From steaming swamp to blanket bog… We’re live!

After many more hours, and months of work than initially anticipated, our exhibition of Peruvian peatland pics is live. I sketched the article below with colleagues for publicity purposes; this press release adds a few more details. And the exhibition itself is available to everyone everywhere fortunate enough to have an internet connection: https://peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/. Compiling the exhibition has very much been a team effort, with colleagues Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies. I’ve learnt a huge amount from their invaluable input and feedback on all aspects of this ‘outreach’ project. I hope we’ve created an accessible narrative that will inspire people to look twice at peatlands, temperate and tropical, and to consider what role they play in all of our lives. I’ve also learnt, the hard way, about the need to balance what can be a very diverse portfolio of work in academia, with publications still being the unit of currency and stamp of expertise for the (academic and employment) world. Now to learning how to achieve that balance before it’s too late…

An open peatland ecosystem in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Lydia Cole. To view the caption to accompany this image visit: https://peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/.

This autumn, a touch of the tropical has come to southeast Scotland. From early August until late October, 2021, the St Andrews Botanic Gardens are hosting a photography exhibition all about Peru’s lowland tropical peatlands. Lydia Cole, Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies, lecturers from the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, in collaboration with the Botanic Gardens and with funding from the British Ecological Society and The Leverhulme Trust, have curated a collection of photographs that take you on a tour of the steaming swamps of the Peruvian Amazon.

The selected photographs were taken by researchers from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Leeds, and the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP, Institute for Research on the Peruvian Amazon) across ten years of fieldwork in Peru’s peatlands. The exhibition explores three key themes: ecosystems – highlighting the “ecosystem engineers” responsible for carbon storage; fieldwork – describing experiences of data collection in the swamps; and people – illuminating the communities and activities associated with the peatlands.

In addition to the physical exhibition, a virtual gallery is housing the photographs and captions to provide online access to audiences near and far: www.peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk. The website is also available in Spanish and will be live beyond when the exhibition closes at the Botanic Gardens at the end of October 2021. When accessibility improves in Peru and COVID-cases stabilise, colleagues from IIAP plan to display a Spanish-language version of the exhibition in a National Reserve in the Amazonian region of Peru.

Peatlands are a distinctive type of ecosystem where the surface vegetation contributes to, and lives on top of, layers of accumulating peat. Peat is made up of leaves, roots and partially decomposed organic matter, which builds up when waterlogged, low-oxygen, low-nutrient conditions prevent decomposer organisms from recycling dead plant remains. Over hundreds to thousands of years, a thick layer of carbon-rich peat accumulates. With climate change a key challenge faced by global society, conserving the carbon stored in peatlands is becoming an international priority for mitigation efforts.

Peatlands make up over 20% of the land area in Scotland. The most common type of peatland is a blanket bog, where layers of peat carpet the bedrock, forming waterlogged, mossy and shrubby landscapes. In the Peruvian Amazon, peatlands look very different as they are generally forested and often flooded; they are the archetypal ‘swamp’. Over 80% of Scotland’s peatlands are thought to be degraded, whilst Peru’s peatlands are mostly still in an intact state.

Indigenous Urarina women harvesting Mauritia flexuosa palm shoots from a peatland palm swamp in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Lydia Cole.

Researchers at the University of St Andrews and other members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, are measuring and mapping the distribution of carbon within the Peruvian Amazon peatlands, the biodiversity they contain and their long-term dynamics, to understand how they develop over centuries to thousands of years. Other projects, as many of the photographs highlight, are exploring the value, meaning and cultural importance of the peatlands to the communities who live there. The photographs in the exhibition have been selected to provide an insight into not only these peatland ecosystems and the people who live in and around them, but also the experience of doing research in these carbon-rich environments. You can find out more about the different projects and team members at www.tropicalwetlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk.

If you do have a look at the exhibition and it leaves you with questions or comments, the curators would love to hear them. Please email Lydia Cole (lesc1@st-andrews.ac.uk) if you have any feedback.

“From steaming swamp to blanket bog” photography exhibition

Re-published from the Tropical Wetlands Consortium website

To coincide with World Peatland’s Day, on Wednesday 2nd June, 2021, three members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, Lydia Cole, Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies, launched a new website, which will be showcasing an online exhibition from August onwards. Funded by a British Ecological Society Outreach Grant, they have developed an exhibition of photographs illustrating life in the peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon. The exhibition will be physically held in the beautiful surroundings of the St Andrews Botanic Gardens, located in Fife, Scotland, from 1st August until 31st October, 2021. For those unable to get to the gardens, not least our colleagues and audience in Peru, the exhibition will also be available in an online gallery (in English and Spanish languages). Alongside the photographs, the website will contain educational materials for schools, with information sheets that will help teachers to incorporate aspects of the exhibition and our peatland research, into their teaching.

