Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Five a Day?

A recent study from Harvard University has suggested that there might be a downside to attempts to get folk to eat more 'fruit and veg' (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/31/pesticide-residue-food-sperm-quality-harvard). The fly in the ointment is the finding that pesticide residues in these foods can reduce human sperm counts by almost 50% as well as generating higher levels on non-viable sperm. It has been known for years that some pesticides (e.g. organophosphates) have oestrogenic effects which might well account for their effects. It is uncertain whether the residues can be removed by simply washing the items before consumption.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Sunday, 29 March 2015

New Age of the Reptiles?

'News' from the RSPCA that reptiles (and amphibians) are now the fourth most popular group of companion animals or pets, after fish, cats and dogs (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/mar/29/reptile-amphibian-pets-almost-as-popular-as-dogs). This is not really an entirely fair comparison as reptiles are very different from amphibians and they only attain the fourth rank by lumping all the species (from axolotls to tortoises and boa constrictors) together. Cats and dogs are separate species of mammals (and lots of other mammals are kept as pets e.g. mice, rabbits and horses). I think the point they were trying to make is that these cold-blooded animals also have welfare needs but they are more difficult to interpret unless you have a degree of understanding of such species. The housing and feeding requirements can certainly be considerably more complex than that pertaining to your average cat or dog (they also vary enormously between species).

Pheasant's Revolt

Somewhat contentious news in the report that the RSPB apparently approves of pheasant shoots (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/29/rspb-backs-pheasant-shoots). At first sight, this seems to clash with their normal position on birds, which is to protect them at all (most?) costs. Pheasants are, however, essentially an alien (so far as the UK is concerned) species that are bred for the shooters. The income generated by the activity actually means that the land does not get used for a) house building or b) agriculture, two activities that make life difficult for some indigenous birds. So, I suppose, their point is that it does result in more land staying 'bird friendly' (except for the pheasants).

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Too Shy, Shy?

A Cambridge questionnaire study has suggested that people with similar temperaments tend to cluster in the UK (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/25/survey-maps-regional-personality-types). The authors suggest that London is full of lazy, unconscientious extroverts, whereas Scotland is awash with 'friendly, emotionally stable folk' and the poor, old Welsh are replete with 'shy and neurotic' people. I must admit to some reservations about such studies. It is based on a large sample of circa 400,000 subjects responding to an online survey quiz. Perhaps people accessing that kind of thing on computers varies regionally? How honestly to do people answer such items? Does the full range of people living in the area get accessed in appropriate numbers in such a survey? Given the looming general election it was interesting to see that voting intentions were also apparently linked to personality traits.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

All That Glisters (Is Not Gold)

Research from Arizona State University has suggested that human sewage could be fruitfully 'mined' for gold, silver and platinum (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/23/gold-in-faeces-worth-millions-save-environment). They reckon that the precious metals (from shampoos, detergents and clothes) reach the levels indicative of 'a minimal mineral deposit" and could be safely extracted in sewage plants using chemicals termed leachates. This has two advantages namely a) the leachates are not used in the wider environment where they can be very damaging (as in traditional mining) and b) the removed metals render the remaining biomass safe for use as fertilisers or for burning to generate electricity. They reckon that a city of around a million inhabitants currently flushes away almost 9 million pounds worth of precious metals in a year. There's gold in them there hills!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Out of Africa?

Disturbing news about the intensity of poaching on Africa's unique mammals (http://www.awf.org/campaigns/poaching-infographic/). it seems that numbers of elephant, rhinoceros, gorilla etc are in marked decline. Drivers seem to include a new affluence in China (increasing the demand for items used in 'medicine') and the technologies now available to poachers. The incidence of capture and successful prosecution of 'Mr Bigs' in the poaching world is also disappointing. It could be the case, that many of these important animals will disappear from our world.

A Leg Up For the Trees?

News that the Eden Project is to receive saplings derived from cuttings obtained from Giant redwood trees in California (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/eden-project) is welcome but this species of tree is already well represented in several arboreta and parks in the UK. Much is made of these clones being potentially identical to the donor trees but it is an alien species so far as this country is concerned (see e.g. the fire-resistant bark of the mature tree, protecting against forest fires). The saplings will take quite some time to develop into impressive items but, I suppose, the more examples we have the better (although 'conservation' in this fashion is a bit like putting an animal into a zoo).

