Friday, 29 February 2008

Seeing the Changes 70

The first appearance of the year of the weird Plume moth (Emmelina monodactyla) in Loughor! No sign of action yet from the twig but Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) leaves are appearing and the Common dog violet (Viola riviniana) is in flower. In Bynea, a white umbellifer probably Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) and Common field speedwell (Veronica persica) are in flower. In Llanelli, the tadpoles of the Common frog (Rana temporaria) are swimming.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Birder's Bonus 11

At the NWCW, there was lots of activity by Great tits (Parus major), Blue tits (Parus caeruleus), Long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) and Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). Also a Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) in a tree!

Seeing the Changes 69

Another moth! A male Dotted border (Agriopis marginata) to the house light in Loughor. At the National Wetlands Centre Wales, Common wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris), Bugle (Ajuga reptans) and Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) were all in flower.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

There's No Place Like Rhone

There is a new report ( from the WWF about a major pollution event ('The French Chernobyl') involving one of France's great rivers. Apparently, the French Government has now banned the consumption of freshwater fish (including bream, pikeperch, carp and catfish) from the entire length of the river (from the Swiss border to the Camargue delta on the Mediterranean) taking in Lyon and Avignon. Freshwater fish are cheaper than marine species and were once of popular local food item but a commercial fisherman (Cedric Giroud) sent some apparently healthy fish for testing in 2004 when people around the Grand Large area of the Rhone outside Lyon expressed concerns about dead birds in the area (this turned out to be avian botulinism and was unrelated to the fish). The tests revealed that the fish contained 10 to 12 times the legal safety limits of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) once used in electrical generators, transformers, insulating fluid and many other industrial applications. PCBs ( are relatively stable chemicals that bio-accumulate and produce liver damage, infertility and birth detects as well as being carcinogenic (cancer generating) in a range of mammals and birds. These materials have reportedly been implicated in a number of serious pollution events in the USA are elsewhere since the 1970's. Since the ban on the sale of fish from the Grand Large at the end of 2005, the ban has been extended to the entire Rhone and sales of eels from the Seine and the Somme have also been precluded on similar grounds. Given the nature of PCBs it is likely that they have 'lurked' in some of France's river sediments for more than 20 years. This seems to be yet another example of the long, long legacies of certain industrial processes. It is surprising that demonstration of the existence of these dangerous chemicals in the Rhone fish seems almost accidental. It seems of great importance to urgently assess the impacts of these materials on the human and animal lives around these rivers. This may well vary from location to location and from organism to organism.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Seeing the Changes 68

Cherry (Prunus sp) is in blossom on the Swansea Campus as well as in Loughor. The catkins of Silver birch (Betula pendulata) are also in evidence in Loughor as are the leaves of Elder (Sambucus nigra) and Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum). In Bynea, the flowers of the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) are out early.

Wasting the Waste?

There are recent reports that government is 'rowing back' on its suggestions that there must be incentives [either charges for excess production or refunds for 'good' behaviour] to get householders to reduce the amount of rubbish that is generated to go into landfill sites across the UK ( This, unremarkably, seems a consequence of widespread objections to the current suggestions including claims that modifying collection patterns might jeopardise human health (plagues of flies and rats?), that it is difficult to come up with a 'fair' scheme that does not penalise larger/ younger families, that the schemes might well encourage people to 'fly-tip' on waste land, that some householders might attempt to cheat by incorporating their rubbish into that of their neighbours etc etc. All of these are potential problems but there is little doubt that landfill capacity is finite and wasteful (and European legislation is likely to make it an even more expensive option). There is a need to encourage recycling (where that is a viable option) as well as encouraging the generation of less household waste per se. Rubbish is a real problem for a small, crowded island particularly as we don't seem to have collectively developed here a perception of rubbish generation as being an anti-social activity (as is evident e.g. in Germany).

Monday, 18 February 2008

A White Red

The report ( that a rare white (leucistic) Red deer stag has been recorded by rangers on the west coast of Scotland has generated some excitement. Such deer have been regarded as messengers from the afterlife in Celtic mythology and there are concerns that poachers would be keen to take such an unusual prize (as apparently happened to the only other recently recorded of its ilk on Exmoor). Of course, leucistic Red deer are well known elsewhere. In deed, a friend and colleague, Ludek Bartos studied an entire herd of such animals in a park outside Prague in what is now the Czech Republic.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Seeing the Changes 67

Another early flowering in Bynea. Saw my first Scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum) of the year.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Springing Spring?

