Category Archives: community

IS destroy the shrine that unified a town

Last month, ISIS destroyed the 1,500-year-old Mar Elian Monastery in Al-Qaryatayn, Syria. Professor Emma Loosley, expert in Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, has lived in the area and has studied the sacred site. Here, in an article adapted from one first published in The Catholic Herald, she outlined the sense of loss to local people.

The Mar Elian Monastry

The Mar Elian Monastery has been destroyed by IS.

When I first moved to Dayr Mar Elian in the summer of 2001 I was slightly disconcerted when the Qurwani, as the people of Qaryatayn are known, kept asking me if I had met Mar Elian yet.

Since he is believed to have died over 1,500 years ago I thought that they meant had I seen the sarcophagus, which of course I had. When I said this I was somewhat perplexed to realise that I had misunderstood the question (complicated of course by my faltering Arabic and their thick regional dialect).

What the Qurwani meant was: ‘had I spoken to the saint personally?’ One man told me of walking in the vicinity when a stranger accompanied and blessed him, and he later realised that the man had been Mar Elian (St Julian) and the site guardian told me that late at night in the chapel a voice had repeated: “God give you health,” three times – which he took to be Mar Elian praying for him as he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

I recount these stories to try and impress on the reader how central the Monastery of Mar Elian was to the local populace. The saint was a much-loved figure in the town and treated more as a venerable uncle in most homes than a distant exemplar of the faith.

What is more, in the case of that first man who had seen Mar Elian, I don’t know whether he was Christian or Muslim. The Sunni townspeople named him Sheikh Ahmed Khoury (Sheikh Ahmed the Priest) and the Christians of the town allowed their Muslim neighbours to place the green satin shroud of a Muslim holy man over the Byzantine sarcophagus in the monastery church. There, on a Muslim satin shroud, rosaries and saints’ cards lay with votive candles lit by those of both faiths.

Much has been written in the last few weeks on the physical impact of the loss of the monastery but little consideration has been given to the psychological trauma that currently affects those of us who knew and loved the shrine.

Mar Elian or Sheikh Ahmed was a very real presence in the lives of all who knew the monastery and I know at least one family who credit the intercession of the saint for leading them to the doctor who was able to cure their young son and enable him to walk. IS has ripped the heart out of a poor desert community who were united in their pride in Mar Elian.

Qaryatayn is one of the remotest, poorest settlements in Syria. Located in the midst of the Syrian desert between Homs and Palmyra it only exists because the site has a modest oasis that has permitted limited agriculture. It was the centre of a kingdom in the Middle Bronze Age and, under the name Hazar-enan, appears in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 47:17, 48:1; Numbers 34:9-10). The monastery (Dayr) of Mar Elian almost certainly dates back to around the fifth century and is considered the last resting place of Mar Elian esh-Sheikh.

Dayr Mar Elian appears to have been inhabited from Late Antiquity until the eighteenth or nineteenth century, when it was abandoned at the time when many local Christians left the Syrian Orthodox Church to join with Rome as members of the Syrian Catholic Church.

In 2001 the Syrian Catholic Metropolitan of Homs, Msgr Georges Kassab appointed Fr Jacques (Yaqub) Mourad from the Community of Al-Khalil as parish priest. Fr Jacques was one of two founder members of the Community of Al-Khalil with his superior, Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio SJ and the two of them believed in a vocation of Abrahamic hospitality and Christian-Islamic Dialogue. Both have now been kidnapped by IS – Paolo in July 2013 and Jacques in May 2015.

Until Jacques’ abduction Dayr Mar Elian had remained the heart of the town, comforting the local population and becoming home to hundreds of, mainly Muslim, internal refugees. It was a beacon of Inter-Faith co-operation with Jacques and the local Sheikh standing side by side to prevent the town splintering along sectarian lines.

Last week IS broke the heart of a whole town and only time will tell if it can ever be mended. A friend from Qaryatayn who has managed to escape to Europe sent me a text that says it all: “My heart keeps crying Mar Elian.”

Since the destruction of the monastery we have learned that IS have broken more hearts by destroying the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin and a series of tomb towers at Palmyra, and brutally murdering the man who had looked after them for more than 50 years, Khaled al-Asad.

This destruction has been dismissed as some as being irrelevant compared to the human suffering the Syrians are enduring, but if we think back to the emotional suffering of the people of Britain not only in London, but in Coventry, Exeter and many other places during the Second World War, we should understand that this destruction is robbing many Syrians of any hope that their lives will ever be the same again.

Tracking Pied Flycatchers

Honorary Research Fellow, Dr Malcom Burgess is a Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science been interested in woodland birds since childhood, and has a PhD on the Mauritius kestrel, a tropical woodland bird.

Dr Burgess set up, and now runs citizen science website www.piedfly.net, to monitor Pied Flycatchers in the south west of England. In this blog post, he writes about how they have managed to track the migration of the Pied Flycatcher.

This blog post first appeared on the British Ornithologists’ Union site.

Pied Flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca are one of the best studied passerines in Europe, yet we know little about their migratory timings or even where populations winter. We are now starting to find out.

Pied Flycatchers, like Blue Tits Cyanistes caeruleus and Great Tits Parus major, breed in nest boxes at high densities which enables large numbers to be monitored, so making them good model systems for all manner of studies. But an important difference between tits and flycatchers is that flycatchers migrate. Despite knowing a huge amount about Pied Flycatcher breeding ecology, we actually know little about their migration timings, migration routes or the locations of their African non-breeding grounds. This is important to find out, as the UK population has declined by 53 per cent since 1995 (Baillie et al. 2014) and has declined in other parts of their European breeding range (BirdLife International 2015).

