How to make an ecologist #9


One of the minor pleasures of this year has been digging out old 35 mm slides, scanning them into a digital form and then using these to trigger memories of the twists and turns in my professional life (see “How to make an ecologist #8“).   I have not done this for some time, largely because other topics have seemed to be a higher priority to write about.   None more so in recent weeks than the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.   A serendipitous moment, however, led me to two boxes of slides documenting two periods of fieldwork in Italy in 1988 and, through these, to remember how difficult travelling around Europe used to be before the advent on the single market.

I visited Italy twice in 1988, as a postdoc on a project looking at Holocene vegetation history.  On both occasions we drove from northern England in a four wheel drive vehicle loaded with equipment.   I have two strong memories of those journeys: the distances we covered (Calais to northern Italy in a single day) and the hassle at every national border we crossed.   In those pre-open market, pre-Schengen agreement days we not only had to show passports at each frontier, we also had to queue up with the lorries and other commercial vehicles and go through a full customs check.   This had also entailed travelling to the Chamber of Commerce in Leeds shortly before we left to get a “Carnet de Passage en Douane”.   This was a document that allowed us to temporarily import our equipment for the duration of the project without the need to pay any customs or taxes at the border.   It entailed leaving a bond in the UK, which was returned if our Carnet de Passage was signed and stamped at every border to show that we had brought out the same as we had taken in a few days previously.  My memory is that the customs checks were not especially thorough; indeed, the officials rarely looked inside our vehicles.  But we did have to sit in the long queues awaiting our turn in order to get our carnet de passage signed.


Fieldwork in Italy during 1988: sampling surface sediments from a lake somewhere in the Appenines with Brian Huntley during our spring visit (left) and using a Livingstone corer to collect a sediment core in the fens beside Lago di Monticchio in southern Italy in September 1988.

Almost thirty years later, I take for granted that I can travel around Europe for pleasure or business with almost no constraints.   In my own small way, I run a business that depends, to some extent, on “exports” to the European Union.   I had forgotten, until I dug out these memories, just what that entailed.  The irony is that establishing a tighter control on our borders will, almost inevitably, make crossing those same borders slower and will generate extra paperwork, particularly for those of us who travel on business.  Of course, once we are in Europe, the open borders will mean that our progress across the continent will not be impaired.   And the stated aspiration of the “leave” campaigners is that there will be a free trade agreement between UK and the EU which will mean that we can continue to do business.

Like much of the rhetoric that surrounds the EU referendum, the reality is less certain than the protagonists suggest.  My own view is that leaving would be foolish but, if that is the outcome of the referendum, then a free trade agreement probably will be achieved, possibly on the lines of that currently enjoyed between Norway and the EU.   Brexiters such as Johnson, Farage and Duncan Smith talk glibly of this as if a deal strongly weighted in the UK’s favour was no more than a formality.   This is naïve: my own belief is that a free trade agreement will be contingent on the UK maintaining the “level playing field” for business which, in turn, will mean staying signed up to, amongst other things, key employment and environmental legislation.   It will also mean paying some money to Brussels to support the implementation of those aspects of EU law, and any other parts of the EU’s activities that are deemed beneficial (access to research funding, perhaps?).   That is something that the Brexiters have been rather quiet about over the past weeks.

Of course, I regard the prospect of the UK staying signed up to EU environmental legislation, in particular, as a small crumb of comfort in these worrying times.  That is partly down to self-interest, as helping with the implementation of EU legislation is a major part of my business.  But it is not just self-interest.  As I have written before (see “What has the EU ever done for us?”), I do genuinely believe that we get stronger environmental protection by being part of the EU than we would if we depended solely on Westminster and Whitehall.

I don’t expect that I will need a Carnet de Passage any time soon.  But remembering how things were, in the days before the European Economic Community morphed into the European Union and promoted genuinely free trade, is enough to remind of just how much we stand to lose after next week’s referendum.


A clump of umbrella pine, Pinus pinea, on a hillside, photographed during fieldwork in 1988.

