Saturday, 31 December 2011

Seven Swans a Swimming

A few days ago I went for a walk around Stanwick Lakes. My parents "local patch" at home in Northamptonshire. An old gravel pits has been turned into a nature reserve and water sports centre and over the last few years it has become a popular place for local families and groups to spend some time exploring nature and getting some fresh air.

It's lovely to get outside when the Christmas festivities often mean being inside quite a bit, although I am enjoying spending evenings curled up near a proper wood fire again. The walk round the lakes gave us a breath of fresh air, and while it's still mild you couldn't have called it a warm walk as the cold wind reminded us that it isn't even January yet.

On my walk we saw lots of birds including geese (none laying though), several bullfinches and, most importantly, lots of swans. There were at least seven around and I also saw a signet which is slowly turning to it's adult white, almost grown up. Considering how strange some of the other lines in the song are seven swans swimming seems incredibly normal, although since all the UK swans are owned by the royal family the true love is risking a lot to give them as presents.

I didn't manage a photo of seven swans but here is a nice one of just two swans a swimming in the very cold waters of Stanwick Lakes.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Six Geese a Laying

Geese normally lay eggs in the spring, so I've always thought this line of the song was quite weird. However, as I walked into the local Waitrose last week I saw an article in their newsletter about this very subject which seems to prove that it's less silly than it sounds.

Due to the mild weather this year some geese in Cornwall started laying eggs in late November, months before normal. The free-range geese have never laid this early before. While traditionally the first eggs are laid around St Valentine's Day Waitrose normally start selling goose eggs in April for a two month period.

Maybe this is why six geese a laying is such a special gift in the song, it is a very special treat to have goose eggs at this time of year. People seem to be rediscovering speciality eggs recently as goose egg sales were up 49% this year compared to 2010. Other types of eggs are also appearing on shop shelves such as the ostrich, rhea and turkey.

I've never cooked or eaten any of these exciting eggs but since the goose egg is about three times bigger than a hens egg I would probably stick to scrambling or frying as I'd have no idea how long it takes to boil or what quantities to use for baking!

Since these early goose eggs are only appearing in selected stores over Christmas I doubt I'll even have the chance to buy one but at least I know the song line isn't impossible, just that the true love was very lucky to find some laying geese in December.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Five Gold Rings

We're now three days away from the start of 2012, a big year for the UK and a big year for the environment. We'll be seeing lots of five rings and (hopefully) gold over the next 9 months with adverts for the Olympics already appearing here and there.

2012 is also the year when the Kyoto agreement ends, the long awaited Earth Summit is held in Rio and the  final year of the UK's first carbon budget. These, among other landmark environmental events, mean that the focus is on sustainability this summer and the UK's pledge in 2005 was to make these games as green as possible. 

Initially organisers pushed carbon offsetting but since the consensus is now that this method merely justifies using lots of energy at a cost to someone else thoughts have moved to reduction and recycling with a mind to minimise the games direct negative environmental impact.

EDF, the primary energy provider for the games, will be generating 24MW of renewable energy specifically for the Olympics. For some perspective this is only one megawatt more than a single square kilometre of Central London would use but, since Central London uses more energy than anywhere else in Europe, if the games can keep their energy use low this could mean an almost entirely renewables powered Olympics.

Another good sign is the aim that 90 percent of construction waste from the games will either be reused of recycled. This is great as over half of the total CO2 emissions from the games will come from the construction process. 

The games are estimated to produce 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 which is about 0.6% of the total annual UK emissions. This is the first time that any city has attempted to track all the embedded energy and emissions from an Olympics games, from construction materials to transport through to electricity consumption. Let's hope they really can make it the greenest games ever.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Four Calling Birds

It is said that the word "calling" is a derivation of the word collie or colly which comes from the old word for black and has it's origins in the coal industry (such as a colliery or a collier). Thus four calling birds may well refer to four blackbirds.

Fluffy singing blackbird
A few years ago my parents bought me a toy blackbird from the RSPB's range of singing toy birds. This was an attempt at teaching me bird song since after years of nature walks I still fail to differentiate between robin and blackbird songs. My fluffy blackbird sits on my shelf in Preston and occasional it has it's tummy squeezed to make it sing its tune-see here for a listen.

According to the RSPB website the blackbird is no longer in stock, so maybe I now have a collectable! Thankfully real blackbirds are not out of stock living almost everywhere in the UK and after a decline between the 70s and 90s has returned to the Green List after at 26% increase between 1995 and 2008.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Three French Hens

Apparently there are four (not three) main breeds of French hens which are Faverolles, La Fleche, Crevecoeurs and Marans but when this traditional Christmas song originated Faverolles was either not a popular breed or didn't exist yet. Chickens are the most abundant domestic animal in the world and originated from Vietnam. 

While domestic French chicken numbers are doing well other European bird numbers are not looking so good. The Pan-European Common Monitoring Scheme run by the European Bird Census Council this summer revealed that Europe's farmland birds are still in steep decline following years of intensification of farming and loss of habitat and food sources. Since 1980 numbers of farmland birds have declined by 48%, which is incredible. That means almost half of the birds on European farmland (including the UK) have been lost, no wonder I can't recognise skylark songs or describe a grey partridge. 

Monday, 26 December 2011

Two Turtle Doves

Just larger than a blackbird the turtle dove is a summer visitor to Southern and Eastern England. Sadly it is a on the Red List of conservation concern due to several steep declines in numbers. These declines are possibly due to a lack of corn and seeds available during breeding season.

These little birds are really pretty, lets hope there will always be many many more than two left to see in our countryside during the summer.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Happy Christmas! I hope everyone is having a wonderful day. I decided that for the next two weeks I'd look at a range of environmental and wildlife topics but through the theme of an old favourite, the Twelve Days of Christmas. So, as today is the first day of Christmas where better to start than with a Partridge in a Pear Tree. (I'm hoping that's not what my partner's got me - although I'll be impressed with the packaging if he has...)

This traditional English carol is actually thought to originate from France, partly because the red-legged (or French) partridge, which is much more likely to sit in trees than the native grey partridge, was not introduced to the UK until 1770 well after the song became popular. So if we are to take the song literally, it was probably started across the channel.

Partridges are part of the pheasant family. In the UK there are four birds from this group; the common pheasant (first introduced in the 10th century and then reintroduced in the 1830s), the quail (the UK's only migrant game bird travelling from Africa in the summer) and the two partridges both red-legged (introduced from Europe and long time resident) and grey (native and now sadly on the Red List of endangered species).

Almost all these birds are sociable, living in groups, although the male pheasant is an exception having very little to do with family life. Many more species live in Africa and Asia which is where the common pheasants ancestry originates from. 

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas

Well we're very nearly there for Christmas. At our family home the Christmas tree will be decorated today, the cake and pudding are ready and at least some presents are wrapped. The veg box has arrived, the recycling box is ready for empty bottles and cardboard boxes and the bird feeders are up and being explored by the garden wildlife.

So all that's left if to wish everyone a happy Christmas for tomorrow, have a very merry green day!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Green Spring

We haven't even reached Christmas yet but this week I've had several emails about green meetings and conferences in February.

