potatoes and carrots;

apple and pear tart.

11 December 2016

 

Dedicated to @IMcMillan who spends a lot of time at stations

Cardboard coffee cups

tentatively raised to lips;

Morning commuters

7 July 2016

 

Definition

Searching for the why

and how things are like they are;

Entomology

20 December 2015

 

Blood Moon

Lustrous, silver orb

Bloody, awe-inspiring moon

Night-time amazement

28 September 2015

 

Evening entertainment

Bats, swiftly looping

Snatching insects from the sky

Feeding on the wing

26 July 2017

 

Regular readers, rest assured, normal service will be returned in the next post 🙂

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Are we too late to save Natural History? The demise of Natural History training in schools and universities

For some years now I have sounded off about my concerns over the loss of entomological expertise and teaching (Leather, 2007, 2009ab). My former colleague Donald Quicke and I have also written about the demise of natural history teaching in secondary and tertiary education (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010). More recently, I have been following a debate on Ecolog about the lack of field-based natural history teaching in the USA, with many contributors lamenting the decline of teaching in this area due to the over-emphasis placed on teaching molecular biology and allied subjects. Interestingly enough, at about the same time, Jeremy Fox addressed a similar issue about natural history knowledge in academic ecologists and concluded that there was not as much of a problem as many people thought  http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/stats-vs-scouts-polls-vs-pundits-and-ecology-vs-natural-history/

Terry McGlynn http://smallpondscience.com/2014/02/03/natural-history-is-important-but-not-perceived-as-an-academic-job-skill/ however, is much less sanguine and perceives a real problem with not just the teaching of the subject, but of the willingness of students to engage with those courses still available.

In the UK the decline in teaching whole organism biology in general at secondary school and undergraduate level has become ever more pronounced. Biology teaching at research intensive university has become increasingly cell and molecular biased as whole organism biologists retire and are replaced by cell and molecular biologists publishing in ‘high impact’ journals; the needs of teaching are perceived as secondary, research profiles are seen as more important. As a consequence, many biology degrees in the UK lack balance, and content is largely dependent on what those staff still willing to teach, are able to offer. We thus have zoology degrees where whole organisms are largely absent and the invertebrates are covered in perhaps as few as twelve lectures. We also see ecology degrees lacking physiology; how can you understand an ecosystem if you don’t know how the constituent parts work?

I have not been alone in bemoaning the status of natural history knowledge and training; in 2005, Anne Bebbington of the Field Studies Council wrote

At secondary level the decrease in the importance of whole organism biology in the curriculum, declining opportunities for fieldwork and the concentration of A-level fieldwork on techniques and course assessment allow little time for training in identification skills. Many A-level students feel that being able to recognise and name organisms is not important. In teaching students to be responsible citizens and to care about their environment, a knowledge of at least the common organisms around them is vital. Initiatives are needed to engage the interest of primary school children and to provide more opportunities for fieldwork at secondary level, including time to teach students to recognise organisms. Training for teachers would be valuable and the role of organisations outside formal education in educating the wider public is also recognised.”

Five years later, Donald Quicke and I (Leather & Quicke, 2010) wrote “The great majority of those now studying for degrees in biology have had virtually no training or experience in identifying organisms, and sadly, the drive towards ever more molecular and hands-off meta-analysis type study in universities is exacerbating the situation. Although students may be enthused on a two-week long field course and get to learn to recognise a few major groups or species, without back-up, just as with use of statistics, for example, this will have little, if any, long term retention in their skill set.”

We are now almost five years on from these words and worryingly, things, despite all the citizen science activities that seem to spring up every week and the popularity of natural history apps and programmes like Springwatch, have actually got worse and not just in the UK (Tewksbury et al., 2014)*.

The problem we face is that although there are still many people interested in natural history per se, there is a declining number of opportunities for people to be academically trained in the disciplines associated with its study. Thus fewer biology teachers with these skills are employed and opportunities for enhancing (or subverting as some might see it) the rigid school curriculum at present enforced in secondary schools are becoming fewer too. The good work done in some primary schools by dedicated teachers and outreach specialists such as Minibeast Mayhem are not reinforced at secondary school and thus fewer students want to go on to pursue such studies, or are even aware that such study is possible. At undergraduate level, we find very little whole organism teaching in both the field and laboratory. How many zoology degrees in the UK now expose their students to functional morphology; for example, examining and drawing skulls in able to understand the evolution of reptilian jaw bones to mammalian auditory bones; something that even I, as an invertebrate zoologist, was ‘forced’ to do? I was pleasantly surprised during my recent visit to University College Dublin as the external examiner for their BSc Zoology degree, to find that at least some zoology courses do still retain many of the essential whole organism elements required to fully understand animal form and function.

What are we doing about these lost skills? The UK Plant Sciences Federation recently (January 2014) released a detailed report where they highlighted areas where the UK is desperately short of expertise and training; much to my gratification this included entomology as a key subject area 😉 They have, since the release of this report, set up a number of working groups, one of which, Training and Skills, I have agreed to chair. Our first meeting is in July and we will report back at the end of September, hopefully with some concrete and workable suggestions. The Field Studies Council, as you might expect, are also very much concerned about the situation and thanks to a recent grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have been able to initiate a programme called Tomorrow’s Biodiversity which has the aim of facilitating the recording of biodiversity by getting more people trained in identification skills, particularly in the less well-known taxa.

The problem as I see it, lies in the lack of formal natural history training and teaching at undergraduate level. This has been brought about by the failure of university departments to understand the importance of whole organism biology and a tendency to recruit staff according to the funding fashion of the moment, rather than considering the big picture and recruiting across the specialities. We need to balance the teaching and research staff within our university departments so that we produce a viable population of graduate whole organism biologists, be they zoologists, botanists, or ecologists, who are able to recognise the plants and animals that surround them and not just a few ‘model organisms’ and also to understand how they function within that environment. We also need to look seriously at our pre-university biology teaching and increase the amount of whole organism and field content in both pre- and post-16 teaching. There are many opportunities to do this even in genetics. For example in ‘O’ Level Biology our teacher took us outside to search for and collect the snail Cepea nemoralis, famous for its variation in shell colour which is genetically controlled and which is selected for by the degree of predation that populations in different environments suffer from thrushes (Cain & Sheppard, 1954).  There are many such opportunities but only if the teachers know about them and are willing and able to take them.

Pink Cepaea_nemoralis

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cepaea_nemoralis.jpg

  Yellow Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758)

      http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hain-B%C3%A4nderschnecke#mediaviewer/Datei:Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758).jpg

An afternoon outside taught us genetics, ecology and plenty of natural history. I feel privileged and thankful that I was able to spend so much of my childhood outside in the natural

Simon Jamaica c 1963

world and hope that we can at least give the current generation of young people the opportunity to enjoy and understand the importance of the natural world around them before it is too late.

References

Bebbington, A. (2005) The ability of A-level students to name plants. Journal of Biological Education 39: 63-67. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00219266.2005.9655963#.U5g5MFRwa70

Cain, A.J. & Sheppard, P.M. (1954) Natural selection in Cepaea. Genetics, 39, 89-116 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1209639/

Leather, S. R. (2007). British entomology in terminal decline? Antenna 31: 192-193.

Leather, S. R. (2009a). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56: 10-13. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_Biologist_2009.pdf

Leather, S. R. (2009b). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_2009_Trends-in-Ecology-&-Evolution.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2009_JBE.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf

Tewksbury, J.J. et al. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience 64: 300-310 http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/4/300

*Slightly tongue in cheek, I must point out that the authors failed to cite any of my papers concerning the decline of natural history teaching 😉

 

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