Sunday, 23 February 2014

Go on take a walk

Instead of complaining and grumbling about the state of nature conservation policy I am going to exalt the natural world. This past week has been half-term and working in a school means that I was on light duties for the past seven days. I spent some of that time in the school eco-garden. It’s normally a complete mess. The kids do their best but they aren’t gardeners by any stretch of the imagination and sadly hard work is an alien concept. I spent about an hour pottering about clearing up blown flower pots and dredging leaves from the pond (more on dredging in a future blog).
I was delighted to see the hitherto trampled space beneath the cherry tree covered in delicate snowdrops and the Robin who came down to feast on the insects I disturbed as I shifted logs and slabs. It may not be tidy, it may not be big but I have found this small garden a haven for wildlife and one that can be used for teaching. In the summer months I bring Year 8 students down to hunt for invertebrates and I am constantly amazed by the things that they find and the interest they show.
Today, being Sunday, was my usual day for visiting my little patch of land and path beside the River Avon. I have been collecting Natural History data on this stretch of river for 12 years and at Christmas completed enough visits to develop a solid 10 year block of data on Birds, Butterflies and Dragonflies one day this will be analysed and published but for now I am content to revel in the tranquillity this patch brings me. 

It is no doubt Warwick’s premier beauty spot and only a 10 minute walk from my house on the edge of town. It started as a way to get me out when I suffered from agoraphobia many years ago. I would visit regularly and became enchanted by the wide diversity I found. It has always been a place that has soothed my soul. When Henry my dog died it was here that I was able to tackle my grief, when access was stopped for 2 months when they repaired the bridge I was lost and found myself desperate to get back and see what I had missed.

Here I have had close encounters of Foxes and Shrews. I have watched Sparrowhawk nests succeed and fail and became so well known to the resident swans that they would come to a whistle that I developed to identify myself. Both these swans are no both sadly departed but I still have a Robin – likely a different one each winter – that feeds from my hand. 

I guess what I am getting at is something that conservationists have known for many years; wildlife is good for health and well being. There are planning suggestions that people have access to open spaces within certain distances of their home. Not everyone is perhaps as connected to the site as me, many walkers walk blithely past the wrens nest or barely notice the Buzzard on the ruins but they still seem to be taking some aesthetic value from the site as a whole.

So this afternoon take a walk and open yourself to what is out there. You may not be able to identify it all, you may not see much but you can relish in what the fresh air can bring to you be it the amazing or the sweet song of a Wren or Dunnock.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

River Avon in Warwick - Relatively normal for this time of year
 Given the furore over the flooding in Somerset and some of the comments that have started to be circulated I thought it opportune to make flooding the topic of this blog post. In the course of this blog I will no doubt annoy people who have been flooded out, I do not mean to cause offence. I cannot begin to understand the pain and loss of having ones property invaded in this way and it is terrible to have to deal with the aftermath and the destruction but, and there is always a but, this is not say that certain factors  that are now being called for are the best approach for the future.

We have a tendency in Britain to suffer from reactionism. Politicians tend to view things in the short term – usually 5 years terms of office or in terms of what is popular and not what is necessarily right. This view reinforces again my concern that uneducated politicians and bureaucrats will do what is necessary to appease rather than review the scientific evidence and make a rational choice.

What has caused the flooding then, for if we are to truly stop people getting flooded out we need to understand causes before we can formulate the defence. We can point fingers several ways, deforestation of headwaters, flood defences protecting towns at the expense of farmland, not enough dredging of rivers, too much building and dare I say it... it rained... it rained a lot. January for example had 35% more rainfall than average according to the MET Office. This combined with tidal surges and high winds and followed a December that had 154% of average rainfall. Is it any surprise then that some level of flooding occurred? Probably not and those affected by it probably were prepared for some if not the scope of it. 

My concern is over what happens next. There are demands for dredging to be stepped up and that might work a little. Just dredging is a simplistic response. The quantity of rain we have had would still have caused flooding regardless whether the Severn or Avon had been dredged from source to sea. What is needed is a holistic look at the whole problem. Some part of the problem is at the big and scary climate level, this is not something you can alter at the flick of a switch or the dig of a ditch. Dredging will easy some flow and harm the ecology of the river to very little long term affect. More importantly we need to be looking at the use of floodplains... the clue is in the word. We shouldn’t be surprised when homes built on a flood plain flood.

Countryfile had an interesting article last week regarding the reforestation of uplands to store water instead of the current sheep farming strategy. The approach was a little draconian but there is certainly something to be said for creating soak aways, detention basins and reforested areas. This has the double benefit of reducing flooding and creating homes for wildlife. 

I read with dismay Conservative Peers lambasting the Environment Agency for putting wildlife above people when they discovered plans to reinforce the train line at Dwalish prepared last year had yet to be acted on because they were waiting on an Environmental Assessment regarding Bird life along the coast. I can see now that in the urge to soothe people’s concerns environmental considerations will be even more curtailed in the need for a quick fix and to solve an ecological and hydrological solution with a political one.

I am not inspired by the fact the Lord Chris Smith is the head of the Environment Agency, his background as a politician was in Culture, Media and Sport and his original education is in English. I have little faith that in future the response to these floods will be made responsibly. I expect his head will be offered up on a platter and someone equally unsuitable will be sought to replace him either way I see an opportunity to improve matters for all being subsumed into political point scoring of the worst kind with no side actually coming out as a winner.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Cryptozoological Reviews

When i grew up I became fascinated with fringe science. I wanted to know how the various strands intersected and related to true science. The most interesting of these areas is Cryptozoology - the zoology of unknown organisms. I spent a lot of time reading about Bigfoot, Yeti and Big Cats in the UK.

In recent months I've had a resurgence in interest and this has co-coincided with the release of several books and I thought I would offer a couple of book reviews.

Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and other Famous Cryptids 

by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero.

This excellent meaty text is full of detail on a whole range of cryptid. Their approach is scientific and informative. Each species is given its own chapter where the history of its sightings are recorded and their validity assessed. Local culture and mythology are explored and evidence thoroughly examined. 
The book covers Bigfoot, Yeti, Nessie, Sea Serpent and Mokele Mbembe. The authors style whilst scientific is very readable and I found this book had to put down.

Cryptozoologicon: Volume I

by Darren Naish, John Conway and C.M Koseman

 The Cryptozoologican is the latest offering from the team of Tetrapod Zoology. This first volume is an amazing compendium of over 25 cryptids ranging from the familiar to the downright strange. Like Abominable Science the team behind this book are all have scientific backgrounds and lend their expertise to the subject. The Cryptozoologican is lighter on scientific fact than Loxtons but this is intentional. Naish and co approach the creatures from a light hearted 'what if'' angle. They explore from the evidence provided what such an organism might be and how it fits into the ecology of its habitat. Each species account is supplemented by fantastic artwork.

Lastly I will review in my view the best book on this topic -

My Quest for the Yeti

by Reinhold Messner

Reinhold Messner is a famous for mountaineering. He was the first man to climb Everest without oxygen. Reinhold is an experienced climber and has spent most of his life in the most remote areas of the world.
This book isn't simple a tale of his climbing exploits but a personal journey prompted by a chance encounter with a Yeti in 1986. Not believing that the Yeti he saw was necessarily the  supernatural creature that some believe it to be he set out to investigate for himself. His story takes him into Tibet, encounters with the Chinese army and to remote Buddhist monasteries. I will not spoil the outcome of his searches but it is one of the most reasoned and well thought out explanations of anyone scientist or otherwise.

If any of this has peaked your interest I suggest you catch up on Channel 4's excellent 'Bigfoot Files' series. Presented by Mark Evans this short 3-part series uses the latest scientific methods to test the sightings and evidence of many of the Bigfoot hunters reveal some fascinating facts.