The first was an invite and timetable for the local Wildlife Watch Leaders conference. There are several interesting workshops and it should be a great way to meet other Watch leaders and learn some good activities for when my group gets set up and started (hopefully sometime in the new year).

The second were several emails for the Green Party Spring Conference in Liverpool (24th-27th February). I haven't seen a timetable for this yet but I'm quite excited about it. I've never been to a Party conference before and it's great that my first one is so close to home, so it won't be too scary hopefully!
I'm looking forward to meeting other Green Party members and hearing about some national campaigns and topics. It should be a great few days really getting to grips with what the Green Party is, stands for and aims to achieve in the next few years.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Gift of Giving

Well the days might be getting longer now but it doesn't feel noticeable quite yet! Our winter solstice party was lovely yesterday and full of home cooked food and warming drinks. I've finally given out some of my home made presents so I can blog about them now without ruining the surprise!

I love giving many little presents rather than one big gift so I settled on a selection of home made goodies for my friends in little crocheted baskets. The baskets did take a while but it was worth it seeing the final result. I used green gardeners twine for the boxes because it's a bit firmer than wool and stand up better-and it's lots cheaper! With a red wool handle sewn on they looked very festive.

Inside the baskets I had home made gingerbread biscuits, felt Christmas Tree decorations, a pot of home planted crocus bulbs and a mini bottle of (European) wine and some mulling spice mix I'd  mixed up so that they can each have a glass of mulled wine later in the festive season.

This goody bag took quite a lot of time, effort and planning but not much money at all, maybe just over a fiver, but I know it will bring smiles straight away (the gingerbread is yummy) and further in the new year as the bulbs begin to grow, and finally in future years when the decorations are put up. It's nice to know that a present will last longer than February, except the gingerbread of course.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Darkest Night

For me the 21st of December is almost as important as the 25th later in the week. Today is the winter solstice, the longest night and shortest day. This day was celebrated by many cultures in the past, celebrating the victory of the sun over the darkness as the days begin to get longer again and we move towards spring.

On the solstice we normally invite friends over and have our Christmas presents then so we can all open them together instead of waiting to open them when none of us are together on Christmas day. It's great to catch up with old friends and newer ones as well as finding the perfect mix for mulled wine and cider recipes!

While we're all cosy in our house with a fire, food and friends the wildlife outside is just beginning the yearly battle with the cold. While it's going to start getting lighter and we'll have longer days it isn't going to get warmer but colder over the next few weeks. Some animals, like hedgehogs, hibernate but others, like robins, stick it out looking for scraps of food to keep them going throughout winter. 

Finding food is hard, especially when there's snow on the ground and with frozen ponds water get scarce too. Making sure there's food out for the birds and a bucket of water for animals to reach is an great way to help the wildlife in your garden, and what could be nicer than seeing a robin on Christmas day and watching the wildlife in the garden to pass the time as the days lengthen again. 

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Here and There

If we both wrote down a list of "garden birds" I'm pretty sure we'd write a lot of the same birds down. I always think of the Blue Tit, Robin, Blackbird and Starling. Then there are Collared Dove and Goldfinch which I always saw in my parents' garden when I was younger but often seem to forget now. 

But the range of garden birds differs so much depending on where you are and what sort of garden you have. The list of birds I'd write are basically the ones I was always shown as a child from the kitchen window, and I almost never remember sparrow, which is now the only bird I see in our little yard in Preston. 

In my parents garden, or form their house windows, recent sightings have been Black Cap and a large flock of Starlings all fighting to eat spare apples from a nearby tree. Even Red Kites are a common occurrence. But their garden is long and green and full of yummy worms and berries that wildlife love, although the large cat population keeps the birds on their toes. With regular visits form robins and blackbirds no-one pays any notice to these birds but if I saw either in our garden in Preston I'd probably do a whole blog about it! But there aren't that many sparrows so my regular little flock of 6 would be very exciting for my parents garden.

It's good to remember that different birds suit different habitats, even if they fall under one group name like "garden birds". It means we remember that a good year for some might be a bad year for others and that they'll need different things to help them in the winter. My peanuts are becoming more popular now that the birds want more fat for the winter but old apple cores and bread are the favourites in my parents garden. Just like you wouldn't buy everyone you know the same Christmas present, the birds in our gardens all need a little thought and planning to help them through the winter.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Christmas Specials

With Christmas comes the inevitable flurry of Christmas specials and classic repeats on the TV and radio. At 8pm on Friday Saving Species are having their Christmas special. Hosted by Bristol University, panellists will discuss the global population and the issues this raises for conserving resources and species as well as whether realistically we can do anything about it. With audience questions and a panel discussion the programme looks to be interesting and a bit of a change from the festive music and repeated topics of what to cook, what to buy and what to do that I'll be listening to the rest of the week.

Also did you know that over Christmas 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper will end up in bins across the UK? I'm going to make sure I use as little tape as possible when wrapping and try to open my presents carefully so I can hopefully reuse the paper next year. It's rubbish that most wrapping paper can't be recycled.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmas Top Ten

According to the top ten winter garden birds are:

  1. Robin
  2. Blue Tit
  3. Blackbird
  4. Great Tit
  5. Chaffinch
  6. Green Finch
  7. Dunnock
  8. Collared Dove
  9. Coal Tit
  10. House Sparrow
I wonder how many of these I'll see over the next few weeks. Are there any that you think should be on the list that aren't? I don't often see Dunnock or Chaffinch but that might just be my area.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Christmas Recycling

Last week our living room was described as looking like "a Christmas Bomb had gone off". Along with a Christmas tree we have foil/plastic decorations hanging from the walls and rows of plastic stars around the door; so I can see what they mean.

You might be worried and shocked that I have so many plastic decorations but none of them have been bought by us and none of them are new. The foil/plastic colourful banners and stars are all salvaged from my old primary school who were throwing things out years ago and the decorations got rescued to my parents house and stored away, until I rediscovered them this autumn. The only new decorations for our tree are a set of lights (which will be carefully stored and reused for many years) and two pieces of tinsel. I'm sure there must be a more ecofriendly alternative to tinsel but I can't find it online and I currently can't imagine giving up tinsel yet.

There are other ways to recycle at Christmas. All those bottles, cans and cardboard boxes definitely need to go into the recycling box over the festive holidays-it'll give you a good incentive for cutting back your vices in January when you see it all piled up too! Food can be recycled and with lots of leftovers there's no end of new meals you can create from old. I'm sure we'll be having turkey curry, cheesy turkey, turkey sandwiches and turkey stir fry all in the week between Christmas and New Year.

Unwanted presents can be regifted (not straight away! give it a few months) but remember who gave you the present in the first place to avoid awkward moments later in the year. You could even use recycled wrapping paper (either reusing last years or buying new which is made from recycled paper) to surround your beautiful presents.

Finally don't forget if you have a real tree to compost or recycle it after Christmas so that all that leafy goodness goes back into the earth.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Early Mornings Aren't Easy

When I started this blog I said I'd write about my green successes and failures and this week there has been a lot of driving and not so much walking. I only managed one day when I didn't use the car at all and most of my journeys have been in Preston City. I've been working earlies and getting up an extra 45 minutes early so that you can walk across town in the rain and gale force winds is not a tempting thought at 5am. 

