Monday 30 January 2012

Great Britain and its wildlife

Last weekend was the 33rd Big Garden Birdwatch, which I posted about in 2010 and 2011, and I was wondering how to make it a little different – hence the background to our little group of islands and the modest diversity that we have in our flora and fauna.

Adders: normal and melanistic colour patterns – preferring dryer areas (heaths), where they can find a wide range of prey: rodents, and the eggs of chicks of ground-nesting birds.

All the pictures tell their story of some of the flora and fauna under threat  ... whose annotations I've set out in red.

The British Isles is an archipelago consisting of two main islands – Britain and Ireland – and about 1,000 others, including the Channel Islands.  The name Brittannia was used by the Romans for our islands and those further north including the Faroe Islands (now Danish) and Iceland ... before finally becoming the Roman province of Britannia (one ‘T’) with the northern boundary being Limes Britannicus – Hadrian’s Wall.

Harpella Forficella – Concealer Moth ... the caterpillars feed on dead wood and have been seen on King Alfred’s Cake  

The fact the British Isles is situated in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Continental Europe gives it an unique climate ... the North Atlantic Current brings warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico giving us our temperate climate with its warmer and wetter weather than might be expected.

A fungi - King Alfred’s Cake – growing in clumps on dead and dying wood, especially the Ash tree.  The shiny black balls are excellent tinder for fire-lighting ... as they crumble when broken as if charred: hence their name after the burnt cakes by the Saxon monarch.

This current allows us to have vineyards at the same latitude as Canada has polar bears, or date palms at 50 deg north, where normally they would grow in the Canary Islands off Africa.  The Gulf Stream is a major factor affecting our islands’ weather ... while the atmospheric waves (winds) recently have been bringing subtropical air northwards warming our shores.

The Stag Beetle – from Fauna Germanica by Edmund Reitter (1845-1920).  Pliny the Elder noted that Nigidius called the stag beetle ‘lucanus’ after the Italian region of Lucania where they were used as amulets.  They lay eggs in rotting deciduous wood, which the larvae feed on for several years (before pupating in 3 stages)

We have a relatively small biodiversity because of our physical separation from continental Europe, the effects of seasonal variability, the shortage of time for habitat evolution to occur since the last Ice Age (+/- 10,000 years ago) and our small land masses.

Heathland at Woodbury Common, Devon.  Purple flowers of heather and the yellow of gorse.  Heather is vital as a food plant for a range of creatures, including emperor moth caterpillars and red grouse.

Topography of the UK
Yet as islanders – we can access all parts of our nation reasonably easily ...  of which, in 1993, 10% was forested, 46% used for pastures and 25% for agricultural use.  Most of the country is lowland terrain, with mountainous regions in Scotland, running down the spine of England, into Wales petering out in the westerly counties of Cornwall and Devon.  There are major estuaries and rivers – with feeder tributary systems criss-crossing the countryside.

Distances as the crow flies are 660 miles north to south;  255 miles Penzance, Cornwall to London; 270 miles from Holyhead, north Wales to Great Yarmouth, Norfolk ... and we’re never more than a couple of hours journey from the seaside.

Red Grouse
This gives us, the British public, unlimited access to all of our wildlife habitats ... our gardens, urban parks, wild-flower meadows, rock-pools at the seaside, bluebell woods, ancient woodlands and forests, fields, meadows and hedgerows, rivers, estuaries, lakes and marshes, mountains, moors and heaths, coasts and islands ....

For the diversity, even with evolutionary change, we still have a huge range of birds – some are going north, some are moving south, some will die out and some will gain strength ...

Goldcrest (female) – Shetland – usually found in coniferous woodland and gardens; Eggs of the chicken, Little Owl and Goldcrest (smallest); Little Owl – introduced to the UK in 1842 and is now a naturalised bird, found in open country and parkland; it can hunt during the day.

