Monday, 31 December 2007

Birder's Bonus 9




Lots of quarrelling in Loughor between groups of Magpies (Pica pica pica) and lots of Jay (Garralus glandarius) and Starling (Sternus vulgaris) activity. On the Loughor estuary, Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) and Little egret (Egretta garzetta) were feeding. Pied wagtails (Motacilla alba) were exploring the puddles in Oxwich.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

2007: A Tough Year for UK Wildlife?


The National Trust has reported (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/dec/27/conservation.climatechange) that 2007 with its unseasonally warm March/April followed by wet and cold weather from May resulted in 'chaos' in timing of events for many wild animals and plants throughout Britain. Many plants bloomed earlier than usual and numerous animals emerged from hibernation (e.g. bats) or commenced courtship (e.g. Goldeneye ducks) earlier than was typical for their species. The report suggests that particularly detrimental effects were evident on bee, butterfly and hoverfly populations (with effects on the pollination of plants). Although the report cautions against using one year's data to identify a trend (i.e. global warming), it does suggest that the weather is becoming less predictable for many UK species and that this could have a severe impact on wildlife.

Shambo- Fame but the Final Insult?


Although it is corrected on the online version (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/dec/27/television.pressandpublishing), the newspaper article changed the sex of the bullock Shambo to that of a 'sacred cow'. Shambo was, of course, found to have signs of suffering from bovine TB and was taken from his West Wales Hindu shrine for slaughter. The point the article was really trying to make was that he/she was the UK animal media obsession of 2007, generating 159 stories and edging out the non-existent Cornish Great white shark that resulted in 'only' 131!

Keeping the Tiger in the Tank


The report (http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2232328,00.html) that a 135 kg Siberian or Amur tigress, Tatiana, had escaped from her enclosure (protected by 6M walls and a 'deep' moat) at San Francisco zoo near closing time on Christmas day and had mauled 3 young men (one of them fatally) is sad on several levels. Although the story resulted in the media listing other injuries and fatalities caused by escaped zoo animals, on a visitor per hour basis, visiting a zoo must be one of the safest of human activities. It is, of course, important to note that tigers can and do swim well (the moat may not have been much of a problem) and that a 6M wall may not be insurmountable (especially if there was something the animal could use to launch its leap in the enclosure). The tigress was, predictably, shot dead when she 'turned towards' approaching policemen which is unfortunate as there are reportedly only around 400 Amur tigers in the wild. This occurrence may cause zoos to think again about keeping these potentially lethal animals but the question then arises, how will they survive anywhere? There is a suggestion that one of the human victims 'teased' the tigress by dangling his leg over the wall (perhaps providing a 1M 'leg up'). There were calls to make zoos 'safer' but the situation was rendered more complicated by a media report suggesting that the wall had 'shrunk' to 'a few inches' under 4M. As 4M is the minimum recommended height for tiger enclosures in that part of the US, it was suggested that the zoo's licence could be revoked.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Seeing the Changes 60








In Loughor, I was amazed (doubting initially whether I was sober) to see a large white rabbit (an escaped Christmas present?) bouncing along the street. Went to Oxwich beach and found Hawkweed (probably Pilosella officinarum) in flower. The dead remains of Carline thistle (Carlina vulgaris) were also evident on the dunes as were profuse growths of moss. In Bynea, the willow was early into leaf and catkin in places. A white Umbellifer (probably Berula erecta) and Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) were also in flower. In Loughor, Heather (Calluna vulgaris) was in flower.

Monday, 24 December 2007

A 3-D Christmas


Finally had my left eye operated for its central, posterior cataract on the 19th December. This seemed to go as well and as quickly as that on its partner last September. So many thanks to all the people involved at the Singleton Hospital Day Surgery Unit. I should now be more capable of seeing where my presents are located tomorrow and colours will be even better! It's also kind of nice to feel that your vision in one eye is supported by a partner organ.

Happy Christmas Nemo!