My work is two miles away, so I'm not quite breaking the "don't drive journeys under two miles" rule but it's really not that far. My excuse is that by driving I have an extra 90 minutes in the day and at this time of year that's vital time for cooking, making presents or just general household chores but I bet if I was this busy in the summer I'd still walk. With no more work (just volunteering from home) until the new year I'm sure I'll be better at resisting the temptation to drive to the shops than I have been driving to work but one of my new year's resolutions will definitely be to sort my bike out so that I can cycle rather than walk or drive in January.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

A Windy Walk

I had my last walk along the canal for a while yesterday. I'm always amazed by how much the temperature changes from season to season. At this time of year I can't imagine stepping outside without a coat, scarf and warm boots but in the summer I can't imagine being cold enough to need anything more than sandals, jeans and a t-shirt.

Having previously lived in Durham for four years I am still getting used to how rainy and windy the west of the country is. At least it makes you notice the changing seasons! Luckily yesterday wasn't rainy as I stepped out into the wintry, blowy afternoon and wandered along to the canal.  The leaves are all gone now but it's not cold enough for ice on the canal yet. There are still lots of birds around, and with bare branches they're easier to see. There are a few berries left but I hope people fill their bird feeders over Christmas because there doesn't seem to be that much food along the canal.

By January I expect the canal will be solid with ice-it has been the last few years- but for now it's a good source of water for wildlife in the area. People often remember to put food out for the birds in their garden but forget that water is vital too. Looking at the contrast between my first canal photo and my most recent one I look forward to seeing how much the view will change over the next season.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

December- Getting Off The Seasonal Treadmill

Once again it's got to half way through the month before I get round to reading the December section of How Green Are My Wellies? by Anna Shepard. With the last chapter of the book we are reminded that Christmas isn't all about consumerism and that you can still been environmentally minded and have a fun happy Christmas.

Anna addresses the tricky Christmas Tree question and does a bit better than me by finding not only a British tree but also a potted tree, so it can be used again. I have no idea where our tree was grown, but it's something to aim for for next year. We also got our Christmas Tree recycling information from the council this week, so we'll be ready to compost it once the new year comes.

Anna also talks about how, after a disastrous episode on the tube one Christmas, she's taken to giving homemade or eco friendly small gifts. She points out that the thought really is the thing that counts and it's often a relief not to get a hugely extravagant gift;  as this often turns Christmas Day into a competition for who's spent the most money.

Reading this has calmed my frantic Christmas frazzled mind a bit. Christmas isn't about being stressed, it should be about sharing quality time with loved ones and enjoying warm rooms and good food and drink. After a busy week and a busier one ahead I was beginning to get drawn into the panic of the festive season. Instead I will take a breath, write a to-do list, and get on with cooking and crocheting my planned gifts-without worrying that people will think I'm being stingy and with the happy knowledge that I've put time and love into the gifts for those I care about without a huge environmental impact.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Promise Promises

Promises are sometimes hard to keep. We make them with good intentions but sometimes we're just not able to follow through. But promises are easy to make if we know we can just back out of them and avoid the consequences of doing so.

Only a couple of weeks ago I talked about how almost everyone has ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Today the map on that blog has become a lot less green. Last night Canada announced it would be withdrawing from the legally binding agreement to cut carbon emissions and meet targets set for 2012. You'd think a legally binding agreement would have some penalty for withdrawing but apparently not. Canada's annual emissions have risen by about a third since 1990 and didn't look likely to fall sharply before the deadline in 2012. There are penalties for not meeting the targets and by pulling out of the agreement Canada avoids this. It also allows them to continue to protect their valuable oil industry which they hope will boost their economy over the next few decades.

Canada's withdrawal has hit the headlines here, here and here but will probably fall into the background in the next few days. What won't go away, and what Canada can't avoid by abandoning its Kyoto promises, is that without a global reduction in carbon emissions and a lifestyle/mindset change for many developed countries climate change will increase to a point where famine, floods, droughts and mass migration will almost undoubtedly lead to wars and conflict; as well as the loss of thousands of precious species and resources.

It's terrible news that Canada has abandoned its promises but is it better to make a promise and back out, make a promise, try and fail or not make that promise at all?

Monday, 12 December 2011

Education, Education, Education

It's really nice how many environment projects there are around even in these difficult economic times. Today I learnt all about the different environment education activities that are happening within the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside.

There are so many it was hard to follow everything but it's great to hear passionate people talk about their work with young people and communities to raise awareness and educate on environment and wildlife topics. From toddler groups taking their first steps on nature reserves and school visits to help make vegetable patches and wildlife gardens through to survival skills and habitat management workshops there's something for all ages and abilities. I'm really looking forward to getting more involved with some of these projects in the new year and also in helping with my local Wildlife Watch group.

For now I've enjoyed my first visit to the Brockholes nature reserve just outside Preston. It's quite bare at the moment but as we move into the new year it will begin to flourish. Today you could definitely feel the bitter wind and cold weather but it's still nice to get outside and have a bit of a walk. I even saw a pheasant and some  Canada geese,  not exactly rare species but I don't often see them in central Preston!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Winter Warmers

And blog number two for today....

With only a fortnight before Christmas I'm trying to use up all the food in the house before we head back to our family homes. Although it's been several weeks since our last veg box we've still got loads left so today's a day for turning the oven on high and roasting all the leftover squash, potatoes, parsnips and carrots I can find as well as a free range chicken.

With the sprouts and cabbage that are still in the fridge tonight's dinner will be huge, but anything leftover will be turned into soups or leftover meals in the rest of the week. I love cooking one big joint at the weekend because it makes cooking for the rest of the week so easy.

I try not to use the oven too often as it takes a lot of energy to heat it up and if you're only cooking a small thing this seems like a waste. So today everything's going in so that all that heat is used efficiently. Often, if I am just cooking a small thing in the oven I'll make a cake or bread as well so that it's worth the energy used. It also keeps the kitchen nice and warm so afterwards I'll be able to sit at the table and finish those all important Christmas presents I've been putting off making without even turning the heating on.

A veg box is a great way to take the hassle out of Christmas dinner too as you can order all your veg straight to your home and know it's organic, local and very very fresh. Why not have a look at the Riverford website, I know from experience that Christmas dinner with veg from them tastes delicious!

Winter Visitors

Internet problems meant there was no blog yesterday so here is the first of two today to make up for it!

With winter comes a host of migrant birds and which birds arrive depends a bit on the wind direction and where you live in the country.
File:Waxwing DTAB.jpg
One of the best known migrants is the waxwing and I always look forward to seeing them in the winter. Last year was a very good year for seeing waxwings and they got to most bits of the country, even Preston! They live in the forests of northern Europe (in North Scandinavia and Russia) throughout the year and a few turn up on the east coast of the UK most winters. When berry supplies are particularly low large numbers travel long distances away from their normal habitat which is why so many turned up not just on the east coast but right across the country last year.

I haven't heard about many waxwing sightings yet this year, although I'm sure there have been some along the east coast. I know Chris Packham seemed disappointed that there hadn't been many sightings sent into Autumn Watch when I watched it a few weeks ago. In the waxwing boom that was last winter I saw a flock of waxwings in Preston in January which being almost on the west coast is pretty good going. I doubt I'll see any before I head back to the family home for Christmas but I'll keep looking- it seems their favourite haunts are supermarket car parks so keep your eyes peeled when you do your Christmas shopping!

