19 June 2016
Two dozen branch members and guests gathered to enjoy falconers demonstrating their art, enthusiasm and extensive knowledge of birds of prey. The York Birds of Prey Centre holds over 80 different raptors, and a range of birds were presented to our group including a fledgling Chilean Blue eagle taking its first steps, hawks, barn owls and a magnificent Golden Eagle. Much of the time was spent hearing about the birds, interacting with them up close, and watching them fly amongst us. Seeing a Golden Eagle up close is just unforgettable.
23 April 2016
This maiden Astroscience Meeting - a new venture involving collaboration between the members of the Royal Society of Biology, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the Institute of Physics (IOP) was held on Saturday 23rd April 2016 at the University of Leeds.
To begin, Dave Waltham asked 'Why is the Sun so Big?' His new research showed that the Sun, although larger than 95% of its neighbours, is the optimum size for formation of inhabitable zone which permits life to have arisen on any of its planets. This being in spite of the fact that smaller stars last much longer and therefore a randomly selected inhabited planet is much more likely to orbit a small star.
Group photograph with speakers Professor Dave Waltham, Royal Holloway; Dr Mukesh Bhatt, Birkbeck College; Professor Martin McCustra, Heriot Watt and the Chairs of the RSB, the RSC and the IOP (Professor Val Randall, Dr Christine Rogers and Dr Mike Ries)
Mukesh Bhatt followed with a discourse on how the newer and constraining definitions of life provided by astrobiology are likely to have a clear impact on the way legal and ethical decisions are made. The issues he brought to light involved the difficulty in actually defining 'life' (since despite drawing on all available religious, philosophical and scientific knowledge – there is still no cohesive or formal definition of what life actually is). The meaning of personhood in particular may well be applied to extremes.
Finally, Martin McCoustra, in his talk entitled 'Stars 'r' Us' highlighted the details of the rich chemistry that exists in space, describing the essential role of the chemistry in the universe which was then delivered onto the Earth to kick-start life. The deficiencies and drawbacks of gas phase chemistry were also explored along with the crucial role played by soot and stoor in developing the chemical complexity of the universe.
16 August 2015
The branch's visit to Wentworth Castle near Barnsley was well attended. Our volunteer expert guide described the history of the only Grade I listed gardens and parkland in South Yorkshire and the £15m restoration of it since 2001, with its 26 listed structures, including a full-sized mock castle.
Politics and family rivalry led to the Grade I listed house being built in 1764 in competition with nearby Wentworth Woodhouse. In 2003, its Grade II* Victorian conservatory was an unsuccessful competitor on the BBC's Restoration programme, but the initiative to restore its former glory succeeded only in 2013, at a cost of £3.7m.
Our guide spoke of the challenges resulting from the gardens and parklands' varied ownership, including some improvements in private ownership in the 20th and early 21st centuries, some limited recovery of some garden features by the local authority after 1948, then restoration by Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust since 2001.
We heard about the contradiction between objectives of the grants that funded restoration and the limited resources and skills available for maintenance by volunteers and a tiny staff of employees compared with the 18th century.
In the afternoon, the branch's Chris Collins described the work of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, commemorated by an obelisk in the gardens. Wortley Montagu was famous for introducing a smallpox inoculation ('variolation') into England 75 years before Jenner developed the cowpox vaccination in 1796.
12 July 2014
Through a clearing sea fret (coastal fog), Yorkshire branch members arrived at the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas Centre at Flamborough South Landing. After an introductory talk by our host and guide Ant Hurd, the Centre’s manager, the group went down to the shore on a retreating tide.
The sea fret also retreated off shore to reveal the magnificent chalk sea cliffs of Flamborough Head, rising to 400ft in places, which were to be the centrepiece of our day. The very low tide allowed us to look at pretty well all the classic shore zones and seaweeds and to rummage in rock pools. Among the finds were a very well camouflaged flat fish, the solitary sponge Sycon ciliata and an enraged (to the startlement of one member) swimming crab (Necora puber).
We saw evidence in the Living Seas Centre of much larger denizens of the deep passing by – with recent records of whales and dolphins and porpoises along the Yorkshire shores up to Whitby.
