Wednesday, 30 May 2007

The Great Mullein Reaches for the Sky

A Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) was photographed from a bridge in Bynea on March 15, April 1. May 1, May 7, May 13 and May 27. It shows rapid growth and the flower spike is on its way!

Seeing the Changes 23

A Garden carpet (Xanthorhoe fluctuata) moth appeared in Loughor in the night (cold and wet).

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Reducing the Cat's Bag

Many people have become seriously concerned about the numbers of small birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that are killed by domestic cats. In some parts of the world (notably Australia) the owners of domestic cats are required to fit them with bells. A new study reported in the journal Biological Conservation by Prof Mike Calver and Sandra Thomas of Murdoch University ( has looked at the effects of fitting 56 'serial offender' cats in Perth, Western Australia with clip on, brightly coloured bibs (CatBib). The bibs are said to not prevent the wearer grooming, running or eating but do limit the cat's proficiency in stalking and pouncing. The cat's owners were asked to keep a log of the dead animals brought back by their pets and reported that the three week 'bag' in the absence of the bibs included 65 birds, 164 mammals (mainly rats, mice and bats), as well as 67 reptiles and amphibians. When the cats were fitted with the bibs in the last 3 weeks of the study, 81% failed to catch birds, 45% took no mammals and 33% failed to land a reptile or amphibian. The study suggested that the bibs cut bird deaths by up to 67%. The authors did look at CatBibs of differing colours and the effect of augmenting the device with a bell. One might question the methodology in terms of its ability to deliver accurate measures of the numbers of small vertebrates killed, injured or simply disturbed by the cats. If anything, the recorded numbers are likely to be underestimates. It is even possible that, with greater passage of time, these highly effective predators will find ways of minimising the effectiveness of their bibs. The study does, however, add weight to the view that domestic (as well as feral) cats are serious challenges to the survival of a wide range of small vertebrate species and that some relatively simple and humane devices can ameliorate the actions of these predators.

Seeing the Changes 22

Lots of flowers spotted for the first time this year around Loughor. They include the Marsh (Geranium palustre) and Cut-leaved (Geranium dissectum) cranesbills. Also Trailing tormentil (Potentilla anglica) and the related Silverweed (Potentilla anserina) with its silver-grey leaves make an appearance. Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and the Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) are coming into flower. The shrub Bladder senna (Colutea arborescens) is also flowering as are the Annual nettle (Urtica urens) and False cleavers (Galium spurium). Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) coming into fruit and the beetle Gastrophysa viridula active on docks. In Bynea, saw Thrift (Armeria maritima), Common mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum) and Frosted orache (Atriplex patula). In Oxwich, lots of Wood cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum) and Common blue (Polyommatum icarus) butterflies active.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Wildlife Crime Unit Faces Cuts?

Wildlife crime (primarily dealing in illegal species or the products made from them) is said to be worth around £5bn per year (making it second only to the profits from illegal drugs). Much of the action against this type of crime has been coordinated in the UK by a team of four (with 2 'civilian' staff) that make up the well-respected Wildlife Crime Unit at Scotland Yard as detailed in a Guardian story on 24th May (,,2086742,00.html). The team apparently costs around £40,000 per year. In the last ten years, it has reportedly seized more than 30,000 products made from endangered species and has proved highly effective in tracing the smugglers and sellers involved in this trade (that may well threaten the survival of some species). In spite of this, the Yard apparently wants to 'axe' the civilian staff of the unit if 'sponsorship' for their retention is not forthcoming (there are shades of a similar proposal for the Arts and Antiques Squad in this, a suggestion that led to not a single financial contribution by insurers or auction houses). Bodies one might initially expect to consider providing sponsorship for the Wildlife Crime Unit (e.g. WWF and IFAW) clearly rate the unit highly and feel that the threat to axe or reduce it sends out a poor message. They do not feel, however, that they as NGOs should pick up this financial burden. The Metropolitan Police apparently want to make savings so that more of the limited budget can be spent on neighbourhood policing ('the bobby on the beat') and anti-terrorism. There are said to be, however, links between some more serious forms of wildlife crime and organised criminality. The Mayor of London (and his newts?) are concerned and will discuss the issue at his next meeting with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The proposed cut appears both short-sighted and likely to generate tiny amounts of extra finance.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Science and the Assembly 2007