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Seeing the Changes 945

More flowers out in the sunshine. Common field speedwell (Veronica persica) was in flower in Bynea. In Loughor, Common chickweed (Stellaria media) and Common dog violet (Viola riviniana) were both in bloom.

Ecogrumpy Manifesto (but not looking for Followers)

Prior to the UK general election, everyone seems to be coming up with their party manifestos. I thought my 'party' of one (as recommended by Groucho Marx, I wouldn't want to belong to a party that would have me as a member) ought to state its positions. I am (almost) despairing of democracy along with all the other political systems as a vast majority of people appear a) too ignorant; b) too self-serving; c) too supportive/frightened of organisations (economic or religious) and/or d) too keen to be elected or to stop other people from being elected) to genuinely evaluate what really should be done about environmental issues. Even some of the 'environmentalists' are a) too obsessed with their own animal/plant/location; b) failing to recognise that they are making anthropocentric choices and/or c) making a living/career out of the issues. It is, however, incumbent on me to keep 'poking' the issues because that's what grumpies do! There might, in deed, be intelligent life out-there (whether it chooses to remain on this planet or not).

Friday, 20 March 2015


There is news of a 50% increase in the numbers of wet-wipes washed up on UK beaches (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31941482). These, increasingly-used items, are flushed down toilets and can emerge with sewage (apparently especially in over-flow conditions). The wipes are said to contain plastic as well as paper and do not quickly decay. There are also fears that they may damage marine life such as turtles who could mistake them for jelly-fish on which they feed.

Seeing the Changes 944

Ramping fumitory (Fumaria capreolata) was in flower in Bynea. I also spotted a Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) in my Loughor garden on eclipse day!

Celts are Mongrel?

An Oxford UK genetic mapping study has suggested that the celts in Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Scotland show more variation than is seen in other parts of the country (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31905764). Perhaps the links are more cultural?

Free Will?

Julian Baggiani has written about the hoary, old topic yet again (http://www.theguardian.com/profile/julianbaggini). He refutes the idea that the genes control every aspect of our behaviour and points to some of the oddities in the 'identical twins separated at birth' data. He points out that many behavioural attributes are polygenic and that our life conditions and experiences play a major role in determining our character and attributes. I'm surprised that any of this comes as a surprise. I have taught for decades that behaviour is always a result of a genes plus environment interaction. In one sense, of course, 'real free will' is an illusion. We are 'victims' of our genes and our upbringing. The analogy I like is one with the electromagnetic spectrum. We know that white light consists of wavelengths from red to violet and our instruments tell us that there are wavelengths our eyes cannot see (infra-red and ultraviolet). I think of infra-red as 'pure' instinct and ultraviolet as 'pure' learning. 'Real' behaviour is on a continuum like the visible wavelengths and will vary in its distance from the two, somewhat hypothetical extremes.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Seeing the Changes 943

The very first Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) flower was half out in Bynea. We also had the first proper moth of the year in Loughor! It looks like an Early grey (Xylocampa areola).

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Seeing the Changes 942

A very early Smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) was in flower in Loughor.

Going With the Tide?

I suppose it is hardly surprising, just before a General Election, but there are strong indications that the budget will include a major tax break for North Sea oil (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-31906966). In spite of the recognized need to reduce oil use to limit climate change, a spokesman reported that a) thousands of jobs depend on North Sea oil extraction; b) without a tax break, we may end up with some of the oil reserves unextracted and c) the Government 'take' from North Sea oil is falling. It is difficult for politicians to do more than take the short term view when the name of their game is election. I was surprised to view the BBC piece without even a hint that there was a downside to the proposed move.

Monday, 16 March 2015

P.P.Pick Up a Pangolin

It was news to me but it is claimed that the Pangolin, the strange, scaly 'anteater' of Indonesia, is the world's most illegally traded mammal (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2015/mar/16/pangolins-worlds-most-illegally-traded-mammal-in-pictures). It seems that these gentle, termite-eaters largely end up as human snacks in spite of their endangered status.

Can People Really be Convinced They Should Divest From Fossil Fuels?

There is a substantial article devoted to arguing that it makes sense to 'divest' (sell shares?) in fossil fuels if the world is to have any chance of limiting climate change (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/16/argument-divesting-fossil-fuels-overwhelming-climate-change). 'Logical", as Mr Spock would have said but is there really any chance of this happening? There are a good few relatively powerful countries that make a substantial amount of their GNP from coal, gas and oil who would be more than unhappy at the prospect. There are major multinationals, with big publicity budgets, who would argue against any such moves, citing job losses and tottering pension funds. In some countries, a substantial number of elected politicians don't even admit that human-engineered climate change is even a possibility (they think it's all an evil conspiracy?). Joe public wants cheaper heating and electricity. I can't really see it happening, even if the occasional church or UK University is persuaded to sell some of its shares.

