Hilda Canter-Lund photography award winner, 2014


Herposiphonia: John Huisman’s winning image in the 2014 Hilda Canter-Lund photography competition.

I’m pleased to announce that the winner of the 2014 Hilda Canter-Lund competition is John Huisman, of Murdoch University and the Western Australian Herbarium. His stunning image of the red algal genus Herposiphonia fought off strong competition from the other shortlisted images to claim the prize.   He collected the specimen himself from Cape Peron, near Perth in Western Australia, and photographed it live using a stereo microscope.   The full frame width is about eight millimetres.


John Huisman at work.

John also had an image shortlisted in the 2011 competition, attesting to the high quality of his work.   He, like me, has a private mission to present algae to the world in a positive light, not just as “pond scum or smelly beach drift”.

The future is pink …

It occurred to me, as I walked along a local river bank with a friend a couple of weeks ago, that anyone under the age of about 30 probably has little idea why ecologists make such a fuss about Himalayan balsam (see The Politics of Pests).   I was explaining how different this place was now compared to when I first visited but for her, the pink flowers of Himalayan balsam were something that she always associated with river banks. Himalayan balsam was as much a feature of the British countryside for her as rabbits – introduced here by the Romans.

I also wrote recently about the barriers that public perceptions create (see “To Constable country, via a blog on fracking …”).   Environmental improvements are expensive and we need to justify expenditure yet, with the passing of time, Himalayan balsam and other invasive plants will become part of people’s experience of rivers, not as intrusive aliens. Their impact on the native vegetation will be something that only a few specialists appreciate.   There is, in fact, a big literature on how public perceptions are important in environmental management, but this has an inherent limitation as even our earliest memories do not extend far enough into the past to give reliable insights into the natural state of lakes and rivers.   In theory, of course, applying the scientific method allows a more objective, less biased evaluation of what we mean by a “natural” ecosystem.   But we ignore public perception at our peril: the case for environmental restoration beyond a state that lay people regard as desirable will need to be made very clearly in order to justify the costs.   An absence of Himalayan balsam is not, itself, a benefit that a lay person will automatically appreciate.


Himalayan balsam growing beside Smallhope Burn, a tributary of the River Browney, near Lanchester, County Durham.

I end this short thread of posts about Himalayan balsam on a pessimistic note.   The river banks we were walking around were part of a country park managed by the local council.   Their budgets have been cut so much that the prospect of manual control of Himalayan balsam is out of the question. Indeed, there is so much Himalayan balsam that any effort to remove it from a single location would have to be an ongoing campaign as it would constantly re-invade from outside.   It may be possible for Wildlife Trusts to marshal volunteers to keep Himalayan balsam at bay on nature reserves, but the co-ordinated regional and national control programmes that I mentioned in The Politics of Pests belong to the world of fantasy, not reality. I have seen the future … and it is pink.


Valinia, S., Hansen, H.-P., Futter, M.N., Bishop, K., Srisskandarajah, N. & Fölster, J. (2012). Problems with the reconciliation of good ecological status and public participation in the Water Framework Directive. Science of the Total Environment 433: 482-490.


A colleague read my blog and passed on a recent press release from CABI announcing the start of a trial release of a rust fungus to control Himalayan balsam.   Laboratory-based trials have established that the fungus damages the Himalayan balsam plants whilst not infecting native species. The field trials are taking place in Berkshire, Middlesex and Cornwall and it will be interesting to see how these perform.   If it is as successful – and cost-effective – as the project team hopes, then maybe the future will not be so pink after all …

The decline and fall of a CD-ROM

I’ve just looked back at a paper I wrote for a symposium in 2004. It described a CD-ROM I was helping to develop at the time for the UK’s Environment Agency, to help their analysts to identify diatoms.   The tone of the article is upbeat and positive, eulogising the potential for interactive CD-ROMs for identification.

So much for that.   The Environment Agency has just deleted our key from their publications catalogue.   In so doing they fulfil one of the prophecies in my paper.   The software, quite simply, evolved faster than we were able to respond.   We had a bold vision for a modular project, developing from a first release with about 300 common diatoms found in rivers into, eventually, comprehensive coverage of all diatoms found in Britain and Ireland. We had recognised, too, that the software would have to evolve to keep track of other developments in hardware and software. However, within about a year of the release of the CD-ROM, the Environment Agency’s priorities shifted and (more significantly) funding became much tighter.   Funding for the additional modules never happened.   More importantly, there have been changes in the licensing agreement for the software that we used to develop the key which means that our package would need to be modified if it were to be sold as a user-friendly entity again.   The publications team at the Environment Agency did not consult us before deleting the CD-ROM but, even if they had done, I doubt that there would have been funding available to cover the time needed to upgrade the package.

