Friday, 28 May 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #17

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.
Ask of Her, the mighty Mother.
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?-
Growth in every thing -
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and green world all together,

Star-eyed strawberry breasted
Throstle above Her nested
Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within,
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.”

Gerard Manly Hopkins, The May Magnificant, 1888

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Spring picture 18 takes us, once again, down into the undergrowth, probably on farmland. I say that as the centrepiece for this is a nestful of partridge eggs. It is surrounded by a variety of flowering plants (white dead-netle, bugle and wild arum) and some emerging fronds of bracken. The flowers have attracted a bumblebee, and there are caterpillars of two moth species, the upper one a yellow-underwing and the lower one is a tiger moth caterpillar.

The partridge, or grey partridge (Latin name: Perdix perdix) that laid these eggs would have paired up with its mate in late January or early February. Ultimately, it will spend the following winter in its family group (or “covey”). Unfortunately, according to the BTO, the grey partridge is one of the most seriously declining bird species in Europe, its decline in the UK of 89% between 1967 and 2007 reflecting this wider decline. “The Birds of the Western Palaearctic” describes the decline as follows: “From early 1950s, steady decline in mean population levels throughout range, varying from 50 to 90%, but delayed in some areas until modern agricultural methods introduced”. The BTO elaborates on this reference to agricultural intensification as the likely cause of the partridge’s calamitous decline as probably specifically the effects of herbicides on the food plants of young chicks' insect prey.

On the floral front, I won’t discuss bracken here as it appears in a few pictures’ time, a little more unfurled! The White Dead-Nettle (Lamium album) is not a native species but has been long established in Britain. The New Atlas of the Flora of Britain and Ireland identifies that its distribution has not changed. Similarly, the distribution of the lovely blue-flowered Bugle (Ajuga reptans) has not changed significantly in Britain since the original 1962 Atlas. It is described in Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” as: “a finely structured and tinted plant of woodland clearings and damp grassland, quite often growing in large troops”. Most of the text accompanying the picture is actually about the wild arum (Arum maculatum), the frankly quite bizarre looking plant in the centre of the picture, with the large pale-green hood. Richard Mabey reports that this species has garnered over 90 local common names, the most well-known being Lords and Ladies, Cuckoo Pint, Red-hot Poker, Willy Lily (I wonder where they get that from?), Jack in the Pulpit, Parson in the Pulpit (and so on, it goes on!). There is a suggestion that Cuckoo Pint comes from “pintle”, a slang word for “penis”. But, as Mabey says, “for all its bawdy associations, the plant itself is a handsome and modest one, pale and sculptural in Spring.” The flower leads, later in the season, to a spike of numerous bright orange berries. The New Atlas identifies little change in distribution in Britan since 1962, but this species is thought not to be native in Scotland anyway.

The moth caterpillars? Difficult to say too much as neither of them is identified in the text to a sufficient species level to say anything very specific. There are several tiger moth species and more than one yellow-underwing species. The garden tiger moth may be the commonest and most widespread tiger moth but Butterfly Conservation, the butterfly and moth conservation charity, has identified that is is declining. The Lunar yellow-underwing moth is the subject of an action plan in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan and has just been identified as stable in population after several years of reported decline. Sorry not to say more about these but there isn’t much point as different members of each group are fairing better or worse to different degrees!

Now, I confess to a mild amusement at finding the partridge’s nest and the Lords and Ladies in the same picture here. Below is a photo I took in the very first film in the first camera I ever owned (a little Kodak instamatic that used what I think were called 110 film cartridges – kids, this was pre-pre-pre-digital!). As you can see, I’ve been rubbish at photography all of my life! I was given the camera by my parents for maybe my 8th birthday. We had just moved to the cottage on a farm near Aberlady where I lived for the rest of my childhood until I went off to university.

When we moved in, the garden was pretty untended and we found the partidge’s nest shown in the photo, with some eggs hatched and some infertile or abandoned before they hatched. The nice coincidence with the Ladybird book picture is that, over the wall from the nest, in the margin of the cereal field that bordered our garden, we found Lords and Ladies growing, at the time particularly exciting for the 8-year old naturalist who had been told repeatedly previously by his Dad that this was a very rare plant in East Lothian where we lived. Here I am, all these years later, finding these two memories stimulated by this lovely painting and my old photo.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #16

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

“Now the bright morning-star, Day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!”

John Milton, Song on a May Morning, 1660

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

In Spring picture 17, I suspect the image of a sow and her piglets might have been a romanticised image of pig farming, even for the period of 1959-1961 when it was painted. I’m not planning to say any more here about pig farming and how it has changed since then, as this looks more like a pet pig! The other features of the picture are three plant species, gorse, Alexanders and cowslips all in flower and, in the background, some terns over the sea.

Gorse (Latin name: Ulex europaeus), is the large bush with bright yellow flowers in the background of the scene. It is a thorny shrub native to most of Britain and Ireland, although it is an introduced species on the Outer Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney (and the Isle of Man). It generally grows on poorer, slightly acidic soils, and occurs widely in under-grazed pasture land, in coastal habitats, waste ground and along roads and railways. The 2002 New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora reports that gorse has increased its distribution in Britain since 1962, suggesting that this is due to an increase in disturbed (“ruderal”) habitats and the reduction of grazing pressure on lowland heaths and coastal cliff tops since the 1930s. Richard Mabey, in his “Flora Britannica”, describes gorse as “one of the great signature plants of commonland and rough open space, places where lovers can meet, walk freely and lose themselves, if need be, in its dense thickets.” The old romantic! I love the smell of gorse in flower. On sunny, hot days, the overpowering smell of coconut from gorse flowers (also said by some to smell like vanilla) can be amazing! I was privileged to be able to visit an army training area on a coastal dune and heath system near Dundee last week (for a meeting), where the conditions on the coastal heathlands (formerly but no longer extensively grazed) seem to be perfect for gorse – the whole area is aflame with bright yellow gorse bushes.