Attended the third such annual meeting organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry (and supported by organisations from the other sciences including the IOB) at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on the 22nd of May. The meeting organised a petition to the Senedd advocating that that body should have a Chief Scientific Advisor (like Sir David King at Westminster) to advise on 'local' science issues (such as the proposed creation of a Severn barrage to generate electricity from tidal power?). The topic this year was 'Energy'. Some of the numbers presented by Dr Richard Pike, Chief Executive of Royal Society of Chemistry and a former petrochemicals worker, are striking. He noted that 30% of energy generated in the UK is lost before it even reaches the home or factory and then a further 40% is wasted. 74% of UK oil use and 25% of carbon emissions are associated with transport. If this was to be replaced by biofuels, we apparently would have to utilise around 19% of arable land to generate the materials. Dr Pike suggested that there is massive scope for saving energy and noted that much of the associated science is not new. On a world-wide basis, 80% of energy use is currently from fossil fuels (largely coal, gas and oil) which annually generates 11.1 gigatonnes of carbon with 40% (around 3.5 gigatonnes) apparently going into the atmosphere (a 6% annual increase). He suggested that there were currently two sustainable alternatives. We could continue to use fossil fuels but employ carbon capture and storage (with some unanswered technical problems) to alleviate the atmospheric problems. We could also move to renewables. Dr Pike noted that the average energy of sunlight striking the Earth's surface is 164 watts per square metre over a 24 hour period and that photovoltaics can capture 20% of solar energy. It is striking that biofuels capture less than 1%. Planting trees was mentioned as a possible means of carbon-offsetting but doubts have been raised about this approach in temperate locations. There are certainly many apparent challenges in this area and appropriate science applications will have to play a real role. Some of these were explored in other talks in the session. Given the current debate about nuclear power stations, it is worth recording that the uranium/plutonium fuels have to be reprocessed when as little as 4% of the material has been used.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Burying the Berry 'Superfood' Myth?

There has been much 'hype' about 'superfoods'- berries, seeds and certain vegetables- that marketers claim will enable us to 'eat our way to health'. The May 2007 issue of The Biologist ( has an article by Drs Hancock, McDougall and Stewart of the Scottish Crop Research Institute exploring the issue in relation to berry fruit (as used in the everyday, rather than the Botanical sense). They point out that there is ample evidence from around the world that 'berries' were an important dietary constituent of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We all lived this way less than 500 generations ago. Some people have argued that the current 'crop' of 'Western' chronic diseases (cardiovascular and certain cancers contributing to 75% of UK deaths) is at least partially a consequence of replacing the 'old' diet with processed foods. One must firstly say that the apparently increased disease incidence may, to a greater extent, reflect our longer lifespans (the hunter-gatherers may not have lived long enough to show these diseases, even if we had their death certificates). Berries are effectively a 'bribe' by the plant to help disperse its seeds. Consequently. no self-respecting omnivore (animals, like ourselves, who eat a variety of plant and animal material) is going to turn down the easy option of berries in season. This doesn't necessarily mean that berries are good for us (the plant doesn't care about our longevity). The authors point out that berries do have high concentrations of beneficial chemicals (such as vitamins A. C and E as well as sugars) and one may also add that berries may be good dietary items because of what they don't contain (e.g. much fat). Since the 1960's people have suggested that many aging-associated degenerative diseases are linked to toxic oxygen radicals that damage components of cells (including DNA). Many berries are certainly high in phenolic antioxidants that could protect us from these radicals but Hancock et al. suggest that it is a leap (based on current evidence) to claim that eating berries will protect us from heart diseases and certain cancers. They point out that there is not much evidence for a quick protective action and that different people process these phenols in different ways. More research is clearly needed but, as Wimbledon is coming up, it might still be a good idea to go for the strawberries but leave off the cream!

Monday, 21 May 2007

Seeing the Changes 21

The highly toxic Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) is in full flower in Loughor as is White clover (Trifolium repens) in Bynea.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Welsh Cockles Go Walkabout?

