Food Shopping Conundrum.

Our latest shopping trip to the venerable Waitrose brought more conundrums today.  We always try to buy as ethically as we can.  We look for locally produced, free range, organic products (some or all) with as little packaging as possible.

Dilemma number one – Waitrose had run out of 4 pint bottles of organic milk, do I buy 4 pints of ordinary milk (ethically not too bad, they are working in partnership with the Wildlife Trusts) or do I spend a lot more and buy 2 x 2 pints of organic milk with more packaging, but less harm to the environment.  I went for the organic milk, but this is mainly because it tastes better than the non-organic variety.

Dilemma number two – sausages.  We rarely buy any meat, but every now and again buy a packet of sausages, happy in the knowledge that we are buying free range outdoor reared pig.  However, listening to a recent Wiggly Wigglers podcast which reported from the Preston on Wye piggy day, all is not as simple as one would presume.  When I think of free range I assume the pigs will be wandering about a field, wallowing in mud (their way to keep cool as they have no sweat glands and to stop getting sunburnt).  But, no, they may still be penned, and apparently definitions vary, outdoor born pigs may still be classified as free range even if they are fattened indoors, the same goes for outdoor reared.  The RSPCA Freedom Food label guarantees even less; just access to light, freedom to turn round and access to clean drinking water.  Nothing about the outside, nothing about wallowing, they can be raised on an easy to clean concrete floor indoors or out.  For more information about this please see

Other Wildlife News

I saw a couple of interesting articles on the internet this morning that are almost related to each other.

As part of a scheme to repopulate Scotland with some of its native fauna (following on from the reintroduction of beavers) a number of White Tailed Sea Eagle chicks have been released in the last few years in the east of Scotland.  These are chicks that have been brought over from Norway and kept in aviaries in the Fife area prior to being released.  The next batch of chicks is going to be tagged in order to check their progress and look at their movements. More information about this bird can be found in the article on the RSPB website.

At the other end of the scale British Waterways has released a list of the twelve non-native species most likely to harm our native river dwelling wildlife.  Not surprisingly the list includes the much publicised mink and Signal Crayfish, but also Red-Eared Terrapin (apparently released following the ninja turtles craze), a number of plants such as Japanese Knotweed and Zebra Mussels, the latter already causing problems in the rivers and lakes of, amongst others, Spain and Canada.  The problem common with most of these invaders is that they tend to grow bigger, faster and are more aggressive than our peaceful native species.


According to a small article in the Times yesterday (13th August 2008) the dolphin friendly labelling on tins of tuna has been a huge success.  However, there is a concern that the fishing methods that are used are still harmful to other marine creatures such as turtles.  Additionally, tuna are also under threat as the methods employed catch large numbers of immature tuna, this bycatch annually killing approximately 100 000 tonnes of fish unnecessarily (this equates to about 10 per cent of everything caught).  Campaigners are now calling for improved labelling which will also take into account the effect that the fishing methods has on all marine life.

Interesting Articles

Just a quick note to point out a couple of interesting articles that I saw in the Times newspaper today (12th August).

First of all the good news is that the ban on whaling has resulted from humpback whales being removed from the at risk list and are now catergorised as being on the lowest level on the endangered scale.  In the last 15 years numbers have increased from 17,600 to 40,000.  However, there are other residents of our oceans who are still endangered, including various species of whale and porpoise.

On a different note, my beloved has become vindicated.  Some time ago he predicted that it would not be long before we were mining landfill.  Apparently many waste consultants are now saying that the increasing cost of plastics is bringing this closer to being a reality.  It is already happening in the US, and it is thought that the landfills in the UK many of which have been in use for up to thirty years could yield up to 200 million tonnes of plastics.  However, this may be delayed until 2020 as the methane emitted from the decomposition of decaying waste is syphoned off as an alternative energy source.

Environmentally Friendly Packaging.

The Economist recently had an interesting article on their website about eco-friendly packaging of wine.  The added weight of a glass wine bottle compared with a plastic bottle (a glass wine bottle is about eight times heavier) has prompted some wine producers to consider the use of plastic or tetra-pak bottles.  This reduces the cost of transportation of both the empty and full containers; the heavier the load the greater the fuel usage.

The debate as to whether this will become widely acceptable and whether or not it is an environmentally better form of packaging centres around a number of issues in addition to the cost of fuel for transportation:

  • the association of boxed wine with lower quality
  • the use of oil to produce plastic bottles
  • the ‘aging’ of wine in tetra-pak or plastic and the increased permeability to oxygen when compared with glass
  • the recyclability of tetra-pak (there are a number of collection centres for recycling tetra-pak, but they are not normally collected with the household recycling; check out this website for your nearest recycling centre)
  • the energy consumed in the manufacture of glass bottles
I think that the deciding factor will be the difference in the association we make in our minds about the quality of the product that we pour from a sturdy glass bottle and that from plastic packaging; after all now that it is in a plastic bottle cola doesn’t appear to taste the same as it did when I was a child and had it as an occasional treat served in a glass bottle.   Would you buy wine in a plastic bottle?  For me, the jury is out.

Nature in the rain.

Daventry Country Park Looking Towards Borough Hill
Daventry Country Park Looking Towards Borough Hill

It is meant to be high Summer, but it feels more like autumn; the light is not exactly brilliant (not sure a pun was intended), the monotonous call of the chiffchaff has been replaced by the tic of the robin, the rose hips and hawthorn berries are starting to turn red and, there is a lot of rain about.  Still, this is no reason to stay indoors when all seems dull outside.