The heart of the matter …


I have made no secret of my strong belief that the UK would be foolish to leave the European Union (see “What has the EU ever done for us?“).  Until now, I have argued the case for our environment being better protected by EU regulations and enforcement procedures.  However, that is only part of the reason that I will be voting to stay in the EU on June 23.  The emotional heart of my argument is encapsulated in the two photographs above.

They both show the road, Suffolk Street, in Forest Gate, East London, where my mother and her family lived during the Second World War.  The left hand picture shows my mother standing outside the house where she was brought up.  Like almost every house in the street it is a 19th century terraced house, with two rooms upstairs and three downstairs.   Right up to the time my grandmother died in 1989 it had an outside toilet and no separate bathroom.   The right hand picture shows three houses built in the 1960s that stand about 100 metres further along the road from my mother’s house.   Those houses stand on the site where a German V1 flying bomb landed in 1944.  My grandmother, mother and uncle emerged from the air-raid shelter at the end of their small garden to find their windows blown in and a gaping hole between two of the downstairs rooms.   I still remember seeing the crack in the wall when I visited as a child.   My mother’s favourite doll also lost one of its arms during the attack.

Seventy years on, I spend a proportion of my working life working with the European Union, and have a reasonable idea of the realities of getting representatives of 28 different countries to agree on a common path.  It is not always easy, and sometimes there are frustrations and disagreements.   The lack of uniformity across Europe is part of what makes travelling around the continent and working with people from other countries a generally rewarding experience.   We share many values, but the expression of those values is shaped by different cultures and histories.   Finding a way through the problems and disagreements is not always easy, but a brief pause to reflect on how far we have all travelled since Britain and Germany dropped bombs on one another is enough to put these disagreements into perspective.

There is much with which I do not agree within the European Union; the time is not right for greater movement towards a single federal state, and the Euro, for all the practical conveniences, was rushed ahead without thinking through all the implications.   However, major constitutional changes require agreement from all members, so the UK cannot be forced down paths with which it disagrees profoundly.  But all of these debates are fringe affairs compared to the recognition of shared values, achieved through the increased mobility of citizens around the EU, whether on holiday, to work or to study.  Perhaps the UK does not get the full benefit of the free movement of labour because our language skills are not as developed as in many other countries?  But that is a matter that we have to resolve ourselves and is hardly the fault of the EU.   That said, the working language of scientists within the EU is English and I am writing this on the way back from a business trip to Romania, so there is hope, even for the linguistically challenged …

Being in Romania also served as a reminder of the role that the EU played in encouraging democracy and economic development in the former communist states.   Liam Fox, the former Conservative Defence Secretary – and prominent “out” campaigner was scornful of the suggestion that the EU contributes to peace. That, he claimed, was due to NATO, not the EU.   That betrays a very limited understanding of “peace” as no more than “not war”.   “Peace” is a far bigger concept than Liam Fox’s definition, embracing all the interactions we have that make war inconceivable.   NATO, at best, contributes to a sense of security in situations where true peace has already failed.  But that’s a topic for another day.

A major limitation of the “out” campaigners is their appeal to a sense of nationalism that seems thoroughly behind the times in our modern interconnected world.  To me, being “European” is just one more layer to my identity.  It does not conflict with my nationality.  I was reminded of this as I listened to Sunderland fans taunting Newcastle supporters as their victory over Everton consigned Newcastle to relegation.  But I know that, as the European championships get under way, Sunderland and Newcastle fans will be standing side by side supporting England.  So the idea of nested identities is hardly new.  Europe is just one more layer to our identity.  Voting to stay in on June 23rd is a complete no-brainer…


The Palace of the Parliament (“Casa Poporului”) in Central Bucharest, built on Nicolae Ceauşescu’s orders: a reminder of Romania’s Communist past.

What has the EU ever done for us?

