Saturday, 30 August 2014

Farming - some thoughts from the people!

Farmers are much loved by the public for all that they do.
I have just finished reading a report about the public’s thoughts on “Agri-technologies”, the research having been conducted by Sciencewise, which is a funded programme to encourage the more widespread use of public dialogue in policy involving science and technology. It provides a rather interesting snapshot of public views and I have plucked out a few that I found interesting for you to share.

Just to set the scene – which is important I feel, prior to reading some of the public’s comments, I have also lifted some other information from the report. 

We forget, do we not, that food production is the UK’s biggest single manufacturing sector, responsible for 7% of national output. Meanwhile, the UN forecasts that global food production will need to increase by over 70% by 2050. To tackle this challenge, the aim set by the UN for the next 30 years is: Sustainable intensification of agriculture – raising the productivity of agriculture, while protecting the environment, including biodiversity, and contributing to the mitigation of climate change.

I love that phrase “Sustainable intensification of Agriculture” – cleverly thought up to keep everyone happy. But, you then read on to see what it actually means – WOW, not much of an “ask” then! Nevertheless, a challenge for us all to contemplate.

So, to the people’s thoughts.

“Feeding a larger and wealthier population is perceived as a priority issue by the public, however, although the availability of food is a priority for consumers, this does not necessarily imply that increasing food production is also a priority”. That is a little muddled is it not? But maybe not if you look at this next sentence taken from the report. “There is an ingrained perception that the UK could easily grow all its own food”.

“The majority in the UK saw agriculture as beneficial for the environment, contributing to the beauty of the countryside and helping to preserve and protect rural areas.
 - 87% of respondents in the UK agree that agriculture is beneficial for the environment
- 85% of respondents in the UK agree that agriculture contributes to the beauty of the countryside
- 88% of respondents in the UK agree that agriculture helps to preserve and protect rural areas

So, the industry appears to be passing the test with flying colours! But wait, next up on the questionnaire - GM crops – that will surely dent this cocky pride!

“The risks to the environment and biodiversity from GM crops were very widespread concerns, even among those who had fewer worries about the ‘food safety’ aspects of GM. However, a majority of UK consumers (74.5%) seems to be willing to purchase GM foods if they are cheaper than traditional foods”. Oh fine – not that concerned then!

But here comes the reality check in my opinion.

“In the UK, 52% think origin of food is important, but 45% don’t mind”. So, despite all the above comments basically praising UK farmers, when it comes to the crunch, 45% are not the slightest bit fussed where their food has come from.

And yet this is another line from the report - “A thriving farming industry in England is “very important‟ to 79% of people interviewed and for 19% “quite important‟. So although 98% of people think this – 45% don’t give a monkeys where food actually comes from!!

It does seem then, that for many folk, their views on farming, food and the environment are not that joined up. 

I have I stress, simply lifted interesting snippets from this report. So if you would like to read more then go to:

Monday, 25 August 2014

Thistles and plumage!

An adult Goldfinch tucking into thistle seeds
 There are advantages to working in conservation. My garden is what you might call “wild” – translated into normal speak – a tip! I like all sorts of plants that would never survive in a “gardener’s garden”, justifying their existence for wildlife reasons. For instance I can grow a mean Spear thistle – in fact a clump of four huge ones which have launched themselves skywards and are now much, much taller than I am.

Back in the summer, these plants were humming with Bumble bees and Hoverfly, while numerous species of butterfly alighted on the dark purple flowers to take nectar from them. Now, as autumn approaches these flowers have turned to seed – with their great white fluffy plumes. 

These seeds have attracted “Charms” of Goldfinch (Such a perfect collective name for a group of these delightful finches), who turn up in big family groups to pluck the little seeds out of the fluff. You can tell when a group has arrived as constant drifts of thistle down float away on the breeze, as it is plucked from the thistle heads in order to locate the nutritious morsel at the base. They are an awful distraction, as I am such a sucker when it comes to watching their antics.

So, yesterday I set up my camera to see if I could catch them amongst my thistles – I have attached a couple of shots for you to see.

At this time of year, many birds are moulting out their summer plumage and growing their winter feathers. This can be quite confusing to the Ornithologist as lots of birds appear with only “half” an outfit!

You can see the Goldfinch youngster – pretty much the same as mum and dad except that it crucially lacks the bright red face! Also, just so as not to be left out, a young Robin was also in on the scene, having spent the summer with a brown dappled breast, it is now beginning to produce a red breast, although I think you will agree, a bit more work is needed before becoming a fully-fledged adult Robin Redbreast! 
A young Goldfinch learning how to find the seeds

I will have a red breast to be proud of one day!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Miner enquiry ends up in Australia

Mystery leaf miner

My last blog was all about getting down to the same level as the small, rather prostrate Fluellen plants and taking a good close look at this delightful annual species. I mentioned that while I was observing them I noted how Bumble bees were busy nectaring on the flowers, but I also spotted that something had been “mining” the leaves – so I took some photos to see if I could get the culprit identified.