In the UK there is little evidence that declines are strongly linked to factors affecting them on their breeding grounds. Availability and quality of western oakwoods is largely unchanged (Amar et al. 2010), although it is possible that timing of breeding has become increasingly mismatched with prey availability as warmer and advanced springs result in earlier availability of invertebrate food (see my previous BOU blogs here and here). Such a phenological mismatch has been linked to European Pied Flycatcher declines (Both et al. 2006) although UK data suggests some adaptation, with advances in egg laying date at the same time as relatively unchanged productivity (Baillie et al. 2014). Although these factors may play some role, it seems likely that other important pinch points exist outside of the breeding season.

We know so little about the non-breeding and migratory ecology of Pied Flycatchers partly because we have been unable to follow individuals. Without any precise information about where they go between breeding seasons we have little to go on. In the UK, 645,000 Pied Flycatchers have been ringed since 1909, and yet just five UK breeding (and no UK hatched) have subsequently been found in African wintering grounds. This is one recovery per 129,000 birds; ringing alone is not going to help us. But continued miniaturisation of the lightest available tracking devises, geolocators, now means we are able to track Pied Flycatchers.

A 0.36g geolocator and leg loop harness ready for deployment in 2015. In contrast the geolocator and harness we used in 2012 together weighed 0.59g © David Price

A 0.36g geolocator and leg loop harness ready for deployment in 2015. In contrast the geolocator and harness we used in 2012 together weighed 0.59g © David Price

In 2012 myself and Chris Hewson (BTO) fitted geolocators to 20 adult male Pied Flycatchers at my long term monitored population at East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve in Devon, UK (Burgess 2014). This transpired to be an unlucky choice of year. The following spring was the coldest since 1962 with winter-like conditions continuing into April resulting in the latest Pied Flycatcher first arrival date at the study site for 23 years (despite a long term trend for earlier arrival). It was an extra nervous wait for tagged birds to return. But once they did arrive we quickly identified two birds, caught them and removed their loggers. The late and cold spring meant return rates were low for both tagged and untagged males and so we retrieved fewer loggers than we hoped. But the two tags we did retrieve revealed tracks and timings to Africa and back, and the two winter locations derived from 20 loggers is equivalent to 35 years of national effort ringing hundreds of thousands of individuals.

Just one track from a species can be newsworthy and provide totally new information, such as recent work on Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus(Smith et al. 2014 – see their BOU blog post) and Ring ouzel Turdus torquatus(Sim et al. in press). Our two UK breeding Pied Flycatchers went to the same region as the UK ring recoveries – Liberia or southeast Guinea. This is important information, suggesting UK birds are concentrated in a relatively small portion of the species’ winter distribution in sub-Saharan western Africa.

Attachment of a 0.36g geolocator to a male Pied flycatcher in 2015 © David Price

Attachment of a 0.36g geolocator to a male Pied flycatcher in 2015 © David Price

University of Groningen PhD student Janne Ouwehand combined our UK data with equivalent data collected from other breeding populations from the Netherlands, Finland and Norway, which has recently been published in the Journal of Avian Biology (Ouwehand et al. 2015). This reveals an interesting pattern of migration connectivity. Instead of African wintering ranges being stacked west to east in order of breeding latitude, the opposite was found. This pattern was evident in both the geolocation and ring recovery data. Flycatchers from all populations shared a similar autumn migration route through Iberia and the western edge of the Sahara. But the timings were different, reflecting population differences in the mean timing of breeding. The earlier breeding UK and Dutch flycatchers departed their breeding grounds first (in mid-August). These flycatchers arrived in the humid sub-Saharan zone of western Africa first and then moved east until settling in an area encompassing Liberia/Guinea/Ivory Coast. The later breeding Fennoscandia flycatchers departed breeding grounds later, arrived in sub-Saharan Africa later, but remained in the western part of the humid zone instead of continuing eastwards. The geolocator data showed this was reversed in spring, with UK and Dutch birds departing from wintering grounds first and arriving back to breeding grounds earliest.

The work of Ouwehand et al. suggests the differences in wintering locations, and unexpected pattern of migratory connectivity, results from geographical variation in breeding phenology and timing of migration. From a conservation perspective this highlights a need for more study of seasonal food availability in wintering areas and how this affects migration ecology and fitness. This work contributes to the growing literature and debate on migratory connectivity (Cresswell 2014), which tracking studies are well placed to contribute to, especially through pan-population analysis of tracking data – another recent example being a pan-European study of European RollersCoracias garrulus (Finch et al. 2015).

We waited for further miniaturisation of geolocators before tagging more UK flycatchers, but this season we tagged a further 20 adult males using geolocators 39 per cent lighter than those used in 2012. We eagerly await some of these birds back next spring and hope in the future to look at individual repeatability and relate tracks to demographic information.

 

References

Amar, A., Smith, K. W., Butler, S., Lindsell, J., Hewson, C., Fuller, R. & Charman, E.2010. Recent patterns of change in vegetation structure and tree composition of British broadleaved woodland: evidence from large-scale surveys. Forestry 83: 345-356.