The large umbrella shaped flowers in the bottom right of the picture belong to Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), an unusually-named but impressive perennial herb species introduced to Britain during Roman times, and reported in Flora Britannica as being widely cultivated (in monastery and cottage gardens) until it was displaced by celery in the early 18th century. It has a predominantly coastal distribution in Britain (so is very appropriate for inclusion here in this picture) and is often the first fresh foliage of the year appearing in coastal hedgerows. The new Atlas reports that its distribution has changed little since the 1962 original Atlas. It only occurs sporadically in Scotland on the southwest and eastern coasts. Personally, I have only ever seen it on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path; I think it looks like a wild carrot on steroids.

The third plant in the picture is the cowslips, flowering in the front centre. The cowslip (Primula veris) is a distinctive feature of well-drained herb-rich grasslands. The cowslip was clearly a popular species in Britain, considering the number of local and vernacular names that it has been given – how about culverkeys, hey flower, heggles, bunch of keys (all quoted in Flora Britannica)? It is not widely distributed in Scotland, being restricted as a native species to southern and eastern Scotland. Although the New Atlas indicates that the distribution of clowslips hasn’t changed much since the 1962 Atlas, it is reported in the New Atlas that it suffered a marked decline between 1930 and 1980 due to the intensification of agricultural practices, in particular ploughing up or agricultural improvement of grasslands , and the increase in use of herbicides. Since the 1990s, however, the fortunes of the cowslip seem to have improved, particularly on unsprayed roadside verges, village greens and other public greenspaces, and in new road schemes, where it is often included as a component of the wild-seed mixtures which have become increasingly popular as part of planting schemes. Were the New Atlas to be re-printed in the next few years, it is possible that cowslips would be recorded much more widely in Scotland as a result of such plantings and re-seedings.

The only bird species in the picture, and the last feature to be discussed, is the flock of terns “above the cliff beyond the meadow”, which have “just arrived after their migration flight”. The sound of calling terns is another sound of impending summer to me. I used to hear terns every day in Summer from our garden above the bay where I grew up and the sound never fails to tickle those old memories. There are five species of terns that breed in Britain and the text doesn’t make clear which these are, so I am going to assume that they are Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea), the commonest species found in Scotland (although the Common Tern (Sterna hirunda) is commoner in southern Britain). Arctic and Common Terns actually look pretty identical bar one or two minor details of leg and beak colour and are sometimes described as “Comic” Terns (COMmon + arctIC – get it?) if it isn’t clear which they are. My much-loved old AA Book of Birds describes terns thus: their “graceful flight makes then the swallows of the sea” (indeed, the “hirunda” part of the Common Tern’s Latin name refers to the Latin word for “Swallow”). It also describes what is surely the most-well known thing about Arctic Terns, its remarkable annual global migration, as follows: “Twice yearly, the Arctic tern sets out on an amazing journey which carries it from one end of the globe to the other. It nests in Britain northwards to the Arctic, and winters 10,000 miles away in Antarctic seas”, sometimes right to the edge of the Antarctic icepack. It has been said that this bird enjoys more hours of daylight than any other living creature as, except on migration, it spends its entire life at high latitudes in both the northern and southern hemispheres. The Queen thinks everywhere smells of fresh paint, and the Arctic tern probably thinks that there is only Summer!

Where I grew up in the 1970s on the East Lothian coast there was a considerable tern colony on a shingle spit that, occasionally, hosted nesting by all five British tern species (the others are the Little, Roseate and Sandwich Terns). But sadly, the Arctic Tern, although its range has not changed much, has suffered serious population declines in Britain (and elsewhere in northern Europe) in recent decades. Unfortunately, my reliable source of information (and graphs!) on trends, the website of the British Trust for Ornithology doesn’t have any on terns (I don’t know why). In Scotland, the decline has been most severe for Arctic Tern colonies on Shetland, linked to the failure in recruitment of sand-eels, the main fish species used to feed tern chicks. In the period 1981-1987, the collapse of the sand-eel stock was followed by a decline in successful production of Arctic Tern chicks, as shown by this report produced by the Marine Laboratory Aberdeen. Although there has been a decline long-term, I just can’t find anywhere readily, what the current status of the Arctic tern (or the other other four tern species) is – come on, BTO!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Signs I Like #10

The British Army takes pedestrian rights to a new level at Barry Buddon camp near Dundee... Would you argue with them?

We're all doomed! Doomed, I tell you!

Today, a nearly hot-off-the press look at one of the key environmental issues of our time – in International Year of Biodiversity, and in the week in which International Day for Biodiversity 2010 (tomorrow, May 22) is celebrated, I want to explore the latest official statement on the calamitous decline in global biodiversity. Not many pictures, I'm afraid! So was Private James Frazer, above, from Dad's Army correct - are we all doomed? Read on!


“The rate of species extinctions was estimated in 1995 at 100 times "background" or average extinction rates in the evolutionary time scale of planet Earth…”

“The future of humanity is inextricably tied to the fate of the natural world. In perpetuating this, the Earth's sixth mass extinction, we may ultimately compromise our own ability to survive.”

“Only Humans Can Halt the Worst Wave of Extinction Since the Dinosaurs Died”

Above is a small selection from the many press headlines and quotes from learned articles in recent years pointing to the scale and significance of the issue of the decline of biological diversity and the role of people and the Earth’s ever-growing population in this decline. Earth’s geological record reveals five global mass extinction events during its history, during which up to 95% of the species in the fossil record disappeared over geologically short time spans. The extinction of most dinosaur species around 65 million years ago, most likely following a large meteor strike, is perhaps the best known of these. The diversity of life on Earth recovered each time from these, although over many millions of years and with a largely new set of organisms evolving from the surviving species.

Time line of previous five mass extinctions (from Enchanted Learning)

Many ecologists argue that, given the present rate of loss of species, we are currently living in the sixth global mass extinction event.

A key difference between the previous five mass extinctions and this one is us, both in terms of there being a single species as a likely cause of much of the loss of other species, their habitats and genes, and in terms of our dependence on the environmental good and services provided by nature, those species and habitats in all their diversity. By “environmental good and services”, also known as “ecosystem services”, I am referring to the provision by ecosystems, habitats and their constituent species, of food, fuel, fibre, water resources, flood prevention, re-oxygenation of water, indeed, oxygen production for the atmosphere, and other essential services, along with the cultural, spiritual, and amenity values that we place on and derive from nature. I’ll come back to these later, but without environmental good and services, the continued existence of our modern society would be pretty untenable (you might also argue that, without oxygen production, complex life on Earth would be pretty untenable! Some 60% of our atmospheric oxygen is produced by oceanic phytoplankton).

