Blown away by Shetland


Sometimes, my work takes me to places where my good intentions to highlight the importance of the microscopic world are swept away by the sheer grandeur of the landscape around me.  That happened last week when a sampling trip to the Shetland Islands ended sooner than expected, leaving me just enough time to hire a car and explore the UK’s most northerly archipelago before heading back to the airport.

We worked in the interior of Mainland, the largest of the islands, where the rocks were mostly covered by a thick layer of peat, amidst strong winds and periodic heavy showers.  When there were breaks in the clouds, the low sun imbued the landscape features with intense hues for short periods before the strong winds blew in more clouds.   Walking across the peat moorland was tiring and, when I had time to myself, I was ready for a change.

When I collected my hire car from Lerwick, I was given careful instructions on how it should be parked in gale force conditions such as these.   Park it facing away from the wind and a gust might pull the door from its hinges as soon as you opened it.  I got the impression, from the way that this was carefully explained to me, that this was something that happened quite regularly to tourists on the island.   Suitably briefed, I headed north across Mainland, across a narrow isthmus to Northmavine and past small settlements that looked more Scandinavian than Scottish in appearance clustered around sheltered bays.  My destination was Esherness, at the far north-western corner of the Shetlands, where waves, ten or more metres high, crashed against cliffs made of hard volcanic rocks that stretched away into the distance.   I was completely alone here, dwarfed by the landscape, buffeted by the wind blowing in off the Atlantic, but exhilarated by the experience.


Sea cliffs at Eshaness, Northmavine, on Shetland, October 2016.  The upper photograph shows waves breaking on the tombolo connecting St Ninian’s Isle to Mainland.

The worst of the rain passed through overnight, but the strong winds persisted the following morning when I diverted from my drive back to the airport to the south-western coast where I stood on a beach looking across the waves to St Ninian’s Isle.   The island is separated from the mainland by a 500 metre “tombolo” – a narrow sand spit that just about stood proud from the sea although, today, the wash of the waves from both sides often met in the middle, disabusing me of any notions that I had time to get out and back with dry clothes and enough time to make it to Sumburgh airport in time to catch my flight.

My one and only souvenir from the trip was a bottle of gin from the Shetland Distillery Company, based on Unst, the most northerly island in the group.  The attraction of their “Ocean Scent” gin to me was that they used bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) as one of the botanicals although freaks who expect to the scent of seaweed to waft out of the bottle on opening will be in for a disappointment.  The gin has the depth of flavour that one expects from a good craft gin, but the wrack is just one of a number of botanicals whose essences blend together in the final spirit.   Having tried this gin, however, I’m also intrigued to try the Isle of Harris gin that features sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima)as one of its botanicals.  I just need to find an excuse to visit …

The power of rock …

In my recent post on Ennerdale Water I referred to the interaction between geology and man in shaping the characteristics of a lake (see “A lake of two halves …”).   As I was writing, I had in mind some famous early work on this topic by Harold (“W.H.”) Pearsall, a botanist who made some of the first tentative steps towards linking patterns and processes in lake ecosystems, whilst working at the universities of Leeds and Sheffield.   He had visited many of the lakes since boyhood and co-opted his father as a field assistant to cycle around the Lake District performing the surveys that formed the basis of this paper.

Pearsall had noted differences in the types of plants growing in the various lakes in the region, and attributed these differences to the geology of the surrounding land.   He took this idea one step further by also suggesting that the lakes became modified as they increased in age, illustrating this by arranging the English Lakes into an “evolutionary sequence”, with Wastwater and Ennerdale Water representing the least evolved, and Windermere and Esthwaite Water representing the most advanced.   His first proposition is now well-established amongst those who study lakes; the second is also generally accepted (I remember writing an essay entitled “Lakes are temporary features of the landscape” as part of my A-level Geography course), although his use of the English Lakes to illustrate this is not.


The lakes of the English Lake District, arranged in the evolutionary sequence proposed by Pearsall: 1: Wastwater; 2: Ennerdale Water; 3: Buttermere; 4: Crummock Water; 5: Hawes Water; 6: Derwent Water; 7: Ullswater; 8: Bassenthwaite Lake; 9: Coniston Water; 10: Windermere; 11: Esthwaite Water.