There have been increasing sales of fair trade (where the customer may, not unreasonably, believe that the 'ethical' package applies to protection of the environment as well as a fair price for the producer) and 'local British produce' (where the customer believes that the food will have a much smaller 'Carbon footprint' than similar items flown or shipped half way across the world). These beliefs have been cast into some doubt by an article in the Sunday Times on the 20th May ( It appears that many of these items involve considerable 'food miles' when they are processed before sale in the UK . Two striking examples involve British shellfish. Welsh cockles marketed by van Smirren Seafoods are reportedly driven from Wales to Dover, processed and pickled in Holland before the jars are sent back to Britain for sale. Even more strikingly, Dawnfresh, a Scottish seafood company, is said to ship its 'local' scampi 5000 miles to be shelled by hand in China before being shipped back to Scotland to be breaded and sold. This latter company claims that commercial pressures forced them to use the cheaper processing available in China (and clearly feel that processing costs are an issue for many UK producers). 'Traidcraft' coffee sold at Sainsburys is grown in Tanzania but the beans are transported almost 4000 miles to India for packing, before being transported another 5500 miles to the UK for distribution. The company, not unreasonably, point out that they create employment for about 500 people in India. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to assess whether 'local' and 'fair trade' foods have hidden costs to the environment. More detailed labelling might help customers better distinguish ethically meaningful products from simple marketing ploys.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Seeing the Changes 20

Saw the first evidence of 'cuckoo spit' on Ox-eye daisy in Bynea, with the nymph of the Froghopper (probably Philaenus spumarius) hiding away in it. A male Pine processionary moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) appeared at my door in Loughor. The larva of this moth is a serious pest of pine woods and lives communally in large silken tents, emerging (often at night) in a single file to feed.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

If We All Went South

Swansea and Climate Change

Dr Hallegatte and colleagues at the International Centre for Research on the Environment and Development at Nogent-sur-Marne, France and other collaborating scientists calculated rough geographical equivalents (in terms of average summer temperature and rainfall) for major European cities in 2071, assuming that global warming occurs as predicted (,uk/climatechange/story/0,,2079750,00.html). Using their model of an approximate 3 degrees Celsius rise in temperature and a 40% decline in summer rainfall, they estimated that it would be as if London had moved south to the location of Vila Real (where the wine Matteus rose comes from) in Portugal. That might sound nice, but the design of buildings is completely different to deal with the prevailing climate (e.g. houses in that region of Portugal rarely have west facing windows and much water in Spain and Portugal has to be piped over long distances). What about Swansea? They didn't model us but Swansea has an average July temperature of 20 degrees Celsius and a summer rainfall of 1100mm. In 2071 we might then expect the corresponding values to be around 23 degrees and 660mm (still more than London gets in an entire year). Obviously, I can only crudely come up with a southerly equivalent for Swansea but Zaragoza in Spain has a July temperature of 24.4 degrees and Spain's annual rainfall is 600mm. That is a bit hotter and drier than is predicted for us but it looks as if we would finish up in the equivalent of the south of Spain. Perhaps someone can suggest a better match?

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Seeing the Changes 19

In spite of the cold and wet weather had the first night-time visitation to the light by a Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha).

Monday, 14 May 2007

Seeing the Changes 18

Lots of rain in the week followed by the blooming of Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) in both red and white varieties at Rhoselli and Mumbles. The first flowering Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) was seen at Rhoselli and the first Common ragwort (Senecia jacobaea) at Mumbles. So quite an appearance of poisonous flowers!

Friday, 11 May 2007

Shambo Shambles?

Raging Bull?
There is a raging debate ( about plans to slaughter a bull (Shambo) kept in a Hindu shrine at Llanpumsaint, Carmarthenshire who has tested positive for bovine TB. The animal is one of the sacred animals kept by Hindus at Skanda Vale Temple, a location that is visited by up to 90,000 pilgrims per year. Bovine TB is a very unpleasant disease for the animal (it has profound welfare implications) and could, if spread, have very powerful commercial impacts on farming around the area (especially in dairy cattle). The people running the shrine appear outraged at the possibility of having to kill their animal and are threatening to take legal action, claiming that the bull can be isolated such that the prospect of transferring TB to other cattle and humans is minimised (this seems rather unlikely if he is used in ceremonies, especially given the annual influx of pilgrims). They also claim that there is provision under the Animal Health Act 1981 and the TB Order Wales 2000 for the Assembly to make a special dispensation for Shambo (perhaps including vaccination). Some of the issues surrounding the health issues of bovine TB are available on a DEFRA web site (http://www, An overview of the Hindu religion (the third largest world religion) is provided by the BBC ( The IT literate temple arranged an online petition to save Shambo. This is shaping up to be one of those very difficult situations where there are passionately held (but totally incompatible) beliefs on both sides. Actually its a clash of ethical systems. Much of UK and EU law in this area is based on utilitarianism ('the greatest good for the greatest number') whereas the Hindus are expressing a moral absolute ('thou shalt not kill').
A temporary stay of execution of Shambo was given on 17th May 2007

