Cambridge Conservation Forum 14th Annual Symposium by Vince Lea

Vince LeaThis gathering of Cambridge area’s leading conservation was a vibrant and varied mix of talks, an interactive session and, according to the welcome address, most importantly coffee breaks, lunch and wine reception at the end! What was impressive (compared to some previous meetings) was the fact that everyone kept to time in their talks, despite getting some enormous projects across in short time slots, We had ample time to talk to people at the breaks. CCF includes 52 partners, locally based around Cambridge – which includes national conservation charities within striking distance like RSPB, BTO & Buglife, several University departments, international organisations with HQ’s in Cambridge like British Antarctic Survey & Albertine Rift Conservation Society, but also smaller, local organisations like Trumpington Community Orchard Project and Shepreth Wildlife Park and of course, the Countryside Restoration Trust!

 The CCF is, confusingly for some, a part of the CCI which is the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. This is a collaboration which also includes Traffic, IUCN, Fauna & Flora International, UNEP, WCMC, BTO, RSPB, University of Cambridge, Tropical Biology Association & Birdlife International. They are currently designing a Conservation Campus, a new facility in Cambridge University where conservationists can meet and work together, with plans for, among other things, a dedicated library. We heard how the new building is being designed with high sustainability and wildlife-friendly features, such as green roofs and nesting sites. They are half way towards the target of £20m for this building.

 There were some inspiring talks about all sorts of hot topics in global conservation, showing the breadth of organisations involved in the CCF. By providing a range of slots from half hour to five minutes, all sorts of topics could be fitted into the day and, if something was outside your field of interest or comprehension, there would be something different along soon enough!

 We heard which rare birds will be worst hit by climate change – it seems Amazonian rainforest and Arctic species will suffer much more than European ones. But for frogs, North Eurasia is going to be a bad place. We found that cutting the Panama Canal reduced population connectivity of Army Ants, as the females are wingless and cannot cross it, but deforestation in their home range has made populations more disconnected still because the males won’t fly over open habitats. We found out how much it would cost to save the most threatened species of birds in the world – $78bn. Currently about 10% of that figure is allocated to this job. Marine conservation operates through networks of protected areas, and there is a target of 10% of ocean protected by 2020, and we may be on course but only because there are some big areas being designated which are remote and more or less unthreatened anyway – whereas inshore waters close to population centres are not getting the protection really needed, an example of target driven conservation not necessarily being useful.

 A couple of my favourite talks addressed issues relevant to the CRT. There was a presentation by Brian Sims of the Tropical Biology Association which emphasised the need to conserve soil and to maintain crop cover permanently on the land, with worms doing the tillage rather than back-breaking hoe work (60 days per Ha) or destructive ploughing. TBA have devised ingenious direct-drilling equipment which can be ox-drawn, and have a sharp disc to cut through the litter from the previous crop (even tough stuff like sorghum & maize), and it has a chisel-tip drill behind the disc which dispenses the seed, followed by a wheel which covers the seed. The emphasis was on cover crops between food crops so as to maintain soil organic matter and reduce erosion, mimicking natural nutrient cycles. Apparently no-till methods are also spreading globally, with most of Australia, 25% of USA & South America, 18 % of Canada doing this. Europe is really lagging behind at 1-2% of land. Hannah Mossman of the University of East Anglia talked about an audit of the biodiversity living in the fenland district. This showed what a high proportion of the UK’s rarest species live in fenland, and demonstrated how doing an audit can help you decide what to conserve. For example, the Fens had a lot of records for Brown Hare, which is a Biodiversity Action Plan species, but is also found in lots of place outside the fens. On the other hand, the Cambridge Groundling moth is found in the fens and nowhere else, so it would make sense to conserve that as a higher priority if you had the choice. By looking at habitat guilds, she also showed that most of the important wetland biodiversity was associated with the muddy edges of waterbodies, not the deep water, and that natural fen supports more species if there is a scattering of scrub among the reeds and sedges.

 We had a session of 3-minute slots for rapid dissemination of ideas and work in progress, and I gave the first one so had to set the pace! I presented my concerns regarding the increase in Signal Crayfish after Mink control and got some excellent feedback. Apparently there is a theory called Invasive-species Meltdown, whereby mixtures of non-natives can have combined destructive powers. According to Prof. Bill Sutherland, one of the biggest of big-wigs in conservation science mentioned that the abundance of signal crayfish in European waters has been linked to increases in big wading birds like Glossy Ibis, which are also being seen in Britain much more regularly nowadays. Two of Bill’s PhD students caught up with me at the coffee break and are keen to use our trapping work for some academic studies which could be extremely interesting.

 Other quickfire talks covered the motivation of indigenous fieldworkers in the developing world, how conservation targets are set at the UN level, how to work out whether you’re spending the money wisely, and, unbelievably, how to build a computer model of the entire global ecosystems to see what will happen with climate change!

 Businesses can have impacts on wildlife, and conservationists need to address this head on by working with them sometimes. So we heard about how Rio Tinto are being audited to meet their target of biodiversity net increase after their mining operations in Madagascar, and how the Cambridge University Sustainability Programme is working with multi nationals, dairy and forestry companies, Anglia Water and the like. There was also a talk on using volunteers to do fieldwork on residential projects – some ethical ones can generate really useful data, but other companies are joining the bandwagon and selling eco-tours which are useless, so there seems to be a need to regulate the industry.

 Finally, I made contact with the conservationists at Shepreth Wildlife Park. They are looking for places to release rehabilitated hedgehogs for a scientific study, and having heard my talk (and we had been in e-mail contact beforehand) they want to investigate Barton as a potential release site. Hedgehogs will be fitted with radio tracking and marking devices to see how well they survive. Watch this space, it may develop into a really exciting new project.

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