Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

While I doubt many people will be reading blogs on Christmas day (I wont be, although I bet a few will!) I've had to post this week's blog a day late to avoid any premature present revelations for family and friends, so apologies for no blog yesterday.

Christmas always feels like a tricky time to be green, lots of presents to find and collect, food to prepare, travelling all over the place and all that wrapping paper and lighting. Each Christmas I try to remember all my good habits from the rest of the year, and stick to them. Recycling (both wrapping paper and rubbish), buying local and not buying things that will just be thrown away soon. But most of this takes some pre-planning and organisation; like remembering to wrap presents with paper than can be recycled  (and hinting to family that you'd like to receive gifts that are wrapped similarly) or ordering those extra few things from the veg box. I'm really quite lucky as my nearest and dearest are all very green too. So using last years paper (whether it's been carefully ironed flat first or not) is common practice and staying at my parents for Christmas means I can sit back and relax knowing they've already ordered the local turkey and the organic veg box.

Like last year, I've tried hard to make my present giving green. I've had nowhere near enough time to make handmade gifts for everyone (and also my craft skills are not great enough to create presents that would impress or please everyone either) but I have made some. Friends got home-made festive candles in red mugs (the mugs can be reused as normal mugs once the candles have gone) and a pot of bulbs already growing to give a nice splash of colour and life in the first few months on the new year. I've also received a present of home-made gingerbread biscuits which is always a brilliant gift and another friend made me a jewelry hanger out of lace and a large picture frame, both useful and very pretty.

If home-made isn't your style you can go for eco-friendly, like the grow-your-own-fruits kit I received this year or the mushroom kit I gave in a previous year. Or maybe buy your normal gifts, but from a charity. Maybe Fairtrade earrings from Oxfam or some singing birds from the RSPB. This means your loved ones get something professionally made that they love, but also you're doing some good for someone else too. You could take it one step further and buy one of the "buy a goat" gifts for someone, whether it's sponsoring a polar bear, giving a charity gift membership or donating the equivalent of a new goat to a project where they help local people develop their agriculture system. I get a few of these each year and although it's always nice to receive physical gifts too, the knowledge that someone's put their money into a fantastically worthwhile project on your behalf is lovely. 

Sometimes though none of these options quite work for that particular person or that particular present which would be just perfect. For all those other presents I try to make sure I get things that will last, and that will bring lasting enjoyment. Books are good for a lot of people in my family, I try to look for ones that have FSC paper but in reality it doesn't always happen. Whatever you're giving, and receiving, today enjoy it and enjoy your day;

Happy Christmas!

Monday, 17 December 2012

A Green Engagement

A few weeks ago I had a lovely visit to the RSPB Leighton Moss nature reserve. It was a very icy day which meant there was lots more wildlife out in the open looking for food than usual. The bird feeding station was completely covered with birds, my first Water Rail was a particular highlight and there were also Spotted Red Shank on the ice and Marsh Harriers flying overhead. But none of these were the highlight of the day. That particular moment was when, with the view across the lake from Lillian's hide in front of us, my boyfriend proposed and I said yes! I'd never thought of it before but an RSPB reserve was definitely the perfect place, what could be better than being surrounded by beautiful nature.

Image courtesy of Lewis Niven

So the proposal was perfect, and with a bit of a green twist, but what about the wedding? Everyone wants their wedding to reflect them, so obviously I'm already thinking of how to keep green while planning my something blue but it might not be easy.

Whether from personal experience, or from reading this blog, we all know sticking to a green life isn't always simple. There are tempting foods flown in from around the world, short car journey's on rainy days, ethical vs non ethical fashion and lots more choices that can be green, not green or somewhere in the middle. All these concerns (and more!) apply to weddings too so this week's blog looks at all the green and not so green wedding thoughts I've had so far. But don't worry, I wont be going wedding mad and we'll be back to (slightly) less girly blogs on nature and general green living next week, just in time for Christmas!

Save The Dates and Invites
I'm beginning to realise there's a lot of posting things out to friends and family when you're planning a wedding. All that paper adds up and before you know it you need a small forest just to invite everyone. Even the postage can add up and just think of all that transporting of the invites around the country, and world, too! Hand delivering, when passing by or visiting on other trips, is a good way to cut down on both postage costs and travel millage for you invites and don't forget the less paper you use the lighter things are to post. I'll be thinking hard about whether each piece of information needs a separate sheet of paper and if the information needs to be posted in the first place. Wedding websites are very popular now and it's a great way to post all the vital information, some less vital information and some general bride and groom trivia for everyone to enjoy. It also avoids any of those last minute "where did we put the directions" worries. Of course, don't forget that not everyone has a computer, so some printing will probably be needed anyway.

The Dress
An expensive item of clothing bought to wear on just one day? I think not. There are some truly lovely  organic, Fairtrade or alternative material weddings dresses online but I'd much rather have something I can wear, or adapt to wear, on lots of other occasions or just hire a dress for the day (then it can be reused by someone else) or even just buy a very simple cheap dress for the day and then donate it to a charity like Oxfam for someone else to buy next time. There are lots of options that don't break the bank and don't cost the Earth either. It may be the most important day of your life but surly using it to save the world one dress at a time rather than destroy it is best?

It's easy to get carried away with set menus, impressive desserts and delicious wines. But if you spend the rest of your life buying local, Fairtrade and organic why should your wedding be different? There are lots of caterers who are already very keen on green issues and any who aren't yet might be persuaded with a little help from you, after all, you are paying them for it. Another option is the home made route so you know exactly where the foods come from but depending on your party size this could get very stressful, very quickly! This is one of those ethical choices that might mean the bill goes up a bit. But if it's important to you you can save on other things (maybe home make invites) to make up for it. Alternatively you can pick one part of the catering and make that greener, possibly by choosing a local brewery to provide the drinks. As with all green things, every little helps.

It's one of the biggest expenditures you'll make during the wedding process, where is it all going to happen? A quick internet search finds lots of incredible eco-friendly wedding venues (hardly any close to where we want to have ours though!) with solar panels, grey water toilets, compost bins, vegetable gardens and lots lots more. If you're both huge nature lovers another option is to pick a nature reserve as your venue. There are lots of places like this that you can hire out now, even Leighton Moss where we got engaged. I think it's a bit trickier to make this greener, but it's worth asking if they do simple things like recycling and composting, and having a look whether the lights are energy efficient. Even if you pick a venue with no green credentials keen asking about them, the more people get asked the more they'll be thinking about it. And again, you're the ones spending the money and if enough people ask more venues will become greener. One thing to consider is if you chose the same venue for your ceremony and reception then people wont need to be driving around between the two, this will save your loved ones a bit of money and reduce emmisions too.

Travel and the Honeymoon
I'm determined to make it as easy as possible for people to get to our wedding (wherever we chose to have it) by public transport. Driving to a new place, finding somewhere to park and then choosing whose the designated driver is never fun, and weddings really should be for everyone. Give people advance notice so they can book cheap trains or plan car shares. Some people even create a section of their wedding website for people to arrange lifts and journey shares.
The other potentially huge travel decision is where to have your honeymoon. Do you pick somewhere local, but maybe not quite so magical (although it can be), do you spend a small fortune travelling by land rather than air to get to an exotic location or do you just give up and book a perfect cheap flight somewhere you'll remember forever and pay for carbon off setting of the flights? A very personal choice and I feel that since it's probably going to be for a holiday longer than a couple of days if it means a lot to you it's worth spending a bit of money on to get it right both with location and avoiding any eco-guilt that might ruin the stay.