Baillie, S. R., Marchant, J., Leech, D. I., Massimino, D., Sullivan, M., Eglington, S. M., Barimore, C., Dadam, D., Downie, I., Harris, S., Kew, A., Newson, S. E., Noble, D. G., Risely, K. & Robinson, R. A. 2014. BirdTrends 2014: trends in numbers, breeding success and survival for UK breeding birds. BTO Research Report 662. BTO, Thetford. View

BirdLife International. 2015. Species factsheet: Ficedula hyploeucaView

Both, C., Bouwhuis, S., Lessells, C. M. & Visser, M. E. 2006. Climate change and population declines in a long-distance migratory bird. Nature 441: 81-83.

Burgess, M. D. 2014. Restoring abandoned coppice for birds: Few effects of conservation management on occupancy, fecundity and productivity of hole nesting birds. Forest Ecology and Management 330: 205-217.

Cresswell, W. 2014. Migratory connectivity of Palaearctic–African migratory birds and their responses to environmental change: the serial residency hypothesis. Ibis 156: 493-510.

Finch, T., Saunders, P., Avilés, J. M., Bermejo, A., Catry, I., de la Puente, J., Emmenegger, T., Mardega, I., Mayet, P., Parejo, D., Račinskis, E., Rodríguez-Ruiz, J., Sackl, P., Schwartz, T., Tiefenbach, M., Valera, F., Hewson, C., Franco, A. & Butler, S. J. 2015. A pan-European, multipopulation assessment of migratory connectivity in a near-threatened migrant bird. Diversity and Distributions. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12345. View

Ouwehand, J., Ahola, M. P., Ausems, A. N. M. A., Bridge, E. S., Burgess, M., Hahn, S., Hewson, C., Klaassen, R. H. G., Laaksonen, T., Lampe, H. M., Velmala, W. & Both, C.2015. Light-level geolocators reveal migratory connectivity in European populations of pied flycatchers Ficedula hypoleucaJournal of Avian Biology. DOI: 10.1111/jav.00721.

Sim, I. M., Green, M., Rebecca, G. W. & Burgess, M. D. in press. Geolocators reveal new insights into Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus migration routes and non-breeding areas. Bird Study. DOI: 10.1080/00063657.2015.1077779.

Smith, M., Bolton, M., Okill, D. J., Summers, R. W., Ellis, P., Liechti, F. & Wilson, J. D.2014. Geolocator tagging reveals Pacific migration of Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus breeding in Scotland. Ibis 156: 870-873.

Unpackage me: A Life free from Plastics

Researchers from the University of Exeter will attempt to live a life free from plastic during October and are calling for others to follow suit. Dr Jennifer Sanderson and Miss Lindsay Walker, both from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, are undertaking the month-long challenge to help raise awareness of our dependency on plastic packaging.

Members of the public are invited to join the initiative by visiting the ‘Unpackage me’ website and pledging to not purchase any products that contain or use plastic for a day or more during October. 

Why are plastics a problem? The main issue with plastics is that they do not biodegrade. This means that every piece of plastic ever created still exists somewhere in the world.

Lindsay Walker finds #pointlessplastic on a beach clean

Lindsay Walker finds #pointlessplastic on a beach clean

In the UK alone 275,000 tonnes of plastic are used each year, which equates to about 15 million bottles per day. Most UK households throw away about 40kg of recyclable plastic per year.

Current global consumption of plastic has drastic consequences for global energy consumption, for our economy, and for the health of both marine and terrestrial wildlife.

It is currently estimated that oceanic plastic waste kills one million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals every year.

Plastic packaging has become such normality that we can use and throw away several tonnes of plastic every day without any thought to the consequences of our actions. How much plastic do you use every day? How much plastic do you need to use every day?

Dr Sanderson collects rubbish at a beach clean

Dr Sanderson collects rubbish at a beach clean

Plastics have become such a common part of everyday life that it is easy to assume they are a necessity. Jenni and Lindsay’s pledge to go plastic free for a month will hopefully demonstrate the various ways that anyone can reduce their plastic footprint on the world.

Anyone can join the campaign by visiting the Unpackage Me website and pledging to go plastic-free for a day or more during October. The FXU student led ‘Keep your Kool’ campaign have already joined forces with Jenni and Lindsay and pledged to go plastic-free for two weeks, how long could you go without plastic?

Unpackage Me will be launched on 1 October with interactive information stands, posters and a display of the plastic saved. This main event will be held in the Exchange Building on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus where Jenni and Lindsay will be challenging students to sort a pile of plastic waste into different categories of recyclability in under a minute.

Students from Keep your Kool will join Unpackage Me on 1 October to showcase their campaign to reduce the use of plastic bottles on campus. They will be asking staff and students to pledge to ‘keep their kool’ and stick to reuseable water bottles rather than purchasing plastic bottled water.

Unpackage Me will be inviting the public to keep a look out for plastics in their Twitter-based weekly photo competition to find the product with the most pointless packaging (#pointlessplastic).

Throughout the month Jenni and Lindsay will be writing a daily blog on their website about the difficulties that they face and how they overcome the challenges of a life free from plastic.

The website also includes information about plastics, as well as initiatives to reduce, re-use, and recycle plastics. Together with dedicated Twitter (@UnpackageMe) and Facebook pages, the website will provide a forum for the general public to gain and exchange information of plastic re-use and explore the wider effects of our daily plastic choices.

Staying active as you grow older – a recipe for ‘ageing well’?

Wednesday 1 October is International Day of Older Persons; to celebrate, we have a blog from Dr Cassandra Phoenix on the demographic change in our communities and how the older people taking part in her research are embracing retirement, using it to explore new hobbies and pursue new activities.

Dr Phoenix is a researcher at the University of Exeter Medical School and European Centre of Environment and Human Health. She specialises in understanding how people maintain good health and wellbeing as they age, in her latest research has considered how physical activity can affect the ageing process – and how people feel about it.

