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).

 

The goat was Cooked

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Captain James Cook, who was born in Whitby
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A replica of The Endeavor near the Whitby coast. Captain Cook’s original vessel was built in the town
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A painting depicting the death of Captain Cook

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th April, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th April 2018).

Following my column in January about mascot goats, I was intrigued to find out from Dad’s column from 29th April 1978 that one of North Yorkshire’s most famous sons had his own companion goat.

Captain James Cook took a goat on one of his famous voyages, and she was so important, that we have a record of her 1772 death, the anniversary of which falls this week on 28th April.

Dad says he didn’t know its name, but “such was the fame of this goat that it was admitted to Greenwich Hospital as a pensioner. My information is somewhat scant on this subject, for I do not know the gender of the animal, nor its age.”

Well of course, that was a challenge to me to fill in some of the blanks about this famous creature, and those of you paying attention might have spotted that I’ve already revealed one fact – the goat was a she.

There was a very practical reason why Cook would take a female goat – she was a constant source of fresh milk. In his time, illnesses were rife among sailors who spent months away at sea with poor hygiene and little access to fresh food or water. Life-threatening illnesses such as dysentery, typhus and scurvy thrived due to malnutrition and dirty, cramped living quarters. Dr Samuel Johnson described the life of a sailor as like ‘being in jail with the chance of being drowned.’

Often, crews would return from long voyages with barely a third of their number alive. Author Jonathan Lamb has written about scurvy several times, and says: “In 1499, Vasco da Gama lost 116 of his crew of 170, in 1520 Magellan lost 208 out of 230, and in 1742, George Anson lost more than 1,300 of his compliment of almost 2,000 – all mainly to scurvy.” (It makes me wonder just how many bodies still lie at the bottom of our oceans?)

Captain Cook’s first global expedition in 1768 was in the Whitby-built HMS Endeavour, aiming to reach Tahiti for the Transit of Venus (where the earth, sun and Venus all aligned), which would help them measure longitude at sea, an opportunity that only came around about once every 125 years. He took with him an elite team of scientists, including an astronomer, two naturalists and eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

It was Banks to whom the goat belonged, and it had already circumnavigated the globe with him, so had well-honed sea legs. In Robert Chamber’s 1864 Book of Days, a compendium of interesting facts, he mentions this famous goat and calls it simply ‘The Well-Travelled Goat’, so it’s not surprising my dad couldn’t find out its name.

Cook was determined to change the bad habits of his sea-faring predecessors by implementing a strict regime of discipline and hygiene, and carried the best nutrition possible. It was already known that citrus fruit could prevent scurvy, but they had no way of preserving the fruit on board. Instead, Cook ensured his men were very well fed, taking along vast quantities of sauerkraut, and whenever they landed in port, they stocked up on as much fresh fruit and green vegetables as possible.

Previously, sailors were used to using excrement-filled slop buckets in their filthy living quarters to relieve themselves, but Cook set aside a specific area on the ship for a toilet. Severe punishments were meted out to those caught going to the loo anywhere else and there was a regimented cleaning rota to ensure the ship was kept as clean and bug-free as possible.

It has been reported that Cook lost none of his men to scurvy on any of his three epic sea voyages, and although that fact has been disputed, it is clear that the health and wellbeing of his men were top priorities. Undoubtedly he had a far better survival rate than most and set the standard for successors to follow.

As for the goat, she was rewarded for her loyal service by being allowed to graze out her days among the green pastures of Kent. Her high status was reflected in an engraved silver collar which the grateful Sir Joseph Banks bestowed upon her. Dr Samuel Johnson himself wrote the latin inscription which, once translated, read:

“In fame scare second to the nurse of Jove,
This goat, who twice the world has traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.”

(Sources: captaincook.org.uk, mediographia.com, wellcomelibrary.org (Nicola Cook), bbc.co.uk)

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.