Saturday, 22 September 2012

A sign of the times

It is the autumn equinox today. The day the the Equator teeters beneath the Sun before the Earth tips our northern lands over into the darker days.

And what a strange autumn it has been so far. Early and late at the same time. The pink-footed geese arrived here a good two weeks before we expected them, piercing the bubble of the still-summer swallow skies with their arrow formations.

And many of the trees are already shabby and thin like greying down-and-outs. The fruit-bearers - the cherries and apples, pears and plums, seem especially tired and sad. Almost as if they have given up for this year, having failed to produce any decent kind of crop.

And where is the hedgerow harvest? Late, rather than early, the brambles are still green on their stems, the sloes hard little pips - if you can find any at all. They won't be ripe until after Michaelmas Day - and then we shall risk the Devil having pissed on them.

I miss the blackberries most of all. Picking them is the one atavistic pleasure that even the most urbanised among us surely shares. I can't remember a September when I haven't gone out with plastic boxes and thick trousers to wade in among the tangled bushes to pick the darkly purple berries - or drupelets as we should call them, being really a cluster of smaller fruits. For many of us picking brambles is surely an annual rite of passage between summer and autumn. The season won't be truly upon us until we've done it.

The scientific name for blackberries - brambles is the Scottish word - is Rubus fruticosus agg. The 'agg' acknowledges the fact that the species is actually an aggregate of 320 microspecies, differentiated by tiny variations in leaf and growth, flowering and fruiting time, and habitat. This perhaps explains their ubiquity. There is a blackberry for everyone. And that is their great value. You are never far from a blackberry. Never far from the reminder of your hunter-gatherer roots, and your reliance on the natural world for your sustenance.

Let's hope the frost doesn't get to the blackberries before we can this year. We need all the reminders we can get.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What a way to go

The dictionary definition of 'Go to seed' is 'to decline in looks, status, or utility due to lack of care'. Yet as the summer goes to seed, I don't see that at all.

For plants, going to seed is the apex of their existence, reproduction their reason for being. Everywhere I look now I see plants at the height of their maturity and glory. The colours and textures of their seeds are if anything more vibrant than the flowers that preceded them. Rose bay willowherb is swapping its tarty, lipstick-pink skirt for a white feather boa. The rowans are weighed down with bunches of satiny berries, shockingly scarlet against the fading green of their leaves. And those deep russet spires of sheep sorrel stand tall and proud among the bleaching grasses. I want to go to seed like that!

Not everything is there yet, of course. The meadow is still full of black knapweed - a strange name for a purple flower. One of the latest plants to flower in the meadow, its thistly flowerheads are a magnet for insects once many of the other plants have turned into bird food.

Today in the sunshine there were several peacock butterflies enjoying its late nectar, fattening themselves up for hibernation. Once a scarce visitor to these parts, peacock numbers have been increasing in central Scotland, a rise that has been linked with climate change. Apparently their numbers often increase after a cool, wet summer, as the nettles that are their caterpillar food plant grow lush and tall. If so I'm surprised we haven't had a population explosion here this year.

Despite being related to the thistles, the seedheads of the black knapweed don't turn into the shocks of white down of their spikier cousins. Hardheads is their other common name, and described the small, dark brown, acorn shaped seedheads that follow the flowers. Children often used them as ammunition - wrapping the stalk around the base of the head and shooting them at their friends. I hope some still do. Perhaps that's where the term 'gone to seed' came from.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Evolution works in mysterious ways

If Creationists wanted to cite an animal that seems to defy the theories of evolution, they should look no further than the common cranefly, Tipula paludosa.

Every year as summer fades into autumn a rag-tag invasion of daddy-longlegs stumbles into homes all over the country, crashing into lampshades, dangling helplessly from undusted cobwebs, and willfully drowning themselves in washing-up bowls and tea cups. So far this week I have rescued one from the empty bath, from which it seemed unable to escape despite intact wings, and watched one fight to the death against a window pane next to an open door.

It's the legs mainly. Why on earth do they have those ridiculous legs? Yes I've read the theories - they use them like cat's whiskers at night to make sure they don't bang into things, or as a tripod from which the female can lay her eggs in the turf, or even, like a lizard's tail, so that they can escape if caught in a spider's web. None seems to be very convincing, as surely the handicap those same legs seem to afford it outweigh any of these supposed benefits. And anyway they bang into things all the time.

Tipula paludosa, which translates loosely as 'boggy cranefly', actually begins life in the earth below our feet - in lawns, sports fields and agricultural grasslands. And its here that it seems far more at home. Its larvae - the leatherjacket - gnaws it way to adulthood via the roots of the grasses above. It's tough and hardy, unlike its kamikaze parents, and survives through the winter and into the next summer this way before emerging as an adult - if the starlings and rooks don't find it first with their probing, pointy beaks.

Yet daddy-longlegs are not without beauty. In the fields their transparent wings, with their dark, stained-glass patterns, reflect the autumn sun when they clamber among the tall grasses. And today in the drizzle I spotted one climbing slowly up a stalk with a glassy bead of rain on its back like a pearly, Art Nouveau brooch.

Despite their apparent shortcomings craneflies deserve our respect. They are one of the oldest and most diverse groups of flies - one in ten flies in the UK belongs to the group. They include the largest fly - Tipula maxima - in terms of wingspan, at 65mm, and some of the smallest, the 'bobbing' gnats. They provide an important food source both as larvae and adults for many birds. And who could fail to love a family that includes species called the hairy-eyed cranefly, and the gulper.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Going feral

'Feral' is an much-maligned term. It's often used in a derogatory sense - for someone who is unruly or untrustworthy, or for an animal that is neither pet nor wild, and as such of no use to anyone.Yet its true definition is 'something that was once domesticated, but is returning to the wild'. Surely in many cases then, a state to be desired.

The fields to the north of the village are 'feral'. Once cultivated, they are now a tangle of thistles and sheep sorrel, chickweed and redshanks, like the shaggy, unkempt pelt of a stray dog. But on a warm, summer day they hum with life - butterflies, bees, flies and the rest hopping around the buttercups and cranesbills like fleas.

Today is not a tame, summer's day. Today is as feral as the fields. Yesterday's gentle breeze and mild tawny sunlight have been replaced by a rough wind, and rain that feels like cold seaspray spattering my face. The clouds are a dirty grey flannel wiped across the face of the sky. The weather is returning to wild.

I was walking, hunched and gloomy, around the River Field, when a tight flock of small birds passed above my head, drawing sine waves in the sky with their flight. They were linnets, about twenty of them, chattering to each other as they flew like giggling schoolchildren. Linnets need feral land, land where the weeds are allowed to grow and set seed, land where the hedges and shrubs are tall and loose. Land that has been disappearing in the UK over the last 40 years.

Linnets are not a well-known bird these days. These neat little finches seldom occur in built-up areas, and their mostly streaky brown plumage doesn't draw much attention - despite the males' rather half-hearted attempts to spruce himself up for the mating season with ruffous bib and headband. Yet in Victorian times the birds were prized for their mellifluous songs, and caught in their thousands to be caged for the drawing rooms of the leafy suburbs. Their numbers plummeted as a result.

Once they fell out of favour as pet Carusos their numbers recovered, and linnets were a common countryside bird. Then came the inevitable population crash, shared by many other farmland birds, when farm intensification really began to bite in the late 1970s. The combination of increased herbicide use, and the autumn sowing of cereals - which meant no overwinter stubble fields, decimated their numbers. Since then the population has declined by over 50%, putting them on the UK Red List of threatened species.

Rough fields like ours are what they need. Unlike many birds, including other finches, they are entirely seed eaters. Their name, 'linnet', comes from the French 'linette', meaning 'flax-eater', while their scientific name Carduelis cannabina, means 'of thistles and hemp'!  They even feed their chicks on seeds - albeit the soft ones. So those tall spires of deep red sorrel seedheads, the thistledown, and the redshanks, are vital food. The scrubby hawthorns and willows that line the railway embankment and river bank are perfect nesting sites.

In the last few years things have looked up slightly. Oil seed rape has provided a new source of food over the summer, while agri-environment schemes have encouraged farmers to leave more land unmanaged. And as a result linnet numbers are going up in some places. There will be more chittering flocks flying in rough, feral  fields over glum walkers on grim days, brightening their lives. Surely, a state to be desired.

Monday, 3 September 2012

This week I have mainly been hearing buzzards...

If the the wild geese provide the soundtrack to my winter walks, the warblers to the spring, and the screaming swifts my summer music, then it is the incessant piping of the young buzzards that dominate these not-quite-summer, not-quite autumn days.

In truth the adult buzzards have been calling to one another most of the year - only falling silent in the spring when they are making their nests and raising their young. But it is now, when most of the summer orchestra has gone home, that their offspring take centre stage.

The call is really more like a distant child's whistle, blown over and over again on the same note. It's a very different sound to the wild and melancholy 'mewing' that the adults use to communicate with each other, strengthening the bonds between them, mapping out the territory that they guard jealously all year round. Instead I imagine the young pursuing their parents, mithering for titbits like nagging toddlers in a supermarket. It's one of the few natural sounds I can get tired of.

I should count my blessings. It's only 30 years ago that buzzards were relatively uncommon here, and only 60 years ago when they were a rare sight in most of the British Isles. Persecuted by gamekeepers for a 150 years, then, just as they were making some kind of recovery, starved out by the myxomatosis epidemic that decimated their staple food, buzzards have had a rough ride. Living in buzzard-empty Essex 20 years ago, I envied my Welsh friends, who could sit and watch those big, fingery-winged birds circling above, mewing - and piping - to each other. It made their lives seem closer to wildness.