If you want to find out a bit more about waxwings check out here and for up to date waxwing info look here.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Book of Green

Today I've been having a bit of a winter clear out and tidy up. It's good to get the house tidy and in order before filling it with decorations and, a little later, nice new presents. During my tidying I found lots of environment and conservation leaflets I've collected from various places over the last few months and it's given me a new sense of enthusiasm.

In particular, I rediscovered the Book of Green which I found in the Beautiful Planet cafe in Preston. This little book is free and is an "eco-living directory" full of companies and products that are ethical or environmentally friendly. The book comes out once a year and has been running since 2006; it's also online here.

Looking through, the book is split up into sections including Food and Drink, Travel and Leisure, Green Child and  Business Services.  It's a great resource to flick through for ideas and having it all collected together makes it easier to fight the urge to just take the easy option when buying things and forget the environmental impacts (both direct and indirect).

The clothing and jewellery pages are filling my mind with thoughts of post-Christmas shopping while the Eco-builds section makes me think wistfully of future dream homes full of eco-friendly gagets and powered by renewable energy. It's going to be a good source of ideas for Christmas presents for friends and family too, although I'm still busy with crafting home made gifts most evenings-hopefully they'll be done before the big day!

Why not have a look at the Book of Green online and see if it sparks and ideas for last minute presents for you?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Tweet Tweet

File:Troglodytes troglodytes -fence-8a.jpgThe Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) is the only wren that you will see in the UK and this little bird has always held a special place in my heart. Sacred to the Druids the wren was considered "supreme among all the birds" and in folklore it was believed that the Fairy Queen would take the form of a Wren, often known as Jenny Wren in nursery rhymes. This connection with my name is probably why I'm so fond of wrens, as I can remember being called Jenny Wren by family and getting cards with wrens on all my life. 

The RSPB's website says that "for such a small bird it has a remarkably loud voice". At 5ft 11"  small isn't a word that's been used to describe me recently but family often point out that my frequent, loud chatter means I punch above my weight when it comes to getting my voice heard, quite like the wren.

Starting this blog meant my online voice got lots louder too and I've been chattering here almost every day for two and a half months now. I hoped that writing about the environment and nature every day would make me think more about my impact on the world and help me make my life more sustainable and greener; and I think it has.

It has also made me think and learn about issues I wouldn't have done otherwise, I never used to trawl the environment sections of news websites or become hooked on environment and conservation radio programmes!

 The third thing I wanted from writing my blog was to get my voice and ideas out onto the internet and it's great to see how many people have looked at my page each day. But like the wren I want my voice to get even louder, as there are lots of other birds singing in the woods! So I've joined Twitter. I've only just started and would love some followers so please follow me @jennifercavery.

I'd love to know what you think of my blog, or if there's a topic you'd like me to write about so please comment or get in touch on twitter!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Fairy Lights

As I walked home from work yesterday I enjoyed looking at all the fairy lights in peoples windows and round doors. There were a few Christmas Trees up but I'm sure there will be more over the next few weeks. I'm looking forward to seeing them.

A while ago I blogged about turning the lights off in rooms you're not using. Christmas lights are tricky because you want to leave them on so people can see them but it wastes energy if you're leaving lights on when no-ones there. My solution is to include them in my "putting the house to bed" routine. As we walk round the house at night turning lights off and closing doors to keep the heat in the Christmas Tree lights go out too, and then in the morning they go back on for breakfast. Then if we go out they're turned off and when we come back they go back on. It means a lot of turning on and off but I can appreciate the lights without feeling guilty about using lots of electricity.

I'm off to a Christmas party this afternoon. I doubt there will be any Fairtrade wine but the food should be quite environment-guilt free as the restaurant's website says it uses the "finest locally sourced products" whenever possible. I'm not going veggie, which would probably be more environmentally friendly but it's good to know the turkey's probably local!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Birds of Prey

Birds of prey are beautiful creatures and they should be protected. In fact, many of them are protected by law.
When people are prosecuted for killing birds of prey often the land owners, who should be stopping their employees killing the birds are left unpunished. In Scotland the laws have been changed  so that all responsible are held to the law.

I've signed this petition asking for the laws to be changed in England too. If you love the beautiful birds of prey such as Red Kite and Buzzard please sign it too!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Deck the Halls

The weeks before Christmas are always a slightly stressful time but if you start considering the ethical and environmental side of everything it gets even more complicated. It's often a time when forgetting green habits from the rest of the year is very tempting, such as sourcing ethical products and looking for local sustainable goods.
This weekend we bought and decorated our Christmas Tree. The great environmental Christmas Tree debate rages every year: Is an artificial tree or a real tree better for the environment?

There are lots of different arguments and things to consider such as where the real trees are grown, how long you keep the fake tree and how you dispose of either of them. I think real is better but here are a few pros and cons for you to think about:


  • Young trees capture carbon dioxide as they grow so growing lots of young trees each year mean taking carbon out of the environment which is good
  • You need to try and find local trees from sustainable forests so that you minimise transport emissions and also make sure that more trees will be planted next year.
  • When deposing of your tree composting is good as it then goes back into nature and provides nutrients for other plants but burning uses a sustainable fuel (wood) which may be better than coal or oil.
  • Made of plastic (PVC) which requires large amounts of energy to produce and also creates nasty by products such as lead which can pollute the natural environment. 
  • The average lifetime of a fake tree is actually only 6 years, people tend to throw them away after that. And when they get thrown away they will remain on rubbish heaps for hundreds of years before the metal and plastic decompose.
  • Most fake trees are made in the far east and so the transportation costs and emissions from them are huge.
Some tips I've found on the internet for buying your trees are:

  • Try to find an organic or sustainably-managed producer, preferably local
  • If you have the garden space, consider a living tree with roots so you can plant it out in the New Year
  • Try not to not use preservative sprays to stop needle fall. If that's a problem buy one of the varieties that holds it's needles for longer, and keep it as cool as possible over the holiday. Trees that have been recently cut down in the UK will hold their needles better than imported varieties cut down weeks before so they can be shipped here in time.
  • If you have purchased a cut tree then make sure you take it to your recycling centre in the New Year, most local councils run schemes now (and many Scouts groups organise collection points). Alternatively shred it yourself and use as mulch or pathing.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

It's Cold Outside

In a brief gap in the rain I got out for my weekly walk today. It was my first walk in December and it's got very cold this week hailing almost every day.

There were still signs of autumn on the canal with mushrooms and fungi as well as red berries on some bushes. I'm sure all this outdoor food will be appreciated by the animals as winter closes in properly.


There were the usual birds but also lots of blackbirds which I don't always see. Last week I saw my first wren on the canal too, which was lovely. Another interesting sight was that of solar panels and a wind turbine on top of a canal boat which was moored on the banks. 

Saturday, 3 December 2011


Whilst stuck in a traffic jam next to our local park today we saw an interesting bit of animal behaviour.

