The annual Earthwatch Debate was held at the Royal Geographic Society this year and comprised four presenters each pitching their idea for an environmental mascot for Britain, with the notion that audience members would vote via text for their favourite at the end.
Some presenters were more inspiring than others and I voted for the only female presenter, Dr Samantha Burgess, who is the Senior Research Manager for Oceans at EarthWatch and whom I learnt a lot from about cold coral. I did not know this as I had always thought of coral as being in warm, tropical waters, but in fact, deep sea coral reefs are more expansive than tropical: in UK waters we have over 1300 species of cold coral reefs, each of an age of 200-8000 years. They are spawning grounds for much marine life, a sink of carbon and carbonate (important in this era of anthropogenic global warming) and a source of novel compounds for the pharmaceutical industry. These reefs can tell us a lot about temperature, salinity, acidity and marine nutrients throughout history, but are unfortunately under threat with ocean acidification (increased with rising atmospheric carbon dioxide), oil and gas exploration, overfishing and bottom trawling, seabed mining and cable laying. Cold coral is a species well worthy of a vote to be environmental mascot for Britain, I thought.
In actual fact, it was the humble bumble who won. Dr George McGavin, BBC Lost Lands Presenter and Honorary Research Associate for the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, successfully persuaded the audience of around 400 that the Bumblebee captures the inimitable spirit of Britain whilst representing its invaluable natural heritage. Unfortunately I turned up late so missed his presentation; the lowdown I got from my friend was that 'he's from the TV'.
I knew little more about the second presenter, whose presentation I also missed, other than that he has the best moustache I have ever seen. If you would like to see this incredible feat of human facial hair growth, check out Dr Johannes Vogel, Keeper of Botany at London's Natural History Museum, who represented the bluebell and who is doing his bit for biodiversity on a daily basis by providing a habitat of optimum conditions for many species on his face.
Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew gave a pretty convincing and fairly comical pitch of the oak tree stating that it is 'Britiain's biological backbone', an 'excellent emblem of grandeur' and 'Eurasian in origin, but global in reach'. He made a good point that the Oak Tree provides a home for the Bumblebee, bluebell and song thrush (as well as for 800 insect species and 500 fungi) and he joked that it's also a great habitat for Winnie The Pooh and for us- The Royal Oak. If that's not enough, Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in an oak ship, oak barrells are used in whiskey production, oak timber maintains the structure of the Salisbury Cathedral and acorns provide food for jays and wood pigeons (and Californian native Americans). Apparently the mighty 'Oak Tree' also has the most hits on Google out of all the potential mascots.
A criticism from Prof Hopper of Tony Juniper's song thrush was 'well just type thrush into Google and...'! Juniper, environmental writer, campaigner and adviser, countered Prof Hopper's argument with 'yes but the things that people went out in their oak boats to look for were more important, like the SONG THRUSH for example!' The song thrush is not garish or colourful but is subtle; it is practical, stylish and smart and- how British is that?! The 'throstle' has been mentioned in Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Chaucer and it sings more than any other bird. An entertaining presentation that didn't quite make the cut, but Juniper has a new book out called Harmony, written with HRH the Prince of Wales and Ian Skelly.
2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity and the Earthwatch Debate was an excellent chance to learn about and reflect upon the species that reside right here in the UK and remain important to our environment and culture.