Let’s not start …

You know that saying ‘Let’s start as we mean to go on’? Well, let’s not. Just .. let’s not, OK?

The New Year has rolled in with me still recovering from shoulder surgery, and suffering from a fluey virus which has given me bronchitis/asthma1, so I can’t do much at all right now and I’m feeling pretty miserable and helpless. Could be worse, I know, and to be fair, I’m not hospitalised, I’m warm and well-fed, and I have my lovely OH who is taking good care of me. But my spirits have not been improved by the snippets of news which I’ve been reading just lately.

The Orange Buffoon is determined to challenge the Volatile One to a spitting match which might well end in tears, the weather has gone crazy, and the environment is under multiple threats both large and small. Yesterday I heard that a small wooden footbridge in our village, much used by walkers (both with and without dogs or children) has once again been vandalised by some idiot with a power saw, and has had planks from the walkway removed leaving gaping holes through which a person (or a dog or a child) could fall about twelve feet to the brook below. This footbridge is on a back road in the country. It isn’t on the way to anywhere, unless you’re a dog walker, and you’d have to know it was there in order to find it, so I’m guessing it’s some deranged local (with or without some kind of bizarre grudge).

As if that weren’t bad enough, the same thing has been done at Ferry Meadows, a local country park eleven-and-a-half miles away, which has an excellent record for wildlife curation, watersports and family fun. It seems pretty certain that it’s the same person because the same two events have gone hand in hand before2, so they must have transport, as well as a power tool and a grudge. At the country park, they not only vandalised nearly two dozen memorial benches and all of the wooden footbridges, but they also hacked twenty-six newly planted trees in half3.

I’m not sure what kind of maggot gets into someone’s head for them to deliberately go out and do this kind of thing. Being somewhat of a student of human nature, I can kind of, sort of, understand what motivates someone to commit a one-off act of vandalism as an expression of frustrated anger, but this goes beyond such an act. This is a deliberate, cold-hearted, selfish desire to wound other people and make them suffer, either emotionally or physically. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt, either by falling through a gap in a footbridge or over the side, or by falling backward off a bench. Such a desire must surely be rooted in mental incompetence of some kind because there are very, very few people who are truly evil.

But you know what? The true measure of man’s spirit is not to be found in how many times he gets knocked over, but in how many times he gets back up again. This vandal (or vandals) will not win. The footbridge in my village has been roped off, and will be repaired as soon as can be managed. The bridges and benches in the country park will also be mended and the trees replanted by many willing hands. Eventually, of course, the person responsible will be caught and punished, and life will go on, and he – or, it has to be admitted, she – will be quickly forgotten, because that’s what happens.

So in this new year, this 2018, I will shake off my cough and my sore ribs and my shoulder will heal themselves, and I’ll get back on the treadmill and put myself on the Clever Guts diet4, and eventually we will get our new dog. I am already looking forward to the hoverfly season and to getting back out into the garden and planting up my new plants and digging a new pond and putting OH to work getting the new bee houses installed, and no doubt I’ll have great fun photographing all this stuff. I have plans. Venice in the spring, learn to speak French, improve my Italian, begin Swedish Death Cleaning5, visit relatives and some new people I only know from the internet, and I also want to replace a row of Leylandii with a mixed deciduous hedge.

Sounds fun, huh? We may have started the year badly, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue that way. I bet the power saw-wielding chopper-up of benches won’t have half so much fun as me!

Photos of the damage at Ferry Meadows courtesy of Martin Chillcott

1 It’s a bit hard to distinguish between the two, since both give you a lot of congestion and wheezing and make you cough. All I know is that I’ve been coughing for far too long, my ribs hurt, and I need to use my inhalers to the limit. But since the treatment is pretty much the same, I guess it hardly matters what you call it.

2 The same vandalism was perpetrated in the same two places within the same time-frame and along the same path of destruction a while back. Yes, it’s circumstantial, but my money is on a repeat offence by the same person.

3 I think it’s the trees which annoy me the most. Trees take time to get established and become useful to wildlife and, indeed, us. We all need trees to deal with pollution and with the CO2 in the atmosphere. Destroying a tree is like smacking yourself in the face with a brick. Only less messy.

4 Michael Mosley’s Clever Guts Diet is a one-off protocol to rebalance your gut flore (your gut’s microbiome). Since I suffer from acid reflux, which might be affected by those little guys that live down there, I thought I might try it.

5 Swedish Death Cleaning is an approach to clearing out accumulated junk, and one which I sorely need. The name comes from the philosophy that it is unkind to leave your horribly cluttered house to your children to deal with after you’re dead.