All the other Odds and Ends
There are so many other things to consider, plan, budget for, order and decide upon for even the most basic wedding. Maybe you'll choose biodegradable confetti or maybe you'll have local, in season flowers. Perhaps the wedding favours will be a donation to charity or your gift list will ask for second hand or homemade presents. Whatever you choose it's got to fit your principles and wishes for the day. It's just as bad to spend your wedding day stressing about the ethical dilemmas without enjoying it as it would be to spend it worrying about if your hair will blow in the right direction in the photos.

So those are my green wedding thoughts so far. But for now I'm putting the finishing touches to some pretty green Christmas presents. All will be revealed next week!

Monday, 10 December 2012

Seeing the Wood for the Trees

Despite looking up the date back in September I've missed National Tree Week (24th November - 2nd December) for another year but I've already put it in my diary for next year (23rd November - 1st December). Almost all the leaves have gone from the trees now and I think we can definitely say we're moving deep into the winter months but we shouldn't forget all about trees just because we've passed national tree week. 

Even without all the leaves trees are still full of life whether it's the dormant trees themselves of the life that they support. I took this picture a few weeks ago of a tree just outside the hide at RSPB Bowling Green Marsh. It's covered with ivy, lichens and was full of singing birds (although none stayed long enough to be photographed!). I bet if I had looked closer I would have found insects among the branches and maybe other animals like foxes, owls and deer use the tree at other times too. And that's just one tree in December. Just think how full of life that tree is throughout the year, and then how many other trees are just as full of life all around it. When I think of rainforests I see them brimming with thousands of creatures and lives. It's easy to forget that the trees here in the UK are also beacons of vitality and life. 

With only 15 days to go (hasn't it gone fast!) it's also time to start thinking about Christmas trees too. As with most things festive this can be a bit of an environmental minefield. The best thing to do is reuse, if you already have a plastic tree keep using it, if you had a tree in a pot last year bring it back inside. I doubt anyone has done "reusing the Christmas tree" as well as this family though, who are still using a tree bought in 1886! Very impressive. If you're looking at buying a new tree this year aim for real rather than plastic. The real trees will only emit the amount of carbon they have absorbed in their lifetime plus the cost of transport, while plastic trees have a much higher carbon footprint and still have the cost of transport. The very best option is a real Christmas tree that can be put out into the garden for the rest of the year, and reused again and again. For some tips on how to pick the best real Christmas tree, how to pot it and keep it evergreen for years to come have a listen to Gardener's Question Time which has a great article on the subject. Of course there is the option of no tree (a shocking idea I know). Personally I would be devastated to spend a Christmas without greenery in the house but this year we're moving into our new flat on the 18th and heading back to family for the festive period on the 21st so we've decided not to get a tree for the house in Exeter as it just seems a waste of trees and time for three days. I'm sure I can manage for three days without one and then pile my enthusiasm for chaotic decorating into the family tree later. 

As well as the article in Gardener's Question Time there have been quite a few other tree related programs on Radio 4 lately. So if you fancy loosing yourself in the forests without leaving the house why not listen to the special tree edition of Poetry Please  or The Secret Power of Trees

How are you celebrating trees this winter?

Monday, 3 December 2012

Wet Wet Wet

Throughout history there are tales of the constant battle between humans and the forces of nature; Noah and his ark, King Canute ordering the sea to stop, Li Bing taming rivers in Chinese culture. In the past, human life was ruled by the changing of the moon, the seasons and the rising of the tides but in modern life it's easy to believe we have conquered the natural world and control it at will.

In reality we know this isn't true and over the past 10 days we've seen news story after news story covering floods all over the UK. We do not control the weather, we merely use it on its tamer days to our advantage.

The South West was one of the first areas to be hit by severe storms last weekend with Exeter train lines halted and roads closed in various directions. I became very familiar with the Environment Agency's Flood Warning website but thankfully despite living in a flood plain the defences for the  city centre worked as they should and our house wasn't affected. Hearing the rain pouring down and passing the river each morning did fill me with a renewed sense of awe for nature though.

Once the rain has stopped I ventured out and took some photo's of the swollen river. It had already receded several feet since the weekend but was still covering paths, grass, trees and roaring along. While the damage to human residences and businesses is terrible I'm always reminded of the impact flooding and natural disasters have on the natural world itself, and its wildlife. Habitats can be lost in seconds, and wont be very high on the list of things to fix afterwards. Also, I have no idea what happens to fish during a very big flood. Do they find somewhere quiet to hide away in while things get back to normal or are they swept down river?

The trees where we spotted our first Exeter Kingfisher last summer, the branch we saw it on is several feet underwater in this picture.

The path of my normal river walk follows that white line running under the water. There are also at least three more steps that are underneath there and the river must be about 6m wider than normal.
See the "tide line" of debris over the path to the left. Shows how  high the river had been previously.

Raging torrents of the weir and on the opposite bank a TV woman doing an interview from the soggy flooded garden of a great riverside pub.

This summer has been very wet and particularly during the spring floods there were many wildlife victims. There were some success stories too though. While the brand new visitor centre at RSPB Radipole was plunged into meters of water staff at the nearby RSPB Lodmoor reserve acted quickly to save the fledgling common terms by using inflatable mattresses as rescue rafts until water levels dropped again. 

The huge forces of nature can be terrible and uncontrollable, but we can use some of their strength for good without trying to tame them completely.  Renewable power sources make clean energy from the waves, wind, sun and tides all around us. We must live in partnership with the natural world, understanding that floods will happen (so we maybe shouldn't build in flood plains or make sure other areas are free for the overflow), droughts will happen (so we need good ways of storing water from the wet times) and that we cannot predict it all but must live with the consequences. Let's hope the recent floods give all politicians (not just President Obama) the motivation to deal with our current conservation, energy and environmental issues to make the world a better, cleaner and safer one for both us and the thousands of other living things we share the planet with.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Something About Nothing

When did you last go a whole day without buying anything? Nothing at all, no quick coffee, no new top, no sneaky packet of crisps after work and before dinner, no pint, no anything. When you really think about it, it can be surprising how far away that day was. For me it was Saturday, but only because I took part in

On Saturday 24th November people all over the UK took a day off from shopping and bought nothing. It's a day to challenge yourself, and friends and family, to embrace life and let go of consumerism for a day, avoiding all those temptations and discovering there's a lot more to Saturdays than shopping. According to the website the rules are simple, 
for 24 hours you will detox from shopping and anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending
But why bother? Well firstly because it will save you money. Making a conscious decision not to buy anything at all during the day helps to avoid those little purchases that add up, like coffees and chocolate bars, and it also helps you to really think about the big purchases, whether you need them, where you're buying them and how your money is being used. We in the developed world are only 20% of the global population and yet our consumer lifestyle uses up 80% of the earth's natural resources impacting on everyone else, more often than not in a negative way.