We live in a society that is undergoing a dramatic demographic change. As 11 million post-war baby boomers march towards retirement, more than one in six people in the UK are aged over 65. In less than thirty years it will be one in four.

Combined with changes in social convention, such as smaller families and couples having children later in life, we’re experiencing a significant shift in the makeup of our communities.

Like much of the population, older adults often live inactive lifestyles and this can have a detrimental effect on both their health and wellbeing. Add to this a swathe of negative stereotypes about what can and can’t be done in older age – and the use of words like ‘burden’ and ‘care crisis’ – and older people could be forgiven for thinking they’ve already been condemned to the scrap heap.

Stigma

As we increasingly see growing older as something to fear rather than embrace, we’re confronted with a period in our lives that’s stigmatised as a time to shut down and disengage. Commonly perceived as relics of a bygone age, older people are often viewed as being immobilised by frailty – out of touch and all too often, out of sight.

Yet the stories and experiences of many older people do not conform to these antiquated and outmoded stereotypes. They view retirement as an opportunity to explore new hobbies, activities and relationships, and could offer the key to helping us all age in a positive and active way.

Over the last two years our research team, based at the University of Exeter Medical School, has followed a group of active older adults as part of the Moving Stories project. We’ve talked to them about their pastimes, sports and hobbies, taken photos of them in action, and asked others what they think about their lifestyles and stories.

Moving Stories 500

Physical activity can have an impact on your experiences and perceptions of ageing

We’re hoping that by listening to their accounts of ‘moving’, we can understand how and why they’ve been able to deal with the challenges of growing older and being active that everyone faces. We also want to know what role all types of physical activity, rather than just exercise, can play in ageing well.

An incredibly broad range of people from across Cornwall signed up to take part and share their stories with us – from sea swimmers, dancers and golfers, to cyclists, walkers, bowls  and badminton players. Our participants ranged in age from a positively youthful 60 to a spritely 92 and continuously conveyed their enthusiasm and desire to remain fit and active.

We’re still analysing the huge amounts of data we’ve captured, but one theme has already emerged across the majority of people we spoke to and that’s the experience of pleasure.

The importance of pleasure is under-researched in health-related areas, particularly in relation to physical activity in older age. Pleasure can take many forms but in this context we’re talking about feelings that make a person feel good, including happiness, joy, fun, and tranquillity.

Many of our participants described so-called ‘sensual’ pleasures – such as the feeling of the wind in their hair when walking outdoors, and the gliding and floating sensations of swimming through the ocean or a pool. These types of experiences show signs of the human senses connecting people with their environment and providing feelings that help contribute to happiness and wellbeing.

Diaries

We found that people also drew pleasure from documenting their experiences. Whether it was through keeping a diary or writing articles for community magazines, our participants felt a sense of pleasure long after the activity had taken place. So it looks as though it’s not just the activity itself that can give pleasure, but what happens before and after. We think this might be a really important mechanism for expanding the appeal of taking part in some form of activity, particularly in those for whom exercise alone does not appeal.

Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, the active older people in our study also described the pleasure they derived from simply having a routine. The habitual nature of some of their activities gave them a structure that, in the absence of work, was very welcome. They also described the joy that intense focus can bring, enabling them to escape from – and gain perspective on – issues that demand attention in their everyday lives. This immersion in their activity served an important purpose and several participants reported an improved sense of wellbeing as a result.

So the experience of pleasure seems like an important factor in how and why people stay active. It’s also giving us an important insight into how we measure the impact of physical activity, showing that being active is about much more than just meeting recommended guidelines and preventing or managing illness.

Through the help of our participants we’re starting to uncover the other ways in which physical activity might enable us to ‘move’ through life (and later life in particular) in a positive and pleasurable way. We’re hoping that our findings will go on to influence the way that people are encouraged and empowered to stay active and we’re working with AgeUK and Cornwall Sports Partnership to help this happen.

If you’d like to find out more about our research, we’ve teamed up with TheatreScience to bring this project to life on stage. The play ‘Moving Stories – Moving On’ has been inspired by interviews with our participants and tells stories from their lives with a focus on their attitudes to health, wellbeing and ageing. The opening performance is free and takes place in Truro on 2 October 2014. More information can be found at www.ecehh.org/events/moving-stories-theatre.

Can fashion ever be sustainable?

To celebrate World Fashion Day Dr Clare Saunders, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Politics, writes about the darker side of fashion and the problem with fast-fashion. Dr Saunders also discusses her new project which explores whether teaching people to make or mend clothes encourages sustainable clothing choices…

There is a new buzz-phrase in fashion circles: ‘sustainable fashion’. A number of Universities now offer Masters courses in the topic. But can there ever be such a thing as ‘sustainable fashion’?

Fashion, by its very nature, encourages a buy-now-discard-tomorrow culture. Most fashion trends last less than a season. High street retailers are motivated to produce clothes that will fly off the shelves, but which the consumer will need to replace in a short period of time. Economic drivers encourage cheap production of clothes and rapidly changing high-street window displays. The relatively low cost of high-street fashion items and the fast turn-around of trends works against sustainability. People are no longer motivated to mend that worn pair of baggy jeans when drain pipes replace them as a trend. Fashion, therefore has huge sustainability implications. The environmental, social and even psychological effects of fashion are increasingly coming to light.