So what’s the story with the decline of biodiversity? Well, the abundance of vertebrate species, based on assessed populations, fell by nearly a third on average between 1970 and 2006, and continues to fall globally. Nearly a quarter of plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction. Freshwater wetlands, sea ice habitats, salt marshes, coral reefs, seagrass beds and shellfish reefs are all showing serious declines. Extensive fragmentation and degradation of forests, rivers and other ecosystems have also led to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. And on, and on, and on… And on top of these problems, the five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss (habitat change, over-exploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change) are either constant or increasing in intensity.

How do I know all of this? On the 10th of May, the Convention on Biological Diversity report, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (GBO3), was simultaneously launched in key capital cities around the world. The Convention on Biological Diversity, you may be aware, was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It has been described as: “a rather hurriedly negotiated document which nevertheless aims to arrest the rate of species loss consequent on pollution and habitat destruction.” It had three aims:

• the conservation of biological diversity,

• the sustainable use of its components and

• the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.

A decade later, in light of evidence of continued decline of biodiversity and degradation and destruction of habitats and unsustainable and inequitable use of biodiversity resources, the Convention’s signatories agreed to a new target in Johannesburg in 2002. The world's leaders agreed to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. GBO3 reports on the 2010 biodiversity target and reports that, as has been widely trailed over the past couple of years, we have substantially failed to meet it – in fact, NOT A SINGLE ONE of the 21 sub-indicators making up the target can be said have been achieved globally, although some have been partially or locally achieved. You can see the whole list and their complete or partial failure here.

In the history of international environmental agreements, there can have been few less successful than this one appears to have been. Yet, there is some reason for optimism: negative trends have been slowed or reversed in some ecosystems (e.g. there has been significant progress in slowing the rate of loss for tropical forests and mangroves, in some regions). There are also several indications that responses to biodiversity loss are increasing and improving (e.g. 170 countries now have national biodiversity plans), although not yet on a scale sufficient to affect overall negative trends in the state of biodiversity or the pressures upon it. It was the acceptance at Convention–level a couple of years ago that the target was going to be substantially failed that led to the setting up of 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB 2010). It’s not a sad irony that IYB is in the same year as deadline of the failed target – it is a deliberate attempt to raise the profile of the issue and the significance of biodiversity for all of us (the logo is “Biodiversity is Life!). Many public bodies, including my own, have signed up as a partner organisation for IYB 2010. You can find out more about IYB 2010 activity in the UK here.

As a global scientific and environmental community, we are very focused on addressing the issue of climate change. Yet, in my view, major failures of ecosystems or their (potentially rapid) flips into potentially much less productive alternative stable states, have the potential to kill or displace many more people over much shorter timescales than those which we are working to address as a result of projected climate change effects through crop failure, loss of water supplies or topsoil, increased land instability due to loss of vegetation, increased disease, increased flood risk due to loss of coastal or freshwater wetlands. If you want some chapter and verse on this, the best and most detailed source is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment's report on Ecosystems and Human well-Being. The digested synthesis with the indigestible message can be read here. I recommend sitting down with strong drink if you decide to read it.

But I don’t want to come across as a supporter of the Bjorn Lomborg school of climate change thinking (i.e. we should spend our money on all the other big environmental problems rather than trying to tackle climate change) – I do think we should be tackling climate change urgently, and preparing to respond to the major environmental changes to which we are already committed as a result of the greenhouse gases already in the global atmosphere. But I think we need to do more to harness together the arguments for biodiversity protection and restoration and the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, as they are inextricably entwined. I have heard influential people in the climate change world say numerous times that the long-term solution to climate change lies with biodiversity and I believe they are absolutely correct. But not if we continue managing our global biodiversity in the disastrously short-term and unsustainable way that we are at present.

Here’s an example. Dryland habitats (e.g. deserts, savannas, steppes) cover about 40% of the Earth’s land surface, excluding Antarctica and Greenland, and are home to more than two billion people. They are susceptible to desertification, land degradation and drought and their populations, agriculture and ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change and variability. Plant biomass per unit area of drylands is low compared with many other terrestrial ecosystems. But the large surface area of drylands gives dryland carbon sequestration a global significance. In particular, total dryland soil organic carbon reserves comprise 27% of the global soil organic carbon reserves. But, due to land degradation from poor management, most dryland soils are not carbon-saturated.

If savannas (a key dryland habitat) were to be protected from fire and over-grazing, most of them would accumulate substantial carbon and the carbon sink would be larger. Savannas are under anthropogenic pressure, but this has been much less publicised than deforestation of rainforests. The rate of loss may exceed 1% per year, approximately twice as fast as that of rainforests. Globally, this is likely to constitute a carbon flux to the atmosphere that is at least as large as that arising from deforestation of the rain forest. Oh yes, did I forgot to mention, the countries suffering the worst problems with dryland degradations are also most of the world’s poorest and also those where climate change is expected to cause the greatest human misery?

Since carbon losses from drylands are associated with loss of vegetation cover and soil erosion, management intervention that slow or reverse these processes can simultaneously achieve carbon sequestration, protection and restoration of biodiversity, and the improvement and increased sustainability of agricultural productivity, to the betterment of the well-being of the local population. There are several international initiatives, mostly working with existing ocal knowledge of best practice, seeking to deliver the education and culture shifts that this will require. Just one example of where improved habitat management can simultaneously work to arrest the decline in biodiversity and contribute to both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change and improvements in living conditions for local people.

The GBO3 is quite clear about the inter-dependence of biodiversity loss and other issues: “The overall message of this Outlook is clear. We can no longer see the continued loss of biodiversity as an issue separate from the core concerns of society: to tackle poverty, to improve the health, prosperity and security of present and future generations, and to deal with climate change. Each of those objectives is undermined by current trends in the state of our ecosystems, and each will be greatly strengthened if we finally give biodiversity the priority it deserves.”