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Harvesting Mauritia palm shoots (the full description is available on the exhibition website).

The three key themes of the exhibition, i.e., ecosystems, fieldwork, and people and peatlands, take the audience on a journey through Peru’s Amazonian peatlands. All of the selected photographs have been kindly provided by members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, and were taken during various periods of field research over the last decade. We’d like to thank all of those who contributed, both in the UK and Peru, without whom this exhibition would not be possible. We hope you can all join us online, or in person, when the exhibition opens in August.

Talking transdisciplinarity

Last December (2020), Alex Chausson and I ran a workshop at the British Ecological Society’s virtual Festival of Ecology. After running a workshop the previous year on interdisciplinarity, this seemed like a natural next step. I learnt a huge amount from the process, not least about how to increase the likelihood of “having impact” through research. Here is a short post Alex and I put together for the IIED blog, to share our key learnings from the event.

A word cloud from the event, demonstrating which words sprung to mind for participants at the end of the workshop when they thought about “transdisciplinarity”.

#WorldPeatlandsDay, the First

Re-posting here a quick plug I made for World Peatlands Day on the Tropical Wetlands Consortium blog.  Any excuse to post about peat.

Tuesday 2nd June, 2020, marked the first ever World Peatlands Day – a celebration of all things boggy, swampy, sucky, blanket-y, fen-y, etc.  The International Peatland Society launched the event in August 2019, to draw attention to peatlands as being a unique ecosystem type, with a unique set of values and challenges associated with their sustainable management, and thus deserving of a separate international day of recognition.  The longer-established World Wetlands Day happens on 2nd February every year, bringing the vast range of wetlands into the public eye; ecosystems that we all interact with and rely on in some way.  Peatlands are one major part of that story.

In celebration of the day, re-peat put on Peat-Fest, a very impressive 24 hours of online peat-related fun.  The British Ecological Society’s Peatlands Research and Conservation Ecology Groups co-hosted a peat- and conservation-themed quiz (part-organised and attended by members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium).  Here are a few popular tweets illustrating yesterday’s celebration….

But if World Peatlands Day passed you by, don’t fear; there are plenty more days to celebrate peatlands to come*.  International BogDay is on Sunday 26th July, the World Bogsnorkelling Championships (now cancelled) are usually in mid-Wales (UK) on the August Bank Holiday weekend, and in July of 2021, the Swamp Soccer World Championships is to be held in Finland.  Do let us know if you spot more opportunities to celebrate these important ecosystems, in the Global North, South or swamps.

Spot the difference!

On 7th March B.C., during those heady days of frollocking in the sun/rain-shine, wholesome hugs and re-usable coffee cups, the University of St Andrews held a Science Discovery Day.  I was unable to attend unfortunately, but put together a poster for my research group – the Tropical Wetlands Consortium  – to pop up as part of their peat paraphernalia.  Below are two copies of the poster: (a) the poster before our seven year old consultant checked it for readability by the society members he was representing; (b) the revised version, edited in response to his valuable feedback.  There are four major differences.  Can you spot them (click on images to enlarge)?  And understand why the items in (a) weren’t accessible to our next generation of budding scientists?  The feedback was eye-opening for me, and I shall now be using this consultant regularly to accessibility-check my primary school-level outreach work.

(a) Pre-accessibility assessment

(b) Post-check by our seven year old consultant

Making an impact….in UK environmental policy

On 6th March B.C. (just before lock-down), I organised an event at the snazzy, “gold-standard of sustainability” British Ecological Society Offices in London, to let ecologists know how they can Make an Impact: Understanding the ways they can engage with the UK Parliament and Policy.  The event was held jointly by the Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group and the BES Policy Team.  We had an excellent bunch of speakers and a room-full of engaged attendees.

I thought I’d post some of the resources from the day here:

Now over to you/me/us.  And perhaps now is the time to think about what changes are possible, what a different world could look like A.C. and how we can influence that.

Friend and FAO

Earlier this year, as a result of making friends at a conference years ago, I had the privilege of working with a bunch of the world’s most knowledgeable peat-ple on this article for the FAO, published to coincide with COP25: Peatlands: the challenge of mapping the world’s invisible stores of carbon and water. (Page 46-57 in the linked document).

