Saturday, 31 March 2018

Iced Vanilla

Madagascar produces most of the world's vanilla -usually regarded as a 'basic' flavour( The situation there, however, appears to be currently like the wild west, with criminality and corruption driving a rapid destruction of the country's unique forests (and their dependent wildlife- including the lemurs). The 'vanilla wars' are reportedly also being used to facilitate the illegal cutting and export of prized rosewood (a hard wood much in demand in parts of the world). Stories include environmentalists being imprisoned and extra-judicial killing of vanilla 'rustlers by farmers.

Parma Ham?

An almighty row seems to be developing between the prestigious producers of Parma ham and animal welfare activists ( This has largely grown out of footage, suggesting that the pigs used in the production of this popular food, can be individually housed in cramped cages with no attempt at 'enrichment' (as is generally specified in the UK) and can be roughly treated by their handlers. Pigs are intelligent animals and should be treated as such (they are not simply ham on the hoof). 

Wake Up and Smell the Acrylamide?

There has been a frenzied debate about a Californian judge ruling that coffee, because of its acrylamide content, should carry additional health warnings ( Acrylamides are produced when starchy foods undergo prolonged 'cooking' at high temperatures and are consequently found in foods like roasted potatoes; crisps; biscuits; cereals and toast. Small amounts of acrylamides are present in coffee and these chemicals have been shown to be mutagenic (cancer causing) in animal studies (the jury appears to still be out in terms of their effects in humans). The judge apparently reached his judgement in spite of other studies showing that coffee had clinically beneficial effects on cancer and heart disease rates. I personally feel (like some New Yorkers) that there is no such thing as totally 'safe' ingestion of foods. The only sensible response is, where there is doubt, to take things in in moderation. 

Friday, 30 March 2018

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Retinoids to the Rescue?

There is considerable concern about the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria (largely driven by over-prescribing and use, by farmers, in meat production). A tiny boost has been received with news from animal research that two retinoids (relatives of vitamin A), developed to treat acne and skin cancer, seem to have potential for use in countering MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections ( These retinoids (in combination with an antibiotic) seem to make the membranes of this bacterial species more leaky (a bit like the actions of complement proteins). Unfortunately, these drugs do not appear effective against other so-called  'latent' (generally dormant but capable of being activated) infections but they do offer a new line of investigation for a currently intractable problem.   

Danger Duck

Apparently, the rubber equivalent of the above is a real safety hazard ( Popping them into your baby's bathwater is reportedly a good way of transmitting bacterial infections. I suppose you could always try sterilising them before use?

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Whale of a Time

There have been demonstrations about the selling of krill oil in stores (notably Barratt & Holland and Boots) and even a letter to the former group from the UK parliament on the issue( The oil is marketed as a supplement rich in omega 3 oils with potential beneficial effects on the risk of heart disease in humans. The objectors are unconvinced that the Antarctically-sourced material is sustainable and fear that removal of these small crustaceans (at the base of the food chain) imperils many reliant species in the region, including penguins and whales.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Seeing the Changes 1264

In Bynea, the first of the Field horsetails (Equisetum arvense) was emerging.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Seeing the Changes 1263

In Penclacwydd, Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) was in leaf.

Seeing the Changes 1262

My first butterfly of the year in Loughor- a Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae).

Saturday, 24 March 2018

The Last Straw?

In the rush to 'save' the planet from pollution by single use plastics, drinking straws have become bete noires (being regarded as trivial items that could easily be replaced by paper, bamboo or glass). Dame Tammi Grey-Thompson has, however, pointed out that bendable plastic disposable straws are absolutely necessary to enable some disabled folk to drink cleanly and effectively ( Removing plastic straws from restaurants and other locations might well make life more difficult for such people. It just goes to show that curtailing single use plastics is not going to be an easy undertaking (in spite of pontificating politicians) and requires really wide consultation. Balance is also needed when  reducing the plastic wrapping of foods without increasing food waste (a very considerable problem in its own right).

Zero-Waste Eating?

Reducing waste (especially of food items) is a laudable aim but I must admit to having some difficulty with the concept of 'zero-waste' restaurants ( It is certainly a good idea to use, where possible, locally-produced; disposable items and to attempt to minimise food waste (although I am not sure that simply composting it 'cuts it'). All human activities generate waste, including the travelling of the clientele and the people working in the restaurant to its location each day. Cooking (especially involving some 'fancy' techniques) consumes considerable energy (with associated heat losses). There does seem to be an element of marketing ploy, directed at the 'wealthy but environmentally concerned', about the general concept. 'Reduced waste' would be perhaps more accurate but doesn't have the same ring.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Seeing the Changes 1260

Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) was in flower in Loughor.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Sue, Grabbitt and Runne?

There has reportedly been world-wide a spate of legal cases brought against governments and energy-producing companies, on the basis that their effects (actions and inactions) on climate change are causing financial losses for the litigants ( It will be interesting to see how these cases 'pan out'. Substantial damages awarded by the courts might well change the behaviour of governments and companies.