On the top of the cliffs with sunshine above and the fret well out to sea, Keith Clarkson, site manager at RSPB Bempton Cliffs led the group on a guided walk of the best viewpoints. We saw ample evidence to back its claim as “the best place in England to see, hear and smell seabirds”. The place is home at times to over 200,000 seabirds including gannets, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and fulmars. Despite some of these having departed after breeding there was still plenty to see, hear and certainly smell. There were some good questions, such as “why is a Guillemot’s egg that shape?” The answer is that it appears to stop them rolling off the cliff.
At the end of the day, the more adventurous put to sea from Bridlington to view the bird colonies, cliffs and stacks, whilst the timid and elderly went home looking for a restorative and a rest after a grand day out.
6 March 2014
Twenty-two members and their guests gathered at 'The Food Academy' restaurant, in Leeds, for their regular, biannual, lunch. The restaurant is now well-established and is located on the expanding 'Printworks' campus of Leeds City College. The purpose of the restaurant is mainly training students who intend on working in the catering industry.
Supported by the Society of Biology, those present at this time enjoyed an excellent meal, served and prepared by well-trained staff. Attendees included those mostly from the Yorkshire branch area but also came from the neighbouring East Midlands branch. It was an occasion for both renewal of old acquaintances and the making on new ones.
I was particularly pleased to see several new patrons present. The relaxed atmosphere of the meal provided the opportunity for engaging conversation and for the exchange of mutually interesting anecdotes. All this was enhanced by, as one guest put it, "access to some very good, locally brewed, ale". I would recommend this event to anyone who is eligible and, in particular, anyone who has yet to try it.
16 November 2013
A summary of talks from our Annual Symposium entitled "Food, Glorious Food – what do we need, how do we keep getting it and how safe is it?"
A world population of 9 billion people by 2050 will lead to a reduction of protein from animal sources. Dietary protein will be maintained by other means such as the fungal protein product 'QUORN' that has a lower carbon footprint than other protein sources. There will be massively less food wastage in the home, by retailers and processors and there is likely to be food more tailored to individuals. Better planning of meals and the use of frozen foods has been demonstrated to significantly reduce food waste.
Global food security is not just about preventing starvation but also about ensuring peace as "Everyone is only 9 meals away from anarchy."
1) The human population is growing
2) Much of that population is getting richer ("Richer people eat more.")
3) Increasing urbanisation and remoteness from sources of food.
Waste and over-consumption are perennial problems: the food waste generated by Europe and North America is equivalent to the whole food production of sub-Saharan Africa whilst over-consumption / obesity cause 20% of deaths globally.
Action is needed at international and national level to minimise risks and maintain food supplies. We should also learn to change our diet and only "eat meat as a treat".
Yields of cereals are increasing slowly, but over the last few years there have been signs of stagnation so breeding programmes continue. Newer breeding programmes use genes from wheat ancestors to produce a 'super-wheat' to provide better resistance to drought, heat and disease. There is still a role for older varieties and Dr Ober described experiments on the optimisation of conditions for growth and yield by looking at limiting factors, such as water supply and light levels with these. There is a considerable gap between experimental and farm yields (the 'yield gap'), so farming practice needs to improve to realise that potential.
Use of nano-technology will lead to lighter weight, more hygienic and 'smarter' packaging that will allow longer shelf-life and less waste. When the packaging includes nano-particles it will be able to detect spoilage making the 'use by' date redundant. Other applications lead to simpler diagnostics in veterinary practice and agricultural use e.g. pest control uses both in diagnosis and as a carrier system for insecticides. There remain some concerns about nano-particles in the environment.
'Horsegate' earlier this year reminded everybody just how difficult it is to be sure of what they are eating. But contaminants can be distinguished and even traced to their origin by techniques routinely used in analysis. These include the antibody/protein technique ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay), PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction)/DNA techniques and Stable Isotope Analysis.
7 November 2013
This lunch was at a novel venue, the Old Print Works in Leeds, which is the new home of Leeds City College. Only opened 6 weeks before, the restaurant is in a newly built part of the campus which has better access and car parking compared to the previous site. The surroundings are very pleasant, and a Leeds Brewery hand drawn Pale Ale went down very well.
