The Little Things

Sitting brushing my hair I became very aware of a rasping sound above my head. Not loud but a gentle regular sound. I didn’t need to look far, outside the window was awash with activity with a regular stream of visitors back and forth. Wasps had found a small hole under the eaves and were busy building a nest and this was the rasping sound I could hear as they worked the wood they have been stripping off the garden chairs into their intricate honeycomb nest. Many people at this point would panic, call in pest control and get the wasps removed. But we take a more relaxed view, they are causing no harm where they are and these are just another important part of the insect ecosystem of the garden both as a predator to feed their young as well as a food source for others. Yes they have a sweet tooth and can be found to be happily feasting on the windfall apples but this too helps with the garden ecosystem.

Its very easy to label something as a pest without looking beyond our own opinion of what makes a garden and the role everything has to play. Take slugs and snails now I would be the first to admit that these veracious munchers make light work of fresh young seedlings but I have drawn the conclusion the fault is mine. I know they are in the garden, I know they love baby lettuce so why do I think if I place my nursery pots in the sunny sheltered spot by the wall that they won’t sniff them out. It’s what they are programmed to do. I need to garden smart, not perform ritual mass murder. Now that said outsmarting a slug where lettuce is concerned isn’t easy but a fine mesh covering to allow light and water in and to keep slugs out does the trick. So why so tolerant, well without them some of the regular bird and amphibian visitors would have no food. So its off to the compost heap for my slimy garden residents where they can munch away to their hearts content.

Watching the garden over an extended period of time as we have been able to do this year makes you realise just how many small creatures make the garden home. Bees, butterflies and moths are the obvious residents but it is the plethora of beetles that, when you sit and watch, you start to notice. They come in an array of sizes, shapes and colours. In the UK alone there are over 4000 beetle species belonging to over 100 families. While some cause botanical damage (but again as native beetles typically something else’s food source) many are more conventionally beneficial and play an important role as nutrient recyclers, contributing to soil fertility. By just sitting down, stopping and looking its amazing what can be found.

So who is the garden for, its easy to say ourselves but actually its a chance to provide habitat and home to a host of mini beasts. And in a world where vasts tracks of ecosystem are lost our gardens can be a vital refuge. If we have a healthy beetle population the chances are the rest of the ecosystem will be in a good shape too.

While its easy to miss many of these miniature beauties, occasionally in late spring we get to see some truly magnificent beetles too.

The Biggest Challenge is Complacency

To be complacent is actually very, very easy. In some ways it’s part of being human. Every day you do the same routine, you walk the same route, eat in the same sandwich shop. It will always be the same, until it isn’t. People will often reflect on the complacency of someone as if the person was wilfully not caring, when in actual fact they were doing what they always did until the moment it changed.

So why does this matter because in our current world with a new virulent infection, complacency can be the viruses very best friend. As people start to extend what they do, complacency is a genuine and natural risk. We are creatures of habit and anyone who has tried to change a habit will tell you it’s very hard and yet we are expecting people to do this on a global scale at speed and for an extended period of time.  And from the young we are asking for enormous change, it must be phenomenally hard. Can I imagine my university days without my friends and our social lives, yet we ask our youngsters to make these changes with no end date in sight.

It’s easy to be critical of people, the young, the people on the beach, the sports fans. But the reality is for the most social, sometimes despite their best intentions when they set off, somewhere along the line they were just human and yes they really were the person in the picture with their arms around a stranger dancing the night away.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

I was struck by this as I made my first visits to my local gym. How did I stop myself being complacent. Yes me not others, because it would be very easy to wander into the building and drop straight back into my usual routine, but there is the wider club community to consider. A key thing is I had to remember to clean thoroughly each bit of kit I used. And it is easy to forget, good old complacency. My solution is a pair of running gloves! The unnaturalness of them in the gym, acts as a constant reminder to me, a visual cue right on the end of my arms. For all the great work the gym has done with mapped out zones for the equipment and walking routes, it is my pair of gloves that remind me its different currently.

So prehaps this is what we all need to do, think about where we risk getting complacent and consider some visual clue to remind us. Be it gloves, an alarm on your mobile phone, masks when shopping. We are asking a lot of changes of people, complacency is innocently easy and yet through this we potentially place others at risk, however, unintentionally.

