Saturday, 31 October 2009

Egret Regret

There was quite a long newspaper article ( about the colonisation of the UK by the Little egret (Egretta garzetta) from foreign parts. The claim was made (true) that one of the first places they successfully bred here was on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. What the story didn't mention is that that breeding group was decimated by Ravens (Corvus corax) which, as an endangered UK species, could not be touched. The 'foreigners' have presumably gone somewhere else to try to raise a family. There is no doubt that the Little egrets migration north continues at a pace. Groups of them forage near the Loughor bridge at low tide.

Seeing the Changes 243

In Loughor, the mild weather resulted in the Fly honeysuckle (Lonicera xylosteum) and Common chickweed (Stellaria media) coming into flower again. In Bynea, Square-stalked St John's wort (Hypericum tetrapterum) was blooming and Ivy (Hedera helix) berries starting to ripen. Small, brown toadstools were scattered on the grass and a micromoth frequented the Ragwort.

There Then Came a Spider Who Sat Down Beside Her

It must be Halloween. There has been some media attention on the numbers of spiders in people's houses and gardens ( Some people, of course, become very upset by spiders (thought to be a learned response) but all the Native UK spiders are completely harmless to humans and do an excellent job keeping down the numbers of flying insects who, like little vampires, can suck our blood, transport disease to our food or ravage 'our' crops. I personally think that we ought to love our eight-legged friends a bit more.

It's Nutts!

The news that the UK Government's chief (unpaid) adviser on the level of risks associated with the taking of recreational psychoactive drugs has been sacked is no great surprise ( David Nutt paid the price for arguing that the taking of ecstasy is actually less risky than horse riding and that cannabis did not 'deserve' being elevated to class B (drugs are classed as categories A-C with A being the highest risk) and actually caused less damage than perfectly legal alcohol and tobacco. There are real difficulties interactions between scientists (who have to weigh complex evidence in a dispassionate way) and politicians (who have to deliver what the public-or at least a vociferous section of the public- want). This is further complicated by the media who generally want a good story with clear blacks and whites (rather than greys) in terms of evidence. Governments have repeatedly suggested that, in terms of the science, they want to adopt 'evidence-driven policy'. The difficulty comes when they feel that they dare not go where the science directs them. There are then two possible responses. They can argue that in spite of the science, they are compelled to make a particular decision (and the policy is no longer 'evidence-based') or they can try to change the science (and, as this is no longer science, irritate the people that they asked to make judgements on their behalf). You can see such tensions in many areas including child care, education and our penal system. The trouble is that scientists and politicians are supposed to operate in completely different ways with different sets of rules. One group is supposed to use evidence based on probability whereas their counterparts generally use advocacy (a convincing story). People from either tradition who use the techniques of the other culture often become unstuck.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Common or Garden?

The RSPB's most recent surveys have apparently suggested that, in the last decade, more than half the 63 species of rare birds have shown increases in the UK as 40% of more common species have declined ( There may well be a number of complicating reasons for these figures (over and above simple changes in numbers). Rare birds may do better than their proletarian counterparts as they are a) more likely to be 'sighted'; b) subject to better protections; c) subject to higher 'spends' and d) often limited to particular areas of the country (so management of their environments is likely to be easier). The common species appear to be victims of changes in agricultural practises and the increasing urbanisation of the land. They certainly don't get the same kind of attention as their 'up-market' colleagues!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Seeing the Changes 242

At the National Wetlands Centre Wales (Penclacwydd), the rain had brought out the fungi. There were also lots of Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) heads in the grounds to attract seed-eating birds. Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) were busy stocking up on the contents of the bird feeders. Mallard (Anas platyrynchos) had invaded all the pens of the exotic birds (probably as a safe place, with food provided, to change into their sexual plumage). Male European eider ducks (Somateria mollissima mollissima), who were also in their finest, were producing their ghostly calls. There was also a collection of Coscoroba swan (Coscoroba coscoroba) cygnets exploring the pens without their parents.

