An Ordinary Person’s Views on Living With Minimal Environmental Impact

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    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.

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    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.

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    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?

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    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.

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  5. Written by .

    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!

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