As for the gym, after four months absence it’s been great to get back. But not instead of my walks and bike rides but as an addition, providing core strength work which is only possible there and necessary after 3 major surgeries. Happy to say the core strength is mostly still intact but I don’t want to get complacent.

A Positive From a Negative

Earlier this year I resigned, it was absolutely the right thing to do. I had become jaded and my job a weight to drag around. I needed a fresh start on my own terms. So I decided to put my head above the parapet of the office based life and set about becoming a consultant. My plan was to finish my current job at the end of April with everything set up for my new life and take some time out over the summer. I had budgeted for a period of fallow time and then with my customary over efficiency started to plan all the things I would do because I was so used to doing; not doing didn’t seem quite right. Then Covid-19 lock-down occurred. I still left my job, it still felt right but all those things I planned, well they went out of the window and what a blessing that has been. I have had absolutely no option but to well and truly stop.

Without doubt I needed this time, time to slow down, time to reconnect with my surroundings, time to unashamedly shut myself away from everyone (indeed legally encouraged to do this). Now I am lucky on two fronts I have a garden and access to some beautiful nature walks and using the time I have had, I have thoroughly immersed myself in both.

My garden was in need of some considered TLC, I did not want some manicured to within an inch of its life space but I had to admit that some judicious tidying was needed to rejuvenate the space. After 6 weeks of getting back to terms with literally every inch of the garden the effects are so clear. The garden literally sings and anecdotally we appear to have an increase in insect numbers, butterfly’s being most noticeable but bugs of all descriptions. This brings in more birds and although I am often the only human in the garden I am in effect rarely alone. I feel maternal pride as I watched the blackbirds fledge, happy in the knowledge that dad had spent most of his days by my feet grabbing the bugs and worms that fed these two babies. I am also aware of the multitude of nests scattered around the garden in hedge, tree and building. Is it strange to say the garden just seems happy and so am I. Wandering around, bucket and trowel in hand and a happy smile. At other times I find a corner curl up with a book and loose myself. I can feel the difference, my blood pressure is back to normal, I am calmer and I sleep well, really well that wonderful deep sleep.

I have also spent more time on the marshes both walking and on the bike. Here I do encounter others but other than the Covid shuffle as we respect each others space they too seem very happy. We smile, we wave, we briefly say hello and then I get back to my happy solitude. The bike is an interesting way to view the marshes, it makes you to an extent invisible to wildlife in a way that on foot you are not. Possibly due to the silent nature of mode of transport. Birds of prey are particularly unbothered by people on bikes and I had my very own flying display by a marsh harrier as it looped lazily over the meadows towards the creek. This time of year is also the time of the frog chorus, the marsh frogs will perform patchy serenades most of the day but come dusk the songs are loud and sustained. The whole area literally drowns in the sound. Its hard to believe such little creatures can make so much noise.

Yes in theory we can start to do more things now as lock-down eases but I am happy as I am at the moment. No offence to my fellow humans but I am going to stay immersed in nature for now.

The Joy of the New

I am surrounded by the new. Plants are bursting into life with new leaf growth, flowers and general abundance. The garden is literally bursting. The colours are fresh and in the sunlight have an iridescence that is so unique to spring. All the energy of the plant literally bursting to it’s very tips.

Then we have the birds, every nook in the roof is commandeered and baby birds are also in abundance. With this comes the cacophony of song and chatter, ever more clear in the days of few planes and vehicles.

Bees, butterflies, moths and all forms of insects bask in the joy of the sunny weather. Our bee hotel already filling up with red carder bee larvae. The leaf cutter bees cucoons carefully moved to the hatchery, awaiting their appearance in the next few weeks. The garden literally hums with solitary bees going about their business.

There are also the reptiles; newts both common and great crested again take up residence in the pond. Shy creatures, that slip secretly through the pond weeds. Careful to avoid our other pond resident, the grass snake. This sublime swimmer always aware of my presence and so far alluding my camera this year.

Its spring, and I am so lucky to share it with so many. Now I just wait with fingers crossed for the house martin’s. They are late but I have not yet given up hope that they make their return. Then my joy will be complete.

It’s a problem for us all

One of the biggest threats to human health is complacency.