Don't Give Them Their Daily Bread?

It may disappoint many children (and parents who hate to waste bread) but conservationists have suggested that feeding bread to ducks is a bad idea (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/16/dont-feed-the-ducks-bread-say-conservationists). They maintain that uneaten bread can encourage algal blooms and attract the odd rat (rats will take eggs and young chicks of ground nesting birds). The take to pool message seems to be "let them eat peas".

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Political Incorrectness

It can't be right that employees of the State of Florida have reportedly been banned from using the terms 'climate change' and 'global warming' (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/mar/08/florida-banned-terms-climate-change-global-warming). It is especially worrying that the State Governor, Jeb Bush, is said to be thinking of making a tilt for the Presidency of the US. I believe that the Bush family largely made their fortune with hydrocarbons. Low-lying Florida is especially at risk from climate extremes. If they can be convinced that this is a good idea, one immediately thinks of turkeys and Christmas.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Seeing the Changes 941

In Loughor, the flowering primroses were joined by their cousin, the Cowslip (Primula veris).

Friday, 13 March 2015

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere Yet Not a Drop to Drink

People have been writing about the detrimental effects of plastics on marine ecosystems for at least 5 years (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21236477). Not only does big plastic get everywhere in our oceans with most of it being broken down over decades but we are apparently swilling tons of plastic microgranules down our drains. These particles are used in cosmetics for their abrasive properties. They are so tiny that they can be consumed by animal plankton. This means that they have the potential to appear throughout all the food chains in the seas without providing any energy to the feeders. They might even prove toxic or capable of mimicking some hormonal effects. I suspect that some of the plastics we are asked to recycle are converted for this use?

Seeing the Changes 940

In Loughor, Common fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) was coming into flower.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Homeopathy Further Diluted?

There is a nice overview of the current scientific evidence relating to homeopathy (http://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-guardian/20150312/281663958482589/TextView). This view was developed in the 18th century by Samuel Hahnemann who thought that 'like cured like' (e.g. a fever-inducing agent would cure a fever) and that the effects were best observed in highly diluted solutions. It appears that all properly conducted scientific experiments have failed to demonstrate curative effects on a range of ailments (if one rules out placebo effects from 'consultation' and 'treatment'). In addition, there have been cases where people have died as a result of putting off proper medical treatment. One has to ask why the approach still retains any traction today?

When Humans Stalked the Earth

Scientists have apparently suggested that a proposed Anthropocene geological era (when humans became important factors in terms of terraforming our planet) should date from around 1610 (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/11/was-1610-the-beginning-of-a-new-human-epoch-anthropocene). This date was apparently chosen because this was the time at which a major transfer of species of animals and plants between the 'old' (Europe and Asia) and 'new' worlds (North and South America) started. I suppose it was when we became major factors in moving alien species between continents. The hope is that the era doesn't simply finish with strata of rocks containing the odd plastic bottle or iPad!

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Green to Red in a Nanosecond

An increased insight as to how the Chameleon changes from green to red so quickly (this is not the tasteless 'frog in the liquidiser' joke) has been obtained (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/10/scientists-find-out-how-chameleon-changes-colour). It is apparently down to special skin pigment cells (chromatophores) containing guanine nanocrystals whose spacing can be altered (presumably, as in the octopus, by tiny muscles distorting the cells). These changes in the crystal latticework alter the wavelengths of light reflected from those available in the spectrum of white light, thus altering the colour of the beastie. I suspect that this will turn out to have commercial applications in clothing and elsewhere.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Seeing the Changes 939

Early scurvy-grass (Cochlearia danica) was in flower in Mumbles. "Fire up the mint sauce!" Lamb (Ovis aries) were appearing on the North Gower. Invaded by a Bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) in Loughor.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Can You Have Economic Growth Whilst Tackling Climate Change?