These seemed like pretty good reasons not to buy anything on Saturday. It was probably easier for me than most people as I was busy at work, although work did involve standing in a Christmas Market all day surrounded by shops so maybe it was actually harder! When you know you aren't going to spend anything it's incredible how many things you want to buy. Here's a list of some of the things I suddenly wanted on Saturday:

  • Parking space in pay and display car park
  • Hot Chocolate to start my morning at the market
  • Yummy looking bread from the stall opposite
  • Necklace and bottle opener from the stall next to me
  • Cakes from the stall opposite
  • Take away because there wasn't much in the cupboards for dinner
I'm sure there were more, and that was on a day when I was busy working! But wanting to get to the end of the day without opening my purse made me strong and I felt a real sense of achievement when I managed it, even though it was only a small thing. I found a side street to park on for free (walking further but saving money and being healthier!), I resisted the other stalls and I used up a can of soup and bread that I found in the cupboard that I'd forgotten existed for dinner. Avoiding waste food and buying anything! What I found fascinating was how much of a challenge it was not to buy anything, as I don't normally see myself as a big spender or a mass consumer. None of the things I avoided were essential buys and at the end of the day I feel better for not having them. 

So one day is surprisingly hard, but how about the next day? Sunday was less of a success. Back at the same Christmas Market I bought a cake (but avoided the bread) from the opposite stall and bought a coke and chocolate bar on my drive home. A bit of pre-planning could have avoided this, an extra water bottle and a snack for the journey are easily found at home and I could have grabbed these before leaving in the morning. In total I spent just under £2 on Sunday. My normal guilt tripping trick is to think how much good would that £2 have done if I'd have donated it to charity instead of food and drink for me. Looking back it would probably have done more good/given more pleasure in charitable form than I got from consuming those products. Or selfishly it would have been better saved up for other purchases I need to make in the future.

It's almost impossible never to spend money on things. Today I'll do my weekly shop. But before I do I'll look through the cupboards and plan my week's meals to avoid buying unnecessary items. I'll also keep a list so I don't end up impulse buying. When I walk past the glossy magazines I'll remember that I can get most of it online and that saves paper as well as money. I'll go for a walk or run along the canal (as long as it's not flooded) and watch wildlife as I exercise rather than watching the treadmill screen. Not buying really does feel liberating, and makes buying more of a thought through process rather than an automatic response. Since I'm doing well on having one veggie day a week (a challenge I set myself back in September) maybe I'll try and have one Spend Nothing day a week too, although I'll need to make sure I don't just move my purchases onto a different day, I want to reduce, not double up. 

When did you last spend nothing? If you're interested in trying it, you don't have to wait until next year, just pick a day and go for it. Even just listing everything you;e bought in a day can be interesting. Let me know how it goes!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Avery's Ark (part 2)

It's the moment you've all been waiting for, the second blog of the week with my final five Devon species that I'd love to see more of and learn more about over the coming year. Hope there weren't too many sleepless nights trying to figure out what they would be! Since Monday I've found that there's a lovely drawing of the Devon cup coral in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum which I would probably have never noticed before. It's great how learning something new makes you look at the world differently.

So, without further ado, here are my final five, as I said on Monday, all of these animals can fly but they aren't all birds, just most of them.

By John Haslam from Dornoch, Scotland
(Nesting Herring Gull) [CC-BY-2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Sea Gulls: Now I've cheated here, because I'm including all the "common" gull species you find on the Devon coastline and inland; blackheaded, herring, greater and lesses blackbacked too, all the ones that people complain to me about during my day job. I didn't have strong feelings about gulls before I moved to Devon, now, because so many people seem to hate them, I have become somewhat of a gull champion. To most people's surprise all UK gull species are protected by UK and EU law because they are either on the amber or red list of conservation concern, this means their numbers are declining steeply and widely enough that smart people are getting worried. While they may be noisy, they might try to steal a chip or ice cream and it might feel like they're encroaching on our towns and villages we've got to remember that they were here first, it's quite normal for them to nest/live inland and have been doing it for decades and that many people would love to see this marine wildlife in the numbers we have. I'm sure a future blog dedicated to gulls isn't far away so for now I'll just say that these intelligent, fantastically designed birds are brilliant and they can definitely have a hassle free (but also chip and ice cream free) place on my ark.

By Seglea (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html),
CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
Avocet: Here is a bird I have followed south. After watching them breed (not very successfully this year) at the RSPB Marshside reserve I'm looking forward to a winter watching them out on the Exe estuary. In fact, I'm even booked onto one of the RSPB's Avocet Cruises  to watch them from the water in January! Other than being the RSPB logo bird these are some of the smartest dressers in the avian world. I always imagine they're in the equivalent of dinner jackets and ties with their neatly preened black and white plumage. Watching their courtships is fascinating but seeing whole flocks fly across the estuary is a real Devon wildlife spectacle.

Starling:  Talking of wildlife spectacles how could I not include this flocking wonder. I've never seen a full, large starling murmuration (the name given to the large acrobatic flocks seen over winter) but have seen lots of smaller ones around Preston, Mere Sands Wood and other UK venues. Whilst the big famous ones in Somerset are something to be seen I'll be looking out for more local spectacles, like these ones videoed at Okehampton ( very near Exeter) last winter (Video from YouTube). I'd love to see one of these and then when I see the starlings in the park I can wonder if they were there, in a massive flock.

By Júlio Reis (Original file) [CC-BY-SA-3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Marsh Fritillary: My one, non bird flier out of the five today is a beautiful butterfly. Most commonly found in the south and west of the UK, Devon is a prime location to go hunting for a sight of this lovely insect, although I'll have to wait until April to start my search. With yellow eggs, black caterpillars and gorgeous brown, gold, orange and black checkered wing patterns as adults this creature's interesting at all point in its life cycle. Marsh Fritillary is in decline although at sites in Devon owned by the Wildlife Trust numbers have been increasing in recent years, a sign of hope that things are getting better for this scabious eating butterfly. I'll be looking forward to sunny summer days searching for this beauty, and doesn't the wing colour look just perfect for a warm summer's day?

By Cirl_bunting.jpg: Paco Gómez from Castellón, Spain derivative work:
Bogbumper (Cirl_bunting.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Cirl Bunting: My final Devon species is a very special one (almost exclusively found in the county), and one that I cannot remember seeing before, although I might have done when young. The cirl bunting used to be widespread but when I was born there were only 118 pairs in the UK. Things have improved thanks to the hard work of farmers and RSPB staff (as well as others) working together on agri-environmental schemes to help improve habitats for this farmland bird and in 2009 numbers were up to 862 pairs. This is definitely a species which needs a helping hand and maybe a lift on an ark. While the native, wild population's range is still limited to the southern edge of Devon there is now a successful reintroduction scheme in Cornwall helping this lovably bird spread it's wings across the UK countryside again. So maybe in future it will be a bird of the whole of the south, or with climate change maybe the whole of the UK, again, but for now I'm going to relish being so close to this rare bird and see it as much as I can. Hopefully a truly wonderful Devon export.