The debate about whether Spring is coming earlier is nicely encapsulated in an illustrated double page check list in the Saturday Guardian of 16th February (not on the web, probably because of the copyrights of the contained images?). People in the UK were invited (as on this blog) to note the early occurrence of plant-related events such as the first appearance of Lesser celandine (already here earlier than their average date of February 21st), Snowdrop (again already out), Bluebell (no sign of these 'classic' woodland flowers that generally appear in early April), Hawthorn (the leaves already emerging from the buds locally rather than the middle of March), the Blackthorn (no sign of the flowers yet) and leaves of the Ash (firmly 'locked' to date), Oak (also not emerging) and Horse chestnut [Aesculus hippocastanum] (certainly movement in some buds already rather than the typical mid April date). People are also encouraged to note activity in insects including Bumblebees (already encouraged to emerge from their winter hibernation to forage for nectar and pollen), Ladybird (not seen here as yet), Small tortoiseshell butterfly (again, tempted from hibernation on warm days already), Peacock butterfly (not seen locally yet), Red admiral (also glimpsed sporadically locally) and the Orange tip butterfly (not seen yet but there is no sign of its food plant, the Cuckoo flower). Spotters are also asked to check for frog spawn that generally appears in February/March but has been viewed in some parts of the UK in January or even December. The earliest deposits are seldom viable and I have not located spawn in the vicinity. The hatching tadpoles generally appear in April (no sign of these as yet). Many of the remaining clues to an early Spring involve birds. They include Blackbird nesting (with first clutches generally seen in March), Blue tit egg laying (usually seen in nest boxes in early April), Cuckoo calling (generally heard in the last week of April), Song thrush singing (now to be heard in late January to early February) and arrivals of the Chiffchaff (typically in March/April), the House martin (most commonly in the last week of April), the Swift (usually arriving in early May) and the Swallow (surging in from Africa in mid April). There has not been much of these suggested bird activities locally yet with the exception of Song thrush song (but a correspondent has reported robins nesting in Pennard). I would be interested if others in the vicinity have noted any of the activities not yet detected by my failing systems.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Buy a Bit of Paradise?

There is a growing debate ( about whether it is appropriate for "individuals, charities or even billionaire financiers" to purchase vast areas of land throughout the world to protect their contained environments from development. There are now many websites "that invite people to buy up forest, field and mountain to save it from destruction and climate change at the click of a mouse." One, the World Land Trust, operates internationally but, in the UK alone, its clients have purchased a total of 141,640 hectares of land. Another, the Woodland Trust, has 200,000 members who raised £22m in 2007 and now own more than 1000 woods on 20,234 hectares of the UK. Similar processes (often involving rich individuals) are evident in the USA. Cool Earth, founded by Swedish-born entrepreneur John Eliasch purchased 161,874 hectares of Amazonian rain forest for £8m in 2006 and is now engaged with supporters in buying up substantial additional areas in Brazil and Ecuador. An interesting phenomenon related to this activity is that, in countries such as the UK and the USA, the 'green land grabbers' are generally supported as they maintain or even increase the market price of land, whereas in poor countries (such as Brazil) their actions evoke fear and hostility. This seems linked to people on the land being prevented from activities such as hunting, cutting trees or introducing new plants to the region to protect the ecosystem. The Forest Peoples Programme has documented numerous examples of indigenous people in Africa being forcibly expelled or having their means of living destroyed by the setting up of wildlife parks and other protected areas. Matters seem likely to get even more complicated if rich countries pay poorer ones not to cut down trees in exchange for carbon credits (in attempts to limit climate change) as the question might arise "who actually owns the trees". In one sense, money going into conserving challenged environments is a good development but there will clearly be tensions as power is concentrated into the hands of a rich elite (who could change their interests). Tensions are likely to be more extreme when the rich elite are from outside the purchased environment.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