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Birder's Bonus 5

Wise Old Owl?
There was a report ( about four 'orphaned' baby Tawny owls (Strix aluco) at the New Forest Otter, Owl and Wildlife Park that were being 'cared' for by a cuddly owl toy from their gift shop. The comment was made that "owls were supposed to be wise" but that is simply a reiteration of the common anthropomorphism that is based on their flat faces and penetrating eyes (see the 'face' of the Scops owl above). It is, of course, quite normal for young birds to adopt any large (preferably noise-making) object in their vicinity as their parent (imprinting). The toy may actually offer contact comfort but does not feed the chicks. Although the chicks may well grow successfully to adulthood, they may develop abnormalities in behaviour that could make them unsuitable for release. If release is planed, the birds should be assessed for the full range of normal behaviour as well as physical fitness (hunting can be quite demanding).

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Iolo's Welsh Safari Goes to Penclacwydd

It was interesting to see part of the programme ( that was based at the WWT Llanelli was devoted, not to birds, but to the booming colony of Water voles (Arvenicola terrestris) located at the Centre that are being studied by Dr Dan Forman and Penny Neyland. These animals have thrived with the creations of wetland habitat that were largely intended to attract water birds. It should be remembered, however, that this extensive wetlands location has also led to some impressive changes in aquatic creatures, flowers, butterflies and dragonflies/damselflies, as well as other types of bird and mammal. There is massive scope for a whole range of studies in this 'natural laboratory'!

Sunday, 6 May 2007

A Sting in the Tail

Contributed to a story ("Red-hot Summer May Have a Sting in the Tail") by Mat Davies in the Swansea Evening Post on the 30th of April ( on whether the current hot temperatures would increase the numbers of the Common wasp (Vespula vulgaris). Certainly, these social insects are likely to be encouraged if temperatures stay above the seasonal norm but only so long as rainfall is also adequate. Productivity of new recruits in the nests is linked to food supply and, if it becomes too dry, some of their favourite foods, ranging from caterpillars to fruit, might be in short supply. Hot and wet is likely to be their best combination.

Rats and Climate Change?

Rats and Humans
I contributed to an article "Invasion of Rats Sparks Fears for Residents' Health" by Rob Westall ( on 04 May 2007. This concerned sightings (one has to say that an awful lot go unsighted) of rats in Brynmill Swansea. I pointed out that current estimates were that there were about 60 million Brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) in the UK (one per person). The article implied that I believed that global warming was a factor in their population increase. This may be the case but, at present, all we can really say with any certainty is that the recent 'crop' of mild winters may have increased the survival of potential breeders in their colonies (and rats are very productive). The increases in rat numbers in such locations are probably more closely associated with available food resources. Brown rats are flexible omnivores and will feed on garbage, bird food, garden waste, mice, young chicks in their nests etc. The article emphasised that the main potential health risk of these rodents to humans is the spirochete that they may release in their urine and can cause Leptospirosis or Weil's disease. The agent may be picked up via lesions in the skin from fresh water, soil or vegetation. Bubonic plague (even if it actually involved rats- this has been debated) is transmitted by the bites of fleas from an entirely different kind of rat (the Black or Ship rat).

Seeing the Changes 17

The winds of the night have converted many of the Horse chestnut flowers into a pink 'snow'. Bramble flowers also starting to emerge in Bynea, as are Elder (Sambucus nigra), Smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra) and Pineapple mayweed (Chamomilla suaveolens).

Birder's Bonus 4

Many pairs of Starlings (Sternus vulgaris) appear (on the basis of noise and repeated trips with beak fulls of food) to be raising healthy broods of chicks under the eaves of houses in Glan-y-Mor Park, Loughor.

Where's the Beef?

  Industry 'experts' are claiming that the 'use-by dates' on red meat should be extended (