There is a report (http://environment.independent.co.uk/nature/article3280461.ece) that the actual fish providing the inspiration for the Disney film 'Finding Nemo' and its anemone 'home' are going to be left in peace by commercial operators at Keppel Island (North Queensland, Australia). This sounds, at first sight, like an unequivocal good news story but the fish and the anemone are both threatened by coral bleaching (one presumed side-effect/indicator of global warming) of the Great Barrier Reef and the locals appear to have become concerned that further collecting of this anthropomorphised fish might well damage the attractiveness of snorkeling holidays in the region (an important source of revenue). This is also only one relatively small sector of the reef. Benefits to 'Nemo' consequently appear to be side effects of commercial considerations.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Seeing the Changes 59






Visited the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Middleton (near Camarthen). Surprised to see daffodils in bloom outside the actual gardens. The other interesting things included the birds that were exploiting the temperatures, food and lack of predators in the large greenhouses. These included the European robin (Erithacus rubecula) and the House sparrow (Passer domesticus). In the double walled garden section there was also much activity by Chaffinch (Fringilla montifringilla) and Carrion crows (Corvus corone).

Giant Panda Production Line


There are estimated to be only about 1600 wild Giant pandas roaming the mountains of China. Zhang Hemin of the Woolong Nature Reserve and the China Research and Conservation Centre for the Giant Panda has reported that they are becoming quite successful at getting this emblematic animal to breed (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article3051725.ece ). About 30 cubs are currently produced in captivity per year with quite a high incidence of twins. What is less easy is successfully releasing these animals into the wild, even if this is done by gradually increasing the area into which the released animal can move and encouraging the subjects to find more and more of their own food. Mr Zhang seems especially keen to release one member of a pair of twins to reduce the build up of genetic problems. The major difficulties in such programmes are that the animals are only likely to thrive if they are released into suitable habitats that are not already occupied by wild Giant pandas. The latter roam quite widely and are very intolerant of released animals (it has be suspected that they have been implicated in deaths). The chances are that the wild animals are more practised in fighting, appeasement and avoidance that the captive bred beasts. Suitable habitat would also have to be relatively free of human disturbance (pandas reared by humans may well respond differently to man from their wild counterparts). None of this should be especially surprising as many of the same issues are apparent in captive breeding plus release programmes involving primates where teaching subjects about what constitutes food, danger, a potential mate etc consumes a large amount of the budget.

What a Bali Hoo!


The long Climate Change Protocol meeting of 190 countries on the island of Bali has finally come to an end ( a day late) but what is the real outcome in terms of meaningful agreements? There was lots of daily 'news' about this meeting with an apparent late night 'break through' when Paula Dobiansky of the USA team seemed to finally agree that a new climate change protocol would come into force after 2012 when Kyoto runs out (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/dec/16/bali.climatechange). Although all countries now agreed that "deep cuts" in greenhouse gases are necessary, the talks did not develop any actual goals or timetables (they are going to discuss it further for another 2 years). Although the rich countries agreed that poor countries need money to help them deal with climate change, they are not going to pledge any actual cash until after 2012. It has been agreed that money should go to countries to help reduce the cutting down or degradation of forests but there is a fear that these allocations may be 'hijacked' to develop plantations (for palm oil etc?). There is also a fear that climate change money intended to help poor countries deal with climate change could be taken from existing foreign aid budgets. Within 24 hours of apparent agreement, the USA is claiming that developing countries (notably China and India) must expect to make significant cuts in their emissions irrespective of their levels of economic advancement (or all bets are off). It is not only the USA that is looking dubiously at the proposed 25-40% cut in emissions for rich countries as Japan, Canada and Russia appear to be baulking at these values. The prognosis doesn't appear to be good as there is bags of scope for reneging or 'watering down' the deal. Even within the EU, there are already problems with French and German car manufacturers falling out over targets designed to help Europe make a contribution(http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/dec/17/climatechange.carbonemissions). The EU want new cars to be limited to emissions of 120g of carbon dioxide per km by 2012, with severe penalties for exceeding this value. The French car builders (already close to 140g/km) are quite keen on this development but the Germans (still around 180g/km) are horrified. We will see how long the entente cordiale lasts even a a 'local' level!