This saga illustrates some of the pitfalls of using new media. I have, on my bookshelf, a facsimile edition of Frederich Hustedt’s flora of freshwater diatoms from central Europe, first published in 1930. Many of the taxonomic ideas are now out of date but the illustrations and descriptions are still useful, 86 years after firs publication. By contrast, our CD-ROM was obsolete within a decade.   The whole idea of a CD-ROM, indeed, sounds rather quaint in 2014 and, to emphasise the point, I am typing this post on a laptop which does not have a CD-ROM drive.   The latest versions of the Lucid software are aimed at online keys and the prospect of using an iPad or even a mobile phone as a platform for identifying organisms is tantalising (and ,indeed, already possible for some groups: see the Field Studies Council publication website).

The same issues about upgrading and maintenance will apply as much to a website as to a CD-ROM. As soon as I stop paying my subscription, my own websites will disappear, along with all the information stored on them.   Large institutions such as the Environment Agency and national museums ought to be more resilient but I fear that it would only take a small shift in an organisation’s priorities or a change in key personnel for an active website to become fossilised or archived.

The good news is that all of the information except the keys themselves are available on the web, courtesy of Steve Juggin’s website at Newcastle University and that there are plans to develop a new online diatom flora of Britain and Ireland, hosted by the National Museum of Wales.  And, of course, if all these fail, I will still have my trusty copy of Hustedt’s Flora.


One aspect of the CD-ROM that will not be missed: the grim cover of the CD-ROM. Not a single diatom in sight.


Kelly, M.G., Bennion, H., Cox, E.J., Goldsmith, B., Jamieson, B.J., Juggins, S., Mann, D.G. & Telford, R.J. (2006). An interactive CD-ROM for identifying freshwater diatoms. pp. 153-161. Proceedings of the 18th International Diatom Symposium (edited by A. Witkowski). Biopress, Bristol.

Gastronomy in the Welsh hills


Early evening at the Mountain Stage during Green Man 2014 with the Brecon Beacons as a backdrop.

I’ve become a fan of music festivals over the past few years. There is something very appealing about these enormous tented towns, with their relaxed vibes, which spring up in the countryside for a few days each summer and then, just as quickly, disappear. It is not just the music which attracts me: Green Man festival, set in the beautiful Brecon Beacons, celebrates local food and beer too. There were, apparently, 90 different ales and ciders on offer and, no, I didn’t even think about trying all of them.   I can, however, especially recommend Orme, a beautifully flavoured bitter from the Great Orme Brewery in Colwyn Bay.

I am proud to say that I did not eat from the same food stall twice during the three and a half days that we were at the festival. One that almost led to me breaking this resolution, however, was Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company whose offerings are also linked to the theme of my blog.   They offer a wonderful “seashore wrap” with various fillings (mine had cockles and bacon) wrapped in laver bread.   I guess this is the Welsh equivalent to the “all day breakfast roll” that exists in various guises around the country. In the context of a music festival, the seashore wrap has the extra advantage of requiring only a single hand, thus leaving the spare hand free to hold a pint of Welsh ale.   Much as I love Goan Fish Curry, that dish really does require two hands to eat whilst at the same time being sufficiently spicy to make a beer almost a necessity.

Laver bread, for the uninitiated, is made from the fronds of the red alga Porphyra umbilicaris, a common seaweed on British foreshores, thus illustrating the key message of this blog: that algae, though frequently overlooked or ignored, are actually Very Useful.


Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company’s stand at Green Man 2014 with (right) a batch of seashore wraps being cooked.

My souvenir from the festival was a small jar of Welshman’s Caviar, laver that has been dried and toasted. The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company recommended using it as a seasoning, so I tried sprinkling a couple of spoonfuls onto some scrambled eggs. I love scrambled eggs but they are at their best when there is something to harmonise with them. The Welshman’s Caviar added a salty, maritime taste that raised the flavour of the whole dish. Once opened, the jar lasts for a month, so that will give me plenty of opportunity to experiment and, at the same time, relive my memories of Green Man 2014.