A squirrel was sat by a young tree with a nut in it's mouth (nothing too strange yet!). As we watched it appeared to be looking back and forth at the traffic, and when there was a gap it ventured to the edge of the road and took a few furtive steps out. It slowly moved forwards until it was almost on the centre lines and then stopped. A car moving towards it slowed right down so as to avoid hitting it and for a few seconds the squirrel starred at the car, deciding what to do. It then ran back to the original side of the road, even though the cars on our side were completely stopped and it would have been safe to cross.

I've no idea why it was trying to cross the road, maybe to hide its nut, or why it decided running back was safer than going forwards, maybe because it had already tested that but of road. But it was a good reminder than interesting nature  can be found all around us if only we look, even in the centre of cities.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Counting the Days

The start of December has arrived and whilst the 1st was a very busy day I've managed to put up the advent calendar and candle by the end of day two!

For me Christmas is a time for traditions. Gatherings of old friends, singing familiar songs and getting out the well loved decorations that have accumulated over the years. There are some traditions others might wish I let go. For example, each year I proudly hang my home made glitter bell decoration in the middle of our tree. The fact that it is now 20 years old (made by me aged 2) and very obviously a squashed egg box cup covered in PVA and (almost all fallen off) glitter doesn't occur to me but perhaps it's time that one stayed in the box.

Other traditions such as the beautiful cloth advent calendars me and my brother were given when little should definitely continue, even if we're not there to open them each day. This is my first advent not spent at home or in university accommodation so new traditions are being created. Instead of a throw away cardboard, plastic and chocolate advent calendar I'm using  a cardboard fold out one from last year. Like our cloth ones at home a reusable cardboard calendar saves money, time and resources by avoiding buying new every 12 months. Saying that I was very tempted by the sprout one offered by Riverford, my veg box suppliers.

I think less people have advent candles at home than have advent calendars. Now out of university fire regulations I'm very happy to have a candle again. It's also a good excuse to have a little time each day when you don't use electricity. Whether it's sitting in the candle light relaxing with friends or lighting it to avoid putting the lights on for just a few more minutes at dusk.

Noticing and marking the seasons is important as it means we take notice of the world around us and hopefully think about our impact on that world. Advent's a good time for this as we watch the nights draw in and soon, always surprisingly soon, we'll be reaching the longest night.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

We're all in it together... almost

Yesterday I talked about the ongoing climate talks in Durban and I mentioned the Kyoto Protocol. I was looking at this on Wikipedia and found an interesting image:

This picture shows the varying participation in the Kyoto Protocol by countries around the world in 2010. Green indicates countries that have ratified the treaty, with dark green representing Annex I and II countries. These are countries which are registered as industrialised or in transition to industrialisation and countries which are developed and support developing nations. Grey shows countries which have not yet decided whether to ratify and brown shows those countries which do not intend to ratify.

Now, I was quite impressed with how many countries have ratified. The world is still facing serious environmental problems but at least most countries have agreed to acknowledge the problems and try to fix them. It's quit clear which of the world powers is kicking it's heels in and refusing to play though. From what I can see the main reason the U.S.A. won't ratify (and I suppose it's good that they haven't withdrawn from the protocol either) is because they want developing countries to be required to minimise emissions too. The concern is that developed countries will be harmed economically as they must make the most changes while less developed nations are left free to increase their emissions and economies.

The way I see it though is that we've caused the damage so we should sort it out! If you went to a meal with friends and one of them ate almost all the food you wouldn't be expecting to pay equally for it would you? Neither would you be pleased if that friend told you that you both had to diet because they'd eaten too much. It's important that developing countries develop in a sustainable way, and learn from our mistakes by investing in sustainable energy, avoiding wasteful consumerism and protecting important natural habitats. We all have to face the consequences of man made climate and it's the developing countries that will be hit worst with floods, severe weather and famine to come.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Talk is Cheap

We are now two years on from the Copenhagen Climate Talks of 2009. I remember joining thousands of other people in London to march in The Wave just before the talks to try and raise awareness of the key issues and urgency of the problems climate change brings to us.  Unfortunately, the talks in Copenhagen didn't seem to achieve very much at all as we watched global leaders bicker and argue over even the smallest of agreements.

Now leaders are meeting in Durban for the next round of global discussions on climate change. According to the United Nations website;
The discussions will seek to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, agreed at COP 13 in 2007, and the Cancun Agreements, reached at COP 16 last December.

 At Copenhagen the emphasis was on a top-down solution to climate problems. The plan was for global institutions to work across borders and with national commitments holding countries and states to account. But, ignoring the fact that no deal could be agreed and the money couldn't be raised, many believe this plan just wouldn't work due to political leakage, bureaucracy and corruption.

With this in mind many believe it might have been a success in disguise  for the talks two years ago to have failed, as we are not committed to the "wrong" solution and are free to choose the "right" one now. To be perfectly honest I would be quite happy just to see some sign that politicians and leaders are taking the problems of climate change seriously enough to actually want to find a solution now, rather than ignoring the problem and pushing it on to the next guys.

With the top-down approach seemingly impossible to achieve a new suggestion has arisen. While not as neat as top-down, the idea of a solution driven on national, regional and local levels by citizens interests in jobs, income and security might be the way forward. This process could also be enhanced with the support of international cooperation and investment by industry. The key element would be to drive change by addressing the fears and issues within current society, by using the environmental changes we desperately need to fix the other problems we have such as unemployment, lack of skills and energy security. This method is already working in India, South Africa and Morocco as renewable energy industries are growing thanks to industry and government investments, thus creating jobs, job security and energy security for the individuals in those communities.

I don't have the answers, and I don't even have enough information to start thinking about what the answers might be, but it's important to think about the questions and problems our society faces so that we can tell our leaders who do have the information required what we need them to do on our behalf. Let's hope that talking turns to actions and actions so solutions in the very near future, or the slightly more distant future make look even darker than now.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Tree Week

This week is National Tree Week, the UK's largest celebration of trees and the start of the winter planting season. Between 26th November and the 4th December groups around the country will be holding events that promote local treescapes and educate people about the wonders of trees.

Started in 1975 this week long celebration of our largest plants is organised by the Tree Council, the UK's leading charity for trees which was set up to promote tree planting around the country.

Trees are a vital part of our natural world. They take in carbon dioxide, give out oxygen and provide food, shelter and resources for building. So why not join one of the thousands of events around the country and plant a tree this week? Many member organisations, up to 200 schools and 8,000 Tree Wardens are supporting the initiative with fun, worthwhile activities for everyone. Their aim is to involve a quarter of a million people in the week and to plant upwards of a million trees.

All the events can be found on the events map here, and you can look at previous events here.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Shower Power

I've always been told that a 4 minute shower uses half the water you'd use for a bath. So having a shower is better for the environment than having a bath. Well, maybe...

Unilever have recently carried out a study investigating how much time people spend in the shower and how they use other Unilever products. This found that the average shower lasts 8 minutes, so the average shower uses almost the same amount of water as having the average bath. The numbers get worse if you have a power shower, as this uses much more water per minute, so an 8 minute power shower will use more water than a bath.

HildeHendrickx, from Unilever explained that
 quite a large proportion of our (products') environmental impact occurred when people used them

and, in particular for shower and bath products,
we know that 95% of the associated greenhouse gas emissions are related to people [using] our products because they have to use hot water.