There are at least two pairs around the village that I know of - one to the south that nest in a tall larch at the foot of the Big Field, one to the north, in the dark plantation that rings the Estate across the fields. I often see them launch from the depth of the trees as I walk out, drifting nonchalantly above my head before catching a thermal and rising inexorably to a speck.

Recently the UK Government contemplated funding a study to see what effect controlled culling and nest destruction might have on their population - a scheme dear to the hearts of the pheasant shooters and gamekeepers. Happily the resultant outcry brought a rapid volte face, and it seems buzzards are safe - for the moment.

For buzzards - despite their sometimes irritating children - carry a sense of wilderness wherever they spread. And we all need more of that.


Friday, 31 August 2012

Not just another wet summer

Warning - the following blog has a rant rating of 10! You may want to avoid if you've heard it all before. It's probably written more for my blood pressure than your pleasure - for which, apologies...

Over 366mm of rain has poured down onto the UK over the last three months, according to the Met Office. It was wetter still here, with 450mm - that's one and a half feet - of water cascading over us during this, the wettest summer for a century.

On its own this statistic would be depressing, but perhaps not worrying. It's happened before. We have a maritime climate - variable and quixotic. What makes it so disturbing is its conjunction with so many other extreme weather events, such as the drought in the US, and the greatest summer melting of the Arctic sea ice since records began. The most respected scientific institutions around the world, known for their hyper-cautious approach to ascribing reasons for this, are now pointing out that the probability that climate change is to blame is becoming unequivocal. An RSPB blog by Matt Williams had this to say:

The Met Office concurs with the overall findings, saying that climate change has significantly increased the odds of some recent weather events. Met Office and Oxford University scientists concluded that the extreme warm average temperature in November 2011 was 60 times more likely to have occurred then, than in the 1960s. 

Reading this makes me feel as if we are living in a country run by latter-day Neros. How can they even be contemplating building a third runway for Heathrow, or perhaps even worse, an airport in the Thames estuary, when the effect would be to smash our carbon reduction targets?  How can they fiddle with their quantitative easing and national debt, while the world burns?

Among all the newspaper reports of this summer's appalling weather I've seen nothing from the Government to say that they are using the reports to reinforce their commitment to tackling climate change, and how they are going to deal with it.. This in contrast to the publication of trade figures, or the state of the deficit, which bring immediate responses from the Chancellor, the Treasury, the Bank of England, et al, all explaining how they are going to get us out of this mess.

I thought the argument went that we had to tread carefully and slowly in tackling climate change because people would rebel if their lifestyles were damaged too badly? This doesn't seem to be an issue for the Government when it comes to cutting people's benefits, increasing their pension contributions, and making swingeing cuts to our public services, in the name of the economic downturn.

Bring on the rebellion.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Storm fox

It's often said that the British dislike success. It smacks too much of big-headedness, of over-confidence.

Maybe it's for this reason that we have such an difficult relationship with vulpes vulpes - our native, red fox. Hated by farmers and gamekeepers. Hunted with rifles and dogs. Always the baddie in children's stories. They don't get a good press.

And there's no denying foxes are indeed extremely successful - the most successful carnivores on the planet, in terms of their range. You can find their delicate, four-toed tracks in the snowfields of Arctic Russia and the sands of North Africa. And the distinctive musky scent of their passing hangs in the air of a Japanese city street as readily as on the Scottish mountains or the ancient woodlands of the south.

There is a list - I discovered today - of the 100 worst invasive species in the world, compiled by the illustrious International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and foxes are on it. Their introduction into Australia has had disastrous consequences for the native wildlife. And even in the UK it is not only seen as the bane of poultry keepers and pheasant growers, but of many conservationists, struggling to protect the eggs and young of endangered ground-nesting birds like terns or lapwings.

Ironically we hardly ever see a fox in the fields or woods around Ashfield. I can count the number of times on the fingers of one hand over the 12 years that we have lived here. But I saw one yesterday in the low, rough range of hills a few miles east of the village known as the Ochils. We had stopped by a small lochan to eat our sandwiches, while the edge of a thunder storm scudded overhead, forks of lightning and spatters of rain pinning us inside our steamed-up car.

The fox appeared among the scrubby gorse thickets on the slope to the far side of the lochan, sitting alert and upright like an obedient dog. It glanced in our direction, but the misted windows must have obscured our outlines, for it looked through us, not at us. It was a privilege to watch the watcher. After a while its attention was caught by something in the grass, and our fox pranced and pounced on it - moving more like a cat than a dog. In fact, despite being one of the dog family, there is something quite definitely feline about the way foxes look and move. The pricked ears, the silky coat, the way they stretch after sleep. For the next ten minutes we watched through binoculars as it dawdled lazily around the gorse, wandering back and forth, in and out of the tall, rank grass and sheep-flattened paths before disappearing for good inside a dark, thorny clump. Perhaps the rain had become too tiresome.

But I did not think 'bloody show-off'. I thought 'brilliant animal'. Perfectly adapted for its environment - a native in his own world. The sight of it gladdened my day.

It's the pheasants and poultry that are the incomers here, not the fox. And though it's true that foxes are a threat to ground nesting birds, the issue is really that the habitat in which they can nest has shrunk, reducing their numbers to such an extent that the natural balance between prey and predator has changed. Foxes are not the villains.

I don't know why we don't have foxes around our village - perhaps they have all been shot, or perhaps the shortage of rabbits - which have also disappeared over the last 10 years, has starved them out. I do know that our landscape is the poorer for their absence.

Friday, 24 August 2012

A wild idea

A chance comment overheard in a shop, and a fisherman's wry joke as I walked Jake the dog this lunchtime, give me hope for the future.

'It feels like autumn's coming - I can sense a change on its way', said the shop assistant I eavesdropped on. 'I'm off to catch my dinner', quipped the angler. But what they said sounded to me like: 'I'm still in touch with the natural world'; 'I still get a thrill out of hunting for wild food'.

There's much talk of our current dislocation with nature. Rightly, conservationists and environmentalists fear that if we don't understand or care about the natural world we won't try very hard to protect and restore it. Yet those random comments make me think that although many of us may have lost touch with our wild side, it's still very much alive, waiting like a dormant seed to be germinated in the right conditions.

What would those conditions be? Perhaps we can draw parallels with the UK's approach to the Olympics? The government invested billions of pounds not only in the infrastructure to make the Games happen, but in finding and training the athletes to achieve their potential - sometimes hidden until discovered by scouts and coaches. The legacy is to be the inspiration of a whole new generation of happier, healthier people for whom sport will be a key part of their lives - with more government investment to make that happen.

What would happen if a similar approach were taken to discovering our own potential for wildness - for valuing and taking part in the natural world? If government invested similar billions into the infrastructure - wilding school grounds, creating more nature reserves, National Parks, marine conservation areas and the like, reinforced by cash for training naturalists, funding teaching in schools, celebrating the best through awards and ceremonies. The legacy would not only be a whole new generation of happier, healthier people, but also a happier, healthier environment too.

Why are we waiting?







Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Scottish autumn or Indian summer?

It's nearly two months since I posted a blog, and I'm feeling rusty. So apologies if today's offering is less than fluent.

I won't bore you with a 'What we did on our holidays' piece. Suffice to say we had rain - often, and sun - occasionally, walked for miles and sat for hours, watched wildlife and the Olympics, made fires on beaches on the warm days, and lit our wood burning stove on the cold ones. The typical British summer holidays.

My daughter went back to school today. The beginning of the Autumn term. And although August has been a warm month here so far, the over-ripe scent of early-autumn is indeed already in the air. All day ranks of cumulonimbus clouds have passed overhead like fleets of battleships, strafing the ground with rain, hard and grey as bullets. When the sun reappears it turns the air humid and musky with the smell of wet hay and drying mud.

But at least the warmth has finally brought out the insects that have been absent for much of the so-called summer up here. The lipstick-pink, open flowers of the huge mallow plant that the rain has pounded flat across our front steps is alive with honey bees - so many that I'm reluctant to move it for fear of being stung. We step over it instead.

And I watched a bumblebee taking nectar from a sweet pea the other day. A perfect demonstration of the ingenuity of plants. As the bee landed on the lower lips of the petals its weight pushed them down and out, revealing a pollen-covered stamen underneath that curved up at the perfect angle to touch the base of the bee's abdomen. Presumbly the covering mechanism prevents the pollen being damaged or eaten instead of being transferred. Genius.

 Dozens of small tortoiseshell, peacock and white butterflies prefer the tiny, purply flowers of the marjoram that is slowly taking over the garden. When the showers come through the insects dive for cover, emerging with the sun like visible perfume wafting over the flowers.

I suppose, rather than calling this autumn, I should think of it as an Indian summer - complete with monsoons and the exotic fragrance of incipient decay. At least that way I'll feel we've had some kind of summer.


Thursday, 28 June 2012

Butterfly orchids and the price of milk

Hardier than their namesakes, the greater butterfly orchids in the meadow were out today, despite the many days of rain.

Two weeks ago they were short, acid green spikes hidden among the grass and pignut. Now the spikes are stretching, and the first lime-lipped white flowers are beginning to open. They are still hard to spot. The meadow grasses are tall, and, drenched with rain, they form an unruly thatch above the heads of the orchids. But once you get your eye in they emerge from the crowd like film stars in a street scene. I counted seven in a small patch no bigger than a picnic rug.

It says in my field guide that they smell of vanilla - another orchid from much more exotic climes. I didn't crouch down to find out. It was very wet, and I suspect I'd need to wait until the flowers were more open, and maybe for the evening. The hooded, cup-shaped upper petals look made for moths. Perhaps I'll try in a week or two. The lower petals are long and thin. More mayflies or plume moths than butterflies, if you ask me.