Monday, 26 October 2009


A book from New Zealand by Robert and Brenda Vale 'Time to Eat The Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living' ( raises a number of issues. The authors claim that the 'average' Collie consumes 164 kg of meat and 95 kg of cereals per annum and that this results in their having twice the 'carbon footprint' (or pawprint?) of a 4.6L 4x4 Land Cruiser travelling 6000 miles per year. A cat is said to be equivalent to a VW Golf. It is not, of course, easy to do such calculations. I suspect that the carbon footprint associated with creating and disposing of the car is much greater than that involved with your average dog (and this does not appear to feature in their comparison). Pets also have a beneficial effect on the health of their owners (cars don't unless you are very close to them). A serious point, however, is that the kind of pet you keep can have a powerful impact on your impact on the planet. Low maintenance pets would include a goldfish or a snail.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Seeing the Changes 241

In spite of the clock change and the winds, Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) were in flight in Loughor. In Bynea, there were lots of bright red Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) berries and red waxcap fungi. A lonely, hairy caterpillar sprinted across the cycle path.

I Don't Get Twitching!

The press ( seem to have been fascinated by the flocks of 'twitchers' that have accumulated in South Tyneside's Trow quarry with their telescopes and cameras to catch a glimpse of a solitary Eastern crowned warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus). This biological phenomenon was apparently triggered by the telephone and the internet in response to a bird that is normally found in the Far East and has only been sighted in Europe on 4 occasions. I'm sure that it is nice to tick off another species of bird but I really can't see the biological significance. It seems to me that such sighting involve animals that have blown or wandered off course (there is a remote possibility that some are escapees from collections). The bird is unlikely to find itself in a habitat where it can display its normal behaviour and the situation is likely to quickly prove terminal. Is this 'animal train spotting' or is that too harsh?

The Drying of Madagascar

Reports of the continuing drought in Madagascar are disturbing ( There is naturally a focus on the effects on people but the African island is the last surviving stronghold of the lemurs (some of these prosimians are said to be becoming included in the diets of poor people in spite of local taboos). Somewhat routinely the drought is being blamed on 'global warming' (although it is not easy to establish a precise link to climate change). The recently increased human populations on Madagascar add to the difficulties of maintaining its unique fauna and flora. It is disturbing to think that we might well lose more of these fascinating early primates.

(Upper Class) British Summer Time

Time appears to be relative. I was intrigued to read, given the changing of the clocks,( that the adoption of Daylight Saving (apparently advocated initially by Kiwi Entomologist George Hudson in 1895, although Benjamin Franklin had suggested something similar) was actually taken up by Germany in 1915 after a 10 year campaign by a Petts Wood-based builder, Englishman, William Willett (1856-1915). William, who died on influenza (and is a direct ancestor of Coldplay's Chris Martin), did not live to see his idea come to fruition. His major motivations seem to have been linked to his enthusiasm for horse riding (he liked to get a gallop in before breakfast) and his horror of having his afternoon round of golf imperilled by fading daylight. Germany, in the First World War, adopted the measure largely to improve industrial efficiency and Britain followed suite in 1916 (the young Winston Churchill was an advocate). Strange, how our lives get modified by ancient enthusiasms!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Feeding the World

The Royal Society has produced a report ( suggesting that the UK should 'plough' around £2bn into agricultural research to help feed the world's burgeoning population. This would include GM crops as well as other technologies. The report has predictably 'kicked off' lots of comment (some broadly positive but some concerned). Some ( is very much linked in with negatives to GM but positives in terms of putting more money into agriculture. It is near certain that the world population will double in 20-30 years (increasing the potential 'market'?) but I can't help but feel that overpopulation rather than efficient feeding of people is the more pressing problem. Of course, how to get to a sustainable population in a humane manner is the $64000 question!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Only Polar Bear in the 'Village'

