Friday, 21 December 2012

To tweet or not to tweet, is that the question?

In which CEH Media Relations Manager Dr Barnaby Smith examines how CEH is using social media, and makes a prediction for the future.

Some years ago I was a young academic balancing the competing demands of fieldwork commitments, paper and report writing and grant applications, with the occasional carrot thrown my way in the form of a trip to a conference. At said conference I would share the results of my labours to a usually small, possibly uninterested, audience, who, if I was lucky, asked a couple of relevant questions in the few minutes at the end before everyone headed for the bar.

In 2012 things are different...a young postdoc student winds up their social media accounts, slaps their data and preprints in the institutional repository, and networks their outputs across the web with people they've never met from countries all over the world. Their research is discussed openly by a wide range of audiences and can attract media coverage and interest from policy makers prior to the peer-review publication. Once it makes its way to the pages of the journal the expectation, at least from 1 April 2013 in the UK, is that the paper will be open access for all to read for free.

In ten years we've moved from what could be described as a static, linear, 'closed' system to one that embraces dialogue, proactive and reactive engagement, and an openness to communicate all aspects of the work. There have been many ups and downs during the transition but the science community has, in the main, decided to embrace the rapid changes to how the rest of the world operates, and make the best of them.

Over the last few years CEH scientists have been playing catch up with these new ways of operation. Corporately, we launched our first twitter account just over two years ago (@CEHScienceNews) and supplemented it in 2011 with @CEHPaperAlerts, which is a dedicated feed publishing links to our peer-reviewed paper outlets. The CEHScienceNews blog was launched in January of this year, and CEH also has a presence on flickr, facebook and youtube.

Importantly, however, individual scientists from CEH have also jumped into the social media world.  @UKLadybirds, aka Dr Helen Roy, leads the way on twitter but around 20 CEH staff and students are now regularly tweeting about their activities, with many more participating on a more infrequent basis. A recent convert is Professor Alan Jenkins, Science Director of our Water Programme. Various projects involving CEH are using twitter and facebook to communicate their work. Examples include the Scottish Freshwater Group and the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme. Our scientists have participated in "live reporting" from scientific conferences (becoming the norm, whether speakers like it or not). This development is having an interesting range of impacts on long-held relationships between scientists, publishers and scientific journals, testing the ‘Ingelfinger’ rule to its limits.

The world is changing rapidly and, at CEH, we are changing with it. One could hope that life will go back to the old days, when one could present your latest work at a conference and be confident that it would go no further than the 50 people in the room, at least until you published the Nature paper two years later. This is almost certainly unrealistic. Instead we need to work out how best to use the new ways to our advantage, making sure that the science, the science community and those that pay for and use the results derive maximum benefit.

Scientists have different views on whether the new ways of doing things are good or bad but, unless the Christmas episode of Dr Who is reality rather than fiction, I'm pretty sure we won't be going back in time. Open discussion of our research, in real time, is here to stay.

This is our final blog of 2012. Thank you for reading and Happy Christmas. We'll be back early in 2013 with more news from behind the scenes at CEH.

Barnaby Smith

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Citizen scientists ensure the success of the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey

A guest blog from Dr Helen Roy with initial results from the first ever national farm pollinator survey, which took place in June 2012 as part of Open Farm Sunday
16,380 insects counted in just one day … that is an incredible number, particularly when that day (Sunday 17 June 2012) was slightly overcast and followed weeks of unprecedented torrential rain.  The magic of Open Farm Sunday coupled with the enthusiasm of hundreds of citizen scientists, in all their many guises, ensured that the first ever national pollinator survey on farms was lots of fun and a huge success.
But why do we consider the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey such a success? 
Is it simply the volume of data that was rapidly accumulated across a large geographic region? A dataset of 16,380 observations gathered from 36 farms across 23 counties in about 6 hours is impressive.  
Or the quality of the data that people gathered?  Each participant was provided with detailed information on how to carry out the survey.  We found the data contributed by people new to counting insects was extremely similar to the data gathered by experts.

Surveying for pollinators in a farm crop. Photo by Barnaby Smith/CEH.