A jar of Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company’s Welshman’s Caviar and (right) Welshman’s Caviar sprinkled on the top of scrambled eggs.


Early morning in the Green Man campsite, August 2014.

Following Donkin’s trail to Sunderland

Details of Arthur Scott Donkin are annoyingly scant.   Maybe a trained historian would have a better idea of how to search local archives but that would have taken more time than I have available. His life is a curiously silent episode between that of his father (see previous post and reference below) and his son, John, who went to Canada and wrote a memoir of his time in the North West Mounted Police.

Though Donkin taught Medical Jurisprudence at King’s College, Newcastle (now Newcastle University), I could find no publications by him that were relevant to this topic. The catalogue at the Newcastle University records two medical publications suggesting an interest in obstetrics and gynaecology, along with two publications on diatoms. The latter, I presume, represent his hobby rather than his professional output (see “”In Our Time” looks at the history of the microscope”) though there were, at the same time, medics wondering whether there was a link between freshwater life (including algae) and public health (see “Little bugs have littler bugs upon their backs to bite ‘em …”).

The final stage of my journey in pursuit of Arthur Scott Donkin brought me to a street close to the docks in Sunderland, about 15 km from Newcastle, on a summer’s evening. The North Sea was visible in the gaps between houses whilst seagulls circled overhead.   Now the street includes motor repair shops, hand car washes, a dance workshop, a graphic design studio and a martial arts centre but it is easy to imagine the houses here (dating from the turn of the 19th century) as respectable town houses befitting an experienced doctor. Quite how Donkin had ended up in Sunderland, rather than in Newcastle or closer to his family in Northumberland remains a mystery but it was at 30 Villiers Street, opposite a Presbyterian Church and a synagogue, that Donkin was living at the time of his death.

Maybe there are more details of Donkin’s life out there waiting to be discovered. His collections went to the Natural History Museum in London, so it may be worth searching there for hints of the man who collected the samples. I suspect that, at best, we’ll come up with the administrative outlines of a middle-class life, leaving much of his character to be coloured in by conjecture.   He has a fame, of sorts, as his name is the taxonomic authority that should be quoted every time one of the most common diatoms in Europe is reported in a scientific paper. Yet, beyond this, his life remains an enigma, a flame that flickered briefly through the late nineteenth century and then faded and died.


30 Villiers Street, Sunderland: the last home of Arthur Scott Donkin.


Donkin, A.S. (1863). The pathological relation between albuminuria and puerperal mania. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh

Donkin, A.S. (1863). On the physiological action of the uterus in parturition : read before the physiological section of the British Association at Newcastle, 31st August, 1863 … Publisher unknown.

Donkin, J.G. (1889). Trooper and Redskin in the Far North West. Recollections of Life in the North-West Mounted Police, Canada, 1884-1888.  Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London.

Donkin, S. (1886). Reminiscences of Samuel Donkin ; of Northumbrian & Border Character, and of Local and General Topics, Social and Political, Since the Dawn of the Present Century. Newcastle.

On the trail of Arthur Scott Donkin …

I was back at the River Team yesterday, pushing my way past Himalayan balsam, in order to collect some of the brown biofilm from the tops of some stones.   There was one species that I was particularly interested in finding, because of a strong historical link with north-east England. The species I was looking for was a small diatom called Navicula gregaria. “Navicula” is a Latin word which means “small ship”, an apt description as these small boat-shaped organisms were serenely gliding around the field of my microscope (see an earlier post “Coxhoe” for a short video of some close relatives in action).   Look out, too, for the two parallel chloroplasts which, in the case of N. gregaria, are slightly offset in respect to one another.   When the sample is digested to remove organic matter and a permanent slide is prepared, we can see more detail of the ornamentation on the silica cell wall (“valve”).


Navicula gregaria, from the River Team at Causey Arch (approximately 50 m downstream from the location photographed in my post of 31 July.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).


Navicula gregaria, cleaned valves from Bradgate Brook, Newton Linford, Nottinghamshire, October 2011.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).

Navicula gregaria is one of the most common freshwater diatoms in Britain, with a range that extends from very clean rivers to highly polluted streams such as the River Team.   It does not like very soft water or water that is acidic but, otherwise, is almost cosmopolitan, particularly in spring, though it can be found all year round.

