Category Archives: Nature trivia about Britain

When bee-eaters come to Britain

Even in Spain, where it is a common, well-established breeding bird, the gorgeously colourful bee-eater (Merops apiaster) seems to have strayed out of the tropics.  So imagine the impact when a pair arrived in County Durham in 2002 and proceeded to nest.  Nevertheless, perhaps only in Britain could a couple of bee-eaters draw 15,000 people to see them.  Two of the young successfully fledged.  There have been other successful nesting attempts: in 1955 3 pairs spent the summer in Plumpton, East Sussex, two of which managed to rear 7 young between them. The most recent attempt to breed was on the coast of Dorset in 2006, but this time without any luck.

Photo from Wikipedia

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

The presence of whales in Britain

Photo by TallGuy

The famous whalebone arch on Whitby’s West Cliff is a symbol of the whaling industry that thrived there and in other English ports like Hull and Yarmouth in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The 15 ft bones are from a Bowhead whale, killed under license by Alaskan Inuits, and unveiled by Miss Alaska in 2003.  An even larger arch stood on the same spot, made from the 20 ft jaw bones of a Fin whale, presented to the town by Norway in 1963.

During England’s years as a whaling nation, captains returning from Greenland would bring home these huge bones as souvenirs. Ship crews would tie a pair of whale jaw bones to the mast to let anxious families on land know there’d been no casualties.  Some of the bones were used in construction as house ends. Some were set in fields for cattle to rub against. Continue reading The presence of whales in Britain

Protecting Queen Victoria’s sensibilities

When Queen Victoria was visiting the Cairngorms of Scotland, she asked her guide to translate the name of a mountain, Bod an Deamhain.  “The Devil’s Point”, he replied, in effect rechristening it, since a truer translation of the Scottish Gaelic would be “Penis of the demon”.

Queen Victoria’s travels around Britain led to other toponymic changes.  When she visited the spectacular cave in the Peak District, known locally as the Devil’s Arse due to the flatulent sounds heard there, she was informed it was called the Peak Cavern.  Over a hundred years later, the original name is officially being used again.

Photo of the Devil’s Point from

Whitby snakestones

Ammonites are easy to find on Whitby Beach, so fossil and curiosity dealers would try to attract customers by carving snake heads on the stones. It was a particularly tempting ploy in the Victorian age, when fossil collections and curiosity cabinets were all the rage.

The carvers were inspired by the legend of St Hilda, an abbess who lived in Whitby in the 7th century. The area was infested with snakes until she turned them all into “coils of stone”. Her work was completed by St Cuthbert of Lindesfarne, whose curse left the snakes headless. Continue reading Whitby snakestones

The Northern Lights in Britain

photo taken near Dundee by John Gilmour as featured in AuroraWatch

Of course the best viewing place is in the Arctic Circle, but the Northern Lights are occasionally visible from Britain. On rare occasions they are visible as far south as the Mediterranean.

Lancaster University’s AuroraWatch has a gallery of images that testify to the visibility of the Aurora in places like Folkestone and Staffordshire. The photographs show awe-inspiring displays of green and red light rampaging above the roof tops and television aerials. Continue reading The Northern Lights in Britain

Twitch alert: Tufted Puffin in Kent

The sighting of a Tufted Puffin in the Oare Marshes nature reserve on the Swale estuary has still to be officially verified, but hordes of twitchers are heading to Kent in hope of a glimpse. It would be the first sighting of this North Pacific Ocean species in Britain. One theory for its appearance so far from home is that melting Arctic ice is creating a new corridor for seabirds to move from one ocean to another. Another explanation is that it’s an escapee from Living Coasts in Torquay.  The Tufted Puffin is a striking bird with blond head plumes and a thick red bill.  See Wikipedia

Why do the British love wildlife?

I very much enjoyed this BBC Radio 4 documentary on why the British love wild animals and on the origin of wildlife protection in the UK. Italian architect Francesco Da Mosto explores the apparent special relationship between the British and the natural world, and discovers that the answer seems to lie in the 19th century. Extracts by Oddie and Attenborough. Listen

The 1869 Sea Birds Preservation Act

The Sea Birds Preservation Act 1869 was one of the first pieces of parliamentary legislation anywhere in the world to protect wildlife, and the first to offer birds protection on the United Kingdom. The bill came about from a local campaign by local clergy and naturalists to save the birds of Flamborough Head being annually blasted away by hunters and eggs being collected. It introduced a close season from April to August to allow the bird to breed. Continue reading The 1869 Sea Birds Preservation Act

How did the Needles get their name?

The western tip of the Isle of Wight peters out in a series of three jagged rocks known as the Needles.  You might think they owe their name to their sharp edges but it turns out there used to be a fourth, needle-shaped, rock called Lot’s wife, as shown in Isaac Taylor’s map of Hampshire published in 1759.  Continue reading How did the Needles get their name?