Recent articles by Naomi Klein suggest that the scientific consensus on climate change has arrived at a bad time for the planet as it is concomitant with economic (and purchased media) power being in the hands of a few individuals (who are often in their positions for decades) and whose 'success' depends on us not necessarily doing the logical things. It is certainly the case that people in democracies (and I whole-heartedly prefer this system of government) appear more easily 'wooed' by promises of short-term gains than by undertakings to deal with, what seem to most folk, distant problems (actually Klein suggests that 2017 will be a tipping point for climate change-limiting action). The limited durations of terms of political office (generally a good thing) make long-termism a poor vote getter (and people wanting to get elected have twigged this). The provision of short-term goodies is, however, linked to economic growth and there is no good reason to believe that such state can continue anywhere indefinitely. I would argue that the burgeoning world population means that there will be rather strict limits on continued economic growth. In a perfect world, intelligent and honest people would do accurate risks versus benefits analyses on ways of doing things differently (e.g. there is no point building a dam to generate 'green electricity' unless the environmental costs of the utilised steel and concrete are considered in the equation). Perhaps we also have to ask the questions about whether we can have all the electricity/personal transport/ air-flights/stuff delivered by shipping that we 'want'? We could redirect economies away from hydrocarbons to solar/wind/tidal energy, improve the insulation of buildings and radically change our lifestyle/diet but even these would have finite effects. The question of equitable sharing of limited resources also arises. I hate to say it but it looks as if a cull is coming (and it won't be pleasant or, in any sense, fair). Hope I'm wrong!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Water Wars

It now appears that a shortage of fresh water is likely to lead of conflicts in many parts of the planet (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/08/how-water-shortages-lead-food-crises-conflicts). This seems to be a direct conseqeuence of the burgeoning human population and development (water consumption per head is 10 times higher in developed compared to developing countries). There are also some ill-advised dam building in certain countries (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/india-untamed/2015/mar/06/ecologically-disastrous-dams-may-go-ahead).

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Bad Grammar?

I don't really like dwelling too much on myself (I'm an oddity rather than typical) but I do feel impelled to comment on the sudden demand to expand the old grammar school system in the UK on the basis of it 'giving intelligent but poor kids a leg-up' (http://www.theguardian.com/education/grammarschools). Having medical problems (long vanished) I 'failed' the 11+ twice in days when grammars and secondary moderns both stalked the land. In spite of this (due to a lot of hard work and teacher-led help which at no stage involved a grammar school), I went on to become the first person in my family to go to university, was appointed Professor of Zoology at an early age, generated more than 200 scientific publications on a wide range of topics, chaired the national body of university heads of Biological Sciences and even (1980) got a silver medal for medical science sponsored by UNESCO and WHO. I would just like to make 2 points. The first is that really poor kids are at a disadvantage in this selective system as many parents pay for coaching of their children (homes also vary greatly in terms of the provision of learning aids). I also feel that selecting at a specific age precludes late developers and kids who just happen to be hit by the tests at a difficult time.

Cracks Start to Appear?

There is a timely article by Naomi Klein pointing out the fact that immediate world-wide, political action occurred in the aftermath of both the recent 'banking crisis' and the earlier 'war on terror', without finance proving an insurmountable obstacle, whereas climate change has generated nothing like the same response (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/06/dont-look-away-now-the-climate-crisis-needs-you). She (and many others) clearly feel that 'global warming' has the potential to destroy many more lives and much more property than either of the above but the emissions of 'greenhouse gases' have increased by 67% in the 20 years that politicians have been arguing about climate change (and, in some cases, 'pledging' actions). In spite of this growing problem, many countries and organisations actually seem intent on exploiting ever more problematic sources of energy (e.g. tar sands and gas from fracking). Klein clearly believes that humans adopt a wide range of strategies enabling them to cling to the ostrich-like belief that 'all will be fine in the end'. She even lists (and rejects them). It does seem extraordinarily difficult to convince people that this is one potential disaster that we really are 'all in, together'.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Seeing the Changes 938

Spring must be on the way in Loughor as a Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) was hot from hibernation and Horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) buds were popping open!

Airy Fairies?

Quite a debate seems to be building up about a proliferation of 'fairy doors' in Wayford woods near Crewkerne in Somerset (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/04/fairies-fairy-doors-wayford-woods-somerset). The 'doors' apparently started to appear in this location about 25 years ago but conservationists are concerned about damage (some doors are screwed or hammered into trees and bluebells are trampled by children dashing around in their search for them). Others think the doors have positive influences including getting children enthusiastic about walking in woodland (healthy exercise) and creating a 'sense of wonder'. Balance seems all important here as too much intrusion into areas is not a good idea but one would like children to grow to value the 'natural' environment (including woodlands). There is (said the old grump) a bit of disneyfication about this phenomenon. Will the 'joy' outlast childhood? Are there any plans to try to extend the 'wonder' by educating the children about the true importance of woods?