Every year roughly one quarter of all deaths are the result of infectious diseases; equating to approximately 17 million deaths per year. A substantial number of these are premature deaths robbing families of loved ones. Some are the result of new diseases such as Covid-19 but many are well known diseases that could be easily be brought under control. The risk is not just the immediate one of the infection but longer term increased risks of cancer due to the infectious disease (e.g. HepB and liver cancer). The issue is one for all of us but for too long has been swept under the carpet as someone else’s problem.

In the words of the World Health Organisation from 1996 ” We need to recognize infectious disease as a common threat that has been ignored, at great cost, for too long, and to build global solidarity to confront them. What is required is the commitment of the international community to help countries most at risk to help themselves. By helping each other, nations protect the world and protect themselves.” Twenty years ago the warning was being sounded but it required investment and collaboration but it has been slow to happen.

For the first time in nearly 100 years the western world is remembering the challenge that infectious disease has on a community; the physical, emotional and socioeconomical. Prevention is always key but we need treatments too. As a global community we need to ensure there is funding to support childhood vaccination programmes and to ensure clean water and adequate sanitation. There needs to be continued research into medicines for infectious diseases (both treatment and prevention). To often these are the Cinderella areas of pharmaceutical research, constantly having budgets squeezed, playing second fiddle to more lucrative medicines.

But most importantly and something that has become very clear is we need to improve national and international epidemiological surveillance. Back in 1996, considering the issue of “New Diseases – New Problems” the WHO identified three key areas:

  • Developing prevention strategies to fight new and re-emerging infectious diseases.
  • Responding more rapidly to outbreaks and epidemics.
  • Integrating laboratory science and epidemiology to optimize public health practice.

The trouble was this wasn’t our problem.

It is now.


To be a Leapling

I share with just 5 million people worldwide, the curious world of having a birthday just once every four years. So as I finally reach my teenage birthday what’s it like to be a leapling.

As a small child I found it very hard to understand. Every year the excitement of finding out which day your birthday fell on, only to find it didn’t at all. My parents would recount finding me age 3 inconsolable, convinced I had been bad as I didn’t have a birthday. My mum wisely told me that in years to come I would enjoy the fact I had this special birthday that could legitimately reduce my age.

As I got older the birthday novelty could be an ice breaker, people genuinely get excited although I have also come to realise people are terrible at their 4x table, if you are going to guess a leaplings age be very careful!!!

Then we had the big question what about the year 2000. Centuries have additional rules and must be divisible by 400, so if you were born on the 29th Feb 1696, 1796, or 1896 you had to wait 8 not 4 years for your first birthday but any 1996’er leaplings were fine with the year 2000 meeting all criteria.

Many people ask what do you do on non leap years? Most leaplings choose between the 28th Feb or the 1st March (while some will spin it out for the full 48 hours and why not). I sit squarely in the I was born in February camp but I have to have a legal birthday for age related items like driving licences and when I retire. Here in the UK it legally is the 1st of March but if I was in New Zealand it would be 28th Feb and in the US it will depend on which state you live in.

Even filling in forms can be frustrating. Those in the format day, month, year will often produce error messages when you have reached step 2, ie 29 Feb with the helpful advice add a real date. It is we leapers cry, before resorting to our only tactic which is to fill these in backwards year first and then the system gets the light bulb moment.

So why do we have so few days in February, well it was because both January and February were a bit of an afterthought in calendar terms and subject to Roman superstitions. The original Roman calendar, a Gregorian calendar predecessor, only had 10 months and consisted of 304 days. Roman king Numa Pompilius wanted to bring the calendar in sync with the lunar year, so added January and February and extended the calendar to 355 days. It needed to be an odd number as even numbers were considered unlucky. So months either had 29 days or 31 days but one needed to be even (because 12 odds would make an even numbered year and that would be unlucky). Therefore February got given 28 days and would also be the month to host Roman rituals to honour the dead.

Despite subsequent changes to month lengths February has remained shortened but once every 4 years gets to have its lucky uneven number when leap days were added. So to all my fellow leaplings out there enjoy your special birthdays and may this year indeed be full of good fortune.

Hidden in the Boughs of the Apple Tree

There can be no doubting the brutality of winter storms. While for most young healthy trees it is the opportunity to shed some old dead wood. For our centurion apple trees the risks are high. These are trees in their dotage, venerable old ladies who still sparkle in the spring with their floral beauty and provide an autumn harvest. But the plethora of woodpecker nests and the magnificent bracket fungi are indicators that the core is maybe not what it once was; but hey doesn’t that affect us all.

