Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

27 Sep 2011

Tidal ecosystems; Or making the world our proverbial Oyster

I have just returned from a week’s field course in Brittany, at the CRESCO (Centre de recherche et enseignement  des systemès cotiers) in Dinard. This research station provides a base for IFREMER (French fisheries board) and the MNHN (Natural History Museum) to monitor the ecology of the Northern coast of France and the channel. Our time was spent studying the flora and fauna of coastal ecosystems, the influence of natural processes on these, but also on the role of man in shaping an extremely biodiverse region. 

Tuesday morning on the salt marshes, in the shadow of Mont St Michel. This island floats above the misty horizon, giving the bay a mystical appearance. To the west, more structures appear equally surreal given that we are now one kilometre away from dry land. It is the oyster and mussel beds, harvested for over 200 years which stand against the rising and falling tides. But changes have come; a mechanisation of collection, an expansion of the mussel beds and a genetic variant increasing oyster size have allowed for an increase in production. These are now thought to have paved the way for population crashes as a result of parasites and reduced fertility. Conchyliculturers (shell fish farmers) dodge responsibility and avoid discussion of malpractice, whilst waxing lyrical on their inability to pay for ever increasing loan repayments. They blame INFRAMER for providing them with dodgy stock (“a government conspiracy?”), and yet continue to seek expansion.  Our professors take all this with a pinch of salt, and explain later that a change is necessary, and that we can no longer exploit as before, for the littoral floral and faunal communities cannot support it.

Friday morning on the banks of a coastal inlet, in a small Breton village called St. Suliac. Inside the town church, parts of which date back to the Roman occupation, a strong link can be felt with the community and the sea. Stained glass figures cross the shore on a pilgrimage, with salicorn haelophyte plants (adapted to a salty environment) at their feet. A wooden sailor, whose wreck of a ship is battered by waves, grabs a staff offered to him by the Virgin Mary. But this town too is not what it once was. In 1960, EDF (Electricité de France) began constructing a tidal dam to harness the energy of the tides. Kid yourself not; this was no green initiative, for no ecological surveys were undertaken. The construction of the dam totally altered the tides of the estuary behind it, which once experienced the third highest tidal regime in the world, and which now experiences almost none.  

Changes in the composition of the ecosystem community have been measured for 30 years by CRESCO, with impact assessments on flow rates, sediment deposition and offspring recruitment. Surprisingly, the estuary has experiences a rise in biodiversity. The dam created a new niche by providing constant water cover, and as a result has seen a flourishment in bird populations, algal communities and migratory fish. But below the surface all is not well, for a further human-induced change in the landscape is proving worrying for the researchers at CRESCO. Crepidule forniacata, a bivalve mollusc from the US which was introduced to the French coast during the D-Day landings by American ships has now successfully established itself right along the coast (partially as a result of an association with conchyculture). Alien species are rarely good news, and this one is worrying both researchers and shellfish farmers since it changes the seabed composition, homogenising it and thus excluding other species.

Natural spaces are, and for a long time have been, managed and altered by man, and the future offers no respite. A synthesis of resource extraction and land management are required, in particular in areas such as these where cultural practice are entrenched within the community. The bay of Mont St. Michel is currently undergoing such an overhaul, with the implementation of National Park Status and developments to restore its marine character by demolishing the car park and spit which currently connect it to the mainland (Project Marin de l’Agence des Aires Marines Protégées). These developments are sure to increase protection given to natural spaces, but are also thought to impact on conchylicultureres.

Such big decisions are often heavily weighted against by local politicians, who as upstanding members of the community are often mussel farmers themselves (the one we met was the local mayor). Tourism companies too hold sway. The island of Mont St Michel is one of the most visited sites in France, and such a high turnover is of great importance to the local economy; serious amounts of money are threatened to be withdrawn by Japanese tour groups whose packed schedules rely on a carpark. But big governance under the European Union has pushed through reforms in environmental legislation, forcing local communities to adapt and find more sustainable methods. The Water Framework Directive, the Natura 2000 habitats of importance and Marine Strategy Framework are all making noticeable differences to marine legislation and management.