So there we have my ten Devon species that I'd love to see more of this year. Some are rare, some are hard to spot, some feel like they're everywhere, others are loved by locals, some are misunderstood or undervalued but the thing I find most amazing is how many fantastic creatures and plants there are to see even close to my home. I could easily have made a list of 20, or even 100 brilliant species in Devon. We may not live in a country of panda's, tigers and hummingbirds but the countryside and towns and still full of absolutely astonishing wildlife to explore and value, even in just this tiny corner of Devon. What's on your doorstep? I'd love to hear from you, or if you've got some more Devon wildlife you think I should go and see, let me know that too!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Avery's Ark (part 1)

I loved watching David Attenborough describe the ten species he would most like to save from extinction on Attenborough's Ark: Natural World Special last week and this (as well as reading a great blog by Amanda Scott) started me thinking, what would I save, which species would I miss the most, what needs protecting the most...

The questions are endless. I'd always want to keep things like blackbirds in my world, but at the moment they don't need as much protection as lots of other things. So I'm going to cop out and pick a slightly easier question. Since I've only just moved to Devon I've chosen ten amazing species that live here, and that I don't often see, that I would love to find, watch and learn about over my first 12 months in the county. I'm splitting them up into two blogs so here are the first five (the rest will come in a second blog later this week):

Derek Harper [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ash: This lovely tree has been all over the news recently and unfortunately last week the first reported case of ash die back disease was recorded in Devon. Ash is one of the trees I find easiest to identify and I would hate to see it disappear from our countryside. Hopefully I'll be seeing ash all over Devon for years to come, but this year in particular I'll be watching out for it more than normal.

From wikicommons
Leatherback turtle: This creature might not be what springs to mind when someone says "Devon wildlife" but they are there, out at sea, normally during the summer months. Sightings are rare but about 15 are recorded each year in the UK, and it's very likely that many other individuals are never seen. These huge (up to 6 ft!) creatures eat mainly jelly fish (another exciting Devon creature) and I'd love to see one! I have seen turtles briefly in Australia, but there would be something infinitely cooler about seeing one off my native shores. It's unlikely and I'll probably have to find a  sea canoe to get a good chance of seeing one, but a girl can dream, and keep trying. Have a look here and here for more information on their Devon sightings.

Photo by Chris Gotschalk  http://www.piscoweb.org/who/techs/cgotschalk.html 
Basking Shark: Another amazing marine creature swimming off the coast of Devon. What's not to love? It eats plankton and small fish, it is the second biggest fish in the world (beaten by the whale shark) and  you could see it in the UK. Fantastic! Another great reason to support campaigns to protect our marine environment, it's these large animals that will suffer and disappear if we don't. Nothing more needs saying, I'd LOVE to see one of these.

Photo from http://www.devonwildlifetrust.org/species/Devonshire+cup+coral/
Devonshire cup coral: From the very big to the quite small, this coral is only 2.5cm wide and 1.5cm tall. Anything that has Devon in the name really must go on my list of things to see. This coral was named after the county upon its discovery in 1860 and was thought to be confined to the region, after further study however it's turned up in the North East England, North West Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Mediterranean. Despite this I'm keeping it on my list because I think anything that has "80 translucent tentacles splaying out of the calcified cup with unique terminal knobs" must be worth a look!

Raft spider: Similar to the Great raft spider (which has been recently reintroduced into the Norfolk Broads) the raft spider is one of the biggest spiders found in the UK, growing up to 8cm from toe to toe (do spiders have toes?!) . These amazing little beasts hunt by sitting on the water (using their legs like a raft) using the surface tension as other spiders do the tension of a web. A deep chocolate brown with a light stripe on each side of their back these are quite pretty as far as spiders go. I have seen them briefly in the past but in Dorset (at the RSPB Arne reserve) and I would love to see them again, in Devon, for a closer longer look. Check out this BBC video, to see how good they are at hunting!
Photo from Orest (Flickr: Raft spider - Dolomedes fimbriatus) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So there are my first five. My next five can all  fly and are fantastic Devon wildlife sights, but they aren't all birds, can you guess any of them? Answers coming soon...

Monday, 12 November 2012

Eat Your Greens

As far as foraging for food from nature goes I'm just a beginner. I can handle the basics of blackberries, sloes and apples while cooking up home made food from the hedges has to be in my top five things to do on a Sunday afternoon. Anything more unusual though, like nuts or rose hips befuddles me and anyone who can pick a salad out of a field bank amazes me.

So it was with some excitement this week that I watched my housemate unpack a rucksack full of bags of greenery found "somewhere in Exeter" ready for us to use in our house dinner. Armed with books and my housemates' considerable previous experience we sorted through the leaves. There were nettles, plantain, dock leaves, goose grass and dandelion. 

All were washed thoroughly several times and then the goose grass, dandelions, and nettles were steamed and fried with garlic and oil, then wrapped in steamed dock leaves.

The plantain was sliced up and mixed with pepper (from the Co-op not the wilds of Devon) dandelion flowers and served as a salad.

The dinner was a success, the plantain salad was delicious and while the leafy packages had a strong bitter-ish taste they weren't dissimilar to kale or spinach, just a bit stringier.

I'd heard of most of these plants and knew they were supposedly edible but other than nettle soup I'd never tried any of them before.  Like most greens they all contain lots of things that are good for you, a lot contain high levels of vitamin C and iron, but it's not just nutritional goodness they offer, lots are used for medicinal purposes too.

Plantain can be used as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory as well as containing astringent tannins which stop bleeding. Not bad for a salad leaf.

Dandelion  is seen as a common weed in the UK but when the leaves are lain out on a kitchen counter they look little different from lettuce or spinach from a shop. The flowers are edible as well as the green leaves and the roots can be used to make coffee apparently, what a versatile plant!

Nettle  is the one plant we are that I'd has before albeit in a restaurant in London some years ago as soup. It's probably one of the better know foraging plants and is fantastic for wildlife, providing a safe nursery for caterpillars to grow before becoming butterflies to fill our summers. Other than the sting (and how often do you touch the plants at the back of your garden border?) there's nothing bad to say about them. So maybe we should be growing, or let grow, a few more of these in our borders and gardens for food and wildlife.

Goose grass, also known as cleavers, cliver, catchweed and goosebill you might remember this as the sticky plant thrown around the school playground to be stuck onto unsuspecting uniforms. I never knew this could be eaten but a quick search online shows it has varied medicinal uses too, mainly for the kidney and bowels. I'll never look at it the same again!

Dock is the plant I always looked for as a child when I'd been stung by nettles. And it's apparent ability to negate the pain of the sting was all I knew about it until this week. There are mixed messages online, some people saying you shouldn't eat dock and others saying it's great. Most of the negative comments are based on the fact that it can taste very bitter, which I found out when we ate it, but so is coffee so if you like the result and it's safe, why not! I might stick to using it for nettle stings though.

My venture into eating foraged foods was certainly informative and a new experience. I loved the plantain and will keep an eye out for that in future for yummy salads. It makes me look at the plants around me differently too. We're so used to seeing plants as decorative and unless it's in a specific veg plot we normally wouldn't consider eating most things. There are obviously lots of things that really shouldn't be eaten as they're poisonous, and even those plants that are safe must be washed carefully and picked in areas that are clear of dogs and lots of traffic. Despite all that I'm feeling a little more adventurous about foraging now. Who knows what I'll find next!

