Don’t Feed the Magic Reindeer!

You’ve all seen it. It’s on sale at all the craft fairs, it’s available on Amazon, and on eBay to name but three sources. Playgroups and reception classes make it for their children to take home. Someone may even have given some to your children already. I hope that someone wasn’t you, because I have some bad news.

This stuff kills wildlife.

Magic Reindeer Food is sold in little cellophone packets, tied with a festive ribbon and with a cute festive poem on the attached label. If it looks like porridge oats mixed with craft glitter with maybe a few seeds and sequins mixed in, it’s because that’s exactly what it is1. And you know what? Not only is the glitter inedible, it can also contain toxins which are absorbed from that cute little Christmas robin’s gut when he comes bob-bob-bobbing along very early in the morning and eats it before you are even awake2. As if that’s not enough, the sharp edges of the glitter can damage the lining of that gut leaving Mr Robin open to all kinds of diseases.

Of course, robins will not be the only ones to take advantage of the feast. Mice, rats and squirrels will eat it, and so will hedgehogs if they are awake, and hungry enough. Then there are the invertebrates, the slugs, snails, worms, etc.

You might not care too much about the rats, the slugs and the snails, but they will all suffer, because Magic Reindeer Food is pretty indiscriminate. And think about the wider issues; do you imagine that this stuff magically disappears after Christmas? No. It will get washed down into the soil, where it will not only utterly fail to decompose, but may pick up toxins from weedkillers and pesticides, and eventually some will find its way into streams, dykes and rivers where it stands a good chance of ending up inside a fish, or a bivalve like a mussel or a clam.

All this might not sound very important to you, but in fact microplastic is becoming a big problem in the environment – as anyone who has watched nature documentaries lately must be beginning to realise. We are now being told that since the ingestion of microplastics begins with the very lowest forms of life, which are then eaten by progressively larger animals, the amount of microplastics is being concentrated (along with those toxins) into fish destined for our own tables, and into animals which eat fish, like otters and seals. Some of these toxins affect health, including fertility. There are now whole, doomed, dolphin and orca pods which cannot breed because of the pollution in the seas.

If you are now thinking, ‘Yeah, but the small amount of glitter in my little packet of Magic Reindeer Food won’t make a lot of difference – it’ll be fine!” Well, join the club. Thousands – if not millions – of people across the UK and the US are thinking the same thing.

How much glitter does that add up to? How much wildlife will it kill, do you think? Will the 2016 batch of glitter be in your next tin of sardines?

There is, however, an alternative. Online, you can find many wildlife-friendly recipes for Magic Reindeer Food which contain the oats, but also quality bird seed, dried fruit, nibbed nuts, etc. There are even recipes for harmless, gelatine-based ‘glitter’ to which you can add natural colours like beetroot or spirulina powder. A little chilli powder in the mix will deter rodents – they don’t like chilli whereas birds don’t care, and the important thing is, it won’t harm them.

1 To be fair, there are Magic Reindeer Foods out there which do not contain glitter. I can’t say whether these are safe or not, because it depends what’s in them, but clearly they are going to be better than glitter.

2 From Wikipedia:

“Furthermore, plastic particles may highly concentrate and transport synthetic organic compounds (e.g. persistent organic pollutants, POPs), commonly present in the environment and ambient sea water, on their surface through adsorption. It still remains unknown if microplastics can act as agents for the transfer of POPs from the environment to organisms in this way, but evidence suggest this to be a potential portal for entering food webs. Of further concern, additives added to plastics during manufacture may leach out upon ingestion, potentially causing serious harm to the organism. Endocrine disruption by plastic additives may affect the reproductive health of humans and wildlife alike.”

Friendly Gardening

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I had an email this morning from Buglife, reminding me that I should be planning my garden for the coming spring and summer with due regard for our bees and other insects.

As my readers will surely know by now, I love insects and other invertebrates, and in particular I love hoverflies. I even have a soft spot for spiders, which my Other Half regards as a bit of a double edged sword, because though I will remove spiders from his vicinity and relocate them outdoors, I am also tolerant of their presence and seldom actually do so unless he asks me. Don’t tell him, but there’s an interesting little guy living in a pot in our conservatory, and I’m waiting at least until I can photograph and identify him before I want to even consider removing him. Besides, he eats the weevils that we managed to import with some bird food and which now appear to have colonised the conservatory1.