Friday, 14 December 2007

Carbon Myths


Chris Goodall has looked at the general public's level of ignorance what their personal actions can achieve to reduce the production of 'greenhouse gases' (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/dec/13/ethicalliving.carbonfootprints). He feels that this is not only important in encouraging effective action but also in preventing people being 'sold' "goods and services that offer little or no carbon-saving." He notes the belief that eco-light bulbs are the best way of saving electricity in the home. They do provide modest savings but this is more than cancelled out by the same people buying large plasma TVs and games consoles. He also draws attention to the frequent mantra in the UK that flying is 'only' annually responsible for 2% of world carbon dioxide production. He points out that actually the UK's contribution via this mode of transport is 6% and growing rapidly (note the enthusiasm for new runways and airports). Goodall suggests that the impact of aviation gases (because of where it is produced) is almost 3 times that of the amount of carbon dioxide generated and that air travel anyway generates almost as much CO2 as the Government's target for reduction by 2050. He also questions whether all packaging is 'wicked', noting the current distaste for the plastic bag. Goodall feels that some packaging in necessary and is not an especial source of greenhouse gases. Bags, of course, can be damaging in particular circumstances particularly when a Leatherback turtle mistakes one for a jellyfish! He feels that the amount of discarded food (30% of what is produced) is much more important as much of this goes into landfill producing very potent methane gas. Goodall also questions whether hybrid petrol and electrical cars are a good means of reducing emissions as they are expensive and the latest generation of small diesels produce similar levels of gases. He also notes that, whilst the concept of 'food miles' is relevant, one also has to consider the nature of the food item. For example, beef from the farm next door can have 50 times the impact on global warming as beans flown in from Canada! Goodall also is skeptical about the enthusiasm of some political parties for encouraging with cash the microgeneration of electricity by people placing solar panels or wind turbines on their roofs. He believes that giving the same cash to encourage the British to insulate their notoriously poorly insulated houses would be a much more effective policy. Goodall clearly has some very interesting 'takes' on many of these issues and a certain amount of 'myth busting' is absolutely needed. I don't, however, go along with all his suggestions. I am, for example, not convinced that one answer is for all humans to become vegans. Perhaps there are simply too many of these omnivorous primates?

Is the Public Better at Spending Lottery Money Than Expert Panels?


The news that 42% of voting TV viewers supported the Sustrans Connect2 project in its competition for £50m from the National Lottery with the other 3 short-listed schemes from the Eden Project, the Black Country Urban Park and Sherwood Forest appears to be of great significance (http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2007/dec/13/cyclingholidays.nationallottery). We are constantly being told by a hostile media that some lottery money is wasted but it seems, at first sight, that the public have made an excellent choice in this case. The money will be used by the Bristol group to pay for 79 mini-projects to fill in gaps in the 10,000 mile National Cycle Network in locations from Blyth to Bath. With matching local funds, the cash could be worth double the amount allocated and prove a real benefit to walkers as well as cyclists across the whole UK. There is, however, an alternative explanation that, rather than making a considered choice, at least some of the voters were responding geographically. The Sustrans project appears to be the only one that would give funding to a wide range of locations whereas the three final competitors might well largely appeal to voters around Cornwall, Birmingham and Nottingham. It would be interesting to analyse where the vote for the unsuccessful projects was located before assuming that a public vote is any better at choosing the most effective way of spending money than a panel of 'experts'.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

A Mixed Environmental Message?


It seems to me slightly odd that UK Government ministers currently claim to be seriously involved in both ensuring that there is sufficient housing to fulfill all the current needs (or perhaps, more properly, the desires?) of the country's population as well as acting decisively on a range of environmental issues (waste disposal, recycling, global warming etc). People in the UK appear to be more obsessed by home ownership (certainly to a greater extent than in some other European countries e.g. the Netherlands) and house building in the UK style certainly generates a lot of greenhouse gas (via concrete production etc) as well as restricting land available for other purposes e.g. agriculture, as refuges for wildlife etc. Even with the best will in the world, house creation generally reduces local biodiversity. So how come that it is never admitted that there is a tension between these two aspirations?

Fancy Furniture Threatens the Sumatra?