So, if you carefully  use every last drop of shampoo and then recycle the plastic bottle this isn't doing as much green good as if you cut your shower by a few minutes. I was really surprised at the 95% figure, I would probably have guessed maybe 50% of a bottle of shampoo's carbon footprint was from using hot water with it, so it shows how important good research is.

Today from my alarm going off to being back in my room having had a shower it took me 8 minutes, so I think my shower was probably 5 minutes long. I know I take much shorter showers than a lot of my friends so if we all cut a minute or two off our showers hopefully we'll have a greener world.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Three Months On

It's been almost three months since I moved to Preston. My walk along to canal today was a lot colder and darker than when I started back in September. I haven't managed a walk every week since I've been here but looking at the photo's I've taken you can see how the banks have changed as we move into winter. It'll be interesting to see how things change over the next few months too.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Don't Just Turn Me On And Leave Me...

...was the catchy sticker placed above every light switch at my last workplace.

Other than making me smile every time I walked past, these cheeky stickers made a very good point. With the nights creeping forwards and the days getting shorter a warm glow in the house makes all the difference at the moment but the temptation to rush around the house turning ever single light on should be avoided at all costs.

A habit I have grown up with is walking around the house in the dark at night times. I don't mean sleep walking, but if I'm just popping upstairs to get something I won't bother turning the kitchen and stairs lights on because I know where I'm going and I don't need to. I perfected this art in our family home being able to negotiate from the warm bright living-room into the darkness and through the hall, up the stairs round the corner and along another passageway to get to my room, and then back again. Occasionally if there were two people doing this there were minor collisions and surprises but very rarely. It's even more tempting in Preston because the lights to the stairs and kitchen are both on the far side of the kitchen wall. I can only turn them on or off when I enter the room, not when I go upstairs, so I normally don't bother. If I did, I'd be tempted to forget and leave them on for ages.

My reasons behind walking in the dark were 1) I couldn't be bothered to turn the light on,
                                                                       2) It was quite fun seeing if I could,
                                                                       3) It saved electricity.

I'm not suggesting we should all perfect our night vision but turning lights off when no-one's in the room is a definite must. It just makes sense. Turning lights on only when they're really needed, and turning them straight off when they're not saves energy, electricity and thus precious money.

And don't be fooled by those who tell you it takes more energy to turn a light off and on again than to leave it on. If you're out of the room for more than a few minutes- turn it off!  If you're in the room for less than a few minutes think about what the stickers at my work say, maybe you don't need to turn them on at all?

Friday, 25 November 2011

Old Fashioned Recycling

I always think of recycling as a modern thing. The idea that everything should return to the factory to be reinvented into something new, like pencil cases made from tyres or fleeces made from drinking cups, does seem quite 21st century to me. But after a conversation with someone at work today I was reminded that's completely wrong.

Many people remember collecting used bottles and taking them back to the shops to be reused, and getting a penny or a discount on the new drinks bottles they bought. During rationing absolutely everything was used in households, twice or thrice if possible! Scraps of food were saved up to make leftover meals, old clothes were used to patch less old ones and nothing went in the bin.

Since rationing finished society has embraced the consumer and one-use culture we now find ourselves in. It's second nature to put things in the bin, not even thinking where it goes or whether it could have been used again. Tin cans, glass bottles, one use clothing, left over food, it all goes straight into the rubbish bin and off to the land-fill site.  If we all had to store our rubbish ourselves in our own gardens I bet we'd all buy less, bin less and take more notice of the packaging on things.

The price of objects aides our throw away culture too. A price of £5 for a top makes it easy to throw away after one use, but does that price include repairing the damaged environment that the production of the top created? The carbon emissions to fly and drive it to the shop, the water and chemicals poured into rivers once it's been dyed and a fair wage for the people who actually made it. If companies began to pay the full cost of their produce, and (as I'm sure they would) passed the cost onto the consumers we'd buy items that latest, that could be used again and that we'd cherish. I'd much rather have a few items that I really value than hundreds that clutter my cupboards and life just because they're cheap and easy.

It's something that we can all work towards. It might not be a big thing, but reusing and recycling in our own homes will mean we're buying less and using less of the worlds all too scare resources. And we can always get better at it. I can make sure I don't throw paper receipts in the bin but shred and recycle them, every bit of leftover food can be reused and any real waste can be composted. What could you do to make your life a bit more valuable and a little less disposable?

we need to start seeing the whole value and price of everything

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Lots of Sprouts

It's Thursday and that means Veg Box Day! This is a picture of our box this week. LOTS of sprouts and there was a bag of potatoes and apples too. This should last us at least two weeks, probably three.

The parsnip season has definitely started with a big bag of these lovely sweet vegetables. I'm looking forward to roasting them and using them in spicy soups for yummy dinners. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A Good Cuppa

Do you often walk past a shop or cafe always meaning to go in and have a look but never quite managing it? I do, or at least I did until today. Today I walked into, rather than past, Beautiful Planet on Friairgate in Preston.

It's a little community cafe selling environmentally friendly drinks, snacks and wholefoods. The outside is decorated with murals of trees and plants and the inside contains leaflets on ever aspect of ethical living you can think of. 50p will get you a take away tea and for £1.60 I'm happily sitting at one of their free-to-customers computers drinking a fairtrade, organic Indian Chai Tea and a piece of "lovely cake"-fruit cake.

The cafe is run completely by volunteers and must make £165 a week to break even. The staff are extremely friendly and I even got a nice Maths chat with Bret who was serving me as we discovered we both share an undergradaute maths history. Places like this really inspire me. A tiny corner of a street filled with consumer driven goods and fast food places which offer a quiet spot to sit, drink a warm cuppa and either be quietly peaceful for a few minutes or have a chat about politics, the environment or the local community.

I think Beautiful Planet might have a new regular now I've finally made it through the door and while I doubt I have enough time for yet another volunteering commitment I'd love to get more involved.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Dark Nights

The nights are definitely drawing in now. It's dark by 5pm and the weather's taking a turn towards freezing this week, it won't be long before frosts are the norm every morning.

At dusk our house becomes a flurry of activity. The curtains which have been opened to let as much light in as possible during the day are quickly shut to keep as much heat in as possible. There's a fine line between being daylight and darkness and it seems to change suddenly. Big thick curtains are great at keeping heat in but I can never understand why radiators are often situated directly under windows. It just makes it harder to keep the heat in! So, as well as drawing the curtains around the house I am found carefully tucking the curtains behind the radiators so that any heat they give off will go into the room and not out into the night.

It's not just curtain tucking that stops heat getting out. Our porch door is really draughty and the stream of cold air coming in is a sure sign that warm air is escaping out. So next weekend a pair of old jeans will be given a new life as a draught excluder, stuffed with more old, worn out clothes. Pushed against the bottom of the door this should keep the living room nice and toasty for those long winter nights.

Another tip for keeping the house warm that we used whilst at university was to have everyone in one room for the evening. This way you only need to heat one room and if you have enough bodies, and laptops, together it's amazing how much heat they can give off. You might not even need the heating on!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Climate change

There have been two news stories I've heard in the last week about climate change.

The first was that the intergovernmental panel on climate change released a report saying that more severe weather such as floods, storms and heat waves are expected over the next few decades as a result of climate change.