I wanted to write about Navicula gregaria today partly because it gives me an opportunity to tell you about what we know about Arthur Scott Donkin, the Victorian microscopist who we met briefly in earlier posts (see “In the footsteps of a Victorian microscopist”, “Prime time diatoms”, “Sampling the surf at Alnmouth”). I mentioned in the last of these that we knew little about his life; however, along with colleagues at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, I have managed to unearth a few more details. As try to limit my posts to about 500 words, I’ll spread these across two posts.

The main source of information about his early life comes from a publication called “Men of Mark ‘Twixt Tweed and Tyne”, published in 1895, which has a chapter about his father, Samuel Donkin (1801-1888), a farmer and auctioneer based ,for most of his adult life at Felton, a village between Morpeth and Alnwick in Northumberland.   Arthur, the eldest of two sons and a daughter, chose a career in medicine whilst his younger brother continued the family business. The family farm at Felton is only about 10 kilometres from Druridge Bay, where he collected many of his specimens, as I mentioned in earlier posts. Towards the north end of Druridge Bay a small stream, Chevington Burn, flows through the sand dunes and into the Bay at Chibburn Mouth.   It was from here that Arthur Scott Donkin first recorded Navicula gregaria in 1861, describing it as “very abundant in localities where small streams pass over the sandy beach into the sea below the high-water level. Donkin pointed out that these localities would have wide daily fluctuations in salinity as the tide ebbed and flowed, and also commented that it was “the species which occurred in most abundance on our coasts.”   We now also know that it is very common in freshwaters as well, although there is a strong suspicion that that marine and freshwater forms may be different species (see Cox, 1987, listed below).   He described Navicula gregaria as “exceedingly minute”, though now, with the advances in optics, we now know that there are many species that are much smaller than N. gregaria but which Donkin, with his primitive equipment, could not see.


Cox, E.J. (1987). Studies of the diatom genus Navicula Bory. VI. the identity, structure and ecology of some freshwater species. Diatom Research 2: 159-174.

Donkin, A.S. (1861) On the marine diatomaceae of Northumberland, with a description of several new species. Quarterly Journal of the Microscopical Society 1: 1-15.

Welford, R. (1895). Men of Mark ‘Twixt Tweed and Tyne. Volume 2. Walter Scott, London


The politics of pests …

My training for the Great North Run takes me along the banks of the River Wear and, since writing about Himlayan balsam recently (see “An Indian summer on our riverbanks …”) I have had plenty of opportunities to both observe and ponder the biology of this plant.   I remembered, just after posting my piece on Himalayan balsam, that some former colleagues at Durham University had done some research on this species just after I had left.   Another colleague had commented wryly that they had managed to prove that Himalayan balsam lives by river banks though, on reading their work, it is clear that this was a rather unfair judgement.  It is also wrong, as I noticed this morning as I pushed through stands of Himalayan balsam that were encroaching on the path I was running along, some distance from the river.   I have run along this path for several years but this year is the first when I have noticed Himalayan balsam in such abundance.


Coiled seed pods of Himalayan balsam, photographed on the Durham river banks, July 2014.

If you look closely at the seed pods you can see that they are tightly coiled, like springs. And, when you brush against a mature seed pod, these springs are capable of catapulting the seeds for several metres.   This characteristic, in fact, is the reason why the Latin name of the genus is “Impatiens” (“impatient”).   Each plant can produce many seeds, so all it takes is for a few of these to land in suitable conditions and the stand of Himalayan balsam will, by the next year, have extended itself by a few metres.   The predilection for river banks is partly because these are associated with fertile, moist, often shaded, soils where the seeds are able to thrive, but also because the natural flooding of the river can transport the seeds rapidly between locations.   However, my former colleagues at Durham also noted that Himalayan balsam was also strongly associated with roadsides and, indeed, Frank Smythe, in Valley of Flowers, does not record Himalayan balsam in its natural habitat as being so strongly associated with rivers.