Monday, 5 November 2012

A New Green City

So here I am in Exeter, over 250 miles south of Preston and while both cities have some similarities (similar size, both Fairtrade Cities and both near estuaries full of wildlife) I'm already noticing differences. After arriving and unpacking yesterday I went for a walk along the river Exe as it runs through the city. Bigger and faster flowing than the Preston canal there was lots of new wildlife to be seen. Gone were the sparrows, moorhens and ducks (although I might see them on another visit) and replacing them were swans, herring gulls, grey and pied wagtails, and a heron. There were still blackbirds and black-headed gulls but the highlight was watching two cormorants fishing and swimming around. I've never seen that on the Preston canal!

As well as the changes in wildlife I've got some lifestyle changes to adapt to in my first few weeks. I've got no car and there's no TV in the house I'm renting a room in. Both good changes although only short term until a permanent home is found but it will be interesting living in a house with no television (for the first time in my life) and very refreshing not to have the option of driving, no more excuses of why this time it's ok to drive. It's a great reason to snuggle up in the dark evenings and try some new things, and rediscover some old ones. I'm looking forward to finishing a very old crotchet project, learning a bit of a new language and doing lots of reading I've been wanting to do for ages but never quite doing it. All thing I need no electricity for, except to light the room.

I didn't know a lot about my new housemates when I arrived but I think I've stumbled upon a good group. Almost all vegetarians they've spent the weekend learning how to make a compost toilet, or going for foraging walks, or working on the allotment. There's homemade jams, breads and lots of books on nature. I think I'm going to be learning lots of new green things over the next month of so!

As well as the wildlife and life at home there's a new city to explore. It's nice to know that Exeter is a Fairtrade city (like Durham and Preston where I've lived before) and a quick internet search shows lots of places to buy Fairtrade goods locally. I'm happy to find a Co-op within minutes of my house and according to the internet there are at least six other places to buy Fairtrade within minutes too. Hopefully I'll get a chance to hunt out charity shops, local produce markets and restaurants, wildlife in local parks as well as much more over the next few weeks. Who needs a TV with so much to do on your doorstep, and that's before you discover Dartmoor, the Avocet Line (a special train route that shows off the Exe wildlife) or the  Exeter Green Circle!

Monday, 29 October 2012

Green Goodbyes

The move that's been being planned in the background for months is finally happening this week. After 14 months in Preston I'm moving down south (even further south than I grew up!) to Exeter and starting work as the new RSPB Membership Development Assistant in Devon (look out for me in my van and at events). As my last blog from Preston it seemed fitting to look at how green this city is and how it's helped or hindered my green living efforts.

As you enter Preston from the M6 you see a big sign saying PRESTON: A FAIRTRADE CITY. I blogged about this last year here and since gaining the status back in 2004 the city's Fairtrade establishments have grown. Starting with 29 shops and 17 cafes that sold fairtrade products back in 2004 there's now a huge choice for buying Fairtrade in town. There's no excuse not to find a Fairtrade coffee or bananas now and in 2008 the university UCLan gained Fairtrade status too.

One of my favourite Fairtrade haunts is the Beautiful Planet cafe on Friargate. You can't really miss it as it's painted a lovely green outside. But inside it's full of brilliant Fairtrade products, cups of tea, coffee, hot chocolates, pasta, cakes, biscuits, tins, everything really! It's also full of green magazines and posters that have been donated. Whether you want to find out about local green groups (like the Central Lancashire Green Party group I had a small part in setting up), learn some new vegan recipes or catch up on ethical banking you're sure to find what you need. Run by local volunteers the cafe is a little piece of green heaven in the midst of a busy shopping street and a very different place to the Tesco's just doors away. If you're ever passing by pop in, I never do as much as I want to and it's so lovely!

Closer to home there's the Co-op. Almost my nearest shop and definitely my prefered one for every day foods. I've grown up on Co-op food and so a constant supply of their own brand Fairtrade 99 tea is an essential. If you're fed up of big brand supermarkets then joining the Co-op is a refreshing change. Not only is there a great supply of Fairtrade, organic and local foods in the shop but you get loyalty points when you go shopping and you get a share of the profits twice a year! The Co-op campaign on lots of environmental and social issues and with regular local updates it's fantastic to see how the group are helping community groups and projects. So much more than just a shop (they're my bank too) and since the North West has lots of historic links with cooperative movements it's great to see this tradition thriving here in the city.

On the same road as the Co-op are lots of charity shops (at least three) full of interesting second hand items that need a new home. I can think of few things better than charity shops. You get a new top/dress/set of glasses, charity gets some money and things get reused/recycled. Brilliant! And it's certainly a good way to get rid of old items that you don't need or want anymore so get giving to charity shops.

Beyond the Co-op and charity shops is one of the many parks that are sprinkled throughout the city. One of the best things about Preston is the many and varied Victorian parks and green spaces dotted around. Whether it's Moor Park with playing fields, trees and playground, Avenham Park with pretty flowers beds and river bank or Haslam Park with it's wildlife garden, sensory garden and canal path. Finding wildlife in a city isn't hard, but having trees and green spaces close by means you get a lot more variety and (to be honest) makes searching for it and watching it a bit more pleasant sometimes. Wildlife highlights for me have been long tailed tits along the canal, (grey, red would be better) squirrels collecting acorns, and ivy plants covered in red admirals. I haven't managed to see the nesting peregrine falcons on St Walburge's  Church but knowing they're there flying around and hunting has been nice over the summer. There's so much happening in our local parks and they're brilliant places for community projects whether it's walking groups or children's clubs or getting hands on with a bit of conservation volunteering. Here's hoping that they're be there for years and year to come.

A little way out of town is the local recycling/rubbish centre. I'm always impressed with how much gets recycled here. Last year 79.52% of the rubbish brought to the centre was recycled or reused. The staff are helpful with finding where different items should good (is it metal, glass, hard plastic...) and also good at quickly taking out items that can be reused before they get damaged. Having a good doorstep recycling and food waste system, as well as this brilliant tip means that we throw much much less into landfill than in the past and that can only be a good thing.

So there we have it. My green memories and highlights of Preston. I'm sure there are many more places, projects and events that I've missed so if you know anyone I'd love to hear about them. For now I'm packing up ready for the move south and next Monday I'll be checking out the new city and seeing how it measures up against Preston's greenness.

Monday, 22 October 2012

The Most British Of Fruits

The apple is found as a symbol throughout human culture; in pictures of the garden of Eden (although most scholars believe it was some other fruit), poisoning Snow White, keeping the doctor away and now as one of the best known technology logo's in the world. But the apple is the quintessential British fruit and autumn is it's season, in fact, yesterday was National Apple Day with festivities all over the country to celebrate this fantastic plant.

Image from http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/events/show_event.php?id=768

A quick look on the web shows that people were picking apples, tasting apples, going on autumn apple hunts through orchards, tree dressing, apple pressing, cider tasting and planting apple trees, among many other ways of celebrating our national love of apples.

After a summer of short shelflife strawberries, raspberries and other fruit and veg the apple season brings a sense of familiarity and comfort. Everyone likes apples, and everyone knows how to eat them and cook them from a steaming apple pie with custard or apple chutney with local pork through to just popping a few in a bag as a snack on an autumnal walk outside. They just feel right. We eat apples all year round and they often get forgotten or seen as a bit boring, but I love this time of year as it's the only time I can be sure to find lots of choice for UK grown apples, without having to check that my fruit hasn't been grown in Chili (on a side note I couldn't find any UK plums in the shops this weekend and was most disappointed).

