All posts by lucy

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

The Peregrine by J. A. Baker
is much more than a detailed observation of the falcon of the title.  The author roams his patch of the Essex countryside, evoking the landscape, the changing light and other wild species he comes across.  As he walks through winter, he notes the cruel impact of an unrelenting freeze, finding a dying heron, “its wings . . .  stuck to the ground by frost”.  He witnesses scenes like the following:

Above the brook a kingfisher hovered.  . . .   It half dived, half fell, and its bill hit ice with a loud click like a bone breaking.  It could see a fish below the ice but it did not know what ice was.  It lay on its belly, stunned or dead, sprawling like a brilliantly coloured toad.

In trying to break free of a human perspective, Baker found a haunting, unsentimental style to describe the natural world on his doorstep. More information on The Peregrine

Fen Raft Spider breeding project

Spider expert Helen Smith has been raising thousands of Fen Raft Spiders in her kitchen, feeding them flies in their test tube nurseries.  But now the surrogate mother has broken the bond and the spiderlings have to go it alone, after being set free in a Suffolk nature reserve.  The Fen Raft spider is a seriously endangered species, one of only two protected spiders in Britain, living in isolated enclaves.  The parents of this new generation of spiderlings were picked from separate populations to enhance their genetic diversity.

Omens of a hard winter

Just thinking of their Siberian haunts brings a shiver, and when Bewick swans arrive early in Britain it’s considered a sign of a cold winter to come.  This year over 300 landed in the Slimbridge Wetlands Reserve on October 18, two weeks earlier than in 2009.  Rather worrying considering the Cold Snap of January 2100.

A large crop of holly berries is another traditional omen of bitter weather.  Though this autumn’s rich fruit and nut harvest can be explained by the year’s stable and sunny spring, perfect for flowering and pollination.

Beetles in the Bonsai

Watch out for this beetle.  If discovered, it should be immediately reported to Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate at 01904 465625 or

The Citrus Longhorn is an Asian beetle, accidentally imported with ornamental trees from Korea, China and Japan, and discovered at a Rutland school last week.  Like all UK sightings so far, it was found in a Japanese maple, but without a natural predator it poses a serious threat to a wide range of native shrubs and trees. Continue reading Beetles in the Bonsai

Coastguard cottages in the Isle of Wight

Up on the windswept Needles Headland on the Isle of Wight above the iconic Needles rock formation are a group of coastguard cottages let by the National Trust.  Plain and functional, they are situated in an atmospheric location with spectacular views.  The three cottages are named after ships wrecked on the Needles – Irex and Pomone, and Varvassi, which was the last big ship to founder on this treacherous coast, back in 1947.  Much of its cargo of Mediterranean wine was washed up on local beaches.   The cottages are part of a 370-acre site of open downland owned by the National Trust.

Foxes on the doorstep

An alleged fox attack on twin baby girls, while they slept upstairs in their east London home, has made front page news and provoked considerable debate.  As people swap their fox experiences, an interesting picture emerges of fox behaviour in an urban setting.

The comments posted in the Guardian suggest that the fox density in certain areas of London is very high, with not enough food to go round, in some cases resulting in a population of unhealthy, short-lived animals.  These city and suburban foxes have lost their fear of people and see them as a potential source of food, with some extraordinary encounters taking place: Continue reading Foxes on the doorstep

Purple herons are nesting in the UK

Purple herons are sporadic visitors to the UK, but they’ve gone one step further this year.  Exciting news from the RSPB reserve in Dungeness, Kent, is that a pair have built a nest and are apparently sitting on eggs.  A 24-hour guard has been established to promote chances of a successful breeding, which would be a historic first for Britain. This southern European heron is expanding its range northward, probably due to climate change, and is expected to become a regular breeder in Britain in the near future, following in the footsteps of its relative, the Little egret.

Hopefully, the presence of this spectacular bird will help the RSPB fight against plans to build an international airport at nearby Lydd.

Guide to camping in Britain

The Guardian has put together a special Travel issue dedicated to camping: find out about Britain’s best tiny campsites which are never crowded, island camping and some remotely located campsites.  Read and be inspired to start planning your next camping trip in wild Britain.

