Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The countryside - do not enter on pain of death!

Of course there are some dangers in the countryside which we all need to be aware of, without sensationalising them. Common sense is all that is needed for a pleasant and safe time in the fresh air.

Oh Matt Rudd, Matt Rudd – surely you should be a journalist working on a trashy tabloid like the Sunday People rather than a supposedly, more serious broadsheet such as the Sunday Times? Your headline in last weekend’s paper read “Beware a burning summer as hogweed monster goes viral”.

But that is only the start! You go on by starting your article “Run for your lives. The flesh eating triffids are coming. Experts say this is the summer when giant hogweed goes viral”. Are you quite sure these so called experts said this – or have you woven in a large helping of journalistic flair here?

I know you are only trying to flog a few more papers, but there is a serious point to my criticism in that, on the one hand we are trying to encourage children (and their parents!) to turn off their computers and televisions and go out and explore the delights of the countryside this summer, while on the other hand you are frightening the pants off of them all!

Of course you should write about this plant and inform people of the possible dangers should they handle it – but “flesh eating triffids” – oh please!  Why is it that journalists seem incapable nowadays of writing a report on a subject just as it is, without sensationalising the facts and transforming it into some sort of Doctor Who script?

A very quick trawl through the internet, looking at the media topics covered in the recent past, would make you feel damned lucky if you have managed to return home unscathed, indeed alive, from even the shortest of saunters in this treacherous land we inhabit!

Snorting bulls, (they are ALWAYS snorting), marauding wild boar, poisonous adders, rutting stags fueled with testosterone, false black widow spiders, ticks and Lyme’s disease are all likely to be encountered, while an article from America informs us that the “risk of death — which counts both violent crime and accidents — is more than 20% higher in the countryside than it is in large urban areas”. This American experience may of course be true.

I found myself wondering if things might be even worse here in the UK, because you have all been warned that you are quite likely to bump into an irate, red faced farmer with his pitch fork or a shotgun swinging keeper, both of whom may or may not let you escape the rigged up temporary gallows, but only if you apologise profusely and grovel enough.

This sort of journalism has to stop.

I know many, many farmers who spend an inordinate amount of time arranging “Open Farm Sunday” and others who invite local folk onto the farm at lambing time, while many keepers are involved with educational walks, showing people the ways of the countryside. My local hunt – the Hampshire hunt - is right now advertising their “open day”, hoping to demonstrate and inform anyone who has the gumption to make up their own mind on the ways of hunting.

Meanwhile we are entering the countryside show period, from the Game fair through to the local ploughing match, where many, many country folk will give up their time to chat to anyone who is interested about their work and life out in the sticks.

I have quite often raised the issue on this blog of “Yokels versus Townies” – it is a two way problem of course – and my concerns that the gap between the two seems to be ever widening. However, I am increasingly seeing many who live within the countryside doing their bit in an attempt to close that gap, which is so vital if we are to retain many of the traditional customs and a way of life which many of us still enjoy.

So, to journalists from all parts of the media – a plea. Report on anything you like – of course – but please cut out this ridiculous sensationalism. You have an important role to play in the width of this social gap too. 


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Bee careful what you eat

Bee careful what you eat
A friend has just alerted me to this study and as it is "pollinator awareness week", I thought that I would share it with you. Although much more work needs to be done before scientists can be sure that this is yet another factor in the decline of bees and other pollinators, it does perhaps already demonstrate how contaminated our world has become.
"A new scientific study has found very high amounts of aluminium contamination in bees, raising the question of whether aluminium-induced cognitive dysfunction is playing a role in the decline of bumblebee populations.
Aluminium is the Earth’s most ubiquitous ecotoxicant and is already known to be responsible for the death of fish in acid lakes, forest decline in acidified and nutrient impoverished catchments, and low crop productivity on acid sulphate soils. Now, a collaboration between Professors Chris Exley (Keele University) and Dave Goulson (University of Sussex) raises questions on the role of aluminium in the decline of the bumblebee.
Previous research had suggested that when bees forage for nectar they do not actively avoid nectar which contains aluminium. This prompted the suggestion by Exley and Goulson that bees may be accumulating aluminium within their life cycle. Researchers at University of Sussex collected pupae from colonies of naturally foraging bumblebees and sent them to Keele University where their aluminium content was determined.
The pupae were found to be heavily contaminated with aluminium, with individual contents ranging from between and 13 and nearly 200 ppm. Smaller pupae had significantly higher contents of aluminium.
To put these aluminium contents in some context, a value of 3 ppm would be considered as potentially pathological in human brain tissue. While preliminary, these data have shown the significant accumulation of aluminium in at least one stage of the bumblebee life cycle and suggest the possibility of another stressor contributing to the decline in its numbers.
Professor Exley, a leading authority on human exposure to aluminium, from Keele University said: "It is widely accepted that a number of interacting factors are likely to be involved in the decline of bees and other pollinators – lack of flowers, attacks by parasites, and exposure to pesticide cocktails, for example.
“Aluminium is a known neurotoxin affecting behaviour in animal models of aluminium intoxication. Bees, of course, rely heavily on cognitive function in their everyday behaviour and these data raise the intriguing spectre that aluminium-induced cognitive dysfunction may play a role in their population decline – are we looking at bees with Alzheimer’s disease?”