Greater butterfly orchids aren't especially rare, but they aren't that common either. Like many other grassland species they are always under threat from 'improvement' - grasslands ploughed up, fertilised and resown with coarse monocultures of grazing ryegrass to give us the cheap milk we apparently want. It isn't going to happen in our meadow, but there are still many places where it will. And worse, the same nitrogen fertilisers that turn the fields poster-paint green each spring are leaching like toxic potions into less-intensively managed grasslands, turning the grasses into Incredible Hulks that swamp the more delicate, and specialised wild flowers. As usual, cheapness comes at a price.

* It's the school summer break now in Scotland, so life will be busy with holidays, families and other distractions. I'm aiming to try to keep the blog going on an occasional basis over the next eight weeks, but apologises if things slip. I'll flag up any additions on Twitter. Things should return to normal by the middle of August. Have a good summer.

Friday, 22 June 2012

The sadness of a summer flood

A midsummer flood is a melancholy thing.

We have one now. The river has broken its banks north of the village. A great crescent of water - silvery at a distance, but turbid and scum-fringed up close - has thrust into the field like a hand. Its long, skinny fingers probe between the ridges of the potato haulms. The tubers will be drowning underneath if it doesn't loosen its grip quickly.

Black headed gulls are floating incongruously among the taller docken (I like the Scottish plural). Oystercatchers and curlew stand at the water's edge as if at the seaside. In another low part of the field a pool has appeared across the path. Buttercups are craning their necks to keep their heads above the water, the flowers floating on the surface like leafless waterlilies. But they, and most of the wild plants that fringe the river, will probably survive unscathed. They're adapted to the occasional, short-lived inundation.

But I worry about the sand martins. Their nest holes pock mark the sandy cliffs of the river, the tiny openings disguising a tunnel that can stretch nearly a metre into the bank. It will have taken them up to 10 days to build. At the end will be a chamber smaller than an apple, lined with feathers, leaves and grass. All under water now.

My reference book, Birds of Scotland, says that the first broods mostly fledge mid to late June. It may be that at least some chicks have escaped a watery grave. But it also says that during prolonged cold periods, of the kind we have undoubtedly been experiencing, females delay laying, in which case the young would still be in their nests when the flood came.

When I walked through the field today the chocolate-brown adults were still wheeling above me, catching up insects as they went like tiny vacuum cleaners. I do hope they were feeding themselves, and not gathering food to take back to the nest. That would be very sad. Sand martins are suffering population declines because of drought in their African wintering grounds. It would be ironic indeed if floods were their downfall here.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Dancing in the rain?

I passed a shop this morning that had a little wooden plaque in the window that read ' Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain.' This seemed particularly fitting as it was pouring down at the time. And on Midsummer's Day too.

But I am hoping to dance in the rain tonight. My daughter and I are going to watch two internationally famous orchestras performing in the open air, beneath the dramatic backdrop of Stirling Castle. Both are made up of people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra's members come from the favelas of Venezuela, while Big Noise's are children from a less-glamorous part of Stirling, know as Raploch. Yet thousands of people are going to watch them; the performance is going to be broadcast live by Radio 4; and there have already be rave reviews of their work. www.makeabignoise.org.uk

These orchestras have achieved what many would have thought was impossible. They inspire people to look beyond the barriers of their birth, life experiences and expectations, and become part of something extraordinary and life-changing. And they are the fruit of three things - vision, determination, and of course, enough money to make them happen.

If all this can be achieved with, and for music, is it not just possible that we could do something similar for the environment? The musicians in these orchestras have certainly learnt to dance through the rain of their own difficult lives. Instead of hoping that the storm of our environmental crisis will pass (which of course it won't), instead of sitting back and saying that it's impossible to change western society's greed and short-termism, could we not find a way to help everyone - from politicians to polluters, consumers to conservationists - to dance to rhythm of the natural world.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Conspiring to perplex?

I am a mediocre birdwatcher. I can recognise most of the common species nowadays, and a few of the rarer ones if they have previously been pointed out to me. I can even detect some by song. But I lack the confidence of the seasoned naturalists. The ability to say, with conviction, on seeing a small grey-green bird 50 metres away, 'oh yes, that's definitely a chiffchaff, not a willow warbler'. On churlish days I sometimes wonder if bravado, rather than brilliance, is behind their abilities. But I know this is not true - experience tells.

But today I enjoyed my own little triumph of identification. Walking back through the sun-speckled, scrubby woodlands south of the village I heard two shrill gossips conversing. They were up in the canopy of gnarly-green hawthorns above my head. First one would prattle on, then the other would interrupt to make a lengthy point to the contrary. I couldn't see them, but my first thought was 'garden warblers'. Long, irregular, fluty song. Could be blackcaps - their song is remarkably similar, but supposed to be shorter, slightly scratchier. As usual, the distinctions are vague and subjective. But I plumped for garden warblers, though tentatively, as usual.  Just as I went to move on a small bird emerged onto an exposed branch not ten feet away. Slubby brown above, creamy below. No hint of a black cap. A garden warbler. Yes!

Sometimes I feel as if both the natural world and the taxonomists conspire to make identifying birds as confusing and perplexing as possible. It's bad for my confidence. Take the 'garden' warbler for instance - one of the least likely birds you'll ever get in your garden. It won't nest if it's disturbed, so gives domestic gardens a wide berth. Unlike the closely related blackcaps, who happily come to bird tables in bad weather, and hang around city parks and leafy suburbs.

And some birds - like chiff-chaffs and willow warblers - look almost identical but have wildly different songs; while others look so different but sing almost the same melody. You couldn't confuse a blackcap with a garden warbler by sight, but they sound amazingly alike. Blackcaps arrive in the UK weeks earlier than garden warblers, they go to different wintering grounds, and yet they choose very similar habitats in the UK, where they both hide among the scrubby trees tormenting mediocre birdwatchers like me with their babble.

But of course, I'm on to them now.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Plus ca change?

It's only five days to go before the Rio +20 Summit. Twitter is awash with comment and speculation, exhortations to politicians and prophesies of doom. The politicians themselves, meanwhile, are peppering their rhetoric with talk of green growth, sustainable prosperity, and similar oxymorons.

So I thought I'd check out the Rio+20 website myself to find out what is actually meant to be happening. Among the polit-speak of compromise and collaboration, commitment and committees, I came across a clip of Ban Ki-Moon, the UN's Secretary General, explaining what he wants - for everyone - in the post-Rio future. They were simple aspirations. Clean air, he said; safe water; enough food for all; a good education: and a decent living. It was inspiring of course, but also strangely familiar.

Then I remembered a favourite quote from Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, written in 1889:

'Throw the lumber over man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need - a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you. A cat, a dog, a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.... You will find the boat is easier to pull then..'

I wonder if he's read it?

Thursday, 14 June 2012

A short visit to summer

Butterflies are the exclamation marks of summer. Birds, flowers, even bees, hang around however dreich and understated the June day. But butterflies only emerge to dance over the landscape in the warm sunshine of a summer's day writ large.

Today was such a day. Despite the cool north-easterly winds that ruffled the tops of the village trees, the meadow south of the village was sheltered and friendly as a warm embrace. It's at its apogee right now - a sea of creamy pignut and purple meadow cranesbill, counterpointed by gaudy splashes of yellow rattle, buttercups and gorse. Hidden away among the commoner plants are spikes of greater butterfly orchids, yet to break bud but already looking exotic and haughty.

When I went down at lunchtime scores of tiny, day-flying chimney sweeper moths havered and bobbed just above the heads of the taller plants, their charcoaled wings startling against the pastels of the wild flowers. They are hunting out the pignut on which to lay their eggs, dots of black perching on the broad, white flowerheads like reverse dominoes.

But they were the chorus line. Waiting in the wings were two much more glamorous performers. First I saw the pale, orange-dappled, folded wings of a small butterfly perched in the shallow cup of a meadow cranesbill. When I bent to look more closely my shadow fell across it, and it immediately lifted in a tiny explosion of sky. It was a common blue - though not so common around here. The first I have seen this year, and truly a marker of summer. They lay their eggs on leguminous plants like bird's foot trefoil and clovers - both are common in the meadow. Despite their delicate mien they are fierce defenders of their tiny territories, and will see off all-comers, including some other species of butterflies that show too much interest in their chosen nurseries.

A few steps further on there was the star of the show. A vibrant chequerboard of deep orange and black, the small pearl-bordered fritillary was unmistakable - except that I could not say for sure if it was a small PBF or a PBF. To an untrained eye like mine they are very similar. I plumped for the former as the latter are much less common these days. Like all fritillaries it needs violets on which to lay its eggs, a flower common in the woodlands around our meadow, but which is disappearing fast in southern Britain, as the coppices and hedgerows which are its strongholds are lost because of the short-term economics of the age. Numbers are still holding up well in Scotland, and this one sat still and unperturbed by its southern relatives' plight.

As I headed up the hill back to the village the cold breeze caught me again and I went to put my coat back on. But at least I had seen a few minutes of summer.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Natural enemies

Today I am not feeling as enthusiastic as usual about the natural world. I spent much of this morning in the vegetable patch, resowing rows of carrots and peas that had succumbed to the ravages of nature. A cold, wet spring, followed by a grey, humid June, has meant seeds were slow to germinate, and easy prey to slugs and snails when they did eventually break the surface. Lines of tiny, ferny carrots were reduced to the odd, sad singleton, like lone spruce trees standing weakly in a swathe of felled timber. The peas looked equally miserable, waiting limply for the grim axemen to reduce them to stumps. I blame climate change.