This is the text of an article published in the Quaker magazine The Friend on 12 May as part of my contribution to the debate on the UK’s membership of the European Union:

I should declare my interest in the outcome of the EU referendum: my work involves helping clients (government agencies, mostly) translate European environmental legislation into practice.  I once tried to explain this to Enoch Powell.  His put his face close to mine and, eyes blazing, spat contemptuously “what business of theirs is it if we poison our rivers?”

It was a fair question.  If I was a Dutchman, I would have pointed out that all of our major rivers rose elsewhere and received effluents from sewage works and industries in several other EU States before crossing into their territory.   Were I Swedish, I could point to the role of EU legislation in reducing emissions from power stations elsewhere in the European Union, leading to less air pollution blowing over their territory.  But what about the UK?   We have a short land border with the Republic of Ireland, mostly running through rural areas.  Other than that, the patterns of North Sea currents mean that our coastline is less affected by pollution from the River Rhine than by our own rivers, and the prevailing winds from the Atlantic mean that it is our pollution that blows to continental Europe and Scandinavia, not the other way around.  There is, relatively speaking, less direct benefit to the UK’s environment than is the case for many other countries.

Environmental management can be summarised as devising a path from where we are to where we would like to be.  That destination might be expressed in the language of science but it is tangled up with a slew of social and cultural factors.   Ambition, in many cases, is tempered by what is perceived to be the Art of the Possible, framed by a collective vision.   An environmental regulator responsible for a densely-populated region with a long history of urban and industrial development will, rightly, gain a sense of achievement from any significant movement towards a cleaner environment.  And the Environment Agency in England has made considerable progress over recent years.  But “better than before” is not the same as “good enough” and where European Union legislation goes beyond what the UK alone can achieve it is by establishing this collective vision.

But regulation of the environment the UK as a whole suffers from a more systemic problem: the lack of clear policy separation between agriculture and the environment.   It is, of course, foolish to pretend that environmental policy does not have implications on agriculture, or vice versa.  The problem is that the ambition for the environment can never be entirely separated from issues of farm income or food security.  What may be presented as joined-up thinking on rural affairs may also end up as a fudge.  Far better to lay out the ambition and then make cogent arguments for why that ambition may need to be balanced by pragmatism.

That, to me, is the biggest advantage of the EU to the UK: it brings a clear ambition for sustainable development, based on a continent wide view, independent of views of other sectors.   My point is not that these other viewpoints are not important, or that there may be situations where they have to take priority.   It is that we must not let these sectors influence the setting or implementation of environmental targets.   The accommodations that are necessary to make high principle rub up against reality can be dealt with by derogations within the legislation (as is the case in the Water Framework Directive, for example) rather than by fudges during the process of policy development.

But this debate is less about the minutiae of legislation, whether environmental, trade or any other sector, than it is about how the UK sees itself in relation to the rest of Europe.  The logic of pulling back from international co-operation at a time when national boundaries seem to be increasingly irrelevant, defeats me.  The environment epitomises this: a crude analysis suggests that the UK gains fewer tangible benefits than some other countries, yet this misses the point.  The true benefit of Europe to the UK’s environment is not measured by the absence of negative effects, so much as by the share that we hold in a collective vision that is greater than the sum of its parts.


An abandoned lead mine draining into the River Nent in Cumbria: one of many challenges facing the UK environment where we benefit from engagement with the European Union.

Unmasking the faceless Eurocrats …


My own small contribution to the campaign to keep the UK in the European Union takes the form of a scientific paper. This will probably not raise many eyebrows outside the small band of specialists amongst whom I work but it offer it as an antidote to the rhetoric of the anti-EU campaigners and their scaremongering about the Brussels bureaucracy. I have made no secret that I am pro-EU (see “What has the European Union ever done for us?”) and that I think the UK benefits from EU environmental legislation. What one person thinks to be sensible regulation can easily be portrayed by the disingenuous as excessive red tape peddled by faceless, unelected Brussels bureaucrats.

