Sweet Chilli Success.

For the last few years I have been trying, and failing, to grow and ripen chillis.  The last two summers have been a complete wash out apart from a Prairie Fire plant that we kept as a pot plant that produced tiny weeny chillis.  Even the summer of 2006 with all its sunshiny glory and bees and butterflies didn’t produce anything but some green chillis that were eaten by slugs.

This was to be the final year…look what happened.

Red chilli - Heatwave
Red chilli - Heatwave

The secret of my success is a tip that I picked up from the Alternative Kitchen Garden Podcast.  Last year I had a couple of runty Heatwave chilli plants that I planted a little late and which did not grow.  I potted them on and kept them in the house (much to James’s chagrin as we also had to find a home for some gerberas that I had grown) over Winter.  Nothing much happened until the days lengthened in March when they put on a bit of a growth spurt.  Flowers started to come in May at which point we put them outside.  Chillis started to grow sometime in June, and there are loads of them.  This is the first one to ripen, but there are some more that are just showing the signs.  Once they start they seem to take only a week or so to become completely red.

Eagle Owls – Good Press / Bad Press

Eagle Owls (Bubo Bubo) are certainly impressive creatures, their six foot wingspan making them the largest owl in the world.  They breed in many parts of mainland Europe and have reared young in the UK with intermittent success.

The latest copy of British Wildlife magazine popped through my letterbox yesterday with a feature article about these owls and a debate about the consequences of reintroduction.  This is where a problem lies, these are not birds that have naturally bred here for more than 2000 years, if, they ever did.  Why then, would anyone want to reintroduce them?  It is not the same as reintroducing cranes or beavers, creatures that were native and doing very well until we killed them all for food or hats or other such essentials.  These are birds that have never played a part in the food chain in the UK.

So, is there a problem with introducing them and how have they got here in the first place?  To answer the second question first, the pairs breeding in the UK are thought to be escapees from captivity (one female has successfully reared 23 chicks in Yorkshire).  According to the magazine article, there are over 3000 Eagle Owls in captivity in the UK, but they don’t need to be registered with at least 80, but probably many more, that are unaccounted for.  To me, that is quite worrying, these are a top predator, and we don’t know how many there are or where they are.  Equally worrying is the speculation that the breeding pairs may have been purposefully released in order to establish a wild population in the UK, however well-intentioned, there are too many unknowns in such a course of action.

The problem with having them loose in the countryside is that although they have a varied diet and tend to live mainly on rabbits, with which I am sure most people would agree we are amply supplied, they also predate other birds of prey and have prevented successful nesting of native birds such as peregrines and the rather rare (and recently showcased on Springwatch) Goshawk.  The Eagle Owl also needs quite a large territory, I am not sure how many of those are available in the overcrowded UK, probably not enough to support a viable population, is it fair to release birds that don’t have much chance of surviving for more than a generation or two?

Then there is the press to contend with.  No matter how you feel about such things, headlines such as the Telegraph’s 2008 “Eagle Owl terrorising village’s pets and children” does not do any good at all and may lead to someone going out with a gun and shooting the poor bird.  (For the record the bird was an escapee, with jesses still attached, which was probably used to being around people, and as far as I can tell had not gone near anyone’s pets but had tried to land on a small child.)

But, is the debate a little late?  If the birds have been successfully breeding in several areas of the UK for the last couple of decades, the latest being in the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire where they have successfully reared chicks for the last couple of years, are they already here and likely to stay?  Whilst I don’t want to see the release of flora and fauna that have never been native, I would hate to see them hunted down just because of a perceived threat.  I would like to see more responsibility from the people that own these creatures in captivity and a little thought to go into their actions and their likely consequences.

Are all the white butterflies in my garden evil?

The short-ish answer is, if cabbage white butterflies are evil, then yes.  OK, there are wood whites, and marbled whites, but I bet the ones that you have been looking at are either small white or large white butterflies.

What’s the difference I hear you ask – well, one is larger than the other!  Other than that, the large white has broader wings which does make them easier to identify if you see them at rest (which is not very often as they range around looking for a mate). Other than that there are a couple of differences that will help identify them and I have provided some photos to help.