Some of our wildlife I have shown here... while the results of the Big Garden Birdwatch last weekend will be published in a couple of months’ time.

The Top Ten garden birds in 1979             The Top Ten garden birds in 2010

Starling                                            House Sparrow
House Sparrow                                Starling
Blackbird                                          Blackbird
Chaffinch                                          Blue Tit
Blue Tit                                            Chaffinch
Robin                                                 Wood Pigeon
Song Thrush                                      Great Tit
Greenfinch                                       Goldfinch
Great Tit                                          Robin
Dunnock or Hedge Sparrow            Collared Dove

Some of the changes or declines are because of diseases, adaption to being able to survive in areas subject to intensive farming, thriving due to increasing sophistication of the modern bird-food market – more specialisation.

 Ruddy Turnstone – one of the world’s great travellers ... flying from their breeding grounds in the Arctic, via Britain, to winter in Africa.  They rest on rocky shores above the high tide mark.  The lift stones and seaweed to find food.

So we must count ourselves lucky in these islands that we are able to travel to see all this flora and fauna in their different habitats, while being able to access information points to gain further knowledge – as well as participate in what is thought to be the biggest “citizen science” exercise anywhere in the world ....

Pair of Bullfinches – they love to feed on the fruit tree  buds found in orchards

.... last year 600,000 people took the survey – that is more than the population of Luxembourg .....  I wonder how many this year – as the weather was far more benign – in 2011 it was icy, snowy and positively freezing.

We are lucky here ... and on top of that we speak English – which helps!  Feedback re the British Garden birds anon .... after the April A - Z Challenge, which I've signed up for - all the details are here ... do join us - it is fun.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds 2012 Big Garden Birdwatch website with information.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Whisky Galore – and Burns Night ..

We cannot go past 25th January without celebrating Robbie Burns, but as I’ve posted about him before ... I thought whisky galore might be another way of looking at the Scottish whisky legends.
Raspberry Cranachan

So please enjoy your haggis ‘n neaps, cranachan dessert (oatmeal, raspberries, malt whisky, Scottish honey and double cream), toasts of whisky as the pipers pipe the Haggis to the table before serving.

While I remind you of Whisky Galore the book, the film and the Whisky;  I’m not sure why Whisky Galore popped into my head, but it did ... and I then found this fascinating tale.  (The book in the States was released as ‘Tight Little Island’).  I’m sure many of you will have read Compton Mackenzie’s book and/or seen the Whisky Galore Film (1949).

Eriskay is in the Hebrides
Compton Mackenzie’s (1883 - 1972) fictional account based on a real-life incident that occurred in 1941 on the Hebridean island of Eriskay when the S.S. Politician ran aground, and how a group of local Scottish islanders raided a shipwreck for its consignment of whisky – which spawned the legend: Whisky Galore,  (the genre for the book is ‘farce’).

Official files released by the National Archives perhaps 70 years after the event (purely deduced from the Article appearing in The Scotsman seventy years afterwards) ... noted that the cargo of the ship trading with Jamaica and the US via New Orleans contained ....

Beautiful treacherous Eriskay
.... cotton, stoves, cutlery, medicines, baths and biscuits. But that was not all she was carrying.  Secured in hold number 5 were nearly three million pounds of Jamaican banknotes and 260,000 bottles of first class whisky.  As the whisky was for the American market no duty had been paid.  The cargo was expected to sell for nearly half a million pounds.

Some innovative and dynamic whisky experts have very cleverly formed themselves into the Whisky Galore Limited company – trading on the famous name.

SS Politician Whisky
Their website tells of the legend and shows pictures of the whiskies they have created for sale under their banner.  As I mentioned above the official files released by the Public Records Office show that it was not just spirits that disappeared – but a substantial sum of hard cash.

The book encompassed the islanders’ story of how they were determined ‘to have’ the bottles of whisky before the sea swallowed them completely, or before the Excise men arrived to collect the duty.