Or is it just the memories of people coming together with a common purpose and enjoying the opportunity to get involved in “real” science? The atmosphere on the two farms I visited was simply amazing and witnessing the excitement of people of all ages in their quest to count insects visiting flowers was unbeatable.  Expert ecologists worked alongside the visitors on the farms but all did so as volunteers and with huge amounts of enthusiasm.
Or perhaps it was the opportunity to engage with people in discussing complex ecological questions?  There is no doubt that standing in a field, with insects playing out so many subtle and intricate interactions literally at your feet, provides the perfect back drop for such discussions.
What about the way in which the data might inform science, conservation or political strategy? Certainly many people were intrigued about the value of their data within a wider context and citizen science can provide datasets that have unprecedented value for research and analysis.  We hope that surveys such as this, coupled with other scientific work, will provide evidence on which effective decisions about land management can be based. 
There are clearly many ways of measuring the success of a citizen science initiative such as the Open Farm Sunday and that in itself highlights the value of citizen science. I never imagined that more than 16,000 insects would be counted on one (not so sunny) day in June by people across the country. 
Today (Tuesday 18 December)  we have the pleasure of presenting the results of the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey at the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting.  But we are also beginning to look forward.  The enthusiastic involvement of so many people in 2012 has inspired me to begin to consider how we can extend the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey in future years ... to gather even more data to improve our understanding of the ecological communities which provide such valuable ecosystem services on farms ... but most importantly to have fun! 
Additional information
Dr Helen Roy is an ecological entomologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. She was a co-author on two recent publications examining citizen science projects.

More details about CEH science at the 2012 British Ecological Society Annual Meeting

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A bird's eye view of wind farms

In a new guest blog, Dr Claire McDonald, a Research Associate in Statistical Ecology, explains more about CEH's work examining the potential impacts of offshore wind farms on seabirds. Claire presented details of the work at the British Ornithologists' Union Autumn Meeting on 26 November 2012.

Last week I was given the chance to discuss my work on modelling the impacts of offshore wind developments on seabirds at a one-day meeting organised by the British Ornithologists' Union. I thought this would be a great event to write about in my first blog for CEH. The meeting had record attendance, with people from across different organisations coming together to keep up to date about studies on marine renewables and birds. There is keen interest in this area as renewable energy developments will likely increase along the shores of the UK as our energy demands continue to increase.

Until recently, the main impacts of offshore wind developments on seabirds has focused on birds colliding with the wind turbines, but a more important consequence may be that the birds avoid the wind farm, forcing them to find food elsewhere. This could make the birds fly for longer, or force them to feed in less favourable areas which in turn would have knock-on effects on the survival and breeding success of the birds.

CEH has a well established long-term monitoring project on the seabird populations on the Isle of May, Scotland. Such data is invaluable and can be used to examine the potential impacts of offshore wind farms.

Guillemot on the Isle of May, photo by Akinori Takahashi

Along with other CEH colleagues, we have created a model to look at how guillemots, the second most numerous seabird species on the Isle of May, use the surrounding sea to find food. We were able to use the large amount of information CEH has on the guillemot's behaviour to make the model as realistic as possible, with respect to the direction the birds fly in, how long they spend flying, diving, staying at the colony and looking for food. We then examined how the guillemots changed their behaviour when a wind farm was placed nearby. We found that when a wind farm was present the guillemots on average had to fly for longer, as they had to spend longer looking for food because of increased competition from other birds at that location.

I presented CEH's work at the meeting. Our talk, together with the other talks and posters, provided a good overview of the current issues surrounding marine renewables and seabirds. The results from monitoring work on currently operating offshore wind farms in Denmark and the Netherlands were also shown, in addition to a variety of modelling work. The day provided everyone with the opportunity to discuss the research questions that still need to be answered, as well as how we can use the extensive knowledge we have on seabirds to aid monitoring of both the short and long-term impacts of marine renewables.

Claire McDonald

Claire's work in this area is carried out with Dr Kate Searle, Professor Sarah Wanless and Dr Francis Daunt. All four are based at CEH's site at Penicuik, near Edinburgh.

Read more about CEH's long-term monitoring study on the Isle of May.

Marine Renewables and Birds conference abstracts

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Citizen science - sharing the excitement

In a guest blog, ecologist Michael Pocock of CEH shares his enthusiasm for citizen science.

