Mad dogs and wildlife surveyors

With temperatures soaring, you would have to be a fool to go out in the midday sun.  Unless you had a wildlife survey to do.  This weekend, like a fool, I went out twice.  On Saturday I did my monthly BeeWalk (now in the fourth year), and on Sunday I went to survey a square for the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey.

The Bee Walk can vary in difficulty, depending on the time of year.  Early in the year there are only queens to worry about, as the season goes on there are workers, males and cuckoos thrown into the mix.  I am not the most confident bee identifier, so I really should get some practice in before hand, especially when the lavender is in full flower and the bees are buzzing all over the place.  Much easier to be confident identifying the different species in the field than to try and take photos, do diagrams and count at the same time.

I did take a little diversion on the way home to try and see my second favourite butterfly (Marbled White) and also to check that the Brown Argus are still where I expect them to be (although not for much longer as the site is going to be built on).  Both were ticks – my first for the year for both species.  Brown Argus are a bit tricky to ID, unless you are prepared – they look very much like a female Common Blue – except that they have two dots that are close together on the underside of their hindwing making it look like a figure of 8.  The Blues don’t have this, but they do have an extra spot of the underside of the forewing.  Fortunately the Argus does like to pose with its wings closed so you can be sure of the ID.

Brown Argus Butterfly

On Sunday I had a cunning plan – get out early to look for butterflies and get home before the heat really ramps up.  Unfortunately the old adage of fail to plan, plan to fail, held true for me.  I was picking up a route that had already been done by a previous surveyor a couple of years ago.  But, I thought I knew where I was going and, armed with my print off of the map I set off in high spirits having just seen a Red Kite overhead.  I took this as a good omen as it is my favourite bird of prey.  In hindsight, maybe it was looking for the carrion from previous unprepared surveyors.  The survey involves walking two roughly parallel 1km paths, and should take about one to two hours.  (Although the last square I had was in the land where butterflies feared to fly and it took about 30 minutes because I only had to count 5 on the entire route).  I was happily following the field margins along the path, counting large whites, small whites, meadow browns and gatekeepers.  I even managed to spot my favourite butterfly, the small copper – which was an unexpected bonus – things were going well.

Small Copper Butterfly

Then, I thought I had reached the end of the first 5 parts (of 10) of my walk.  I emerged onto a road – and found I was back where I had parked my car – not halfway along my walk, but actually at the end.  I had to start all over again!  I hadn’t realised that the path I was supposed to take went through the middle of the field, but instead I had followed a path that wasn’t marked on my map!  So I walked down the road, and tried to find out where I should have gone – sorted.  I did the last three bits of that part and went to go and find the route back – and got lost again.  Instead of going through a field, I was in a housing estate and found myself on a completely different road – it took me nearly 30 minutes to get back to where I should have been!

On the plus side I did see a nice dragonfly, survived the field with cows in it and still managed to find a Small Copper (actually two of them) on my proper route.  But, instead of being out for about an hour or so, I spent two and a half hours in the sun – good job I had factor 25 and insect repellent on as well as a stout hat.

So, for anyone thinking of going out and surveying, please do but be more prepared than I was – visit the area first so you know the route, and make sure you have an idea about the species you are likely to see.  I was told earlier this week that lots of people send in records of the rarer butterflies such as Purple Emperor and Wood Whites, but there are not many records of the generalists – people will just report lots of whites, or plenty of gatekeepers  – which is not really very helpful to determine the state of the butterfly (delete and add in appropriate wildlife) population.

Sorry, rant coming up

There has been quite a lot in the press recently about our disappearing wildlife  – the Guardian and Independent ran just two examples in the last few months.

The State of Nature Report in 2016 gave two main reasons for the decline in UK wildlife – climate change and agricultural practices.  One of the best things to do to reduce climate change is to stop flying.  Simple.  It has more impact than going vegetarian as far as climate change is concerned – halving meat intake for a year would only have the same impact as not going on one return flight to New York.  But, of course, there are other environmental impacts related to farming beyond climate change such as pesticide use, monocultures and pollution.