The graph below makes Pearsall’s case, using his own data (note that his records for Hawes Water refer to the small natural lake that was submerged to form the current Haweswater Reservoir).   The left hand axis shows the proportion of land in the catchment of each lake which was under cultivation (at the time of his study) steadily increasing as we move through his evolutionary sequence.   The right hand axis shows how proportion of the shoreline of each lake that was rocky (down to a depth of 30 feet – 9.2 metres) steadily decreases through the sequence.  He pointed out that both the amount of cultivatable land and the character of the shoreline depended largely on the character of the surrounding country.


A graphical representation of Table 1 in Pearsall (1921): “Effects of erosion”.  Lakes are arranged in order of Pearsall’s “evolutionary sequence”.

The next graph shows the same sequence of lakes (excluding Hawes Water) but with the average values of the Lake Trophic Diatom Index (TDI) plotted on the Y axis, and with lakes sub-divided into those with low alkalinity (deriving most of their runoff from the Borrowdale Volcanics and associated hard rocks, including the Ordovician granite discussed in the post about Ennerdale) and those with moderate alkalinity (associated with softer rocks to the north and south of the Borrowdale Volcanics).   This confirms the primary role of geology, with Pearsall’s “primitive” lakes underlain by the Borrowdale Volcanics whilst the more “evolved” are associated with the softer rocks.  Within each category there is an upward trend, rather more pronounced in the moderate alkalinity lakes, as we move through Pearsall’s sequence.  I suspect that this represents the interaction between geology and man, with higher TDI values associated with lakes where there is more agriculture and greater population density.   These factors may, in turn, combine to affect the physical factors within the lake over time, but the implication that a “primitive” lake such as Ennerdale Water might one day “evolve” to have characters similar to those of Windermere is no longer accepted.   On the other hand, he did set up some testable hypotheses that kept freshwater ecologists occupied for a long time subsequently.  As Lao Tzu reminded us: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”…


Average lake TDI values (using data from Bennion et al., 2014) for Lake District water bodies, arranged by Pearsall’s evolutionary sequence (no data for Hawes Water).   Open circles are low alkalinity lakes; closed circles are moderate alkalinity lakes.


Bennion, H., Kelly, M.G., Juggins, S., Yallop, M.L., Burgess, A., Jamieson, J. & Krokowski, J. (2014).  Assessment of ecological status in UK lakes using benthic diatoms.  Freshwater Science 33: 639-654.

Clapham, A.R. (1971).  William Harold Pearsall.  1891-1964.  Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 17: 511-540.

Pearsall, W.H. (1921).  The development of vegetation in the English Lakes, considered in relation to the general evolution of glacial lakes and rock basins.  Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B 92: 259-285.

Notes from Den Helder …


I passed this street sign whilst walking from my hotel to the station following a meeting at Den Helder in The Netherlands last week and could not resist taking a photograph.  Anton van Leeuwenhoek was the Dutchman credited with the invention of the microscope (see “The Invention of microscopy”).   When I visited Delft, his home town, I was surprised at how little there was to commemorate him (in contrast to the celebration of the life of his friend Johannes Vermeer), so it was nice to see him remembered in another part of The Netherlands.

I was in Den Helder to attend a meeting of European ecologists responsible for implementation of the Water Framework Directive, the first such meeting since UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU back in June and, not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion over mealtimes and during coffee breaks centred on the implications of this.   At dinner time, I sat with a group including Poles, an Estonian, a Lithuanian and a Hungarian, all of whom saw the European Union in very different terms to those expressed by UK’s “Brexiteers”.   All of those countries have been invaded twice in the last century and they see the EU as a source of security and prosperity, rather than in the negative terms that were expressed during the UK referendum debate.   The Estonian and Lithuanian had been part of the “Baltic Chain”, a peaceful protest that was part of the movement for independence in the Baltic States.   I had the sense that these people knew rather more about oppressive stifling bureaucracies than any of the politicians and journalists who had led the “leave” campaign in the UK.