Deer eat nightingales out of home

A key reason for the dramatic decline in England’s nightingales is the rise in the deer population, particularly the small muntjac, a prolific all-year breeder.  By eating their way through the understorey of woodland, deer effectively destroy the nightingales’ habitat.

Between 1994 and 2007, nightingale numbers in England – the bird is absent from Scotland and Wales – dropped by 60 per cent, and its range shrank towards the South-east, with concentrations limited to Kent, Sussex, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.


How a volcanic eruption in Iceland affected Britain

The Laki Fissure

The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption has ruined travel plans but does not rank as particularly disastrous, except financially for the air companies.  A volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 – the Laki Fissure eruption – was catastrophic for the Icelanders (25% of the population died in the ensuing famine) and had serious consequences in Britain.

The amount of volcanic ash in the atmosphere over the UK gave rise to the “sand-summer”, as the 1783 summer became known. The amount of sulphur dioxide released by the eruption was colossal – 120 million tons:

approximately equivalent to three times the total annual European industrial output in 2006, and also equivalent to a Mount Pinatubo-1991 eruption every three days – Wikipedia

The resulting smog – the Laki Haze – was deadly, killing as it spread over western Europe.  It reached Great Britain by late June of 1783, and thousands died from sulphur dioxide poisoning, outdoor workers being particularly vulnerable.

The effect on the weather was no less dramatic.  As the haze heated up, a serious of heavy thunderstorms were unleashed, hailstones causing livestock losses.  Gilbert White described that summer in The Natural History of Selborne: Continue reading How a volcanic eruption in Iceland affected Britain

When the sun turns blue

One of the effects of volcanic ash in the atmosphere is to scatter light.  When only longer light waves reach the earth, the blood-red sunsets associated with volcanic explosions are observed.

More unusually, if the particles suspended in the atmosphere are all of a particular size, rather than a mixture, the sun and moon can turn blue.  This phenomenon was seen in Britain when Krakatoa erupted in 1883:

Clouds of dust hung suspended in the stratosphere for months, causing strange after-effects.  All over the world, the most beautiful sunsets were witnessed.  In Paris, New York, London, and Cairo, the setting sun appeared blue, leaden, green and copper-coloured.  At night, the moon and stars appeared green. –  August 1963 issue of Popular Science

Results of 2010 RSPB Garden Birdwatch

As expected, small birds struggled to survive the big freeze: long tailed tits, who had prospered over a succession of mild winters, dropped by 27% compared to last year, when they made the top ten for the first time.  The biggest decline was in goldcrest sightings – down by 75%.  Losses would have been worse without the tremendous response to calls for keeping bird tables well stocked.

Another effect of the hard winter was a movement of countryside birds into gardens in their search for food.  Sightings of redwings increased by 185%, fieldfares by 73% and song thrushes by 51%.  Yellowhammers and bullfinches were also more frequent garden visitors. Continue reading Results of 2010 RSPB Garden Birdwatch

The ghost orchid still haunts British woods

Photo by Andy Swash

The location is a secret: somewhere in Herefordshire, and in an oak wood.  So secret that it’s taken several months to even disclose the news of its finding to the public.

The last sighting of the Ghost Orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) was in Buckinghamshire back in 1986 and in 2005 it was declared extinct.  But amateur botanist sleuth Mark Jannink never gave up.  He runs a motorbike business for a living, but his passion is wild flowers, and last September his persistence paid off. Continue reading The ghost orchid still haunts British woods

Swift survey

The RSPB is gathering extensive information about exactly where swifts are nesting in the UK.  It is suspected that their rapid decline in recent years is linked with a drop in suitable nesting sites, as buildings are modernised.

The first year’s survey reveals that of the houses where swifts are nesting:

  • Over half (51%) were built before 1919
  • Exactly a quarter were built between 1919-1944
  • Over half (52%)had been known swift nesting sites for more than 10 years
  • Almost a fifth (16%) were considered threatened
  • Almost 5% of swifts were recorded in churches

The data will be used to make sure that exhilarating displays of screaming swifts continue being part of British summers.