Thursday, 29 March 2007

Conservation Conversations 5

Biofuels or Biofools?

There has been considerable debate about whether a way out of our dependence on oil is to grow a range of fuels (such as biodiesel). Strong advocates of this have been the Institute of Biology (Report Fueling the Future 3. Biofuels Consultation Response Document) which can be found on . It concludes that "Biofuel production could add value and diversity to agricultural enterprises and have a sustainable impact on the rural economy in many parts of the UK." It has recently been reported that the Bush administration in the USA perceive biofuels as being a means of weaning that country away from its dependence on oil. Ranged against such developments is environmental campaigner George Monbiot (running a campaign at He recently (27/03/2007 argued that "oil produced from plants sets up competition for food between cars and people." He points out that increasing use of biofuels drives up prices for certain crops (e.g. maize, palm oil and sugar cane) and that farmers will respond to better prices by planting more , probably by "ploughing up virgin habitat." He also states that "Already we know that biofuel is worse for the planet than petroleum" citing a report from Delft Hydraulics (Netherlands) that biodiesel from palm oil causes 10 times as much change as ordinary diesel. Clearly this is a very complex debate (one has to factor in items such as geopolitical dependence, extraction costs, transport costs, spillage charges, payment of unemployed farmers etc). It is well worth attempting to look seriously at the range of arguments.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Conservation Conversations 4

Abu Dhabi Oryx

It has been reported (,,2043588,00.html) that the Emirate of Abu Dhabi intends to annually release around 100 captive bred Arabian oryx into remote desert areas (totalling some 4000 square miles) each year until 2012 (the first 98 went out this year). This antelope became extinct in the country some 40 years ago. On the positive side, one can applaud an attempt to reintroduce a recently lost and locally evocative mammal. Details are not clear but it would be nice if the animals were individually tracked (otherwise one gets little clear indication of the success of such endeavours). Creating a protected area might well ensure that extinction does not happen again. On the negative side, it is difficult to know if captive bred animals will have the necessary knowledge to survive in what is likely to be a much harsher regime (there could be considerable animal welfare implications). The 40 years since extinction might have led to changes in the immediate environment (in terms of rainfall, water availability, vegetation and the activities of other herbivores) that make it less conducive to the viability of the Arabian oryx. It is possible that the numbers released (and breeding in the wild?) make exceed the carrying capacity of the area. Again, monitoring seems to be essential.

Seeing the Changes 4

Excellent weather at the moment. Masses of Summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) at Caswell on 24th March. Cycling along the Clyne Valley revealed Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) on 26th.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Your Drug of Choice?

The alternative rankings for drugs of abuse (some legal and some illegal) appears to raise several issues. There is little doubt that the current A,B,C system is inadequate and has been much influenced by subjective assumptions. The new proposed system by Professor Nutt's team (,,2040886,00.html) was based on the rankings of 20 substances (in terms of physical harm, likelihood of addiction and social harm) by 29 consultant psychiatrists specialising in addiction. There was additional input from 16 experts in areas such as Chemistry, Pharmacology, Psychiatry, Forensics, Police and Legal Services). The system placed Heroin, Cocaine and Barbiturates top and Ecstasy, Alkyl Nitrates and Khat bottom. Alcohol was 5th, Tobacco 9th and Cannabis 11th. Although this new ranking is an improvement, there are a number of questions that one might raise. Firstly, although Alcohol and Tobacco are legal 'drugs', they do seem a little different from many of the other substances listed. Alcohol is very widely used and, although it is not a defence in law, there has been a tendency for people to over-report its use as a defence for inappropriate behaviour. Further, its actions (mainly expressed by altering the fluidity of nerve cell membranes) are not much like the actions of other drugs that mainly have their effects by interfering with chemical transmission across synapses (the spaces between nerve cells). Tobacco does have an active chemical Nicotine that is addictive but most of this substance's other health problems seem to be related to other constituents such as tars and particulates. Most users of Cannabis appear to combine it with Tobacco, a fact that makes establishing 'blame' difficult. There are other factors that make objectively ranking legal and illegal drugs problematic. Most legal drugs are generally pretty pure (with some notable exceptions) and people are likely to be more open in admitting their use. Illegal drugs can be 'cut' with all sorts of substances that might well have intrinsic actions of their own and people are less likely to be open above their use. Some of the items listed also appear to be particularly employed by people of particular ages or ethnic origins, again perhaps making general comparisons about the harm-causing properties more difficult. I suspect that this one will "run and run" as they say.

Conservation Conversations 3

Giddy Goats in Studland

The National Trust ( ) has ordered the shooting of a herd of 18 goats that they had released on to rare heathland at Studland on the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset. The goats had been expected to graze the heath and to keep the vegetation in check but had raided nearby gardens and a golf course in spite of a 6 foot electrical fence. Heath land, if the vegetation is left unchecked, shows transition to scrubland and then on to woodland. The hoped for Benefit for the goat introduction was presumably that the animals would, by their grazing action, act as unpaid, organic lawnmowers and help maintain the heath (habitat of rare animals such as the Smooth snake and the Dartford warbler). Heath management is generally by burning (that can get out of hand) or by mechanical cutting with removal of the plant material. One might argue that the goats (fussy eaters) are simply showing foraging choices when they invade gardens and golf courses (they do not know the plants are not for them!). The Problems of such an introduction (that ought to have been recognized before the decision to release?) include the fact that goats, via their droppings, would add organic matter to the soil a fact that would not help to maintaining heathland (this depends on the soil being poor in nitrates etc). Further, the goats, if left unchecked, could breed rapidly and spread outside the area (one might then end up with problems similar to the spread of deer since hunting with dogs was banned). It is worth noting that feral goats are one of the most serious problems for endemic animals and plants in threatened islands such as Hawaii and the Galapagos. It was not a good idea to release them in to a fragile heathland environment. The problems with feral goats in Lynton and Lynmouth have been debated over several years.