An attempt is being made on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, to reverse the loss of the indigenous rain forest that once covered an area (20 m hectares) the size of Greater London (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/dec/08/forests.conservation). Only around 600,000 hectares are left and the numbers of trees removed legally and illegally increases every year (it has been estimated that, in Indonesia as a whole, an area of jungle "the size of 300 football pitches is cleared per hour"). This is devastating for the island and its wildlife including the Orang-utan but may also have world-wide repercussions. It has been estimated that the amount of greenhouse gases freed into the atmosphere by deforestation actually exceeds the total generated by all the world's transport systems (cars, trains, ships and planes). Some of the obtained wood is also likely to be transported to other parts of the globe for use in furniture manufacture etc. Some estimates, factoring in deforestation, actually make Indonesia the world's third largest producer of carbon dioxide. One can only hope that this programme (that has to convince the local population that trees in the ground are more valuable than the wood they generate) is successful.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Who Can You Trust To 'Sell' A 'Green' Message?


It has been reported that marketing consutants Munro and Forster (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/dec/08/recycling.greenpolitics) are advising, although apparently somewhat at arm's length, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) not to use 'turn off' ministers in attempts to convince the UK public about the merits of recycling etc. This is hardly a radical suggestion, as trust in politicians is low and any UK politician will have supporters and antagonists and will only tend to be 'believed' by sections of the population (no doubt, aided or denigrated by a media that shows distinctly varied enthusiasms for such issues). The consultants suggest that DEFRA should pay 'eco-celebs' to advocate 'green' messages. Amongst the individuals they suggest as potential eco-oracles are actor and comedian Stephen Frye, actor and archaeology presenter Tony Robinson, presenter of 'Animal Park' Ben Fogle, BBC news presenter Michael Buerk, former 'Tomorrow's World' presenter Maggie Philbin and 'eco-guru and designer' Rob Holdway presenter of Channel 4's 'Dumped'. Frye seems to be an initial favourite but he advocates Robinson on the basis that he "spends half his life digging up Britain anyway and the other half fending off rude Baldrick remarks about middens and turnips." Munro and Forster are clearly aware that the 'wrong' celebrity would clearly reduce the credibility of any campaign and suggest that "in-depth research" is needed to ensure that no hidden scandal associated with the celeb could damage the launch. I think it is even worse that that. Any 'flagship' celeb is likely to have all their (and their relatives?) actions constantly picked over by a 'scandal' obsessed media in attempts to demonstrate that they are failing to 'practice what they preach'. That would include their travel arrangements, what they are paid, the size of their family etc. Celebs have the problem that, by definition, they do not live 'normal' lives. Although I think it unlikely that one could find a paragon of virtue (with a virtuous family) who could successfully carry out the described role long-term, I would be interested in any other names that people would like to throw into the mix!

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Continued Rant on 'The Nature of Britain'

Alan Titchmarsh's 'Nature of Britain' concluded by looking at life on brownfield sites, the tops of industrial buildings etc. Although some of these developments are interesting (and certainly well-filmed) there is (at least to my mind) something slightly disturbing about the series leaving the impression that "everything will be OK if we engineer in a bit of space for wildlife (preferably of the photogenic variety) and/or put a biome over it". I have to say it again but much of this series appears like an extention of gardening.

Knut Cuts It?


Berlin Zoo's initially runted and rejected (but later much feted) Polar bear cub is one today. Apparently, he has dramatically put on weight and now appears to be a healthy bear. His new size might well reduce his popularity. The debate about whether or not he should have been euthanized appears to have died down but it will be interesting to see if his behavioural development is appropriate, especially as he approaches the age of potential breeding.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Cutting the Cutters?


A report of a possible £300m cut in the budget of DEFRA (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/nov/17/climatechange.carbonemissions1) seems especially badly timed as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is about the emphasize the urgent need to cut down on all forms of carbon emission. The cuts will have negative effects on areas as diverse as "canals, animal health, waste groups, national parks, forestry, fisheries, sustainable development and environmental protection." There will be new money (in 3 year's time) for flood protection following the floods in Yorkshire and Gloucestershire but this seems more like treating a (local) symptom rather than the cause. It looks as if Natural England will be particularly badly affected with a reduction of about one third in its budget to pay for new conservation work and a requirement to pay back the £12m it cost to set up. Quite apart from the carbon emissions theme, the sudden spate of diseases in agricultural animals (generally linked eventually to human rather than wild animal interventions) suggest that we actually need to spend more across the whole range of DEFRA activities. The trouble is that cuts in these areas are often politically attractive as, if you are lucky, their consequences are relatively long-term. A particular worry is that the drive to produce redundancies may remove valuable areas of expertise that will be difficult to replace.