So, in order to help wildlife we should stop flying, reduce our travel in general, eat less meat and be more aware of where our food comes from (and associated food miles) and how it is produced.

Why then, do wildlife NGOs not try and positively influence the behaviour of their members.  The BTO has a long standing partnership with Syngenta which manufactures the neonics that have recently been banned for flowering crops in the UK due to their harmful impact on pollinators.  As many farmland birds rely on insects for food one can only assume that the use of the neonics is not a positive thing for them either.  I cancelled  my membership of the BTO when I discovered this.  The RSPB magazine (when I was a member) was littered with adverts for foreign holidays round the world.  Indeed they even have a section on their website about Eco Tourism which admittedly does push the benefits of staying in the UK or travelling by train.  But, it states on the page that 45% of members surveyed had been on three holidays in the last 12 months.  I cancelled my RSPB membership because of their constant push of foreign holidays and foreign birding articles.  Even my beloved Butterfly Conservation is not immune – they had 5 adverts for foreign holidays in the latest edition of Butterfly, two less than last time I suppose.  At least two out of three of the Woodland Trust’s holiday adverts are for train journeys into Europe.

So, I implore those at the conservation charities, and anyone who is worried about the decline in UK wildlife to think about their travel and their food choices, otherwise you are directly contributing to the decline of the wildlife that you purport to conserve.

All about bees

Wild bees are pretty amazing creatures.  I already knew that – I have the books sitting on my bookshelf and in my wishlist to prove it.  But I attended a talk this week that gave me even more reasons to love bees and, hopefully the inspiration to go out and study them in the local area (as there are not that many records for this part of the country).

Most bees are excavators, although some nest in holes in walls (or bee hotels) and some make their nest in empty snail shells (they hide these under sticks they collect – how cool is that?).  They provision a cell with pollen, lay an egg and seal it up, then leave more pollen and an egg and onwards until they reach the front.  Girl bees will be at the back with more pollen (because they are bigger larvae and bees) and boy bees at the front so they emerge first and are ready when the girls emerge.

One species of furrow bee is sometimes a solitary bee and sometimes a social bee – in the north they are solitary and in the south they are more likely to be social – the queen producing workers to forage whilst she guards the nest.

One solitary bee , Ceratina cyanea, (which unfortunately doesn’t seem to live in Northamptonshire) is fairly unique in a) living in bramble stems and b) surviving the winter as an adult.

Bees also have their parasites and cuckoos – in fact 27% of bee species in this country are brood parasites – that means they take over the host’s nest rather than killing and eating the larvae (although the queen often gets killed).  Fortunately, the parasites are rarer than their hosts – otherwise they would soon wipe themselves out.  One set of brood parasites are the Nomada bees (that look a lot like wasps) – these wasp-like bees are about the same size as their hosts and find them by smelling their nests.  I took these pictures of the Ashy Mining bee and its associated Nomada parasite at work.

Ashy Mining Bee
Nomada Bee – Parasite of Ashy Mining Bee

There are lots more amazing facts that make solitary and bumble bees worth studying, but I don’t want to reveal all their secrets.

130 species have been recorded in Northamptonshire, but only 80 have been recorded since 2000.  Some may have been lost, mainly due to land use change, but some may still be here just waiting to be found.  Now where’s my guide book and sweep net?

Avoiding the greenwash of plastic packaging.

I am concerned both at home and at work about the amount of single use plastic in my life.  I have ditched the plastic from my milk, reuse all my plastic bags, try not to buy food in plastic wherever possible and refuse to drink out of a single use cup.  At work we have slashed the amount of plastic cutlery, got rid of straws and are working on a few obvious quick wins.  But, it is not as easy as it should be.  In the wake of the recent publicity from Blue Planet 2 packaging companies have been quick to market their green alternatives.  These take two forms, one based on plant materials and one with added sparkle (or something or other) to make the polymer degrade faster.  Inevitably they tend to cost more than the fossil fuel equivalent.