There is a buzz of excitement around citizen science currently. At its best citizen science can allow excellent engagement of people with science and nature, and it can be real science.

Last week, scientists at the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and Natural History Museum published a review of citizen science [PDF], which looks at the current state of citizen science, looks back on its history, and looks forward to the future potential of citizen science, including the use of technology.

Knowing all about citizen science is one thing, but knowing how to do it is another – so we also wrote a "how to" Guide to Citizen Science [PDF] which includes really practical advice based on our experience and all the evidence we collected during the review. Both publications were commissioned by the United Kingdom Environmental Observation Framework (UKEOF) and can also be downloaded from their website.

Of course, the things that today we call "citizen science" are not brand new. In Britain, the recording of animals and plants by volunteers has been going on for centuries, especially since the time of people like John Ray (the "father of natural history"). This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Atlas of the British Flora – with the monumental, magnificent effort of botanists that provided the data. Over the past 35 years, the Biological Records Centre at CEH has been publishing atlases of animal and plant groups at the rate of three per year. Many of those atlases now are repeat surveys, so we can chart the changing distributions of animals and plants. Clearly, volunteer data collection is much older than the term "citizen science".

However, the future of citizen science is looking exciting. There are lots of technological innovations (which especially appeals to the geek in us: how about plugging a pollution sensor into your smartphone, do-it-yourself remote sensing with a camera attached to a kite or harvesting twitter messages to track the spread of tree diseases?). There is a huge diversity of projects that allow mass participation; simply download an app and you can use your smartphone as a handheld data recorder to contribute to real science! But there is also lots of fantastic face-to-face engagement, which provides a quality of engagement almost impossible via the internet. Volunteers can provide data, but they can also get involved with analysing data and interpreting results. And citizen science is not limited to professionals asking volunteers to do something – more and more volunteers are working collaboratively with scientists, so that communities get answers to the questions that are important to them. Finally, the data collected by volunteers (with the appropriate checks and balances for quality control) is becoming increasingly trusted and used by scientists and policy-makers.

I’m passionate about citizen science. It provides us, as society, with the data we need to address important questions around environmental change. It also provides a way in which anyone can get involved in science and, in many cases, to get engaged with their natural world. Citizen science, at its best, is real science and potentially life-changing engagement (oh, and it is great fun!) We hope that our enthusiasm for citizen science shines through the Report and the Guide!

Dr Michael Pocock

Additional information

Dr Michael Pocock is an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. He was one of the team of authors on the two new publications about citizen science commissioned by UKEOF and written by CEH and the Natural History Museum mentioned in the article. The Understanding Citizen Science & Environmental Monitoring project was led by Dr Helen Roy of CEH. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Update - Ash dieback resources from CEH

Ash dieback is continuing to dominate UK environmental headlines with the BBC and Guardian devoting considerable resources to the story today.

CEH has been busy collating information relevant to the problem from our long-term UK data sets and projects, and also from our scientists who work on tree issues.

Dr Michael Pocock, an ecologist from the Biological Records Centre (BRC) at CEH writes, "Based on the current evidence, it seems likely that the spread of ash dieback cannot be stopped in the UK. If this disease takes off and does kill many of our ash trees, in a similar manner to the sequence of events in other places in Europe, there is a potential for very serious impact on our countryside.  Trees and woodlands are hugely important in our ecosystems, both in terms of capturing and storing carbon, within cities for decreasing air pollution, for recreation, for landscape aesthetics, and finally of course for wildlife."

There are many insects and other animals and plants that depend on ash trees and ash woodland. Dr Marc Botham from CEH says, "Over 100 invertebrates have been recorded feeding on Ash in the Database of Insects and their Food Plants (DBIF) , including almost 50 moths, over 25 bugs and more than 20 beetles.  Over a third of these have been recorded solely on Ash trees, with a number of mites and flies in particular, entirely dependent on them. In addition, some species like the Dusky Thorn, a moth found throughout England and Wales and whose caterpillars rely on ash, have already declined significantly across their range in the UK."

Ecological background for ash can be found within the Online Atlas of British and Irish Flora on the Biological Records Centre website  including 4 distribution maps. The BSBI Tetrad Map shows that ash has been recorded from most 2km squares - the gaps in England are recording gaps rather than genuine absence.