A Flash of Light

I must admit (given recent eye operations of my own) that I was intrigued to hear that a female Golden eagle (Electra) has had the first cataract operation performed on that species by a vet (Mr George Peplinski) at Glasgow University ( Electra apparently lost her sight after being mobbed by crows (a normal defensive response by that species that makes a surprise attack by the eagle impossible) and driven (by accident I am sure- crows are intelligent but not so devious) into electricity pylons on the island of Mull. The eagle was initially 'taken into care' by the 'Wings Over Mull' sanctuary who discovered that she did not respond to movement and had cataracts in both eyes (presumably caused by the electrical contact). It is not easy to do this kind of operation on a bird of prey as they do not respond well to traditional anaesthetics and the eye ball does not move very much in the socket. The operation was successful on one eye but was not attempted on the other as there appeared to be retinal damage. A one-eyed eagle could not be released as they depend on their visual acuity and ability to judge distance to hunt effectively. Electra has now gone back to 'Wings Over Mull' where she will presumably spend the rest of her life. The intention is to try to mate her with a male who has been taken into the same centre with a broken wing. I suppose that this is the best that can be done with a difficult situation and humans effectively created the problem by building the pylon.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Seeing the Changes 66

More unseasonally warm weather with the Dandelion (Taraxacum vulgaria) in flower throughout Loughor, Bynea and Pennard. In Pennard, they were being visited by an early Drone-fly (Eristalis tenax). Another, more typically coloured, Spring crocus (Crocus albiflorus) was in flower in Loughor but probably another garden escapee! Also in Loughor, Chickweed wintergreen (Trientalis europaea) was in flower near the river and at, Bynea, the Alder (Alnus glutinosa) was full of green catkins. The semi-wild Gower ponies also decided to cross the Loughor river today.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

To Subsidise or Not to Subsidise: That is the Question

It has just been announced by the Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones,( that the National Botanic Garden Wales at Llanarthe, Carmarthenshire is to have its £1.9m debt written off by public money in a 'one-off grant' from the National Assembly. The annual grant it receives from the Assembly will also rise from a current £150,000 pa to a possible £550,000. Further good news for the £43m garden is that Carmarthenshire County Council will convert a loan of £1.35m that they made to the centre to a grant, as well as providing a package of financial support matched by that from the Assembly. All this should help to finally place the NBGW on a firm financial footing (although the size of the Assembly Government's annual grant will be reconsidered in 2010) and is linked to the meeting of 'recovery targets' as well as the development of science and education programmes. One can't help but link the announcement to the earlier wiping out of the £13.5m debt of the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff which was accompanied by a trebling of its annual grant (something for the regions?). There is no doubt that operating and establishing any centre like the NBGW takes time and money. Many of the earlier projections when the garden was set up were hopelessly optimistic (its location is not perfect). The latest available visitor number is actually around 102,000 pa so a projected number for this year of 125,000 still sounds a tad hopeful. It is, however, a nice place to visit and can be viewed as a regional asset, although I suspect that such entities appeal to a limited proportion of the general population. The money has certainly had to come from somewhere and voices are already being raised about the effects of potential cuts elsewhere. I have some sympathy as it is very difficult for governing bodies to deal with an issue like this. The garden is already established and has already received masses of Lottery and Public monies. The only options are to give it more support (in the perhaps remote hope that the operation will eventually become self-financing) or to pull the plug, accepting the loss of the facility and the investment. Neither option is very attractive and, in a sense, the NBGW has obtained museum status.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Who's Wind is it Anyhow?

A detailed account has been provided of the 'hot' debate surrounding a £500m proposal to site an arc of 181 wind turbines (each around 140m high) on an estimated 2% of the moors of north Lewis in the Hebrides ( Amec and British Energy have proposed the scheme that they estimate will generate 600 mw (i.e. around 10% of Scotland's renewable electricity and reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other 'greenhouse' gases). Originally, they envisaged a larger scheme generating a 1000 mw. Even the smaller scheme will require the building of 88 miles of access road, creation of 6 new quarries, construction of 8 electricity sub-stations and erecting more than 100 pylons. The companies are offering £2000 per annum in rent for each crofter on the island. The scheme is supported by the Western Isles Council who see the wind farm as being essential to the island's economy (a recent study suggested that this was 'fragile', depending on more than £150m of state subsidies per annum). The Stornoway Trust that owns much of the targeted moorland also favours the development, with its estate manager (Iain MacIver) claiming that rejection of the wind farm would compromise the council's ambition to make the Western Isles 'a hub for renewable energy'. Ranged against them are the vast majority of Lewis crofters and tourists to the region who claim that the moor is one of the 'most ecologically significant peat bogs in Europe' and provides 'extremely fragile, internationally protected habitats' for a wide range of bird species including the Golden eagle and the Red-throated diver. The Scottish Executive (perhaps being mindful of votes?) is 'minded to refuse' the scheme and the Scottish National Party MSP for the area, Alasdair Allan, has claimed that the scheme is 'simply too big, too brutal for Lewis'. He suggests more subsidies such as substantial cuts in ferry fares to rebuild the local economy. It seems to me that these kinds of debate are always going to occur in such situations. Not much hope for global warming, if these issues can't be resolved at local levels.