One-Handed Handclap for Homeopathy?


Ben Goldacre in 'A Kind of Magic' has detailed the problems surrounding homeopathy (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/nov/16/sciencenews.g2). He points out that there might well be a role in traditional medicine for the placebo effect (sugar pills of particular colours producing improvements in otherwise untreatable conditions) especially if impressive ritual is involved. He suggests, on the other hand, that meta-analysis of properly controlled homeopathic trials suggest it is no better than control treatments. He also suggests that many of the practices in such studies have a "dangerous, unscientific and secretive" side. Studies may not be genuine double blind studies or be applied to people when they have already developed a condition (e.g. any treatment you take when your cold is at its worst is going to produce an apparent improvement!). If 'alternative' medicines are to be taken seriously, they clearly must be at least as exposed to meaningful tests as are traditional medical treatments. It is no good claiming that their effectiveness is destroyed by 'scientific distrust' or refusing to accept criticism for an imperfect experimental design (ability to fairly replicate is the whole basis on which scientific research is conducted). Why then is there such an apparent enthusiasm for homeopathy (I even knew a vet who wanted to apply it to horses)? Goldacre suggests that such treatments are popular with people who have had some poor experience with traditional medicine. A further problem is that people well-known in other respects sometimes advocate it. They include the current heir to the British throne (who might well receive 'advice' on the topic but is not necessarily in a position to assess the veracity of claims) and a well-regarded female authoress (writing a good story is probably the opposite of evaluating complex medical tests). This transcending of boring expertise by fame has even infected several scientists, eminent in other areas, in my life time. Niko Tinbergen shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1973 for his work on animal behaviour but strayed (not very successfully) into considerations of autism shortly afterwards. Famously, Linus Pauling obtained the 1954 Nobel in Chemistry for his work on the nature of chemical bonds and the 1962 Peace Prize for his campaign against above ground nuclear bomb tests but still felt in a position to advocate massive doses of vitamin C as a 'cure' for the common cold. Many people believe his claim but the evidence is far from comvincing.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Bird 'Flu Bounces Back!


The dangerous strain (H5N1) of bird 'flu appears to be back (just in time for Christmas) in the UK at Redgrave Park, a stately home with an ornamental lake near Diss on the Norfolk/Suffolk border (http://www.guardian.co.uk/birdflu/story/0,,2210517,00.html). Here, free-range poultry (owned by Gressingham Foods who lease space in the Park) have been allowed to mingle with wild migrants during the day (they are housed inside at night). The RSPB point out that, as no dead wild birds have been found in the location, blaming these animals is a little premature. Since the outbreak occurred, some 5000 turkeys, 1000 ducks and 500 geese have been slaughtered at Redgrave Park. The location is relatively close to the earlier Bernard Matthews outbreak, eventually potentially linked to imported birds from Hungary. There is some speculation that Gressingham Foods had imported some young birds from the Czech Republic where this strain of the disease is also found. Exclusion zones have been set up and birds culled (just in case) at nearby farms visited by workers who frequent Redgrave Park. The timing could not be worse given the economic importance of Christmas poultry sales.

Seeing the Changes 58


A dark moth appeared at the light in Loughor. Its been a long season.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Seeing the Changes 57









Went to Swansea Botanical Gardens on Saturday 10th November for Autumnwatch event. Lots of Grey squirrel activity (Sciurus carolinensis) with the camera flash sometimes making them look possessed! The Eurasian nuthatch (Sitta europaea), Blue tit (Parus caeruleus) and Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) were also busy. Impressive Bracket fungus on one of the oak trees.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Seeing the Changes 56












A Brown lacewing came to the light in Loughor. At the National Wetlands Centre Wales (Llanelli) the Gorse (Ulex europaeus), Daisy (Bellis perennis), Barren strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) and Common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) were all in flower. There were even hoverflies (Helophilus pendulus) on the last mentioned. There is also a fine array of lichens on the trees and some interesting fungi on the tree stumps. On Llanelli fore-shore, the range of flowers still persisting, in addition to Rest harrow, Common toadflax, Ragwort and Red clover include Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) and Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra).

Bear-faced Robbery?

Yet another example of the tension between people and conservation is seen in the recent responses of people in rural Romania to a hunti...