Northern Lights Out!

News that the last male of the Northern white rhinoceros sub-species has been euthanased in Kenya has hit the headlines ( The individual ('Sudan') only seems to have survived thus far by seeking asylum, for a period of time, in a Czech zoo. These animals are not actually white (it's a scrambling of 'witte' or wide) and now only a daughter and granddaughter of the final male remain (not much genetic diversity there!). Despite talks of possible ivf and breeding, I think we have to accept that the sub-species has effectively gone. What is actually more scary, is the fact that tens of thousands of less news-worthy species are currently permanently disappearing from the planet, also largely as a consequence of human activities.

Les Oiseaux 'Ave Flown

It is not only the UK where agriculture can have major detrimental effects on bird populations ( It seems that many species of insect-eating birds are in dramatic decline in France, largely down to the excessive use of pesticides.

Birder's Bonus 181

A Wood pigeon groupie arrives to listen to the drumming of a Greater spotted woodpecker in Loughor.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Blind Spot?

Stem cell stories are like buses- you wait for them for ages and then several come along at the same time. There now is a report (based on a very small sample of 2 patients) reporting significant improvements in the vision of people with age-related macular degeneration following the creation of a 'patch' on the retina with stem cells ( People have been suggesting that stem cells can be used to counter such blindness (where the yellow spot or fovea centralis essentially dies) for a number of years but one has to be careful, as there is money to be made from such treatment (elderly patients with disposable income) and not everyone is in a position to use the technology effectively.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Stem Cells to the Rescue?

There are reports of a potential 'game changer' in the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis or MS ( MS is a condition where numbers of lesions occur in the fatty, myelin sheaths around the nerves, resulting in damaged neural transmission with consequences including impaired abilities to move effectively or to think clearly.  It now appears that the condition may have an auto-immune component with the body attacking its own tissues. Certain groups of patients have, reportedly, shown very good responses to a procedure where:- a) stem cells (undifferentiated cells that have a wide capacity to convert into different specialist tissues) are harvested from their bone marrow and preserved; b) the patient's 'faulty' immune system is destroyed by chemotherapy and c) a 'new' immune system is created by re-seeding the patient with their own stem cells (so there are no rejection issues). The result, in some cases, appears to be a functioning immune system that no longer attacks the myelin sheath of nerves. Some MS patients are reported to be symptomless several years after the procedure. The procedure may not work in every patient and individuals would be open to disease from external and internal (so-called 'latent') factors whilst undergoing chemotherapy but it does offer hope of a cure (the duration of the benefit may still have to be confirmed). It is, of course, possible to induce cells from other sources (e.g. skin cells) to become customised stem cells and they could, perhaps, be used in this procedure.  

Saturday, 17 March 2018

In Clover?

It seems likely that gene editing techniques will soon yield strains of domestic animals that will be largely resistant to many of the more common viral and bacterial diseases that influence their species ( The technology is obviously more for the benefit of the farmers (to curtail disease-associated losses) rather than for the benefit of the animals themselves. It could, however, reduce the numbers of animals that are bred for meat-eating as breeders would not have to attempt to compensate for traditional losses.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Seeing the Changes 1259

Common field speedwell (Veronica persica) and Common dog violet (Viola riviniana) were respectively in flower in Bynea and Loughor.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Seeing the Changes 1258

A hot day in Loughor! A Tree bumble bee (Bombus hypnorum) basked by my front door.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Birder's Bonus 180

Around 200 gulls in the middle of Loughor estuary at low tide.

Seeing the Changes 1257

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) just coming into flower in Bynea!


In line with a recent media obsession with marine plastics, such waste has been claimed to seriously endanger albatross chicks, as they may be fed plastic items by their parents (who presumably take them to be food, as do some other birds including Puffins) (  Humans have, however, many other detrimental effects on these oceanic birds. They may, for example, be taken on line by supposedly 'greener' forms of tuna fishing using poles. 

Biting the Hand That Feeds?

A number of concerns have been raised by studies on garden bird feeders in British locations ( It is suggested that foods should be allowed to run out every 2-3 days; only items from reliable sources be put in the feeders (and these be varied); the locations of feeders should be periodically changed and the feeders should be routinely disinfected. The concerns appear to be related to these devices encouraging species, that would not normally interact, to contact each other with an augmenting of the spread of disease. It is suggested, for example, in the covering article, that the dramatic (35%) decline in the number of UK Green finches (Carduelis chloris) is largely due to the transmission of a protozoan parasite that causes finch trichomonosis. It certainly may be a good idea to disinfect feeders on a regular basis but I am not convinced that this finch decline is solely down to garden feeder-related transmission of parasites (environmental change;  habitat loss and predators may all play roles). Feeders are, I feel, generally a 'good thing' and it would be a pity if people were put off placing and stocking them.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Seeing the Changes 1256

A really early Horse chestnut (Pachycnemia hippocastanaria) moth made an appearance in Loughor.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

In Place of Sunshine?

The debate continues about Vitamin D (the so-called 'sunshine vitamin as it is manufactured under the skin after exposure to UV light) and health  ( In less sunny locations (e.g. winter in the UK), producing enough of your own vitamin is problematic, leaving the diet (mainly oily fish) and supplements as the only easy alternative means of getting sufficient. Having a darker skin; wearing heavy clothing or covering oneself with high factor sun-cream (to avoid skin cancer) all reduce the efficacy of sunshine and being vegan limits increasing the vitamin via the dietary route. Given that vitamin D has now also been claimed to reduce the risk of cancers (in addition to the longer-established health benefits), some people are now suggesting that supplements should be more commonly employed (especially by groups of people with likely deficiencies). 

Fat Shaming or Health Advice?

Being over-weight is now the second greatest, avoidable risk to UK citizens of developing a range of cancers, including those of the colon, kidneys and ovaries ( The risk is apparently increased even when individuals are not clinically obese. The 'obesity epidemic' seen in this country seems to be occurring even early in childhood (meaning that the condition will generally persist for longer) and is likely to have a major impact on life-time health costs. Some people are apparently concerned that claiming the link amounts to 'fat shaming' and maybe counterproductive in encouraging folk to change their lifestyles. I personally feel that people have to be told of the link (as they were for the link between smoking and cancer) to at least have the option of reducing their risk (remembering that risk is a tricky concept, meaning that becoming virtuous gives no guarantees!).  

Seeing the Changes 1255

More catkins between Bynea and Penclacwydd with the appearance of Goat willow (Salix caprea) and Alder (Alnus glutinosa).

Friday, 9 March 2018

Seeing the Changes 1254

Spring seems to be coming to Swansea University Singleton campus. Spotted Three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrum); Early scurvy grass (Cochlearia danica) and Cherry (Prunus spp) all in flower.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Pining for Marten?

Scientists have claimed that encouraging the Pine marten (Martes martes) may be the key to returning UK woodlands to the native Red squirrel ( In Scotland, where there is a significant Pine marten population, the predator seems to find the introduced Grey squirrel (that normally out-competes the Reds, being larger, more intelligent as well as being more resistant to squirrel pox) 'easier meat' than the Reds (one might speculate that only the Reds have encoded behavioural repertoires that facilitate avoidance of the native mustelid). Pine martens, however, largely disappeared from British woodlands as they will eat poultry and ground-nesting game birds. I suspect that that they would return to a mixed array of prey, if Greys were in short supply, again creating tensions with some human groups. 

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Reducing the Spread?

Suggestions that a UK Health 'watchdog' suggests that the obesity 'epidemic' may be alleviated  by getting food suppliers to reduce portion sizes by 20% seem a tad optimistic ( It is certainly true that being over-weight is unhealthy and results in rocketing costs for the health service. It is also certain that many people find it difficult to work out precisely how many calories they are ingesting (especially with no or confusing labelling). I suspect, however, that any such change will result in people getting less food for the same money. Another possibility is that more people will be encouraged to 'super-size' their portions or simply buy  two portions.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Seeing the Changes 1253

In spite of the cold, Osier (Salix elaeagnos) comes into catkin in Bynea.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Penguin Plenty?

After a number of stories about the population pressures to which a variety of penguin (especially Emperors- species are being subjected by climate change and over-fishing, it is somewhat heartening to read that unexpected, breeding 'mega-populations' of about 1.5 million Adelie penguins have been detected in the Antarctic ( The birds have been recorded using drones and are utilising the, rarely visited, Danger islands in the Weddell sea. Of course, we could still be in a position to lose some of the bigger species of these birds.

Evolution Into Reverse?

An American study has thrown up an interesting possibility of 'speciation reversal' in which the, well-documented speciation process (driven by geographical isolation) has apparently resulted in two separate lines recombining ( The California and Holarctic ravens were found in different parts of North America (and thought to have separated some 2 million years ago) but wide-spread hybridisation seems to be recombining them into a single species. Although there are not many reports of such a process, it seems eminently possible if geographical isolation is removed. Of course, the possibility exists that the two populations never really merited being classified as separate species. 

Friday, 2 March 2018

Weather in the 'Wrong' Places

 It may be unusually cold in the UK ( but it is 35 degrees Celsius hotter than usual  around the North pole ( Although these occurrences could turn out to be 'one-offs', it is difficult not to think that both may be dangerous indications of climate change. The polar changes could even exacerbate things by releasing more 'greenhouse gases' and reducing the reflection of solar energy. May be there is such a thing as 'bad' weather (and not just the wrong clothing).

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Birder's Bonus 179

Not quite optimal for such activity in Loughor (-2 degrees Centigrade with wind chill)!

Seeing the Changes 1470

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