Our main message, watered-down, is that mapping peatlands is no easy task and there is still much work to do on the ground, and across the globe….but we are fast working on these knowledge gaps and know enough about the important role that peatlands play in mitigating climatic change that we would be fools to let them squander.

Un-CAP the Brexit can….and unleash the worms?

Back in February, the British Ecological Society’s Special Interest Group in Conservation Ecology (which I’m enjoying Chairing) ran a thoroughly interesting event in London on what Brexit might mean to/for early career ecologists.  It was a sell-out, despite concerns of Brexit-fatigue.  And I was so impressed by the level of engagement of those that attended.  It was expertly organised by Dr Andy Suggitt, whom wrote a great piece on the event here.  Kate Howlett has also written this and this piece on the day, which provide another interesting perspective on the event and learnings from it.

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Some wisdom from Dame Georgina Mace, whom herself confessed being pretty baffled by what the future might hold. 

One of the key learnings I took away from the event was concerning the one (ONE) positive outcome that could (COULD) result from Brexit: the ability for the UK to manage their agricultural landscapes independently from the top-down regulation currently dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy.  Leaving the EU would mean we could reform the policies which dictate how we manage the countryside, mostly those rules and structures which presently determine to what degree we degrade our rural environments in the different corners of our green and pleasant island.  “Common” is perhaps a warning sign for any environmental policy, which requires the particularities of the “local” to be central in decision-making if a policy is to stand any chance of being “sustainable”.  But that was never the central aim of the CAP.  Perhaps, if someone does finally make a decision on which direction the UK will go in (before it self-implodes) we can create a nature-focused LAP: a Local Agricultural Policy, which considers the lay of the land, the local livelihoods, and the living biodiversity, above- and below-ground (e.g. our down-trodden worms).

But we only could leave the EU.  And we only could have the bravery and sense in Leadership to listen to the evidence for how to responsibly, perhaps even sustainably manage our countryside and the resources within it.  And if we don’t leave the EU, we could try to reform things from within; building on the important research (e.g.) that is already being done in the UK and Europe on what sustainable agriculture might look like.  We need to hook those scientists up with the policy makers and shapers.  And wouldn’t that be great – to have a leading influence across Europe.  The worms would be proud.

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What does the future hold for our green and pleasant, and depauperate land?

Action for all sorts, plus Conservation

Back in September, I spent five magical days with a bunch of 14 young people, on the beautiful National Trust Stackpole Estate in Pembrokeshire.  I was volunteering for Action for Conservation (AFC): a UK-based charity that started some three years ago, when one masters student (the inspirational Hendrikus) noticed a gaping hole in the secondary school syllabus when it came to environmental education.  It’s an ongoing privilege to be involved with the charity, and from the days of its inception; I watch, with pride, as it grows so unfalteringly, testament to its perceived, and real importance in society today.  I’ve written more about AFC in this blogpost.  If the next generation don’t feel any connection to the (semi)natural world, they will not work to protect it.  And if it’s not protected, wars and famines will likely be commonplace in the future, with the inequality we see today becoming even more extreme.  The recently published Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC gives some insights (from actual experts) into what our future already holds.

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Contemplating conservation….

Vitally however, we need to spend more time and effort imagining positive futures (as a talk by Frank Cottrell-Boyce at the Liverpool Literary Festival reminded me last weekend) in order for them to become a reality.  And that’s what AFC encourages young people to do.  My week with AFC on the welsh riviera back in August, was a real privilege.  We spent five days exploring the different environments around the coastline; experiencing “sit-spots” in enchanted forests (slightly confusing the beach-goers when they spotted 20 silent elves lying in the leaves) and on wind-swept beaches under the stars; learning about the different constellations whilst reclining (accidentally) on cow-pats; searching for anemones in a rocky harbour; getting grass-stains playing stuck-in-the-mud, and imagining future landscapes that could accommodate wildlife and people.  The young campers came up with all sorts of incredible ideas, full of innovation, interdisciplinary thinking and understanding of how some kind of ‘harmony’ could be achieved.

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The lily ponds at beautiful Stackpole.

In essence, the goal of the AFC camps is to take young people outside (some of whom have never seen the sea before).  By exposing people to the wind and rain, sunshine and sea, mud and sand, they feel a connection with their environment that they increasingly don’t or can’t get in their everyday lives.  The campers are led through all sorts of exercises that teach them how to reflect on their internal situation and their external surroundings, to learn about and be aware of the perspectives and situations of other campers and to think about how they can improve things in their local environment.