We have a soft spot for these old girls, they were planted shortly after the house was built, they provide the structural backbone to the garden and they are absolutely full of wildlife. Sadly the recent storms were too much for one of the girls and we woke to find a significant limb torn from the tree. The tree surgeon has checked her overall stability. He like us agrees we should try remedial surgery to remove the rest of the damaged limb and reduce the crown so that hopefully there will still be life in this old girl yet (fingers crossed).

But it has been an opportunity to explore parts of the tree we don’t normally see. What has been most impressive is the extent of lichen and moss growth that is clearly in the canopy. This is pleasing indicating a good air quality and further extending the wildlife that the tree supports. Lichens are a little like the coral of the tree world, although perhaps not so brightly coloured they show a similar array of forms .

The lichen are composed of two or more closely interacting organisms; a fungus, and a photobiont. The photobiont is either an algae and/or a cyanobacteria, both of which can produce simple sugars by photosynthesis providing the food source for the fungus. The fungus in contrast builds the structure of the lichen within which the photobionts live. A case of truly working with your neighbours. The tree well that is just the perfect place to set up home.

Refine, Replace and Reduce: A Lesson for Everyday.

Established for research studies the 3Rs is a concept that can be more widely adopted because its premise is simple; why are you doing this (refine), why are you using that (replace) and ultimately is it even necessary that you do it at all (reduce). If we can get into the habit of subconsciously asking these questions before we do things, think of the difference it could make.

We’ve all been there, the lure of the winter sale. Now if for example you need a specific item and you can get said item at a discount well why wouldn’t you. But let’s be honest most stuff in sales are in sizes that don’t fit, colours or fabrics that are a bit odd and real bargains, things you will use and cherish are few and far between. What is a far greater risk is you purchase stuff that sits in a cupboard until you finally sometime later dispose of it, hopefully at least to a charity shop.

So considering the 3Rs the scenario goes a bit like this. Why are you going shopping? Well I’ve been stuck in the house, some new stuff will give me a lift, and who doesn’t love a bargin. In the back of your mind the refine fairy points out, if you’ve been stuck in the house a walk is great and even better free. The replace fairy reminds you that while new stuff may give you a lift, it will last just milliseconds, let’s find something that can give you a more sustained feeling of self worth, how about offering to take your elderly neighbours dog with you on that walk. Finally the reduce fairy threatens all out strike if you even consider buying that bright pink teeshirt to go with the 40 you already have in the cupboard if you want a change take 10 of your old ones out of the cupboard and go and do a charity shop swap whilst you are out on your walk. OK, so the fairies maybe imaginary but it’s a simple mantra and could have a big impact.

How many things do we do automatically without thinking and therefore not considering the consequences. A simple example was this morning when buying some tins of beans, simple but boring but one of lifes pleasures is beans on toast. The automatic response was to pick up the multibuy strip of three tins vacuum wrapped in plastic. But we stopped and asked why were we doing this. Now simply put it is because they were 10p cheaper. Same tins, same contents, one set with extra non-recyclable packaging but that was monetarily cheaper. Reducing unnecessary plastic is important to us so we took the hit and paid the extra 10p by buying three individual tins without the plastic. We are fortunate we can afford to make that choice. But the question arises why can we only get the discount if we have the additional plastic wrapping and where has the cost of that been accounted for. It’s not that the supermarket can’t make these type of discounts available they clearly have the technology to note if we buy 6 bottles of wine and provide us with a discount at the checkout. A strip of plastic on the beans but it could so easily be refined, replaced and reduced.

So as we start a new decade let’s all see if we can’t apply the 3Rs to our lives, each small change could make a big difference to the planet.

Out with the Old

Autumn, the time for change. The trees are in their fiery splendor before a winter slumber. Flowers are in their final acts of defiance, their bright pinks and reds glowing in the autumn light, knowing that each day may be the last as the first frosts will cut them to the ground and their time will be up. For those plants able to make the changes and respond to the seasons this is a time of renewal. Some plants will not survive, the old and weak, while others will undoubtedly be rudely ripped from their slumbers as winter storms whip through.

