An early morning view across the Lake District fells from Blencathra Field Studies Centre, October 2013.
I am writing this post in my bedroom in Blencathra Field Studies Centre which is, in a strange way, close to where my professional journey started. I went to Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre for an ecology field course as part of my sixth form studies. That was over thirty years ago and Flatford Mill is over 300 miles from where I am writing, yet the presence of sixth formers on a similar course here this week takes me on a sentimental journey back through time.
My course took place over a sunny week in June or July, rather than the bleak, wet October day that I have just experienced. I slept in Willie Lott’s Cottage, familiar as the building on the left-hand side of Constable’s painting The Hay Wain and we spent our days in the fields, streams and saltmarshes around Debden Vale. I remember one part of the course particularly vividly: we had sampled a small stream and the tutor was picking invertebrates we had found out of a tray and explaining to us how each was adapted to different environmental conditions. There was a mayfly larva, with feathery gills along its back which meant, we were told, that it needed a constant supply of well-oxygenated water if it was to survive. And there was a bright red midge larva, which used haemoglobin (the same compound found in human blood) to scavenge oxygen, allowing it to thrive in polluted waters.
Ecological assessment today is still based on relatively simple relationships between the functional ecology of different organisms and water quality. There is something particularly elegant about a method that has direct practical applications yet could still be explained in terms that made sense to sixth form students. As I look at the bewildering verbiage that fills academic journals today I wonder whether the gains from new research justify the barriers that complexity can create between specialists and the public. I worry that the science that is designed to fill journals often forgets the need to communicate our outputs with stakeholders.
My own musings on these issues seemed to chime with thoughts from some colleagues in the Environment Agency and SEPA and we spent part of Thursday brain-storming a new method for rapid assessment. Our working title for this is RAPPER – Rapid Assessment of PeriPhyton Ecology in Rivers. The method involves wading through streams recording the different types of algal growth that we could see with the naked eye. Some of these can be identified in the field; others need to be taken back to the laboratory to be identified with a microscope. Part of my own motivation is to be able to capture the essence of those sunny days at Flatford Mill, by having a method that was accessible to non-specialists. But that is not the only possible benefit: RAPPER complements existing approaches to give greater confidence in the decisions that regulators need to make. It also allows biologists to cover several sites in a day, locating possible hot spots that can then be examined using more detailed methods.
First results are encouraging: we had data from different parts of the country that gave us optimism that the method was working, and that it was worth continuing trials next year, once we had made a few modifications. The biologists who had collected the data had generally commented positively on the method. We agreed some changes, agreed to collate more data and to make more analyses, then to continue the trials next year. And, maybe, I’ll be looking for some opportunities to try the method out with students and sixth formers, and see if I can enthuse the next generation about the joys of freshwater ecology.