But, whilst these sound, on the face of it, like a good idea, they are not as green as they would first seem and I have a couple of examples from my workplace to illustrate the conundrum.

Firstly, in our catering department they are keen to try to move away from standard plastics (although arguably less keen to move to reusable items).  On their own they replaced their plastic boxes with a corn-starch based material.  Now they are considering changing some of the other items for one made from Polylactic acid (PLA).  This is also a plant based product that is similar to PET and has the advantage that it is not made from fossil fuels, is compostable and recyclable, and, if it is incinerated it won’t release the toxic chemicals found in many other plastics.

The second type came from elsewhere in the organisation.  They had started a trial with a plastic bag that had an added chemical that means it is biodegradable.  Again, it is alleged that it can be recycled, but also that it will degrade in landfill.

Both of these solutions to the plastic issue have some fundamental flaws (other than cost):

  1. One of the issues with plastics is that they don’t break down easily, but this gives them a relatively long shelf life.  This is not the case if they contain biodegradable plastic, so these greener plastics are less recyclable.
  2. Most food waste in this country goes to anaerobic digestion, for a compostable plastic to be ‘greener’ it would need to go to an industrial composter.  I have been told that there is currently only one in the UK.
  3. It is fine that something might break down in landfill, but not that much waste goes to landfill in the UK any more.  Usually mixed waste goes to a material recycling facility, this separates out the plastics, metals etc., then sends the rest as energy from waste.

So, whilst these are probably a good idea for a use that cannot be recycled (such as medical devices or packaging that for some reason needs to be incinerated and for which a reusable device is just not practicable or available), or for places where littering may be more of an issue (here I am thinking of the PLA option, not the fossil fuel option with added chemical) for many applications where there are good recycling facilities and where the domestic waste also gets sorted, then these are still not the right answer.

Some firsts for me.

In the last week I have been out and about a bit more getting some time in the great outdoors.  This has been aided by some new insect repellant that seems to be working so far.

In the past week I have completed another bumble bee survey – better than last month but only half the number seen last year, spent a happy couple of hours just looking and photographing around Daventry, to be completed on Saturday with a WildSide recording sessions with the fab and enthusiastic Ryan Clark.

I’ve uploaded all of my sightings (or at least those that I can identify or have a semi-decent photo for) either onto iRecord or the local Biodiversity Records Centre, as well as entering my BeeWalk data so I am keeping last week’s resolution.

One of the joys of recording nature is that you are constantly discovering new things.  During the BeeWalk this month we found a long-horned beetle that I’d not seen before, last month was my first Mother Shipton moth.

Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle

On Monday I was quite excited to discover that there were quite a lot of bee orchids flowering in Daventry (for once the mowers hadn’t done for them) and, quite unexpectedly I found a pyramidal orchid next to them.  I am reliably informed that this might be the first record for this in the Daventry area.

Pyramidal Orchid

Then, during the recording session at Mill Park Nature Reserve in Long Buckby, I found a small magpie moth.  Completely new for me, and although quite common in the county, still something to get excited about I think.

Small Magpie Moth

And, the more you look, the more you learn and then the more closely you look.  A virtuous naturing circle.

My next task is to start making a full list of the species I have seen and then keep it up to date!

New Resolutions

Despite my best intentions, for a nature lover and local organiser of a survey for Butterfly Conservation I am not very good when it comes to recording and submitting my own sightings – whether it is birds or bees, or anything in between.  It’s not as if there is a shortage of ways to submit and record data.

When I do record my data I tend to use either the appropriate survey scheme site (i.e. the Butterfly Conservation site, BTO BirdTrack site, or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust BeeWalk site) or the iRecord site but there are many other recording schemes and apps out there that will automatically plot your position and give a more accurate location.