But in general this time of change is good for both garden and gardener. It is easy to resist the temptation to have your hands in the soil when the ground is cold and hard. Instead you watch from the window, taking time to appreciate the structure and form and contemplate changes that will enhance and develop the space. Probably more than any time of the year I appreciate the garden as I take the time to stop and look.

The winter visitors are starting to arrive; birdlife from northern latitudes seeking ‘warmer’ winter retreats. Flocks of birds arrive daily on the marsh and areas of the garden hedge are being commandeered by the smaller birds. Pheasants too understand that not moving far from the garden means to see another day and they are more than big enough to bully the over interested cat who stupidly thought the garden was his.

Autumn and winter are a good time to reflect and change and that is my plan too. Resignation submitted, counting down to the new.

We Shouldn’t Assume

The garden has visibly heaved a sigh of relief as finally the rains fall after an extended period of dry weather. Even prior to the autumn changes that have just started to develop, the garden had taken on a crisp, parched appearance and those plants not suited to the conditions had long ago given up the ghost. Little watering is done except in the vegetable patch and a few pots by the kitchen. While this approach means there are casualties it also identifies those plants that will thrive in our drier summer conditions, whilst also tolerating much wetter winter conditions. Moving from Oxfordshire to Kent I have had to learn that despite the soil being pretty much identical, plants that grew with glorious abandon in Oxfordshire, turn toes and die in the considerably drier conditions in Kent. It took me a while to understand this because while I understood the soil I had not taken into consideration other differences and I just assumed I knew what what would grow.

Having had the opportunity over the last year to finally spend a considerable period of time with my garden I have realised that I have made many assumptions and many of them are wrong. Take moths for example, I knew we were fortunate in having a wide variety of moths in the garden, you only have to put a light on at dusk and leave the curtains open to very quickly find both micro and macro moths covering the window. We also have a very healthy population of bats which can be seen performing acorbatics as they home in on their prey. I guessed the moths must spend the day on a variety of trees and shrubs throughout the garden as well as those not quite so camoflaged on walls and windows. What I hadn’t realised was the importance of long grass, in particular to species of white moth. I just assumed they were on the other bigger plants, what I hadn’t done is actually observe.

The clues were there. Firstly the best place to observe the bats besides those hunting the moths attracted by the window light, was in and around the unmowed area surrounding the fruit trees. A wide variety of birds had spent much of the summer in and out of the area, some were clearly seed eaters attracted by the grass seeds but if I thought about not all. And then there was the evidence of mammals, shrews in particular. The long grass clearly provided protection but food is an important consideration to where shrews are found, given they must eat 300% of their body weight in a day.

What I hadn’t done was get up close to the plants, having left the area undisturbed. But after 6 months of doing nothing, the time had come to cut the area, to prepare it for rejuvenating over winter and to provide the opportunity to introduce wild flower seeds in the hope of extending the biodiversity. It was only at this point as I got down on my hands and knees to clear away the great shanks of cut straw like grass did I realise there were moths everywhere, beautifully camoflaged, the same pale yellowy white as the long dead grass stems. As I gathered up the shanks of grass the moths would rapidly relocate to the more stubbly areas of the lawn disappearing as if in possession of their own cloak of invisibility. Through serendipity we had provided these beautiful creatures with a home and extended the biodiversity of our garden.

It got me thinking, if we don’t stop and look how do we know we are doing the right things to help nature. And could we with all good intentions be making things worse. How many wildlife trusts for example have regular weekends when members can come along and help clear an area. But if you think about it what is actually happening in many cases is the clearing of brambles and nettles and other shrubby plants. But why do they do this? Aren’t we at risk of making an assumption of what the natural world should look like. Are we forgetting that the image of bucolic fields with neatly manicured hedges and pristine lanes is entirely man-made and not quite how nature would paint her own picture if we did but give her a chance and are we not in all likelihood removing the very habitat that much of nature evolved to live in, to provide a countryside that satisfies us. Through meaning well we may do more harm. To be fair to many of the wildlife trusts they are starting to recognise this and to understand that as the custodians of important areas for nature that management practices need to evolve and many are now starting to explore the options for rewilding.

As gardeners we too can help. Leaving a patch of grass to do its own thing we saved time and energy by not having to mow and in effect had a ready made garden area for absolutely no effort and nature found it. Even in the smallest patch you can find somewhere to let your garden do its thing; the rewards can be amazing.