Saturday, 28 February 2009

Birder's Bonus 39

On the Loughor estuary at Bynea, numbers of Bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) were busy feeding. Carrion crows (Corvus corone corone) were flying up with bivalves from the beach and dropping them on to hard surfaces. In my Loughor garden, a male Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) chomped away at early flowers. At the Millennium Wetlands, Llanelli, male Common shoveler (Anas clypeata) were circling in a frisky fashion and Little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) were busy diving.

Seeing the Changes 171

It must be spring! The buds of the Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) in Loughor are waving to the world outside! In the same location, in spite of the cloud, the Sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) is starting to grow. In later sunshine, Bumble bees (Bombus lucorum) and more Dronefly (Eristalis tenax) were active amongst the garden flowers.

Friday, 27 February 2009

So Is This How the World Ends, Not With a Bang But With a Wiper?

A strange comparison but it has been claimed that the American obsession with extra soft, quilted, multiply toilet paper has a greater environmental impact than the driving of the gas-guzzling 4x4 Hummer cars ( It has been pointed out that more than 98% of the bottom-friendly paper is derived from virgin forests meaning that the cutting of the trees and the chemicals used in pulp manufacture have a very powerful impact on 'greenhouse gas' emissions. Apparently, an enormous amount of money is directed by 'luxury brand' toilet roll manufacturers for extolling the merits of their products over less gentle equivalents.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Sternly Responding to Stern

There is an interesting ethical debate building up with Professor Paul Collier's response for the economic imperative to tackle global warming ( Collier points out that Stern's well-received case is based purely on a Utilitarian argument, namely that the costs of not doing something about global warming now will be dwarfed by the costs to future generations of major climate change. It is hardly remarkable that Stern uses the costs versus benefits approach as this is basically micro-economics. Collier states the possibility that there may be no future generations to benefit is included in some utilitarian models (it would change the calculus). He points out that we don't actually 'own' the planet (and its biodiversity and carbon) but have received it after 'stewardship' from previous generations. He also notes that it is very difficult to do a cost versus benefits analysis on this issue as we don't know how 'rich' people will be in the future (whatever 'rich' means). I can certainly see what Collier is getting at but, as a behavioural ecologist, I am used to the concept that all animals behave in particular fashions when the benefits outweigh the costs. It seems to me unlikely that humans can consistently and collectively operate in another fashion. I hope I am wrong.

Sealing the Deal

It has been reported ( that a Scottish trawlerman has been found guilty of clubbing to death (with a fence post) 21 Grey seal pups on the Island of East Linga in Shetland in November 2008. The individual (a crewman on one of the UK's largest Herring and Mackerel trawlers) apparently refused to explain his actions in court but might well have been doing the standard fisherman blame game. "Seal eat fish, therefore seals are responsible for declining fish stocks and threatening my livelihood". This is all a bit rich as humans seem pretty good at causing fish stocks to decline with little animal help.

Recycling the Arguments

An interesting article was published today exploring some of the recent UK angst about recycling( It seems that a flurry of media reports about the falling prices for recycled paper and glass making the process 'uneconomic' and horror stories of recycled TV's turning up in landfill in Nigeria are just 'hot air'. In the case of the former, a brief hiatus in purchasing was confirmed but it is maintained that activity is resuming and prices rising. In the case of the latter, it seems unlikely that this occurs on a regular basis and would cost more than recycling. The article also suggests that, sorting materials, one of the main complaints of anti-cycling householders is unnecessary anyhow. The article maintains that modern processing techniques used in recycling can work very effectively with mixed waste (bottles, paper, glass and tins) so long as it is broadly 'dry'. People apparently would be happier putting all materials into a single container (perhaps made itself of cardboard). It is frequently forgotten that landfill in the UK is associated with some very heavy financial (as well as environmental) costs. The author suggests that UK folk don't help the process of dealing with our waste by their 'nimbyism', noting, in contrast, that a new incinerator in the centre of Vienna has become a tourist attraction! I seem to remember local campaigns against incinerators?