Unusually, the meal was a la carte, as the restaurant is now open for meals from breakfast, through lunch, high tea and early evening. Disappointingly only 12 attended, but all enjoyed their meal, once the fish cakes that turned out to be Scots Eggs were returned to the kitchen! Despite service being a little slow (as judged by a few, I like eating French style and we meet to discuss biology and other matters of mutual interest) the food was both excellent and interesting. The college gave a very reasonable discount because of these problems (a baked Alaska turned over in the kitchen!).
The next meeting will be Thursday 27th March 2014 at 12:30. Usually, there has been a good improvement in service after the additional months of training. It is likely that a set meal with choices will be arranged for that meeting. Recommended!
5 October 2013
A successful "Explore the Shore" day at Boggle Hole was led by Jane Pottas and Paula Lightfoot. Boggle Hole Youth Hostel was the venue for the day and managers, Andy and Peta Nugent, and their staff could not have been more hospitable.
The Hostel is conveniently situated only a stone's throw from a pristine rocky shore. Fourteen members took part, including individuals and families and a couple of dogs. They enthusiastically searched out species to identify on the shore and back in the classroom at the hostel.
Approximately 100 species were identified including a stalked jellyfish, several species of fish, snails, bryozoans and over 30 seaweeds. All records for the day will be uploaded to the National Biodiversity Network database.
The weather was wonderfully warm and sunny, everyone had a good time and we all learnt something new about this fascinating environment. More days on the shore are on the cards.
29 May 2013
Professor Tony Hardy, chair of the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) scientific committee gave an illuminating lecture entitled: European Food Safety a Biologist at Large.
Food crises of the 1990s meant it was necessary to set up national Food Standard Agencies in European countries. Professor Hardy described the decision making framework and the role of chemicals in food production. Pesticides are intrinsically poisonous and therefor pose a risk to consumers, bees and other fauna which may have knock on effects on the food chain.
The EFSA was set up in Brussels in 2002. Their remit included risk assessment, risk communication and independent scientific advice. The EFSA collects information independently, looks at evidence and communicates risk assessment. They oversee topics such as plant health, contaminants, animal food, animal welfare, food additives and novel foods.
Professor Hardy then described the ways in which data are presented showing toxic effects and the levels at which there is no response. Outcomes can be variable but there are several hot topics including chemicals that have an effect on the endocrine system such as: Bisphenol, Aspartame (because of its inclusion in soft drinks). Others topics include cumulative risk exposure, uncertainty, animal cloning, genetically modified organisms and food health claims.
Food safety is a top priority and there is no such thing as a zero risk.
To find out more check out the EFSA website and subscribe to their Highlight magazine.
18 May 2013
The 2 month long drought in Yorkshire had ended a little earlier in the week, so 21 intrepid members and guests crashed through some deep floods and heavy rain to reach the Himalayan garden, located at an altitude of 850ft. at the "Head of the Valley" (Hutts).
Following a welcome refreshment break, Hannah briefly introduced the park. When the new owner decided to build a garden there was a period of intense removal of "Super ponticum" (the native invasive rhododendron) and Japanese knot weed. Although planting only began in 1998, because of high rainfall and acid soils (between ph 4 and 6), establishment of the Rhododendron, Cornus, Azalea, Camellia, Pieris and others was rapid. There are now over 1000 varieties of species and Hybrid Rhododendron, with many plants being grown from seed collected on recent plant hunting trips to the Himalayas, China and Korea.
Leopard by Hamish Mackie at Himalayan garden and sculpture park, Grewelthorpe © Paul Bartlett
Fortunately, following a while admiring flowering plants in the nursery area, with some plants being purchased, the storm passed and the magnificence of this north facing garden could be explored at will. The late spring meant that many Narcissi were still in abundance but, unfortunately, many of the larger plants had only flower buds. Unexpected to many of us, was the excellence of the 54 sculptures, all beautifully displayed, some in the open others partially hidden by the planting. Almost all were influenced by biological forms, from naturalistic prowling leopard, guinea fowl and roebuck to stylised steel mushrooms, magnolia and stork. Very striking were a mosaic sycamore wing and a huge swift.
With the weather clearing there was more than enough for all of us to agree that this was a wonderful way to celebrate the "Fascination of Plants Day". The garden is only open for a few weeks in May and June, but we would recommend a visit to this magical landscape next year. Thanks to Chris Collins on the committee for the excellent arrangements.