Yesterday we published a summary of data on ash tree distribution using data analysis from one of our existing long-term, Great Britain (GB) wide data sources, the Countryside Survey (CS). The full analysis can be read here [PDF]. The CS team have done more work overnight and have just sent me an updated map showing ash coverage density within GB.
Dr Lindsay Maskell writes, "We used CS data to work out the areal extent of Ash in each of the 32 (note not 45) CS land classes. Then using the 2007 Land Cover Map and the information it provides on the amount of broadleaved, mixed and yew woodland in each square kilometre across GB, the estimated areal extents were scaled accordingly."
This is the new map:


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Mapping the distribution of Ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) in Great Britain

A newly arrived disease is threatening one of Britain’s most common trees, the Ash. According to the Forestry Commission, “Chalara dieback of ash is a serious disease of ash trees caused by a fungus called Chalara fraxinea (C. fraxinea). The disease causes leaf loss and crown dieback in affected trees, and it can lead to tree death.”
CEH has been asked to prepare a summary of data on ash tree distribution for the relevant government departments and agencies. The analysis was carried out using one of our existing long-term, Great Britain (GB) wide data sources, the Countryside Survey (CS). Countryside Survey is a study or ‘audit’ of the natural resources of the UK’s countryside, which has been carried out five times between 1978 and 2008.
The ash tree distribution analysis, which can be read here [PDF], uses CS data to estimate how prevalent ash is across the countryside. It confirms:
  • that Ash is the most common hedgerow tree species (i.e. species growing as a full standard as part of a hedgerow)
  • that there are an estimated 2 million individual ash trees (outside of woodlands which contain tens of millions of ash trees) in GB
  • that Ash is the second most common individual tree species in GB (after the Oak)
  • that there is approx 214.4 (‘000 hectares) of ash woodland in GB
  • that Ash trees increased in number in linear features, which include hedgerows, between 1978 (the first survey) and 2007 (the fifth survey).
The analysis was used to produce maps of the areal extent of Ash trees and individual distribution, including this map:
Areal extent of ash based on % cover in Broadleaved woodland habitat parcels,
mapped using landclass means. Shading relates to % landclass containing
ash woodland.

Additional links

Slimy Science Creature Challenge at Cumbria Big Bang Fair 2012

Staff and students from CEH hosted a stand at a science careers fair in Carlisle last month, during which budding young scientists were able to take on the Slimy Science Creature Challenge!

In total, a team of six staff and students from CEH’s Lancaster site created a stand for this year’s “Cumbria Big Bang”, which was held at Carlisle racecourse on 16 and 17 October 2012. The event was organised by Cumbria STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Ltd as a careers fair for 11-18 year old students from local schools and FE colleges, with the primary objective of helping to inspire and enthuse the next generation of young people about these subjects.

Getting the CEH stand ready

The main focus of our stand was a prize-based competition, which involved participants rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into an ecology related scientific challenge. Fifty fridge magnets with images of organisms from different trophic levels lay hidden in a large container of green goo (made from gellibaff, a harmless powder which holds 400 times its own weight in water). 

Contestants getting stuck into the slime.

Contestants had 60 seconds to delve into the slime to save as many creatures from the goo as possible.  In extra time, competitors had to correctly transfer the creatures to the right trophic level, i.e. decomposers, primary producers, secondary producers, secondary consumers and top predators. Frantic decision making often led the young scientists to build futuristic food chains, involving top predator pandas!

Our stand wasn't just about playing with slime. We took a microscope and showed the students the wide variety of soil animals that can be found in a compost heap such as a woodlouse, millipede, slug, various different worms and springtails. We also presented the kinds of jobs CEH does in Lancaster, including fieldwork, laboratory experiments, working with data, writing reports and presenting our science to the public. 

Everyone that took part was rewarded with a worm – the jelly variety! Those with the most correct answers made it onto our leader board, with four fantastic winners being awarded a pocket LED mini microscope each.

Our staff enjoyed the experience of meeting the students and hopefully the budding young scientists were encouraged too with what they learned about CEH and a career in science.
More photos from the event can be viewed on our Flickr photostream.
Written by Jacky Chaplow and Harriet Richardson.
Thanks also to the rest of the CEH team at the event: Elaine Potter, Judith Garforth, Andrew Sier and Claudia Moeckel.
Additional links

Monday, 29 October 2012

National BioBlitz Conference

A guest blog by naturalist, ecologist and entomologist Richard Comont who was a participant at the second National BioBlitz Conference held on 24 October 2012. Richard is working on a PhD in ladybird population ecology at CEH, Rothamsted Research and Oxford University.