Life in Cold Blood

The 'last' or latest (depending on how it is viewed) of David Attenborough's natural history series commenced last night ( dealing with Linnaeus' 'foul and loathsome' amphibia and reptiles. The programme was actually quite sympathetic to these diverse and interesting animals and emphasised the point that the reptiles in particular are not actually 'cold blooded' (it's just that they don't use very much of their own metabolism to 'power' a high body temperature, generally relying on solar power to fuel much of their vigorous activity). Reptiles are actually on a weight for weight basis more efficient than mammals (certainly in terms of the food that they require). This was very nicely illustrated using thermal camera images to assess the diving activities of the Marine iguanas of the Galapagos that have to heat up by basking on the rocks before they can dive under a cold sea (for a very finite time) to browse on seaweed. New pieces of information (for me at least) was the filming of a frog that also basks and produces its own 'sun cream' that it assiduously spreads on its body and the revelation that the Leather-back turtle is the only living reptile that has the equivalent of blubber (enabling it to deal with cold seas). I found the speculation about the possible temperature regulatory abilities of dinosaurs (with cherry pickers and a starting bone from a T. rex) a bit 'gimmicky'. The giant boa consuming a deer head first was a bit predictable but still very graphic. The tiny pygmy chameleon of Madagascar was impressively small. Much was made in the programme about the 'emotional warmth' of these animals illustrated by flashing of neck skin in Anolis lizards, fighting in tortoises, horned chameleons and Strawberry frogs, 'tasteful' mating in Saltwater crocodiles and Painted terrapins, brood defence in salamanders and parental care in Spectacled caimen. Some of this involves a certain degree of anthropomorphism. The programme dealt well with the impact of environmental temperature on sex determination in many reptile species and the abilities of some reptiles to hibernate even when ice crystals form in their bodies. It may come up later but I think it was a pity (given many of the examples used in the programme) that more wasn't made about the characteristics of reptiles (energy efficiency, egg laying habit, ability to hibernate and to modify sex on the basis of environmental temperature) probably facilitating their abilities to become early colonisers of remote Oceanic islands. They often arrived well in advance of mammals who often required human agencies to transport them. I await the continuation with interest.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Birder's Bonus 10

Invasion of the Wood Pigeon
It has been reported that the Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) is now the UK's commonest pigeon (out numbering the feral Domestic pigeon Columba livia) with more than 3.5 million breeding pairs. Whereas the Domestic pigeon receives a bad 'press' as the 'flying rat', Wood pigeons appear to be generally approved. Actually, the former bird (once considered a war 'hero' in its messenger mode) seem to be largely condemned as a result of their tendency to defaecate prominently in white on public buildings which is hardly their fault (although it may result in costly cleaning programmes and damage) as these edifaces are the closest approximation to cliffs on which these domesticated derivatives of the Rock dove can roost. Defaecation in the Wood pigeon appears to be more 'discrete'. The Wood pigeon is now becoming much more common in urban gardens. This pigeon actually only needs trees to rest and roost in so actual 'woods' are not a prerequisite for them. This relative of the dove feeds voraciously on cabbage, sprouts, peas and grain (it will also eat buds, shoots, seeds, nuts and berries). It is said to particularly like Ivy berries. The bird's population increase in towns may basically represent 'over-spill' from increased breeding in the country due to the provision of round-the-year food as a result of recently changed crop patterns. This 'portly' species does not find it easy to feed from bird feeders but apparently makes a good living by foraging for the grains displaced from these devices by smaller birds and from food items scattered on the ground. I also suspect that their size gives them a degree of protection from the attentions of cats, making feeding in such locations less dangerous than for a sparrow or a blackbird.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Seeing the Changes 64

In spite of strong winds and a sprinkle of snow in Gorseinon following a frosty night, the Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and the Common field speedwell (Veronica persica) are in flower. Hazel (Corylus avellana) catkins are prominent and the Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) buds are bursting. In Loughor, Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is starting to flower. In Gorseinon, Loughor and Bynea, the Annual nettle (Urtica urens) shoots are poking through.

Bee Bereavement?

Bees are very important insect pollinators. Some species are, of course, also commercially-important because they produce honey and bees-wa...