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Can you feel the buzz around this week?

It's a messy old business this pollination lark!!
You may be aware that it is “Pollinator Awareness Week” this week – once again trying to raise the fact that this group of various species which pollinate our plants are so vital to the way the world ticks – including our very survival.

The UK government has produced a National Pollinator Strategy which you can visit if you would like to find out more. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/409431/pb14221-national-pollinators-strategy.pdf

So what are the species that deliver this service? Well, they are not just bees! In the UK there are as follows:
Bees – 24 species of bumblebees, around 225 species of solitary bee and just a single honeybee species.
9,000 species of wasp
7,000+ species of fly
250+ species of Hoverfly
58+ species of Butterfly & 2400+ Moth species
Plus - midges, beetles, thrips and bugs.
Even birds - some warblers drink nectar and catch insects within flower heads, transporting pollen between plants - and also mammals – Dormouse are not averse to having a drink of a little nectar early in the season when they awake from their over-winter slumbers!

Some species such as most of the moths are obviously offering this service during the night when we are tucked up in our beds, so perhaps we are unaware of this activity. Why do you think that the honeysuckle in your garden smells so delicious in the evenings and after dark – yes you’ve got it – to attract the moths and other night time insects! In fact some plants only open their flowers during darkness, such as the aptly named annual flower “Night Flowering Catchfly”. This is a relatively rare plant that grows on cultivated ground and can still be found hiding away on the edge of farmer’s fields. It is almost exclusively pollinated by moths.

This neatly brings me to farmland. Of course, we can all do our bit by supplying lots of flowering plants in our gardens, but if we are really to make a big, landscape scale difference, then farmers are key to this.

Many farmers are now planting flower rich margins and field corners, while also planting Legume based mixes of plants such as Bird’s foot trefoil, clovers, vetches and sainfoin. Legumes are particularly favoured by “long-tongued” bumblebees which are declining more quickly than most.
They are the group of bumblebees that can reach down into the deep recesses of these plants to find the nectar, which bees with shorter tongues cannot get to. Meanwhile, they get covered in pollen which they then transport to the next flower they visit – completing this hugely important transaction called pollination.

The new Countryside Stewardship scheme which pays farmers to plant wildlife crops and manage their farms for wildlife is very much targeting the pollinators. The Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) has also held many events across the country for farmers, encouraging them to grow even more flower rich areas. 

Are farmers doing their bit? Well, as I keep reminding folk – 73% of farmers are currently in a scheme and many of them have chosen to plant habitats for bees. Likewise, many of the farmers who are not in a specific scheme also actively do things for pollinators, such as cutting their hedges on a two year rotation so that they produce lots of flowers. (A hedge cut every year does not produce blossom as most shrubs flower on second year growth)

But of course, as I mentioned in my last blog – the Great Yellow Bumblebee demonstrates just how much flower rich habitat we have lost. There is still much, much more to do.  

Monday, 13 July 2015

Corncrakes, Great Yellows and Flying Otters!

One of the species I was keen to see on my recent trip to the Outer Hebrides was the great yellow bumblebee. This species used to be found nationwide, however in just my lifetime, it has become extinct across much of the country, now only occurring on the northern Scottish isles in any number. 