The wise don’t build their houses upon sand

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I read with some disbelief the other day that a charity called The Lynx Trust is planning to release lynx into the wild in various parts of Britain. Seems a tad daft to me, for various reasons.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about urban foxes. They’re cute and cuddly, and remind us of our pet dogs, and it’s lovely to see fox cubs rolling around on the lawn and coming for the scraps that people put out for them. They do also sometimes rip open rubbish containers, but they’re still cute, aren’t they? Of course, they are opportunists (like most wild animals), and will steal chickens, and occasionally enter houses in search of food, where they sometimes leave their smelly scat or urine behind, and that’s not quite so cute. Very rarely, they will threaten human children1. Basically, it’s never a good idea to encourage wild animals to get too close to humans, but there you go, people will do it. But whatever the downside, foxes are a part of our native wildlife, and play an important role in the whole ecology thing.

Now imagine a different wild animal roaming freely here. A very large, wild cat which comes in at 80-130cm in length, stands up to 70cm at the shoulder, and can weigh up to 40kg2. We are talking about a feline which is described as a very powerful and efficient hunter, and is roughly the size and weight of a large male German Shepherd dog.

Lynx are magnificent animals and remarkable hunters. Their preferred habitat is forest, and their preferred prey is deer, which they like to ambush, sometimes dropping onto them from above. Well, we do have a problem with deer in some areas, especially Muntjac, and it might perhaps be nice to have a predator able to keep their numbers under control in a natural way, but at what price? Isn’t it possible that having run out of food in a particular area that they might turn their attention to other options? Isn’t it also possible that they will learn that human settlements provide easy pickings? I have no illusions that a wild cat the size of a lynx, would voluntarily keep away from farms, or from domestic pets. Cats are smart, and they are adaptable.

The Telegraph ran a news item which claimed that “every pet in the UK is to be insured against lynx attacks“, and I have heard enough from my American friends to know that where decent-sized wild predators are, it’s likely that sooner or later they will run foul of humanity, most likely when their food supply is short. Sometimes, they turn to farm livestock, and sometimes to the easy pickings that our pets offer, so I do not doubt that this will be a clear and present danger in areas where lynx live3.

There is also the question of what this would do for our other wildlife, much of which is already struggling badly. Suppose the lynx stay where they’re put and don’t come out of their forest habitats to snag themselves a pet cat, or a dog? What happens then when the supply of deer runs low? Well, presumably they will eat what they can find, which is likely to be birds and small mammals of various kinds. The problem is that our fragile food pyramid is trembling at the foundations already. You see, almost at the bottom of the heap and feeding those on the next step up are the insects, and we have lost 45% of our invertebrates in the last 35 years. Germany reports a greater loss. Plenty of environmental scientists are concerned about this, but so far we have no realistic plan on how to halt that decline. If the insects do not recover, the species which rely on them to live will also be lost. We are already losing our wild birds at a very rapid rate, so do we really need to add another predator into the mix – one that is on the top tier of that pyramid?

The Iberian Lynx (the one they want to introduce) is a protected species, so once it’s here, there will be precious little anyone can do about it. Will they eventually become so troublesome that they have to have to begin culling them under licence? If the lynx do become a problem and they don’t cull, will we simply see a rise in illegal hunting – which nearly always results in the cruel and inhumane treatment of the hunted, as well as trespass and damage to private land (as has been seen with illegal hare-coursing)? As with illegal hare coursing, will this go along with threats and maybe violence to landowners and anyone who tries to interfere? Well, all this would have to be policed, wouldn’t it? My feeling is that since they are a ‘big cat’ and their fur is valuable, we’d see illegal hunting anyway.

Now, those who know me know that I am very much in favour of the conservation of species, but while Britain certainly used to have a wild population of lynx, they were hunted to extinction 1,300 years ago. One thousand, and three hundred years ago. Since that time, an awful lot has changed here, including the fact that the human part of the equation has expanded enormously and encroached upon the territories of all kinds of wildlife, to the point where our native wildlife being frozen out, and the predators are being persecuted and killed, right, left and centre: badgers culled, foxes poisoned, birds of prey shot from the skies. The wildlife that is left to us is struggling to survive in an ever more hostile, ever shrinking environment. Not only that, but we have a whole different ecology going on now than the one that was in place over a thousand years ago, because at that time, much of our sceptered isle was covered in forest (which, you will remember, is the habitat of the lynx). Heck, long after that time, the whole landscape of the country changed dramatically again, with the Enclosure Acts of the 16th to 18th centuries creating bigger fields, fewer trees, and parks and gardens being landscaped all over the place! So why, in the name of the deity of your choice do we need a large re-introduced predator thrown into the mix – especially one whose natural habitat has shrunk so much4?