I took my new, lightweight pair of binoculars for a test drive at the Country Park today.  I bought them a few weeks ago, but had so far not had any reason to use them.  As expected the Country Park was wonderfully quiet on the visitor front, but still with plenty to catch one’s attention.  The water was alive with gulls and geese, with a huge group of swans at the far end.  Darting over the water wheeling and turning, almost touching the water and pulling away at what seemed to be after the last moment were the swallows and house martins reminding me that it was still Summer.  The terns were also very much in evidence, gliding on the wind that is a permanent feature of Daventry or sitting on the purpose built raft.

Yellow Flowers Amongst the Rocks

In places there were splashes of colour, such as these yellow flowers, glowing, despite the rain, looking brighter when viewed against the dark rocks and the black-looking water.  I hadn’t noticed these the first time I walked past them, I was too intent looking at the swooping swallows and house martins.  I often find that reversing the direction in which I am walking gives a completely different view and outlook, leading to a whole different visual experience.

The highlight of my walk was a treecreeper that was most obliging, twining its way around the lowest branch of a large oak tree, just by the main path.  These are exquisite birds, if you are lucky enough to get a good view, preferably through a good pair of binoculars, you will be startled by the delicate colouring, the many shades of brown that add up to make a beautiful little brown and white bird.  Listen for the quiet squeaking and look at the trunk and branches to see a little bird spiralling around probing the cracks and fissures in the bark with its curved beak, looking for insects.

So, in conclusion, my new pair of binoculars are excellent, the weather may be dull and damp, but the wildlife is still out there, waiting to be seen.  After all, if the birds stayed at home every time it rained they would soon starve to death, and the trees and flowers can’t up sticks (another unintended pun – sorry!) and look for shelter.

The ladybirds came, and the ladybirds went.

A while ago I posted an article about a lack of ladybirds in my garden as well as other insects in general. However, a couple of weeks ago, they arrived en masse (seemingly from nowhere although that was obviously not the case, I just hadn’t noticed them) and settled on the golden hop in the back garden, a traditional haunt of thousands of aphids.

As you may be aware, there has been a lot of press coverage (unusually so for something like a ladybird) of the ‘invasion’ of harlequin ladybirds (Harmonia Axyridis). These ladybirds originate in Asia and have spread (sometimes with our help and knowledge, e.g. they were introduced as pest control agents in some areas) and are thought to have arrived in Britain in 2004. The spread of the harlequin is concerning as it is thought to be a threat to our native species for a number of reasons:

  • they have a wider habitat and food range than natives, this includes moth and butterfy eggs and fruit juice
  • they disperse over larger areas, rapidly increasing their geographic spread
  • when there are fewer aphids about they will eat other ladybird larvae and eggs
  • they have a longer breeding season than native ladybirds and so have the potential to increase their numbers more rapidly (they can reproduce after 5 days of adulthood and a single female can lay 1000 eggs)

I spent some time watching the ladybirds wondering if any were harlequins and, if there were, would I recognise them. The answer was yes, and yes. At first glance it can be quite confusing, there are so many different looking ladybirds, not just the traditional two and seven spot ladybirds, there are also black (melanic) forms as well as more yellow and brown ladybirds. However, once you spot a harlequin it is obvious, they are huge in comparison as are the larvae which seem to have more red on them.

Harlequin ladybird
Harlequin ladybird
harlequin ladybird larva
harlequin ladybird larva

If you still feel you need further help there are two fantastic identification charts on the ladybird survey website, one for larvae and one for adults. It is from these that I discovered I had a cream spot ladybird in amongst the two spots.

I was lucky enough to see the ladybirds in all stages of their development. There were larvae of all sizes chasing aphids across the leaves and the top of my wormery. The holly that is next to the golden hop seemed to be a favourite place for pupation and is littered with the cases of what I presume are now adult ladybirds. And, of course there were the myriad of adult ladybirds. I spent quite some time watching a black harlequin (H. axyridis spectabilis) chasing some greenfly along the top of a crocosmia flower stem. Whilst the ladybird wandered along the top and snacked on one of its unfortunate (although I can’t really feel sorry for them) victims its friends escaped along the bottom of the flower!

The ladybirds stayed around for a few days, but then, the rains came, the aphids went (possible eaten) and the ladybirds disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Since that time I have seen only a couple of two spots in the garden. I did manage to take some photos of the ladybirds, two of which I have included below.

Harlequin ladybird eating greenfly
Harlequin ladybird eating greenfly
native cream spot ladybird
native cream spot ladybird amongst the aphids

Wanted: For Crimes Against My Brassicas!

So, the sun is finally making an appearance and warming the air (in my opinion a little too much at times), allowing the butterflies to come out without fear of drowning.  It is high Summer, the buddlejia is flowering, the sky is sometimes blue and the garden is brought to life by the droning of bees (although reportedly fewer than in previous years) and the fluttering of delicate wings looking for some nectar producing plants on which to land.  

Oh and the evil white butterflies that don’t stop long enough for me to take a picture, who are not looking for nectar.  No, they are looking for my young cavolo nero that I am growing for the winter.  They hunt round and round, stopping only briefly when they spot something in the brassica family that they can oviposit on (is that a verb – not sure?).  

Many an allotment is covered in netting to keep these devil insects at bay, but, should I use these in the garden – not very pretty!  I am resorting to regular checks of my plants.  This is where I may have the advantage over the allotment holders, I only have eight plants, and so a regular check is not so time consuming.  So far I have been evaded by two caterpillars who munched their way through the majority of two plants, but, in the main I have managed to remove most of the eggs.  If this doesn’t work this year I may have to resort to a shotgun next year!  I have included a couple of pictures below of the white butterfly that is out to get my brassicas (not the actual one, I have had to resort to a picture that  I took the other year) and the reason they are so naughty.