Monday, 29 October 2007

Birder's Bonus 8





Went to the National Wetlands Centre Wales (Llanelli) to see the Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) from Holland that has introduced itself to the collection. European robin (Erithacus rubecula) were in full song in the trees and the atypical piebald Moorhen (Galinula chloropus) is still around after more than a year. On the Millennium Wetlands side, saw lots of Little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) activity in the big lake.

'Organic' Foods Exonnerated?


Preliminary findings (publicity?) from an EU-funded Quality Low Input Food project report (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article2753546.ece) claim that 'organic' fruit and vegetables contain 40% more antioxidants than 'non-organic' varieties. The leader of this programme (Professor Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University's Tesco Centre for Organic Agriculture) also claims that 'organic' milk contains 60% more antioxidants and 'healthy fatty acids' than traditionally sourced material. This finding is apparently at variance with the Food Standards Agencies expressed view (that may be in the process of being changed) that the 'organic' varieties had no real health benefits (as well as being unaffordable by sections of the population). The devil may be in the detail. Antioxidants are in deed claimed to be a healthy addition to the diet as they neutralise free radicals thought (largely on the basis of laboratory tests with rats) to be implicated in aging and cancer. The difficulty is that the jury still seems to be out (see earlier posting on berries) on whether adding antioxidants to the human diet incurs any major benefits (especially if the material is cooked?).

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Seeing the Changes 55



The reds are out again! Saw a Red fox (Vulpes vulpes ) in broad daylight on the road in Bynea (he must have failed to set his alarm clock to take into account the change in daylight hours). A ginger Woolly bear Caterpillar (probably a Garden tiger moth?) scooted across the cycle path.

The Last Race For the Human Race (and Many Other Species)?


A new UN Environment Programme report 'Global Environment Outlook: Environment for Development' (based on a 5 year study by almost 1400 scientists) has suggested that the future of humanity (and even biodiversity on the planet, with 30, 23 and 12% respectively of amphibians, mammals and birds being under threat of extinction) has been imperilled by a failure of governments "to recognise the seriousness of major environmental issues" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/oct/26/climatechange). The report points out that each person currently alive "requires a third more land to supply his or her needs than the planet can supply"(raising a question of whether the basic concern is over-population or excessive 'needs'). The environment programme's executive director (Achim Steiner) applauds some recent decisions (e.g. that on reducing ozone-damaging chemicals) but notes that generally responses have "been slow and at a pace and scale that fails to respond to or recognise the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet". For example, the report claims that irreversible damage to the earth's climate is "likely unless greenhouse gas emissions drop below 50% of their 1990 levels before 2050". This could only be achieved, it is claimed, by richer countries cutting their emissions by 60-80% by that date, with developing countries also making meaningful reductions. The basic problem is that politicians and commercial interest groups generally make decisions based on 3-5 year cycles and are relatively uninfluenced by probabilities based on the longer term (although 43 years is a tiny span in global terms). Some commentators have taken this to mean that 'nothing can be done' whereas others have claimed 'we must act now'. It seems to me pointless to have science (which is, after all, based on predictions) unless we attempt to do something based on the concensus. I will admit, however, that inertia and self-interest are powerful counters to attempts to get meaningful actions on a wide enough scale ('we are not going to disadvantage ourselves, if others wont do their share', seems a very common reponse) .

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Seaslugs, the UK and Global Warming?

There has been a report http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article2748877.ece that a "toxic sea slug" has invaded UK waters. This story is based on a report that six specimens of the Sea hare (Aplysia fasciata) "have been confirmed to to have swum from the Spanish and Portuguese region of the Atlantic this autumn" to the Dorset region of the UK coastline. Most sea slugs are toxic as a defense against predators (so they are not dangerous unless you eat them) and it is debatable whether the specimens actually swam here. The researchers cited suggested that "climate change, faster sea currents and natural variations in population levels" could all be responsible for the 'influx'. Another possibility is the use of sea water as ballast by cargo ships. In some parts of the world, the transport of larval sea slugs in tank discharges into the sea before the vessel takes on cargo has been tentatively linked to the appearance of these marine organisms into geographically unusual locations. I think that there is currently a tendency to too quickly leap to global warming as an explanation for any unusual change in species distribution. It could certainly be a factor but alternative explanations must be discounted first before a real link could be established. After all, there were only 6 large specimens and only one year of observations! The sea slug shown is not Aplysia but is another 'toxic' species with sulphuric acid in its tissues.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Planet of One Ape?


A report on the current plight of the planet's monkeys and great apes prepared for three Conservation Charities by 60 "leading primatologists" has revealed(http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/oct/26/endangered) that many species are in a critically endangered condition (in deed, some may already be extinct). Amongst the animals judged as being amongst the "25 species most at risk" (the media love tables!) are the Cross river gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) of Nigeria and Cameroon; the Sumatran sub-species of Orang-utan (Pongo abelli); the Golden-headed langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus) of Vietnam and the Hainan black-crested gibbon (Nomascus hainanus) of China's Hainan Island. The reasons for their current risk status (all due to the actions of the dominant ape, humans) are well-documented and include the establishment of 'green' biofuel plantations of oil palms ( particularly impacting on the orang-utan- see a previous blog), logging and hunting (apes and monkeys are taken as bush meat in many parts of the world and their bodies may be used in traditional medicines). Most primate species depend on forest habitats that being progressively reduced and fragmented by human activities and they generally have a relatively slow reproductive rate, making their abilities to withstand hunting pressures and disease outbreaks marginal. Infra-human primates also have the misfortune to be largely concentrated in areas of the globe (mainly Southern hemisphere) where human populations often operate at subsistence levels and can be prone to political instability. It does seem strange but soon we may have no other primate species on the planet to remind ourselves of our ancestry.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Badgering the Badgers


The outgoing Scientific Adviser to the Government (Sir David King) has recommended culls of badgers in 'selected' areas of the UK to help curb the spread of Bovine TB in cattle(http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/oct/23/sciencenews.homeaffairs). He apparently said, in a report to DEFRA, that culling badgers was the "best option available at the moment to reduce the reservoir of infection in wildlife". This recommendation is at variance with the conclusions of Professor John Bourne's 10-year Independent Scientific Group (http://www.guardian.co.uk/country/article/0,,2198548,00.html). They concluded that culling caused other badgers in the area to migrate, spreading the infective agent around the targeted zone. The Badger Trust regard the new position as 'caving in' to the farming lobby whereas the National Farmer's Union feel the statement offers 'scientific support' for their enthusiasm for badger culling. Professor Bourne is not happy, describing Sir David's recommendations as being "hastily written", "superficial" and "selective". This is another area where it will be impossible to please all parties.

Seeing the Changes 54

An Angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) came to the lights in Swansea.

Monday, 22 October 2007

A 'Zoo' For Trees?

Went to see the Autumn (Fall) colours at Westonbirt arboretum (near Tetbury, Gloucestershire). On a bright, Autumn Sunday, the place was heaving with people and their dogs. In grumpy mode I couldn't help observing that this collection of trees out of context, essentially in a big Forestry Commission garden is a bit like a zoo for trees. The signage was pretty good but didn't always stress the alien origins of many of these plants and the sometimes odd proximity to each other. I also pondered on why we humans find the waste pigments in soon to be discarded leaves so attractive. Out of grumpy mode, they look pretty damn good (especially the Acers)!

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Seeing the Changes 53








Yet more late flowers around Bynea and Loughor including Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Nettle (Urtica dioica), Red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), Smooth sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) and Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris). In Loughor there are also some late moths including Plain golden Y (Autographa jota) and a grey specimen.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The Nature of Britain?

It may be a little mean to say it but seems highly apposite that this BBC series is presented by Alan Titchmarsh. The result is generally visually pleasing but the dialogue is clearly owes more to gardening than science. Having said that, much of the 'nature' of (...pause for Shakespearean descriptions...) 'this sceptered isle' is essentially more a product of gardening and agriculture (human intervention) than of the forces of nature. The series may actually benefit biological sciences by further stimulating interest in nature but its a rather 'twee' kind of nature!

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Seeing the Changes 52




At the Swansea-Mumble border, in addition to sundry dandelion relations, yellow crucifers, Hemp agrimony, Ragwort, Selfheal and Daisy, Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) and Yarrow (Achilles millefolium) are still in flower. There are also interesting fungi around the campus.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Is Obesity As Bad As Global Warming?


The claim ( http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article2658640.ece ) by the UK Minister of Heath (Alan Johnson) that rising obesity levels in England and Wales (it is predicted that by 2032 50% of adults here will be clinically obese) needs, I feel, a little careful reflection. There is no doubt that obesity is strongly linked to a wide range of serious medical conditions including various manifestations of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. It can also be associated with joint problems etc. A high incidence of this condition (largely, although there has been enthusiasm for a 'fat gene', a consequence of over consumption and/or inadequate exercise) will result in the 'premature' (in the modern sense of before 65) deaths of some individuals and place a considerable additional burden on the NHS (treatment for many of the associated medical problems is both chronic and expensive). The NHS currently spends between 10 and 20% of its budget on obesity-linked conditions. Truly estimating total costs for an 'obesity epidemic' is not easy as one should perhaps add in factors as diverse as early loss of expertise (trained individuals dying), providing carers/support for the children and aging parents of the victims as well as funeral costs into the equation. Obesity (largely a 'Western' problem) is a relatively modern concern. In contrast, people who were starved in the Second World War have often exhibited extended longevity (as do early food-limited animals), suggesting that too little food is occasionally good for you. The costs of an 'obesity epidemic' would be great but greater than global warming? If the predictions of the main stream climate change modellers come about, we are talking about major loss of habitable land, numerous extreme weather events, losses of human life on a grand scale, as well as decimation of animal and plant species in many areas of the globe. One of the cited reasons for the award of the Nobel peace Prize to Al Gore was the Award Committee's belief that Global Warming might well result in numerous resource-associated wars over water and food. Some of these claims are debatable but I don't think that UK obesity problems (although something that should seriously concern us) are quite in the same league. Perhaps the Minister is using a touch of 'poetic licence' to make his point? One could even suggest (I appreciate that it is rather callous to do so) that reduced human longevity might well reduce the rate of global warming.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Seeing the Changes 51

















Return of the plants! The Tarmacadam of the cycle path at Bynea is already being pierced by vegetation along its length. Autumn continues with a mass exodus of the leaves from the trees (especially Horse chestnut and Ash as well as Beech, Poplar, Silver birch and Sycamore). In addition to the late flowering plants noted in 'Seeing the Changes 50' and numerous relatives of the dandelion, I have noted Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), Purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea), Large-flowered evening primrose (Oenothera erythrosepaia), Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica) and Daisy (Bellis perennis). There were also cyanobacterial colonies (Nostoc) and numerous interesting fungi starting to appear around Bynea and Loughor (the red one is a species of Hygrocybe- a Wax cap). The still, wet conditions have visualised the numerous webs of Garden spiders. In the Loughor Estuary marsh location, what is probably Cord grass (Spartina anglica) is prominently in flower.

A Concrete Example

A timely article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/oct/12/climatechange) has appeared more-or-less at the same time as Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize for his 'An Inconvenient Truth' campaign. This basically points out that the 'low profile' cement production business (where limestone is heated, often using coal, in kilns to around 1500 degrees Celsius) is actually responsible for generating around 5% of the world's carbon dioxide (around 5bn tonnes annually). Cement is used in the production of concrete (the 2nd most used material on the planet) which is needed in all sorts of building programmes (including housing). Almost 50% of cement is currently produced in China. In spite of its role as a polluter, a recent meeting of cement producers in Brussels reported only very limited attempts to reduce emissions (mainly in Europe). In deed, Dimitri Papalexopoulos of Titan Cement Athens went so far as to say "You can't change the chemistry, so we can't achieve spectacular cuts in emissions". Two points may have to be considered. Firstly, the general public has to be more educated in terms of the relative contributions of particular human activities to CO2 emissions. Secondly, it must be possible to build in ways that do not always involve 'concreting over' our environment

Friday, 12 October 2007

Tightening the Green Belt?

