All a flutter in the garden

 

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Me, far left, with my siblings in our 1970s flower-filled garden
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My mum with my brother in the garden in front of a bed of nasturtiums
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The once common small tortoiseshell butterfly is now under threat

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Timeson 4th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 2nd May 2018).

It’s always a bit of thrill when I look back to my Dad’s columns and find myself mentioned. On 6th May 1978, the 10-year-old me had found a caterpillar and wanted to know which butterfly it would turn into. It was an inch long, had two sets of short legs, six at the front and eight at the rear, with rows of yellow dots running the length of its pale green body. The head was small and green too.

Dad couldn’t identify it at first glance, but, as is still the case today, his study was stuffed full of reference books which he called upon, and sure enough, within minutes we had identified it as the caterpillar of the Meadow Brown butterfly.

The Meadow Brown is one of the UK’s most common and prolific butterflies with mainly brown wings, in the middle of which are what look like beady black little eyes with tiny white pupils. The females can be distinguished by their obvious splash of orange towards the tips of the upper wings. They emerge from their chrysalis’ around late June and are active over the summer months.

Sadly, some of the 59 treasured UK butterfly species are not faring so well. In fact, butterflies are one of the most threatened groups of wildlife in the country, with two-thirds of their species in decline.

Last year, the small tortoiseshell, once one of our most populous varieties, was placed on Countryfile Magazine’s list of the ten most endangered animal species in Britain, alongside natterjack toads and red squirrels. The reason was its rapid recent decline of 77% over the ten years up to 2013. Year after year of wet springs and summers, which some attribute to global warming, have led to a serious decline in its natural habitat.

Other perhaps less well known species also fared very badly over the past couple of years. In 2017, the Grizzled Skipper and the Grayling suffered their worst year since records began. Grizzled Skipper numbers have halved since the 1970s, and Grayling numbers are down 63% over the last decade.

The Cabbage White was one of those I saw most often growing up, and so was sad to learn that it is in a state of long-term decline. I do remember a bed of nasturtiums in the back garden which used to be teeming with them. They’d lay their bright yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves, and then soon dozens of caterpillars would appear and feast on them, much to my mum’s aggravation.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The Red Admiral is up 78% compared to 2016, and the Comma is up an impressive 91%, with both increasing in numbers over the long-term.

The remedy for stopping the decline is pretty straightforward, if not always simple to implement. If their natural habitat is available, then the species will thrive. The thing is though, different species prefer different types of habitat, and not all are easy, or even possible, to replicate.

There are things you can do to attract certain butterflies to your garden and help keep numbers healthy. They need flowering plants right from early spring through to late September (the Internet is a rich source of recommendations), and if you choose different plants, you will attract different species. Place your flowers in warm, sunny spots sheltered from the wind, and put the same plants in blocks together. Increase the life of your flowers with regular deadheading and by mulching with organic compost. Avoid insecticides and pesticides, and also, if you’re buying compost, get one that is peat free. Peat, which is a declining natural resource, is an important habitat for a number of special animals and plants, including the Large Heath butterfly.

Sadly, it’s rather difficult for us to use our gardens to help the most threatened species I mentioned earlier, as their habitats are very different. The Grizzled Skipper thrives in woodland glades, wild grasslands, abandoned industrial sites and even rubbish tips. The Grayling enjoys coastal cliffs, dunes, salt marshes and old quarries. But what we can do is support conservation efforts by raising awareness, volunteering and fundraising.

I can’t end this column without commenting on the spectacular names given to some of these fluttering marvels. Who is responsible for Grizzled Skipper? Was it an old voyage-weary ship’s captain? And what about Mountain Ringlet and Glanville Fritillary? And you can only wonder how Cryptic Wood White and Purple Hairstreak got their names (Source: butterfly-conservation.com).

 

A year without the Countryman

 

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My sister Tricia and my dad, who both died recently 
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Me with sister Tricia in London in September 2017
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Me with my dad in summer 2016

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 20th April 2018 and the Gazette and Herald newspaper on 18th April 2018. 