Britain’s smallest island

Britain’s smallest island lies off the south west coast at the western tip of the Scilly Isles.  Bishop Rock is also classed in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest built-on island in the world.  In fact, the only building is a lighthouse, as there isn’t room for anything else. To the west of Bishop Rock, there’s no more land till the American coast, so it bears the full brunt of Atlantic gales.  The lighthouse was built with great difficulty – the first one was washed away in 1850 before it could be used.  An enormous wave once snatched away the 550lb fog bell.  The island has not been inhabited since 1992 when the lighthouse became fully automated and the last keepers left.
The lighthouse features in the BBC’s Seven Man Made Wonders

The lowest land point in Britain

Holme Fen, Cambridgeshire

The village of of Holme Fen, specifically Holme Posts as depicted above, is probably the lowest land point in England at nearly 3 metres (9.8 ft) below sea level. Wikipedia

See also

UK’s lowest spot getting lower
“Conservationists have raised concerns that the lowest land spot in the UK is sinking.Holme Fen, a national nature reserve near Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, has sunk by about four metres since draining work began in the 1850s, leaving it about 2.75 m below sea level. ” BBC

Holme Fen is a rare surviving relic of the vast fenlands that once covered the countryside in parts of East Anglia. Listen to BBC documentary about Holme Fen here.

The oldest tree in Britain

The Fortingall Yew is generally considered as the oldest tree in Britain. Like many yews, it stands in a churchyard. Yews were sacred for the Celts, and the Christian church often found it expedient to take over these existing sacred sites for churches. This oldest of yews is the village of Fortingall in Perthshire. Recent tests suggest the tree is some 2,000 years old, rather younger than the 5,000 years claimed by some, but still probably one of the oldest trees in Northern Europe. The yew was vandalised for tourist trinkets in the 19th century, and its once massive girths is now split into several trunks, giving the impression of several smaller trees.

Raining fish and frogs in Britain

There are a number of well-documented cases of raining animals in modern British history. Such occurrences are not as uncommon as they may sound. With strong winds (thunderstorms for example) small whirlwinds and mini-tornadoes may form. Over the sea these are known as waterspouts, which trawl up water and any fish near the surface. When the tornado touches the land it loses energy and its contents are thrown to the ground. When these tornadoes travel over water any small items of debris in their path, such as fish or frogs, may be picked up and carried for up to several miles.  BBC


  • BBC Overview As recently as August 8, 2000 a shower of dead but still fresh sprats rained down on the fishing port of Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk, England, after a thunderstorm. The fish shower would have been caused by a small tornado out to sea, known as a waterspout, which trawls up water and any fish near the surface. When the tornado touches the land it begins to lose energy and its contents are thrown to the ground.
  • Raining animals in the British Isles Excellent “A torrential downpour of goldfish and Koi carp amazed golfers on a Wiltshire golf course. Four golfers, playing on the Netherampton course, took cover in a shelter when it started raining. When they came out, the fairway was strewn with fish”
  • BBC report on raining fish “Heavens above – it rained fish in Norfolk on Sunday. Yet for all the biblical resonance of the tale, there is a rational explanation for this rare phenomenon
  • 1841: Live fish fell from the sky in Aberdare
  • At least four  fish-falls in Scotland recorded in the past 20 years in Fife, Rossshire, Perthshire and Argyll
  • Indeterminate creatures fell from the sky in Bath, England, in 1894 ” a storm of glutinous drops neither jellyfish nor masses of frog spawn, but something of a [line missing here in original text. Ed.] railroad station, at Bath. “Many soon developed into a wormlike chrysalis, about an inch in length.” The account of this occurrence in the Zoologist, 2-6-2686, is more like the Eton-datum: of minute forms, said to have been infusoria; not forms about an inch in length”. more here

The Stronsay Beast

While reading about basking sharks, I came across the story of the Stronsay beast, a large, dead sea-creature that washed ashore on the island of Stronsay in the Orkney Islands, after a storm in 1808. The decomposed carcass was said to measure 55 feet in length, without the tail. The terrible beast was reported in the local press athe time:

“Its flesh was described as being like ‘coarse, ill-coloured beef, entirely covered with fat and tallow and without the least resemblance or affinity to fish’. The skin, which was grey coloured and had an elastic texture was said to be about two inches thick in parts.”
Account of the Stronsay Beast as reported in The Orcadian newspaper. From The Stronsay Beast

The Natural History Society of Edinburgh was unable to identify the carcass and decided it was a new species, probably a sea serpent. Later the anatomist Sir Everard Home dismissed the measurement, declaring it must have been around 36 feet, and deemed it to be a decayed basking shark as basking sharks can take on a ‘pseudo plesiosaur’ appearance when they decompose. “First the shark’s jaws – which are attached only by a small piece of flesh – drop off leaving what looks like the remains of a long neck and a small skull.” More here