I was surprised to read that the UK has only one female Polar bear (Mercedes) in captivity ( She is apparently about to be moved from Edinburgh zoo to a new 1.62 hectare enclosure at the Highland Wildlife Park. Although the enclosure sounds large in zoo terms (and is said to reflect the 'tundra'), it is nothing like the average range of these animals in nature. The bear is unlikely to be able to show much by the way of the normal feeding activities of the species. Given the precarious state of Polar bear populations, the UK zoos are consequently essentially doing nothing for this species. I suspect that this antipathy to zoo-based Polar bears is related to their tendency to show stereotypies including head waving and repetitive walking. These don't go down well with the paying public.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Seeing the Changes 240

On Saturday 17th in Loughor, we had our first ground frost of the year. Sadly, another area that was formerly the haunt of Common blue, Ringlet and Meadow brown butterflies has been trashed for building (it seems that every little bit of semi-wild space gets squeezed). A Green shield bug (Palomena prasina) got another feed in before the winter. At the National Wetlands Centre Wales (Penclacwydd), in addition to flowers already noted, Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) still hung on. The place was still alive with Common darter (Sympetrum striolatum) and Migrant hawker (Aeshna mixta) dragonflies. Butterflies were represented by Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta); Peacock (Inachis io) and Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria). One could see the tracks of the ducks in the weed floating on the water surface and a lone hen Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) was having a quiet nosh.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Going Down the Swanee?

The organisation Diversitas has claimed ( that animals and plants in freshwater habitats (lakes and rivers) are more threatened than species on land or in the sea. Much of this must be related to the human use of water which is increasing along with human populations and aspirations. Of course, it may be the case that one tends to see effects on 'focused' locations like freshwater bodies before effects are transmitted to 'wider' habitats but the losses are clearly a concern.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Seal the Deal?

Another round of the Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) versus the fishermen on BBC with a report-ignore the section on animal hypnosis- ( that local fishermen around the Farne islands want to shoot them "Because they are not cute, cuddly animals but ferocious predators that destroy our livelihood". Strange that humans, who are also taking the fish, do not regard themselves as 'ferocious predators' and think of themselves as having rights to the fish! I think the situation is complicated by the fact that the seals bring in ecotourists ( who sometimes like to scuba dive with them. This might well make the seals a bit blase when it comes to humans increasing their likelihood of irritating fisherfolk and making them easier to shoot.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Veggie Spider?

There is a report ( of the discovery of a South American species of spider (Bagheera kiplingi) that atypically (spiders were thought to be only capable of feeding on predigested animal material) lives entirely on vegetable matter. The spider actually eats the lipid- and protein-rich Beltian bodies of the Acacia bush that attract the symbiotic ants that try to protect the plant. The Beltian bodies are essentially 'baby food' for ant larvae. The spider also eats an occassional ant larva, so it is clearly not a vegan! The spider uses its web-building ability only to create structures in which to rear its young. The finding is another illustration of the adaptability of animal species. Many are able to make major transformations of lifestyle when the benefits outweigh the costs. This is something reiterated in the new BBC 'Life' programmes (

Carnivorous Cat

There was a graphic illustration of the effects of domestic cats on wildlife (even though, in this case, the bird was an introduced species) when I had to rescue a Collared dove (Streptopelia decaoto) from a marauding moggie in my garden.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Seeing the Changes 239

Many of the same wild flowers seen in the 'Seeing the changes 238' post were evident in a run from Loughor to Penclacwydd. In addition, however, there was also Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense); Spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare); Smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus); Prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper); Hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum); Germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys); Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis); Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum); Black medick (Medicago lupulina); Redshank (Polygonum persicaria); Traveller's joy (Clematis vitalba); Red campion (Silene dioica); Ramping fumitory (Fumaria capreolata); Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica); Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera); Common mallow (Malva sylvestris); Gorse (Ulex europaeus); Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca); Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis); Wood vetch (Vicia sylvatica); Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris); Marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris); Red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) and a white crucifer. Autumnal waxcap toadstools reared their heads and Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) deposited presents.

Bee Bereavement?

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