The thirsty islanders had nearly run out of the “water of life” and saw the grounding of the cargo vessel as an unexpected godsend.  They managed to salvage several hundred cases before Neptune gathered in his bounty.

Mackenzie’s prose captures the various accents of the area and also includes much common Gaelic that was in use at the time; while the book contains a useful glossary of both the meaning and approximately pronunciation of the language.

Whiskies from
You can imagine the gloom descending on the disconsolate natives – no spiritual drink ... but hark, a loud thumping crash is carried with the stormy winds, jagged tearing noises rise above the waves – a ship is downed ... the departing crew allow a glint to the residents’ eyes.

Then of course the farce begins ... typical British Home Guard humour – this time the bumptious Cap’n orders the cargo confiscated ... the wily locals determined to outwit that righteous foreign English commander ..

... let ‘battle’ begin – bottles being smuggled away, hidden in crevices, in caves, buried in crypts ... everywhere ingenious hidey-holes being filled – guess who wins this skirmish ... well we know ... and no doubt many toasts with the golden spirit ensued.

The ship held an even greater treasure which 70 years on is known to us today ... eight cases of currency – in all there were nearly 290,000 ten shilling notes, which would be worth the equivalent of several million pounds today.

Ten shilling note:  Old Mauve Britannia
notes were only issued in war time
Treasures St
The Crown Agents thought the notes would not get into circulation – and to a degree they were correct, but for years they kept turning up at banks around the world.

The Crown Agents in 1941 also noted in a memorandum “the local police service is in no doubt on a very, very small scale but the nature of the place and its surrounds should tend to reduce the chances of serious loss through the notes being presented and paid.”

Even contraband notes can find their way around the world ... in 1941 one empty cash case was found abandoned ... by 1958, the Crown Agents reported that 211,267 notes had been recovered by the salvage company of Scottish police – and then had been destroyed.

2,638 notes had been presented in banks in England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Malta, Canada, the United States and Jamaica, of which only 1,509 were thought to have been presented in good faith.  But that leaves 76,404 notes which were never accounted for and whose fate remains unknown.  I wonder when they will show up – and where they are hidden.

A map of the main taste variables in the vast and bewildering universe of uisge beatha.  For further details please visit – it’s a wonderful map isn’t it?

So on this day of Burns’ Night – celebrate with a toast of whisky or other tipple to those smugglers, hoarders, escapaders, authors, script writers  and film makers who give us these legends to draw images from for our future stories or blog posts ....
Whisky Galore Fudge

... the evening is traditionally brought to an end with a vote of thanks (perhaps some whisky fudge), after which everyone is asked to stand, join hands, and sing Auld Lang Syne ... and here endeth Burns Night for another year!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday 22 January 2012

Go! Figure ...

... the Hindu-Arabic numeral system and the Fibonacci number system.

Leonardo Fibonacci  (c1170 – c1250), an Italian mathematician, as a young boy had travelled with his wealthy Italian merchant father, during which time he realised that arithmetic with Hindu-Arabic numerals was simpler and more efficient than with Roman numerals.

Copy of a Roman Abacus
He set out and travelled the Mediterranean world studying under the leading Arab mathematicians of their time, returning in 1200.  At the age of 32 he published what he had learnt in “Liber Abaci” (Book of Abacus or Book of Calculation), thereby popularising the representations we use today.

Briefly the system had been developed by Indian mathematicians in the 1st to 5th centuries AD, before being adopted by the Persian mathematicians in India and passed on to the Arabs further west.  The numeral system was transmitted to Europe in the Middle Ages, when with Fibonacci’s publication ... the use of Arabic numerals spread around the western world through European trade, books and ultimately colonisation.

