Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Beavers Really About Now!

A large (38 kg), male beaver has reported effected his escape through a break in a 'secure' electric fence (whilst in quarantine) from a reintroduction programme in Lifton Devon ( Fortunately, his two female 'companions' were quickly recaptured so he will be on his own. Claims have been made that he is chiselling down trees more than 30 kilometers away in Gunnislake (Cornwall). The desirability of reintroducing this species to the UK countryside some 500 years after its extinction has already been debated here but the event confirms (yet again) that such programmes are hardly accident-free events.
I was interested to read that Frank Buckland described how, in August 1872, he obtained 4 beavers (a male and a female from France and a similar pair from the USA) for Lord Bute (of Cardiff fame) for a release programme. Lord Bute decided that his lands in Scotland were more suited to these mammals than Wales but the animals did not, apparently, survive for very long (there was much conflict between the pairs). It looks like the obsession for releasing beavers into the UK has been going on for much longer than I thought.

They Took Some Honey- Made Plenty of Money...

The much-reported collapse of Honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies in Europe and America has ( allegedly opened the way to a cunning marketing ploy. Honey from China is apparently exported to some second countries, who then 'rebadge' it as coming from 'preferred'/approved locations, before selling it on at greatly inflated prices. The process is said to be very rarely detected (DNA tests etc are relatively expensive and are unlikely to be routinely invoked), which also makes establishing the verity of the claim difficult. The practice would (if confirmed), however, result in avoidance of many food safety checks (e.g. levels of pesticides etc). The poor would then be most likely to suffer potential consequences.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Seeing the Changes 160

Around Loughor, Daisy (Bellis perennis) and Primrose (Primula vulgaris) are both in flower over a sunny Christmas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Turning the Lights Off?

It has been claimed that the carbon footprint of Government buildings in the UK exceeds that of the entire country of Kenya ( Kenya is admittedly a somewhat modestly developed, pastoral and warm country but this finding is somewhat shocking, given the claim that plans had been in place to improve energy use by the Houses of Parliament and numerous other buildings. The sad thing is that even relatively new government buildings do not seem to have been planed to minimise carbon dioxide emissions (this, surely, should be a mandatory element). Given the 'credit crunch' it is now claimed that it is too expensive to put double glazing into place (this is admittedly difficult on listed properties) and to place wind generators near the properties. One would, however, assume that the savings would off-set some of the expenditure. An example from the 'top' is also desirable when trying to change public behaviour. Improving the energy use of government's housing stock might be a better (and longer-lasting) way of stimulating the economy (builders will have to work to put the changes in place) than simply reducing VAT. The developed skills can also be applied more widely to people's homes etc.

Seeing the Changes 159

It must be getting mild again. On the Loughor estuary, the Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) are busy fishing while clouds of Winter gnats (Trichocera relegationis) whirl around the cycle path at Bynea. Lots of Candle-snuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxyllon) in that location.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Turkeys, Votes and Christmas?

It seems highly debatable (given recent events in Edinburgh and Manchester) that voters in any large UK conurbation will opt for the imposition of a local congestion charge ( The main problem seems to be the fact that the people most likely to vote on such issues are members of the "car owning democracy" and are unlikely to support anything that costs them more in the short term irrespective of any longer term gains in traffic flow, local health issues etc. This certainly seems to be Peter Preston's view ( I wonder if congestion charges were voted on in Scandinavian locations (although individuals in these countries do seem to find supporting things for the general 'good' easier)? Perhaps individual choice is not wholly appropriate in such cases? I thought politicians were supposed to take some difficult decisions for us?

Friday, 19 December 2008

Birder's Bonus 34

Strange goings on with respect to Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) populations. Large flocks of around 300-400 birds seem to be roosting by the Loughor estuary at Bynea. The birds return each morning to locations around Loughor and Gorseinon to forage. Their allelomimetic wheeling flight is not quite as impressive as that seen in Starling flocks but their current numbers (perhaps maintained over winter by feeding on human waste) seem potentially problematic for many smaller birds whose eggs and chicks can be decimated by these intelligent and voracious members of the crow family.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Mytholtoe and Whine

A British Medical Journal article by Vreeman and Carroll cited by the BBC( has attempted to debunk some of the 'scientific' myths associated with the winter months. These are supposedly believed by a majority of people (even by some physicians). The myths include one of interest to field biologists, namely the claim that hats are essential in the winter as most body heat (>40%) is lost through the head. It appears that the myth stems from a 1950's study on the US military in which soldiers waring Arctic survival suits lost most heat through their uncovered heads. It now seems that the rate of body heat loss from any uncovered part of the body is remarkably uniform (although keeping the brain warm is important). Other myths subjected to re-analysis are the claims that sugar makes children hyperactive ( it seems that parents rate their children as more hyperactive when they believe they have been consuming a sugar-containing drink that was actually sugar free); that night snacks will make you fat (excess calories make you fat irrespective of the time you eat them); that one can 'cure' a hangover with a range of drugs and foods (the only way to avoid a hangover seems to be to moderate your alcohol consumption); that Christmas Poinsettias are poisonous (the red leaves are not, in fact, toxic) and that suicides rise over the holiday period (they are not clustered here in spite of the modest increase in family conflict at this time).

Monday, 15 December 2008

Whistling in the Dark?

It has been revealed ( that Bonnie, a 30 year old Orang-utan (Pongo pygmeus), at the Smithsonian National zoo in Washington DC has learned how to whistle (another thing it was thought great apes could not do). Workers who have studied this innovative primate reckon that she must have copied the activity from a keeper and now performs the activity (in spite of being somewhat tone deaf) for her own 'amusement'. Rumour has it that Bonnie has even passed on the activity (cultural inheritance?) to at least one of her cage mates.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Elephantine Obesity?

Somewhat counter-intuitively, it has been claimed by the RSPCA that captive elephants do badly ( in comparison to 'wild' counterparts. Comparisons were made of almost 800 Asian and African elephant born and raised in European zoos with 'free' counterparts. Asian elephant were compared with subjects of the same species employed by a Burmese logging company. Zoo-based African elephant were contrasted with animals in Kenya's Amboseli National Park. The study appeared to show that zoo-born Asian elephant lived an average of 18.9 years compared with 41.7 years in their logging counterparts. In the case of the African elephant, the figures were 16.9 years and 35.9 years (56 years if culled animals were omitted from the study). The reduced longevity of the zoo animals were linked to obesity, lack of exercise (some captive animals were apparently unable to walk properly) and 'stress' (always a difficult thing to define but being limited to small groups might be problem). Unremarkably, elephant enclosures in zoos are dramatically smaller than the "smallest wild territories" but it would be very difficult to do much about this in a zoo context. I think that this is certainly an area of concern but the study does have some limitations. I suspect that the figures for longevity in the zoo animals are more trust-worthy than their comparisons. Logging Asian elephant are hardly 'wild' and these working animals are certainly selected for their physical prowess. Elephant in Amboseli also live a rather protected existence compared to animals outside National Parks. I also suspect that cases of infanticide and other forms of infant death are more likely to be recorded in European zoos than in these animals. Having said all that, the study does hint at some of the complex issues in zoo versus wild animal comparisons. Perhaps not all captive species (especially wide-ranging and long-lived species) benefit from a 'protected' existence in a zoo.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Birder's Bonus 33

A pair of Curlew (Numenius arquata) were seen on the Loughor estuary near Bynea.

The Final Countdown?

A paper on the likely evolution of the 'greenhouse gas' emissions saga was given in Exeter University ( with its author (climate scientist Kevin Anderson) allegedly half hoping, as a human, that he could be proved wrong. His basic conclusion (uncontested at the conference) was that things are worse than recently thought and that our chances of limiting average temperature rises to less than 4 degrees Celsius (never mind, the 2 degrees the politicians claim to be aiming for) are virtually zero. This rise would exacerbate accessing drinking water, generating sufficient food and flooding as well as increasing human deaths from heat stroke. Interestingly, it has been separately claimed that Science may result in oil producers and others being successfully sued for some of the damage they help generate( George Monbiot concurrently notes ( that most commentators in the blogosphere express doubts (in various ways) about the reality of global warming. He clearly feels they have been 'brainwashed' by people paid by hydrocarbon industries to cast doubt on actuality. They say, for example, "scientists can't even agree among themselves" without understanding that Science, especially when concerned with complex issues, generally generates a variety of views- the prevailing theory is the consensus view! Monbiot may or may not be right but, it seems to me, that other processes may be at work. Most modern Westerners have grown up in Societies that have preached that they are owed a free, happy (and enjoyable) existence that should not be curtailed by disease, a short life, poverty or limited activities. This is very different from as little as 2 generations ago in Europe when child and adult mortality's were much higher and most people had little 'freedom' from toil. Citizens of other parts of the world (where this was not formerly true) often now aspire to something similar. As more people are currently alive on the planet than have lived in the whole of prior history, one can see the 'size' of the problem. Further, many on our planet clearly believe that Technology and/or their God will always come up with solutions, meaning they don't have to take personal responsibility for environmental problems. We are always told that a 'can do' philosophy is highly desirable whereas pessimists are 'a pain'. People in the UK now generally seem to regard their current lifestyle as a 'right' and many resent being notionally criminalised for some of its inevitable consequences (such as a component of the air they breath out, emissions from their car or land fill use). It is hardly remarkable that it is difficult (politically) to 'sell' any move to rapidly change our lifestyles when a) restrictions don't appear to apply to everyone (we are competitive creatures), b) it seems less 'cool' (literally?) to go down this route than to live life 'to the full' and c) other generations seem to have got away without such considerations (this is a rather 'rosy' view of the past).

Monday, 8 December 2008

Which Old Fossil Will Win the Day?

A judgement ( has been obtained in favour of an elderly ex-Engineer home owner (Peter Boggis) living at the Warrens (on the cliffs near Southwold in East Anglia) against Natural England. Natural England had extended the boundaries of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) to include the cliffs below his home and had suggested that Boggis was not allowed to create 'soft defences' against the erosion by the North Sea (the sea has apparently claimed more than 2 miles of coastline in this locality since 1640) by dumping rocks and soil on the beach and using JCBs to pile it high. The judge (Tony Blair's brother) ruled that Natural England were supposed to use SSSI's to conserve rare plants and animals or geological features whereas they apparently wanted the sea to wash out the fossils in this area. He did, however, rule that they were behaving lawfully in terms of letting the sea take its 'natural' course in areas away from the cliff-based housing. He also gave Natural England leave to appeal.

Care Home Companions

It has been claimed ( that more than 70% of care homes ban elderly residents from taking their pets with them into accommodation. It is maintained that the pets often give a focus to the elderly owner, reducing their blood pressure and leading to a decline in the amount of required medication. For some old folk, moving to the home may mean the companion animal has to be rehoused or even euthanized. The medical benefits to the owner of having a pet are long-established (so long as infections or infestations are ruled out) but one can also see potential problems for the care homes. Some pets might irritate or endanger other residents, they might result in additional cleaning and might even render the home liable for damages. There is also the problem of what happens if the resident pre-deceases their pet! Having said all that, I personally favour at least a percentage of local care homes accommodating animals along with their owners. It's humane to both parties.

Hamming it Up for Ireland

Disturbing news ( that pork and pork products from Eire and Northern Ireland that have been exported to more than 25 countries have been recalled because they contain dangerously high levels of carcinogenic dioxins. This concentration of banned chemicals appears to have arisen by feeding the pigs with pig meal from a single company. The pig meal (partially derived from 'recycled' human foods -we apparently still waste around 40% of food that we buy) appears to have been contaminated with oils. Although it is claimed that the human health risk is 'low' (unless one feeds on the meat for an extended period), the event is likely to have a devastating impact on the sales of meat from both sections of Ireland. It again shows the dangers inherent in processing animal feed (remember BSE or 'mad cow' disease?) without the most stringent of quality controls.
UPDATE (09/12/2008) Some of the suspect feed appears to have been fed to cows (including one dairy herd) but the beef is apparently said to be safe for human consumption.
UPDATE 2 (11-12/12/2008) The contamination was potentially linked to illegally modified diesel fuel and (following an 'all clear') bacon from the affected farms was returned to the supermarket shelves!

Stanstead Standstill?

Reports today ( that an early morning (around 3am) invasion of a restricted area at Stanstead by more than 50 protesters from the 'Plane Stupid' campaign, effectively caused the cessation of flights for some 2 hours. The protesters claim to be mainly concerned about the carbon dioxide release generated by flights but, I suspect, that support for this action was locally swelled by residents opposed to the plan to build a second runway at this airport. The protesters (many, said to be unaware of their final destination because of fears by Plane Stupid that it would be infiltrated) apparently cut their way through the fencing and, once inside the site, chained themselves to fencing that they brought with them. Many people in the UK seem to favour cheap air flights. They may have been soothed by claims that aircraft can use 'green fuels' - not a very convincing argument as such fuels would produce just as much carbon dioxide and would replace other crops including food. They are likely to have been irritated by this event. The message was certainly strongly disseminated by the event and I can see this kind of direct action becoming more common, especially if sections of society become convinced by some of the issues in 'The Final Countdown' (see post of 9th December).

Birder's Bonus 32

At the National Wetlands Centre Wales (Penclacwydd) the weather resulted in many of the ducks (Mallard and European Shelduck) as well as the Moorhens engaging in skating.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Shoot Knut?

It has been reported ( that Berlin zoo is looking to transfer their 'star' (former runty) Polar bear, Knut. Although Knut generated enormous media interest and greatly improved the finances of the zoo, his growth has led to the need to find him a larger enclosure. As this is difficult (Polar bears are wide-ranging, non-social animals most of the time in nature), one possibility is that another zoo will take him. The case illustrates some of the issues surrounding attempting to conserve species with these characteristics by captive breeding in zoos. Polar bears may need an icy north pole!
UPDATE The bear is now subject of a 'paternity case', as a zoo in north Germany is claiming that Knut's father was donated by them (entitling their establishment to a pay-off?).

Monday, 1 December 2008

Staring Out the Starlings?

A news item claimed ( that the impressive flocks of Starling (Sternus vulgaris) creating aerial ballet with their allelomimetic movements in the skies of Rome were generating too much mess by dropping their blessings from the skies. The response of the authorities was to blast the roosting birds with the amplified sound of a starling in trouble to drive them from the area. This was claimed to be kinder than the Belgian technique of using dynamite on them. That may well be true but disturbance can cause fatalities in feeding birds and it is a bit sad to welcome the visual aspects of the display without the inevitable animal products. Perhaps virtual starlings would be more appreciated?

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Seeing the Changes 158

A very severe frost last night. It didn't deter the Shaggy Ink cap or Lawyer's wig (Coprinus comatus) and the Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) in Gorseinon. The horses, however, had their overcoats on and a European robin (Erithacus rubecula) followed my leaf scraping around in Loughor. Disappointingly, there seems to be lots of fly tipping around this area.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Dear Deer?

It is reported by DEFRA ( that the burgeoning numbers of wild deer may represent a hazard for dairy farmers in terms of the transmission of Bovine TB. They point out that culling deer (apparently, there are more deer in the UK now than at any time since the Ice Age) is likely to be more publicly acceptable than the culling of badgers (badgers being actually a more strongly protected species in terms of legislation). It is certainly the case that deer are prone to infection by Bovine TB (as well as Foot and Mouth disease) and could be regarded as potentially important reservoir hosts. Curtailing of hunting with dogs also seems to have led to an increase in deer numbers as well as their distribution. The UK is also 'blessed' with a number of deer species that are essentially the progeny of exotic escapees (animal 'weeds'?). Having said all that, I suspect that culls of deer are likely to be resisted in some quarters.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

A Lizard is Not Just for Christmas?

A report on the BBC (apparently based on increased sales of crickets as food items) claims that reptiles (snakes and lizards) have overtaken cats and dogs as the new pets of choice in today's busy UK. Basing the evidence entirely on food sales does seem, however, a bit shaky. It is true that you don't have to take reptiles out for a walk and they do seem to be able to 'amuse themselves' for considerable periods (whilst their 'owner' is away at work). Cost (the credit crunch) could also be a factor favouring reptiles as these animals need only about 15-20% of the food consumed by a mammal of comparable weight. Although lizards and snakes are certainly not as companionable as a dog (not many reptile packs!), they often make interesting talking points and can be little 'works of art'. They also may have, however, a wider range of exotic diseases. It will be interesting to see whether trend (if it is a real one) persists.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Seeing the Changes 157

In Bynea, Gorse (Ulex europaeus) was vigorously in flower. There were also more large, interesting (but nibbled) fungi (possibly Blewitt or Lepista saeva). A Nuthatch (Sitta europea) was a visitor to my Loughor garden.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

The Sparrow Arrow?

Claims that been made ( in a RSPB report that the rise of the ubiquitous alien Leylandii hedge is an important factor in the decline (down by 68% in the UK since 1977) of the once common House sparrow (Passer domesticus). The sparrows continue to produce chicks but many die within a few days of hatching. This is said to be a consequence of the parent birds finding insufficient numbers of insects (notably aphids or greenfly) in gardens to feed to their young. The Leylandii are not attractive to UK insects and shade many other plants that might encourage them. The RSPB advocate people with private gardens planting "native deciduous trees and shrubs" (e.g. Hawthorn, Wild rose and Honeysuckle) along with wild flowers and long grass (although this might make pet cats a greater danger to the birds) to encourage insects and hence this avian species. They point out that a loss of green spaces in cities, conversion of front gardens to parking spaces, road traffic and air pollution could also be factors influencing House sparrow populations in the UK. Changes in agricultural practises also appear implicated in countryside locations. There are certainly some potentially complex issues evident in this account. One thing is certain, everything that humans do (even in their 'backyards') results in winners and losers in the 'natural' world.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Pachyderm Polka?

There is a report ( on work carried out at Belfast zoo claiming that four female Asian (the pictured animal is an African elephant and might well have different musical taste) elephant showed reductions in 'aggressive' and stereotyped (e.g. swaying and trunk tossing) as well as increases in 'normal' behaviour after exposure to classical orchestral music by Elgar, Strauss etc. Apparent beneficial effects of music in a wide range of animals (cats, dogs, cows and horses) are not uncommon but what seems to have been 'played down' in this study is the fact that the elephant would not hear the music in the same way as ourselves. They would not detect some of the higher frequencies but might well pick up sounds that were lower than those responded to by humans. It is also unclear why (as claimed by the author) these sounds would help this widely-ranging species deal with the confines of its enclosure. Perhaps they should be played elephant sounds or heavy metal?

Seeing the Changes 156

Went to the National Botanical Gardens Wales where a 'worm' was evident in a flower (perhaps trying to tell us something?). In spite of that, there were interesting fungi and bananas in the Tropical House. The Honey bees were also still active and some daffodils had emerged out front. Ignoring the weather, a Winter moth (Operophtera brumata) visited in Loughor.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Seeing the Changes 155

An interesting fungus under the trees at the WWT Penclacwydd. Also an alien tree with strange pink pods.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

No Ray of Hope?

Disturbing news ( that many of the sharks and rays found off UK shores are facing extinction. One of their problems is that (unlike most boney Teleost fish) these ancient vertebrates only produce relatively few offspring (they are 'K' strategists). This means that taking them in numbers (for 'sport' or as food items such as skate wings or rock salmon) generally leads to dramatic declines in these top predators.

Monday, 10 November 2008

GM and Deaths of Indian Farmers

There is quite a heated debate, kicked off to a degree by the Prince of Wales, concerning whether GM technology has been responsible for a spate of suicides by subsistence farmers in India ( The impression may have developed in some quarters that the GM crops are directly causing suicides in their handlers but what seems more likely is that it has been linked to financial problems (affecting most of the world at present) in people often operating at the margins of viability. The possibility exists that the farmer 'victims' may have had a too optimistic view of adopting the GM varieties (this might have involved 'over-selling' of the benefits) or simply to have been too 'close to the edge' to make the leap at this time (the GM seeds are relatively expensive and often, because of environmental concerns, have to be purchased anew each season). It would be interesting to have data on farmer suicides in individuals with similar levels of debt who were growing only traditional crops. Even if that were the case, disappointment of hopes in individuals 'taking a punt' might be a factor.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Seeing the Changes 154

A late second blooming of Hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) in Bynea.

Knacker's Yard?

There seem to be lots of stories involving attitudes to horses by the public in the UK this week. One touched on the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the armistice, ending the First World War. Apparently, there is now a purple poppy worn in remembrance of all the animals (notably draft horses and mules) dying in that conflict ( Although I am certain that many of the soldiers at that time were close to their animals, it is worth reminding people that, in those days, they were often more regarded as a means of transport (for guns, shells and supplies) than actual participants in the conflict (at least, that's what my grandfather used to say). Their loss (in a way not totally dissimilar to deaths of the troops) was largely viewed as a logistical issue. To some extent, the current concerns about the horses are a reflection of today's changed attitudes to 'companion' animals. Horses have also been linked to more recent events by the news that the current financial crisis is 'forcing' an increasing number of owners to try to place their animals in Horse refuges at a time when those refuges are receiving less charitable money and also are facing increased costs ( There seem to be parallel issues here as, in the past, redundant horses would be disposed of and their carcasses rendered for a profit. Now it is regarded as normal for the animals (like humans?) to have a long retirement period. It will be interesting to see whether the 'credit crunch' results in attitudes hardening.

Seeing the Changes 1221

Visited, in Loughor, by a Blood-vein moth ( Timandra griseata ).