Our paper deals with about half a sentence in an annex of an 80 page Directive that deals with how EU Member States should assess the quality of lakes.   Should the suspended algae, the attached algae and the larger plants be used to assess lake condition, or can you get the same outcome by just using two of these three components? Interpretation of those few words can, however, result in considerable and recurring expense for a large Member State such as the UK.   Opinion on how they should be interpreted differed between the 28 countries of the EU.   How do you find the balance between the environmental risks associated with lax interpretation of EU law and the extra costs that a stringent reading of the Directive would entail?

I was contracted, along with two colleagues, by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre to look into this issue by examining the datasets of those countries that had analysed all three components to see how much extra information additional types of monitoring added to a manager’s overview of lake condition.   One additional twist to the problem was that my own particular specialism, the attached algae, was the Cinderella at this particular ecological assessment Ball, with about 60% of EU states deciding that these were not necessary.   Ironically, my career as Fairy Godmother to fellow algal specialists was extremely short-lived, as the outcome of our analyses was that, if a lake had a problem, it could usually be detected using the suspended algae and higher plants (the “ugly sisters” … metaphor overload .. no more of this, I promise).   There are situations when all three are needed to understand how to manage a lake but, for strategic overviews of the condition of a country’s lakes, little was gained by including them.

So what has all this got to do with our EU referendum?   In brief, this was a matter of interpretation discussed by representatives of all Member States at meetings mediated by European Commission representatives.   Having identified a difference of opinion, they brought us in to work on an evidence-based solution which was then discussed, in depth, at another meeting of national representatives (mostly ecologists). Many agreed with our conclusion; a few made the case for continuing to use all three components.   Ecological arguments were put forward by both sides but, in essence, we were debating whether this was an issue that should be decided within or between Member States.   Most were happy that this level of detail could be determined within Member States.   Even if the outcome had been in favour of imposing a more rigorous interpretation of the Directive, it would have been the consensus of Member States enacted through the Commission, not a blanket edict from these (hypothetical) faceless bureaucrats that the right wing press constantly demonises.

An interesting coda to this story is that after our report had been circulated and discussed my colleague at JRC was contacted by people from one Member State who were slightly alarmed by the conclusion.  The point that they made was that devolving responsibility to individual countries would lead to many dropping the use of attached algae, simply on the grounds of financial expediency. I had some sympathy (one of the authors was a fellow consultant who, like me, makes part of his living from this type of work) but it also touched on something that has been exercising my mind over recent months.   Do countries use this type of monitoring because they have to (i.e. the Directive tells them to) or because they need to (i.e. it contributes valuable information to lake management)?   It shifts the onus on us, as advocates of a sub-discipline, to make a reasoned case for the continued use of attached algae, rather than simply assume that “Brussels” will guarantee our livelihood.

Note: the photograph shows Derwent Water in the English Lake District, looking south from Friar’s Crag, July 2015.


Kelly, M.G., Birk, S., Willby, N.J., Denys, L., Drakare, S., Kahlert, M., Karjalainen, S.-M., Marchetto, A., Pitt, J.-A., Urbanič, G. & Poikane, S. (2016). Redundancy in the ecological assessment of lakes: Are phytoplankton, macrophytes and phytobenthos all necessary? Science of the Total Environment

So that was 2015 …


It seems like just a few weeks ago that I was writing “122 days to go” in anticipation of the UK General Election. That, however, is now 243 days in the past. Nonetheless, the first question that I asked in that post (“What will happen to the UK environment if we vote in parties that want to leave the EU?”) is still as pertinent as ever, and the referendum on UK’s membership of the EU will probably be the defining political issue here during 2016.   I am sure that I will be returning to this topic over the next few months.

My word map for 2016 is similar to that for 2015 (see “And finally …”) although I am intrigued to see that “see” is larger this year than “algae”.   Seeing the world from unexpected perspectives is a large part of what my blog is about. The impetus for my intellectual journey over the past three years or so has been a reaction to what I saw as complacency on the part of my fellow algal scientists, many of whom collect samples and processing data with too little consideration for how those samples related to the natural state of the communities from which they were taken. That, in turn, had prompted my depictions of the underwater world.   That journey now describes a wider arc – travelling on from reflecting first on how our observations and measurements relate to the natural state, to think about how those same observations translate into policy and decisions.   A series of posts in June (starting with “the human ecosystem of environmental management”) as I was making my way towards a scientific meeting in Trento unwrap the issues around this.