Iris - Three
Delphinium - Eight
Primrose - Five

Fibonacci numbers follow an integer sequence and by definition the first two numbers in the Fibonacci sequence are 0 and 1, with each subsequent number being the sum of the previous two:

0, 1,  1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, .... as can be seen in these flower photos and their petals

Cineraria - Thirteen
Bellis Daisy, 13, 21 or 34
Chicory - Twenty One

The surprising thing perhaps, or should it be unsurprising, is that they occur naturally in biological settings, such as the branching in trees, arrangement of leaves on a stem, the fruit spouts of a pineapple, the flowering of an artichoke, an uncurling fern and the arrangement of a pine cone.

Michaelmas Daisies - 55 or 89
with Red Admiral Butterflies
The Sunflower
has 21, 34, 55, 89, or 144 clockwise
paired respectively with
34, 55, 89, 144, or 233
We have always relied on numbers – our lives depend on them -  the Roman legions used them, the Domesday book recorded them, as did the pioneers through the centuries – Archimedes, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Hooke, Darwin, Einstein – while today in the UK we have the Census, which has been held every ten years since 1801.   (As a note censuses have been around for 4,000 years and been used in China, India, Ancient Israel, Egypt and even in the 15th by the Incas). 

The Core is Eden’s innovative education centre: 
see the roof and the sculpted seed below
Today engineers, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, architects, artists ... are all expanding our use and knowledge of numbers – improving on design, solar energy, lightness of materials, optimising architectural layouts, miniaturisation, et al  – there is magic in those numbers ... and in the human brain that makes use of them.

The design consists of a central hollow trunk
and roof structure reminiscent of a tree canopy. 
The central trunk houses a giant seed (right). 
The spiralling pattern of the roof is based
on the Fibonacci sequence.
There is a most beautiful short video 3.44 in the Brain Pickings post on "The Man of Numbers": Fibonacci – by Keith Devlin .. the video is stunning .. and puts to shame all my above words – what a wonderful way of explaining the Fibonacci system: enjoy.

TheTelegraph newspaper article on: A book by Keith Devlin published by Bloomsbury called “The Man of Numbers” has caused a renewed stir of popular interest.

The Eden Project in Cornwall

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Quilted Seaweed Anyone?

One hundred years ago today a heroic group of English men had trekked across the Antarctic to the South Pole only to have their jubilation taken away – Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team had arrived five weeks earlier ....

Scott’s party at the South Pole,
18 January 1912. 
L to R: (standing) Oates, Scott, Wilson,
(seated) Bowers, Edgar Evans.
... the bleak perils of pioneering exploration a hundred years ago exemplified by being beaten to the line ...  no wonder Scott wrote:  (17th January 1912)

The Pole.  Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected.  We have had a horrible day .... this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.  Well it is something to have got here ....  Now the run home and a desperate struggle.  I wonder if we can do it ..... "

The Oxo food company was one of
many commercial sponsors
of the expedition.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868 – 1912) rose rapidly through the ranks, being recommended as commander of the National Antarctic Expedition before he was 30 in 1898, where he proved himself both as an intrepid and able leader, but more importantly to us one hundred years later a competent scientific investigator.

Scott's Hut
Scott’s base camp hut – which had been prefabricated back home and shipped out – was insulated with seaweed sewn into a quilt, placed between double-planked inner and outer walls.  The roof is a sandwich of three layers of plank and two layers of rubber ply enclosing more quilted seaweed.

The trip had been planned as best possible for those days – transport was looked at – Siberian horses, huskies, wooden sleds, wooden skis, sheepskins for the bedding, thick woollen jumpers, plenty of food and I mean plenty ...

... Scott was a leader amongst men, he went about the business of enabling the expedition – travelling the country raising funds, interviewing team members, establishing his plans with such fervour.

Lawrence 'Titus' Oates with
his horses - taken by Ponting
Herbert George Ponting was considered one of the finest travel photographers of the age and thought of himself as a photographic artist.  Ponting remembered that he warmed to Scott for his enthusiasm. 