Conservation Conversations 2

GM Mosquitoes to KO Malaria?

Every 20 seconds, a child is said to die of Malaria in Africa. GM Anopheles mosquitoes were recently unveiled that had been changed to be resistant to the Plasmodium parasite by Mauro et al. ( . Placing the altered mosquitoes in 'closed' environments with malaria-infected mice and wild type mosquitoes seemed to indicate that the GM version thrived. The study seems to be a more sophisticated extension of an earlier idea that involved releasing radiation-sterilised male mosquitoes to mate with the blood-sucking females. Supporting this development is the hope that the GM variety will replace the wild mosquito, reducing human to human transmission of the blood parasite (reducing human disease and deaths) without the need to resort (again) to environmentally-damaging insecticides such as DDT. The GM variety would still be available as a food item for insect-eating birds, fish and amphibia. Against this development are the observations that the 'closed' systems are highly simplified and that the GM variety would have to have a major advantage over the wild form to spread quickly and efficiently throughout the insect populations. Do they behave in the same way? Are they more or less prone to be predated? Some genes or combinations of genes do appear to spread quickly (e.g. it has be estimated that the genes that develop resistance to brood parasitism- generating so-called 'rejectors'- might well spread through an entire population in as little as 100 years. Things might well be faster in insects with their short life-cycles) but there is no real evidence as yet in this case for this . Other problems are that transmission of Plasmodium is not limited to the Anopheles mosquito in sub-Saharan Africa (there are a number of species involved). Some individual have expressed concern that the GM mosquitoes might become capable of transmitting some other agent such as HIV/Aids (although that seems rather unlikely).One might also add that, if the technique did work , one might have to reconsider the effects of extra over-population on the land, its flora and fauna

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Seeing the changes 3

Lots of lone Bumble bees (of a range of species) busily exploring potential nest sites today in the Bynea region.

Conservation Conversations 1

Knut- the Bijou Polar Bear
March 23rd 2007: There has been considerable media debate (,,2041865,00.html ) about a tiny Polar bear cub (Knut) who was rejected at birth by his mother at Berlin Zoo. The bear was considered by the zoo for euthanasia but he has now become a media 'star' with his own webcam and podcast, attracting crowds chanting "Knut is cute, we want Knut" (presumably in German). On the negative side, one might argue that global warming is threatening the survival of the Polar bear in its natural habitats and that zoos may represent one of the only viable ways of conserving this species. Zoos, however, have a very finite capacity and the 'storage space', for what is not a very sociable species is limited (many of the stereotypical behaviours seen in these animals seem to be exacerbated by keeping adult males and females in close proximity outside the mating period). An under-weight cub, rejected by its mother would not survive in nature and might well (even with lavish human attention) fail to thrive in terms of developing normally both physically and behaviourally. Knut may not become a viable Polar bear breeding animal, might be emotionally damaged and could limit the number of viable bears that this zoo can keep. His presence may also actually limit the public (who are clearly transposing human considerations to the situation) understanding of the species and its requirements. On the positive side, one could argue that Knut's 'fame' may make the public more aware of the plight of the polar bear, more willing to adopt 'green' modes of behaviour and more willing to pay taxes to reduce conserve these and other animals. Zoos are generally limited in terms of what they can do by their finances and an animal with such 'pull' can bring in money that might be used for improving environmental enrichment in animal enclosures or even to extend captive breeding and release programmes (although not for Knut).

Conservation Conversations

What is the Point of Them?

I intend to put numbered commentaries on news items that raise issues of the kind covered in the oral presentation sessions of the Dorset Field course (Biz 352) and Biom22. These are not intended to be 'in depth' analyses (or even a recipe for an answer- we repeatedly emphasize that many of these issues have no 'right' answer) but will flag some the positive and negative arguments that students might consider using when making their interjections. It is hoped that reading such conversations will help students to develop an 'on their feet' analytical style that will help them with the exercise (and, perhaps in their professional lives, when dealing with complex environmental issues).

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Seeing the Changes 2

Saw my first Brimstone butterfly (a male) of the year today and the violets are out in the hedgerows in the North Gower area.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Seeing the Changes 1

To kick things off, it has been possible to see Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) and Cowslips (Primula veris) for almost 2 weeks and warmer nights have resulted in Early (Theria primeria) and Early grey (Xylocampa areola) moths being deposited near my door.

Tracking the Changes

Although it is only really convincing when years of observations have been obtained, I thought it might be fun to look at when certain natural history events (mainly concerned with flowers, insects and birds) occur in this South Wales region. In general the images will be in the sequence of the Scientific names quoted (the first named will be closest to the text).

Entering the Blogosphere

So I have just bitten on the bullet. I hope to use this blog to maintain contact with students whilst they are working on projects outside Swansea, to discuss issues that arise in connection with field courses (and other types of teaching) and to look at current issues found in the media that relate to conservation of animals and plants. In the last-mentioned case, I might well explore some of the likely responses to images that are used to elicit student debate on these issues.

Seeing the Changes 1218

In Loughor, masses of black flies were emerging from a hedge. In conditions also attracted green lacewings ( Chrysoperla carnea ) to ...