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

I'll Be Back!

The good ol' cockroach is apparently being semi-robotised so it can be used to examine areas where humans can (or would prefer) not go. Of course, these little creatures could end up doing stuff that some might find uncomfortable!

Seeing the Changes 937

Flowering cherry (Prunus spp) was in flower on the Swansea University campus.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Old Time Religion?

 There is an interesting article by John Gray on the 'fears' of 'evangelical atheists' who cannot see a decline (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/03/what-scares-the-new-atheists). One of its major thrusts is that atheists are wrong when they think that the default position of most of 'humanity' would include a dropping of religions if they were'freed' from coercion. He suggests that it does no good to talk about the wars driven by religious considerations (in deed, he points out a number of horrors attributed to 'muscular' atheism). I must admit to having some sympathies with many of the views expressed. There is a danger that atheism becomes a kind of religion, especially if its proponents think that people would obviously benefit if they were weaned away from their more traditional beliefs. This, of course, means that science educators have to tread a very narrow line.

World Wide Web and Environmental Crime

It has been reported (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/03/chinas-illegal-ivory-traders-exploiting-online-market) that the world wide web plays an increasingly important part in the sale of illegal products (e.g. ivory, tiger bone, rhinoceros horn and turtle shells) taken from endangered species. Apparently, more than half these 'advertisements' relate to ivory.

Every Breath You Take

The EEA has apparently warned that air pollution will become responsible for many premature deaths on that continent (that is without even mentioning an even more obvious problem in China) in the near future (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/03/air-pollution-will-kill-thousands-in-europe-eea-warns). The UK is said to be one of the worst offenders, a rather sad state of affairs given our industrial past and The Clean Air Act. There is certainly a perception that our air is clean but being adjacent to a motorway is a risk factor.

GM Cows to Rescue the Badger?

Scientists in China have reportedly inserted a mouse gene into cows, making them more resistant to TB (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/02/mouse-gene-could-help-produce-tb-resistant-cattle-study-shows). This technology would, if widely adopted (a big 'if', given a wide-spread European objection to all things GM, except for medical developments) would greatly reduce the need to vaccinate cows against TB or to cull herds in which the disease is identified. It would also, as a by-product, negate any rational reason for attacking badger populations. Somehow, I don't think that this is going to happen.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Housing and the Election?

The Conservative Party, in the run-up to the General Election, has now 'offered',if re-elected, to legislate for up to 200,000 cheap starter homes for people under 40 on brownfield sites without requiring the builders to consider providing additional local services (such as roads, schools etc) or affordable housing. This has led to a boom in the building industry's shares (http://www.cityam.com/210591/housebuilder-shares-rise-conservatives-promise-200000-cheap-starter-homes-first-time-buyers). There are a few points to note although I do favour brownfield rather than green sites. Making brownfield sites appropriate for house building can be quite demanding and an expensive process. The difficulty is that someone would have to pay for this (and perhaps the missing amenities in the chosen areas). The locations might also turn out to be pretty unattractive in the longer term.

When They Begin the Lagoon?

I must admit that, in spite of all the hype, I continue to have reservations about Swansea Bay being earmarked for the construction of the 'world's first tidal lagoon' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31682529). I appreciate that a) there is a need to generate electricity in a more environmentally responsible fashion, b) promises of jobs and investment always go down well in some quarters but I'm not convinced that the project will be without problems. The effects on sediments in the bay, the visual impact on what is a very attractive location and the consequences on the animals (fish, birds and cetaceans) that frequent the associated SSSI don't really appear to have been answered. The actual enduring cost of the generated electricity also seems a tad vague. The impetuous for the project seems, however, to unstoppable although I am pretty certain it's by no means a world first. Already, they are talking about 5 of these structures in Wales (that's an awful lot of concrete!).

Mr Anti-Green?

There is news of the arrest of a Ezequel Antonio Castanha in Brazil on charges of facilitating illegal logging of an area about the same size as Hong Kong in Brazil (http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/king-of-deforestation-cut-down-can-loggers-arrest-stem-tide-of-destruction-in-amazon/story-fnjww010-1227240651052). This man is owner of a local supermarket and a major employer in his area. In addition to the forest destruction, the claimed activities of the loggers produced local water shortages in the area. This may be a start of meaningful activity against the loggers but opposing them is said to be a dangerous move.

Seeing the Changes 1470

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