The environmental consequences of the fashion industry are well-documented. The resource demands are no small deal: the water resource required to grow and process cotton for just one T-shirt is estimated at around 600 litres (Turley et al 2009). Intensively grown cotton also produces toxic waste. It accounts for a quarter of all pesticide use in the US (Claudio 2007) and has negative effects on eco-systems and food chains as recently suggested by the controversy over bees and neo-nicotinoids.

Irene Griffin (left) from Falmouth University and Dr Clare Saunders (right) with exhibits from the Fashion Footprints travelling exhibition at the launch of their new research collaboration.

Irene Griffin (left) from Falmouth University and Dr Clare Saunders (right) with exhibits from the Fashion Footprints travelling exhibition at the launch of their new research collaboration.

Clothing is also considered to make a significant contribution to anthropogenically induced climate change. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has identified clothing as the biggest single material contributor to carbon emissions, producing twice the carbon emissions associated with producing aluminium. Around 90 per cent of clothes in the UK market are imported, mainly from Asian countries, attractive to industry for low costs, with high ‘clothes miles’, associated pollution and inequality.

The 2013 disaster in the Rana Plaza building, Bangladesh, brought the social externalities of fast-fashion into sharp relief. There, low paid textile workers were ordered to work in a building visibly structurally damaged on the day it collapsed, injuring over 2,000. In return for hard labour, workers are paid a pittance. Fashion also contributes to insecurity, psychological illnesses and eating disorders. Moreover, individuals remain unskilled in making and mending clothes for themselves, resulting in a sense of powerlessness.

Reversing fast-fashion is no simple matter. Many are aware of the dark side of fashion, but they get caught in a value-behaviour gap because low quality disposable fashion dominates the market; and ethical clothing is considered unfashionable/unattractive, is a niche market and is expensive. Low quality fast-fashion items are more readily available in the market place, making it difficult to behave in an alternative manner. Furthermore, clothing has deep connections with individual identities, socio-economic status, emotions and lifestyles, and is rooted in socio-cultural attachments.

In the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter, I’m working with textile artist Sue Bamford on a project that seeks to understand whether teaching people to make and mend clothes helps them to develop more sustainable clothing choices. Given the nature of the fashion industry described above, we prefer to talk of ‘sustainable clothing choices’ than ‘sustainable fashion’.

We will be offering four free half-day clothes-making workshops to interested individuals. The research element involves conducting interviews with participants prior to and after their clothes-making workshops to monitor any changes in their clothing choices. Individuals interested in participating in the project should email me on c.saunders@exeter.ac.uk.

Can we improve the wellbeing of people with dementia without the use of drugs?

Dementia is a growing global health priority, with 7.7 million new cases identified each year. As research efforts begin to improve our understanding of this irreversible syndrome, there is growing consensus that patient wellbeing can be improved without the use of drugs. Interventions that focus on the use of therapeutic spaces are gaining momentum but what evidence exists to support their use?

A team at the University of Exeter Medical School, supported by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula (NIHR PenCLAHRC), has been conducting research into the various aspects of dementia care. Here Rebecca Whear, a specialist in health services research, describes their recent work and how it sits in the context of the growing dementia care debate.

Associated with an ongoing decline of the brain and its abilities, symptoms of dementia include memory loss and a reduction in thinking speed, language use and understanding. In 2012 David Cameron pledged to increase funding for research into dementia health and care as part of the UK’s National Dementia Strategy and since then there has been a steady flow of research findings and recommendations.

The majority of people living with dementia in the UK are supported by their close families, friends or more formal carers in their own home. However, a third live in residential care homes and at this stage are likely to be displaying more severe and challenging symptoms of the disease. Almost half of the elderly people living in residential care have dementia or dementia symptoms, a figure which increases to more than three-quarters in nursing homes. Antipsychotic medications are commonly used to manage the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia, but some research has suggested a clear link between this treatment and increased risk of illness and death.

Consequently there is now important and increasing interest in exploring opportunities to help people to feel better without the use of (or by reducing) medication.  Such opportunities might include changes in the environment and design of the residential care setting, engagement in other activities such as spending time in a garden, and improved training for care home staff.  Such changes may be able to help calm and relax residents with dementia and may also benefit other residents and the staff around them.

The new Devon Garden for patients with dementia, which is currently in development at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust.

In some of our most recent research we analysed how spending time in a garden can affect the wellbeing of people with dementia in care homes. We also examined the perspectives of families and carers about the use of a garden as part of the care setting in order to identify information that would help in the design and use of care home gardens in the future.

Our systematic review, which analyses all available evidence on this particular question, critically assesses 17 small studies from the US, UK, Australia, China, Canada, Sweden and Finland. Most of this research looked at the impact of gardens on the wellbeing of people with dementia, but three looked at the impact of horticulture therapy. The results suggest that use of a garden may lower levels of agitation in residents with dementia but that impacts on emotional wellbeing, sleep, changes to medication and risk of falls were less certain. The views and experiences of the garden for residents, families and staff give us further insights into how the gardens are used and the impact they can have. Families said they valued somewhere pleasant to meet that stimulated interest and conversation with their loved ones, and care home staff reported the calming effects the gardens had on residents.

Importantly, our research also highlighted some barriers to using gardens, such as the perception of the garden as a hazard and limited staff time for supervision, leading to gardens being effectively inaccessible for residents.

Another area of our research looked at a range of measures that could improve the experience of mealtimes in residential care – in order to improve the nutrition and behaviour of residents with dementia. Looking at all the available research we found that a number of factors, such as playing music at mealtimes, could result in improved food intake among the elderly and better mealtime behaviour in those with dementia. We also found that introducing changes such as a wider choice of menu and more pleasant eating environment could reduce the risk of malnutrition and agitated behaviours.