A strong message arising from GBO3 is also the need to account fully for the value of ecosystem services and their loss and damage by human activities. Only through so doing, it is argued, can we hope to secure the protection and restoration of important ecosystems which deliver essential support systems for our modern societies, and for the peoples of developing nations. GBO3 says:

In 2008-9, the world’s governments rapidly mobilized hundreds of billions of dollars to prevent collapse of a financial system whose flimsy foundations took the markets by surprise. Now we have clear warnings of the potential breaking points towards which we are pushing the ecosystems that have shaped our civilizations. For a fraction of the money summoned up instantly to avoid economic meltdown, we can avoid a much more serious and fundamental breakdown in the Earth’s life support systems.” It is all about priorities!

The recent Phase 1 report from the UN’s global "TEEB" study, “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (the so-called Stern-like report on biodiversity loss) reported that, even its early analysis indicates that, for every dollar, pound or Euro invested in protecting ecosystems, society benefits from the delivery of ecosystem services worth 100 times that. There isn’t an investment system in any money market that can promise that, especially now. The challenge is to ensure that investment and development take account of the effects they have on ecosystem services; as the economists say, to make sure that the costs of damage to ecosystem services are internalised by those seeking to invest in ways that damage.

I have rarely seen a stronger or more sobering policy statement than that which concludes the executive summary of GBO3: “The action taken over the next decade or two, and the direction charted under the Convention on Biological Diversity, will determine whether the relatively stable environmental conditions on which human civilization has depended for the past 10,000 years will continue beyond this century. If we fail to use this opportunity, many ecosystems on the planet will move into new, unprecedented states in which the capacity to provide for the needs of present and future generations is highly uncertain.”

Here on Island Britain, surely things aren’t that grim? It is true that we have made much greater strides than most nations towards addressing our loss of biodiversity. We have national and local biodiversity plans, designated sites, developing policies to value and protect ecosystem services and to make our landscapes less fragmented and more wildlife-friendly. We are even told that Britain may be one of the places on the planet that benefits most and suffers least from future climate change. Even here, however, we have problems and species and habitats that continue to decline. I've been talking about some specific examples of these in my previous posts on the Ladybird book seasonal pictures from 1959-1961.

But, more importantly, from a utilitarian point of view, even if you dodn't accept the arguments that we should protect global biodiversity for its intrinsic worth, if you think we in the UK will be unaffected by ecosystem collapses elsewhere, you are deluding yourself. Take imported goods, for example. We import the majority of the calories we consume, all of the tea and coffee we drink and much of the timber we use. All of thes edepend on biodiversity and ecosystem services elsewhere. We all wear clothes made from cotton, all grown overseas. Pharmaceuticals derived initially from tropical species cure us of many ailments, and so on, and so on. We live in such an inter-connected world that ecosystem collapses and biodiversity failures elsewhere will reach into our lives and society and bring about fundamental changes.

So, just worrying about our own little patch of biodiversity might be akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. However, as with the arguments for making our contribution to climate change mitigation, even if it is a relatively small percentage of the global total, I subscribe to the principle that the UK should try to be an exemplar. In a globally-connected community of concerned governments, organisations and people, we have an opportunity to influence farther and faster than we might have expected in the past. And, as individuals, your spending power and consumer choices can make small differences that can add up if lots of people do them. Choosing timber products from an accredited scheme like FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), choosing fish from accredited sustainable fisheries, and so on - choices towards these should also all help to support people in their industries elsewhere who are tryng to do the right thing for their own environments, trying to ensure the sustainability of their raw materials, their biodiversity. Now, where did I put that deck chair plan…?

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Hello blossom!

“Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough"
(A.E Housman)

Lying in bed early last Saturday, looking out at the beautiful morning, we had the sudden shock of seeing a flurry of snowflakes blowing up around our bedroom window – from nowhere. No need for panic though. We were seeing the falling white blossom from next door’s wild cherry tree, swirling in the wind. And falling blossom is becoming a common sight in Stirling this week. The town is blessed to have had foresightful planners or other Council officials who, in previous decades, arranged for, or insisted on through planning conditions or whatever, the planting of numerous cherry trees in avenues and other public spaces, mostly cultivated varieties of what look like Japanese cherry trees, with masses of pink blossom. There are also many individual wild cherry trees in parks and gardens around the town and, this year, this Spring blossom season, they really are all earning their keep. (Apple and pear blossom is very profuse this year too)

I don't know whether it is just a symptom of us having suffered through such a long, cold winter (the tail-end of which was still lurking around here as recently as last week, hence our weekend concerns above about snow!), and so any mass phenomenon related to Spring is rendered that much more welcome, but this year, the cherry blossom here in Stirling seems particularly spectacular. I suppose it is also possible that the lateness of the end of the Winter cold temperatures has retarded the appearance of the cherry blossom so that it all appeared at once, compressing the flowering of earlier and later flowering cherry trees into one shorter, but spectacular season. Out in town on Saturday, I had forgotten to take a decent camera, but even my phone's camera managed to make a half decent job of recording the blossom phenomenon.

With the breezy conditions on Saturday, blossom was starting to stream off the cherry trees and swirling around like weird pink snowflakes before settling in the beginnings of "blossom drifts" along paths, pavements and roadside gutters.

In writing about cherry blossom for a recent Spring-time blog post (here), I came across some fascinating information on the strong cultural significance of the cherry blossom season in Japan. I'm grateful to Tokyo-based Louise Rouse's "My Blog" for interesting information on this annual cultural phenomenon.

She reports: "The coming of spring in Japan has been celebrated since around the middle of the 9th century BC by the opening of the iconic cherry blossom, a custom originally imported from China, but that has changed entirely since then in meaning and style, but for the simple uniting principle of celebrating flowers opening. Forecasts for the Japanese sakura blossoming are as detailed and frequent as the regular weather forecasts during this season." She goes on to look at published academic information on the link between cherry blossom dates and climate change,  using cherry flowering dates from Japan running back over a thousand years (surely the longest near-continuous record of hand-recorded biological data anywhere?). She includes the following academic figure in her post, which I reproduce here for interest:

So, in celebration our own fine cherry blossom season in Stirling, here are some more pictures from the weekend.