But, the very first recording I did was with the Woodland Trust’s Nature’s Calendar.  This  has been going for twenty years now and, with a database of 2.7 million records, has shown the effect of a changing climate on the various events that happen each year in the Natural World.  Whether it is the first or last sighting of swifts, your first orange-tip butterfly or when blackberries ripen, there are a host of events to choose.  I haven’t logged into Nature’s Calendar for many years, but having just read an article in the British Wildlife Magazine highlighting some recorders with over 2000 records clearly showing the shifts with changing temperatures I am shamed into digging out my password, logging on and making a list of the things I can easily record in expected chronological order – something to do on my day off tomorrow!  Perhaps this will encourage me to keep better records – I can feel a new notebook coming on…

Of Cuckoos and Climate Change

I was fortunate enough to tag along a guided walk with the eminent cuckoo expert and behavioural ecologist Nick Davies at Wicken Fen.  During an hour and a half’s walk he imparted a wealth of information about cuckoos (and does a fantastic cuckoo call that had me and the cuckoos fooled) and their ‘hosts’ at Wicken Fen, Reed Warblers.

Reed Warblers spend their winters south of the Sahara and then travel back to Europe each spring – they come back to the same spot each year to breed – an amazing bit of navigation!  The males will sing and sing until he pairs up.  Then his songs become much shorter – one way to tell an unpaired male.

Reed warbler nests are beautifully woven around reed stems, the female starting off by anchoring in some spider silk and then weaving the nest around herself to make perfect fit.  She lays one egg per day until she has four eggs.  Unless, of course, she is spotted by a cuckoo.  The cuckoo, who only lays in the afternoon, waits until the nest is unguarded, swoops down, swallows one of the reed warbler’s eggs and replaces it with her own.  All in a matter of seconds.  If the cuckoo has missed her chance and the eggs are all there, she will eat all of the eggs to force the reed warblers into starting a second batch, then, she will be watching and waiting for her opportunity.  Each cuckoo will only parasitise the one species – at Wicken it is Reed Warblers.  The cuckoo’s eggs will be a perfect match for colour and marking, but are almost imperceptibly bigger.

Spot the cuckoo egg

Once the cuckoo hatches of course it will eject the remaining eggs or chicks from the nest.  The reed warblers will continue to feed their giant youngster, the colour of the gape and the pitch and sound of the cuckoo begging for food fools them into thinking they are feeding a brood, pushing them to bring more food than they would for one chick alone.

It seems as though all should be well for the cuckoo as there are reed warbler nests every 20 metres or so along the lodes (man made waterways within the fens).  But, sadly it isn’t so.  Cuckoos have suffered a massive decline in recent decades.  Or, at least cuckoos in England have – Scottish cuckoos seem to be doing OK.  Wicked has mirrored this decline.  Thirty or so years ago there were about 15 female cuckoos laying in the fen, with the result that about 10% of nests were parasitised.  Now, it is down to just two cuckoos, with only two or three per cent of nests parasitised.  The difference between Scottish and English cuckoos’ success could all be down to climate change.  The two sets of birds take different routes to their sub-Saharan wintering grounds.  English cuckoos go through Spain, whereas Scottish cuckoos choose a route through the Po valley in Italy.  Much of Spain has suffered severe droughts over the last few decades meaning it is more difficult for the cuckoos to feed and put on enough weight to make it over the Sahara.  However, this might not be the only reason, and more answers will only be revealed as we learn more about this elusive bird.  The future remains uncertain.

For more information about the cuckoo tagging project see the BTO’s website.

If you want to learn more about cuckoos, then please consider buying the excellent book, Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature, by Professor Nick Davies.  It contains a wealth of information and is well worth a read.

Plastic, food waste and cucumbers

There is quite a backlash about plastic at the moment, particularly in the media.  Most of it relating to food as this is probably the most visible and to many people (myself included) the most pointless use of single use plastic.  As I have mentioned before, the response of the supermarkets in the main has been to pledge to make their packaging recyclable and any reductions mentioned are usually about weight – which means they will make the packaging thinner, not change it altogether.  It might even mean substituting plastic for other packaging such as glass.