You do not have to be on South Uist for long to see why this species has retreated to these remote islands, despite the often inclement weather, because the Machair (they pronounce it Mac-ear) will soon stun you with its sheer scale and beauty. This habitat is a blend of low-lying coastline, sand partly consisting of shell fragments, the effects of strong winds combined with just the right amount of rainfall and, most crucially, the involvement of people and their grazing animals.

The Machair flowers over a long period of time as it consists of a wide range of flower species including excellent pollen and nectar plants such as red clover, yellow rattle, knapweed, vetches and bird’s foot trefoil. Add to this numerous surrounding flower rich hay meadows and you begin to see why this is such a magnet for the great yellows. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust do a factsheet on this species if you are interested in finding out more: http://bumblebeeconservation.org/about-bees/identification/very-rare/great-yellow-bumblebee/

As I wandered around these stunning landscapes looking for great yellows and listening to the “crek, crek” of corncrake, it dawned on me how these two species had done exactly the same thing in retreating to these distant shores, simply to find suitable habitat in order to survive. It makes quite a statement on how the quality of flower rich habitats have changed across the rest of the country does it not?

Strangely, this very thought was then pointed out to me a couple of days later in Dave Goulson’s book “A buzz in the meadow” which I happened to be reading. Dave is professor of biological sciences at Sussex University and set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006. I can highly recommend this book and believe that ALL school leavers should have to read chapter fifteen as a compulsory part of the school curriculum. (now you will have to buy it to find out what this chapter is all about!)

I could not find a great yellow and suspected that the very late spring had resulted in the impressively sized queen bees remaining in their over-wintering hideaways.

I was due to fly out from Barra Island’s airport which uses the beach as a runway. This is the only airport in the world that has a constantly changing flight schedule to take into account the tides. On arrival I was told that the flight from Glasgow still had not taken off and so there was going to be a delay.

I took the opportunity to walk onto an area of Machair, backed by large sand dunes, which is situated directly behind the airport. The day was sunny with just a light breeze, perfect I thought for encouraging a slumbering great yellow queen to finally emerge from her long winter’s rest. I had only been wandering for five minutes when there she was, a stunning large yellow feeding on her favourite plant – red clover.

I eventually climbed onto the little twin-engine Otter plane, a very happy man – for once in my life I really had not minded suffering a flight delay one jot!

South Uist - a profusion of wild flowers 

Barra airport with the small area of Machair showing middle left where I finally encountered a great yellow! 

A twin Otter plane coming into land on the beach....

with a bit of a splash!

Ready for boarding!

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Outer Hebrides

I have been spending a few days on the Outer Hebrides travelling from the top island of Lewis down through Harris, Uist, Eriskay and Barra.

While many of you were basking in 30 degree plus temperatures, for much of the time these islands could only muster up half that, but goodness me, what they lacked in the weather stakes, they sure make up in beauty!

The winter has been a long one and spring has not really arrived, and the islanders are hacked off, even by their standards it has been a wet, cold and extremely windy time. As a result, the array of flowers making up the Machair are at least a month behind and I had the rather bizarre experience of seeing primroses and Lady's smock in flower in July!

I watched an otter one evening hunting for crabs amongst the seaweed, going about its business within 15 metres or so of where I was standing. I saw a wonderful array of birds including Golden Eagle, Black guillemot, Corn Bunting, Snipe, Redshank, Lapwing, Dunlin and of course the constant "crek, crek" of Corncrake on South Uist. I also caught up with a great yellow bumblebee - a speciality of these isles.

I have put up a few photos for you - hopefully they might brighten up your day!

Stornaway harbour in late evening

Seals join gulls in the harbour to feed on the fishermen's discarded waste 

Other rather more unexpected guests turn up too!

Sea bird colonies cling to the cliffs - here mainly Razorbill and Kittiwakes

Classic Corncrake country

Need I add anything?

A Fulmar nesting amongst sea pinks

The beaches were totally deserted almost without exception

These are my footprints - the only ones on the beach!

Wet marshland flowers - overhead were the constant cries of Redshank, Lapwing and Dunlin, while a number of snipe sat on fence posts and observed me in silence

A view across Eriskay

Barra - in the foreground mustard has been planted as a fodder crop 

July primroses!

South Uist - a profusion of flowers including here a pink haze of Ragged Robin

A Shag broods her young on the nest