Richard on stage at the 2012 National
BioBlitz conference, discussing the
naturalist's view of bioblitzes

Six AM is not a time I naturally choose to be active. But active I am, roused from the depths of slumber by the tail-end of Farming Today and quickly on the road bound for the local railway station.  Once there, the early-morning lethargy is dissipated by a Large Wainscot moth discovered snoozing at the station lights. Not long to admire it though: I’m soon en route to Bristol for the National BioBlitz Conference 2012. 

The question at this point is always the same: “So what’s a BioBlitz?” Probably the best description is that they’re a kind of ‘Time Team for wildlife’ – unleashing expert naturalists, groups of school children, and the general public on an unsuspecting area of land to find and catalogue as many species as possible in a 24-hour period. (Later, one of our conclusions will be that we need to better publicise the name!)

It’s a select group – 43 people are named on the delegate list – but as it’s running as an offshoot of a larger environmental communications conference (‘Communicate 2012’), there’s plenty of people about – TV marine biologist Monty Halls is spotted heading for the coffee stall before giving the final talk of the day, on experiences filming with Cornish fishermen for his series The Fisherman’s Apprentice.

I’m there to give two talks: one on ‘The naturalist’s view of the bioblitz’, and another publicising the Garden BioBlitz (1/2 June 2013), which I co-run with three friends.  Our idea – taking the Bioblitz concept into people’s own back gardens – using available online resources for ID (such as the Open University’s brilliant iSpot website and the Biological Records Centre’s own iRecord software to collect the records) – seemed to go down really well. At least, I’ve never spent an entire conference lunch break chatting about my talk before!
Richard leading a ladybird walk at the 2012 Oxford BioBlitz
(Photo: Science Oxford)

The afternoon is workshops – how to improve bioblitzes, and what the future holds – before Monty’s talk and the long train ride home again.  A great day out with enthusiastic people who love what they do – bring on next year’s bioblitz season!

Richard Comont

Additional information

BioBlitzes in the UK

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Has the world ceased to care about biodiversity loss?

A guest blog by Dr Terry Parr of CEH, who spoke at a side event during the recent Convention on Biological Diversity (COP11) meeting in Hyderabad, India.

Has the world ceased to care about biodiversity loss? Judging by the dearth of UK media coverage of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) high level conference of national government representatives held in Hyderabad, India over the past two weeks, you'd be forgiven for thinking so.

I dipped into the middle of the event and tested the mood of the things. At a previous CBD meeting governments agreed on some challenging new targets to halt biodiversity loss and maintain essential ecosystem services by 2020. But here in Hyderabad, discussions on how much the rich north would pay the poor south to help achieve those targets were faltering against the hard rock of economic reality. My own small contribution was also in danger of becoming irrelevant.

I was there as co-organiser of an EC side-event on "Mechanisms for delivering biodiversity benefits from REDD+". REDD+ is a new UNFCCC programme that aims to pay tropical countries to reduce destruction and degradation of their forests.  But it was becoming apparent that the initially high hopes that REDD+ would also deliver co-benefits in the form of biodiversity and sustainable development were also being undermined.

Our side event discussed the implementation of REDD+ from policy, business and research perspectives. I talked about a new EC project (called ROBIN) involving 12 European and Latin American partners, coordinated by CEH. I explained how our socio-ecological research will underpin the development of practical decision support and monitoring tools. But I also stressed how it would also help us understand the risks we take if we fail to take into account "the ROle of BIodiversity in climate change mitigatioN" (ROBIN).

And how did it all turn out in the end? Well, there was a last-minute compromise: developed countries will double funding to support efforts in developing states to help reach the 2020 targets and a call for enhanced collaboration between the CBD and the UN climate change initiatives, including REDD+.  A result of sorts. So perhaps my time was not wasted after all.

Terry Parr

Dr Terry Parr, head of a section at CEH's Lancaster site which works across Water and Biodiversity Research programmes, leads the CEH topic on "Observations, Patterns and Predictions for Biodiversity" and is involved with several national and international ecological research networks.

