April, 2012

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You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Help the Prime Minister find the right words (again)

    I had hoped to be writing a blog post today in anticipation of the Prime Minister's Energy speech.  I had hoped to be wondering whether he would recommit the Government to calling for a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) from the EU by 2020.

    It appears that either this speech will now not happen or it was a speech that never was.  I understand that he will be restricting himself to just a few introductory remarks.

    See here and here.

    There are lots of reasons why the Prime Minister may have chosen not to mark the Clean Energy Ministerial meeting with his first keynote speech on the environment.  I am not going to comment on the lack of a speech on a particular day. 

    But I do think that it is important for the Prime Minister to find a date soon where he can outline his ambitions for tackling climate change and protecting the environment.

    This is an example of where words matter.  The Leader of the day can outline his or her government's commitments and what they hope to achieve.  This helps galvanise the rest of government.  It is therefore obviously disappointing that Mr Cameron has, to date, failed to outline this vision since his election in 2010.     

    Clement Atlee’s Government gave us National Parks. Mrs Thatcher left us the Wildlife and Countryside Act, helped tackle the hole in the Ozone and drew the world's attention to global warming.   Mr Blair helped give better protection to wildlife (through the CROW  and Marine Acts) and established legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emission in the groundbreaking Climate Change Act

    The Coalition is, of course, having, shall I say, "a challenging month".  There is understandable focus on the firefight at the front door.  But before long he will need to turn his attention to the longer-term ecological and climate crises that we face.  The challenge of any great Leader is to rise above the noise of the day and focus on the longer term challenges.  This is part of creating a legacy which subsequent generations can be proud.

    I admire Mrs Spelman's ambitions to leave the natural environment in a better state for the next to inherit and I remain convinced that Mr Cameron wants this to be the "greenest government ever".  But the silence is becoming deafening.  It is vital that Mr Cameron finds a date soon to confirm his commitment to this agenda and outline concrete proposals about how this will be achieved.

    Do you have an opportunity when Mr Cameron can make his first Prime Ministerial speech on the environment?

    I am sure that he would love to receive an invitation.

  • Two bees, or not two bees?

    On my journey through the works of Shakespeare this week, as well as admiring his use of language, I'm learning to respect his knowledge of nature. His knowledge of birds is impressive and his references to plants read like a botanical encyclopedia. But I'm not convinced he was much of an entomologist. His knowledge of insects is pretty basic, even by modern standards, and he makes few attempts to distinguish individual species.
     
    Still, he makes more than 100 references to insects and several more to spiders. But he divides them fairly baldly into goodies and baddies.
     
    Let's start with the good guys. Bees are, of course, admired for their industry and organisation and increasingly valued for their pollinating services (take a look at the excellent Friends of the Earth Bee Cause " href="http://www.foe.co.uk/what_we_do/the_bee_cause_35033.html">Bee Cause campaign). There is a wonderful exchange in Henry V, where the Archbishop of Canterbury explains how honeybees provide an example of model government and social order, "Creatures that by a rule on nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom". Readers north of the border will be less impressed by references to the sneaky "weasel Scot" in the same scene, so I'll draw a veil over that. It's act 1, scene 2, if you're interested, just before the tennis balls arrive. Yes, really, tennis balls.
     
    Bees are dangerous though, especially if their queen is threatened. When Duke Humphrey is murdered in Henry VI, part 2, Warwick declares that, "The commons, like an angry hive of bees that want their leader, scatter up and down, and care not who they sting in their revenge".
     
    You'll struggle to find bumblebees in Shakespeare, as they are generally called humble-bees (a name that survived until comparatively recently - you'll find it in the works of Darwin too).  "Full merrily the humble-bee doth sing", says Pandarus in Troilous and Cressida. Perhaps Shakespearean bumblebees were just better at humming than their modern counterparts.
     
    Ants are well-organised too, but he rarely mentions these. Apparently they only appear three times, and on one of these occasions, in the first part of Henry IV, the reference is to "pismires", an old word of Scandinavian origin. I won't go into too much detail here, but the name is evocative of the smell of the formic acid in an anthill, which was thought to resemble the smell of...well...work it out for yourselves. 
     
    Wasps, of course, are characterised as angry things. Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew is a one-woman biodiversity action plan, as she is not only a shrew, but also a wasp. She warns Petruchio, "If I be waspish, best beware my sting". Good advice.
     
    Butterflies, moths and their caterpillars occur frequently, but there is little attempt to distinguish one from the other, except that moths fly at night and eat one's clothes, caterpillars eat everything else, while butterflies are pretty and hard to catch. 
     
    Richard II, the play that laments the state of England ("This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle", etc), makes several references to caterpillars. A servant describes, "Our sea-walled garden, the whole land, is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok'd up, her fruit trees all unprun'd, her hedges ruin'd, her knots disorder'd, and her wholesome herbs swarming with caterpillars". Saying that the kingdom is full of caterpillars is probably not a good thing, as the play in question was banned by Elizabeth I.
     
    By far the best references to invertebrates appear in Romeo and Juliet, in Mercutio's description of the fairy Queen Mab: "Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' legs, the cover, of the wings of grasshoppers; her traces, of the smallest spider web; her collars, of the moonshine's wat'ry beams; her whip, of cricket's bone; the lash, of film; her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat, not half so big as a round little worm pricked from the lazy finger of a maid;" This all formed part of Queen Mab's chariot, which was charmingly fashioned from "an empty hazelnut". With lines like these, is it really any wonder that Mercutio is apprently the Shakespearean character most loved by teenage girls?
     