That these conversations were held over dinner in a converted fortress, Fort Kijkduin, only added to my sense that the UK public had been duped by a group of politicians with a selective – and distorted – view of history.   The fort had been built on Napoleon’s orders, using local labour and Spanish prisoners of war.  At the entrance there is a diorama depicting 18th century Dutch soldiers repelling a British landing party.  Downstairs in the museum there is part of the wing of a Messerschmitt 109 shot down in the vicinity.   States and empires ebb and flow through small countries such as The Netherlands, in a way that an island nation such as the UK can barely understand and this, in turn, shapes a sense of purpose for the European Union that the narrow-minded politicians of the British Right will never comprehend.   There is no lack of national pride among my European colleagues, but what they have that many in the UK lack is a sense of the EU as a bulwark not just against outside threats, but also against a worst-case-scenario that emanates from within.   Almost every EU State has been occupied or controlled by another State within the lifetime of its oldest inhabitants; many of those occupiers came from other EU States.   That the UK has not feeds, I fear, a theory of British Exceptionalism within politicians of the Right, but also means that many in the UK simply don’t “get” the EU in the same way as most of my European colleagues.

The same group of people also expressed anxiety about the future of the EU without the UK’s participation.  Much of my own engagement with the EU over the past decade has involved finding consensus among Member States on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive.  Countries come with different positions on the correct interpretation of the wording of Directives, and argue their case vigorously at meetings such as these.  Some of those to whom I spoke were concerned that the exit of a large and vocal country that generally adopted moderate standpoints on environment policy would put smaller countries such as theirs at a disadvantage.   Several, too, suggested, optimistically, that Brexit might never happen …

Traveling back towards Schiphol Airport on the train, I reflected ruefully that Brexit is not just the cause of great economic uncertainty (which hit me with every purchase made during my short time in The Netherlands) but also reputational damage to the UK.  It was hard not to leave The Netherlands without feeling that many in Europe now think that ours is a small island with some Very Silly Politicians.


Fort Kijkduin, near Den Helder in The Netherlands.

A lake of two halves …


I have started this post in the same way that I started the previous two posts: with one of a series of pictures that I took from Kirkland whilst driving away after fieldwork in Ennerdale Water and the River Ehen earlier in March and noticing the rather spectacular view up the valley. This post, like those, will focus on the microscopic life of the lake but it pays to pause for a moment – as I did on my drive away from Ennerdale – to look at the landscape, and contemplate how the features that are apparent in this panorama shape the properties of a lake that are less obvious to the casual observer.

The picture shows a view across Ennerdale Water towards some of the highest peaks of the Lake District, with Great Gable prominent in the background. What we can also see is a transition: the foreground consists of softer features and more gentle slopes; the background is rugged, steep scree-covered fells. Somewhere, approximately at the point where the hills in the centre left of the picture fall into the lake, the rock type changes. In the foreground, the underlying rock is Ordovician mudstones and sandstones; beyond this, the rocks are formed from a granite intrusion resulting from volcanic activity. This activity also took place in the Ordovician period, but the rock is much harder than the sandstones and mudstones that underlie the foreground.

Most of the features that I have written about in Ennerdale Water are from the zone underlain by the granite but I also visited the north-western end of the lake, where the mudstones and sandstones predominate and the algae that I found attached to the rocks here were conspicuously different. Many of the submerged stones were covered with green filaments which, in turn, were overgrown by diatoms – mostly Tabellaria flocculosa and species of Fragilaria. The green filaments, in turn, had trapped a lot of fine sediments, presumably deriving originally from the sandstones in the catchment. Under the microscope, the green filaments resolved into a mass of Spirogyra filaments, with their distinctive helical chloroplasts, along with Bulbochaete and a few strands of other genera. The algae in this corner of the lake reminded me, in fact, of the algae that I am used to seeing in the River Ehen, just downstream from the lake outfall.


A submerged cobble in the littoral zone of Ennerdale’s north-western corner (left) with (right) two filaments of Spirogyra at high magnification, each with two ribbon-shaped chloroplasts arranged in helices. Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).

Those of us who study freshwaters know that geology has a big influence on the types of plants and animals that grow in a water body – it is probably the strongest natural factor excluding situations where there is a saline influence. The interesting point about Ennerdale is that geology not only has an effect on the lake as a whole (most of the water deriving from the granitic fells that make up the catchment), but it also has subtle effects around the margin, particularly on those algae that are growing directly on rock surfaces.