I like the irony of this final picture below, which shows cherry blossom piling up in the gutter outside the entrance to the local Public Registry office where we held our wedding ceremony and, outside of which, local bye-laws now prevent the use of paper confetti after wedding ceremonies - Nature finds a better way, as usual! Biodegradable, non-toxic, carbon-neutral fresh and fragrant confetti, the only disadvantage being that it has only a seasonal supply!

PS as a final irony, a consistent error that kept appearing while I was typing this in was the accidental typing of "cheery blossom" instead of "cherry blossom" - very appropriate, you might think! :¬)

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

New life from old...

There were lots of new fern fronds uncurling out into the wide world in our fernery last weekend - one of my favourite Spring things every year in the garden...

Friday, 14 May 2010

A mote of dust in a sunbeam...

The late, great and sadly missed Carl Sagan is being mentioned a bit on Radio 4 just now, trailing a radio show where another excellent science broadcaster, Professor Brian Cox, will talk about the influence of Sagan on his young life. The perfect excuse to post this. As a scientist, humanist and aetheist, I find his perspective on our importance quite reassuring! I hope you enjoy this as much as I do. Even if you don't agree with the (literally) world view, you can still enjoy it as a performance. Sagan was a superb presenter of big ideas about our universe and his views on our place in it, delivered in a highly accessible way.

Signs of the times: Spring #15

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

I found a strawberry blossom in a rock. I uprooted it rashly and felt as if I had been committing an outrage, so I planted it again.” Dorothy Wordsworth

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)
In Spring picture 16, we are back down in the woodland, but in the undergrowth this time. We see brambles, the long-petalled white flowers of the greater stitchwort and the small white flowers of the barren strawberry. Perched on a briar of bramble is a wren, a violet ground beetle has crawled out from under the barren strawberry, and what looks like a bumblebee is actually a cuckoo bee – read on to find out why they are bad news if you are a bumble bee (I’m sure you aren’t).

On the plant front, the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora provides a comparison of the distribution of the three plant species in 1962 and 2002. The bramble (or blackberry, Latin name: Rubus fruticosus aggregate – the “aggregate” because it is a mixture of 320 microspecies!) has not changed its distribution since 1962. Brambles can form dense thorny thickets and are spread by seeds in bird or animal droppings, and by long stems that form roots where they touch the ground, allowing it to “leap-frog” and spread many metres by vegetative growth in a couple of seasons. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, writes quite profoundly, about the blackberry fruit of the bramble: “Blackberrying is the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island and has a special role in the relationship between townspeople and the countryside. It is not just that blackberries are delicious, ubiquitous and unmistakable. Blackberrying, I suspect, carries with it a little of the urban dweller’s myth of country life: harvest, a sense of season and enough discomfort to quicken the senses.” But, again, I am looking unseasonably ahead to a wild harvest that is not due to appear for several months, on the other side of summer.

The New Atlas also indicates that, since 1962, neither the greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) nor the barren strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) have changed their distribution in Britain or Ireland. Richard Mabey describes greater stitchwort as a “familiar spring flower of hedge-banks and wood-rides, much loved for its modestly beautiful white flowers” and it is a truly lovely, delicate little plant. The barren strawberry isn’t really a strawberry but belongs, rather, to the same genus as the cinquefoils and the widespread yellow-flowered tormentil.

The wren (Latin name: Troglodytes troglodytes) is Britain’s second-smallest bird species, only marginally larger than the goldcrest. The Ladybird text describes the way the male wren will build several nests and then try to attract a female to each one to lay her eggs. I can sit in my garden in Spring and hear male wrens doing their rounds of their nests in our and neighbouring gardens, singing their remarkably loud and penetrating song at each nest, flitting from one to the next (you can hear various wren song recordings here). According to the British Trust for Ornithology, “the Wren's current UK population estimate is the highest for any species”- there were estimated to be 8,512,000 territories in Britain in 2000. The trend since the 1960s is very much upwards, although very cold winters tend to cause temporary drops in abundance (the following graph shows a smoothed trend which somewhat masks the annual drops from cold winters).

Fortunately for the wren, despite cold winter mortalities, it has a high breeding potential. Climate change may be having an effect on the length of its breeding season, as between 1968 and 2007, the average egg-laying date has moved six days earlier.

I can’t say (as I don't know) much about the violet ground beetle (Latin name: Carabus violaceus), other than that, as a carabid beetle, it is a member of a family of "long-legged, fast-running predators with powerful jaws” (from Michael Chinery’s “Collins Field Guide to the Insects of Britain of Northern Europe, 3rd Edition). It may be yet another friend of the gardener, as the larvae of large carabid beetles will actively hunt for and feed on slugs. I cannot source any evidence about trends in beetles like this one since 1959-1961.

The final feature to discuss here is the cuckoo-bee (from the genus Psithyrus) which is associated (in a parasitic way (with bumblebees. Chinery says that each species “sticks pretty well to one or two host species, which they tend to resemble quite closely". They are known as cuckoo-bees because they lay their eggs in bumblebee nests. Unable to kill or oust the tougher cuckoo-bee, the bumblebee workers soon tolerate the cuckoo-bee which then lays its eggs and these are then reared by the bumblebee workers. The cuckoo-bee will encourage this either by eating the bumblebee eggs as they are laid, or by killing the bumblebee queen. Again, I don’t have much information about the trends in cuckoo-bees over the past 50 years but their fate is likely to be linked to that of their bumblebee hosts. I'm sure I'll be writing about bumblebees again in this series!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #14

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

“I love spring anywhere but, if I could choose, I would always greet it in a garden.”

Ruth Stout

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

In Spring picture 15, we see three little vignettes involving birds – a bold-as-brass male cuckoo calling from a washing-pole, a song thrush incubating eggs in its nest hidden in a bush, and a pair of jackdaws sitting by their nest (in a chimney pot). The other features in the garden are a cherry tree and a flowering currant bush, both in full blossom, and a hawthorn bush in new leaf. I’d prefer to write about the hawthorn in a few pictures time when it is shown in full blossom.

