Me & my passion: a legacy of learning to protect our coastal environment
Me & my passion: a legacy of learning to protect our coastal environment
Me & me passion is a series of periodic interviews where clients and friends of Cazenove Capital share personal interests and projects, often far removed from their careers or professional lives
In 1971, when Stephen Nesbitt started work as an articled clerk in the City of London, the term “climate change” was not in use – or not in the way it is understood today. “There was no widespread understanding of climate change at that time,” he says.
“But in the scientific press attention was beginning to be paid to greenhouse gas emissions and their effect on the oceans. Scientists were also looking harder at the effects of intensive farming and the use of chemicals, including the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals. That was when my awareness of environmental issues began to grow.”
Conservation is a much-abused term. Here it means contributing to the knowledge of the marine eco-system to understand changes taking place and addressing problems now and in future
Living initially in London with his wife Aileen – “someone who is particularly interested in the countryside and who has always felt more comfortable there” – the couple moved in 1980 to rural west Berkshire where, a few years later, they bought a 50 acre farm.
Stephen’s career was changing from law to investment, with a focus on what were then early financial futures markets. Despite a frequent commute to London, he and Aileen found time to convert the farm and its small beef herd to an organic system, and in the years ahead they added parcels of nearby land to their holding. In 2001 this led to the purchase of a larger operational farm where today the arable and livestock operations are both organic. “It’s only a medium-sized farm by UK standards,” Stephen says.
“But for us the key thing is that it’s entirely organic, completely free of chemical inputs which have an adverse effect on wildlife and the soil. Not all the land is actively farmed. Large areas are set aside as natural wildlife habitat including areas of chalk stream and wetlands.”
Wildlife populations, including key indicator species such as red kites, buzzards, sparrowhawks and other birds of prey, have bounced back – and the farm is about to feature in a nature series to be broadcast by a major TV network. This farm, Stephen says, is “where the idea for a Scottish coastal research station was born”.
St Abbs – a historic fishing village, Berwickshire
In the 1990s Stephen and Aileen had bought a holiday cottage in the coastal village of St Abbs, Berwickshire, not far north of the English border.
The property included a derelict fisherman’s bothy whose walls abutted the shore – “literally touching the North Sea”. This offered a development opportunity – but for what?
“After various thoughts we decided we should do something in the marine context to complement our approach to farming,” Stephen explains. “We had access to seawater and a shoreline building which could be renovated to house holding tanks and be part of a marine laboratory. That provided the ability to research, record, test and observe what goes on in the sea.”
Planning commenced in 2008 with Stephen employing a marine scientist with experience of laboratory set-ups. Persuading the village to welcome the idea was part of the challenge.
“It’s a small community with a long, fascinating heritage in fishing,” he says. “We won people over by talking to them and being transparent about what we were trying to do.” The creation of the marine station was coupled with a wider regeneration of village amenities, including a visitor centre in the former village hall and a refurbishment of the former school's premises.
“Would the station be a visitor attraction? Or more purely scientific? We decided the latter – as that was less disruptive to the village, and more in keeping with our environmental aims.”
By 2014 the station was functional and staffed by three technicians. Stephen approached the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland and put together a proposal to circulate around Scottish universities seeking potential scientific partners.
Researcher and one of the tanks at the marine station. Main picture, top, shows the village of St Abbs. The station is set at the far side
As other private benefactors have discovered, established institutions are sometimes flummoxed by unexpected generosity on a large scale. “People thought I was mad,” Stephen recalls. “Why would anyone be daft enough to go out and build all this, on their own?”
Once they had overcome their incredulity, however, universities swiftly saw the value of the proposition. Two universities responded, Edinburgh Napier and Heriot-Watt, sparking what would become a highly successful collaboration.
It took Stephen a year to negotiate an arrangement which from 2015 saw experienced scientists from each institution devising a research agenda for the station. The scientists pledged 25% of their time to these projects. In return they had the use of the station and its technicians, which soon grew to five in number.
The universities were able to give research students access to the station’s facilities, giving early-career scientists opportunities in new fields of marine study. So far three doctorates have been awarded relating to research undertaken at St Abbs.
St Abbs Marine Station: the first five years’ work
The routine function of the station includes constant monitoring of the marine environment with sea levels, temperatures, acidity and other data being collected and shared in global projects. But St Abbs does far more.
“Conservation is a much-abused term,” Stephen says. “Here it means contributing to the knowledge of the marine eco-system to understand changes taking place and addressing problems now and in future.”
Those problems are various, complex, and “in many cases as yet partly understood”, says Stephen. They include pollution in many forms, with the station specifically undertaking work relating to the problem of micro-plastics and ways to deal with it.
They also include noise – from boat traffic, construction, ocean bed surveying and renewables infrastructure such as turbines. Research in the station has looked in particular at the effect of noise and vibration on marine invertebrates.
Tanks at St Abbs are made of non-ferrous materials, giving the station a valuable advantage when it comes to studying electro-magnetic effects on marine life
The construction of windfarms, more of which are earmarked for the nearby waters in the outer Firth of Forth, raises other problems where St Abbs’ data is likely to become more valuable.
Thanks to the foresight of the advising scientist, the marine station and its tanks were built without the use of ferrous materials. That means scientists can research electro-magnetic effects on sea creatures – such as crabs and other crustaceae – without interference. While it is known that electro-magnetic fields generated by wind turbine cables are disturbing marine life, data is so far scarce.
“The non-ferrous structure is a unique selling point of St Abbs,” Stephen says. “We’ve used only glass-reinforced plastics. Very few marine laboratories in the world have the ability to make accurate measurements of electro-magnetic effects.”
Securing the station for the future
The planning, construction and staffing of St Abbs has been costly financially as well as in terms of time and management. What happens, with projects like this, when the founder dies?
“How to establish continuity is an issue for our wider family,” he says. “The younger family members are interested, but they are not scientists. I don’t think they would necessarily want to manage it in the way I have, and why should they? – their passions are not necessarily the same as mine. My wife and I want to safeguard what we’ve built here for the future. But we don’t want it to be a financial or any other kind of burden.”
Stephen Nesbitt, photographed in March 2020 with family dog Olive: "How to establish continuity is an issue for the wider family"
With five years’ history of valuable research behind it, the station has a sound platform from which to attract support. The contracts with Edinburgh Napier and Heriot-Watt are concluding, but another prestigious Scottish university is lined up to take over. Stephen is in the process of negotiations which would see this new partner take on a gradually increasing proportion of the operating costs. There is still much detail to complete, but the path toward a self-sustaining model is opening up.
“I come from a modest background, my parents were not well-off. I don’t want my name on anything – but I do like to think there’s something in St Abbs that will survive our passing. I feel we've built something here of value and that it has a role to play at a critical moment. We took a risk, and committed a lot of money. I’m hoping it can go on to the next level in terms of output, reputation, and contribution to knowledge.”
If you would like to support the work of St Abbs, which
is a registered charity in Scotland, please visit marinestation.co.uk.
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