And while my plants were being consumed by molluscs, I was being eaten by midges - the infamous Culcoides impunctatus - all revelling in the blanket of still, sticky air that hung over the village today. They are bad this year. The same wet spring and damp June that put paid to my vegetables has given them just the conditions they thrive in. Try as I might I can't find it in my heart to love this particular form of wildlife. Their bites leave me with large, itchy scarlet lumps that persist for weeks, looking like some mediaeval plague victim.

Even more galling, it seems that these particular midges have few natural predators. Birds, bats, insectivorous plants, all consume a few, but midges are not a key food source for any of our native wildlife, according to a paper written for Scottish Natural Heritage:

'It's likely that in the past when Scotland was mostly forested midge numbers were much lower than they are today. But following the loss of trees the increased water content of the soils provided the opportunity for the midges to proliferate. If this theory is correct it could explain why there are no species which take advantage of the huge number of midges.'

It probably also helped that as the forest came down, cattle, sheep and deer populations rocketed, giving this consummate opportunist ample food sources with which to raise its multitudinous children. A 2m square of damp, sheltered land can apparently support 500,000 midge larvae. It's now estimated that hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue is lost to Scotland each year due to midges - driving away workers and tourists alike.

So it seems that those wishy-washy, wildlife-friendly goals of reforesting the hills, considering reintroducing wolves (which would keep down the deer population), and reducing the level of grazing on our mountains, which conservationists have been banging on about for years, might also reduce the midge problem, and make the country millions of pounds richer.

It would also make me much happier on dreich June mornings.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Dead moles tell no tales

It feels like a monsoon is on its way. The air is warm and humid here, but an insistent breeze is blowing in from the east, arching the newly-leaved trees like palms. Flashes of sun break through the quick-moving clouds, their heat reminding me it really is June, but turn my face to the cold wind and it's soon apparent that summer is still only notional in this neck of the woods.

Nevertheless a girl still needs to get some fresh air, so I went round by the river and up through the Big Field after lunch with a friend. We were near to the black-headed gull colony, where they were spiralling around above their nest-riddled pools. Though far enough away to avoid their tetchy divebombing, we were close enough to draw some verbal abuse as we walked past.

At the kissing gate my companion spotted a small, black lump of fur lying crumpled on the ground. A dead mole - the only kind most of us ever get to see. It was a sorry sight. It's usually velvety, black-coffee dark fur was plastered shiny and tight to its body. Its pink, scrabbly feet pointing soles up and splayed. It was clearly the victim of an attack. A bit of research revealed it was almost certainly a youngster. Adult moles rarely leave the safety of their tunnels, but juveniles are driven out of the nest and into the open by their mothers when they are just over a month old, where they are forced to stay until they can find an empty tunnel system of their own. It's a harsh, dangerous time - the time when buzzards, foxes, weasels and dogs are most likely to find an unexpected snack in their path.

But this one hadn't been eaten - just bitten. Hard by the look of it. My searches had also found that humans find mole meat almost inedible - and a dead mole starts to smell very unpleasant swiftly after death. There was no way of telling what had caught this little gentleman in black velvet - but whatever it was obviously had a discerning palate.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Fighting with flowers

I think wild flowers could be one of the most important weapons in the campaign to get more people to care about the natural world again.

There's the fact that we call wild flowers 'wild'. We don't say 'wild insects', or 'wild birds', in quite the same way. But every time we say 'wild flower', especially when we see one in an urban setting,  it's a small reminder that tiny pieces of wilderness can still be found everywhere.

And we can all name some of them. I'll wager that even the most diehard urbanite can name at least five wild flowers - daisy, dandelion, buttercup, bluebell, cow parsley. It makes all of us naturalists - people who can recognise wild things.

I do believe the naming is important - though I realise this is controversial. Some would say it's elitist, exclusive. You don't have to know something's name to find it interesting, beautiful, worth saving. But if plants were people, the first thing you'd do if you wanted to get to know them better would be to find out their names. We know the names of all our friends. And plantlife, in fact wildlife in general, definitely needs friends.

So when I was reading something wildflower-writer Sarah Raven wrote recently, describing how her father had taught her how to 'botanise at 30mph' while driving along in the family car, I had an idea.  For many people, road verges, rail embankments, car parks and kerbsides are some of the key places they see wild flowers. Wouldn't it be great if, in addition to the brain-addling GPS and smartphone apps, they had WFI (Wild Flower Identification) apps, which could point out and name the wild flowers along the route? Or perhaps rail companies could place ID guides in each carriage, showing all the flowers to be seen on the journey?

If people got to know their local wild flowers better, learnt their names, knew when they flowered, it would be a breakthrough. No-one could stand by and see a friend disappear.

Monday, 4 June 2012

A tale of escape

The other morning I found Guilli, our large ginger tom cat, hunched protectively over something I couldn't quite see. He tried to growl menacingly when I bent to look at what he had cornered, but - ever the paper tiger - reluctantly stepped back without a fight to let me view his prize. It was a small, pale brown, ochre-streaked reptile - minus its tail. A common lizard. The first I'd seen in the garden for years. Its dark eyes blinked slowly at me as I picked it up, showing none of the shivering terror, or the pounding heart beat, that I feel through my hands when I  rescue a vole or bird from a cat's clutches.

This is the time of year when it's easiest to catch them in the open. It's still cold enough at night to necessitate a long sunbathe first thing to warm them enough to get moving. I counted dozens one sunny morning recently. They were basking on the dark slats of the Flanders Moss NNR boardwalk, legs splayed, yellow stripes along their backs painting the classic lizardy 'S' curve on the edges of the path.

Common lizards are at the edge of their range in Scotland - the most northerly reptiles in the world. It’s for this reason that the females incubate their eggs inside their bodies to keep them warmer – their scientific species name, vivipara, means ‘live young’, which isn't strictly correct. They hibernate from autumn to spring, when there is not enough warmth in the sun, or enough food, to energise them. Lizards are of course predators themselves, preying on insects, spiders, snails or earthworms, which they stun by mercilessly shaking them in their jaws before eating them whole.

I found a small gap in the dry stone wall of our garden and tucked the lizard well back, out of sight, to recover. Guilli may, or may not, have bitten off its tail. Common lizards have a neat trick of sacrificing their nether regions in order to escape from attackers. Its tail will grow back with time - although it probably won't be as smart or as long as the original. It's a small price to pay for your life.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The scents of love

1 June - the first day of the summer months. In honour of the day the sun broke through the thick, porridgy clouds that brought yesterday's dreichness, turning the woods steamy and close for my lunchtime walk today. The air hummed with insects feeding on the wildflowers brought out in a rush by last week's heatwave. Bumblebees, hoverflies, craneflies, day-flying moths, they were all drunk with the perfume that the bluebells, violets, hawthorn and the rest were pumping out to attract them. The woods smelt like a bordello.

But in a green, sun-filled glade a single, male green-veined white butterfly was zig-zagging between the newly-opened meadow cranesbills, feeding on their nectar. Probably building up his strength for the coming courtships he undoubtedly plans. He seemed almost oblivious of me, skirting close by me as he moved between the flowers, so that I could see the dark lined underwings clearly. They remind me of a sketch of a butterfly that's flown off the page before the artist had time to colour it in.

But colour isn't that important to green-veined whites. They have a much more potent way of attracting their lovers. Taking a leaf out of the flowers' book, the male hunts out the female, and when he finds one he flies over her, sprinkling her with a 'love dust' (as Thomas and Lewington describe it in Butterflies of Britain and Ireland) which makes him irresistible. The scent is apparently so strong that even humans can detect the lemon verbena perfume it gives off. The female makes a semblance of resistance, often flying off, but then lands and folds her wings - a signal to the male that she's smitten. In a final twist the male, while he's mating with her, smears her with an ANTI-aphrodisiac smell, to put off other suitors. T and L don't say what that smells of - I'd love to know.

In a way it's strange that the butterflies should choose the scent of lemon verbena, as their favoured food plants for the caterpillars are crucifers. Once fertilised the female will go in search of plants like garlic mustard or ladies smock on which to lay her eggs. But unlike her cousins the small and large whites she's never developed a taste for cultivars. Our cabbages and sprouts are safe. But if you do catch one in the garden laying its eggs on your honesty, please give it a sniff and let me know.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

An undiscovered star?

Here's a puzzle? Why do we celebrate some wild flowers, and virtually ignore others that are equally beautiful or useful?

The woods to the south of the village dip steeply down to the Allan Water, where it cuts through the soft-red sedimentary bedrock beneath it. The damp, shady slopes are perfect habitat for what must surely be one of our most glamorous wild plants - water avens.  Drifts of them decorate the woodland floor - they are not a rare plant by any means. And the flowers would not be out of place in the most traditional of herbaceous borders, with their old-rose, antique pink petals, clutched into a nodding cup by a whorl of dark maroon sepals. Pale lime-green stamens counterpoint the pink, which gradually swell into soft, feathery tufts as the seeds develop.

Yet how many people can name them? Many thousands, of course, but millions could name and describe the bluebells and violets that grow beside the water avens in the woods. They receive scarcely a mention in Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica, and none at all in Milliken and Bridgewater's Flora Celtica, despite Scotland being one of their strongholds. Even Plantlife doesn't see fit to include them in their extensive, but obviously not comprehensive on-line list of British wild flowers.

Strangely, they seem to be better loved and understood in the United States, where native American tribes know them as chocolate root (though I couldn't find out if they ate it as such). The plants were used extensively in their medicine, for ailments as diverse as diarrhoea to excessive bleeding. Yet we don't seem to have developed that kind of relationship with the plant here. It's seems unfair, uncaring, to ignore some plants as we do.

But what gives a wild flower the X-factor? Why are there Cheryls and Cinderellas in the plant world? For once I don't think we can blame Simon Cowell.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Counting in a minefield


This weekend I have mostly been counting gulls' eggs. 

My daughter and I joined a team of volunteers who go out to the Isle of May each year to find and count the thousands of herring and lesser black-backed gulls' nests on the island. The process was strangely reminiscent of a military minesweeping operation. The eight of us lined up across a mapped and marked section of the island, clip boards and spray cans poised expectantly, while our leader briefed us on our tactics - cane in hand, pointing forwards, for all the world like a battle commander urging his troops into battle.

The tactics are as follows: walk forward, keeping in line, about 10ft from your neighbour, looking for gulls' nests. If you spot one mark it with the spray can and write down the number of eggs it contains. Move on. Simple. Simple, but complicated by a couple of details. While you are walking forward you are subjected to a continual bombardment by screeching, angry gulls. The gulls rarely actually strike people, but they fight a dirty war, and some of us came back decorated with very smelly battle scars. To add to the tension, the gulls nest in the same areas as the puffins, and the ground is riddled with their burrows. Put your foot through one and you risk blocking the tunnel to the nest chamber, meaning an egg or chick can be trapped inside - a death sentence. We walked as if through a minefield, trying to keep to the tussocks of vegetation and rocky outcrops. Inevitably there were a few implosions, but these were immediately rebuilt with turf and slates brought along for the purpose, and luckily there were no casualties. 

Thankfully the gulls' nests are relatively easy to spot. Perfect, round bowls of pale, dried grasses, with between one and four coffee-coloured, dark-speckled eggs huddled inside. They are surprisingly small for such impressive birds, and are hidden completely when a parent is incubating, so that the adults look like fat ladies perching on tiny stools.

But despite the risks the count has to go on. It's important to know how many gulls are on the island, and whether their numbers are stable or increasing. All the gulls are protected species, one of the reasons the island is part of the Forth Islands Special Protection Area, and it's important that we know how well they are doing here. The herring gull is the classic ‘seagull’ that we all imagine when we think of the seaside, with its silvery-grey back and keen, yellow eyes. Its close cousin, the lesser black-backed gull, stands out with its sooty-black wings and yellow legs. They breed on the island in mixed, loose, raucous colonies.

These closely-related gulls are relative newcomers to the island. They only began to breed here in the first half of the 20thcentury. But by 1970 their numbers had swelled to 17,000 – possibly as a result of the easy pickings to be had at rubbish tips on the Fife mainland, and the discards from fishing vessels. There was concern that this population explosion would damage the fragile ecological balance on the Isle of May, as the gulls can prey on other protected seabird species such as puffins and terns. And so conservationists made the difficult decision to cull their numbers to protect the other, more sensitive seabird populations on the island. During the 1970s and early 1980s over 40,000 gulls were removed. Happily this seemed to restore the balance, and in 1986 the cull was ended. Now gull numbers seem to remain stable at around 3000 pairs each year, and they are an intergral part of the island's ecology.

Managing species can be a minefield too - look at the furore inspired by removing hedgehogs from the Hebrides, or by culling red deer. Some suggest we should just 'let nature take its course'. What I think they forget is that it is almost always human intervention or influence that got things out of balance in the first place - top predators removed, wildlife introduced inappropriately, or, as in the case of the gulls, opportunistic species' populations becoming artificially high and threatening more specialist species. 

But however unpalateable it may be, there's really no going back, no reneging on our responsibilities now things are getting awkward. We got the natural world into this mess, and its up to us to try to get us out of it.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

In praise of the empress of flowers

One of the horse fields north of the village is empty just now - empty of horses that is. Instead it is filled with drifts of wild flowers, taking advantage of the respite. Chief among them are the daisies, spreading in wide pools of pink-tinged white across the close-cropped turf, speckled with canary-yellow creeping buttercups and pale blue speedwells. A glorious sight.

In some people's eyes, of course, these would be weeds, not wild flowers. Weeds because ubiquitous, rather than because they were growing 'in the wrong place'. We are very good at dismissing the common as dull, not worthy of note, boring. But we do so at our peril. Cowslips, orchids, snakes-head fritillaries - all now treasured, rare and celebrated wild flowers - were once common-as-weeds.

Luckily for the daisy, it has many supporters too - a lot of them under 10 years old. They are special for them because they are so common, not despite it. Daisies are surely the first flower most of us learn to identify as children. We draw them, pick them with our toes, make daisy chains from them - and love them for their simple beauty.

A symbol of innocence then - but deceptively complicated too. As members of the Compositeae family, a daisy is not actually one flower, but many. Each petal is a flower in its own right, as is each tiny fleck if gold in its centre. In effect every flowerhead is really a meadow. And its common name, daisy, comes from 'day's eye' - a nod to its habit of opening at dawn and closing at dusk, revealing the dip-dyed fuchsia pink edges of its underpetals as it does so.

Its scientific name, Bellis perennis, however, seems to have a much darker story. Bellis means 'in time of war' in Latin, and refers to the Romans' practice of pounding up the plants to extract the sap, which was used as a poultice for battle wounds. So its obviously a flower with a long history of living with humans.

Of course daisies aren't threatened - yet. But like the sparrows that disappeared from London, or the poppies that have vanished from our fields, who knows whether there may come a time when daisies no longer sprinkle our lawns and pastures with summer. It may be worth taking the time to really look at them while you can.

And if you need further convincing, I'm clearly not the only one who thinks daisies are worth looking at. I found this quoted in Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica, (translated) from Geoffrey Chaucer's (1343 - 1400) Legend of Good Women:


Of all the flowers in the meadow
Then love I most this flower white and red
Such as men call daisies in our town...
The empress and flower of flowers all.


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Magic in the air

How many wildlife documentaries have you watched where the programme faithfully follows the seasons, the ice of winter gradually melting over days and weeks as the sun's strengthening rays bring on the new spring, where streams bubble with life, birds sing, flowers bloom and young animals frolic? It's all tosh.

The weather is obviously controlled by fairies. Having spent the last six weeks in a Narnia-like state of permanent winter, we woke up on Sunday morning to discover that someone had clearly managed to locate the wicked witch responsible and smothered her with her own duvet cloak. In a matter of hours the Baltic weather had been replaced by balmy summer. It had to be magic.

The magic in the air has clearly stayed around. Yesterday evening we had a phone call from our quick-thinking, bird-savvy daughter, who was out in the River Field north of the village, to say an osprey had just flown over, heading our way. We had never seen an osprey over Ashfield before, and rushed out into the front garden to see if we could spot it. There it was, sailing round and up in a thermal, long, broad-fingered wings spread wide. Its cloud-white belly and forewings were sharp against the bluing evening sky, catching the sun as it tacked gradually west.

Ospreys have made a remarkable comeback in Scotland. Thought extinct in the UK in 1916,  a single pair was recorded in  the 1950s (though one or two more may have hung on unnoticed in the meantime). Now the figure for Scotland is approaching 200 pairs, with a number nesting just 15 miles west of here near the Lake of Menteith, a prime trout fishery. Persecuted in the nineteenth century for this taste in game fish, their chief enemies now are bad weather and electricity lines. I've no idea why this one was over the village, though there are trout ponds to the north of us.

But there was more to come. Panning up from the osprey my other half noticed another, smaller shape. Smaller because higher. It was another osprey. Then two darker shapes, one large, one small, joined the pile - red kite and sparrowhawk - moving in line with the other two like aircraft in a holding pattern. While the ospreys flapped and glided their way around the warm tower of air, the kite seemed to float, deftly tilting its tail and wings to adjust its orbit with hardly a wingbeat. The sparrowhawk was actually passing through, a dark, streamlined jet of a bird cutting a direct line through their airspace.

It was a sight I suspect few have ever been lucky enough to see - two ospreys, one red kite, one sparrowhawk in one small patch of warm sky. A perfect welcome for the coming summer.

And obviously magical.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Suffering for Plantlife!

Earlier this year I signed up to do a Wildflowers Count survey for Plantlife. I'm not an expert botanist but I reckoned I could identify enough of the common wildflowers to make my contribution worthwhile. I would enjoy a gentle stroll in the warm May sunshine (my pack recommended going at this time of year if my survey area had woodland elements), the fieldbanks and hedgerows heady with cow parsley, fidgeting with bees and butterflies.

Cut to reality. I decided to go today. It was the time the handbook suggested, and crucially, my other half - a far better naturalist than I - was available to come with me. We headed off to my given survey square - an area of mixed habitats, including some conifer plantation, mixed woodland and field edge on a breezy rise just north-west of Dunblane. The thermometer was struggling to hit 7C. It was drizzling with rain and a bone-chilling wind was blowing in from the north-east.

Swathed in waterproofs, wellies and woolly hats we combed the 1km length of the survey area - a 2m strip on one side of our chosen route. The plantation at the start of our survey had recently been felled, leaving the track battlescarred with heavy-duty tyre ruts, and many of the plants spattered with ashy-grey mud. After 10 minutes my pencil-holding fingers had begun to burn with cold. It was lucky my husband was there to take over the scribing duties while I pulled my sweater down over my hands to ward off incipient frostbite. But despite the unpromising surroundings, and the fact that due to weeks of arctic weather hardly anything was actually in flower, we managed to identify 26 species of wildflowers, shrubs and trees in this short section. The most exciting plant was the smallest - a couple of tiny fronds of pignut, a small member of the carrot family that indicates that this place had been old grassland long before the conifers arrived.

As we crossed to the arable section of the route a lone yellowhammer started to sing a truncated version of its usual 'bread and no cheese' song. 'A little bit of...', 'a little bit of...' it went, as if had forgotten the lyrics to a half-remembered old favourite. The field margin by the track was a predictable tangle of nettles and cleavers, hogweed and rank grasses, but every so often we would (we = mostly my husband) find a little pearl hiding among the swine. There was a patch of black knapweed, another fine grassland flower that would shine out like a  tiny amethyst in late summer. A yellow vetching, winding its cotton-fine stem up through the grass towards the light before it flowered in a few weeks time. Even a single, gnarled hawthorn standing sentinel where once there must have been a proud, dense hedge to keep the beasts in the field. Now the field was a dark, damp desert of earth and field beans, and any wild flowers that once graced it had been consigned to history.

At the end of the track we had amassed 42 species in just one kilometre stretch of very degraded habitat. It seemed a creditable total, but how many would there have been just a few decades ago? The tiny hints of the richer, past life of the land somehow made the current paucity of plants more saddening, more maddening. Arable intensification has sucked the life out of our fields and hedgerows. Collecting the information certainly wasn't the experience I'd expected. I ended up cold, wet, and very depressed. Yet for all that I think - I hope - it was worth the effort . If Plantlife can use the information that we, and hundred of other volunteers, have collected to accurately map the places where our wild plants are found - and lost - we may be better armed to fight for their return.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Naturally tough

Yesterday has to count as one of the grimmest May days I can ever remember. The wind howled around the house like a wounded wolf, the sky was a sagging, wet army blanket, and a chill, relentless drizzle kept me indoors most of the day.

It wasn't because I was worried about getting wet, or cold. We have the wellies, the waterproofs, the attitude to get outdoors whatever the conditions. For me it was because the hard, dark weather seemed a slap in the face to the innocent young life that is appearing everywhere now - lime-fresh leaves on the birches, orange-tip butterflies flirting with the ladies smock, a deafening dawn chorus of new parents. They all seemed battered or laid low by the dreichness. At some level I think I felt that if I went out in it I would be tacitly giving my approval. I do not approve of hail in May.

Not everything was so easily cowed. As I stood at the kitchen sink I caught sight of a pair of jelly-bright goldfinches in the track behind the house. They jumped down from the old metal fence into the rough, weedy strip in the centre of the track, and began rummaging through the dandelion heads looking for the milky, half-ripe seeds they like best. It was still raining, but they seemed not to notice, concentrating instead on combing each flowerhead in turn for another tiny parcel of nourishment. They looked as if they were eating the food there and then, but they may have been taking it back for nestlings - goldfinches regurgitate food, just like penguins and cormorants.

Despite their delicate appearance, they seem feisty birds, their red, white and black striped faces reminding me of tiny, New Guinean warriors. They don't seem as nervous as many feeding birds, that constantly look about them and twitch at every leaf flick. Instead they doggedly stripped the seeds from each plant and moved on, like tea pickers on piecework. I watched them for several minutes until they suddenly lifted and fled - the golden yellow stripes of their wings a blur as they disappeared into the cherry trees. My daughter was running past - the bright blue of her waterproof a blur as she came back from collecting the eggs in the rain.

Later that evening we did venture out. Despite the continuing foul weather there were primroses and bluebells, pink purslane and stichwort in flower in the woods, willow warblers and chiffchaffs singing, jackdaws and crows riding the wind like a fairground. It seems I was the only one dismayed by the weather.

I think I need to toughen up.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Hard sell?

It's 7C outside. The rain is blurring the view through our kitchen window, but I can still make out the newly-greened branches of the cherry trees beyond, bucking and twitching in the brisk north-easterly wind. The wood burner's lit, and the cats are curled up next to me on the sofa. It would make quite a cosy winter scene, if it weren't for the fact that it's 10 May.

And there's no sign of a change in the weather any time soon, according to the forecasters. Which is especially frustrating now, as I'm due to venture out tomorrow to help support a two-day expedition with a group of new Duke of Edinburgh's Award kids. For many it will be their first experience of walking any distance in relatively wild country, let alone with a heavy pack, and making an overnight camp. If the weather's foul on their first sortie it could give them a less than ideal introduction to the joys of the great outdoors.

And I think it's important that they do have a good experience. More than just important - I think it's vital, in the most literal sense of the word. If they, and the thousands of other teenagers that will be making similar trips all over the country,  learn to love the natural world it will have a huge impact on not only their lives but on the well-being of society and the future of the environment. And if you think I'm being a little melodramatic, this is what a Natural England commissioned report, published today, had to say about learning in a natural environment:

'Hands-on contact with nature is not only essential for protecting the environment but appears to be a means of cultivating community and enhancing the mental health and wellbeing of children and adults alike.'
Natural England Commissioned Report NECR092 Learning in the Natural Environment: Review of social and economic benefits and barriers

The publication is the latest in a string of  reports highlighting the importance of getting children and young people outside in natural environments, including the National Trust's recent offering, Natural Childhood, and Richard Louv's seminal work on the subject, Last Child in the Woods.

It seems pretty obvious to me that if we want our children (and adults for that matter) to value the natural world and the environment, they've got to have contact with it. I think the advertising media call it 'brand recognition' don't they?

Of course it's fair to say that part of the 'Natural World brand' - at least in the UK - is the vagaries of the weather, and in order to develop that brand loyalty we need to encourage our 'consumers' to enjoy it come rain or shine, heatwave or blizzard. But lots of kids nowadays are never even exposed to the natural weather, let alone the natural world.

Perhaps we could learn from the gardening world, where plants raised in greenhouses are 'hardened off' by being put out in the cold for short periods each day before being planted out in the open permanently. Perhaps we need to harden off our children by letting them go out in the rain at lunchtimes, or play in the snow after school. Then we wouldn't risk them drooping at their first, hours-long encounter with a Scottish spring day in the hills.

In the meantime I'm praying for some sun.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Wild life versus wildlife

This weekend I found myself with a group of friends and family loitering at the bottom of a dark, dramatic, tumbling waterfall in the Yorkshire Dales. We weren't admiring the view, though it was stunning. We were discussing the pro's and cons of scrambling up it - and not because we were intimidated by it. A British Mountaineering Council notice at the base of the scramble warned of peregrines potentially (a key word as you will discover) nesting in the crags above the waterfall. If they were there, had decided to nest, and were disturbed, they could fly off, leaving the eggs to chill and die.

For me it was obvious. I'm a conservationist. Of course we shouldn't risk it. There was an easy detour we could use to get to the top of the climb which would keep us well away from the potential nest site.

For my companions - all keen climbers, it wasn't so cut and dried. They'd been looking forward to the excitement and fun of clambering up the gnarly, limestone rocks, and gaining height quickly. I'd been looking forward to it too. I'm not a climber but I enjoy playing at being a fearless, mountaineering type, safe in the knowledge that it's actually quite safe and escapable. I like feeling the cold, rough rocks with my hands, smelling the mossy-earth close to my nostrils. But climbing's not what defines me as it does them.

They felt that because it was only a 'potential' nest site, and because they'd seen no sign of peregrines, it wouldn't do any harm to at least make a start on the climb, with the proviso that if any birds were spotted we'd back off. I said I'd seen signs of a peregrine kill further down the gorge. My daughter said she's spotted some pellets. Not conclusive, they thought - might not be this waterfall. I said if we disturb them the eggs could chill - backing off isn't enough.

We stood for what seemed like hours but was probably more like twenty minutes trying to come to a decision. The climbers said they felt the number of places they were free to climb was gradually being eroded by increasing concerns about disturbance to wildlife - soon there will be nowhere left, they worried. There was a sense of frustration. I could tell they genuinely didn't want to disturb the birds - they just wanted to believe they probably weren't there. These are people who climb not only for the adrenaline rush but for the freedom and wildness of the experience - the very experiences many naturalists are trying to reignite in us all.They love wild-life too. We were torn between wanting to feel the wild and needing to protect it.

We didn't climb the ghyll in the end. They decided the scramble would keep for another day, and we headed up a vertiginous grassy cliff that was probably twice as risky! We saw no peregrines, though a pair of ravens wheeled above the head of the crags - probably equally grateful we hadn't invaded their territory.

And the moral of the tale? I think the moral is that we all need to be able to understand each others' points of view more clearly.  Many of us (myself definitely included), move in a bubble of certainty because most of the people we have close contact with - friends, work colleagues etc - think the same way we do, have many of the same experiences we do, and similar priorities. Because I was with climbers I was able to understand the temptation to go ahead - the lure of the scramble just in front of us that we'd walked several miles to enjoy.  If my climbing friends had had more experience of peregrines, maybe seen and identified them in the wild, the birds' welfare may have moved up their priority list.

If we deplore the rise in nature deficit disorder among our children, and strive to reverse it, we're going to have to find a way to accommodate thousands - maybe millions - more people wanting experience a wilder life. Seeing the world through a climber's eyes might be a good place to start.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Polling Day blues

Polling Day. The chance to have my say about how my council is run. Except that no-one seems to be speaking my language. Despite the polar ice caps melting. Despite now universal agreement that climate change is a scientifically proven fact, and the most clear and present danger to the future of the planet. And despite ever increasing rates of extinction, biodiversity and habitat loss, most of my local prospective councillors chose to use their pre-election communications to talk about the need to fill more potholes.

Presumably this is so that people can get around faster and make more money. Because, of course, they talked about other things too - helping local businesses, economic growth, supporting education, health, economic growth, housing, economic growth, blah, blah, blah. Only one of them even mentioned environmental issues, let alone put it at the centre of their manifesto. Even the Green candidate had shied away from the C words. No-one seems prepared to acknowledge, as they must surely realise at some deeper level, that without a healthy environment, without tackling climate change, everything else is just pie in the sky.. It's not 'either we tackle the economic crisis or we look after the natural world'. We can't have one without the other. Tony Juniper, erstwhile leader of Friends of the Earth and inveterate environmental campaigner, explained it perfectly at a recent lecture entitled 'What Has Nature Even Done For Us' that I watched on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhPX7p9Iypw , when he said:

'The economy is not something that owns ecology...we must see the economy as it truly is, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of ecology and the natural environment'.

So it was with a heavy heart that I walked across the fields to the polling station to make my vote, knowing no candidate truly spoke for me, or the natural world. Luckily it was a glorious, almost-summer day. Skylarks singing, small white butterflies emerging like tiny brides among the lady's smock, and bluebells just beginning to prick the woods with hints of hazy colour. But it made me even more angry that nobody standing for the local council really seemed interested in protecting it.

I know I'm privileged to be one of a tiny minority that can say 'I walked across the fields to make my vote'. That's part of the problem. If everyone had daily contact with the real world I don't think we'd be in this mess - either economically or ecologically. What will it take to get decision-makers, at all levels, to see that, and be brave enough to admit it?

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Tales of the riverbank

Contrary birds, sand martins. As soon as you write about their disappearance they return, flying in the face of the weather. Because it's still cold here - though at least the sun has appeared to celebrate May Day.

There they were, as if they'd never gone away, when I walked through the River Field today. There must have been at least ten of them zigzagging over the water. Tiny brown crescents of movement, they flutter more than fly, reminding me of moths rather than birds. They're much smaller than swallows, with pale bellies and a dun band around their necks connecting the dark bands of their underwings.

The river bank in the field is sandy and eroded, leaving low, crumbling cliffs. Perfect for sand martins to nest in - if they're not washed away. One or two of them were prospecting for likely places to start burrowing, gripping onto the cliff-face with their scratchy little feet that seem too small for their bodies. Every winter the flooding river scours the banks, destroying last year's tunnels, and the sand martins are forced to start the whole laborious business again. The burrows can extend over two feet into the sand, and with just their beaks and feet to dig with progress is slow, perhaps a couple of inches a day.

The Allan Water is a good place to see sand martins, as it gently meanders through arable and pasture land. The air above the fields can sometimes offer rich pickings for these aerial grazers of tiny flies and gnats. Numbers have been good in recent years, after big population crashes in the sixties and eighties. But the crashes were linked to drought in their birds' wintering grounds in the Sahel, not habitat loss here. Don't think 'so not our fault this time' too soon though. Climate change - something we all have an influence on - could make such droughts more frequent, and agricultural 'improvements' over here to make food cheaper for us, threaten to reduce invertebrate numbers on, and above, farmland. Sand martins are on the Amber list, meaning their population trends are causing concern.

So despite them making me eat yesterday's words I was very glad to see them in the field today, ducking and diving defiantly over the river. Will it be the swallows' turn tomorrow to make me look an idiot?

Monday, 30 April 2012

Country rhyme, swallow riddle...

The north wind doth blow, and we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?
He'll sit in a barn and keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing.

The north wind has been blowing around here for a month now - the whole of April. It's a raw, unfriendly wind that goes through you rather than round you, as the old countrymen put it. We did indeed have snow at the beginning of the month, and even now the hills around the village, just a couple of hundred metres above us, turn hard and white like frost-bitten noses whenever it rains at our level.

Most of the wildlife that can seems to have gone to ground - butterflies, bees, hoverflies and their ilk have put their heads under their wings for the time being. But the robins, to tell the truth, aren't having too bad a time of it here. Many people in the village put out food for the birds, and it's not really cold enough to freeze the ground, where the beetles and earthworms that make up much of their favourite menu hang out. They don't need the barns just yet - which is lucky as there are precious few left around here.

But I wonder about the aerial feeders - the swallows and sand martins that were spotted over the village at the beginning of the month. After those first drops of summer spattered across the roofs I'd expected a flood of birds to start arriving, but the shower seems to have dried up for the time being. Where have they gone? Did they turn back? Did they perish en route for lack of food? Or maybe the early ones we saw were the foolhardy young bucks, taking a chance on the weather while their more cautious elders bided their time? On the few sunny days that we've had the ephemeral dancing gnats and midges do appear, only to fade away as the frosty evenings draw in. Can the hirundines get by on that?

If anyone out there knows the answer I'd love to know. In the meantime I'm going to find a barn.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

No more elephants please

'The elephant in the room' is a hugely overused phrase these days, don't you think? So I've come up with a new one: 'the heron in the river'.

I was strolling back along the river bank with a friend today when she stopped and pointed out the tall, ashy-grey shape of a heron a few yards away. I'd seen it myself - but I hadn't registered it - it had become a part of the landscape. Yet herons are massive birds - this one surely stood at least three foot tall. It posed like a living statue, black crest flicking in the breeze like a salmon fly, bright yellow eyes unblinking, dagger-beak braced to run through its prey. How could I have failed to notice it?

Of course it was the old story of familiarity breeding contempt. I'm so used to seeing a heron feeding in that stretch of river that I don't always notice it nowadays. Thirty years ago it could have been a different story. A heron on a fishing river like the Allan might have been a rare sight. For centuries anglers resented the fact that herons made fishing look easy, and persecuted them as a result. Now they're protected by law, and in the UK their numbers have increased by a third since 1980.

They don't only take fish, mind you. They're partial to frogs, ducklings, voles and even worms too. I often see them on the newly ploughed fields in the winter stabbing the soil for a fat earthworm. They lift off with a frustrated 'kraak' as I approach, circling away to lunch elsewhere in private. I recently found out that they produce pellets, just like owls and other birds of prey. I'd love to find one, though I wouldn't know where to start looking. They can travel up to 20km to feed, which makes for a wide search area!

The scientific name for all herons is Ardea. The name apparently comes from the town of Ardea, which was the capital of an ancient Italian tribe called the Rutuli. The town was razed to the ground in a war, but from its ashes rose a lean, pale bird, shaking the cinders from its wings. Cinerea, 'ash-grey', is the grey heron's specific name, and I like to think it was actually a grey heron that rose, phoenix-like. And if I can keep that image in my mind there's no way this splendid bird will ever be my elephant in the room again.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Beautifully ugly

We went out to the Isle of May again last weekend to visit my other half. It's an unusual place. Not beautiful in the traditional sense. I'm sure I've read a Greek myth (or was it Roman?) somewhere about a bunch of sailors who land on a strange, uncharted  island looking for shelter, only to find it's actually an enormous, sleeping sea monster that wakes and rears up, throwing them back into the ocean. Sometimes being on the Isle of May feels like that .

For a start there's the grass. Thousands of ravenous rabbits graze the stuff down to the roots over the winter. Icy squalls strip the colour out of it, leaving it bleached and lifeless. In a few weeks time, of course, the sea campion and thrift will transform it into carpets of delicate pink and white, but at this time of year much of it ends up looking like the lichen-infested, grey-green fur of a gargantuan three-toed sloth.

Then there are the birds. Land birds sing. The dawn chorus has been compared to pieces by Beethoven and Mozart. The Isle of May's dawn chorus is very different - more like a town waking up maybe. I took a walk around the island in the early morning and these are the sounds that I noticed. The eider ducks - 'engines trying to start on a frosty morning'; oystercatchers on the rocks 'like the referee's whistle from a distant football match; migrants in the elder bushes by the Heliogoland trap 'di-di-dit-dit-dit-di...' birds communicating to each other in Morse code, maddeningly impossible to see; puffins grumbling inside their burrows 'like rumbling stomachs'.

And of course - the smell of the cliffs, where many tens of thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and shags sit for days and weeks from March to September. The scent is an intoxicating mix of fish and guano, salt and weed, that wafts over the tops of the cliffs. It's not Chanel Number 5.

And yet...and yet. The Isle of May is not traditionally beautiful, but its richly different textures, sounds,and smells give it a character all its own - like strong, bitter coffee in the mornings, or a chunk of ripe Camembert after dinner. I love it - it's the taste of life.

If you'd like to find out more about the Isle of May, try reading the Isle of May blog at http://isleofmaynnr.blogspot.co.uk/

Friday, 20 April 2012

No going back now

Late March, you'll remember, was unseasonably, unnaturally warm. And despite everyone saying 'of course, it won't last', we all secretly hoped it just might. There have been other years when it has, but this year wasn't one of them. Now we have had three weeks of unseasonably cold weather, which looks set to continue into May - almost a return to winter.

Almost - but not quite. Because spring isn't really about the weather at all. It's about the light. However cold it feels, the Sun continues to rise that bit earlier, and set a few minutes later, every day. And however hard it rains, the spring migrants that set out from Africa many weeks ago, prompted partly by the dying of the light in the south, are still arriving on our shores for their summer sojourn.

This week the willow warblers appeared in the village. Despite travelling up to 25,000 kilometres to get here from sub-Saharan Africa they still had the energy to announce their arrival, still splashing those waterfall songs around the scrubby, railway embankment trees where they hang out here. I hardly ever see one. They blend into the tangled hawthorns perfectly, with their licheny green, grey and yellow plumage. But their song is one of the loudest and most distinctive in the dawn chorus, and like the voice of a ventriloquist seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

The dawn chorus - yet another marker of the season that the weather can't take away from us. Rain or shine birds need to advertise for a mate, declare their territories, warn off rivals. So rain or shine, the dawn chorus  shouts 'we're here; we're alive; it's spring!' And who am I to disagree?

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Fling open the doors!

Living in a small village, and working from home, there is rarely more than a pane of glass excluding me from the real world. And by that I mean the world of wind and rain, grass and mud, birds and beasts. In fact as I write now a heavy, sleety shower is spattering on the skylight window a few inches above my head. It's strangely comforting, like lying in a tent in a downpour - I'm warm and dry while all around is cold and wet, but I can still smell the grass and hear the birdsong.

And every day there are many reasons to go outside. I feed the hens, walk the dog, dig the garden, cycle to the town. I know I am one of the lucky few, with a job that allows me this freedom.

But every Wednesday I get a taste of what most people, sadly, have to endure every day. I'm doing a year-long course in horticulture, and sit in a neon-lit lecture theatre with the blinds drawn (the equivalent of the office) all morning, with no idea what's happening beyond those four walls. As the morning draws on I feel a creeping numbness, almost inertia, as the room gets stuffier and the lights dimmer.

Later, we emerge blinking into the sun, or wind, or (more rarely, as it is in Edinburgh) rain, to study some real-life examples of the plants we have been learning about, in the Royal Botanic Garden. It always feels like waking up again, or like the feeling you get when you come out of the cinema after seeing an engrossing film - as if you are remembering a different world you had almost forgotten about. And I wonder if there is a cumulative amnesia in those that have to sit in windowless offices and shops, factories and call centres, day after day. Does the indoor world become the only reality, and the outdoor world a brief dream?

Some would argue that this is the real world. The world where the money is made, the money is spent, the deals are struck, the communications communicated. But how can that be, when the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the earth we walk on are all beyond the walls that enclose us?

On a planet where more than 50% of the population now live in urban environments there has got to be a move to fling open the doors and windows again, so that people can step outside and remember which world is actually the real one - the one that keeps us all alive.

Monday, 16 April 2012

What we did in the holidays (Part 1)

First sincere apologies to anyone who visited the blog yesterday on the strength of me saying I was going to start again on 15 April - I'm afraid I got the date of the first day of the new school term wrong!

But now, as the summer term starts, I'm sure I'm joining thousands of school kids as I sit at my desk wracking my brains to remember where we (my daughter and I) went, what we did, and which were the best, and worst, bits of the Easter holidays. Here goes...

Day 1: Duvet day

Day 2: Munroe bagging expedition to Glen Clova - a southern outpost of the Grampian Mountains. Best bits - catching sight of two dotterel scuttling across the gravelly, lichen-spattered plateau near the top of Dreish, our second Munroe of the day, like technicolour dunlin on a beach; pretending we still had miles to go then watching my daughter's face as she sussed we were at the top! Worst bit: Panicking when we couldn't find an ice cream shop on the drive back.

Days 3 - 6:  To London on the train to stay with friends. Best bits - the exotic experience of sitting in Hyde Park in the sun having a picnic. Fluorescent green, ring-necked parakeets screeching above our heads like chimps in the ancient horse chestnut trees. Made even sweeter by my friend phoning to say there were three inches of snow in Ashfield; Visiting the Scott Exhibition at the Natural History Museum and seeing the emperor penguin eggs that were the reason for the 'Worst Journey in the World'. Worst bits - realising there are now more parakeets than sparrows in central London; getting crushed into a tube train with less room than an emperor penguin in its winter huddle.

Day 8 - 10: To the Isle of May National Nature Reserve, in the Firth of Forth, where my other half lives (he's the site manager) from April to October. Best bits (apart from seeing my husband) - hundreds of thousands of them. The island seems to be more bird than rock - mainly guillimots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars, shags, puffins and eiders. A blog for another day. Worst bit - having to leave so soon.

Day 11: Other half returned for some shore leave

Day 12 - 15: To our shared bothy on the shores of Loch Linnhe. Best bits - walking in. The cottage is a couple of miles from any roads. The route was studded with dawn-yellow primroses and dusky violets, though we were too early for bluebells; making nettle and wild garlic soup for lunch - its great to play at being a pioneer; hearing my first willow warblers of the year, splashing the woods with their waterfall songs. Worst bit - having to go outside in the middle of the cold, windy night for the loo!

Day 16: Home. Best bits - catching up with friends - human and avian; the first swallows and sand martins swooped low above our heads as we sat in the sun drinking coffee in the garden; finding that my purple sprouting broccoli had actually sprouted at last; being at home. Worst bit - mountains of washing; end of the holidays!

Friday, 30 March 2012

An Easter break

No blog today, I'm afraid. The Easter school holidays are upon us! As of tomorrow I will be re-assuming my role of full-time mother, companion, chauffeur, cook and sparring partner to my nearly-teenage daughter for the next two weeks. I find this leaves me little time or brain space for much blog writing, although I'm hoping we will have some small (but perfectly formed) adventures together that will give me some good material for when I return.

In the meantime, many thanks for visiting my blog. I'll be back at the keyboard from 15 April - at the very apogee of spring!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Rage against the dying of the light

A few months ago I still thought Tweeting was something celebrities did via their mobile phones to tell the world about their last cup of coffee. Now I know better.

The first surprise was that you could Tweet on a computer. The second was that people who actually had something to say - journalists, conservation charities, even governments - do it. I am now a Twitter convert. I use it even day to keep up with the news I'm interested in, to find out what informed commentators think about it and, occasionally, even to tweet myself.

Three things attracted my attention today, which in a strange way were all connected. The first was the news that starling numbers seem to be falling in Scotland - down by 17% since 2002, according to the results of January's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/310431-falling-stars-of-the-garden. How easily our wildlife ebbs away without us really noticing. Starlings - one of our most domestic birds, and yet disappearing before our very eyes. We get them in the village of course. In winter they perform our very own, very tiny murmuration as they collect to roost at dusk. As the days lengthen they perch on the tv aerials and telegraph poles commentating on the latest bird arrivals - curlew calls, swift screams, even the resident tawny owl is flattered by imitation. We'd notice if they weren't there. But we don't notice because they are.

Then I took the Twitter link to Michael McCarthy's excellent wildlife column in the Independent - Nature Studies http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/nature_studies/nature-studies-by-michael-mccarthy-where-is-the-elegy-for-the-mountain-blackbird-7594939.html. He was writing about another disappearance. Ring ouzels are becoming a rare sight on the mountains, and have gone completely from some of their English haunts. I've only seen them a couple of times - they looked like giant dippers to me - whizzing up a heathery glen instead of a splashy river. Mr McCarthy's point was that not only is the loss of another bird species a tragedy, but one for which we have no mechanism to mourn. For once I disagreed with him. The fact that we are still losing species, in this -2012 for God's sake - is not something just to mourn but to rail against. Rage, rage against the dying of the light - as Dylan Thomas so succinctly put it. Surely the right response is for those who care - and surely that should be everyone - to express their outrage that this could still be happening.

And that brings me to the third item that caught my attention. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) has begun a new campaign called 'Inspiring Generations' http://inspire.wwt.org.uk/write-a-letter-and-win/. They're using the original text from Robert Falcon Scott's final letter to his wife as the starting point, with the famous line 'make the boy interested in natural history if you can, it is better than games they encourage it at some schools – I know you will keep him out in the open air..'. They are then asking people of all ages to write their own inspirational letter to future generations.The best 100 will be sent by Scott's grandson from Antarctica to the chosen recipient. It seems to me to be a very good campaign. If Scott's letter to Peter led to him becoming one of the world's foremost conservationists - founder of WWT and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) - who knows what 100 such letters might achieve.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Camels in the air?

There's been an explosion in Ashfield. It happened on Sunday. The light was blinding. The heat was intense. And when I stepped outside to see what had happened I found that we'd been hit by a heatwave. In the space of a few hours the natural world had exploded into summer.

After weeks of grasping for the first straws of spring - oystercatchers, celandines, butterburs, bees - as they seeped inch by inch into the landscape of the new season, they had now erupted in the blink of an eye. Buttery celandines are now spread thickly over the fields; the air is dense with bee-hum; and while on Friday I had rejoiced at the single peacock butterfly, by Sunday they were everywhere, dancing in the spotlight of the bright sun.

I've thrown caution to the wind and cast my clout well before May is out. It's wonderful to feel the sun on my peely-wally arms and legs for the first time since last August.  It will end in tears of course - at least for me. The heat can't last, and I will find myself one morning shivering in shorts and sandals in an icy north wind. And others may suffer too. Early breeding birds and invertebrates, emboldened by the warmth, may well pay a heavy price for their joie de vivre.

We should all know better. How often this happens! We have been schooled by stories and poems to expect the seasons to gradually morph one to the other, the temperature to gently warm as the days lengthen. Instead our seasons go two steps forward and one back - although the current heat wave feels more like ten steps forward - it's been 19C instead of the average of 10C for March. Apparently hot North African air is being sucked north. 'You can smell the camels' - according to one weather forecaster! It's caught us all out. We didn't expect camels in March.

I worry that climate change will be like this. We expect things to gradually warm up. We expect governments, and their people, to gradually come round to the fact that things need to be done, and to gradually decide to change our lifestyles. But from everything I now read, it isn't going to be like that. 'Feedback mechanisms' mean that, just like in the current heatwave, changes will be explosive. Melting ice caps will reveal dark land and sea that will absorb heat much more efficiently. Melting tundra will release millions of tonnes of methane that will accelerate the greenhouse effect. Warmer seas won't be able to absorb as many greenhouse gases. So I think it's vital that we try to spread the message that the changes could be sudden, exponential - and unstoppable.

I'm enjoying the current blip in the climate - even sniffing hard to try to find the camels. But I don't want to wake up one day in a few years time and find them sitting on my doorstep because climate change has taken 100 steps forward overnight.