But it is not quite as simple as that. Look at the photograph at the top of this post. The foreground – the land underlain by Ordovician mudstones and sandstones – is improved pasture. The topography is such that a farmer can get a tractor onto the fields and spread some manure or fertiliser a couple of times a year which, in turn, means the land can carry more livestock. A little of those nutrients may find their way into the small streams that drain into the lake and this, too, may be having an effect on the algae. On the fells beyond, only rough grazing is possible. In other words, however hard we try to separate the effect of man from natural factors, we also have to remember that the landscape, itself, shapes the way that man uses the land. And that, in turn, influences the ecology of the lake.

I should emphasise that the algae in the north-west corner of Ennerdale Water do not suggest any malign effects from those parts of the catchment that drain into the lake here. My point is just that they are different and that the change in geology along the lake may be one factor driving this difference. It is quite subtle, the water that flows into the lake is soft and it is only very slightly less soft near the outfall. But it is enough to have an influence on the ecology of the organisms that live around the edge of the lake. The story of the lakes of the Lake District has told in terms of the rocks that form each of their catchments. What is interesting in Ennerdale Water is that we can see some of those effects of geology within a single water body.


Tales from the splash zone …


Mougeotia was not the only alga that intrigued me in Ennerdale Water during my recent visit (see “Fifty shades of green …”).   Alongside the green tufts, and also just at water level, there were dark spots and patches on the rock that yielded to a gentle scrape with my finger nail.   The colour suggested Cyanobacteria, so I popped a little into a sample bottle to examine later.


Patches of Stigonema mamillosum and Scytonema cf crustaceum growing at water level on granite boulders on the southern shore of Ennerdale Water, October 2016.   The scale bar is approximately one centimetre.

The surprise, when I looked down my microscope, was not that it was cyanobacteria, but that there were at least three genera mixed together.   The first of these was Scytonema cf crustaceum, characterised by a thick brown sheath and the presence of double “false branches”, formed when both ends of a broken filament continue to grow and, eventually, burst out of the sheath (see “Poking around amongst sheep droppings”).   In the image below you can see the narrow blue-green filament of cells within the much broader sheath.

Also present was Stigonema mamillosum, a representative of a genus with a more advanced morphology than other Cyanobacteria, with branched filaments that can be several cells thick (see “More from the River Atma”), and Calothrix sp., which has tapering filaments in a much thinner sheath.   All three genera have the capability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, so thrive in nutrient-poor habitats such as Ennerdale (see also “Both sides now …”).   Calothrix, in addition, is able to scavenge phosphorus from the water, releasing enzymes from the long colourless hairs (just about visible to the right of my photograph).


Scytonema cf crustaceum from the littoral zone of Ennerdale Water, October 2016.   Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).


Stigonema mamillosum and Calothrix sp from the littoral zone of Ennerdale Water, October 2016.   Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).

I found superficially-similar growths on rocks on the north east side of the lake, but it was clear, even from the appearance in my sample bottle, that this was something different.  The tangles of filaments from the southern shore of the lake, where I had started, had no other form when suspended in water, than an amorphous blob.  However, the material from the north-east side formed distinct “tufts”.   The superficial similarities continued when I peered down the microscope: once again the chains of blue-green cells were enclosed within a thick brown sheath and, once again, there were false branches.  This time, however, the false branches were single, not double, and formed acute angles with the “parent” filament, rather than the near perpendicular double false-branches that we saw in Scytonema.   These features are characteristic of Tolypothrix (Brian Whitton suggests T. distorta) and it is these acute branches that impart the “bushy” appearance to the colony.   Like the cyanobacteria that I found on the southern shore, Tolypothrix is capable of nitrogen fixation so, its presence here is confirmation of the nutrient poor status of the lake.


Tolypothrix distorta (var. penicillata?) from the littoral zone of Ennerdale Water, October 2016.  a: low power view of a tuft of filaments (approximately 5 mm in length); b: filaments showing single false branching (x100 magnification); c: medium power (x400) view of false branch.   Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).

Nitrogen-fixation involves busting apart the strong bonds of atmospheric nitrogen in order that the cell can use the nitrogen to build the proteins that it needs to function.  This requires a lot of energy and, as a result, the investment is only worthwhile if other sources of nitrogen are very scarce.   That energy could, otherwise, be diverted to more useful purposes.  The presence of so many different types of nitrogen-fixing organism around Ennerdale is sending out a clear sign that this is a nitrogen-poor habitat.  Algae such as Mougeotia cannot fix nitrogen, and they presumably have to make other sacrifices (a slower growth rate, perhaps?) in order live alongside these Cyanobacteria.   As far as I know, the energy costs of scavenging phosphorus from organic compounds in the water has not been calculated but the same principle must apply: the cell has to create more of the phosphatase enzymes than normal, in order to produce a surplus that can leak through the cell membrane and react with organic molecules in the vicinity.   Again, that all requires energy that can be used for other purposes.  In contrast to nitrogen fixation, this is an ability that Cyanobacteria share with some other algae including, possibly, Mougeotia.