Knowing where Himalayan balsam grows was, however, only the start, as they were able to use their knowledge of the plant’s distribution to build a mathematical model that described how Himalayan balsam spreads and then to manipulate the model to simulate various options for controlling the spread.   They concluded that, once established, Himalayan balsam would be very difficult to eradicate, regardless of strategy.   That’s no big surprise, given what we know about the biology of the plant and also from knowledge of efforts to control other invasive weeds. But that, too, got me thinking …

We are, now, less than 10 months away from a general election.   Expect many fine words about the environment to be spoken between now and then.   But, as is often the way, it will be the economy, health and education which will dominate the campaigns.   Politicians will look for environmental policies that will either give a quick and demonstrable benefit or Grand Gestures with maturation times that extend well beyond the term of the next parliament.   Control of invasive weeds fails on both counts.   The paper on control strategies concludes: “If eradication is a serious goal of control programmes then they must be co-ordinated at a regional or national scale, involve greater investment and extend over a longer duration”. In other words, they will need a bigger slice of the budget that the environment is likely to be allocated.   Moreover, how can regional or national co-ordination be achieved in governments committed to reducing the size of the public sector?   No, I’m afraid that control of Himalayan balsam is very unlikely to feature on any politician’s to-do list in the immediate future.


Collingham, Y.C., Wadsworth, R.A., Huntley, B. & Hulme, P.E. (2000).   Predicting the spatial distribution of non-indigenous riparian weeds: issues of spatial scale and extent.   Journal of Applied Ecology 37 (Suppl. 1) 13-27.

Wadsworth, R.A., Collingham, Y.C., Willis, S.G., Huntley, B. & Hulme, P.E. (2000). Simulating the spread and management of alien riparian weeds: are they out of control?   Journal of Applied Ecology 37 (Suppl. 1) 28-38.


2014 Hilda Canter-Lund prize shortlist

The shortlist for the 2014 Hilda Canter-Lund prize is now online at http://www.brphycsoc.org/canter-lund/shortlist_2014.lasso.  We had a good field of entries this year – 47 in total – from which to select, and there are some stunning images here, demonstrating the remarkable diversity of algae, from marine macroalgae through to freshwater plankton.   The next step is for the British Phycological Society’s Council to vote on the winner, which should be announced later this month.

To Constable country, via a blog on fracking …

A re-tweet by a colleague took me to a very useful blog post on the likely consequences of fracking on rivers. The subject of fracking is one that seems to have generated more heat than light over the past couple of years and this post looks like a useful resource for my students.   Having read this, I browsed around The River Management Blog and found several other posts that are worth a read. One, in particular, caught my eye as it touched on a topic that I wrote about last year (see Constable, Gainsborough, Turner”). This post suggested that we could use old landscape paintings as a clue to past river conditions.   Simon Dixon, in his post develops this idea.   Though he describes it as “slightly tongue in cheek”, I think there are some very serious points here.   He argues (as I did) that the Romantic painters have helped to shape stakeholder’s perceptions of what a river “should” look like. We also both pointed out that they often depict landscapes which have been heavily modified by human activities and he has helpfully annotated some of Constable’s paintings to point these modifications out. The point where we differ is whether such landscapes are “good enough” (the line I adopted) or a perceptual barrier that professionals need to overcome (Simon Dixon’s position) if we are to improve the condition of our rivers.   My position comes partly from other evidence which suggests that the chemical state of water at the time Constable was painting would have generally been better, but we also need to remember that England’s population at the time was much lower: just under eight million, compared with 53 million in 2011, with all the added pressures on catchments that come as a result.

Constable was unusual, amongst his contemporaries, in his focus on heavily modified landscapes, reflecting his own love of Dutch landscape painting. It would be interesting to see how some of Turner’s riverscapes fared under Simon Dixon’s analysis. Turner was in search of “sublime” landscapes that took him to the north of England and Scotland and my suspicion is that these would tend to show less modification. In both cases, of course, we have to be aware, that any inferences derived from 18th and 19th century landscape paintings, are biased by the artist’s own far-from random strategies of site selection.

Yes, river managers have to work against perceptions of what rivers should look like that arise from the tradition of English romantic landscape painting, but I am also convinced that river managers are not very good at portraying the benefits to society of restoring beyond the public’s perception of an pleasant river corridor.   It is easy enough to make the case to specialist interest groups (such as anglers) and, indeed, easy to make the case for broader societal benefits to uncritical conservation-oriented audiences (see “Bring on the Dambusters …”).   However, the focus of my work has been on the interactions between organisms and their chemical environments. The reality is that the benefits which we ecologists believe will accrue from water quality improvements almost always translate into very tangible costs, manifest as higher utility bills.   The prospect of higher bills is at least as big a barrier to improving the state of our rivers as our tradition of landscape painting.

One other difference between Constable’s paintings and modern rivers: the absence of Himalayan Balsam (see previous post). It was not introduced to this country until about 30 years after these pictures were painted.