April 21st marks the first anniversary of my dad Peter Walker’s death from prostate cancer. By a sad coincidence, it is also the same day as Bill Maynard’s funeral (he played Dad’s loveable Heartbeat character, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, on screen), so my thoughts will be with his family as I reflect on my own loss.

It’s been a strange and difficult year, so I hope you will indulge me as I ponder on what has happened, and pay tribute to the services that we didn’t truly appreciate before we had to call upon them (It’s going to be a tough column to write, so I’ve opened an industrial-sized box of Maltesers to help me through!).

Dad left a gaping hole in our family’s lives that I’m sure all of you who have lost someone close will understand. My sense of loss has not yet lessened, and sometimes it knocks the wind out of my sails. Silly things get me, like making mashed potato, as my dad made the best mash on the planet (and I’ll fight anyone who says different). And one evening I was making pizza when I remembered the time Dad tried to describe one. “You know, them round flat things that Italians eat!” he’d said. We fell about laughing, as it was such a Yorkshire way to put it. It’s one of my daftest and fondest memories, and made me smile over my pizza dough, yet seconds later I was in floods of tears as his absence hit me like a blow to the stomach.

The progression of Dad’s illness had been very slow over ten years until it suddenly sped up in April 2017. He went from being physically very able to needing round-the-clock care within a couple of weeks. It was then that we discovered the Ryedale Community Response Team, and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say they were like angels sent from above. Hearing their cheery ‘hello’ as they stepped through the door provided instant relief with every single visit. The team act as emergency help to people who suddenly realise they are no longer able to cope alone. They are a short-term bridge of support until more appropriate care is found.

But very soon, Dad’s needs became such that even four visits a day were not enough, and managing him and his medication the rest of the time was too much for us. Thankfully, a space became available at St Leonard’s Hospice in York and he was taken there on the morning of 21st April. He died later that night.

For us, these past months have been doubly difficult as we were bracing ourselves for our first Christmas without Dad when my sister, Tricia Walker, fell ill at the beginning of December. What she had been dismissing as a stomach bug turned out to be a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. We could barely believe it was happening all over again.

Although Tricia lived in Bournemouth, she wanted to come home to Yorkshire, and was transferred to the specialist cancer unit in the Bexley Wing at St James’ Hospital in Leeds.

Everyone in Bexley looked after Tricia extremely well. It is one of the top cancer centres in the country, so we are blessed here in Yorkshire to have it on our doorstep. We knew she was in the best hands, but sometimes, there just isn’t an answer. It was on 4th January, only four weeks into her illness, that Tricia decided to go into a hospice. She was admitted to St Leonard’s three days later and died in the early hours of 8th January, aged just 53.

Although both my dad and sister were in St Leonard’s for less than a day, I cannot overstate the value of the place. For those last few precious hours, we could forget about everything else, let the hospice staff take over the essential stuff, and just focus on being with them in their final moments. We had a dedicated nurse of whom we could ask just about anything. She displayed empathy, gentle sensitivity and an uncanny instinct for producing a cup of tea exactly when you needed it.

I’m sure those of you who have had experience of other hospices in the area, like St Catherine’s (Scarborough), Martin House (Boston Spa), St Michael’s (Harrogate) and St Teresa’s (Darlington), will understand what I mean when I say that once your loved one crosses over their threshold, it’s like a huge pair of comforting arms is wrapped around you. The hospital and in-home carers were brilliant, but they only had the time and resources to look after the patient. The hospices can accommodate the whole posse of people surrounding the sick person, who, through the stress and worry about what is inevitable, can be somewhat high maintenance themselves.

One of the most significant benefits of losing a loved one in a hospice is that once they are gone, the care for those who’ve been bereaved doesn’t end. They guide you through the next, difficult practical steps and are also at pains to ensure you are supported, should you need it, for many months afterwards.

St Leonard’s offered me bereavement support after Dad died, but I declined, and then offered it again after losing Tricia, and this time I accepted. I wasn’t sure I needed it, but it is possibly one of the best things I’ve done. Being able to offload all the stuff in my head is like releasing the pressure in an overfilled tyre (And as a result, the local stocks of Maltesers have thankfully remained buoyant).