The second was that European bird's migration seasons and locations are beginning to change due to climate change. Some birds are moving further north, so we will see more of them, and some are moving so far north that they will pass by our shores without stopping. The time migrating birds spend in their winter stopovers is changing too. Eventually these species will have no further north to go.

These two stories indicate some of the ways our world is already changing as a result of previous generations actions. The result of our emissions will not be felt for year to come but they will be felt. We must act now to reverse and limit our negative impact on the world, and leave it better not worse for future generations.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Green World

This week I got my first copy of the Green Party magazine, Green World. It had lots of news articles about recent Party activities as well as articles on issues that concern Green Party members.

There was a series of articles which discussed how different religions see the link between the environment and their faith. It was very interesting and seemed to reiterate points made in the Saving Species programme on the new Green Pilgrimage Network I talked about earlier this week.

Almost all religions see humans as the guardians of Earth, or at the very least in partnership with other species and with a  responsibility to protect nature. Whether we're religious or not I think more focus on personal responsibilities for caring and protecting nature can only do good.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Crafty Evenings

I've spent the last week watching old episodes of Kirsty Allsop's Christmas craft programmes on 4od. Some of them aren't very practical or cheap but there are still lots of great ideas to help you avoid the plastic decorations that are all over the shops at the moment.

Today I made a trip to HobbyCraft and returning with felt, ribbons and thread spent the afternoon creating my own decorations. It's definitely not as quick as buying them from the shops but it's more fun and cheaper too- it only cost 90p for the felt and a few pounds for the threads and ribbons to create 8 individual, unique decorations. I've still got lots to make but I can't think of a more fun way to spend the last cosy Autumn nights. 

Friday, 18 November 2011

My Beans Dilemma

Baked beans are an incredibly versatile food stuff. Pop them in stews or pasta sauces, have them with your full English, on toast or a baked potato; they're great however you eat them. They are low fat, vegetarian and one of your five a day portions of fruit and veg, definitely a super-food.

Their simplicity is one reason why they're so useful at lunch times. Take in a few slices of bread and you can easily have beans on toast for lunch and feel all warmed inside and healthy too. It's not a huge hassle, but taking them out the tin, finding a microwavable  container, cooking them and then washing up all seems more effort than taking sandwiches. Then there's the problem of size, one tin is a little too big for a lunchtime and the smaller tins at 150g are just not quite enough. So the new 200g snack pots are great because you have the right amount of beans for lunch and you can pop the plastic containers straight into the microwave and then bin them straight after.

It's so easy. Just open, cook, then bin the packaging. But that's "bin the packaging" not recycle the packaging. One of my favourite things about baked beans is that (apart from the plastic wrapping around 4 packs) they come in completely recyclable packaging. I've never met anyone who wouldn't automatically recycle tins, it's ingrained in our lifestyles. But the new plastic containers are much harder to recycle. I definitely can't here in Preston, I might have been able to recycle the main pot at university in Durham but not the plastic film lid. So the question is, do I sacrifice sustainable packaging for convenience of cooking?

I don't have an answer to that. I love the convenience of the new pots, but hate the waste that the new product brings over the old version. It seems backwards to move from a sustainable packaging to non-sustainable. Maybe I am being a little naive about what people do with their tins at work, I might be in the minority to carefully wash mine and pop into my bag to take home to recycle if there aren't facilities in the office. For now I'm sticking to leftovers and sandwiches but I'm still jealous of colleagues who sit eating their warm (just the right amount of) beans on toast at lunch time.

What are your green dilemmas? Post a comment to discuss!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Faithfully Green

On Tuesday I was listening to Saving Species on Radio 4. It's an interesting programme as it covers a hugely diverse range of conservation stories, both successes, current concerns and new breakthroughs. The programme I caught covered a suitably eclectic mix of stories.

The first article told the story of a bird, about the size of a sparrow, which is facing desperate times and a new project which hopes to act as a safety net. There are only a few hundred pairs of Spoon Billed Sandpipers left in the wild and these numbers are declining year by year. This week a group of these beautiful birds have been brought to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust headquarters in Slimbridge as the start of a captive breeding project. To read more about this incredible story have a look at my Dad's blog from Tuesday.

The second story was about a conference this week in Assisi, Rome (home town of the patron saint of the environment, St Francis). This was a unique meeting of worth faiths and the conservation community with the aim to inspire each other and discuss new ways of working together to protect and help the natural world. Great to see that people from very different backgrounds and beliefs can all work together towards one aim of a saver environment and better future for the next generation. The conference was organised by ARC the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

Tony Juniper (previously CEO of Friends of the Earth and now special advisor to the Prince of Wales' Rainforest Project) talked about the combined power and potential of the world faith groups. The implication was of a new strong force to counter the current economic lobby of bigger, better growth at any cost.

It's true that when I think about it there are always a huge number of religious groups at the environment protests and marches I've been to in the past. And why not? Most world faiths have teachings of harmony with nature and a guardianship of the environment we have been given.

The conference launched the new Green Pilgrimage Network, supporting and promoting environmentally friendly ways to carry out religious pilgrimages across faiths and throughout the world. One example city is Amritsar, Punjab, India, home to the most sacred place in the Sikh faith, the Golden Temple, Harmandir Sahib.  Some of the steps the city has taken to meet the needs of the Network are to only supply organic and pesticide free food for pilgrims, to provide clean tap water removing the need to buy and carry plastic water bottles and they have also banned plastic bags. Impressive steps, even more so when you consider that 30 million visit the site on pilgrimage each year.

Another couple of points of interest in the programme were that it's National Tree Week soon and that the ispot project is still running. More on both of these in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Walking The Walk Again

Yesterday I finally managed to go for a walk along my usual patch of the canal again. My resolution to go every week has lapsed recently but it was great to get out and see how things have been changing over autumn.

As you can see from the photos the leaves have almost all fallen now and with the morning sun behind me on the walk out there was a definite feel of winter in the air. Despite this, even in mid November there are still flowers in amongst the hedges. A welsh poppy and some purple and pink flowers that have been there since I moved here in early September. It's nice to be reminded that even in the season we associate with decay and winding down new shoots and petals are pushing through.

The canal path was busy yesterday, with lots of dog walkers and joggers as well as a man fishing patiently. I wish I'd stopped to ask him what he normally catches. I've only ever seen one fish in the canal, a pike last spring, but there must be lots of fish in there. Unlike the fish the birds were easy to spot. Still in their morning flurry of activity there was lots of birdsong and I easily spotted most of my normal species. Pigeon (always the first one as they live under the bridge I walk down to the canal by), sparrow, great tit, black headed gull, mallard duck, moor hen, swan, as well as the more unusual blackbird, starling and pied wagtail.

Almost all the berries have gone from the hedges now and the sparrows are hooked on the bird feeder in the garden. They're still only eating from one of the two seed feeders though, it's definitely their favourite.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Telling Tales

Last week I had lots of train journeys around the country. Most of them were after 5pm so it was dark and I didn't get very far with my train I-Spy. There was one trip in daylight, from Wellingborough to London where me (and my Dad) saw almost all the things on my list. I'm not sure if we saw anyone rushing for the train but it was 10am so there weren't many busy commuters rushing around.