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Campus Biodiversity

Went to a lunchtime lecture by my colleague Dr Dan Forman on 'The ecological value of Swansea University'. He discussed how the location may have changed in relatively recent times from a stable dune system, concentrating on the surprisingly wide range of plants, insects (including the migratory Death's Head hawkmoth Acherontia atropos), birds and mammals that share the campus with humans (their cars and their waste). Dan rightly pointed out that an impressive range of habitats were present on campus including the high-rise buildings that are faux cliffs for nesting gulls. He also suggested that much more encouragement for wildlife could be cheaply done e.g. by adding constructs to the 'Million Ponds Project', using more native species of plants in the gardens and by cutting grasses at different heights. I would add to that making edges more convoluted and replacing some walls with hedges. It might also be nice to allow some plants like nettles to flourish in defined locations (there would be more butterflies) along with Honeysuckle (there would be more moths). We might even have Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) although that is an alien plant. The environs of universities have been judged more positively on the basis of the number of duck species they attract (I seem to remember that York did well on this count) but I do think there is scope for a much more holistic and wide-ranging approach to encouraging campus biodiversity. We might even be able to use some of the materials in our teaching (we could certainly record the changing residents as they take up life in any new ponds)! It would also be nice to do some systematic moth trapping on the campus- the 'catch' could be displayed on a blog. Nest boxes for birds and Dormice could also be scattered around! What about a Singleton wolf pack? On second thoughts, that is likely to hit recruitment and insurance premiums.

Musselling In?

A somewhat worrying development as an unmarked trailer appears to have been abandoned in Loughor. The body of the vehicle contains a few rotting mussels and some orange, nylon sacking that looks remarkably like the sacks of bivalves I saw being removed from the mud of the Loughor estuary opposite the camp site in Bynea. I certainly would not consider eating such items given the Industrial history of the area (there are lots of heavy metals in them there sediments).

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Seeing the Changes 170

The warm weather brought a Dronefly (Eristalis tenax) and a Pine weevil (Hylobius abietis) out to bask on my wall in Loughor. Also in Loughor, Thale cress (Arabopsis thaliana) was in flower. In Bynea, Common whitlow grass (Erophila verna) and the first Common field speedwell (Veronica persica) were out in the sunshine.

Birder's Bonus 38

Life and Death in a spring-like interlude. The Smew (Mergus albellus) were feeling frisky at the WWT Llanelli but one of the many Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) had bit the dust in Bynea.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Seeing the Changes 169

At the WWT Llanelli, the Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is coming into leaf and the Nettle (Urtica dioica) is sprouting forth. Even the Wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) is in bud and Bracket fungus adorns the trees. The Great ram's horn (Planorbis corneus) and Great pond (Limnaea stagnalis) snails have started to feed in the dipping ponds.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Seeing the Changes 168

The The red, female flowers of Hazel (Corylus avellana) are peeping through to join the male, yellow catkins in Penclacwydd. In Bynea, a herd of Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) are in bloom. The Common chickweed (Stellaria media) has burst forth in Loughor.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Agony and the Ecstasy

The UK Home Secretary has apparently ignored the advice ( of her Expert Committee of Psychopharmacologists and others who advocated down-grading the semi-ubiquitous clubber drug Ecstasy from Class A (with Heroin and Crack cocaine) to Class B (placing it with Amphetamines and Cannabis). The Committee Chair (Professor Nutt) was apparently attacked for claiming in a scientific paper that, on the basis of deaths caused per annum, horse riding is more dangerous than ingesting Ecstasy. Attacking him is a bit mean as he presumably only got to chair the committee on the basis of studying and publishing on psychoactive drugs and was presumably simply attempting to demonstrate what a poor understanding of risk prevails in our society (I don't think he was advocating putting horses in Class A!). This is an illustration of, when it comes down to votes and bad media headlines, Science is always trumped by Politics. Some people have gone so far as to claim that such decisions damage our ability to get important messages out to young people. If they don't believe this message, they may ignore all health-related messages from the 'same' source.

Skin-Up a Toad!

It has been reported ( that drug addicts in Iran are forsaking hashish, heroin and opium to roll up the skins of fancy toads (presumably, the animals produce the chemicals as a defense against predators) in their cigarettes to get high. Ignoring the potential addiction problem, it is difficult to predict the precise impact of this practise on toad populations. One would initially suspect that these delicate animals would be further endangered but, in general, sources of illegal drugs seem to benefit as a consequence of their perceived value (there is no world shortage of Opium poppies or Coca bushes).