Scott told him of his plans for scientific research – for geology, zoology, biology, meteorology, physiography and for photography – it was to be a special department: and so it was – as we know today in 2012.

Ponting trained Scott and his men in photography ... the results were revolutionary, as the camera took over from the pencil as the most accurate means of recording the Antarctic landscapes and the explorers.

An iceberg adrift off the
coast of the peninsula
Ponting ensured that Scott and Bowers (the appointed photographer for that last fateful trip) could release the shutter by means of a long thread ... so that all who reached the Pole might appear in the group photo.

The Expedition set out – the scientific members as well as those five selected for the final push to the Pole ... and today we have a greater understanding and appreciation of the rigours to achieve that goal.

Those five perished, but other team members and Ponting with his photographs returned to England ... he then toured with his “Mr Herbert G Ponting’s Cinema Lecture with Captain Scott in the Antarctic”.

Scott’s Discovery hut at Hut Point, used as a shelter
and stores depot during the Terra Nova expedition 
Antarctica, attics and family archives are releasing their secrets of Scott’s expeditionary force ...  in 2009 a stash of 100 year old butter was unearthed, and there are still dozens of wooden boxes hidden beneath the permafrost – as the base-camp hut was tiny (50ft x 25ft {15m x 7.5m}) ... they took out 8,000 items of original expedition gear!

A Weddell Seal
Ben Fogle says in his report about the hut – the first thing I noticed was the odour and the silence, no wind howl.  In Antarctica there is generally no smell – but in the hut aromas of old leather, pipe smoke, wood and horses, still linger – along with a deep, powerful musty smell – this he learnt later was blubber.

The seal blubber used for lamp fuel and food, was still piled in a corner ... as well as thousands of items of Edwardian food.  Tins of sardines, ox tongue and Heinz baked beans are stacked next to tins of Huntley and Palmers biscuits.

Emperor Penguins
The cabin was so well equipped that it was used for another two years by the men of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea expedition who were stranded from their ship in 1915 ... thanks to Scott’s ample supplies, they survived in relative comfort.  Shackleton before his return in 1917 had the hut put in order and locked up.

As we know the weather conditions were appalling and Scott never made it back to base and safety – they all perished ... their bodies were recovered and decently buried near the hut – Scott’s journal was removed from his body.

The Antarctic is releasing its secrets, while the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust is working tirelessly to preserve Scott’s Hut in situ – though a replica has been set up at the new Exhibition opening at the National History Museum.

The earth, as we know, is constantly moving and one day those entombed bodies will reach the sea, having finally completed their journey from the South Pole. And Scott, the captain, will finally be buried at sea.

Scott's  "Army and Navy" Thin Pocket Diary
1910 - the entries are terse and limited to little
more than times, dates and names and places
The Natural History’s Exhibition will reveal the powerful tales of endurance and celebrate their many scientific achievements, while allowing site of original artefacts used by Scott and his team.

Today we are probing into the hot volcanic waters below the Antarctic icecap to further our knowledge – now that we have polar thermal wear to protect us against the extremes of weather; then with new technologies ... so that tongue tips don’t get stuck and left behind on brass camera knobs, as happened to Ponting a century ago ... we are opening the polar horizons to our 21st century scientists.

Memorial window in Binton Church,
Warwickshire, one of four panels.
This one depicts the cairn erected
over the site of Scott’s last tent.
Yet – Scott helped reveal that Antarctica was once part of the supercontinent, Gondwana, after Glossopteris Indica (one of the collected fossilised samples) was duly classified.

Lawrence Oates’ saying as he left the team’s tent .. in the hope that the last three member would be able to continue “I am just going outside and may be some time” ...

Scott had written ‘Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.  These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale’. 

The heroic sacrifice of this small band of men who were willing to give their lives to science and discovery ... were at the South Pole 100 years ago today.

However I don’t think I’ll be trying to quilt seaweed any time soon ....!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories