Thursday, 9 April 2020

Going Wild in Rural China?

The recent 'freeze' on the production of wild animals for human consumption in rural China appears to be meeting difficulties (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/09/bamboo-rats-left-in-limbo-as-breeders-push-back-against-china-wildlife-ban). Some breeders were apparently feted for their production of Civet cats, bats, Bamboo rats and Pangolins as it was official policy to fight local poverty in this way. The difficulty is that some breeders were on official programmes (and seem to have been offered compensation and encouraged to go into chicken or mushroom production) whereas others, followed the trend independently (and are on their own). Any breeders, with wild-type animals, are not allowed to sell, release or even cull their beasts. The law in this area was established in 2008 and appears very vague (many species are not referred to) and some farmers, who are paying for food, appear angry that, while the origins of Covid-19 have not been established, they are in limbo. This seems a recipe for more disaster.

Seeing the Changes 1409


On a day that never stops giving, noted lots of Common wasps (Vespa vulgaris) around Loughor. Also spotted my first Brimstone (Gonopteryx rhamni) of the year in my garden.

Seeing the Changes 1408





A warm day with a lot more out. In Bynea, Bluebell (Endymion non-scriptus) and Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) were blooming. In Penclacwydd, Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) was in flower whilst Speckled wood (Parage aegeria tircis) and male Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) butterflies flitted.

Fuming: Adding to the Risk?

It is hardly remarkable, given the fact that SARS CoV-2 (formerly Covid-19) causes pneumonia, but a wide-ranging (in terms of locations investigated) study has clearly linked deaths from the virus to the air quality found in particular locations (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/07/air-pollution-linked-to-far-higher-covid-19-death-rates-study-finds). The shutdown of economic activity in many parts of the world, has, of course, temporarily (?) improved air quality but establishing the link reiterates the importance of clean air to human health. It is interesting that whilst one can easily blame a virus for human suffering and death, human activity-created problems generally receive a carte blanc.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Seeing the Changes 1407

A Holly blue (Celestrina argiolus) flitted around my Loughor garden.

Modelling the UK's Covid-19 Outbreak

Modelling a Pandemic is always problematical (remember the old computer adage "Garbage in: Garbage out") and getting accurate numbers for Covid-19 infections and deaths in the UK has been problematical. The respected Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, which is based at the University of Washington in the USA, has, however, come up with some predictions for our country (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/07/how-can-coronavirus-models-get-it-so-wrong). They initially point out that modelling is most accurate where the epidemic has already peaked (e.g. Italy) and have used that information to guide predictions about the likely pattern in countries (e.g. the UK) where it is still climbing. Their predicted daily death-rate in the UK is between 800 and 8000 (a wide variation but both figures are strikingly high) and they think the epidemic will peak here around the 17th of April. Even worse, they reckon that, by August, the UK will have recorded more Covid-19 deaths than France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. It is a model but it's scary. 

Seeing the Changes 1406


A few more. Sea plantain (Plantago maritima) in flower in Bynea and Red campion (Silene dioica) made an appearance in Penclacwydd.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The 'Need' to Exercise in a Covid-19 World

It seems likely that the UK will eventually close off the possibility of taking daily exercise in parks and public spaces, in spite of recently arguing that being a 'couch potato' is costly to the NHS in terms of physical and mental health (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2020/apr/07/closing-uk-parks-and-public-spaces-tipping-point-coronavirus-covid-19). Different people, of course, have different situations (ranging from a basement gym to no garden) and the curtailing of exercise will be of most detriment to the poorest in our communities. I must agree with the writer of the above article that poor folk (as well as the elderly) are most likely to find it difficult to re-engage in the event of such a ban being lifted. My own recent experience is that people out taking exercise are generally very considerate in terms of 'social spacing' and often choose times of day when people on their route are sparse. They are also 'friendly from a distance', which is a helpful form of pseudo-contact for people living on their own. Some people also just need to get out occasionally. Personally speaking, my daily jog is the high-light of my current day. I would be devastated to lose it!

New Blood?

Although it is only based on 15 patients in 2 separate Chinese hospitals, there is an encouraging claim that transfusion of plasma from Covid-19 survivors can improve the condition of people who are seriously ill with the condition (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/07/plasma-from-coronavirus-survivors-found-to-help-severely-ill-patients). It seems almost certain that antibodies in the transfused plasma, dramatically reduce the viral load and its associated symptoms in vulnerable patients. The preliminary studies also suggest that the immune response to infection does offer considerable protection from reinfection (unless the virus mutates). It might even the possible to generate a drug to treat Covid-19 by using information derived from studying the structure of the antibody.

Someone is Watching You?

Although the idea has been around for many years, an International team appears to have come up with some innovations for fitting a 'smart toilet' to monitor health over time (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/06/magic-toilet-could-monitor-users-health-say-researchers). The system of sensors and detectors can apparently be fitted relatively cheaply to existing loos and can monitor conditions such as diabetes, urinary tract infections and inflammatory bowel diseases (it even takes pictures of stools and uses AI to classify them). Of particular interest, is the device's ability to recognise who was using it. This is either via a fingerprint scanner on the flush handle or from the pattern of creases in the anus (the 'analprint).

Bearing Fruit?

Scottish farmers reportedly produce around a quarter of the soft fruit that is consumed in the UK (with a fairly low carbon footprint). In these days of Covid-19, there was apparently real concern that it would all go to waste without the usual influx of low-paid pickers (there was even talk of flying them in) of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries that traditionally came from Eastern Europe (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/05/scottish-fruit-farmers-recruit-thousands-locals-save-harvest). Most of the current emergency appears to have been solved by the recruitment of local students (whose courses have been halted) and bar/restaurant staff (whose establishments have closed). What this will do for 'social isolation' and viral spread, however, remains to be seen. I suspect that the fruit farms will not find such ready replacements, if and when, the economy returns to normal.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Seeing the Changes 1405

In Loughor, Yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) was flowering.

Negative Energy

It may be something of a promotion, but some houses in the UK are being paid, for the first time, for their daytime use of 'green electricity'  (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/05/thousands-to-be-paid-for-daytime-green-electricity-use-during-lockdown). This appears to result from a combination of circumstances including;- a) the Covid-19 lockdown (with closures to workplaces, pubs and restaurants) greatly reducing energy consumption; b) the bright, windy weather powering turbines and solar panels and c) the fact that, under these circumstances, renewables (wind and sunshine) are accounting for a very large percentage of electricity generation. Formerly, being paid to use 'green electricity' was limited to occasional night-time use by certain suppliers. I only wish it could happen on a regular basis (without the lockdown).

Seeing the Changes 1404


In Penclacwydd, an impressive sedge was in flower. In Bynea, Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) was starting to bloom.

Summertime and Covid-19 Eases?

There has been some debate about whether the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK could be eased (as it appears to be in the case of colds and influenza) by summer temperatures (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/05/scientists-ask-could-summer-heat-help-beat-covid-19). One must state upfront, however, is that this is a very new virus and people really have no idea how it will react seasonally (although it seems to be thriving in many parts of the world with variable ambient temperatures). I have always been led to believe that the 'disappearance' of colds and 'flu in the summer in the UK is more down to changes in human behaviour (becoming less likely to congregate in groups in relatively small rooms for extended periods) rather than a change in the viability of the virus. It is worth pointing out that, even if there was a decline in severe Covid-19 infections in the summer months (linked to possible seasonal changes in the immune system and/or viability of the virus in the air or on surfaces), the infection might well spread in the population to 'return' as the winter closes in. I don't think we can assume that summertime will 'cure' us but it might well be more difficult to maintain social distancing at that time.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Game Changer?

It is evident, to most people, that we really do need a quick and reliable test for blood antibodies to determine who has been exposed to the Covid-19 virus and consequently might be able (with documentation?) to safely return to work (especially in the NHS or care). It now appears, however, that the ordered test is not as reliable as had been hoped (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/05/coronavirus-testing-kits-could-be-unreliable-uk-scientists-say). Although it had been claimed to be 90% accurate, this was only when tested in hospitals using blood from people with very clear systems. Some authorities feel that the test is likely to be only have a 50% accuracy (the same as tossing a coin!) in people in the community with milder symptoms. This could never be an acceptable basis for returning people to the 'front line'. I would personally be unhappy with people testing themselves (as they do with a pregnancy test) and self-certifying

Sea Change

It appears that the North Atlantic currently does not play as large a role in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as was expected in modelling exercises (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/03/oceans-capacity-to-absorb-co2-overestimated-study-suggests). It was assumed that the photosynthetic activity of diatoms would incorporate the gas and that these, relatively large planktonic particles, would then sink into the depths where the carbon would remain for an extended period. It now appears that most of the photosynthetic activity in the surface waters is by much smaller organisms, such as cyanobacteria, which don't sink very effectively and actually release the 'greenhouse gas' relatively quickly. This probably means that we have to work harder to curtail climate change.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Birder's Bonus 198

More unusual ducks (Scaup?) on the Loughor estuary.

Seeing the Changes 1403




More flowers in Gorseinon with Lords and ladies (Arum maculatum); Cowslip (Primula veris); Field mouse-ear (Cerastium arvense) and Cnidium (Cnidium dubium).

Birder's Bonus 197

An Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) lurked on Loughor estuary.

Science on Trial?

I, like most other scientists (especially of the retired variety), only feel really comfortable with our own area(s) of specialism (often only a little bit of the substantial range of subject matter), getting increasingly less confident, as we move further and further away from that zone. This is not to say, of course, that we might not have views (some informed by our training and experience) on these more remote issues but we generally defer to specialists on those topics. I have been deeply unhappy with a tendency by some politicians, in recent years, to regard the opinions of 'experts' (who presumably were well-read about the issues and were trying to offer a 'balanced' view, supported by the majority of their profession) as being inferior to their own (generally self-serving?) 'gut instincts'. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, I was therefore somewhat gladdened that, at least, expert opinion seemed to be back in vogue, with politicians apparently deferring to scientists. Having watched developments, however, over the last few weeks, I have been increasingly concerned about how frequently government expert opinion did not seem to fit with my (albeit non-specialist) assumptions (about e.g. the origins of the virus; the relevance of the concept of 'herd immunity' to disease control, without a vaccine and the urgent need  for substantial numbers of PCR and antibody-detecting tests to track infection in our population). They, in deed, also did not fit with what was written by other non-government scientists in our country or in different parts of the world. Our government-supporting experts are presumably highly intelligent folk, so I cannot believe that the strategies (many used by other countries) that were originally rejected, before becoming our new norm, did not occur to them earlier. If that is the case, one must presume that our country's initial outlier status (doing things differently from everyone else) was the result of political calculations. Science has to tell it how it is (or at least as the majority of informed specialists believe it to be) or it's of no use to anyone! There is a danger that expert opinion will prove to be a 'moveable feast'.

Seeing the Changes 1402



More activity in Bynea, with flowerings by Bulbous corydalis (Corydalis solida) and Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). Sadly, on Loughor Bridge, a male Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia) was an RTA.

Friday, 3 April 2020

We Really Don't Need Conspiracy Theories at this Time

As if we haven't got enough problems with the Covid-19 pandemic! There are now reports of mobile telephone company equipment being set on fire and personnel verbally attacked because online groups have claimed that the new 5G systems are designed to kill people.  They even claim that living near a mast causes the respiratory problems seen in the pandemic rather than being the result of a viral infection (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/03/broadband-engineers-threatened-due-to-5g-coronavirus-conspiracies). It really beggars belief that people can get such ideas although they do appear to be a ramping up of claims in the early days of mobiles that they could damage the brain. The evidence is extremely weak and we do need to have the people connected as effectively as possible at this time

Seeing the Changes 1401

The Red clover (Trifolium pratense) was blooming in Bynea.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Testing Times

There is no doubt that reliable and widely-applied testing of the population is an essential tool for use in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Having said that, it does appear that the UK has been both slow and inappropriately-focused in terms of testing (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/01/uk-coronavirus-testing-what-ministers-said-and-what-stands-scrutiny). Two types of test are needed namely a PCR test to detect the virus's genes in a person's body and an antibody test to determine if an individual has contracted the disease and made a recovery. The first tells you which individuals carry the agent and should be placed in situations (lockdown or quarantine), where they are unlikely to infect others. This test (which would need to be repeated at intervals) is essential for all 'front-line' workers especially those in the medical or caring professions. It should also be extended to police officers and workers in supermarkets et cetera. I think that this is actually more important than using the test (especially given its apparently limited availability) to confirm a diagnosis that a patient has Covid-19. The second test, tells you (with limited confidence, because we cannot be sure, at the present time, how long immunological protection to this virus lasts) which individuals can safely return to work after symptoms have abated. This, again, is something that would enable self-isolating medical staff (and others) to return to their essential activities.

HS2: Woodland Spring Offensive

Some people wonder why HS2 is still going ahead at this time, given the ravages (to society and the economy). To add insult to injury, there is a report that the builders have reneged on a promise to the Woodland Trust to relocate soils from the protected areas on the route during the winter when most organisms are dormant (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/apr/01/betrayal-of-trust-hs2-criticised-over-removal-woodland-soils). The idea of moving the soils, was to facilitate the establishment of 'replacement' wooded areas but, doing it now, in April, when things are growing, is self-evidently, at exactly the wrong time. I cannot believe that the engineers (keen to push their schedule) were unaware of this basic biological fact!

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Normal Times: Abnormal Times?

In normal times, a test that can, assisted by AI, detect and identify some 50 human cancers from the methylation products of DNA they release into the blood would be excellent news (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/mar/31/new-blood-test-can-detect-50-types-of-cancer). In the days of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, it could get the patient classified as someone with 'an underlying medical condition' and thus not being a candidate for scarce resources.

A Lasting Impact of the UK Floods

It has been pointed out that, in areas, the UK flooding has now persisted for a long time (in some cases, since October) and this is seriously (and permanently?)  damaging to ecosystems (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/01/the-losses-could-be-profound-how-floods-are-wreaking-havoc-on-wildlife-aoe). For example, the Lugg and Hampton flower meadows are still under the waters of the river Lugg and there has been serious damage to wetland habitats and river ecosystems across the UK. A sign of things to come with climate change, as systems and organisms cannot adapt in time to the changed circumstances?

Our World on a Cigarette Packet?

There has been a suggestion that climate-damaging products, like car fuel pumps and airline tickets, should carry graphic pictures, along the same lines as the images of smoking-related diseases, that are mandatory, in the UK and elsewhere, on cigarette packets (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/31/climate-killing-products-should-come-with-smoking-style-warnings). It's an interesting suggestion but I'm not sure it would work as well as the anti-smoking advertising. Cigarettes damage the health of the smoker (and those in their immediate vicinity) relatively quickly, whereas the climate-damaging effects are much more diffuse, being seen  planet-wide, and taking (hopefully) decades. It has also been pretty easy to determine what images (disease conditions) will have an impact on tobacco use but what pictures (floods, starving people?) would clearly carry the message for climate change? It is also relatively easy to put an image on to a fuel pump or a plastic bottle but where would you put it for maximal effect on a natural gas supply or food that has been transported by air freight? An awful lot of what we consume damages the environment!

Seeing the Changes 1400



Yet more springings. In Bynea, Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) was coming into leaf and Spanish bluebell (Endymion hispanicus) was flowering. In Penclacwydd, the first Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) bloomed.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Seeing the Changes 1399

Another flowering in Loughor, this time a Forgetmenot (Myosotis sp). Looks like another garden escapee.

Big Farmer?

Yet another claimed horror story concerning the reported historical research practices of 2 big, linked agrochemical producers (Monsanto and BASF). They initially developed glyphosphate (Roundup)-tolerant seeds, whose fields could be sprayed with the herbicide, killing only the weeds (both the seeds and the herbicides had to be purchased from the companies). When the technology started to fail, as weeds developed tolerance to the herbicide, it is claimed that they started work on an alternative, privately knowing that this was likely to damage some US farmers (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/30/monsanto-crop-system-damage-us-farms-documents). What they broadly did was to develop crops that were tolerant to another of their herbicides, dicamba, knowing that its volatile nature would result in it causing drift damage of nearby plants. Emails suggest that the companies were fully aware that their assurances on spraying technology would not solve the problem. They also appear to have discouraged any third party studies on their 'voodoo science' (their words). This is a strange application of science.

Rowing Back Via Covid-19?

It's a bit tough on the Japanese, given the impact of Covid-19 on their Olympics, but their new plan for 'greenhouse gas' emissions targets have been roundly condemned as 'wholly inadequate' (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/30/campaigners-attack-japan-shameful-climate-plans-release). The Japanese were one of the first major countries (they are the 5th largest polluter) to publish their plan in advance of the proposed Glasgow meeting. Broadly speaking, their aspirations don't seem to have improved over what they agreed to in 2013 in Paris (although it is now recognised that this would have been inadequate to limit the increases in the global temperature to a 'safe' level). A number of authorities appear worried that Covid-19 pandemic will be used by countries to 'water down' their emissions targets

Car Equivalents

An NGO has estimated that four global drinks companies (Coca-Cola; PepsiCo; Nestle and Unilever) annually generate half a million tonnes of plastic pollution in six developing countries (China; India; Brazil; Phillipines; Mexico and Nigeria). They claim, that on a daily basis, the waste would cover more than 80 football pitches (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/31/report-reveals-massive-plastic-pollution-footprint-of-drinks-firms). If the plastic packaging was burnt, it would reportedly generate 4.6m tonnes of carbon dioxide which is equivalent, they feel, to the exhaust fumes of 2 million petrol/diesel cars. This, at least, gives people an idea of the size of the problem (but there are, of course, there are many more companies and countries).

Monday, 30 March 2020

Seeing the Changes 1398

Silver birch (Betula pendula) in catkin in Loughor.

Toad Out of a Hole

Yet another benefit to wildlife! It has been suggested that the cancelling of the annual evening April 'bunny run' fell races by the Wharfedale Harriers, as a consequence of the Covid-19 outbreak, will save the lives of thousands of toads (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/30/giant-leap-for-toadkind-after-yorkshire-fell-runs-are-cancelled). The races just so happen to correspond with the toad's migration to a pond near the route in order to mate. It has been suggested that, when the races resume, the course could be changed, moving it away from the breeding site. Other possibilities include holding them at a different time of the year (outside the breeding season) or earlier in the day (so the runners are more likely to see animals that might otherwise be trampled). 

Seeing the Changes 1397


More flowers in Bynea with the appearance of the Hoary plantain (Plantago media) and the Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris).

Quick! The Humans Have Gone!

There are interesting reports of wild animals in the UK making the most of the relative absence of humans, along with the noise of their vehicles (as a consequence of the Covid-19 lockdown) to maximally exploit habitats (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/29/uk-wildlife-enjoys-humans-lockdown-but-concerns-raised-over-conservation). These include a high incidence of moles foraging on the surface (rather than lurking underground) and ground-nesting birds flocking into areas suddenly vacated by walkers and their dogs. Although public footpaths have remained open in and around many parks, the car parks serving them are mostly closed, greatly reducing the footfall. Our absence (along with our 'best friend') has also reportedly caused foxes and weasels to roam more widely. Of course, there may be problems, especially for ground-nesting birds, if the gates are suddenly thrown open without considering what the animals are currently up to.

Casting the Dye

Reports that the police have dyed the waters of the Blue lagoon on Hurpur Hill, Buxton black are disturbing (https://www.derbyshiretimes.co.uk/health/coronavirus/police-dye-water-buxton-blue-lagoon-deter-swimmers-during-coronavirus-lockdown-2521350). I can appreciate that, in these days of the Covid-19 pandemic, they would want to deter reported groups of swimmers from gathering in the location but, even if the dye is harmless to humans, one cannot be sure that the chemical or its obscuring effects would not be detrimental to other animals and plants in and around the pool. If this had been done by anyone else, it would have been classified as vandalism or a polluting event. 

Going Wild in Rural China?

The recent 'freeze' on the production of wild animals for human consumption in rural China appears to be meeting difficulties ( h...