Travis Terminated (With Extreme Prejudice)

The sad story of Travis, the celebrity (he advertised 'Old Navy' clothes and appeared in several TV shows) and hard living (he drank red wine from a long-stemmed glass and watched baseball on TV using the remote) pet Chimpanzee in Connecticut USA( Although house-trained, an avid brusher of teeth and a user of the Internet, the almost 90 kg, 15-year old animal seemingly went berserk, grabbing the house keys to escape and eventually attacking a female friend of the 70 year old woman owner. The friend had arrived at the house to help (and was very seriously injured). The owner stabbed Travis with a butcher's knife (to try to stop the attack on her friend) and a police officer (fearing attack) subsequently shot him dead. There is some speculation that the Chimpanzee may have suffered complications from an infection with Lyme disease or the anti-anxiety drug, Xanax, that he had been treated with. The point remains that, no matter how 'human' in appearance and action, Travis was a potentially dangerous animal. It is easy to forget this basic fact when you get close to a beast.

Monday, 16 February 2009


There is a current study at Reading University (but involving Dan Forman and Rory Wilson) attempting to accurately assess the impact of pet cats in the UK on wildlife ( by using GPS tracking devices on 200 Berkshire moggies in 9 one kilometre squared areas and getting their pet people to complete diaries of carcasses dragged in. The study appears to be somewhat complicated by variations in estimations of the proportions of the catch/kill returned to the home but the authors of the study estimated that there could be more than 600 pet cats per km2, accounting for an estimated 10,000 animals per annum. If this figure is extrapolated over the whole UK (accepting that not everywhere is Berkshire), a figure of 92 million fatalities (including 27 million birds) is obtained. One cat even managed to bring back a weasel. Other 'guestimates' put the annual kill by the UK's 9 million cats as high as 150 to 200 million animals (depending on the numbers of animals eaten on the spot or too heavy to bring back home). No matter what the actual number, it is clear (I don't accept that the cats merely kill the old and weak) that cats have a powerful impact on wildlife.
UP DATE The recent report that 'Animal Behaviorists' in the USA are offering advice on how to keep cats in the house might conceivably help wildlife. Owners are taught how to brush the teeth and cut the claws of their pet. The cat is also trained to sit to command and to walk on a leash ( Other people have complained about this approach noting that roaming wild and catching things are part of the cat's natural behaviour. This is true but cats are not part of the natural ecology of the USA, the UK or Australia.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Passing of the Penguin?

It has been reported ( that the large Megallanic penguin colony at Punto Tombo (Argentina) is under serious threat. The colony has declined by about 20% in the last 20+ years. One extra pressure is that the birds now have to add an additional 50 miles to the round trips they make from their nest sites to obtain small fish for their mate and its developing chick. All 3 partners suffer and this, perhaps, accounts for some of the increased mortality, as well as the fact that some birds appear to be relocating. The author of the study (Dr Dee Boersma) blames humans for taking stocks of small fish.

Seeing the Changes 167

In Mumbles, Sea mayweed (Tripleurosperum maritimum) was in flower. In Loughor, noted the return of the male Early moth (Theria primaria).


An interesting debate is developing about dog poo in the UK ( It has been estimated that the country's more than 7 million dogs generate around 1,000 tonnes of dog mess per day. It certainly gets up people's noses as it's one of the most complained about environmental issues and many councils devote considerable resources (and expense) to dealing with the brown substance. There are diametrically opposed views, ranging from people who would like to see dogs banned from public places (like parks) to pet owners who think their shitsu can do no wrong. In between are responsible pet owners who always clear up after Fido and parents who simply want to separate their children from dog mess (and its attendant dangers, including the possibility of taking in eggs from the Toxocara worm that can cause illness and even blindness). Some countries, notably Iceland, formerly banned dogs entirely (in this case because of concerns about hydatid cysts caused by another worm) and dogs are reported to be still unwelcome in some Icelandic places to the present day. Another problem with dog mesh in the UK is the passage of disease to wild UK mammals, especially the Red fox. This is really a mess (especially on my regular running route)!