It isn’t made clear what species of cherry tree is shown but, from its relatively large size, I’d guess it isn’t a bird cherry, a relatively small native cherry largely found in northern Britain. From its profuse white blossom, it could be a wild cherry (Prunus avium) (or a cultivar of this) which is, according to the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, both widely distributed naturally in Britain, as well as extensively planted as an ornamental or fruit tree in gardens and parks. Also, according to the Atlas, its distribution has not changed since 1962 when the original Atlas was published, although it is also widely planted as an ornamental tree. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, describes the wild cherry, rather charmingly, with its “drifts of delicate white blossom” in Spring and its “fiery mix of yellow and crimson” Autumn leaves, as “arguably the most ornamental of our native woodland trees.” Cherry trees produce a beautiful red wood which is lovely to work with – I’ve turned a bowl from cherry wood. And, of course, it also produces cherries (varying in colour between yellow and red) that are perfectly edible - we pick and eat cherries from wild cherry trees planted in the park near my parents. Apparently they can be used to make cherry brandy in much the same way as sloes are used to make sloe gin (author thinks “hmm!”) But I’m getting unseasonably ahead of myself.

I’m not really minded to spend much time or space on the pink-blossomed flowering currant (Ribes sangineum) as it is not a native species, being introduced to Britain in 1826 as a garden plant and ornamental hedge, and established in the wild by 1916. The New Atlas says it is hard to record any trend in its distribution since 1962 but that it is “probably increasing”.

On to the birds! Most obviously, the picture features a male cuckoo (Latin name: Cuculus canorus) calling from a washing pole. A real sign of Spring, and probably the most onomatopoeic bird call ever. You can hear various recordings here on that great "xeno-canto" birdcall website I've referred to before - amusing to set several cuckoo recordings running at once (I don't get out much)! But for all its importance as a much-anticipated Spring-time arrival (there is serious competition every year to be the first person to inform "The Times" newspaper of the first cuckoo heard), and its role as an inspiration for many old folk traditions, poems, music, and so on, the poor old cuckoo hasn't fared too well in the 50 years since the Ladybird books were written. In particular, since the early 1980s, cuckoo abundance has been in steep decline as shown in the UK graph to the left below, although the right-hand graph shows that there has been an apparent increase of 14% in Scotland since the mid 1990s. The British Trust for Ornithology collates a number of possible causes of decline: "Cuckoo numbers may have fallen because the populations of some key host species, such as Dunnock and Meadow Pipit, have declined"; "Decreases among certain British moths may have reduced food supplies for returning adults, and the species may also be suffering difficulties on migration or in winter" and "Cuckoos increased significantly during 1994–2006 in lowland semi-natural grass, heath and bog but decreased in almost all other habitat types", suggesting that host bird species are faring differently in different habitats. Its decline in abundance has led to its conservation status sliding from green to amber in 2002 and more recently on to the red list of most conservation concern.

As well as for its famous call, the cuckoo is perhaps best-known for its parasitic mode of reproduction, through laying its eggs in the nests of a range of other, much smaller bird species (e.g. hedge-sparrows, robins, wagtails and pipits are all identified in the text for the picture), and its large chick then pushing out the eggs laid by the host birds. The (non-cuckoo) host parent birds then raise the cuckoo chick as their own, despite the massive difference in size once the cuckoo starts to grow. It is definitely a summer visitor. As a child, I was taught a short rhyme by my Dad to remember the timing of its visit:

"The cuckoo comes in April,
He sings his song in May,
In the middle of June, he changes his tune,
In July, he flies away." 

There is some evidence of a slight effect of a warmer climate bringing cuckoos to Scotland earlier by an average of about a day earlier per decade, and predicted to be about a day earlier for every 1 degree rise in average temperature.

The song thrush (Turdus philomelos), tucked away on its nest in the hawthorn bush at the bottom of the picture, is another species with mixed fortunes over the 50 years since the Ladybird book was produced. Song thrush abundance in the UK declined by 49% between 1967 and 2007, with a slight increase again in the final years of that period.

Although the environmental causes are not known, the BTO suggests a number of possible causes for this calamitous decline, including changes in farming practices, land drainage, pesticides and predators as possible contributors, along with possible poor management and deer over-grazing of woodland habitats. It is a little ironic that the song thrush is shown here nesting in a garden environment as it is possible that good quality garden habitat has helped to offset the decline in rural and agricultural habitats for this species. I enjoy watching song thrushes in my own garden. The song thrush is famous for eating snails (and hence is a beneficial species to the gardener), using stone and rock surfaces as "anvils" on which they tap-tap-tap the snail to break the shell. In my garden, song thrushes have taken to pulling ramshorn watersnails out of my pond and using the slab stepping stones as their anvil. Hopefully, things have turned round for the song thrush again, with an increasing population but, according to BTO, but "population levels remain relatively low."

Finally, the jackdaws on the chimney pot. I do love the crows, as readers of earlier posts may recall.  And crows don't come much more likeable than the jackdaw (Corvus monedula), one of the smallest British crow species. Without beating about the bush, the jackdaw is doing pretty well in the UK, its population doubling between 1967 and 2007:

According to the BTO, as with Magpie, Rook and Carrion Crow, "the increase has been associated with improvements in breeding performance and probably reflects the species' generalist feeding habits, which allow it to exploit diverse and ephemeral food resources."

On the behaviour of jackdaws, if I can quote from my beloved old "AA Book of  Birds" from 1969 (1973 reprint): "Most crows are robbers, but none is a bigger thief than the jackdaw. It not only steals eggs and chicks when it gets the chance, but it will sometimes pick up useless inedible objects and hide them away. It will perch on horses and sheep and pluck out tufts of hair to line its nest; and occasionally it even steals a home, making a cranny for itself in the base of the pile of sticks forming a rook's nest". I might take issue with the description of its predation of eggs and chicks as "stealing", which is personifying its predatory behaviour, but this text does capture the relentless poking and pulling you see when you watch jackdaws. I love their obvious curiosity and it is easy to fall into the habit of personifying of their behaviour as "cheeky".