Finding these algae in a one of the most remote lakes in the country, where the impact of humans is very low, I start to wonder how many of our other lakes would have had such an assemblage of organisms before agricultural intensification and the rise in population numbers.   Nature is, naturally, parsimonious in the way it distributes the inorganic nutrients plants need.   Necessity, we are told, is the mother of invention and the diversity we see in near-pristine habitats such as Ennerdale Water is as much the result of plants and algae finding their own individual solutions to grabbing their share of the scant resources available.   There’s enough here for a BBC natural history documentary … apart from an anthropomorphic mammal or bird.  Which is another way of saying … no chance …

Fifty shades of green …


Last week took me back at Ennerdale Water in the Lake District to see how the algae in the littoral zone had changed since my previous visit (see “Both sides now …”).   Back in July, we had found very few algae visible with the naked eye at most of the sites around the margin that we visited; three months on, the situation is very different, with obvious growths at many locations.  As Ennerdale is a remote lake with few human influences, any changes we see are likely to be the result of natural processes rather than “pollution”, so that makes the rapid increase in quantity of algae very intriguing.

One location was particularly intriguing: it was on the south west shore, where the steep scree-laden slope of Crag Fell enters the lake.  The littoral zone has some large stable boulders washed by waves blown down the lake from the high fells to the east.   The boulders had a covering of mosses on their upper surface and this moss, in turn, had been colonised by green algae.

Under the microscope, these growths were revealed to be the filamentous green alga Mougeotia, a relative of Spirogyra, which I have written about in a number of previous posts (it is often common in the River Ehen, for example, which flows out of Ennerdale: see “The River Ehen in February”).   The curious aspect of this particular population was that there were signs of sexual reproduction.   Mougeotia, along with Spirogyra and many other filamentous green algae, is usually observed in the vegetative state (see “The River Ehen in March” and “The perplexing case of the celibate alga”).


Boulders in the splash zone of Ennerdale with growths of Mougeotia over mosses (left) and growing directly on the rock surface (right).   The top photograph shows a view from Kirkland across Ennerdale with Great Gable in the background.


Filaments of the green alga Mougeotia in an early stage of conjugation, with papilla growing from the lower filament towards the upper one.   Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).  

Conjugation involves cells in two adjacent filaments developing outgrowths (“papilla”) that meet and fuse, creating a copulation canal between the two cells.   The cell contents (“protoplasts”) of both cells contract and then they both moves, amoeba-like, into the canal where they fuse  to form a zygote.

The image above suggests that the upper filament may be playing hard to get, rebuffing the amorous advances of the lower filament.   I don’t know enough about conjugation of these algae to know whether the enthusiasm for sex differs between filaments, but it is also possible that what I photographed is an artefact of filaments that may well have been establishing cosy relationships with neighbours before being dragged first from the lake and then onto a slide for my voyeuristic pleasure.   What may have been, in Ennerdale, a patchwork of stable relationships between filaments becomes, amidst the chaos of sampling and slide preparation, a picture of phycological bacchanal.

The lower picture shows a later stage of conjugation, with a zygote forming in the copulation canal.  The process takes place in three dimensions and it was difficult to obtain a crisp image, even using Helicon Focus stacking software but it gives an idea of what is taking place.  The zygote will, eventually, form a tough exterior wall and sink to the bottom of the lake where they will survive until conditions become favourable again.


Filaments of Mougeotia at a later stage of conjugation: the cell contents are in the process of fusing to form a zygote.   Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).  

The question I have been asking myself is why this particular population has chosen to conjugate at this particular time and place.   I have visited the River Ehen regularly since 2012 and have found Mougeotia or relatives on almost every visit, yet this is the first time that I have seen conjugation.   There are various theories: low nitrogen concentrations have been suggested as something that promotes conjugation in Mougeotia’s relative Spirogyra, but this is unlikely to be a factor in a nutrient-poor lake such as Ennerdale.  A more likely explanation may be found in the graph below, which shows lake levels in Ennerdale over the past year.