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Seeing the Changes 166

A spectacular sky in the morning and spotted orange fungus (Tremella mesenterica?) on oak in Mumbles.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Knowing the Price of Everything?

There seems to be a potentially interesting line of debate opening up( with the UK Conservative party apparently advocating (like Australia, Malaysia and the US) a voluntary scheme of allocating bio-credits (cash values) to every species and habitat in the UK. This move (placing values on animals, plants and their locations) is intended, claim its advocates to reverse the decline in 'biodiversity' (always a difficult thing to measure anyhow) consequent upon development, pollution and climate change. This is notionally timely as the European Union (not always a favourite flavour of that party) have a target of halting biodiversity decline by 2010. I am not sure that voluntary schemes have a good track record in this area but the hope is that business would 'factor in' the costs of what their activities would change and the "ecosystem services" would be able to claim extra credit. If followed, there are many unanswered questions. What is the relative value of a Red squirrel compared to a Bee orchid? Although it is hoped the scheme might discourage developments on rare ecosystems, does the size of the ecosystem and its connectivity change the value? Does a rare species at the limit of its range have any value at all?

The Demise of McNutkin?

It seems that the Scots are also intent on declaring war on the Grey squirrel ( as well as a number of other introduced aliens (including the American mink as well as hedgehogs in some island locations) in an attempt to protect their indigenous reds. The problems created for Red squirrels by its larger, more vigorous and sometimes (squirrel) pox-ridden American cousin are well-documented. Considerable debate is being generated, however, about the ethics of favouring one species by decimating another (the frequent claim is that succession is natural anyway) as well as whether it is really realistic to attempt to eliminate greys from a country like Scotland (success seems more likely if there is a limited aim to create grey-free zones on islands such as Mull). This one seems certain to run and run!

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Giddy Goats

Goats are in the news again, for example, 6 are to be deployed by Barratts Homes at Boscombe in Dorset in a 6 month trial to see whether they can return cliff top shrub to more favoured (by the house buyers in the 170 home development) grassland habitat ( Even if the goats fail to escape, this takes no account of the fact that the shrub is valuable habitat for a range of plant and animal species (who don't get a vote). The deviousness of goats is also clearly illustrated by the Reuters story ( that a black and white goat was arrested by police in Kawara, Nigeria on suspicion of attempted armed robbery (including trying to steal a Mazda 323 car). Vigilantes, who pursued the thieves, claimed that one hoodlum used black magic to turn himself into the goat! This is almost as bizarre as the story that Hartlepool United's mascot, H'Angus, commemorates the hanging of a pet monkey that was washed ashore, following a storm in the Napoleonic wars, in the belief that it was a Frenchman (!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Snakes Not Alive!

The finding of several large (13 m long and more than 1,250 kg in weight), fossil snakes in an open pit mine in Columbia ( is intriguing. The giant snake (Titanoboa) was on the planet after the extinction of the dinosaurs and appears, from fossil bones found with it, to have been an ambush predator of giant crocodiles and turtles. It seems that such animals were one of the initial species to benefit in this location from dinosaur extinction (presumably, there were still boas around after the event as they can go underground) but it is uncertain why they, in turn, eventually became extinct. Or did they?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Makes a Change From Ferrets

A report ( that a 23-year old Australian male was arrested as he flew back to Melbourne from Dubai ('The World's Hottest Holiday Location') with an undeclared aubergine, two (fertilised?) eggs hidden in a vitamin container in his luggage, seeds in his money belt and (the piece d'resistance) two pigeons wrapped in padded envelops fasten to his legs with a pair of tights. The Australian authorities are understandably concerned about the unauthorised introduction of yet more alien species to their country (a bit late in many respects given the burgeoning numbers of Annual ragweed, European rabbit, House mouse, Black rat and Cane toad) as these can decimate the endemic populations of animals and plants. Australia has strict quarantine laws (the aubergine could carry insect pests?) and wildlife smuggling can attract penalties of 10 years in prison and a £50,000 fine.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Birder's Bonus 37

On a snowy day in Loughor, Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) were strutting their stuff by the estuary and flying about.

Seeing the Changes 1470

Traveller's joy ( Clematis vitalba ) in flower in Loughor.