Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Ponds, life and the death of a scientist

Sometimes wildlife writers pull out literary phrases and quotes from the greats (White, Clare, Manley Hopkins) in a desperate bid to make their own writing seem better and more authoritative somehow. If that truly works then this blog post will possibly win me an award. Are you ready…?

I have a quote for you. It’s about ponds, and how incredible they are for learning. And it was written in 1880. (Yes, I own an old book. Aren’t I learned etc. etc.). Here goes…

“The pursuit of such studies, in their lowest results, is a good school for the exercise of patience and perseverance, and in their highest it bring one into contact with the manifestations of Divine power, as exhibited in a world hidden from the uninquiring eye, but withal as wonderful, if not even more astonishing than that in which we live, and move.”

Translation: ponds are bloody excellent.

The quote comes from M. C. Cooke’s Ponds and Ditches, part of the Natural History Rambles series. I absolutely love this book. Even though the cover’s hanging off and it’s well-thumbed, I feel like I can see a past world full of enthusiastic boyish (or girlish) endeavour and discovery about wild places. And there’s no mention of health-and-safety anywhere.

The tattered book now sits on my desk like a memento mori. A reminder of a Victorian time, when learning about nature was easier, instinctive and more, well, natural to young people.

This resonates quite a lot with me at the moment. I’m coming up to working with my 100th school in the past year, which is a milestone I’m quite proud of. One thing I’m not proud of is how few of these schools I’ve successfully managed to encourage to put a pond in (or make-good their current pond) for educational learning.

It’s quite shocking how many schools have a pond that remains unused for learning because it’s overgrown, dried up or it’s turned into a stagnant lifeless mess, largely useless.

In my experience the teachers know these ponds need fixing, but there’s too many competing priorities in the school for the teachers (or site-managers) to step up and realistically take the bull by the horns. Money’s an issue too, but another problem is a lack of confidence about pond management: what exactly needs to be done to keep the pond in a good condition for use as an outdoor study area? And it’s not just the schools I visited, research undertaken by Froglife (and their excellent Leapfrog project) paints a similar picture.

But hang on. Is it really the end of the world if schools don’t have useable educational ponds on site though? After all, many schools get their pond-dipping fix on field trips to nature study centres, right? Well, sadly, this is happening less and less because these ex-situ educational ponds are also under threat.

Death of the field centre

Field centres offer something out of this world, offering young people field experience and a chance to see real wild animals. Plus young people get to work with proper ecologists - scientific role-models. And there’s more: the field centres provide everything else - microscopes, nets, identification guides, toilets and sometimes a gift shop. Mostly though, field centres provide memories, direct experiences of outdoor life on this planet, and sometimes they create the emotions and passions that define us as adults.

It’s no surprise that 60% of people cite fieldwork at school as having a “crucial impact on their pro-environmental behaviour” (according to the Field Study Council's excellent Teaching biology outside of the classroom? Is it heading toward extinction? report in 2002).

Sadly though, field centres are becoming a strained community, eroded by two forces.

Firstly, many schools (that I work with at least) can’t afford the increasing cost of hiring a coach, and have to think of cheaper alternatives or cancel field-trips as a cost-cutting provision (more on this here). And then on the other side there’s the fact that some local authorities view field centres as easy pickings in the economic cutbacks (in fact, I think the Field Studies Council (FSC) are looking into this and are publishing something soon). The result is that many field centres are closing.

So in school and out, educational ponds are harder and harder to come by.
These educational habitats are becoming like an endangered species; starved of attention, isolated, fenced away from human contact, often only the preserve of the rich. It’s death by a thousand cuts, and frankly I hope that we can raise the profile of this issue somehow. (I urge you to join the FSC’s Save Fieldwork campaign by the way).

To me, ponds are like eggs in a cake. Without them we’ll fail to make the big spongy scientists of the future. And without scientists we become a boring stagnant society, lacking discovery, lacking passion. Our adventurous spirit lost. We become a big floppy proto-cake. A species plateau.

All this, plus without scientists we drop the baton in helping future generations protect the natural world that’s so life-giving for, well, everyone and everything.

It’s all quite heavy and depressing stuff and sorry to tarnish the reputation of this normally perky and cheery blog. So, time for a quote, once again from my century-old Ponds and Ditches. This one’s about studying freshwaters:

“No branch of science, moreover, has been more humbling to the boasted rapidity and omnipotence of the human reason, or has more taught those who have eyes to see, and hearts to understand, how weak and wayward, staggering and slow, are the steps of our fallen race.”

When read slowly these beautiful words sound almost like etchings on a gravestone. I guess time will tell.

More soon, Jules (P.S. funding news, as usual, below).