I am lucky enough to know a wonderful entomologist who specialises in Leaf Miners, so I sent him the pictures to see if he could identify what insect had been busy munching these leaves. The larvae of leaf miners form a narrow, linear mine between the upper and lower leaf surface – literally consuming the inside of the leaf, rather like eating the contents of a sandwich without eating the bread!

You can find out more about this tiny world by going to:

Anyway, my little leaf pattern makers turned out to be made by the PEA LEAF MINER -Chromatomyia horticola. 

It is found across much of the world and is a species of fly that is a pest of high economic importance affecting the vegetable crops in some temperate and tropical regions. It belongs to the family Agromyzidae which is the most familiar group of leaf miners that effect horticultural crops, and contains species such as the Tomato leaf miner Liriomyza bryoniae and the Chrysanthemum leaf miner Phytomyza syngenesiae.

The large number of tunnels made by the larvae between the lower and upper epidermis interferes with photosynthesis and proper growth of the host plants, also making them look unattractive, so that the market value of salads or flowers can be severely affected. In fact, Australia categorises this same little fly larvae that was quietly munching away on my Fluellen plants, as a “high priority pest!”

Therefore, by lying prostrate on the ground in a Hampshire field so as to get close up and personal with a tiny flower, my observations and consequent enquiries, eventually take me to the other side of the world. Fascinating stuff!   

The culprit - a Pea leaf miner fly 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Fluellens at your feet!

Such a pretty little flower!
 If you walk around the edge of stubble fields in Hampshire at the moment, especially on the lighter chalky soils, you are quite likely to come across a little plant called Fluellen. There are two species, the Round leaved and the Sharp leaved and they make the most of the fact that the tall crop has been removed allowing lots of light onto these rather prostrate little plants.

I have rather a soft spot for these little plants, along with most plants associated with arable fields, as they have quite a lot to contend with in order to survive – herbicides, fertilisers, tall competitive crops and cultivations carried out at times that don’t necessarily suit them.
This seems to be a particularly good year for Fluellens, with some field corners have quite a mat of them growing where the sprayer has not got to. They are dead easy to walk past without really noticing them, but if you do spot any, get down on your belly and join them in their ground level world. On closer inspection you will be rewarded with an exotic looking little Snap-Dragonesque yellow flower with purplish upper “ears” and a long curved spur coming from the base. Miniature stunners!

The two species are separated most easily by looking at the leaves – yes you've got it – one has sharp pointed leaves and the other one has rounded leaves!

We may well not always notice these late flowering beauties as we walk past, but as I spent some time photographing them, I noticed that Bumble bees are most certainly aware of them. There seemed to be a steady stream of bees coming by and they appeared to be solely concentrating on the nectar that these diminutive flowers had concealed within them.
Fluellens grow in quite a prostrate manner

Sharp-leaved Fluellen

Round-leaved Fluellen

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A day in a Tuscan valley

Early morning view from the terrace

I have been on holiday in the Chianti region of Tuscany - enjoying the hot weather and clear blue skies.
Eating good food was high on the agenda and we located great local dishes - obviously lots of fresh pasta, ewes milk Pecorino cheeses, Prosciutto, Salamis and such intensely tasting Tomatoes that they make UK ones seem totally unrelated!
I also dined on thick Wild Boar stew, delicate Truffle sauces and a delicious local speciality Tripe dish – which only I ordered!
This was all washed down with Chianti wines that were so locally produced, for most part as we drank them, we overlooked the very vineyards that produced them. During all this gluttony I did however still manage to keep half an eye on what the wildlife was up to!

I particularly noticed how the day offered up different species at certain times. I would start the day with a mug of coffee in hand, sitting out on the terrace that overlooks the wooded hillsides below. The bird life is at its most active at this time of the day, before the sun gains too much strength and sends most of them into hiding within the shade of the woods. Sounds carry spectacularly well in the completely still, cool morning air, so that I could clearly hear birds calling from way over on the other side of the valley.

The fluting call of Golden Oriole could be heard as it moved amongst the trees, with Blackcap and Sardinian warbler adding to the early morning’s gentle refrain, while calls from Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and overhead Swallows completed the chorus. Every now and then, the loud yaffling call of Green Woodpeckers would resound around the valleys as they flew through the trees to find a new spot to feed. Hooded Crows occasional flapped past in a lazy fashion, cawing as they went.

As the sun slowly rose into the sky and the day gathered heat, the background buzz of insect life would start in earnest and the birds would begin to fall silent. The first butterflies would now take to the wing, until most available flowers were covered in Swallowtails, Blues, Fritillaries, Skippers and Whites, not to mention Humming Bird Hawk moths and Bees. By this time of the morning with the sun now high in the sky, Cirl Buntings were the only birds that could be bothered to sing, their rather weak song repeated at intervals.