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Rice Weevil, Sitophilus oryzae

So I took a look at the Buglife page about wild-life gardening and took a screenshot to post on the Sparking Synapse Facebook page with a link to their site. It has some useful tips, and it’s well worth considering. A manicured garden is all very lovely – and fair enough, many people just want the pretty flowers and the smooth lawn – but it does little for wildlife, and since most farmers these days are also doing very little for wildlife2, those of us with gardens really need to think about taking up the slack.

What’s in it for you? Well, I’m willing to bet that you don’t much care for aphids, am I right? Inviting hoverflies into your garden will take care of that for you, because there are dozens of the little darlings whose larvae eat quite prodigious amounts of the blighters. My roses had a grand total of no aphids at all last year, not after the hoverflies found them. Providing a safe place for hedgehogs to hibernate, and water for them to drink, will help to rid your garden of snails and slugs. Allowing Leopard slugs to live peacefully on your property will also help to control these pests, because Leopard slugs will not destroy your plants, but do clean up decaying matter, and also eat other slugs.

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Hoverfly larva eating an aphid

So, how do you start? Well, if you grow vegetables, consider allowing a few of each to flower; many (eg carrots, fennel, and brassicas) are very attractive to insects, and if you have space for it, a single plant of angelica will feed huge numbers of bees and hoverflies. Perhaps you have ivy in your garden? It might be a pain when it gets out of control, but if you let it climb up a fence and retain some older strands when you clip it (twine them in or peg them back), the pollinators will love you for it in the autumn when little else is in flower. Also, a dense, intertwined layer of evergreen foliage like this is invaluable as a place to hibernate for insects like ladybirds – which also have larvae that are very keen on aphids for lunch – not to mention breakfast, dinner and supper. Wasps will also feed on ivy, but before you say anything, remember that wasps are valuable pollinators, too, and actually kill large numbers of insect pests, carrying them back to their nests to feed their young.

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An Eristalis sp hoverfly feeding on ivy

A source of water is useful for many creatures. Keep it clean for birds, but if you have an out-of-the-way corner, you can create a hoverfly lagoon with a small container of stagnant water full of decaying grass and leaves3.

You’d be surprised at what resources some beneficial insects need. There are hoverflies which love to feed on grass pollen and others which lay their eggs in rot holes in trees. There are bees which nest in bare earth and others which like to use old bird boxes. Some of our rare beetles need decaying wood lying around on the ground. And there are many tiny creatures which over-winter in drifts or piles of dead leaves – so it won’t surprise you to learn that having filled my garden incinerator with leaves and other combustible debris, I can’t bring myself to set light to it in case there are spiders, beetles, bees and so on living inside it.

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A small caterpillar found in leaf litter in January

There is also a hoverfly which lays its eggs in active wasps nests, but I’m not suggesting you keep one of those handy in your garden shed with the door left considerately open. All you need to remember is that a wild patch in your garden, dandelions left unmolested in your lawn and a little dead wood and garden litter left here and there, will help some of our most neglected wildlife survive and complete their life-cycles. If you can also dedicate some of your space to pollen-rich flowers, so much the better because many of the showier hybrid versions of old-fashioned flowers have virtually no nectar to give. Choose original versions or proven pollinator-friendly flowers and shrubs if you can, single flowers rather than double, etc. Chocolate-coloured primroses, PomPom dahlias or big, showy Spanish bluebells may look wonderful to you, but won’t be much visited by insects.

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A small solitary bee feeding on dandelion, Lassioglossum sp

1 I won’t use poisons if I can possibly help it. As far as I’m concerned, they are an unnecessary danger to other, more welcome, life-forms including my grandchildren and my dogs.

2 Wildflowers are disappearing from our countryside at an alarming rate as farmers feel the need to plough right up to the edges of their fields to maximise their crop yields. Not all farmers. Some are enlightened and considerate, and even if they do use pesticides (which are incredibly destructive to invertebrates – after all, that is their job) will leave an area wild to make up for it. Kudos to those people!

3 The Buzz Club’s Hoverfly Lagoon Project gives details on how to make one of these and if you are also willing to record the activity, that would be great! But they can smell a bit so you’ll need a site somewhere away from the house.