October, 2011

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  • Soiled, but stepping boldly forwards in peace

    If the change in weather to cold mornings and dark evenings hasn't been enough to dampen spirits, a burst soilpipe in our office block has snuffed out the remaining cheer lingering from the warm start of this month. Our new office mantra: "Wake up and smell the beings". Umm. Full roast.

    That open sewer smell transports me to adventures on foreign soils, or occasionally after heavy downpours in London, the banks of the Thames. In themselves, these memories are pleasant and bursting with wildlife, I just wish we could all experience them without the odour and inherent health hazards. The power of smell, sounds or images to trigger memories seems to have been in the news quite a bit this week. Its partly centred around a new book by psychologist Steven Pinker.

    His latest work calls upon vast amounts of data to show that we're living in a far less violent age than our great grandparents and a far, far less violent age than our ancestors. War zones, sports pitches and terrorism aside, he has a point. My query is whether it's also reflected in the natural world.

    Nature itself has become more violent, with increased frequency of storms and severe swings of weather conditions triggering a range of natural climatic disasters. But looking at the wildlife. Predators continue to predate traditional prey; weeds continue to colonise new grounds; and habitats transform slowly from bare soil to young woodland. So, I think I'm on safe ground in saying that no, wildlife is no more, nor less violent than it's ever been. I would argue instead that the stresses on wildlife are growing larger than they've been since the Ice Age. Many of our common London species are shrinking as they start to move north westwards.

    Image by Adrian ThomasIn the UK, we've missed our 2010 targets to halt biodiversity loss. We've set new ones for 2020. Yet powerful lobbyists continue to push for agendas that are far from green. I wonder what Steven Pinker makes of this? It's like a self-destruct gene has kicked-in to replace the genetic drive for self-preservation.

    The natural world is not based on a market economy. If you don't believe me, visit our Date with Nature on Hampstead Heath next week and join our staff to see how many herons are developing bigger wings to fly faster from A to B to secure more twigs for bigger nests; or how many kingfishers are meeting to work out how to drain the ponds to catch fish more easily. Nature moves to the rhythms of the seasons and lives within its means.

    Despite this, it's struggling too (arguably because of our actions) and when frost, ice or snow locks away food, things can quickly go from desperate to dead.

    So as we hurtle towards winter, do put out some food and water for wildlife. We've organised Feed the Birds Day as an incentive but it's something you can do anytime. So, wake up, drink the coffee, then Step Up for nature by putting some cereal or porridge crumbs on a windowledge or bird table. The sight of happy birds feeding will help raise spirits back to summer morning levels.

  • He's a jolly good fallow

    Reds in the flower beds at Bushy Park - AWESOMEIf you commute in and out of London, at some point in your life you'll no doubt feel stuck in a rut;  the same old, same old.

    But 'tis the rutting season, so Bushy Park and other open spaces are echoing to the bellow of frisky deer. The warm weather of late has helped stir the deep emotions of these majestic beasts.

    Think of the fight scene in Romeo and Juliet, two strutting males circle each other, exchanging verbal barbs. They clash, it gets dangerous and anyone caught in the middle gets hurt.

    National newspapers have this week warned of the dangers of coming between deer and at least one has a series of photos of Bushy Park's passionate deer locking horns with wildlife and people that accidentally strayed in to the danger zone.. It's not funny and I'm sure the encounters were painful.

    It's a reminder that we live cheek by jowl with a whole host of wild creatures in our cities and gardens. Most go about their daily business without impacting on our lives. We people tend to ignore the buddleia growing from the sides of tall buildings, the foxes strolling down the road or the squirrels running along the tops of fences. As for the birds, they're largely ignored as being part of the street furniture and bugs only warrant a squeal when a slug or spider trespasses into our lives.

    But it all deserves a more careful look. London's wild population far exceeds the human one and is incredidbly diverse. We'll have staff out in Bushy Park this weekend and next, pointing out some of the amazing creatures that share our Capital.  Just remember, those creatures are wild (not our staff - they're very friendly). Those other "wild" creatures are not tame enough to stroke. What you think may be a gentle and calm approach may be interpreted by wildlife as a threat, closely followed by a predictable response.

    Let's not forget our lovely river. The Thames. It's brown, sometimes smelly and not brimming with salmon or trout. But it is still a gem of a place that we must cherish. The best news all week was Boris Johnson announcing on an LBC interview that his estuary airport plan is grounded. 300,000 migratory birds use it annualy despite it being in poor condition. Imagine the wildlife that will thrive along it when we improve it!

    London's nature is truly amazing. Go visit Bushy Park, Hampstead Heath, Abney Park Cemetery, your garden or nearest outdoor space and discover it for yourself. Just treat it with respect.

  • Moth eaten? Bring on the tits!

    A blazing start to October will this week turn to a more traditional autumnal month, with forecasters predicting snow in the UK before Christmas - yes it's just a couple of months away!

    So, it's time to put away the shorts and crop-tops and dig out the woolies and hats with ear-flaps. If you're unlucky, that favourite winter wooly may have holes in it, courtesy of some hungry moths. Our conker trees aren't faring much better, they too are under attack from moths.A moth on a damaged leaf (credit Rich Andrews)

    The horse chestnut leaf miner moth was first recorded in eastern Europe and has spread rapidly across the continent and the UK.

    Its caterpillar lives in the leaves of the horse cheshnut, leaving tell-tale brown speckled leaves. While it's not enough in itself to kill the trees, it does weaken them, leaving them vulnerable to other infection or climatic stresses. Once grown, the caterpillar emerges to become a 5 mm long moth (pictured right). These intrepid die-hards have marched across Europe from the Balkans at a rate of about 40 miles a year, sometime hitching rides in cars, trucks and trains.

    A study is underway in to their spread and control and there's light at the end of the tunnel; some natural controls have been discovered! A tiny parasitic wasp that eats the caterpillars and our own great tits and blue tits. There's only anecdotal evidence so far about the involvement of the birds, but it could help explain why they're doing well, while other insect eating birds are struggling.

    If tits have discovered a taste for this moth, then there are things individuals can do to help stop the leaf miner destroying our conker trees. Putting out seed always helps, but what you plant and the way you look after your outdoor spaces is crucial. 

    As we head towards Feed the Birds Day, we're challenging Londoners to get creative and come-up with some bird food recipes to help our feathered compadre's survive the cold weather. In return, they'll then be able to help us, by gobbling-up bugs and beasties that threaten our environment, like this leaf miner. Imagine autumn without conkers! No thank you.