What I'd love to have is an apple tree (or an orchard) of my very own. You can't get more local than your own back garden for food and apple tree's are brilliant all year round. The whitey-pink blossom of the spring heralds the start of warm weather and the fruit that grows through the summer ripens just in time to make the darker nights a bit more bearable as you snuggle up with a home grown, home cooked apple crumble. My parents house has a small solitary apple tree and on a good year there are more apples than our family can keep up with. Thankfully apples are versatile as well as yummy and can easily be stored without too much fuss. You can either stew and freeze them or simply wrap individual fruits in newspaper and pack into a dry cardboard box, storing them somewhere dry and dark. This means you can have fresh apples to eat and cooked apples ready to go into pies all winter. One day, in a bigger more green garden, I'll have my apple tree but for now I satisfy myself by watching how others grow them. There was a brilliant section on the BBC's Gardener's World last week about how to grow the tree's to get the best fruit without them taking over the whole garden. Have a look at the video here at 16 minutes 48 seconds in.

Apart from the self propagating varieties apples reply on insects such as bees and wasps to pollinate them so to get good apples we need to look after those insects that make the harvest possible. Last week I signed an e-petition organised by 38 Degrees asking the UK government to ban certain pesticides that harm bees. This seems like a no brainer really, we need bees to pollinate huge numbers of our crops and scientific evidence is showing that some chemicals we're using on our crops are killing the bees. Solution: stop using the chemicals.  I've talked about the plight of bee's on this blog before (here and wasps here) so if you haven't already signed the petition spend 30 seconds helping wildlife today by clicking here.
Image from http://www.human-3d.com/3d-picture/bee-on-apple-flower-000012406805
Another piece of online campaigning I've been up to recently that might affect apple farmers is the RSPB's campaign on reforming the CAP (common agriculture policy) in Europe. This piece of legislation affects what money farmers get from tax payers and what they should be spending it on. I think farmers are amazing, mainly because they are much much better at producing food than me but also because they look after (or should look after) the majority of our countryside. So when I see fields full of lapwings or hedges with insects, birds and other wildlife thriving I often have farmers to thank. I think if farmers are getting some of my money through taxes it should go towards helping them make the countryside a better place, for wildlife, for the environment and for people and it should really reward farmers that are going above and beyond current requirements to protect our planet. So I emailed my MEPs ( some twice in fact) and asked them to make these policies stronger and better for wildlife friendly farmers. For more information of this topic have a look here and sign the petition too!

All this talk of apples is making me think of the only drink possibly better than mulled wine, and that's hot mulled cider. Some oranges and apples, a dash of brandy, cinamon sticks, apple juice, brown sugar, cloves and ginger added to hot cider is the best way to warm up on cold winter nights and is a brilliant idea for Christmas parties. With just over two months to go I'm already thinking of possible homemade Christmas gifts to give to friends and family and starting now saves money, gives me more time and means I can make sure my gifts are eco-friendly before the madness of Christmas hits and I start being drawn into buying plastic covered gifts that will be thrown away before June. If anyone's got any good ideas I'd love to hear them. But for now I think I'll just relax and enjoy a lovely British apple; because they're brilliant.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Ice Cream or Tigers?

Only 15 months away from surviving on a student budget I'm still quite good at making my money go a long way when it needs to. But even though I'm now getting much more in a salary than I did as a student it seems to disappear very quickly and I've slipped into a life of relative luxury and excess very easily. So where does it all go?

As a quick guesstimate I'd say on an average week, when I'm not counting the pennies, I'd spend about

  • £15 at the pub or socialising with friends
  • £5 on "treat" foods like chocolate, ice cream, coffee, melon etc. that don't make up part of a meal
  • £5 on petrol for unnecessary journey's by car
I'm pretty good at not wasting money on heating or lighting unless it's completely necessary (I've been known to wear two big woolly jumpers and snuggle under a blanket rather than admit we need the heating on) and I don't spend much on new clothes very often. So I would guess I'm around (or below) an average spender for my age and income. I wouldn't want to cut out the pub completely but could some of that money be better spent elsewhere?

After rent, taxes, food and bills I do still have a fair amount of cash to play with, and it mostly goes on the above or into savings. The savings account I use is with Triodos (who only lends to groups that work to make a positive social, environmental or cultural change) so I know that money is doing good for me and the world while it sits in my ISA and out of my reach. But what about the rest? If I bought two fewer pints a week (let say £5 less as the average pint up here is about £2.50) and stopped making unnecessary journeys and buying "treat" food I'd have £15 each week spare. At the moment that £15 is mainly helping me gain weight and adding some very short term happiness into my life, what could it be doing?

£15 a week is about £60 a month, and that's a whopping £780 a year. £780 spent on nothing in particular. There are lots of things that I could do with that money. I could save it, and stop complaining I didn't have enough money for bigger consumer items like ethical clothing or organic meat. I could start to support three new charities at £5 a week; that's £260 a year that three charities would love. I could sustainably travel abroad more often as I could afford to take the ferry or train to Europe and not fly. The more I think about it the less I need to make that car journey or have to have that piece of cake in the shop. I'd be fitter, healthier and the world would be a better place too.

I wish I had someone stood next to me each time I opened my purse to ask two simple questions
  • Do you need to buy this?
  • Could that money be better spent elsewhere?
but I don't. I might do better if I force myself to see every pint as a potential £2.50 to provide drinking water for children or each short car journey as not only polluting but also a waste of £2 that could go towards rainforest protection. I'm not going to cut out everything, but hopefully I will do better in the future because £780 a year can go a long way for a better world. But that's just one person for one year; just think what could be achieved if everyone did this.

In the most recent issue of Science there is an article by scientists from the RSPB, BirdLife International, Cambridge University and elsewhere which puts an estimated price tag on meeting two key targets for the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets:
  • To protect the world's most important wildlife sites
  • To prevent the extinction of the worlds most threatened species
These are targets agreed upon by governments to halt biodiversity loss by 2020. The fact that we need targets for 2020 at all gives away the fact that the 2010 Biodiversity Targets weren't met. So what would it cost to sort this problem?

The report says that to save all the world's globally threatened species it will cost around £3 billion a year. That sounds like a huge amount. At least it does until you remember that there are 7 billion people on this planet, and if half of them could afford £1 a year we could raise that money. That's less than half a pint a year. Put another way, it would take about 3,846,154 of me swapping £15 a week from pointless spending to saving the planet. In the UK alone there are 16 times this many people. So the UK could raise this on its own if one in 16 people wanted to. That's not going to happen, and I probably wont always have £15 spare each week, but spread over the whole world population that £3 billion doesn't seem such a big ask. According to the RSPB's Conservation Director Martin Harper it's less than half of what is spent on ice cream each year in Europe!

The second target is a bit more pricey. To protect and manage all the world's most important wildlife sites the estimate is £50 billion a year. So every person on the planet would need to find about £7 a year to do this. Now for me, that would be fine. In fact, I would happily pay that each month so 11 other people wont need to. It is a lot of money, but then it is a lot of land. How much do we spend on gardens each year? If you imagine a garden that covers 17% of the worlds land surface (as the world's most important wildlife sites do) then £50 billion doesn't seem so mad, it's one fifth of what the world spends on soft drinks each year after all.