This year a local Bee-keeper has introduced hives into the valley and the Lavender flowers around the house were completely covered with honey bees. During the early afternoon each day, the Bee-eaters would fly up the valley and hang around the trees overlooking the hives, taking advantage of the new diner that had so thoughtfully been introduced for them.

Around 6pm every evening the local wild Boar population would start to stir from their daytime slumbers and sudden loud squeals and snorts would unexpectedly break the silence, as family squabbles broke out over some choice food item that had been found. Roe deer would also start to emerge from cover to feed amongst the clearings, emitting the occasional sharp bark to shatter the peace - a warning of some danger that may or may not be lurking close by.  

As the sun disappeared and dusk fell, the chirring call of the nightjar would drift up from the valley below, joining in with the cacophony of Crickets and Cicadas, creating an almost reggae like performance. Eventually as proper darkness fell, a Tawny Owl would hoot its call, only for another to answer from further up the valley.

You could set your Tuscan clock with a fair degree of accuracy by the sounds that emanate up from the wooded valley below.

I also noted that a nearby organic wine grower had planted roses at the end of alternate rows of vines and I was intrigued to know if it was just for a little bit of colour, or whether it had some other significance. On making some enquiries I discovered that they are planted as an early warning system for the onset of an attack of mildew. The roses are more vulnerable to mildew than the vines, allowing the grower to be prepared for action - Copper Sulphate can be used.

Does it work I asked? No, not really he replied with a smile, but they do look nice don’t they!              

How can you not eat well with local shops such as this...

and markets like this!

Roses and vines - a pretty mix - but that is about it!

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Beautiful Bee-eaters basking in where did you say - the Isle of Wight!!

The exotic Bee-eater
Back in April, I was seeing multi-coloured Bee-eaters almost every day during my visit to the Extramadura region of Spain, but now I discover that I could simply take the ferry over to the Isle of Wight to go and watch them!

 This is because a pair of Bee-eaters are breeding this year on National Trust land on the island, hopefully becoming only the third record of this exotic southern European species to breed successfully in the UK in the last century.

Bee-eaters, which would normally be found nesting in southern Europe, were last recorded breeding successfully in the UK in 2002, when a pair nested in a quarry in County Durham and two young successfully fledged. Before that, two pairs were recorded raising seven young in a Sussex sand pit in 1955, though a pair failed in Herefordshire in 2005. 

The pair have chosen the sandy hills of the Wydcombe Estate (in the south of the island) in a small valley where the soft ground, rolling landscape and stream access provides ideal conditions for their nest burrow, which can be up to three metres long.

Further information on the Wydcombe Bee-eaters can be found on Ian Ridett's blog at:

A designated public viewing point has been identified overlooking the birds' favourite feeding area so that visitors can get the best possible views of them. This will be carefully managed, though, as the birds' well-being and welfare takes priority. If you want to go and see them, the Wydcombe Estate is located at PO38 2NY (grid reference SZ511787).

Friday, 1 August 2014

When blue can in fact be scarlet

The rare Blue Pimpernel
I have had an interest in arable flowers – those annual plants that rely on cultivation to allow them to germinate – since many, many moons ago I met Phil Wilson who was studying them as a subject for his PhD at the then Game Conservancy Trust. Dr. Phil as he became, would definitely be one of the first people that I would pick to be on my team to enter the pub general knowledge quiz! Not only is he a brilliant botanist, but he also has one of those minds that collects unbelievable amounts of knowledge on just about anything – the only problem might well be that often with botanical questions – he would answer using the Latin name – which would undoubtedly cause all sorts of ructions with the quiz master!

Because of Phil’s huge enthusiasm for this group of flowers, which he passed onto me, I now find it very difficult to walk past a “weedy” field corner or patch of poppies, without just checking that it does not also host a “rarity”.

Just the other day I was walking along the edge of the field that is adjacent to my house in central Hampshire, when I spotted a small blue flower growing at the edge of a cereal crop. Closer inspection revealed it to be a blue coloured Pimpernel. Now, this immediately created excitement and uncertainty, as the common Scarlet Pimpernel which abounds around here, can sometimes produce blue flowers too. So, had I come across a rare Blue Pimpernel or just a blue “Scarlet” Pimpernel?

While I was still observing them in the field – who should come racing into my mind – but Dr. Phil – he would be able to distinguish between the two!!! So, I took some photos as you can see and sent them off to the expert to be identified.

Well, the up-shot of all this is that it does appear that I have found two plants of the rare Blue Pimpernel – so how exciting is that!!  In Phil’s book – “Arable plants – a field guide” (published by Wild Guides) – a “must buy” if you want to get into this community of flowers - he states that the plant is nationally scarce.

It just goes to show what you can find on your local patch. I have walked along this field edge regularly over the years and either missed these flowers, or maybe the seeds have just been ploughed up to the surface this year from the seed bank, where they had been lying dormant in the soil. Either way – always keep your eyes peeled – as you never know what you might come across!

Scarlet Pimpernel and a blue Speedwell