Trust for London - Max. Value: Discretionary

Financial assistance is available for London-based voluntary and community organisations that are carrying out projects that aim to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Thomas Wall Trust - Max. Value: £ 1,000

Grant for registered charities undertaking educational and social welfare projects in the UK and for individual disadvantaged students for vocational courses or courses concerned with social welfare.

Woodward Charitable Trust - Small Grants - Max. Value: £ 5,000

Grant for community organisations that encourage social regeneration through education, rehabilitation and outreach in the UK.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Corpse on the cob

This week's blog looks at the magic of spiders' webs - and how to do a CSI-style corpse survey. There's information on bringing spiders' webs back to the classroom for study. Oh, and some bleating about a woman on her wedding day. Funding news too.

Picture the scene. It involves a human being, a young successful twenty-something, on her wedding day. After ten years she’s worked her way up the ladder. She owns her own house, mortgage paid. She’s going for the full-hand: car, house, job, soon marriage and then kids. Today is the day - she gets herself prim for the biggest day of her life. For her, life starts now.

She climbs out of the car, walks up the steps to the church. And then… and then…

…She gets stuck in a massive sticky web? She gets bitten by an enormous eight legged fang-laden spider four times her size? She dies a slow and painful death…? Well, yes. If you're an insect. In the insect world, young lives in the prime of life are lost each day.

Don’t believe me? Well, go to your nearest pond and study the spiders’ webs. Tragic tales like those above are festooned all over them at the moment. Rites of passages ruined. Maiden flights foiled. Metamorphoses wasted. Spiders fed.

In the waters below these webs, aquatic larval stages have been gorging themselves on prey (or plants) before they burst forth out of the pond to the stuttering buzz of virgin wings. The spiders must think some satanic deity is paying out.

Caddisfly larvae are my favourite – their larval cases are made from whatever’s in the pond (grasses, twigs, leaves, mud, polystyrene), all cut to shape and glued into an intricate moveable cave (it’s even inspired artists in the human world). Each larval caddisfly species has its own fondness for materials: some like thin twigs specially aligned (Limnephilus rhombicus), some have a love of big leaves (Phacopteryx brevipennis), and some even have a thing about tiny ramshorn snailshells (Limnephilus flavicornis).

As a tool for inspiring people about the value and awe-inspiring power of freshwaters, I’d say caddisflies feature as high as frogs. Maybe higher – they just need more publicity.

But back to those spiders' webs…

What’s in your pond?

So, as I was saying, spiders’ webs that have been flung near ponds are rich pickings if you want to see which insects were living in the pond as larvae (and which may be present again next year). At this time of year many webs are full of caddisfly adults (honestly, go and look). After all that effort of making a larval case to live in, plus the whole metamorphosis thing, it’s shocking how many die so early. Such is life / Life…

Their webs are full of the adult life stages of other things too – mosquitos, small hoverflies, even moths (Brown China-mark Moth is quite widespread).
Who’d have thought that spiders, in their blood (hemolymph?) lust, would inadvertently create a survey tool for wildlifers to use to understand what’s in their pond. Clever little nightmares, they are.

A web-tool for engagement?

When I scour spiders’ webs for insect treasure part of me gets sad about the waste of such larval potential. I think of the woman on her wedding day, predated. A small part of me feels her pain. If I’m honest though most of me is excited and inspired about it all. Actually it’s the same boy-like awe and excitement I still get when imagining dinosaurs killing one another or a great white shark ripping apart a torso. Is this just me? Am I disturbed? Maybe.

Perhaps using spiders’ web as a study tool might help young boys (particularly) to engage better with nature? It sort of fits alongside the ‘Deadly Sixty’ mentality which grabs young people so well. (I hear the sentence, “I’ve seen that on Deadly Sixty!” on most days). Try it out and let me know how you get on.


I’ve never attempted it, but there is apparently a way to bring spider webs back to the classroom (or the study/lab/garage workbench) for further study (and maybe to satisfy an artistic urge or two). Bizarrely it involves hairspray. In Nick Baker’s excellent, clear and informative The First Time Naturalist, it says you can spray the web with spray paint a couple of times (to harden it up), then hairspray (to make it sticky). Then it’s a case of carefully lining up a bit of card and pushing the card through the (now sticky) web. Not sure how long it would preserve the insects caught within the web – certainly long enough to get your microscope out for a further look I’d say.

Give it a go! If anyone’s got any pictures of your web exploits let me have them – I’ll post them on Twitter (@juleslhoward).

Right, that’s me done – from life in webs, to the web of life, spiders have certainly grabbed my interest of late. Hope they do yours!


Only one national one to speak of this month – but might be a good one…

Ideas Fund Green is provided by Ideas Tap, a not-for-profit organisation, bringing young, creative people together and offering cash funding, opportunities and a portfolio to showcase work. The aim of the scheme is to realise creative projects that either address green issues or are produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. Up to £5,000 is available.

Until next week, Jules