This level of care, which is so desperately important to those who need it, is all free of charge, so hospices have to rely on constant fundraising. St Leonard’s has to raise at least £5million every year to continue to offer these essential services.

The initial 12 months of grief are the most difficult, with a year of first hurdles to overcome. Things like birthdays, (theirs and your own), anniversaries, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas become occasions to be endured, and it is a relief when the first one has passed as you hope that the next year it will be that little bit easier.

This year, we are marking Dad’s first anniversary quietly at home with the family.

 

A bird in the hand

 

 

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald  21st March 2018.

I was very fortunate to be invited to the York Bird of Prey Centre in Huby for the launch of the Tourism Association of North Yorkshire (TANY) 2018 visitor guide. TANY is a small, independent organisation that relies on volunteers, and does sterling work in promoting our region, especially Ryedale, Hambleton and the North York Moors, to support local businesses in attracting valuable tourists to our beautiful part of the world.

I’d contributed an article about my dad, which is why I was asked along. What I didn’t expect was to be able to sit among the birds as they flew freely around us, tempted by morsels of meat placed in certain spots. We were invited to handle the birds ourselves, and I got up close and personal with a stunning barn owl, a southern crested caracara (a type of falcon), a sweet tawny owl and a majestic golden eagle. We were taught about the valuable education and conservation work the centre does, and learned that the birds get hours of free flying time outside of their aviaries every day (I must admit, I was wondering about that!).

It’s a rare privilege to be able to get so close, and really made me appreciate just how amazing these birds of prey are. My parents were both (and my mum still is) keen bird watchers, and had installed several nesting boxes and feeders in their garden, keeping binoculars by the window so they could observe the daily antics of their feathered friends. They were both very knowledgeable and could instantly identify most birds that visited.

I can’t remember them ever mentioning a white blackbird though. In fact, until this week when I read my dad’s column from 25th March 1978, I had no idea they even existed. But apparently so, as a reader had written to ask Dad if white blackbirds were rare. Dad remembered having seen one in the grounds of the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. I assumed this would have been some kind of albino, but not necessarily, as, with help from the RSPB, I’ve discovered that some birds are simply lacking in the pigment that colours the feathers.

Further research revealed that the colouring of birds is in fact quite complicated, and just because a bird appears to be iridescent blue or green in colour does not mean they have blue or green feathers. In fact, the colour is created by the light being reflected off the complex structure of the feathers, making them appear blue or green. These are known as ‘structural’ colours. The true colour of many iridescent feathers is actually brown. So, for example, if you see a kingfisher in low light, it will often appear dark in colour. Blacks, browns, chestnut-reds and yellows are created by melanin, a pigment which does colour the actual feather and also influences the intensity of the hue. Other colours are created by the process of the underlying pigment combining with a structural colour. For example some parrots have an underlying pigment of yellow that interacts with a blue structural colour, which then makes the parrot appear green.

Anyway, back to our unusual white blackbird. Occasionally, the normal process that produces a bird’s colour breaks down, which can result in no pigmentation, or patchy pigmentation. A brief search on the Internet throws up pictures of all sorts of wonderful patterns on the blackbird’s feathers, from pure white, to black with a white head, collar, breast or tail, white with black spots, black with white spots, or even black with white ‘go-faster’ stripes down the side.

Often the captions on these pictures mistakenly describes them as ‘albino’ or ‘part-albino’. As far as I am aware, it is impossible to be ‘part-albino’. All vertebrates can be affected by albinism, which is a genetic mutation leading to reduced or complete absence of the pigment melanin which is responsible for colouring skin, hair, eyes, fur and feathers. The difference between a white blackbird and an albino blackbird is that albinos have pink or red eyes rather than black, because the lack of pigmentation means the blood can be seen. They will also have pale skin, legs, feet and beaks.

I saw recently wildlife artist and fellow columnist Robert Fuller’s wonderful video of the white stoat in his garden. I’d love to find out if readers have spotted any other unexpectedly white creatures in their gardens, or out and about. Sadly, I have yet to clap my eyes on the elusive white blackbird.