    But the real sign of the times is that the insects with which Shakespeare seems most intimately acquainted are flies (and maggots), fleas and lice. In Henry V, Falstaff is findly remembered for an apparently hilarious encounter with a flea, “Do you not remember a' saw a flea stick upon Bardolph's nose, and a' said it was a black soul burning in hell-fire?”
     
    My, how we laughed...
     
    And that (probably) completes our exploration of nature in Shakespeare's art.

  • Say it with flowers

    This week I am taking a  journey through the works of Shakespeare and looking out for nature on the way. Today I’ll take a look at plants, which figure even more prominently – and more symbolically -  in Shakespeare than birds.

    Here I must declare an interest.  In a former life I was Conservation Director of Plantlife " href="http://www.plantlife.org.uk/">Plantlife and long before that I played Viola (which also happens to be the genus of violet) in Twelfth Night.  It was a confusing time being a boy dressed as a girl dressed as a boy.  But it did me no harm.  I think.
     
    Today we give bouquets as tokens of love, of gratitude, or of sympathy.  We are probably unaware of the traditional symbolism of individual flowers. The exception is obviously the rose, still regarded as the ultimate symbol of love (though many may argue that diamonds  are preferable).
     
    Shakespeare featured more than 200 species of plants in his writing and almost all of them had a hidden meaning. His audiences would have grasped the significance, but I imagine that these references are lost on modern audiences. They were certainly lost in me until I looked them up!
     
    The character most associated with flowers is the tragic Ophelia in Hamlet. When Ophelia loses her wits, she hands out flowers to the other characters. Mad she may be, but her flowers are chosen carefully. Later, when she drowns, she is garlanded with yet more flowers. Again, these have a special significance. Ophelia gives us a poignant glimpse into this lost language of flowers. The speech goes:
     
    "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts," said Ophelia to her brother Laertes. "There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o' Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died."
     
    Rosemary was reputed to strengthen the memory, so was regarded as a symbol of remembrance. You’d give it to your friends if they went anywhere, brides would include it in their bouquets and it cropped up quite often at funerals, for obvious reasons. Ophelia gives it to her brother, Laertes, in the hope that he will remember both her and their father, who died after being stabbed behind the arras (which sounds painful, but an arras is apparently a tapestry). I have no idea whether rosemary helps the memory or not, but it might be worth a try before you go to your next pub quiz  or sit an exam. If it works, let me know...
     
    The link between pansies and thoughts is better-known, as the name “pansy” is derived from the French word pensée, or “thought”. These pansies would be the little wild Viola tricolor, or heartsease, rather than the gaudy hybrids found in modern garden centres. The flower was thought to resemble a human face and, when it nodded on its stem, to look like person deep in thought. Ophelia also gives these to her brother.
     
    Incidentally, while researching this blog, I discovered that applying pansy juice to the eyelids of a sleeping person means that they fall in love with the first thing they see when they wake up. Again, I can’t be certain if it works but would advise you to exercise greater caution when trying this than with my earlier rosemary recommendation. This is, after all, how Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream manages to fall in love with a donkey...
     
    Fennel pops up several times in Shakespeare. As well as being a culinary herb, it is emblematic of flattery and deceit. Because fasting pilgrims ate fennel seed to fend off hunger pangs, it provided temporary gratification but no real nourishment – rather like empty flattery. She gives this to King Claudius, who flattered his way into Gertrude’s bed and who enjoys a spot of flattery himself.
     
    She also presents Claudius with some columbines, Aquilegia vulgaris. It’s a symbol of ingratitude and thanklessness, and was also given to cuckolds. Given that Claudius murdered his brother and married the same brother’s widow, this seems perfectly reasonable. But, all this considered, anyone who presented a murderous king with a columbine would have to be pretty mad. I really don’t recommend that you try this. 
     
    Rue is very bitter and relates to sorrow or repentance. We still use the word “rueful”, meaning sorrowful, but have perhaps forgotten its relationship with the genus of evergreen shrubs. It has many medicinal uses, but Ophelia gives it to Gertrude, in the belief that fickle Gertrude has much to regret. She also keeps some for herself, suggesting that she regrets her own involvement with Hamlet, who has deserted her.
     
    Ophelia also picks out a daisy, symbol of innocence and purity, perhaps because, thanks to the daisy chain, it has been associated with little girls for hundreds of years. The name of the daisy comes from "day's eye", a reference to the the fact that it opens at dawn and closes at dusk. It's reasonable to assume that she reserves this bloom for herself. There are also daisies in the garland of flowers that she is wearing when she drowns.
     
    Ophelia is unable to find any violets, by which she presumably means Viola odorata, as they have all withered. The violet's habit of blooming in early spring and fading before summer caused it to be connected with premature death. Given the tendency of Shakepearean characters to be cut down in their prime, they pop up all over the place. At Ophelia's funeral, Laertes laments, "Lay her i'the earth: And from her fair and unpolluted flesh, may violets spring".
     
    It's hardly cheerful stuff, is it? And, the more you brush up your Shakespeare, the more you find that plants have unfortunate connotations.
     
    So, next time you give someone a bunch of flowers to repay a kindness or to declare undying love, take care that you're not sending an unpleasant coded message. If in doubt, stick to roses....