So from now on I'll be trying to see each purchase as what it is. If it's worthwhile I'll buy it, if that money could be better spent saving lives, protecting the planet or just making the world a little bit better somewhere else then I'll try to do that instead. What purchase could you swap? Maybe spending a few pounds on a charity each morning would make starting work even better than spending it on a coffee. Or by having one less pint a week you could swap to free range meats. It all adds up, hopefully to a better world.

Monday, 8 October 2012

I Know It's Autumn When...

This week I've had lots of little reminders that summer's gone and winter's on it's way. But signs of autumn aren't all about chilly air and darker nights.

Butterflies may not be the first autumn animal that springs to mind but many species are still feeding up before hibernation in late summer and early autumn. The small tortoiseshell is one of the UK's most common and widespread butterflies and while one of the first to be sighted in spring it stays around late into the season, often seen feeding on garden flowers in autumn. That's where I found one in our garden this week, or more accurately sunning itself on the brick wall, very well camouflaged! It's lovely to see these insects and also to have some late second blooms in the garden. I'd forgotten about the snapdragons in our hanging baskets but they've sprung into life again with lovely yellow, red and orange flowers - very autumnal!

On a sunny day, with butterflies and flowers in the garden I can almost convince myself that it's still summer, but the autumn chill has penetrated the house and I'm back to resolutely layering on the woolly jumpers to avoid turning the heating on. Thankfully it's not quite as extreme as in our old student house when, on occasion, gloves and scarves were worn inside in the middle of the day! But it just seems pointless to heat the whole house when only one person is at home, so for the moment I'm jumpering up when I'm on my own and then in the evenings we pop the heating on for a few hours making sure all the curtains are closed and tucked in so the heat doesn't escape. I've also noticed my seasonal migration to spending time in the kitchen. It's the sunniest room in the house during the day and in the evenings after dinner it's warm from cooking. I'm quite enjoying it as it means I do more than just watch TV in the evenings whether it's writing up old favourite recipes into a book or playing cards with housemates.

Outside the house the chill is even more noticeable but I quite like it. You appreciate the warmth when you go inside and the cold air conjures up memories of collecting conkers, watching dew on spiders webs and the impending festive season to come. When it's not raining (that rare event here in Preston!) the sun's warmth means that walks are still pleasant as long as you've got a jacket on, and the colours are just fantastic. On a walk round some local lakes this weekend we saw every colour of leaves, from emerald green through yellows and oranges to deep reds and purples. There were elderberries, haws, hips, blackcurrants, apples, sloes, damsons and even a few blackberies still. We left the berries for the birds this time and headed straight for the sloes and damsons. We make at least an annual trip to these lakes, because they have such good fruit trees. The trees are so close together and the sizes are so variable that I'm sure many of the fruits are sloe/damson crosses (if that's possible). Whatever they are they make brilliant "sloe" gin and it's so easy everyone should try it so here is the recipe/instructions I use.

  1. Pick as many sloes/damsons as you can. Make sure they're nice and ripe with a blue/purple colour and plump. (Damson's will be squishy when ripe like plums and sloes will be harder)
  2. Buy gin (our house consensus is using cheaper gin makes the final product taste better)
  3. Fill (or part fill) an old lemonade bottle with sloes/damsons, then pour gin in until almost full (up to just below the neck of the bottle)
  4. Add sugar until bottle is full. Then put in a dark cool place to store.
  5. Whenever you remember turn the bottle to shake up the insides and top up with sugar as it dissolves. I like really sweet sloe gin so I add as much as possible, but if you don't like it sweet add less.
  6. After a few months the liquid will be purple, the sugar dissolved and you can bottle it in nicer, posher bottles as Christmas presents or just serve it out of the original container. Enjoy!
As autumn settles in my need to be thrifty increases (still no idea why, maybe it's all to do with saving things up for the winter) and I found a brilliant new leftovers recipe this week. Using carrots, apples, dried fruit (I always have this lying around and almost never use it up, I just can't resist it in shops) and a few other things I'm made some very yummy breakfast muffins. A nice change from cereal and a good way to clear the fridge out. In addition to the recipe (linked above) I added two bananas and next time I might even add some orange juice to add a little extra moisture. Very yummy though and nothing needed to be bough, my kind of baking.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Good Money

I've been told that in the past bankers were well respected, trusted people, and you probably knew your bank manager personally, and well enough that he (back then it was almost certainly a he) could understand your situation and find the best account to suit you. That's not quite how bankers are seen now.

Bankers seem to be trusted even less than politicians at the moment, and banks are seen as evil establishments either through being devious (fixing interest rates or selling PPI incorrectly), incompetent (selling PPI incorrectly or having computer crashes) or being greedy (the amount given out for bonuses even when banks are partly owned by the state). But despite people calling banks all kinds of names it's not often you actually hear people talking about the ethics of their bank.

A bank that's running well, pleasing its customers and has happy staff and shareholders doesn't necessarily mean an ethical bank. Do you know who your bank loans money too, or who they borrow money from? What do they invest your savings in; deforestation, fossil fuels, gambling, the arms trade? Once the money's in the bank it's easy to forget that someone is still using it, making it work for them, it really isn't just sat in a vault. Many high street banks have been accused of financing the arms trade, oil and nuclear industries and many other not-so-ethical companies. A quick internet search bring up Barclays as the banker for the arms manufacturer BAE (very local to us in Preston), HSBC as the banker for mining company Rio Tinto and BP uses Natwest. None of these companies are automatically evil, but if you wouldn't want to support them as a consumer do you really want to share a bank with them or have your money used to fund them?

Like with any consumer choice, the best way to create change is to vote with your feet. Whether it's giving ridiculous bonuses or lending to meat farmers or arms dealer, if you don't like what your bank is doing pick a different bank. But which bank and how do you decide?

This March saw the start of the Move Your Money UK campaign which, in their words, is a
 national campaign to spread the message that we, as individuals, can help to build a better banking system through our buying power.
Their aim is to give you the information you need to pick an ethical bank that's good for you. So to find out how your bank measures up you can go to the Move Your Money UK website and look at the What About My Bank? section or check out the free banking guide that Ethical Consumer has created.

When I looked up my bank I discovered it has an ethiscore of 3.5/20 and invests in the arms trade. Doesn't sound great, so what are my options to switch to?

For current accounts the Co-operative Bank looks like the best bet. While it is only given a score of 5.5 this is low because the owner the Co-operative is involved in animal farming and this is one of the negative criteria it is measured on. The Ethical Consumer report says that

Best Buy Current accounts from the Co-op Bank and its Smile internet brand offer a unique ethical policy and a campaigning brand. Their relatively low score is more than compensated for by their sector-leading approach.

There are lots of building societies that score highly too and also some credit unions which run current accounts through the Co-operative. Unlike my current bank it's very easy to find an ethical policy on the Co-operative Bank's website. It all depends on what's important to you personally, and on the Ethical Consumer site you can switch the criteria to find the best ethical bank for you. Why not try it?

For savings accounts you find more options. There is the Co-operative, Triodos the Charity Bank and the Ecology Building Society. I'm pleased to see my savings account with Triodos scores well. It's true that you probably wont get quite as good interest rates as the highstreet banks but customer service scores are high and at least your money will be working for good not evil. Why not have a look this week and make the change?