Male Large White Butterfly
Male Large White Butterfly
Female Large White Butterfly
Female Large White Butterfly
Male Small White Butterfly
Male Small White Butterfly
Female Small White Butterfly
Female Small White Butterfly

Large whites have black tips on their wings, the females have two black spots, the males do not have any. Small white man butterflies have one spot on their forewing, the lady butterflies again have two. The small white wingtips are also dark, but as far as I can tell are much lighter than their larger friends. A word of caution on this last point however, there are two broods of white butterfly each year and the markings on the July / August batch tend to be darker than those of the earlier brood – probably a bit like a sun tan.  Oh yes, and, when the wings are closed, even the male large white appears to have spots.

In terms of their cabbage-destroying propensities, then they have different modes of attack.  Large white butterflies lay their eggs on the outer leaves of plants of the cabbage family, and their conspicous caterpillars appear in large numbers munching all the leaves in sight.  The small whites are more devious – they lay their eggs in smaller numbers in the heart of the cabbage where a single caterpillar will munch away the innards making them much more difficult to deal with.

There used to be a lot more of the whites in the UK, but a combination of pesticides and a virus drastically reduced their numbers (mmm… sounds familiar).  Many of the whites seen in our gardens will have come over from the continent.

OK, I am not a farmer or allotmenteer, but I have had some brassicas attacked by caterpillars, but I think you have to agree that the world would be a sorry place if the pretty white butterflies were not perpetually on the move around our gardens.  I will make sure I have some verbena and buddleia for them in my garden, I will even contemplate a brassica or two for their caterpillars.

Why should I care?

This is a question that my green conscience devil has been asking from my left shoulder whilst my green conscience angel is sitting on my right shoulder urges me towards more environmentally friendly ways and puts causes such as the World Land Trust and the plight of bumble bees in front of me.  After all, I don’t have any children to leave the planet to, no one is likely to remember me when I am gone, and that is just fine.

He (I am assuming the devil is male) asked that question again this morning whilst I was listening to Farming Today.  There was an interview with a dairy farmer who was thinking of leaving the business after the price they were being paid for their milk was reduced by 3 1/2p per litre.  Over the last twelve months I have become increasingly concerned about the amount of food imported and the loss to the rural communities with the reduction in UK agriculture.  I therefore studiously gaze at labels in Waitrose before making a purchase, buy British whenever possible (bananas are not an option in the UK so I buy Fairtrade) and don’t buy imported produce just because it is out of season here.  Imagine my face when the lady in question admitted that when she bought cheese from the supermarket she didn’t look to see the country of origin!  For goodness sake, if I can spend time looking at labels when there is no direct effect on my livelihood I expect that those in the industry would do their bit to support themselves and their colleagues.    Hence my question, why should I care?

I had a discussion along similar lines with a work colleague today about air travel – I won’t see the worst of the effects of global warming, and I have no children, why am I trying to make a difference for his future generations.  I don’t know the answer, I just know that if there is a choice I need to do the right thing, whether that is buying local food, supporting good causes or not flying around the world.  I need to do the right thing whatever sphere it is in, because I have a choice whereas others around the world don’t.

I apologise if I am preaching, but if people directly affected don’t take the time to think about their actions, how are we going to persuade those who are not directly affected to change their actions, or at least think about them more?

In the news this week.

I subscribe to a lot of news feeds relating to wildlife and the environment, so here are links to some of the most interesting wildlife articles from this week.

The EU is apparently very miserly when it comes to protecting wildlife, spending a mere 0.1% of its budget on nature protection, leaving the threat of extinction hanging over a large number of species and habitats.  Read more here

Dormice in the UK are under threat, and in a bid to increase populations a number are being released in a secret location in Warwickshire.  A few interesting facts about dormice and a very cute picture are included in the article.

Another and, arguably, less cute reintroduction story that has been widely reported on is the release of smooth snakes on the moors in Devon where they used to live until about 50 years ago.  These non-venomous snakes are, at the moment, limited by suitable habitat to lowland heaths in Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Surrey.

You may also have heard the sad news that a Golden Eagle that had been fitted with a tracking device enabling its journeys to be followed over the internet by swathes of bird lovers has been found poisoned.  The poisoning of birds of prey is still a problem, although this eagle may have been killed by poison left by a gamekeeper for other birds of prey such as hen harriers, white tailed eagles or buzzards.