However, I have recently heard several people complain that the general consensus of opinion is that all plastics are bad, whereas this, they say, is clearly not so.  Plastic wrapped cucumbers are the proof, if any were needed, that plastic packaging reduces food waste (but then so does other types of packaging).  And, with around 100kg of food wasted per person in the EU, we certainly need to reduce such waste.  But, just because the shelf life of a half cucumber is extended by about a week, this doesn’t mean that it the answer.  Back in the 1930s only a few percent of food was wasted.  Since the 1950s plastic packaging use has increased and now about 33% of our food ends up uneaten.  In fact, a recent report (1) has indicated that in some cases such as trimmed green beans, there is more food waste because the beans don’t naturally conform to the size requirements imposed by a plastic tray.  More is cut off in production than would be if the beans were taken home in their natural state and prepared when required.  Equally, food in packaging is of a fixed amount – if you are a household of one or two, then the chances are you will struggle to get through a whole bag before it goes off, increasing the likelihood of waste.

In Defra statistics from a couple of years ago the main reason cited for food wasted at home (where the majority of food waste apparently occurs) is, for fruit and veg because they were not used in time.  (I think that a lot of this will be salads, but perhaps that’s because I don’t like lettuce, refuse to pay £1 for a bag of leaves that are simple to grow at home, don’t like the massive amount of packaging for just a small amount of nutrition or the idea of the chlorine added to keep them ‘fresh’ and they are prone to give you food poisoning.)  But, for home made meals, and for meat, the biggest reason is that too much was cooked.  Generosity or eyes bigger than tummies?

Tesco announced this month that they are going to remove the best before date from some of their fruit and veg in a bid to reduce food waste.  However, these still remain sweating in their packaging, whereas the loose apples and potatoes et al don’t have any best before dates.   It would be easier if they just got rid of all the packaging – but if they did that then there would be extra costs for someone on the checkout to weigh the food – or am I just being cynical?   Perhaps supermarkets could start to co-operate and only provide some fruit and veg without the packaging option.  After all, a few years ago you couldn’t buy apples in packs of six, so I am sure we can get used to putting them in a paper bag ourselves if that was the only choice.

1. http://zerowasteeurope.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Unwrapped_How-throwaway-plastic-is-failing-to-solve-Europes-food-waste-problem_and-what-we-need-to-do-instead_FoEE-ZWE-April-2018_final.pdf

Reasons for optimism.

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation about energy (the type typically generated in a power station, not the personal type) that got me thinking.  This person was in their 80s and had worked in engineering when younger.  He was of the opinion that we (as in the UK) would always need fossil fuels because it wasn’t sunny enough.  It wasn’t a long discussion, and a few years ago I would have been in agreement with him.  But, it occurred to me, for once I was more optimistic than someone else about a sustainable future.

The reason for my optimism is the pace of change we are seeing.  Despite the government for their own peculiar reasons doing everything in their power to stop renewables and promote fossil fuels (see the latest move where they have decided to fast-track fracking planning applications) it would seem that renewable energy in this country and around the globe is on the rise.  I personally think renewables will come into their own with improved battery technology, although I admit that brings with it another set of sustainability issues.

So, in the spirit of optimism I thought I would share some recent good news stories that show that there is a momentum growing out there and that we probably do have a lot of the answers, even if we are told things aren’t possible (in no particular order). 

1.  Windpower generated more electricity than nuclear power in the first quarter of 2018.  18.8% of the UK’s energy was produced by wind; providing up to 43% of electricity on some days.  Whilst this was helped by some of the nuclear power plants being turned off, it follows on from the last three months of 2017 where wind and solar combined produced more electricity than nuclear power.  It shows what can be achieved despite government policy and a collapse in clean energy investment.  Imagine what could happen if we had a government that wasn’t so obsessed with the fossil fuel industry or that believed that renewables were the way forward?

2.  A new labelling system is out that allows consumers to be able to identify items in packaging that doesn’t contain plastics.  The first use of it has come from Iceland, which has already shown the way by announcing, unlike any of the other supermarkets, that it will remove single use plastic packaging by 2023.  This has shown the power of social media and consumer pressure.