My wunderkind terrier Ella is in a constant state of alert for the jackdaws in our garden and the park, but she can't even get close...

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #13

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"When April steps aside for May,
Like diamonds all the rain-drops glisten;
Fresh violets open every day:
To some new bird each hour we listen."

Lucy Larcom
(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Spring picture 14 zooms down onto the (certainly deciduous) woodland floor to look at some mid-Spring flowering plants in a glade, the Adoxa or moschatel (a new species to me), wood-sorrel, wood anemones, wood violets and, top left, the first appearance of bluebell leaves. These plants frame a little bank vole emerging from its burrow.

Of course, plants of the woodland floor (understorey flora) depend on there being a woodland habitat in the first place. There is certainly lots to write about the fate of the remaining ancient woodlands in Scotland and more widely in Britain. As, however, they feature widely through all four of the books in the Ladybird “What to look for... “ series, for now I will focus simply on the forest floor plants themselves, and talk about the wider habitat in later posts. As ever when comparing what has happened to plant species since the 1959-1961 period when these pictures and their books were produced, we have access to the marvellous New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora from 2002. As explained previously, this provides a direct comparison of the recently-surveyed distributions of all British land and freshwater plants with those of 1962 when the original Atlas was published. The text accompanying the Ladybird book picture actually says very little about the plants themselves, so I’ll try to do better than that!

The New Atlas reports that the distributions of moschatel, wood-sorrel, wood anemone and bluebells are all stable compared to the 1962 Atlas. It is quite gratifying when it turns out that the features in one of these pictures haven’t gone completely to hell in a handbasket. The moschatel (Latin name: Adoxa moschatellina) is the little yellow-green flower in the bottom left of the picture. I confess I’d never heard of it before this. It is a Spring species of shady areas in deciduous woodlands, and disappears before Summer. The text describes the violets in the top right of the picture as “wood violets” but no modern book uses this name and so I assume that this is actually the Common dog-violet (Viola riviniana), the most widespread native wild violet and one of the most widespread plants in Britain, including in our deciduous woodlands (although by no means restricted to that habitat). Here is one of my own photos of dog-violets taken in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park:

We sometimes use the petals of these as a garnish on wild leaf salads in Spring, in place of borage leaves as these are only available later in the season.

The wood-sorrel, with its Latin name as Oxalis acetosella, is another edible plant that we add to salads. The text for the picture even notes that the clover-shaped leaves are sharp-tasting. The specific name “acetosella” refers to the vinegary or acetic acid component of the leaf. You don’t need to add too many of the little leaves to sharpen up a salad and sometimes, while walking through woods where it grows, I will pick and nibble its leaves to pass the time. As this is one of the few plants that thrives in the deep shade and needle fall of conifer plantations, you can find it very widely from ancient woodlands, through to modern planted commercial plantations.

As there is a splendid picture coming soon with fully flowering bluebells and the current picture only shows emerging leaves, I’ll leave the bluebells for now. The final plant to discuss here, therefore, is the wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa. Wherever you see this growing wild, you can be pretty sure that, if in a wood, it is an ancient woodland and, if not in a wood, that there used to be an ancient woodland there. The wood anemone spreads remarkably slowly, maybe a few centimetres a year – the book text points out that it spreads by underground stems and are “consequently, all close together”. So it must take centuries for it to spread into the beautiful, wide blankets of flowers that can be found at this time of year in suitable habitat. Here is a photo I took on the German Baltic island of Vilm which gives an idea of how it exists in good woodland habitat:

This anemone species also exists in some other colour forms which have been selectively bred by horticulturalists to produce the wide colour range of cultivated forms available for our gardens.

The little bank vole (Latin name: Clethrionomys glareolus) shown emerging here is in a favourite habitat for this little rodent, preferring areas of mature mixed deciduous woodland with a thick shrub layer, but also grassland habitats, young deciduous plantations, conifer plantations and hedgerows (according to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee – JNCC- in its Review of British Mammals). The JNCC also provides an estimate of how many bank voles there are in Scotland: “A total pre-breeding population of about 23,000,000; 17,750,000 in England, 3,500,000 in Scotland and 1,750,000 in Wales. A high proportion of the population is in England because this is where the majority of the hedgerows in arable landscapes are found; hedgerows in arable landscapes in England alone contain over a third of the British pre-breeding bank vole population.” It is also suggested that, although the trend in bank vole numbers is unknown, in general, bank vole numbers in Britain are “probably as great now as they have ever been.”

Speaking to staff at the Argaty Red Kite visitor centre north of Stirling this week, they think that there are very high populations of bank voles in our area this Spring, of note for them as the bank vole is an important prey item for the red kite. The grassy bank outside of their red kite bird hide (below) is riddled with vole tunnels, so maybe they are correct!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Flying kites...

Today was a good day to fly! Our work department had the pleasure to be using a meeting facility at a local farm for a team planning "away day" - that farm is at Argaty outside Dunblane, north of Stirling. Argaty hosts the Central Scotland release site for the red kite reintroduction programme in Scotland and the family who own the farm have opened a really excellent visitor centre with a bird hide and a feeding station for the kites. The feeding programme is part of the RSPB's release process and the birds are given a minimal amount of supplementary meat. The website for the Red Kite Centre is here. They have already achieved a Gold Award in the Green Tourism Business Scheme, the national sustainable tourism certification scheme for the UK, as well as 3-star visitor Attraction and Wildlife Experience awards from the Scottish Tourist Board:

Highlight of the day for me was the mid-afternoon feeding time, where a couple of small handfuls of meat were put out for the kites. I managed to take the following, which I am quite pleased with:

The staff advised me that the two red tags on the elbows of the wings indicate that this is a male bird released here in 2003, making it one of the oldest red kites in Scotland. They don't develop their beautiful silvery heads until they are over 2 years old. They also afforded another opportunity for photos and I managed to sneak another one (this is amazing, as I have totally failed, up until this point in my life, to take a single successful photo of a bird in flight! Red Letter Day!):

In both pictures, you can see the silver head, large pale underwing patches and long, forked tail so characteristic of this species.

I'm very happy to have made it up to Argaty at last and I can thoroughly recommend it as a wildlife experience - these are definitely wild birds - although some were released here, there are now also many wild-bred kites around and they are quite magnificent when you see them this close up!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #12

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

Spring would not be spring without bird songs."

Francis M. Chapman

Copyright: Ladybird Books

Yet another waterside scene for picture 13 from Spring, with a lakeside, or lochside picture full of birds. I’m falling behind a bit so I going to try a bit of a compressed post this time – similar amount of information but less time and space occupied! Here we have two nests – one built by a pair of mute swans, one by a moorhen or waterhen. The moorhen appears with chicks in the Summer book, so I will cover it there in more detail. The picture also shows a willow warbler singing from a sycamore tree, a common sandpiper at water level and swallows and sand martins skimming over the water, “hawking flies”.

Any following information on trends, plus the graphs above come from the British Trust for Ornithology. As you can see, the stories of the birds in the picture since (soon after) the Ladybird Spring book was published are very varied.

The Mute swan (Cygnus olor) population in Britain has risen pretty steadily since the 1980s (it was stable before then), according to the BTO: “perhaps reflecting warmer winter weather and the replacement of anglers' lead weights, which had earlier caused many cases of lethal and sublethal poisoning, with non-toxic alternatives”. While lead was still used for anglers’ weights, swans were found dead or dying with many, sometimes hundreds of lead weights in their digestive systems. Their method of feeding, upending and dabbling on the bottom of the water body, loaned itself to preferentially picking up lost lead weights. There is no specific information on population trends for Scotland’s Mute swan populations, nor any noted effects of climate change on egg laying dates for mute swans.

Mute swans probably deserve more space here than I can give them – all British swans are owned by the Sovereign, the inspiration for Henry the VIII’s Swan Barges on the Thames, the Swan Vestas matchbox anyone?, the subject of wonderful urban myths (I was, indeed, told as a child by my father, a man highly knowledgeable in the ways of nature, that a swan can break a man’s arm with its wings – it seems I wasn’t the only one to be told this, so this site made me smile. And the British media do love a good swan story – the latest being the so-called “asbo swan” in Cambridge which has been attacking rowers (no doubt it will prove to be an Oxford swan...), but I refuse to say much more about that given the amount of rubbish already written and spoken about it. The most ludicrous thing I heard about it had to be during a phone-in on Jeremy Vine’s show on Radio 2, where some damned clown actually bothered to phone in to say that if the swan attacked his kids, he would wring its bloody neck. He didn’t live in Cambridge; a) So don’t take your kids down there mate, and b) wring its bloody neck? I’d like to see you bloody try!

The willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) is almost physically indistinguishable from the chiffchaff which featured in an earlier post. It is different in both habit and song though, and the two warbler species are very easily distinguished when singing. Unlike the chiffchaff, however, the willow warbler population seems to have undergone a significant decline in England and Wales, but with Scottish populations remaining unaffected. BBS [Breeding Bird Survey] figures since 1994 indicate a stark contrast between an initially upward trend in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, and continued severe decreases in England and in Wales. Pressures on migration and in the winter are likely to be affecting the population, as is a reduction in habitat quality on the breeding grounds [presumably not the Scottish ones though]”. It does look like we don’t know exactly what we are doing right for willow warblers in Scotland. The BTO reports that average egg laying dates for this species have become a week earlier, “perhaps in response to recent climatic warming”. Also, the trend down south is more widespread as numbers “have fallen widely across Europe since 1980”.

The Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), the small wading bird bottom centre of the picture, is a favourite bird of mine, which I associate with upland burns in Scotland, where its insistent, high-pitched call while bobbing up and down, flitting between river stone perches is one of the best sounds and sights of summer for me. At this delightful website, you can hear a selection of the songs of the common sandpiper. Only the size of a starling, its range covers more than half of the world. Unfortunately, however, like the willow warbler, it seems to be suffering badly in the UK and across Europe. The BTO reports that decline from 1985 onwards (after a more gradual increase) “has yet to be explained.” So that’s that. Hard to do anything about it if you don’t know the cause! The common sandpiper is one of the species that tried to lure predators away by feigning a broken wing when its nest or chicks are threatened. For a more emotional view of the common sandpiper and its ability to inspire, you might read “The song of the sandpiper”, the autobiography of the late John Morton Boyd, a pioneer of nature conservation in Scotland.

Finally for now, swallows (Hirundo rustica) and sand martins (Riparia riparia), seen skimming over the water here, catching insect prey. One swallow does not a summer make, so they say. But the arrival of the first swallow is such an iconic late Spring event for nearly everyone I know. Maybe we all hope that they will bring a bit of African desert heat with them from their African over-wintering grounds. For swallows, the data provided above are for England and you can see there is quite a lot of fluctuation, thought to result from variation in rainfall in the western Sahel prior to the swallow’s Spring migration north through West Africa – wetter conditions mean better survival. But what has happened to the swallow populations in Summer in the UK is also complicated. The BTO explains that “It is likely that, in eastern parts of the UK, the loss of livestock farming and grazed grassland, together with arable intensification, has caused the Swallow population to decline, while an increase in the area of pasture in the west and north has promoted a population increase which apparently has more than compensated for declines elsewhere.” The swallow has, however, been awarded a warning Amber status in the UK, on account of its decline across Europe.

The Sand Martin population shows similar levels of fluctuation to those of the swallow across the time since the Ladybird books were produced. The BTO and (my posh bird book) "The Birds of the Western Palae-Arctic (Concise Edition)" both indicate that, as with swallows, these fluctuations are likely to be the effects of variable rainfall in their over-wintering grounds in the Sahel in Africa (“Rainfall in the species' trans-Saharan wintering grounds prior to the birds' arrival promotes annual survival and thus abundance in the following breeding season”). But the sand martin is a difficult species to assess accurately, as its often-large nesting colonies are formed in unstable sand cliffs of river banks or quarries, etc, that can disappear (or be abandoned) between years. There does not appear to be any long-term trend in the UK, however, although there is concern over an apparent decline since the late 1990s.

The tree featured here, the sycamore, also appears later in the year, in another book, so I am going to defer comment on that until then.