Additional information

Convention on Biological Diversity COP11 (8-19 October 2012)

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

REDD+ programme

Role of Biodiversity in Climate Change Mitigation (ROBIN)

Staff page and research interests of Dr Terry Parr, CEH

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The future of UK floods and droughts (and the big climate change question)

CEH hydrologist Terry Marsh spent this morning in London briefing members of the press on the facts and figures of UK hydrology throughout 2012. Terry joined staff from the Met Office and the Environment Agency to discuss the transition that has occurred from drought conditions in southern England in early spring, following nearly two years of low rainfall, to one of the wettest periods on record in the last few months.
Terry’s presentation covered the facts and figures of the recent, dramatic hydrological events, putting them into context with the longer term records held within the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme archives at CEH. The discussion at the briefing also touched on the water resources outlook for the winter and 2013, and the longer term question of how the UK should adapt to future changes in flood and drought magnitude and timing.

Floods - are they becoming more common in parts of the UK?

A common question we get asked at CEH is whether floods or droughts are becoming more common in parts of (or all of) the UK. CEH staff regularly publish scientific papers on this subject and a recently published study in the Journal of Hydrology, led by Terry’s colleague at CEH ,Jamie Hannaford, examines the issue in detail.
The new paper, “Trends in seasonal river flow regimes in the UK” (J. Hannaford & G. Buys, Journal of Hydrology), analyses trends over the 1969 – 2008 period in a network of 89 ‘benchmark’ catchments from across the UK. More details can be found in the paper abstract here. The results suggest a much more complex pattern of regional and seasonal variation than revealed in previous work (e.g. two previous papers involving CEH staff published in the International of Journal of Climatology in 2006 and 2008, both of which looked at annual figures from the benchmark catchments as opposed to the seasonal statistics examined in the new paper).
Key conclusions from the new paper include:
·         Some findings resonate with observed rainfall changes, and also with potential future climate change – e.g. increased runoff and high flows in winter and autumn, and decreased flows in spring (but NB. the latter is a result which is sensitive to study period, and is not observed in longer records)
·         In summer, there is no compelling evidence for a decrease in overall runoff or low flows, which is contrary to trajectories of most future projections
The paper abstract concludes:
“Overall, the results do not suggest immediate concern for current water resource management on the basis of observed trends alone: however, the differences between observations and model projections suggest these findings should not be viewed complacently, and greater reconciliation between dataand modelbased assessments should be sought as a basis for informing water management decisions.“
As many have found in the global temperature debate the time series you study has important implications for the conclusions you draw. The Journal of Hydrology paper examined datasets up to the end of 2008 (the scientific paper production process can take a while). Since then we’ve had a sequence of wet summers and drier winters and the CEH team are continuing to work on analysing the latest data, and improving our models, so that our science is better able to inform policy and management decisions.
Additional information

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

ECN coming of age

The news this week of significant declines in ground beetle biodiversity in the UK followed a paper published last month in the Journal of Applied Ecology led by Rothamsted Research and involving  scientists from a range of other organisations, including CEH.  The scientists analysed 15 years of data from the UK's Environmental Change Network (ECN).

The researchers found that declines were at their worst at sites studied on mountains, in upland moorland in the north and in pasture in the west. The very nature of the Environmental Change Network allowed such a study to be carried out. Its network of sites includes 12 terrestrial and 45 freshwater locations around the UK, covering a wide range of upland and lowland habitats including moorland, chalk grassland, woods and forests, farmland, small ponds and streams, large rivers and lakes.

It is timely to recognise the work of the ECN, as this year marks the 20th anniversary of its establishment - although monitoring at many of its sites goes back much further.

Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire is an ECN terrestrial
site managed by CEH.

Long-term monitoring data is regularly used in CEH research and the ECN, which CEH coordinates, is an important provider of such data, making regular measurements of plant and animal communities and their physical and chemical environment. Although annual or shorter trends can reveal much that is interesting, long-term data, over decades, is crucial for offering assessments less affected by annual fluctuations or one-off incidents and identifying environmental change over longer periods of time.