Lake levels in Ennerdale Water (from, measured at NY 088 153, near the outflow to the River Ehen) for the year preceding our visit in October 2016.  

The alga had been growing, remember, in the splash zone.  If you look at the graph, you will see that the lake had recently been almost 30 centimetres higher than it was now and, indeed, had fluctuated quite a lot over the past month or two.   My suspicion is that falling lake levels, and the accompanying risk of drying out, may also have been a factor for initiating conjugation.  Another possibility is that this is a seasonal occurrence that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon, and there is some evidence that dormancy is related to temperature, possibly allowing the zygotes to overwinter in the bottom muds before the increased solar radiation in the spring initiates germination, followed by meiosis (reduction division) to produce the germlings from which next season’s filaments will grow.

An open letter to Andrea Leadsom

You said something in your speech to the Conservative Party conference earlier this week that intrigued me, and I wondered if you would mind explaining exactly what you meant?  Of course, I may be reading too much into your words, which I only heard your talk because I was up stupidly early, and listened to Farming Today over breakfast.

My ears pricked up when I heard you say: “I’m truly excited that our departure from the EU means we can develop policies that are tailored to our most precious habitats and wildlife not a one-size-fits-approach for 28 Member States.”   Those are fine words but, I’m afraid I need to push you for some details.   I’ve done a lot of work on the implementation of EU environment policies over the past quarter of a century and I’m not absolutely sure where your idea that EU environment policy adopts a “one-size-fits-all approach” comes from.   The Water Framework Directive, for example, sets out general principles to ensure sustainable water supplies for Europe in the main text, but the extensive annexes give considerable scope for each Member State to tailor these principles to their own circumstances.   Even to drop the phrase “one-size-fits-all” into your talk suggests to me that you have not mastered your brief and that fills me – and other environmental professionals – with a sense of foreboding about the future of the UK environment.

However, you have not been doing the job for very long so we should give you the benefit of the doubt.   Your talk was strong on fine-sounding words but rather short on specifics.  So an easy solution to the problem may be for you to give us just one example from each of the Habitats and Water Framework Directives explaining the type of changes that your department will be looking to enact to strengthen environmental protection over and above the provisions of existing legislation.   Of course, I note that you said “… we can develop policies…” rather than “… we are developing policies …” but I am sure that you would not have said this if there were not civil servants within DEFRA currently considering just this type of option.   It is hardly an issue that is going to affect Brexit negotiations so you don’t need to resort to Theresa May’s argument of the need for discretion, and it will surely enhance your credibility among those voters who are genuinely concerned about wildlife and the environment.

One problem that I have is that you, and fellow Brexiteers, put a lot of emphasis on the red tape that Brussels generates.    Environmental and wildlife legislation often needs a “carrot” and a “stick” and that “stick” can very easily be interpreted by those on the receiving end as “red tape”.   A legitimate reading of your suggestion is that farmers and water companies may be subject to more, not less, regulation as a result of our exit from the EU.   That is counter-intuitive, given all that you, Farage, Gove and others claimed during the referendum campaign and is going to take some explaining, if it really is the case.  Once again, a couple of examples of what these new policies will look like will reassure us all.

And this brings me onto my final point: enactment of both EU policy and of your vision will only work if there are properly resourced regulators and, in my experience, the Environment Agency and Natural England have been struggling over the last few years.  Better environmental management will, of course, need more high calibre and well-resourced staff in both agencies.    Please don’t roll out that tired old mantra of greater efficiency: there is only a finite number of times this can be used before it loses credibility and, I am afraid, your predecessors have squeezed this particular argument dry.