Green belts around some major UK cities have been in existence basically since 1955 when local authorities were granted the power to "surround cities with rings of land protected by specific planning restrictions" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/oct/10/greenpolitics). The idea originated in 1935 and its initial intention was for these statutory restrictions to prevent cities 'swallowing' up smaller towns on their outskirts and even to try to prevent major conurbations from merging. It was only later that they became viewed as the 'lungs' around some large built up areas, providing recreational possibilities. By far the largest is the almost 490,000 hectares of land around Greater London but there are smaller belts around Greater Manchester, Burton on Trent and even a Welsh belt between Cardiff and Newport. The whole concept of the belt has been thrown into the mix by the Social Market Foundation's claim that the Government's desire to tackle the affordable housing shortage by 2020 can only be achieved by building 2m homes on current green belt. It has been pointed out that people believe that over half of England has been developed whereas less than 14% is actually in this condition (about the same amount of land that is allocated to green belt). That fact that English Nature is reconsidering its response to the green belt concept should also make us consider what these protected zones actually consist of. In many cases, the belt is largely agricultural land without restricted biodiversity. Much of the area is neither easily accessible by the general public or organisms that we might like to share this island with. There might well be scope for attempting to develop 'wild (rather than green) belts' of reserves and parks on the outskirts of some of our cities. If this were done, we would certainly have to guard against fragmentation of habitat wherever possible. We might even wish to 'encourage' some current agricultural land to revert to a more interesting state (quite a complex management problem). I do think that there is much to be said in favour of a re-examination of the nature of the buffers between our cities. Although affordable housing will clearly be needed if populations continue to climb in certain locations, we will still have to guard against any relaxation of the current rules being viewed by developers as a green light to build on any area that they fancied! We might also wish to think whether human populations (and their distributions) are part of the problem.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

A New Carboniferous Age?


George Monbiot has considered a wide range of issues surrounding the development of an opencast coalmine at Ffos-y-fran near Merthyr Tydfil (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/oct/09/energy). I dont really want to get into his comments about the seemingly strange dialogues between the developer (Miller Argent), the Merthyr Local Authority, the National Assembly and the Westminster Government on this development but it does seem extraordinary that the involved digging and blasting can take place only 36 metres from housing! The opencast mining will focus on a site of more than 400 hectares, will involve excavating to a depth of more than 200 metres (removing more than 120 million cubic metres of rock) and the whole process (mining plus infilling) is scheduled to take around 17 years. This is to obtain 10.8 million tonnes of coal. The developers describe the process as "a land reclamation scheme" to restore ".....derelict, unsafe, unproductive and unsightly land". There is no doubt that some of the involved land (largely the residue of deep mining activity in days gone by) is far from pristine and may be unstable but the open cast mining is a strange way of carrying out remedial work (that apparently could be funded by European Objective One money). There is a claim that the mine will generate 200 jobs but local protesters claim that these will be largely the operators of the digging equipment who tend to move from site to site. A claim was made in the piece that one of the postulated reasons for favouring the scheme is that it would extend the life of the Aberthaw coal burning powerplant (near Barry). This plant has been operating since 1971 (equivalent to my career in Swansea) and lacks sulphur scrubbing technology. Monbiot also raises doubts about whether so-called "carbon capture and storage" technologies will be developed and, if actually produced, will be applied to coal burning powerplants (old or new). In addition to the local disruptions, it seems very likely that such developments will add greatly to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This seems a strange thing to do when there is much public concern about global warming. It is, of course, possible that the new enthusiasm for British coal is linked to concerns about the reliability of imported gas supplies.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Seeing the Changes 50






























Autumn appears to be here. Bright, still days with the threat of frost at night. In Gorseinon, the Black bryony (Tamus communis) is heavily in fruit and Speckled wood butterflies (Pararge aegeria) are still in flight. In Bynea and Loughor, a surprising number of plants are in flower (not for the first time) including Bramble (Rubus fructicosus), Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium), Traveller's joy (Clematis vitalba), Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Michaelmas daisy (Aster spp), Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), Gorse (Ulex europaeus), White clover (Trifolium repens), Red clover (Trifolium pratense), Black meddick (Medicago lupulina), Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), Marsh hawksbeard (Crepsis paludosa), Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense), Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), Ribbed melilot (Melilotus officinalis), White melilot (Melilotus alba), Hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum), Common ragwort (Senecio jacabaea), Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca), Sneezewort (Achilles ptarmica) and Red campion (Silene dioica). There are also numbers of a yellow crucifer possibly Sea radish (Rhaphanus maritimus) as well as a white counterpart. Unidentified white and yellow umbellifers are also very evident.

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...