Here are just a few other recent examples where ECN data has been used by CEH researchers:
Some ECN sites are locations for long-term monitoring coordinated by other networks, such as the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme and the Acid Waters Monitoring Network.

ECN data is available via the ECN website to support research, teaching, policy- and decision-making.

Related links

Environmental monitoring at CEH

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Science Media Centre is 10 years old

Last night I attended the 10th anniversary party of the UK’s Science Media Centre (SMC). For those who don’t know what the SMC is, please take a look at their website. Put simply it’s a meeting space (virtual and physical) where scientists can interact with the people that write the stories behind the headlines (by the way, if you’re a UK-based scientist you really should know who they are!).

CEH’s connections with the SMC go way back, having been involved from the beginning due to our research work on the GM crop fields trials, and more recently on subjects as diverse as floods, droughts, air, water and soil pollution, environmental economics and many aspects of climate science (including ‘climategate’).

The evening began with luminaries, from both the science community and the UK’s science journalism community, giving short talks in praise of the SMC and the fantastic work they have done over the last decade. Points made by two of the speakers particularly struck a chord with me.

First, Paul Drayson, former science minister, racing car driver, and biotech entrepreneur, made an inspirational speech expounding on the need for scientists to be brave (and even fearless) in speaking out about the value of their research. The advent of the SMC has allowed the UK’s science community to do this, giving confidence to many (including staff at CEH) to get involved in debate on controversial issues where the ‘best’ science can inform the public.

Second, Lawrence McGinty, science editor of ITN news and, in his own words, one of the more senior science journalists working in the UK today, made a plea that the SMC (and the wider science ‘community’) should not ignore or exclude 'maverick' scientists. In his view it is vitally important that space is given to a variety of views. In the section of the audience I was sat in many heads nodded in agreement when he made this point.

Hydrologist Jamie Hannaford from CEH talks to Tom Feilden of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme
CEH works on the principle that our
scientists should speak for themselves.

CEH has run a formal Press Office since 2005, so we’re only seven years old, a spring chicken compared to the SMC. Having ‘grown up’ in their shadow many of our principles reflect the ‘core’ SMC values. For example, we’ve always worked on the principle that our scientists speak for themselves, after all they know their research, results and conclusions better than anyone else. We provide independent and impartial scientific advice, background information and evidence so whilst we always consider our funding bodies’ views we do not let them dictate how we communicate our science (in practice this can be tricky...). Finally we try not to tell journalists how to do their jobs, just as we wouldn’t expect them to tell our scientists how to do their jobs!

After last night, I will be adding two more items to our core principles list. First, our scientists should become braver (and ideally fearless) in putting their scientific evidence out in the public arena, allowing it to be debated, and responding to both criticism and praise, and second, they should never, ever, forget, there are opposing views out there that should be treated with respect, even if you fundamentally disagree with them.

Happy 10th Birthday Science Media Centre, and thanks again for all the advice and support over the years. You have made a positive difference to how scientists interact with the ‘real’ world. Long may it continue.

Barnaby Smith
CEH Media Relations Manager

Thursday, 13 September 2012

When climate models get it wrong

Guest post by Dr Chris Taylor, Meteorologist, NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Our recent paper on how rainfall processes are represented in climate models (‘Afternoon rain more likely over drier soils’ published online in Nature this week) led to some interesting headlines around the globe including "Shock. Climate models are too alarmist" (Andrew Bolt’s column in the Melbourne Herald Sun). This is not exactly how I’d express the meaning of the paper!

A key result of our work is that the current models are getting the relationship between rainfall and local soil moisture incorrect, and therefore can end up in a vicious circle of drying soil and reduced rainfall. Representing the processes by which clouds and rain develop within computer models in order to make climate projections over the entire globe for decades hence is tremendously difficult. Until now we didn't have a global observational basis for testing how well the models were predicting this particular aspect of climate. The paper attempts to do this using data from across six continents. Both the paper itself and our press release  go to considerable efforts to provide a balanced report on the research. 

We have a saying in the UK that you shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath-water. There are plenty of people around who jump on any evidence that the models aren't as good as we would like, and instantly move to reject the whole enterprise of climate modelling. We all know the models have to get better, and to get better, scientists need to identify aspects where the models fail. Sometimes communicating that process isn't easy.

Christopher M. Taylor, Richard A. M. de Jeu, Fran├žoise Guichard, Phil P. Harris & Wouter A. Dorigo Afternoon rain more likely over drier soils’ was published in Nature on 12 September 2012.  DOI 10.1038/nature11377

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Invasive Alien Species: From Data to Decisions

Guest blog by Dr Helen Roy, Ecological Entomologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who is a coordinator of the DAISIE (Delivering Alien Invasive Species Inventory for Europe) project.
Invasive Alien Species (IAS) pose a major threat to biodiversity, society, human-health, well-being and the economy. In Europe the economic impact is estimated as 12.5 billion eurosbut extrapolated costs suggest it is over 20 billion euros annually.  Europe has committed to tackling IAS through the recently published EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020.
Over the next three days (12-14 September 2012) scientists will gather at Neobiota 2012 (taking place in Pontevedra, Spain) - a conference dedicated to research on invasive alien species.  The theme of Neobiota, from data to decisions, provides a perfect context for providing an update on DAISIE (Delivering Alien Species Inventories for Europe). 
DAISIE is an online database providing information on alien species in Europe.  It is unique in many regards.  It is the most comprehensive database on alien species providing information on more than 12,000 alien species**.  It also represents a community of dedicated experts committed to addressing the threat of invasive alien species through the provision of high quality and relevant information available for all. 

DAISIE website homepage at

DAISIE is maintained by the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) but relies on collaboration with many alien species experts across Europe to ensure it remains current.  The time, commitment and enthusiasm of the DAISIE alien species experts is inspiring.  So it is with a sense of pride that Jan Pergl (Institute of Botany ASCR, Czech Republic) and I will relaunch DAISIE at Neobiota today (12 September). 
We will have an opportunity to reflect on the many successes of DAISIE, from peer-reviewed publications and books, to the major part DAISIE has played in contributing to strategies on invasive alien species over the last few years.  It is also a time to look forward and to highlight the future role of DAISIE as an information system that will both underpin effective decision making across Europe and provide a rich resource for researchers and invasion biologists. 
We look forward to welcoming new alien species experts to the DAISIE community and invite them to contribute to this impressive database.
Dr Helen Roy

Additional information

* Kettunen et al (2009) Assessment of the impacts of IAS in Europe and the EU. Institute for European Environmental Policy. 
** What is an alien species? Alien species, also known as exotic, introduced or non-native species, are species, subspecies or lower taxon occurring outside of the range they occupy naturally or could not occupy without direct or indirect introduction or care by humans. Although the majority of alien species cause no harm, some alien species spread very rapidly and can harm biological diversity, human health, and/or economic and aesthetic values. These harmful species are called invasive alien species. More information at DAISIE.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The death of the conker tree?

We need your help to discover whether blue tits may be the salvation of the UK’s conker trees, which are currently under attack from a leaf-mining moth.
The moth arrived in London just ten years ago, and has since spread across most of England and Wales. The moth caterpillars eat the leaves of the conker tree while hiding inside them, so damaging the leaves and causing them to turn brown and making the tree appear as if autumn has come early.
Since 2010 the Conker Tree Science project, led by Dr Michael Pocock at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and Dr Darren Evans at the University of Hull, has been trying to find out the extent of the damage from the moth and also examine possible solutions to the problem.  The scientific team has involved members of the public in a series of  "missions". Mission 1 asked members of the public to contribute data on the spread of the moth across the UK; Mission 2 examined how many alien moths are being killed by pest controllers; Mission 3, launched today, asks members of the public to count the number of bird attacks on horse-chestnut leaves.

Each bird attack creates distinctive holes in the top surface of the leaf, where the caterpillar of the leaf-mining moth was living. Each attack means one less moth, and so could result in less damage to the horse-chestnut trees.

To take part in this real scientific research visit the Conker Tree Science website.

More details of the new mission ‘Bird Attack’ can be found here.
The Horse Chestnut Leaf-miner moth Cameraria ohridella Credit Dave Kilbey
A blue tit in front of horse-chestnut leaves that are covered with brown patches of damage caused by the caterpillars of the leaf mining moths. Credit: Richard Broughton/CEH

The signs of a bird attack on the leaf mine home of the alien moth that is damaging our horse-chestnut trees. Credit: Dr Michael Pocock/CEH