Similar pieces of research have also been conducted on a range of therapies to improve the psychological and behavioural symptoms of dementia including light therapy, music therapy, reminiscence therapy and validation therapy. All of which report inconclusive findings due to the low number and poor quality of research studies conducted so far. This is characteristic of studies in this area, small study sizes, use of a variety of tools to measure the same points of interest and poor reporting of studies make it difficult to draw together a common understanding of the evidence.

Despite some positive findings, it is clear that the use of non-pharmacological interventions for people living with dementia are currently understudied and undervalued by policy makers. We really need more high quality evidence to establish clear results and ensure benefits for those living with dementia.

Will Harvey’s War

FW Harvey was a famous Gloucestershire poet whose work became popular during and after the First World War. Harvey served in the war and a significant amount of his work was written from the front line and prisoner of war camps. Grant Repshire, a University of Exeter doctoral student, worked at the Gloucestershire Archives for his research project. In his time at the Archives, he uncovered an unpublished Harvey novel – Grant discusses what this has led to below…

Any readers who follow our social media accounts about Harvey (@FWHarvey on Twitter, and here on Facebook) will probably be aware that Harvey’s lost novel has been adapted as a play titled Will Harvey’s War at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham as the launch event for the Gloucestershire Remembers WWI community outreach programme (the play runs from 30 July to 2 August 2014). Additionally, the novel has been published internationally by the History Press.

Last night, ITV West Country News aired a piece on the project. It includes an interview with me, the doctoral researcher, but more importantly with the cast and crew at the Everyman Theatre who are preparing to bring the novel to life:

You can view the full the video with accompanying article on ITV’s website.

This play is one of the most exciting secondary effects of the studentship’s dedication to preserving and making accessible FW Harvey’s personal papers. It serves as an example of how universities can use collaboration-based outreach programmes to successfully engage with communities, extending the value of academic research beyond academia and into the larger world.

The project has already preserved Harvey’s papers at the Gloucestershire Archives, making them available to any researcher – whether they are academic, amateur, or simply casually interested. Now, thanks to this play, an even larger audience in Gloucestershire will learn about Harvey who was an important figure locally and nationally during the war, one the community was and should still be proud to call a Gloucestershire Lad.

The play has extended the reach of one document found in Harvey’s papers to hundreds, and its publication as a novel has the potential to extend its reach to exponentially more.

Grant’s studentship was funded by the University of Exeter’s Research and Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technology (REACT) initiative. REACT, which is backed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds collaborations between creative economy companies and arts and humanities scholars at its partner universities.

These collaborations will make innovative use of academic research and technological know-how to share academic knowledge with new audiences, generate economic value in the creative economy and move forward the scope of digital technology.

This post first appeared on the FW Harvey blog.

In search of British values

Michael Gove has rekindled the debate on British values by demanding that they should be taught in Britain’s schools. Gove’s broadside against the dangers of Islamic extremism taking a hold of our education system was backed by the Prime Minister, who rallied to his Education Secretary’s side, claiming that the incorporation of British values into the school curriculum was likely to have the ‘overwhelming support’ of the country. The Prime Minister went on to give his own view of what these values are, citing freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility, and a respect for British institutions.

This is not the first and doubtless it won’t be the last time that the question of ‘core British values’ has hit the media headlines. In 2001, in the wake of riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, the failure to identify and inculcate British values was widely thought to be the biggest stumbling block to community cohesion and a shared sense of national identity. The debate last week closely paralleled that of thirteen years ago. Anxiety about Britain becoming a more segregated, intolerant and fragmented society is as acute in 2014 as it was in 2001. The concern that ethnic minorities may have too much cultural protection, licensing them to live parallel lives, hangs over us now just as it did then. And confusion about what British values are – indeed whether they really exist – rather than diminishing over in intervening decade has, if anything, increased.

The most interesting intervention into the debate was not however that of the Education Secretary nor that of the Prime Minister. It was the interview by the Faith and Communities Minister, Baroness Warsi, which was given to BBC Radio 4’s World at One. Warsi is the first woman Muslim to serve in the cabinet. With a subtlety and sensitivity typically lacking in such debates, she drew a distinction between conservatism and extremism and cautioned against ‘tackling these matters’ in a way that made matters worse and alienated the majority of Muslims. Crucially, as calls were being heard for a national conversation about British values, Warsi underscored the necessity of all of Britain’s communities being included in that conversation.

In 2005, the authors of this blog (Rumana Begum and Andrew Thompson) went in search of British values among Britain’s first generation Asian migrants. One of us worked in a university history department, the other in an Equality and Diversity Unit of a local council. We conducted interviews with thirty men and women in the Tameside District of a Greater Manchester who had arrived in Britain from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh between 1956 to 1972. The youngest was 49, the eldest 86.

We saw ourselves as rising to the challenge issued by the former CRE Commissioner Shahid Malik, who had recently noted that ‘we know what British values are broadly-speaking’, but tellingly went on to add that: “It would be nice to get them down on paper somewhere.” We felt that the idea of core British values would remain an empty one unless there was a greater understanding of what Britain’s migrant communities considered those values to be.

Britishness

We also felt that if the voices of Britain’s ethnic minorities were rarely heard in the public debate about Britishness, the voices of Asian communities were heard even less than those of other groups. We focused our attention on the first generation, for whom Britain was a largely alien society when they arrived, but who had since come to make Britain their home.