On an earlier train journey that week I sat down and realised I'd brought nothing to read on my three hour journey. As the radio signal disappeared and I decided it really was too dark to play I-Spy I looked around for another source of entertainment and was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of Easy Living magazine in the pouch on the back of the seat in front. I've never read this magazine before but it was pretty good and kept me entertained throughout the journey. The best bit was knowing it was free and also that I was recycling someone else's old magazine.

It's a great idea leaving papers or magazines on trains once you're done with them, as long as the nice train staff don't tidy it away before someone else can pick it up to read. A completely read magazine is one thing but what about leaving your most loved book behind for someone else?

While I was in Europe last summer I visited Hanover for an afternoon. Sat on a bench by a church I noticed a cupboard next to me, the cupboard was filled with books and as I sat people came and went leaving and taking various books. I was fascinated, even though all the titles were in German. This is an example of a recent new social trend of book leaving. Public places are designated as "libraries" and people drop off unwanted books and pick up new ones. It's a great idea and although I don't know if it's taken off in the U.K. let I do know of several similar schemes.

For example the Guardian newspaper launched its six-week book season this autumn by setting 15,000 books free into the wilds of the U.K. From coffee shops to stations platforms, children's novels to science books to craft annuals; the books were placed around the country for new readers to discover them, read them and pass them on again. Guardian readers were also encouraged to leave their own books with the special bookplate sticker (found free in the weekend papers) inside with a message from the original owner. Finders can then log their book online and look at where it came from and where it's been.

Along the same tracking lines the Bookcrossings phenomenon allows books to be shared and traced across the globe. Stickers are downloaded and printed than then they and the books they're attached to are left in places new owners can find them. The unique sticker number in the book is then logged into the website and the past and present owners can chat about the books, an organic online bookclub.

All these ideas, from leaving your magazine behind on purpose to setting books free into the world are all examples of all three of the R's: reduce, reuse, recycle.  You reduce the number of books you buy by swapping them with others, you always reuse a great book reading it again and again and you recycle it onto the next new reader. A brilliant example of how sustainable living should be. Although, I'm not saying we don't need any new books. Old stories are good but a new tale always has a special feel.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Cutting Through The Smog

When I think of air pollution in cities reducing life expectancy by up to two years I imagine a Dickensian London with street urchins coughing in the smog. But a report out today by the Government's Environmental Audit Committee is saying that this is U.K. cities now, not 100 years ago.

The committee reports that despite commitments made in the coalition agreement the government is still failing to tackle the problem of air pollution, hasn't met the required EU standards for reductions and is now trying to avoid paying the fines for this by asking for another extension to 2015.

While the committee says that there has been "no meaningful evidence" of progress in meeting standards there has been progress in analysis the effects air pollution has on the population. Nationally the government accepts a shortening of life by 7-8 months due to air pollution but this could be as high as two years for those who are daily affected by the pollutants. In addition to this there is also the estimated £8.5-20 billion a year cost of caring for the health of those affected.

The main cause of the pollution is seen to be traffic from the many vehicles on the roads in built up urban areas. Recent research shows that tyres and brakes, as well as vehicle exhausts, are the culprits for high levels of airborne particles of dangerous chemicals and while some changes have been made (investment in bikes and age limits on black cabs in London) there is still so so much left to be done.

Now the latest government request to put back meeting EU targets until 2015 is being looked into by environmental lawyers ClientEarth. On their website ClientEarth say that they are an organisation of activist environmental lawyers committed to securing a healthy planet. Sounds pretty good considering the normal lawyer stereotypes. In response to today's report Alan Andrews, their air quality lawyer said, 
Under the banner of its localism agenda, the government is dumping the problem on local authorities who simply do not have the resources to tackle what is a national problem.
Once again we seem to be lacking that up beat news story about the "Greenest Government Ever" and how David Cameron, Caroline Spelman (Secretary of State for the Environment) and others are fighting the battles that desperately need to be won both for public health and  well-being and the greater environmental good. Still there's always tomorrow right?...

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Eggcelent Choice

I am proud of my farming heritage. My grandparents owned a small dairy farm in rural Northamptonshire and now my aunt and uncle run an organic egg farm only a couple of villages over. I always feel a link back to the countryside and the farming landscape even though I have no day to day experience of it. I didn't grow up on a farm but I have many happy memories of playing in the fields and "helping" with the farm chores when I was little and visiting, although I doubt how much actual help we were when feeding the lambs or herding the cattle.

Farming is a hard profession, even more so now that supermarkets are trying to push down prices for customers which often means pushing down profits for the farmers not the shops. During my lifetime, partly to cope with this, farming has become much more industrial with the use of chemicals, fertilisers, antibiotics and intensive methods. This often means bad news for wildlife and the environment as intensive methods and chemicals push wildlife out to the very edges of the countryside. I've talked about Fairtrade and the benefits for the environment and farmers that paying a fair price has but haven't yet talked about organic farming and the benefits this has in this country and abroad.

The Soil Association is the main certification body for organic farming in the U.K. For farms to be organic they must satisfy strict standards:

  • Artificial chemicals are prohibited
  • Pesticides are strictly restricted
  • Animal welfare is at the heart of farming with a truly free-range life for animals
  • Diversity and rotation of crops and animals allows the soil time to recover and prevents the build up of pests and diseases in the soil
  • The routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers is banned
  • The use of genetically modified crops and ingredients is banned

I always get my eggs from my uncle and aunts farm, this sometimes means travelling by train with a rucksack containing a dozen eggs but normally they survive the trip. When they first started farming organic eggs it was amazing to see the contrast with the normal shop bought eggs. Not only do they last much longer (because we get them straight from the farm which makes them about two weeks fresher than buying them in the shops) but their colour, taste and size is different.

Organic, free-range eggs have a much deeper colour and taste, well, more eggy than battery farmed eggs. The yolks are the colour of oranges rather than the pale yellow of primroses. Also, shops want standard size eggs and this hasn't yet been communicated down to the chickens. Because of this we often get the too big or too small eggs that can't be sold in shops. When a new batch of hens comes to the farm they often start by laying double or triple yolk eggs (I've no idea why) and so these eggs are much too big for the shops so we get them. My university friends were amazed by double yolk eggs and I hadn't realised this was an uncommon thing. It can make cake making tricky but an extra yolk in scrambled eggs is a brilliant treat.

Organic farms must adhere to strict welfare conditions and the hens have freedom to roam the fields during daylight and are put away to bed in large sheds when night falls to protect them from foxes and other predators. It's quite amazing to see thousands of hens wandering around in a field but they do look quite happy-as happy as hens can look.

Because pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics are restricted or banned on organic farms the soil and natural environment has time to recover and bloom. Farmers are encouraged to incorporate wildlife friendly schemes into their farms which helps to bring back the balance between nature and farming which is needed to get the full potential out of organic farming.

There are of course downsides to organic farming. It takes up more land, sometimes uses more energy (battery farming is unethical but very energy efficient) and water and doesn't always produce as high yields as intensive farming but the benefits of yummier food, happier animals and better environment must surely be worth something.

How organic farming is used globally and the more general impacts, pros and cons it has are discussions for another blog. For now I'm off to enjoy some bright yellow scrambled eggs! Have a nice Sunday and if you're ever in Waitrose why not try the Organic Free-range Columbian Blacktail eggs, you might even be eating some from my relatives farm!