3.  The EU have voted to keep the ban on the neonicitinoid pesticides that have been linked with the decline in many species of pollinator.  An appeal by the manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta has just been turned down.  (Although the caveat is that the ruling states that bees must only be exposed to ‘negligible’ levels of harmful pesticides.)  Again, huge amount of pressure in the media and by NGOs.

4.  More than 10 million people are now employed in the renewable energy industry around the world.  In the US, where there has been a recent focus on pushing the fossil fuel industry on the promise of more jobs, there are more people employed in renewables than in fossil fuels in nearly every state.  Meanwhile Costa Rica has pledged to ban fossil fuels and New Zealand is banning offshore extraction of fossil fuels.

5.  85% of milk distributing businesses have seen an increase in glass milk bottle sales.  MilkandMore, the largest distributor, has seen an increase of 15,000 customers since the beginning of the year – 90% are buying milk in glass bottles.

So, whilst I admit that it was a bit difficult to find positive news stories in the mainstream media, there are a lot of changes out there.  From Tesla and batteries, to the Circular Economy efforts of Dame Ellen McCarthy, from smaller organisations finding a market for their more sustainable options to Unilever stating that their sustainable living brands are their fastest growing for the second year in a row, the momentum is growing and, every now and again, even I feel a small tug of optimism that perhaps we can overcome those that don’t think change is possible.

 

Plastic Pact – is it all its cracked up to be?

On the 25th April 2018 42 leading companies and a number of industrial organisations launched the Plastic Pact in conjunction with WRAP and the New Plastics Foundation. 

4 pledges are to be realised by 2025:

  • 100% of packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable
  • 70% of packaging effectively recycled or composted
  • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single use packaging
  • 30% recycled content across all packaging

Amongst the signatories were the major supermarkets (with the exception of Co-op and Iceland) and some other big name brands including Pret and Unilever.  

A cynic might wonder how much of this is down to China’s ban on all imports of plastic and other waste.  The result is that a UK market for recycled material needs to be created  (30% recycled content across all packaging) to stop waste management costs escalating and recycling levels stalling or falling.  It also requires means waste streams to be easy to recycle so it is  worthwhile investing in the recycling infrastructure and technology (eliminate problematic packaging).

Having already looked at the supermarket packaging a few weeks ago I wondered how much of this was new, or was already in their plans?

The first pledge regarding the recyclability or otherwise of the packaging is, for the majority of supermarkets at least, nothing new.  Most of the supermarkets, with the exception of Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda had already pledged they were going to do just that.  (Can one assume that the details of the Plastic Pact were already signed and ready for delivery earlier this year?)

As for the recycled content, this is generally an increase.  Aldi and Lidl had already pledged to go further, with 50% made from recycled plastic by 2025, Waitrose were looking at the feasibility of increasing the recycled content, but there wasn’t much from the other supermarkets.

The goal to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single use plastic I think this, if it is monitored and the definition of unnecessary or problematic is not too loose, could be a positive outcome.  There had been some plans to remove hard to recycle items such as black plastic trays (which of course will have to go if they are to meet the 100% recyclable, compostable commitment), or to trial some plant based cartons for tomatoes, but, with the exception of Iceland, there had been no plans to eliminate any packaging, just reduce it – this usually comes by reducing weight and making the plastics thinner.  If interpreted in the spirit of the commitment, this could really push a change in the supermarkets’ attitudes.  But, I don’t think it will mean glass milk bottles back on the shelves or cardboard punnets and paper bags in the fruit and veg aisles.

They haven’t yet said how they are going to do this, and I can’t find details of who will be monitoring it all (hopefully the New Plastics Foundation), but it does hopefully mean that some of the suppliers to the supermarkets will also be working to eliminate some plastics.  Of course, this is just a first step and I would personally like to see the use of plastics stopped wherever possible as soon as possible.  Whilst I  don’t expect to be able to go to Waitrose and buy much other than onions and carrots free from added packaging in the near future, I shall be watching with interest to see whether the promises made last month are kept and whether there is any significant reduction in the almost 1 million tonnes of plastic packaging coming out of the supermarkets each year.