Our findings were striking. The majority of our interviewees confidently described themselves as British Indian, British Pakistani, or British Bangladeshi. The sense of Britain being their home meant that few entertained the notion of eventually returning to their place of birth, even though they had often clung to such a possibility during their early years of settlement.

They were moreover remarkably consistent in their sense of what British values were. Alongside a legal definition of Britishness – the right to hold a passport, which they clearly prized – they identified a core set of values: religious toleration, the welfare state, respect for law and order, and the monarchy.

Having the freedom to practice their religion was clearly something very important to all of those we interviewed. When one Bangladeshi man was asked what he valued about Britain he simply replied: “They have never questioned me about my religion, which I have been able to practice freely”. There is a paradox here. The default position is to think of core British values as a quest for what culturally we have in common – a search for sameness. But the people we spoke to put the respect for diversity right at the heart of what they valued about living in Britain.

Our interviewees – who had worked tirelessly to give their children opportunities beyond their own reach – spoke of the welfare state. Many had been actively involved in voluntary activity and a wide range of community work. But they also valued the services provided by local authorities and central government – especially the NHS. They shared their concerns with us about the breakdown of the extended family in their communities – which among other things acted as a counterweight to reliance on the state. Interestingly, as we published our findings, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported the impact of ageing on the health of ethnic minorities was occurring at a comparatively younger age when compared to other sections of society, underscoring the importance of the NHS.

Respect for law an order was a value widely shared. The first generation avoided confrontation, a fact not always sufficiently recognised, and which, because it removed one line of defence, may explain their appreciation for the times when they had faced racial hostility and were supported by the police.

Two-thirds of those we spoke to identified closely with the monarchy. In fact some thought that it was the Queen who more than anyone or anything else best summed up what it meant to be British. The perception of a strong link between the royal family and the Commonwealth may well have been important here.

Values

What should we make of these first generation Asian migrants’ articulation of British values. At their worst British values can come across as little more than a collection of pious platitudes or convenient political slogans. This wasn’t true of our interviewees who spoke about these values with sincerity and in a way that related them to their day-to-day lives.

On the face of it, there is a fair overlap between their values and those of the Prime Minister – albeit tolerance had a higher priority for our interviewees, and be more explicitly linked to the question of freedom of religion.

But our study had a very different dynamic to the debate we have witnessed over the last week. We were not trying to establish whether or to what extent our interviewees agreed with what others – be they politicians, journalists or indeed Ofsted inspectors – thought core British values were. Rather, we went with open minds in search of British values in Greater Manchester’s Asian communities without presuming that they existed or that, if they did, we already knew how they were going to be defined.

We will never break out of the current cycle of confusion about British values until we allow ourselves to think differently about them. To breathe life into these values we have to work from the bottom up not the top down. We have to recognise that for something to be taught it first has to be defined, and for something to be defined it first has to be discussed. We don’t need edicts from government, however well intentioned. What we need is a nationwide dialogue about the British values we do (and perhaps don’t) share – a dialogue that spans the sacred and the secular, the north and the south, the urban and the rural, and the advantaged and disadvantaged. It may well be that our schools are among the best drivers of this dialogue, but only if we downplay its didactic purpose in favour of our best traditions of democratic debate.

Rumana Begum and Andrew Thompson

The full report is entitled: Asian Britishness. A study of first generation Asian migrants in Greater Manchester.

This blog first appeared in the AHRC Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past blog.

Dim the lights to restore nature’s body clock

This blog by Environment and Sustainability Institute’s Dr Jonathan Bennie first appeared in The Conversation.

By Jonathan Bennie, University of Exeter

Satellite images of the earth provide a striking picture of our planet during the hours of darkness. From space, the world at night appears as an intricate mass of tiny points of light, clustered into constellations of villages, towns and cities and linked by a spider-web of road networks. But can this be considered a form of pollution? What harm can light do to us or the environment?

It was astronomers who first put forward the argument that excess light could be viewed as a form of pollution, obscuring our view of the night sky – observatories must be located far from the glow of city lights. But a growing body of evidence suggests that artificial light may have more profound effects on the environment than simply polluting our view of the stars.Lightmare.

Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC, CC BY

Nature’s light cycles
For nearly four billion years, life on earth has evolved under natural cycles of light – night and day, the phases of the moon and lengthening and shortening of days through the seasons. These cycles are hard-wired into the behaviour and physiology of animals and plants. They use the varying duration of daylight over the year as a cue to trigger seasonal events such as the breaking of buds for leaves and flowers in the spring, or mating and reproduction.

The internal biological clocks that regulate 24-hour cycles of production of the hormone melatonin in humans and other animals, are constantly recalibrated by alternating periods of light and darkness. Melatonin plays a crucial role in regulating sleep-wake cycles, chemically causing drowsiness when it’s time to sleep and lowering body temperatures when we’re out for the count.

The division of time between day and night regulates periods of activity and rest in animals – when to hunt or forage and when to sleep. And faint natural light sources help nocturnal animals to orientate and navigate. Recent research has shown, for example, that dung beetles use the faint trace of the Milky Way to find their way.

Environmental disruption

The effects of introducing artificial light into these complex relationships can be profound, affecting the whole gamut of species. A few examples: we now know that urban light at night can advance egg laying in blue tits and bring forward the development of reproductive organs in blackbirds.

Light pollution can disrupt the annual migration of salmon, restrict the nightly movements of bats and increase mortality in young shearwaters and turtles. It can also change the foraging behaviour of wading birds and cause deciduous trees to produce leaves earlier in the spring and retain them later in the autumn.