Finally, thanks for bearing with me in 2015. WordPress tell me that my blog has been read by people in 128 different countries (up from 110 last year) and that the 13,000 views equate to filling the Sydney Opera House five times.   Anyone who has heard me sing will marvel that a single sentence can reference both me and the Sydney Opera House …

Farewell to our “Green and Pleasant Land”?

I’ve spent the last few days contemplating the implications of a UK exit from the European Union, my thoughts focussed by a stimulating workshop in Birmingham organised by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management.   Reassuringly, many of the other participants echoed the view that I aired in a post at the start of the year: that the immediate implications of a UK exit (I refuse to use the term ‘Brexit’) for the environment will be limited, as most EU law has been transposed into UK legislation (see “122 days to go …”). We also have a strong body of domestic legislation that dovetails with EU Directives to such an extent that it is difficult to unpick the unique contribution that EU Directives have made to the state of our environment. If I had to point to one event that truly marked an upturn in the fortunes for English and Welsh rivers, it would probably be the privatisation of the water industry in 1989 and the creation of a strong, independent regulator, the National Rivers Authority (see “The state of things, part 1”). That was nothing to do with Brussels.

My biggest worry about a UK exit is less tangible, not so easily supported by hard evidence, but no less real. It is that the EU, with the UK as a willing and constructive partner, defines our collective ambition.   Legislation such as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) sets out a vision for the sustainable use of Europe’s water that goes far beyond anything that domestic legislation had ever contemplated.   Maybe it is not leaving the EU that is the major concern, so much as what such a step would say about the mentality of a significant proportion of my fellow citizens? My ‘vision’ will be their ‘red tape’ and, gradually, the ideals enshrined in legislation such as the WFD will be chipped away and watered down.

Let’s be honest and admit that the UK is far from perfect at the moment. It has been dragged into the European Court of Justice for infractions of EU environmental legislation on a number of occasions and, if we vote to stay in the EU, we will probably find ourselves there again.   Think of the European Court of Justice as the speed cameras on the environmental highway.   Simply knowing that there are speed cameras along a stretch of road is enough to quell the temptation to speed and the same principle applies to environmental law.   The ‘No’ campaign will claim the moral high ground but, realistically, the more challenging aspects of EU legislation will be quietly revoked as time passes, without this scrutiny from a higher body. The phosphorus standards for freshwaters, which I helped to develop, would be an obvious candidate. This is partly because they represent the small print in environmental protection, rather than headline-grabbing issues.   More pertinently, they are sufficiently tight (for which read “realistic”) for many utility companies to struggle to achieve them.   Quietly letting them drop from the legislative agenda could even be turned into a PR success (one less reason to raise water charges).

I realise, at this stage, that ‘No’ campaigners will be nodding sagely at what I have just written. ‘Exactly’, they will be saying, ‘that is what we want to happen.’ Leaving Europe is a vote against interventionist approaches to government but, when it comes to matters of environmental policy, the political right has not yet demonstrated a better alternative (see “When Right is not right”).

Of course, the environment will be competing for column inches with high profile issues such as the economy and immigration over the next few months. Immigration presents us with an interesting parallel: when you next consider the free movement of people across European borders, think, too, about the free movement of migratory birds across a continent, and the benefits that joined-up environmental policy has on organisms that cannot be constrained by national borders. You might also like to consider the free movement of atmospheric pollution; again, no respecter of boundaries.

Leaving the EU would be a double whammy for the environment. Not only will it water down our ambition, it will also reduce the amount of independent scrutiny. The ‘No’ campaigners may allude to our “Green and Pleasant Land” in their rhetoric, but don’t expect it to stay that way for long.