Don’t they realise that Muntjac deer themselves are a troublesome introduced species? I am reminded of that old nursery song:

“There was an old woman who swallowed a fly … ”

So far we’ve had ‘re-wilding’ schemes to bring wolves, lynx, and wild boar back to our countryside, all large, awe-inspiring creatures which can capture the public imagination5. This is building upon a sand foundation. We need to begin the re-wilding from the bottom up, by working on conserving our invertebrates. You know, those tiny many-legged creatures whose presence goes largely unnoticed (until they get in the way) and yet who make life possible for all of the rest of us, including the wolves, lynx, and wild boar. None of us would survive long in a world without insects. Don’t believe me? Read this.

1 In London a few years back a pair of twins were badly mauled by a fox

2 For those who don’t do metric, that’s 31-51 inches in length and standing up to 27 1/2 inches at the shoulder, and weighing up to 88lb (6 stone, 3lb)

3 It does happen, in areas where there are lynx

4 I refer you back to the place where I said that predators tend to cause trouble when food is short, and remind you that natural wildlife habitats in the UK are shrinking

5The buzz-word for this type of animal is ‘charismatic megafauna’ because the world is full of nature-lovers who really only care for the furred, feathered, or leathered. We’re talking lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, turtles, and so on.

Pollinator Awareness Week: 13th – 19th July 2015

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This week is Pollinator Awareness Week!  Yes, you heard it here first1.

‘So what?’ I hear you say. Well, see, the thing is that without pollinators, we’d all be in the shit be in serious trouble, because an awful lot of food crops need to be pollinated somehow, and the way most of them get pollinated is by the transference of pollen from flower to flower by insects.

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Our main pollinators – as I’m sure you all know – are bees. The trouble is, our honeybees are struggling and nobody really seems to know why. Some blame neonicotinoids (‘neonics’) and other pesticides. Some blame pollution. Some blame modern farming practices and/or the horrible tendency government agencies have for ‘tidying up’ our verges and footpaths and parks, etc2. Some blame honeybee diseases spread by mites. Some say it’s a combination of factors.  And some freely admit that they don’t know.

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The result, in America, has been the growth of the practice of renting out colonies which are hawked around the farms to pollinate crops. This has its own problems, apparently, from stressing the bees and laying them open to opportunistic infections to bee-rustling.

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Now, there are also a lot of native bumblebees, but not only are they in trouble too,  it seems that in some countries they are not managing to relocate themselves from areas which have grown too warm for them due to climate change, and are dying out locally.

So what are we left with? Well, there are many, many solitary bees which do a sterling job, and many people don’t even know about them because they tend to be quite small compared to honeybees and bumbles and can easily be overlooked.

And there are hoverflies3.

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You may not know this, but hoverflies are considered by many authorities to be the second most important pollinators after bees, and it’s a sad fact that an awful lot of people don’t know how to tell the difference, and so fear them both equally. This leads to a lot of untimely insect deaths4

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So, dotted throughout this post are some pictures. Some are bees, and some are hoverflies. Some of the hoverflies look quite a lot like bees, but you will notice a difference in their faces, their eye shape and their antennae (and if you’re extra-observant and look closely, their wings). I’m beginning to learn more about hoverflies and how to identify them, and I am by no means an expert, so I reckon if I can do it, so can you.

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What can we do, though, about the pollination problem? Well, unless you want to see an era where thousands of poorly-paid people are put to back-breaking work pollinating flowers with a paintbrush, perhaps it would be a good idea to plant some ‘bee-friendly’ flowers in the garden, for a start, and to go easy on the insecticides?

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After all, what’s more important: preventing a famine or having a pretty lawn?

Okay, so that’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek.  You should all know by now that I don’t really do scaremongering.  But seriously, we would all be in serious trouble without insect pollinators, and we should all take time to think about that.

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For those interested, here are a few links for further reading.  If you do nothing else, please listen to the podcast. It’s very accessible and easy to understand:

Hoverflies are effective pollinators of oilseed rape

The trouble with bee-keeping

The touble with bees (nice podcast on this page)

Almond pollination in 2012

Planting for pollinators – RHS

1 – Or maybe you didn’t, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

2 – For ‘tidying up’ read ‘mowing down everything in sight, including the useful – and pretty – wildflowers and grasses on which our insects depend, and leaving behind a brown stubbly mess.

3 – Well, alright, a considerable number of other insects contribute to pollination, but generally in a smaller or less effective way, according to what I’ve read.

4 – And even fewer pollinators.