Credibility is, unfortunately, the key word here.   Environmental professionals were very strongly in favour of “remain”, recognising the high quality of the legislation that comes out of Brussels in this field.   You came into this job without any strong track record in environment or agriculture and, I suggest, maybe you need to temper your enthusiasm for changing the status quo at least until you have mastered your brief.   An assurance that current EU legislation will not be revoked or watered down would be a good first step.   Despite claims by some of your colleagues that there was a decisive vote in favour of leaving, 48 per cent of voters want to remain.   That’s a lot of people who will be looking hard at your government’s performance come the next General Election.   Remember, too, that wildlife and conservation charities can run very effective campaigns when they think politicians are making a hash of things and that you only have a slim majority at the moment.   In other words, get this wrong and things can only end badly for you …

Fascination in ecology’s dark side …


There is, we are told frequently, too much sex and violence on the television.  Much of it, I am afraid to say, courtesy of natural history documentaries which are too quick to focus on anthropomorphic organisms participating in acts to which humans can relate than on the more prosaic organisms that constitute the bulk of both biomass and diversity in ecosystems.   I’ve written about this subject before (see “The complicated life of simple plants”) but a quick analysis of the index for The Blue Planet – the book which accompanied David Attenborough’s series for the BBC – offers some (semi-) objective evidence.

No surprise, for me at least, to see “phytoplankton” and “diatom” on the right hand side of the graph when I ranked organism groups from the most cited to the least.   It was a desire to promote the “unfashionable end of biodiversity” that prompted me to start this blog, to raise the profile of organisms that are responsible for half the primary production on the planet (see “every second breath …“).  On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see “kelp” in a strong mid-table position.   The Blue Planet book has a beautifully-illustrated chapter on kelp forests, describing the brown seaweeds that live in ocean littoral zones and the organisms that live on and amongst them in detail.


An analysis of index entries in The Blue Planet for major organism groups.   Each category contains all page references to the organism group, along with any sub-categories classified underneath this (so, for example, “dolphin” includes references to “care of young”, “hunting”, “sonar” etc.)

Having set out my argument for anthropomorphism as the driver behind natural history documentary programming, I was surprised to see that sharks came out as top of my list of index entries (which, I assume, roughly correlates to the amount of space that the authors devote to these organisms).   My explanation is simply that interest in sharks reflects human fascination with the dark and macabre: they are the Hannibal Lectors or Walter Whites of the underwater world.

I don’t underestimate the effort and technical skill needed to get good footage of charismatic aquatic vertebrates, whether sharks, whales or penguins.   However, once the footage has been obtained, it is easy to weave stories with which viewers can empathise.   Making documentary programmes about microscopic algae carries its own technical challenges but, even when the footage has been obtained, for how long can you hold the viewer’s attention?   Or, perhaps more to the point, can you persuade a commissioning editor that you can hold the viewer’s attention for long enough to justify the investment?

Whilst musing on the fascination with the dark and the sinister reminded me of press coverage of an upcoming exhibition on the art and influence of Caravaggio at the National Gallery and, from here, to other great artists whose works often have macabre undertones.  Géricault’s Raft of Medusa and Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes were two works that immediately sprang to my mind but you could include almost every crucifixion scene painted from the Renaissance onwards.   The Dutch Golden Age stands in stark contrast to these, often focusing on the everyday, the mundane.   Every time I look at a Vermeer, I marvel at how he can raise prosaic activities to this higher level, how he can convert a mundane act such as pouring milk from a jug into a transcendent moment (see “A wet afternoon in Berlin“).   The analogy between the existential drama that seems to be a subtext for every natural history documentary and the quietly spinning flywheels of nature that convert solar energy to sugars and, from there, power the processes that drive the ecosystems of which the charismatic organisms beloved of television natural historians, are obvious.

I have a theory that television natural history is a prime recruiting agent for undergraduate ecologists whilst, at the same time, presenting a very distorted view of the reality of ecology.   The reality is that the bulk of the biomass in ecosystems is in the primary producers – the plants – followed by the organisms that eat these and finally by the predators.   The histogram at the top of this article, by contrast, has sharks and whales receiving far greater attention than kelp and phytoplankton (coral reefs are a complication to this argument to which I will return at some point).   Students may be entranced by the images they see on television, but the reality of ecology is very different and, dare I say, involves more mathematics than most biology undergraduates want to contemplate.

The point of my diversion on the art of Vermeer was to offer a suggest that the route to greater public understanding of the unfashionable end of biodiversity lies not in trying to hype this up to be something that it will never be, but to appeal to a quieter, more contemplative side of human nature.   Algae are not for those with short attention spans, looking for instant gratification, but they are perfect objects for meditating on the diversity of life on earth and, indeed, for the myriad of hidden processes that keep life on earth ticking over …


Byatt, A., Fothergill, A. & Holmes, M. (2001).  The Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Oceans.  BBC Publications, London.