Street lighting changes effect the structure of natural food chains. One study on grass verges under street lights found significantly higher numbers of predatory invertebrates including ground beetles and spiders, as well as scavengers, such as ants and woodlice than in unlit patches. We are only beginning to understand how these impacts may have deeper, long term consequences for nature conservation, biodiversity and the health of our ecosystems.

Restoring night

Other ways to reduce the environmental impact of light, from the technologically advanced to low-tech, exist and could help to make progress.

The main barrier to making these reductions is lack of awareness that artificial light can be a form of pollution. Also, it is assumed that a brighter, whiter night-time environment is always safer, aesthetically pleasing and more desirable – this shouldn’t be taken as a given, and the evidence backing up these claims is often contested.

Preserving, where possible, darkness at night can help reverse some of the ill-effects that the explosion of light pollution in recent years is having on the environment. Plus, we’d all benefit from seeing more of the night sky’s natural beauty.

Jonathan Bennie receives funding from the European Research Council.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Cornwall’s new status shows how regionalism is changing nation states everywhere

This blog by Politics Lecturer Dr Joanie Willett first appeared in The Conversation.

By Joanie Willett, University of Exeter

Here’s a question: what do Cornwall, Scotland, Venice and Sardinia have in common? The answer: they all have vocal political movements calling for either independence from their nation states or at least some form of autonomy.

Most people in the UK are aware of the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence; Venice recently voted overwhelmingly for independence in an unofficial referendum, and Sardinian pro-independence parties have recently doubled their vote share. Now Cornwall has, after many years of campaigning, been granted national minority status by the European Framework Convention for the protection of national minorities.

We are seeing an explosion of national or independence movements across Europe. What this means for governance and statehood here in the UK is yet to be seen – but the case of Cornwall can help us find an answer.

It’s easy to see why the people of Cornwall are so proud of their identity. Cornwall is a beautiful place with a lively and vibrant arts scene, a global presence in environmental research, a world class marine sector, and a mining school that produces world-leading graduates. Cornwall also has a proud history as one of the centres of the British industrial revolution, spawning some of Britain’s most important engineers – such as Richard Trevithick, inventor of the first working steam locomotive. More recently, researchers in Cornwall have pioneered geothermal power.

It is also hard to miss the strength and pride in Cornishness in a region where to use the word “county” is deeply political, and where “Cornish not English” t-shirts are readily available. Indeed, even the tourist information organisation “Visit Cornwall” uses “Duchy” instead to avoid offence. Road-signs are often bilingual Cornish/English, the Cornish Nationalist political party Mebyon Kernow contribute a strong voice to the local agenda, and symbolism associated with Cornish nationalism is used to decorate shops, advertise local products, and to form part of the regional brand.

This latter point is crucial for understanding Cornish nationalism’s growing ability to make its voice heard on the broader stage.

Regional powerhouse

Economic development and Cornish cultural heritage are inextricably tied together. Cornwall Council’s latest statement on local development is an Economic and Culture strategy (my italics); this has been the case across economic development plans since at least the 1999 Objective 1 Single Programming Document, which set out what the region was going to do with extra support and funding from the EU. Before this, culture and economy were usually seen as two distinct entities.

They have now become deeply entwined – and this isn’t just a Cornish issue. Michael Keating of the University of Aberdeen has argued this stems from a shift in the global economy, which asks “regions” to compete with other regions. This requires regional differentiation, or “branding” – which of course, appeals to regional identities. Many studies have argued that effective regional brands need to match the identities of ordinary citizens, rather than the criteria of marketing bods in boardrooms.

This is not to overlook the fact that many devolutionist or seccesionist campaigns are framed in terms of economic and political exploitation, where the region in question seeks redress for real or perceived neglect by the “core” of the nation state. Cornwall, Scotland, and Wales are no exceptions; each claim that their own unique circumstances are neglected by Westminster, that their voices are marginalised in the British debate, and that devolution or independence is the only way to ameliorate this.

The minority nations of the UK may well have a point. Certainly in Cornwall’s case, Cornish MP Matthew Taylor’s parliamentary question about the region’s poverty and desperation in the 1990s met with the answer that the region got quite enough support already. At the same time, the European Union was recognising Cornwall as one of the poorest regions of Europe, offering it financial help from Brussels.

Regional differentiation, not only encouraged but required by the global economy, provides a space for disaffection to operate. By becoming a central plank of the Cornish economy, Cornish identity has been woven into the fabric of people’s lives, rather than being the hobby horse of a few crazy activists. Indeed, throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, local campaigners were gripped by the fear that Cornish identity was dying out. Instead, it has grown and grown – and the fundamental role it plays in the economy is directly responsible.

So what does Cornwall’s new recognition mean for the UK? Firstly, expect to hear a lot more about Cornwall and its identity. Expect too that the well-supported campaign for a Cornish Assembly (just like the one in Wales) will continue, grow, and amplify in the coming years. It will become ever more insistent if Scotland does vote for independence in September, something which of course would trigger a vigourous discussion about the constitutional order of the UK as a whole.

Regional identity is not going away, neither in Cornwall, nor elsewhere in the UK or in Europe. We are going to see many more assertions of regional difference in coming years, and we need a solid debate about the relationship between the nation state and the regions. How can the British state incorporate a multiplicity of nations within its borders? Does this require a shift towards a more open and federal system, or does it instead signal the death of the nation state?

As the growth in Cornwall’s identity and national pride shows, these questions will have to be answered.

The Conversation

Joanie Willett does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Read the original article.