Monday, 24 September 2012

One Year On

I’ve always loved wildlife and I was lucky enough to grow up in a pretty green-minded family but I can pinpoint the exact moment when I really “got” environmentalism. It was after a family visit to the RSPB Titchwell reserve in Norfolk when I was 17 and I’d picked up Your Step-By-Step Guide To Climate Bliss, a very small book about climate change produced by the icount group. There were loads of easy ways to lower your carbon footprint (grabbing a jumper rather than turning on the heating, cooking with the lid on and even sharing a shower!) and also a campaigning ask, to send off the back cover which was a postcard to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair asking him to stop climate change by creating a new law. It was the first time I realised that I could actual do something to affect this thing “climate change” that was on the news and in sciences lessons and there were so many easy things that you could do to make the world better. The book was short, simple and entertaining and within minutes of buying it I was hooked, and by the end of the two hour journey home I was planning a petition signing at my local market the next week.

Since then I’ve been lucky enough to get involved in many, many different projects. I’ve remade paths after floods on nature reserves, I’ve sorted post in campaigns offices, I was even lucky enough to be the RSPB representative for handing in that icount petition I signed, visiting the cabinet office and meeting Tony Blair. My MP got to know my name as I sent e-petitions to tell him about issues and ask what he would do to represent me, and I learnt how complicated environmental issues, laws and policies are, as well as how many little things we can do to help in our everyday lives.

But as with many new things as time goes by the momentum is lost and you do less and less. That’s one of the reasons I started this blog, a whole year ago now, as a way to motivate me to refocus on what impact my life is having, and how I can make a better, not worse, impact on the world. It’s definitely made me think more about green issues, and notice the world around me more. I’ve tried cleaning with vinegar, started getting a local, organic veg box, learnt all about cycling safety and taken a closer look at my local wildlife. It’s had an impact on friends and family too with comments about recent posts or suggestions for future blogs. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I started, but already I can see myself slipping out of habits and losing momentum again. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the problems facing the world and even easier to think that one small person can’t make a difference. But as the quote goes

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

and all I really needed was a injection of motivation again to lift my spirits and that’s just what I got this week from another green book. Advice from parents is often very good advice (sometimes grudgingly and annoyingly)  but it doesn't often come in the form of print. Proudly reading my Dad’s new book  Fighting for Birds I enjoyed often-told family stories and hearing his thoughts on conservation issues but the Climate Chapter really hit home. Again I had a moment when I realised the only thing that will create a better future climate is us, doing something, and the only thing that's stopping us (as a world population) is our own inaction. When I think about it like that I feel really excited about writing to my MP, MEPs and councillors, motivated to try new green ideas and guilt tripped into avoiding bad consumer choices.

So, fully motivated again, I've set myself a few new green challenges:

  • Have at least one veggie day a week. (The boyfriend's joining in this one too)
  • Break the habit of driving to the local shop. It's close enough to walk and I could do with the exercise!
  • Write to my MP regularly asking about green policies and issues. Because you can't presume someone else will be explaining or highlighting them.
Let's see how the next year goes!

Monday, 17 September 2012

Fruity Fields

We all know local food is good for the environment as it has less far to travel form the field to your door and so less carbon is used in the process. But better than local food is local, organic(-ish?), free food. At this time of year the hedges are full of fruits and berries and a 30 second walk to the end of a family friends' field found me surrounded by blackberries, haws, rose hips and elderberries.  

I'm not a field kitchen professional and I'm not really sure what you can use most of these for so I stuck to blackberry harvesting which to be honest kept me and the boyfriend busy picking for quite long enough! After a while two large bowls were mostly full and we walked back to the house, slightly scrapped and prickled but happy with over 1kg of easily picked fruit. 

If you have a chance over the next few weeks, go blackberrying. There's honestly no better way to spend time on a fine day in autumn (except maybe collection conkers). You can take a whole afternoon and a picnic with friends or a few minutes grabbing as many as possible before adding them to ice cream or making a smoothie at home. You don't even need to be in the country, I remember last year picking just enough blackberries from hedges on rough ground in Preston to make a crumble with some apples from a local friend, but I think country berries away from roads taste much nicer and juicier. And don't forget to look at the wildlife around you while you're picking! Today we saw a buzzard, heard songbirds in the hedges and made friends with a (not very wild) horse. Just being outside is a joy at this time of year, so take a few seconds to rest from the picking and enjoy the view.

Steve Daniels, via Wikimedia Commons
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] 

There's no dress code for blackberry picking but for some reason I always feel like a red woolly jumper and  blue jeans are what I should be wearing, maybe it's from some childhood picture. The only really important thing is that you're wearing clothes that don't matter if they get stained by berry juice and preferably ones that are nettle and bramble resistant (it just means you get a few less stings and prickles if you're reaching into a bush for that perfect berry). My new coat stood up to the challenge and other than my hands I hardly got any  prickles this year. I'm quite cavalier with my picking and will happily brush aside nettles and reach into thorny   corners to get to the best of the crop, I only notice all the scratches once I'm home and I've found the best thing for those annoying little hurts is a bowl of warm to hot soapy water and a good soak. 

Picking blackberries is enjoyable enough that I almost forget I've got the added pleasure of cooking and eating them once I get home. There's so many things you can do with autumn fruit, summer pudding is one of my favourite but a nice simple blackberry and apple pie or crumble has got to come close to top too. If you're feeling a bit less traditional you can make smoothies, ice cream or if you can't wait for them to cook just eat them as they are!

So now, with the smell of sausages, mash and beans coming from the kitchen I'm off to cook the fruits of my labours for pudding, and then eat them!

Monday, 10 September 2012

Signs of Change

I really enjoy summer, but I'd never call it my favourite season. I never start a day thinking "It's lovely and warm today, but is this a spring day or a summer day? Can't wait for summer!" Maybe it's just because I'm enjoying spring and never notice the gradual change, maybe it's because there is often so much rain it is hard to tell where summer begins.

I greet the other seasons with great anticipation though, I look forward to winter with cold dark nights, festivities and snuggling up inside in the warm; spring with new sunshine warmth, finding buds and flowers opening and remembering what it's like not wearing a coat. This morning there was a chill in the air and with September already upon us I was thinking of jams, stews and walks through leaves and mist.

There's something about Autumn that fills me with excitement. Maybe it's some animal instinct to start preparing for the winter cold but I'm filled with an urge to bake and store up food and staying in becomes much more appealing than venturing out, even when it's not actually that cold outside. Autumn feels like a time for using up odds and ends in craft projects (maybe for Christmas presents) and creating meals out of leftovers. I don't know why it feels like a month for being thrifty, but it does.

There are signs outside that show the seasons are on the change too. Swallows and swifts are disappearing from the sky and geese are making triangles as they fly. Spiders are appearing in the house and although the leaves are still green on the trees it wont be long before they're turning too.

I'm making lots of train journeys this week so I'll be looking out for more signs of autumn. At home our crop of runner beans has finally ripened and we've picked a good handful while the flowers still blooming look likely to give us another later crop. There's nothing tastier than home grown, home cooked food!

September still feels like the start of a new year, even though I'm not heading back to college or university. But it's always a good time to set resolutions and start new challenges. This year I've signed up to be an RSPB Campaigns Champion volunteer and I'm looking forward to getting involved with campaigns and  contacting my local MP too. Why not start a new green hobby too as the year draws to a close.