On the train home back to the city, I reflected on the trip and for one of the first times when considering the biodiversity issue, I had a glimpse of a solution. Resource, energy and leisure extraction from an ecosystem can only be managed by the implementation of global governance based on cultural understanding. Easy no...?

24 Sep 2011

A Brief History of Natural History (in Paris)

Every day, after a bowl of coffee with baguette and jam, I cycle down boulevard Saint. Germain, pass through gilded iron gates, cross the cobbled courtyard, duck under an archway and enter my own personal Disneyland. My new life began two weeks ago when I started my masters in ‘Ecologie, Biodiversité et l’Evolution’ at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. And I couldn’t be happier.

The Jardin des Plantes has been the seat of France’s studies of nature since 1635, when King Louis XIV began a medicinal garden to rival the collections of La Sorbonne along the Seine. From the beginning, the Jardin focused on the relationship between man and nature, by displaying those plants which could be used directly to cure ailments. But it was the arrival of Buffon as director almost a hundred years later which kick started the collection of samples across the world. He saw the role of the Jardin as a repository for the discoveries of intrepid botanists and zoologists, doubling its size, mingling with the rich and powerful in the salons, and writing « L’Histoire Naturelle » a 37 volume catalogue. The 18th century trend of cabinets of curiosity, effectively demonstrating wealth and power by collecting and paying for strange objects from the far corners of the globe extended to natural history, and the remarkable collections at the museum continue today to satisfy the most curious of minds.

As part of our introductory lectures, we received tours of the museum and its archives. Dusty backrooms and winding corridors crammed with lotus flowers from the tomb of Ramses, trays full of ammonite fossils, and a perilous shelving arrangement of a dizzying number of skeletons. Almost as impressive as the collections, is the history of the place. 
Buffon died in 1788, narrowly avoiding the guillotine and the French revolution which followed a year later. The Jardin was seized by the république, and the menagerie at Versailles was “liberated from the nobility”. Five years later, in 1793 along with the Louvre, the Museum National d’Histoire Natural was opened to the public. Lamarck replaces Buffon, ordering the immense collections in relation to the emerging views of classification, in particular in relation his position as one of the first to question the concept of a species as a definite identity. The halls of comparative anatomy are piled high with skeletons, whilst the greenhouses overflow with lush green vegetation. Right up to the 20th century, the museum collection only continued to expand. The world wars take hold of France and all of its money, so that once peace returns in Europe, the zoology gallery falls into disrepair. Like a mass grave, the hall housing the taxidermy collections of mammals, birds, lizards and others is sealed with a zinc roof and shut to the public. 

It was only following protests of Jean Dors , the museum’s professor of mammals and birds, throughout the 1970s that a solution was found to the increasingly poor conditions. The construction of a huge network of underground tunnels and bunkers, known as the “zootheque” was completed at the end of the decade, and the gargantuan task of transferring thousands of stuffed animals began. Having walked through these halls, I can confirm the never-ending display of stuffed animals is astounding. And yet this did not solve the museums problem of how to share its wealth with the public, in order to communicate the increasingly apparent situation that Man had altered the state of Nature.

Times and currents of thought have changed drastically since its conception, and the museum now recognises that to truly reflect the diversity of life, natural process and human interactions with it, the communication of evolutionary forces must be a central factor. During the 80s, when money flowed a bit more freely and when the Mitterrand led government invested heavily in the arts and culture, a plan was hatched to convert the zoology gallery into the “Grande Gallerie de L’Evolution”. After years of restoration, the jewel in the crown of the Jardin des Plantes opened to the public, and upon entry to the new gallery the public are faced with an awe inspiring stampede of savannah adapted animals. 

The museums research focus on understanding the functioning of nature with Homo sapiens as a key component, fits my desire to learn like a glove. And I imagine my time here will keep this blog ticking over too...

17 Sep 2011

Voices: 2. Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature

Todays post is by my new flatmate Lauren Clancy, whose studies in English Literature, and work in theatre production make her an ideal candidate to write on the spectacle of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature.

Having first seen some of Walter Potter's Victorian ‘Museum of Curiosity’ tableaux at The Museum of Everything last year, I’d developed a seed of morbid curiosity for taxidermy, although it still feels strange to say the word aloud. I can’t say I’d enjoyed the exhibitions, not like I enjoy Impressionist art, but I’d relished the atmosphere of the place. Who wouldn’t? Walter Potter made it possible to imagine guinea pigs playing cricket, or tiny rabbits going to school. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.

En route to what had been described to me as a Parisian eccentric’s taxidermy collection, I was expecting a rickety old Marais house with trophy dead animal finds arranged in glass cases or hanging from dusty beams. But situated in a beautiful, spacious 17th century building, the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature is far from rickety. The foyer area is all stone floors and tasteful loos, jacket-ed reception staff and white walls. There’s even a leaflet rack of other touristy things you may like to go on to see after you’ve looked a bear in the face. Boat ride, anyone?

I visited mid-week, and it was wonderfully quiet. At the top of the stairs, the banisters of which feel like scales underneath your hand, you don’t quite know which way to go; there are no hints you’re about to see anything weird. I turned left and arrived nez à nez with the bear. A huge polar bear, who looks like he walked into the room just in front of you, a fellow visitor. He’s not in the middle of the room, not quite in a corner. He’s just there, towering a good half-a-person over you.

Along with the bear, you share the room with an impressive selection of paintings and furniture. Although the paintings kind of blend into the walls with a bear standing next to you, and dried thistles on the chairs remind you this is not the kind of place to sit down. So you continue, exploring the museum’s vast, interlocking rooms with ever-increasing bravery.

There are cases of ornate rifles; walnut bureaus you discover can be opened when no one’s looking; secret drawers not labeled but perhaps left ajar by someone before you. These are filled with animal droppings, locks of fur. There’s a tiny room in which you notice that the ceiling is covered in an intricate cloth of feathers, and sculpted faux owl heads stare down at you from every angle.

Like a psychological thriller, like a good, immersive piece of theatre, this experience took me somewhere. And it is wholly theatrical. Like an Ibsen play, it makes you feel as if you are spying upon the most intimate moments of a household, walking through a time-dead space, completely safe and unnoticed. I for one momentarily forgot that taxidermy is still ‘un-PC’, to coin the phrase of my guidebook. Because for me this place is not only beautiful; it contains that precious mix of science and art, which is imperative to the life of both fields.

11 Sep 2011

Ecocentrism: to Preserve or Conserve?

T. Cole. Home in the Woods

During the 19th Century, whilst in Britain Wordsworth, Byron and the Romanticists contemplated daffodils, frontier prospectors were blazing a trail across America. Like their English counterparts, Ralph Waldo Emerson & Henry David Thoreau were awed by the splendour of “the untouched wilderness”. These were the transcendentalists, to whom wild nature was divine, where man could reconnect with his spirituality by allowing his senses to envelope him.

John Muir, after travelling across the states, settled in his newly discovered « temple », Yosemite Valley in 1868, which was to become a National Park in 1890. In his view, spaces such as these should remain a wilderness, untouched by the hand of man so that its sanctity could shine through. A friend of his, Gifford Pinchot, viewed natural spaces differently, arguing in « The Fight for Conservation » (1909) for the management of natural spaces as a public service, harvesting its resources in respect of lieu. Muir and Pinchot became rivals when the mayor of San Fransisco proposed the building of a hydro-dam in Yosemite Valley. Pinchot backed the development, which was built in 1916, transforming the wilderness to a harboured resource.

As in America, natural spaces were cherished by artists and thinkers in France, in particular the forest of Fontaine Bleau, where painters and poets would take up residences, and whose works were presented as a collective during the 1920s. They too believed that nature should be left to its own devices, that trees should be left to fall and rot. Emeile Sinturel, a prominent painter at the time, stated that the forest be allowed to maintain its “sacred character” and that only those initiated in “artistic thought” should be allowed to visit since only they would appreciate its full “majesty and charm”. This view smacks of arrogance, but also of a naivety that these spaces have somehow remained separate from man. 
In 1948 Fontaine Bleau was the site chosen to launch the International Union for the Preservation of Nature (IUPN). Here director general of UNESCO, Julian Huxley breached the divide between the two viewpoints by arguing that nature is a resource, but also a source of pleasure and beauty and that its management should take the two into account. But the time of the transcendentalists was coming to an end. Symbolically, the IUPN changed their name to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 1956.

Today, the practice of ecology has to some reduced nature as a quantitative input/output based equilibrium, replacing the deep, romanticised and free wilderness. But a new wave of ecologists, the Ecocentrists, combine ecological know-how with an existential view of our place in the biosphere. I for one, am inclined to agree with them.

Each human is part of a community which unites him with the soil, water, plants and animals. He must respect his ‘fellow members’ and the community they form together” Aldo Leopold

« At least in conserving nature we can liberate our consciousness, by performing an act of reverence to the world which created us. Until man feels a sense of respect for nature, he will be unable to overcome the difficulties of maintaining life on planet earth » Patrick Blandin

8 Sep 2011

Voices: 1.The Bat Conservation Trust

This article is written by David Urry, Helpline Officer at the Bat Conservation Trust, a british charity which works to protect bat species and promote their conservation. More information can be found at

It is estimated that by 2030 a staggering 92 percent of us will be living the ‘urban life’.  This is quite a shocking projection, and if it is to be anywhere near realised within the next two decades, it will be at the expense of large parts of our countryside, with cities and towns continuing to eat up important natural habitat in order to accommodate a swelling urban population. 

This continued loss of natural habitat is a stark inevitability, and although many of our native species are equipped with the behavioural flexibility to adapt to an urban environment, in order to ensure their persistence, we must find means of accommodating and encouraging them within the fabric of our towns and cities. Although protection of habitat remains the cornerstone policy for conservationists, the reality is that many of the species under threat will only stand a chance of survival in the future if we actively pencil them into our urban plans. This requires careful research and consideration of species’ needs, and the ability to incorporate these into an urban framework while not significantly compromising the needs of the human inhabitants. Additionally, in order for this proximity between man and beast is to be harmonious, effective communication and education must play their part, engendering attitudes of conservation and protection close to home. This is a modern conservation issue, requiring a modern and multi-angled response. The plight of the UK’s bats, and the subsequent work of the Bat Conservation Trust are a very good example of this 21st century challenge; a challenge that will become more and more prevalent with continued urbanisation in years to come. 

Although a nation full of animal lovers, the general public’s enthusiasm for our furry, slimy or feathered friends tends to wain once they encroach upon ‘our’ space, or interfere with our day to day existence: thumbs up for nature, so long as it doesn’t mess on my car or down my windows! As well as the issue of habitat loss, an increase of people living the ‘urban life’ creates another challenge for conservationists: a population more and more disconnected from the natural world. Alongside the physical detachment from the country’s plants and animals that an urban migration leads to, our emotional link with many of these precious organisms is under threat; no longer relevant to a generation where blackberries are now seen as an important communication accessory, rather than tasty pie filler.  As a result, a great division of opinion exists when it comes to our feelings towards wildlife. This is especially true when it comes to bats, an animal that has been shrouded in myth ever since stories began, and has gothic associations with evil and bad omens that still underlie much public opinion.  
Working on the Bat Conservation Trust Helpline means that I come face to face on a daily basis with the extremes of our own reaction to this group of animals, and has frequently left me baffled as to how the same creature can create such polarised opinion; while one person is gushing with admiration and plans of bat adoption over the phone, another would have you believe that the very spawn of Satan has come fluttering in through their window and is now doing laps around the dining room.  

Aside from allowing me to conduct my own crude litmus test on bats and public opinion, working on the National Bat Helpline has also highlighted how easily even the staunchest bat-opposer can have their opinion softened by some well placed facts, and reassurance. The detachment that many of us have with the natural world, especially those in urban areas, can be addressed via effective communication and engagement,  and the misunderstanding and disinformation upon which fear and irrationality thrives can be lessened. 

Although this battle for the public’s hearts is an essential component in the conservation of bats, their future is still very much dependent upon the appropriate application of practical conservation techniques, and implementation of legal protection. 

 Fortunately, bats enjoy a high level of legal protection under both EU and UK law, and since the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), it is an offense to disturb or harm bats as well as their roosting sites. This protection is paramount to the conservation of bats in the UK. They are an animal with a specific set of needs: a roost site with the correct conditions (normally a separate roost site is required for summer and winter seasons), proximity to suitable foraging sites, and sheltered commuting routes between the two; and if the law permitted easy exclusion of bats from roosts at “un-natural” sites, we would see a huge fall in population numbers, and local extinctions would be likely. 

However, despite this protection, even our most common species (pipistrelles) have declined in numbers dramatically over the last few decades. This is largely as a result of changes in agricultural practices and the continued loss of mature woodland. Subsequently, protection alone of roost sites may not be enough to conserve bat populations. Instead, we should seek to actively create new spaces and opportunities for them in future developments located in high bat potential areas. Bats are running out of options, so it is important that new ones are created where possible. 

Like bats, artificial roost sites come in a number of different shapes and sizes, reflecting the varying preference and requirements of the different species, but essentially their purpose is always the same: to create a sheltered and protected space for an individual or group of bats as either a transient roost site or for the duration of the maternity and/or hibernation seasons. They have mixed success rates, although continued research is providing us with a clearer picture of their specific needs. Traditionally, artificial roost sites are external structures, attached onto the sides of a building. However, there has recently been the emergence of an alternative, integrated bat box. These are built into the walls of a new property; very much a physical acceptance of the idea of a shared space with nature. The creation of bat lofts in new builds, a cordoned off segment of the roof space specifically for potential bat use, is another example of how bats can be accommodated in new builds.

 Currently however, the only time that such provisions are required in a build is if it follows the destruction or demolition of a previous roost site. That said, there are still many enthusiastic individuals that go out of their way to consider nature in their planned developments, and working on the helpline, and with the assistance of my colleagues, I have had the pleasure of advising where possible on how best to maximise potential for bats in new builds.  The hope is that others can be inspired or encouraged to take similar pro-active measures to conserve our bat species; the reality is that effective communication and education on its own is unlikely to guarantee a sufficient uptake of such ideas.

Instead, as is often the case, monetary incentives are required as a more persuasive means of ensuring compromises are made for conservation. Subsidies are available for ‘green developments’, but following drops in funding (that has also seen green farming subsidies dangerously cut), only the Sustainable Development Fund (DEFRA) now exists as a source of grants and loans for developments that encourage biodiversity in the UK, with the potential for 75% of project costs being supplied from the fund. If continued development is inevitable, then these subsidies would be crucial in ensuring that biodiversity targets are met in new urban areas. 

By the continued work of organisations such as the Bat Conservation Trust, there is hope that the potential environmental damage caused by continued urbanisation won’t be sufficient to exclude bats and other UK wildlife from our urban areas, and with a little help, could even bring us closer together.  Meanwhile, it is important that we continue providing accurate data on the status of bat populations in the UK to justify their protection, provide support and accurate information to all of those that encounter bats in the UK, mobilise public support where possible, and continue research into these fascinating animals. This, along with the generous work of a large network of volunteers in the UK, will ensure the Bat Conservation Trust is well equipped to take on the modern challenges of protecting a species in the face of continued urbanisation, as well as tackle future challenges that may arise.

Voices: Introduction

I began this blog with the aim of addressing the range of perceptions of nature, and in order to do so I must escape the confines of my own ideas. That is why over the coming weeks, I will be posting contributions from other authors with a range of backgrounds addressing a range of subjects. Coming up are contributions addressing professional management of biodiversity, cultural perceptions of nature and wilderness, and articles addressing research into human conflicts with cultivation and land ownership.

2 Sep 2011


The word itself evokes darkness, mystery and death, but also of primitive and ancestral belief. And yet, today over one million people practice Vodou as their religion and way of life. Whilst originating from the West African coast running from Ghana to Nigeria, it was carried to the Americas during the slave trade where the practice took root as an enduring link with home. Practitioners see our tangible world as being intrinsically linked with the world of the spirits; from the all-embracing forces of nature to individual trees, streams and rocks, each element has a spiritual body with whom it is possible to communicate. The infamous mediators between the two worlds are the voodoo dolls, the Bocio (Bo meaning empowered, Cio meaning Cadaver). These figurines are constructed from wood, clay and gourds, within which are confined secret combinations of herbs, tree barks and animal remains. The statuette is then adorned with bones, shells, feathers and beads to strengthen the link of the physical with the spiritual. 

Taken from the Institut Cartier's current exhibition: Vaudou
The adornation and combination of herbs relate to the message to be conveyed, whether to ward off sickness, poverty, ill-feeling, to encourage fertility in the fields or at home. Binding twine represents anger and a feeling of imprisonment, piercing the Bocio with metal spikes, or stakes of wood representing a desire to strike to the root of the problem. Breaching the void between the two worlds, and activating the Bocio requires animal sacrifice, and the spilling of blood which is then anointed on both the communicator and the doll.

To address human relationships with nature, it is not enough only to consider western scientific understanding, since this neglects the viewpoints of traditional practitioners. It is also dangerous to dismiss the power that spirituality holds over believers, and an attitude of ignorance will make any trans-cultural dialogue flawed.

Meimer & Momeni ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’

After the recommendation of my flatmates, I went to the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to see an art installation featuring ants! Aside from a fascinating subject matter, and an impressive set up (see video below) the work highlighted an issue which strikes to the heart of our conflict with nature. The exhibit consisted of a network of separate chambers containing the nest, fungal garden, and resource base of Atta leaf cutter ants. In addition, recordings of vocalisations/’clickings’ were projected throughout the room, resulting in the surreal experience of being able hear the communication of an otherwise silent exchange.

The artists explain their choice of medium by stating that ants are ubiquitous and that the observer will have no doubt have seen them in a different context. But by displaying their complete network, we can identify with these creatures who at first seem inherently different; finding food, building homes, raising children and building a society are all traits that humanity admire. 

The title of the exhibit refers to the economic theory proposed by Hardin in 1968. He describes our unchecked withdrawal of resources and increasing population as an inescapable downward spiral. He illustrates the problem by using the analogy of a common heath-land, owned by no one, but shared by numerous farmers who graze their cattle on the land. By adding a cow to the common, an individual farmer will increase his increment by +1, with the cost of this increased grazing (-1) split across all farmers so that only a fraction of the loss is felt individually. This loss can be compensated for by the simple addition of another cow, but since the resource of the common is finite, eventually profit will run dry.

 Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his heard without limit- in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom of the commons brings ruin to all.”

Meimer & Momeni show that leaf cutter ants, unlike humans, have managed to allocate resources appropriately, extract them sustainably and communicate resource levels to one another. Observing at a small scale, the movements of the ants appears chaotic, but viewing the whole network order emerges from individual action. The secret to the success of ants is that despite any apparent central control, the material gathered is not of profit to the individual but to the super-organism colony. Human nature is much more self-centred, and as such we must make a conscious effort to instil a sense of moral responsibility in resource allocation.