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Tom’s sea-horse in the leaves.

At the end of the trip, I felt the children had taught me just as much as I’d tried to teach them.  Here are some of my main learnings, with all credit going to the inspiring young people whom AFC is proud to now call Ambassadors:

  • Child safeguarding – what this involves, and just how important it is today;
  • How much young people are already defining the future through their knowledge and actions;
  • How much we can learn from them (not just on how to attach rabbit ears to your Insta-face-gram), with every individual (inevitably) being a reflection of the adults they’re exposed to as they prepare to fledge their nest; and,
  • Most importantly, how essential it is that each individual is given the space to learn, to love and to develop their values, and all in an environment where they feel nurtured.

Without space to grow and learn how to be a responsible and compassionate person in this challenging world, young people, or in fact any people, are unlikely to give a **i* about the natural environment on which we all depend.  Fact.

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Another privilege of joining the AFC camp, was waking up on the Pembrokeshire coast, with the sound of sheep munching in the next field, putting on my trainers and skipping down to the sea for a sunrise swim.  A magical place, and space.

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Skinny-dipping at sunrise.

What we did in a decade

Back in June, a bunch of my BCM cohort made a pilgrimage back to Oxford to reunite after ten years out in the big wide World after our MSc. in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management.  It was fantastic to see each other, and through a loosely-structured day of informal presentations and discussions (and then quite a few pints) we learnt more about each other’s and our own decade of trials, errors and many adventures than we had expected to.  Championed by Rowan Trebilco, Anne Christianson (who assertively planted the seed for the reunion), Laura Chartier and I produced two pieces to summarise our thoughts and learnings from the event: the first published in the SOGE (School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford) Trinity Term newsletter (& pasted below), and the second, longer piece, published in PLOS Early Career Researcher Community Blog.  The event made me appreciate what wonderful people I met during my MSc. year, whom have become life-long friends, and whom I continue to learn so much from.  And gosh, life pathways come in all sorts of unpredictable shapes and sizes.
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10 years on from the MSc in Biodiversity Conservation and Management

Laura Chartier
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Laura Chartier presents (left) and the BCM class of 2007-08 pose for a group photo with current students (right).

Ten years later, where has a multidisciplinary MSc from Oxford led us? On Friday 8 June, the 2007-08 cohort of the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management gathered in Oxford to find out. Celebrating their 10 year reunion, fifteen of the ’08 graduates summarised the last “10 years in 10 minutes” in a day of discussions on “Early career trajectories in biodiversity, conservation and management”. It was fascinating! And we certainly learnt more about everyone’s paths than we would had we gone with the initial plan of spending the day crawling between our beloved haunts of a decade ago, i.e. ye olde pubs of Oxford.

The presentations followed a common format, summarising initial career goals, actual career paths, key skills obtained ‘on-the-job’, skills and knowledge we gained from BCM that have been particularly useful, and what advice we would give this cohort of students. Each presentation provided valuable insights into the development of our careers after the Masters course, with often candid revelations about the uncertain, far from “straight paths” of career development. Some alumni succeeded in several, quite unrelated careers; changing course when they realised their soul was being sapped and their grey hairs were increasing exponentially.

Despite the diversity of trajectories, surprisingly consistent messages emerged from the presentations. One such key message was the importance of passion for whatever you are doing, and of stepping away if the passion isn’t there. This is not always easy when it means living back with your parents (as quite a few of us have done), sacrificing work that you’ve invested a large amount of time in, or even foregoing rapid career advancement prospects. But remaining humble throughout and believing in yourself and the important contribution you can and will make were other universal reflections. Networking and relationship-building were discussed at length, and the ways these can be accomplished as an early-career individual, without feeling phony! And importantly, gender issues and the challenges some of the women of the group have experienced warranted discussion and reflection. One thing we all agreed on was that conservation is more than a career choice: it is a mind set that can be taken into any career and shape life choices at every stage.

We’d like to thank Christine Baro-Hone and Paul Jepson for helping with the event organisation, and the current BCM students who attended and provided stimulating questions and feedback. Another point of consensus from our cohort was the rich experience BCM gave us and how privileged we were to have had a year with our inspiring classmates, lecturers and community in and around Oxford’s many spires.

Long live BCM!
Lydia Cole, Rowan Trebilco, Anne Christianson and Laura Chartier (BCM 2007-08)